Friday, May 31, 2013
Friday cat blogging
Don't frack California
So having questioned climate change organizing, the least I could do was attend a little demonstration against fracking . This one was called by Credo Action for outside the old state building in San Francisco.
We don't want the Marcellus shale under our state exploited by greedy oil companies that don't give a damn about methane emissions, a poisoned water table, or the fact that this state is really a desert.
This was spirited little affair -- pretty good turnout, maybe 100 people. The object is to put pressure on Jerry Brown. The Democratic-dominated legislature will probably pass some kind of moratorium, but will our ever so grown up Governor veto such a "time out"? Could happen unless he faces the kind of pressure that endangers his reelection. That's hard to muster when there is likely to be no plausible alternative.
The event reminded me a lot of a little demo I helped some folks from Move-On put on years ago. No question, you can assemble a crowd through emails and social media exhortations. And no question, participating in this kind of thing deepens the commitment of the participants. This one was a little more targeted: we have to get the Governor on board. That's a concrete demand -- and not an easy project.
But I don't know if you can lay the foundation of a movement this way. In this state, you need a more diverse constituency. On the other hand, you certainly do need this constituency as part of your coalition. And perhaps you need repeated small, sometimes seemingly inconsequential, events to lay your foundation. We're engaged in finding out.
Thanks to the good folks who organized this one. It is never easy to get people moving.
Thursday, May 30, 2013
Chart of the day: California is somewhere else
It's a visual representation of what I keep harping on in the comments of national blogs these days: California may seem like a strange alien land, but we're working through a future the rest of the country can learn from and emulate. Instead of finding the secret to harmonious bipartisan cooperation, we've managed to ride demographic change, hard work at energizing a new electorate, and recurrent conservative stupidity to eradicate most Republican influence at the state level.
The Governator's tenure masked this, but he was just an electable cartoon character. No other Republican has made a dent at the state level in this century.
This doesn't mean we've arrived at nirvana. It means that the locus of political pulling and hauling is now within the Democratic party.
It also means that politics is once again a struggle about different ideas about how to make the state prosperous and liveable, rather than simply about how to get around folks trying to freeze the state in a mythical 1950s.
There could be worse times to live in.
Wednesday, May 29, 2013
Warming Wednesdays: Marshall Ganz critiques enviro activism
Marshall Ganz devoted 16 years to working for Cesar Chavez' United Farm Workers Union. He moved on from the farm worker struggle (as have thousands of others who carried its lessons to other fights) to systematize his understanding of organizing and movement building. Ganz is credited as the intellectual guru of the organizing in the 2008 Obama campaign. If you've had any exposure to community organizing in recent years, you've encountered his "Public Narrative" methodology which grounds action in participants' stories. (This can be inspiring and energizing -- or in pedestrian hands, it can be pedestrian.)
A few weeks ago on the Bill Moyers TV show, Ganz had some comments on how "environmental groups" somehow have not -- yet -- succeeded in turning broad concern about pollution and climate change into a powerful social movement.
Maybe it is just because I'm of the same generation and from some similar traditions of organizing, but like Ganz I've never quite felt that climate change activism has got hold of how political movements gain the power to win the victories they seek.… the confusion between marketing and movement building is really a big one. And I think that's one of the things the environmental groups really, really missed the boat on. I think they thought that they could market their way to legislation. What I mean is that through polling and advertising, they could make what, the changes they wanted palatable to enough of the people that they could, in that way, create enough of a ground that they would get the legislation.
That's a marketing proposition. Movement building is ... you know that you don't have a majority. What you got to do is build enough of a constituency that you can develop the power you need in order to achieve what you want. And so what you're doing is engaging people, who engage other people, who engage other people. And you build a movement that way.
I know, many folks are trying, especially in opposition to the Keystone Pipeline and to fracking. And there's some people power, especially in poor communities, often of color, where steps to improve environmental quality looks like simple questions of justice.
But listen to Ganz: "marketing," even in the sophisticated form of raising scientific understanding, is not enough. "Palatable" measures won't cut it in a crisis created by our social system -- the capitalist "free market" -- that under-girds our technological wizardry and wealth as well as our, humans', destructive impacts on the planetary ecosystem. This is a fight for the lives of the majority. Our passions and our persons need to be engaged, but the appropriate hooks that would enable great masses of us to engage remain obscure.
My only consolation is that the hooks that will enable masses to engage are always invisible -- until they come to seem obvious. Experiments with climate organizing will continue; we can't know which initiative will finally strike a spark. Organizing for the good is like that.
Tuesday, May 28, 2013
This is totalitarianism: German life under the Third Reich
I offered some reflections on the first volume, The Coming of the Third Reich last fall.
In the second part, The Third Reich in Power, Evans recounts what the Nazis were doing with and to Germany in the period of uneasy "peace" between Hitler's accession to power on January 30, 1933 and the German invasion of Poland in September 1939 which set off the European conflagration we call World War II.
Most of the volume is devoted to exactly the questions likely to be paramount to contemporary English speaking readers: what was it like for ordinary Germans to live in the Third Reich? Were they frightened? Did Germans enthusiastically embrace the brutish fanatics who had so efficiently seized the machinery of the state? -- or did they just try to keep their heads down? Did they believe the Nazi propaganda? How did the Nazis sell most of them on the belief that national difficulties and disappointments were the fault of a one percent minority (500,000 out of 67 million Germans) who were Jewish?
Evans does a terrific job of making answers accessible to contemporary readers who may find the material and intellectual circumstances in the middle of the last century in central Europe a far stretch indeed.
First to what seems the obvious question: did some awful combination of secret police terror and more conventional "legal" constraints simply frighten people -- including the third or so of the population who had recently been Communists or Social Democrats -- into adopting Nazi beliefs? As is true of many questions like that, Evans seems to answer both yes … and no.
Evans' subsequent discussion of Nazi efforts to impose their own cultural beliefs on the population is fascinating. Living as we do with our own clashes of cultures, modern Americans can perhaps imagine something analogous to his characterization of a reaction to a Nazi art exhibit designed to expose Germans to what was labelled "Degenerate Art" -- that would be Picasso, Matisse, Kandinsky, Klee, etc.The Gestapo was only one part of a much wider net of surveillance, terror and persecution cast by the Nazi regime over German society in the 1930s; others included the SA [brown-shirted Nazi thugs] and SS [Nazi paramilitary], the Criminal Police, the prison service, the social services and employment offices, the medical profession, health centers and hospitals, the Hitler Youth, the Block Wardens and even apparently politically neutral organizations like tax offices, the railway and the post office. All of these furnished information about deviants and dissidents to the Gestapo, the courts and the prosecution service, forming a polymorphous, uncoordinated but pervasive system of control in which the Gestapo was merely one institution among many.
Everything that happened in the Third Reich took place in this pervasive atmosphere of fear and terror, which never slackened and indeed became far more intense towards the end. 'Do you know what fear is?' an elderly worker asked an interviewer some years after it was all over: 'No. The Third Reich was fear.'
Yet terrorism was only one of the Third Reich's techniques of rule. For the Nazis did not just seek to batter the population into passive, sullen acquiescence. They also wanted to rouse it into positive, enthusiastic endorsement of their ideals and their policies, to change people's minds and spirits and to create a new German culture that would reflect their values alone.
I'm reminded of our periodic cultural conflicts such as those over the "offensive" art of Robert Mapplethorpe or Andres Serrano … only mobilized deliberately by a police state.Like much else in Nazi culture, it allowed ordinary conservative citizens the opportunity to voice out loud prejudices that they had long held but previously been hesitant to reveal…
The Nazis were "determined to reduce, and if possible eliminate, the Churches as centers of real or potential alternative ideologies to its own." Evans recounts how they overwhelmingly succeeded in silencing almost all resistance from German Christians, Protestant and Catholic.
Evans includes a a long discussion of whether thinking of Nazism as a species of religion is an appropriate metaphor; he makes the case that it is just as correct to frame Nazism as kind of militarism. I have to say that all of this reminded me of Brent Nongbri's insight that among Western academics, "religion is anything that sufficiently resembles modern Protestant Christianity …" I think Evans is in that trap here.For all the courage of many leading figures in the mainstream Churches, and many ordinary members of their congregations, none of them opposed the Third Reich on more than a narrowly religious front. The Gestapo might allege that Catholic priests and Confessing pastors hid out-and-out opposition to National Socialism under the cloak of pious rhetoric, but the truth was that, on a whole range of issues, the Churches remained silent.
Both the Evangelical and Catholic Churches were politically conservative, and had been for a long time before the Nazis came to power. Their fear of Bolshevism and revolution, forces that showed their teeth once more in reports of the widespread massacre of priests by the Republicans at the beginning of the Spanish Civil War, strengthened them in their view that if Nazism went, something worse might well take its place. The deep and often bitter confessional divide in Germany meant that there was no question of Catholics and Protestants joining forces against the regime.
The Catholics had been anxious to prove their loyalty to the German state since the days when it had been doubted by Bismarck during the 1870s. The Protestants had been an ideological arm of the state under the Bismarckian Empire and strongly identified with German nationalism for many years. Both broadly welcomed the suppression of Marxist, Communist and liberal political parties, the combating of 'immorality' in art, literature and film, and many other aspects of the regime's policies.
The long tradition of antisemitism amongst both Catholics and Protestants ensured that there were no formal protests from the Churches against the regime's antisemitic acts. The most they were prepared to do was to try and protect converted Jews within their own ranks, and even here their attitude was at times extremely equivocal. Yet the Nazis regarded the Churches as the strongest and toughest reservoirs of ideological opposition to the principles they believed in. …
Evans relies heavily on accounts from ordinary Germans to convey what life was like. Here he turns to one Melita Maschmann to describe how Nazi anti-semitic race hatred came to be incorporated in her thinking, obliterating her previous familiarity with actual German Jews.
Very few ordinary Germans kept their moral compasses intact under the Third Reich in Evans' telling; he makes the rationale for their accommodations utterly understandable. Hitler and his followers really did have a genius for exploiting the particular intellectual and moral weaknesses of their countrymen. Evan's sums up the result this way:She had plenty of contact with Jews, who made up about a third of her class in the secondary school she attended in a well-to-do part of Berlin in the early 1930s. Here the non-Jewish girls instinctively dissociated their Jewish classmates from 'the Jews' , who 'were and remained something mysteriously menacing and anonymous', 'The anti-semitism to my parents', Maschmann went on in the open letter she wrote to a former Jewish schoolmate after the war, "was a part of their outlook which was taken for granted . . . One was friendly with individual Jews whom one liked, just as one was friendly as a Protestant with individual Catholics. But while it occurred to nobody to be ideologically hostile to the Catholics, one was, utterly, to the Jews. . . In preaching that all the misery of the nations was due to the Jews or that the Jewish spirit was seditious and Jewish blood compelled you to think of old Herr Lewy or Rosel Cohn… I thought only of the bogey-man, ' the Jew'. And when I heard that the Jews were being driven from their professions and homes and imprisoned in ghettos, the points switched automatically in my mind to steer me round the thought that such a fate could also overtake you or old Lewy. It was only the Jew who was being persecuted and 'made harmless."
Constantly exposed to antisemitic propaganda, Maschmann later remembered that she and her upper-middle-class friends had considered it rather vulgar, and often laughed at attempts to convince them that the Jews performed ritual murders and similar crimes. … Yet although she did not take part in violent actions or boycotts, Maschmann accepted that they were justified, and told herself: 'The Jews are the enemies of the new Germany . . . If the Jews sow hatred against us all over the world, they must learn that we have hostages for them in our hands.' Later on, she suppressed the memory of the violence she had seen on the streets, and 'as the years went by I grew better and better at switching off quickly in this manner on similar occasions. It was the only way. Whatever the circumstances, to prevent the onset of doubts about the rightness of what had happened.' A similar process of rationalization and moral editing must have taken place with many others, too.
All of this was in preparation for a war of conquest to come, a race war. That's Evans' third volume which I'll write up here in due time.Germans had not all become fanatical Nazis by 1939, but the basic desire of the vast majority for order, security, jobs, the possibility of improved living standards and career advancement, all things which had seemed impossible under the Weimar Republic, had largely been met, and this was enough to secure their acquiescence. Propaganda may not have had as much effect in this regard as the actual, obvious fact of social, economic and political stability.
The violence and illegality of the Rohm purge had been widely accepted, for example, not because people supported Hitler's use of murder as a political tool, but because it appeared to restore the order that had been threatened by Rohm's stormtroopers over the preceding months. There was a broad consensus on the primacy of orderliness that the Nazis recognized, accepted and exploited. In the long run, of course, it was to prove illusory. But for the moment, it was enough to take the wind out of the sails of any oppositional movements that tried to convert rumblings of dissatisfaction with one or the other aspect of daily life under the Third Reich into a broader form of opposition.
Monday, May 27, 2013
A salute for Memorial Day
According to an oped in the NY Times, in World War II, twelve percent of the population served in the Armed Forces; today, the percentage is 0.5. Retired Army lieutenant general, Karl W. Eikenberry and Stanford University historian David M. Kennedy claim disturbingly that
Civilian control of the military may someday break if soldiers are repeatedly sent to die in stupid fights for unattainable objectives against foes they experience as unpredictable alien beings.
The Congressional Research Service has documented 144 military deployments in the 40 years since adoption of the all-voluntary force in 1973, compared with 19 in the 27-year period of the Selective Service draft following World War II — an increase in reliance on military force traceable in no small part to the distance that has come to separate the civil and military sectors. The modern force presents presidents with a moral hazard, making it easier for them to resort to arms with little concern for the economic consequences or political accountability. Meanwhile, Americans are happy to thank the volunteer soldiers who make it possible for them not to serve, and deem it is somehow unpatriotic to call their armed forces to task when things go awry.
Sunday, May 26, 2013
Mitchell Canyon fire road on Mt. Diablo
It's been a lovely spring in Northern California. Not warm, but with moderate temperatures and often windy. And consequently, blessed with gloriously clear air and frequent bright days. I've been enjoying it.
I'm taking a blog break today and perhaps on Monday for the Memorial Day holiday as well. Regular content will return Tuesday.
Saturday, May 25, 2013
Saturday scenes and scenery: what's with these clouds?
Rounding the side of the hill above the Tennessee Valley on Marin Headlands, there was something odd about the sky.
I have never seen clouds like these that seemed to spread out like wispy fingers over the ocean.
What makes clouds like this? Anyone know?
Friday, May 24, 2013
The President tries to turn the ship of state
Headline at TPM
Yesterday President Obama called out many of the follies and crimes that have passed for national policy since 9/11. Good for him! I mean that, though I remain mad as hell that he didn't give essentially the same speech on January 21, 2009 when coming into office. I don't believe for a minute this man didn't know then what he obviously knows now: the previous administration ran the country off the rails when offered the opportunity by our post-9/11 hysteria, rage and fear. We put this guy in office to try to turn this unwieldy empire away from that course and he's been a mix of backward, slow, and recalcitrant about the task.
But this speech was progress -- though he still left out part of making the turn that requires investigation and punishment of war crimes. I guess we have to remember that when the powerful are the criminals, getting to justice is a long slog.
Given Obama's track record, it's hard to be confident that he'll actually do anything that genuinely constrains US militarism or his own executive power. I'm sure there will be a lot of parsing and half measures that allow too many abuses to continue. But at least he's on record for dialing down fear and respecting law more than has been the U.S. norm of late.
I've collected some bits from the speech that say what has too often been unspeakable in elite U.S. discourse. Lots of us have been saying this stuff for a long time, but here's Obama saying it.
I'm not waiting for the judgment of history; this country has long made itself a danger to the peoples of the world. It is time to change course. I've listened to this President and I'll be watching.
- … in some cases, I believe we compromised our basic values – by using torture to interrogate our enemies, and detaining individuals in a way that ran counter to the rule of law.
- We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or else it will define us, mindful of James Madison’s warning that “No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”
- Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror. We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.
- … as we shape our response, we have to recognize that the scale of this threat [future terrorist outbreaks] closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11.
- …our operation in Pakistan against Osama bin Laden cannot be the norm.
- To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power – or risk abusing it.
- Any U.S. military action in foreign lands risks creating more enemies, and impacts public opinion overseas. Our laws constrain the power of the President, even during wartime, and I have taken an oath to defend the Constitution of the United States. The very precision of drones strikes, and the necessary secrecy involved in such actions can end up shielding our government from the public scrutiny that a troop deployment invites. It can also lead a President and his team to view drone strikes as a cure-all for terrorism.
- All these issues remind us that the choices we make about war can impact – in sometimes unintended ways – the openness and freedom on which our way of life depends. And that is why I intend to engage Congress about the existing Authorization to Use Military Force, or AUMF, to determine how we can continue to fight terrorists without keeping America on a perpetual war-time footing.
- The original premise for opening GTMO – that detainees would not be able to challenge their detention – was found unconstitutional five years ago. In the meantime, GTMO has become a symbol around the world for an America that flouts the rule of law.
- … history will cast a harsh judgment on this aspect of our fight against terrorism, and those of us who fail to end it. Imagine a future – ten years from now, or twenty years from now – when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not a part of our country. Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are holding a hunger strike. Is that who we are? Is that something that our Founders foresaw? Is that the America we want to leave to our children?
- First and foremost, the 100+ Guantanamo detainees on hunger strike. They decided they would rather die -- and be tortured by force feeding on the way to death -- than accept that they would rot in a U.S. prison hellhole forever. I assume they are mostly detainees who've been "cleared" as not dangerous for years; hope raised and snatched away without reason can motivate both desperate bravery and despair.
- Outrageous peaceniks like Medea Benjamin of Code Pink who somehow fooled security and was on hand to call out Obama's inaction during the speech. "You are commander-in-chief. You can close Guantanamo today," she yelled. People who have been willing to pull stunts like this have played a large role in forcing our invisible drone war into the public eye.
- More "respectable" peaceniks and civil libertarians who work to explain what those outrageous protesters are yelling about. I think especially of Just Foreign Policy, Peace Action, and even the little grouplet I work with, WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras. And of course the lawyers who have refused to give up on legality, including the ACLU and many others.
- Finally, I think the majority of citizens deserve some credit for bucking up the Prez to tackle these issues. A significant Pew poll after the Boston Marathon bombing showed that we think "occasional terrorist acts are to be expected" but this perception did not cause our fear of terrorism to spike. Collectively, we're learning to live in a (somewhat) dangerous world and the President could speak to how we aspire to live rather than to our panic.
Thursday, May 23, 2013
The fascination of war
Dead soldier at siege of Petersburg, Virginia, 1865. Wikimedia.
When I was in elementary school, I was a budding Civil War buff. I have a vivid memory that my fourth grade teacher let me bore my classmates for the duration of an entire period, lecturing about my hand drawn maps of the movements of the the Union Army of the Potomac and Robert E. Lee's Confederate Army of Northern Virginia at Gettysburg. I knew my stuff, or thought I did.
By the time I went to college, I had put that enthusiasm aside. My age peers were getting blown to bits in Vietnam in a war I believed was both stupid and immoral. War didn't seem an amusing board game anymore. Nothing that has happened in my lifetime has changed my growing conviction that "anything war can do peace can do better."
So I was brought up short as I read James M. McPherson's This Mighty Scourge to come upon passages like this one describing the Confederate general's strategic choices:
I can no longer think about war as an intriguing game. I no longer believe that "we" can "win" wars. In my lifetime, our wars have not been about victory in any meaningful sense -- and unless you think invading Grenada was a "war," the United States hasn't "won" our military adventures.One way to approach this matter is by way of an analogy from football, in which most coaches would agree that the best defense is a good offense. Of course Lee knew nothing about modern American football, but he would have understood the slogan. … In other words, we [out-numbered and out-gunned Confederate forces] can can only win if we keep our opponent off balance with an imaginative offense.
But the Civil War is challenging to this perspective. This became a different (and better) country because, though the experience of the war, Union aims changed and were achieved, at least formally. The Great Rebellion (the Confederacy) was forced, violently, to surrender.
Civil war enthusiasts obsess about the technologies and innovations of combat pioneered in this conflict and argue whether this was "the first modern war." Given where "modern wars" have taken us -- through the foul mud of trench warfare, poison gas, saturation bombing, nuclear bombs, drones -- I find this fascination macabre and the converse of attractive.During the Civil War, Northern war aims as well as national and military strategies changed as the conflict expanded from a limited war intended to restore the antebellum status quo into a "hard war" intended to destroy enemy resources including slavery and to mobilize those resources on the Union side, to bring an end to the social order sustained by slavery, and to give the United States a "new birth of freedom."
But I shared this gripping hobby as a very young person. Why do some people (mostly male people?) indulge that fascination? Why do some of us move away from this? Does it matter?
James McPherson's Civil War history raises that conundrum for me, an arena of questions I'd forgotten. Guess I'll have to read his magnum opus: Battle Cry of Freedom: The Civil War Era.
This is my third post on McPherson's essays; on interpretations of the conflict here and on whether John Brown was terrorist here.
Wednesday, May 22, 2013
Warming Wednesdays: Solar is a way to go -- but adopting it is not simple
I guess I'm weird. Despite the author's warnings, I've been fascinated by David Robert's series on electric utilities.
So what is the the Grist columnist discussing here?There's very little public discussion of utilities or utility regulations, especially relative to sexier topics like fracking or electric cars. That's mainly because the subject is excruciatingly boring, a thicket of obscure institutions and processes, opaque jargon, and acronyms out the wazoo. Whether PURPA allows IOUs to customize RFPs for low-carbon QFs is actually quite important, but you, dear reader, don't know it, because you fell asleep halfway through this sentence. Utilities are shielded by a force field of tedium.
In very short summary, he's all for "small is beautiful," distributed power generation from residence scale units such as that provided by rooftop solar panels. But he is too honest to pretend that when utilities ask "but who is going to pay for building and maintaining the grid?" they are entirely blowing smoke. So long as residential solar is a scare novelty (as the proud sign pictured here proclaims), a tiny number of solar-equipped customers can freeload off the rest of us who are paying for all the maintenance of the power system through our regulated rates. But as distributed solar spreads, at some point it will become unfair if some people's meters spin backward.
We can't trust the electric companies to level with us as that happens; they are in business to squeeze as much profit out of us as they can, regardless of the true economic facts. Besides, utilities make money by projecting increased power demand, borrowing to build more plants and other capacity, and receiving regulated returns on these expenditures. If a lot of us create our own power sources, that model of making a profit will stop working.
This model is already getting creaky. According to Roberts,
The thing is, for the foreseeable future, we do need an electric grid and somebody is going to pay for it. If enough solar customers can "make their meters spin backward," eventually that's going to break the utilities' business model. But we still need the grid. Solar advocates say we are nowhere near a crunch on this and besides, utilities, as legal monopolies, have become accustomed to benefiting from bad planning -- planning that ignores how distributed generation reduces their costs.… demand for utilities’ services is slowing. Depending on which forecasts you believe, electricity consumption may even begin declining in some states over the next few decades.
Why? Some of it is merely the “offshoring” of industrial activity. But a substantial chunk is the recent explosion of energy-efficiency technologies and investments. ...
Alongside that, individuals now have the power to generate their own electricity with solar panels and other distributed generation technologies. Utilities do not own that distributed generation; it’s an investment upon which they receive no returns. And it represents a reduction in demand for what they are selling, a reduction in use of their grid infrastructure, and a reduction in the need for future power infrastructure.
This discussion is an example of why the arrival of abrupt climate change is so difficult to deal with in a democratic fashion. There are genuine problems that require technical solutions -- on top of the political and scientific puzzles such unprecedented change throws at our societies. If people are going to retain any say about how our societies respond to this, more of us are going to have risk encountering the "force fields of tedium." Or at least reading smart interpreters.
Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.
Tuesday, May 21, 2013
President Obama says he wants to close our misbegotten gulag, but he has failed to do so. The national shame drags on.
These are innocent men who have made a decision to die because our government will not release them. Instead of releasing them, our government chooses to force feed them …
Monday, May 20, 2013
Community-based education under threat across the country
Jobs with Justice, United Educators of San Francisco (that's the K-12 teacher union), and San Francisco City College teachers and students led a spirited noon rally today in the Mission in support Chicago teachers who are fighting school closings. City College faces its own crisis as its accreditation board is threatening to yank its approval, apparently because of differing priorities from those of this community institution. A more thorough exploration of that fight is here. CCSF will get the verdict sometime this summer.
Protesters made phone calls on the spot to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and to John Rizzo of San Francisco's elected Community College Board.
In defense of talking points and message discipline
Alex Pareene at Salon offers a good rant in response to the liberal outfit Message Matters apparently thinking it is doing something helpful by distributing "talking points" to some email list of pundit types it calls "influentials."
On the topic in question -- how to defend the Obama Justice Department for broadly snooping in the Associated Press's phone records -- he is probably right that they have taken up a lost cause.
Pareene is probably right that "liberals are proudly bad at message discipline." And when our friends in high places are doing something dumb -- or just plain wrong! -- we'll call them out on it, I hope.Like all talking points, these talking points were dumb and full of weird weaselly language and made worse by the fact that each claim was designed to be repeated by people on TV who presumably don’t believe what they say or at least don’t really care that much. “For those interested in pushing back against partisan attacks while the rest of us grapple with the larger questions, here is language to guide you,” the memo said.
But I want to offer a defense of "message discipline," usefully understood. It is possible to adopt "talking points" with political integrity -- progressives make a terrible mistake if we refuse to consider why we might want to.
Good talking points derive from listening to the way that people think about issues. Yes, I mean polling and focus groups -- and also the educational experience of trying to talk with our fellow citizens about the issues we care about. Guess what? There are a myriad of ways to think about most everything and many people are not going to think as we do. So convincing people of anything starts with listening. I suspect polling and focus groups are too often more art than science, but if that kind of data is available, we should study it eagerly. Listening is part of democracy in practice, often not a reassuring experience.
Good talking points reach through the superficial level on which we experience day to day life to touch the values that we all use to filter new information and ideas. An example of what I mean: the cause of marriage equality for LGBT people took a huge leap when we started talking less about "equal rights" and more about loving each other. Straight people by and large are barely aware that marriage confers lots of legal goodies; all that stuff about property sharing and health insurance and survivor benefits is so taken for granted that the fact that these perks have been denied to gay people is invisible. But straight people know about loving their partners and making a family; they can understand we want that too.
Message discipline doesn't mean brainlessly repeating only one thing. In fact, a good message and good talking points take off from shared values but recognize that different audiences care about different aspects of issues. Sometimes that means we have to talk about issues we care about putting the emphasis where it matters for our audience, even if it is not where we might individually choose to put it.
An example of this comes from the campaign to end California's death penalty that I worked on last year. The underlying value question to which we knew we must present an answer was people's fear that without the state having the option of a death penalty, somehow "justice" could not be done when hideous crimes were committed. We wanted to assure people that justice would still be possible without a death penalty, so we needed to educate people to the fact that sentences of life without parole are terrible punishments. But we also recognized that different facets of the situation spoke to different people. For some, what mattered is that a death penalty that costs huge sums but is almost never carried out is not justice. For some, the fact that so many poor people and people of color seem to fill death row showed there is no justice. For some, the ever present danger of the state executing an innocent person is what worries them and makes for fear that there is no justice. Always the message spoke to a different way to achieve more justice, but we didn't have to speak the same way to everyone. (Safe California didn't win this in 2012, but we came very close. The struggle will be won.)
Good talking points are arguments that we are willing to make because we believe what we are saying is true. Lots of people think that message discipline means lying for a cause. It doesn't and it can't. People aren't dumb, though often they haven't thought much about lots of issues they encounter. But if you'll listen to them, there is a chance they'll listen to you. You may have to talk a lot about aspects of your issue that are more important to your audience than to you, but you should not feel you are lying. And if your message is true, you won't.
If you are going to engage in politics, to campaign for individuals and issues, to seek to convince people democratically to adopt particular policies and goals, you owe it to your cause to adopt a measure of message discipline. It's not about you. It's about us -- about what kind of country we are trying to make, together. You don't always get to run your mouth without thinking -- though you are certainly free to do so. We are fortunate to have built that kind of country.
Sunday, May 19, 2013
Was the abolitionist John Brown a terrorist?
A few days ago I included the pre-Civil War abolitionist John Brown in a list of "terrorists." Several friends have asked me if I really believed that. Was John Brown, who tried to incite a slave revolt by leading a bungled raid on the federal garrison at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, in 1859, really a terrorist?
James M. McPherson's This Mighty Scourge: Perspectives on the Civil War includes an essay on this question. He certainly doesn't paint Brown as an attractive figure, at least for secular modern people. Brown moved to the Kansas territory in 1855 when it was up for grabs whether the newly opened area would enter the Union as free soil where slavery was outlawed or, alternatively, would extend the Southern institution. The competition for the territory led to a shooting war and the sacking of the town of Lawrence by pro-slavery forces. The same year, a pro-slavery Senator caned an abolitionist Senator in the Senate. McPherson describes Brown's reaction:
Brown was clearly not a temperate character. But this was not a temperate moment. The national impasse over the continued existence and expansion of slavery had dogged national politics for three decades. In the absence of resolution, the issue simply became more superheated. Under the Constitution, there probably was no legal way to end slavery because of Southern over-representation in the Senate and the two thirds of the states required for an amendment. The pro-slavery forces could apparently permanently block any legal route to abolition, even one that included compensation to slave owners.For Brown these events were the last straw. He was a strict Calvinist who believed in a God of wrath and justice. In appearance and character he was an Old Testament warrior prophet transplanted to the nineteenth century. He considered himself God's predestined instrument to strike a blow for freedom. "We must show by actual work;' he said, "that there are two sides to this thing and that they (proslavery forces) cannot go on with impunity." He told his company to prepare for a "radical retaliatory measure." When one of them advised caution, Brown exploded: "Caution, caution, sir. I am eternally tired of hearing that word caution. It is nothing but the word of cowardice."
The next night Brown led four of his sons and two other men to carry out their retaliatory measure for the earlier murders of five free-soil settlers. Brown's party seized five men -- who were proslavery activists but had not participated in the murders -- from their homes along Pottawatomie Creek and split open their skulls with broadswords.
In hindsight, it seems no wonder at all that a person who felt a prophetic call to achieve abolition might have turned to violence. At the time, Brown's adoption of bloody force in the interests of freeing slaves and his raid on Harpers Ferry evoked significant support from some "respectable" Northerners. After he was captured,
Reactions like Emerson's naturally fueled white Southern terror that their Northern brothers and sisters had become ready to see them murdered by their "property." The gulf between the moral systems of South and North became less bridgeable; Lincoln's election seemed to herald the South eventually losing its national veto; and the war came.[Ralph Waldo] Emerson caused a sensation with his pronouncement that Brown was a "new saint, than whom none purer or more brave was ever led by love of men into conflict and death -- the new saint awaiting his martyrdom, and who, if he shall suffer, will make the gallows glorious as the cross."
It is not hard to see John Brown as a terrorist whose provocative acts hastened the end he sought, the climatic clash between slavery and abolition. Most of us applaud the outcome. Yet his acts -- unlawful violence against people and property to force political ends -- fit anybody's definition of terrorism.
So is terrorism sometimes justified by the morality of its ends? I hope not. In most of historical experience, good ends sought by way of indiscriminate violence have devolved into meaningless slaughter far more often than such eruptions have led to better societies. I do think John Brown was a terrorist. And I think terrorism is wrong.
But I am also glad that my Unionist ancestors fought and won the Civil War, creating the possibility for our democratic experiment to further evolve. I guess I'm an indecisive wuss about this. One of the advantages most of us in the United States have enjoyed over more recent history is not to have had to decide such questions in real life. That's the democratic polity I find worth struggling for.
Oh yes -- McPherson too avoids coming down definitively about John Brown.
Both Brown and [Confederate General Robert E.] Lee saw themselves as soldiers in a just war and therefore claimed that their acts were not unlawful but justified under the laws of war. Brown professed to act under the government of God; Lee acted under the government of the Confederate States of America. Whether both or neither was a legitimate government I leave to the reader.
This is one of a series of posts arising from my encounter with This Mighty Scourge. Another is here.
A good match
Nice to see that Craigslist is the lead sponsor for today's Bay to Breakers cross-city footrace and mobile party featuring costumed runners, centipedes, nudity, alcohol, and other happy lunacy.
The venerable race -- it's the 102nd running this year -- has been a bit of an orphan of late. It belonged to the San Francisco Examiner newspaper until that afternoon paper was divested by the Hearst corporation. Several corporate sponsors have taken on the race since the last vestige of the Examiner morphed into a throwaway freebie about 10 years ago. Craigslist seems a good fit for a wacky San Francisco tradition that defies institutionalization.
Saturday, May 18, 2013
Saturday scenes and scenery: Clarion Alley
The fences and garage doors here offer a wild mix of subjects and styles, just like our city these days.
Some are bucolic, though foreign to most of us.
Others celebrate courageous struggle.
Others are not easy to interpret, even subtle. That's an accomplishment on an old wood fence.
A comment on our enthusiasm for threat inflation perhaps?
Frightening and all too recognizable, these dogs of war.
Tamara Ching is celebrated as godmother to transgendered and otherwise gender fluid people in Polk Gulch.
Then there's a musical Eden for a respite.
I trust my next tourist will enjoy this show.
These photos are by-products from my photoblog project: 596 Precincts -- Walking San Francisco. If intrigued, take a look and sign up for sporadic email updates.
Friday, May 17, 2013
Once upon a time, the U.S. fought a war at home
McPherson's lead essay -- it gives the book its title -- is devoted to the historiography of the conflict -- essentially to dismissing various, sometimes quite influential, historical theories that the Civil War was about anything but whether this would be a country that continued to endorse racially demarcated human slavery. Contemporaries were clear about this:
Yet after the Union victory, many historians worked hard to promote alternative explanations for a conflict that killed over 600,000 soldiers. Former Confederate rebels wanted back into the U.S. national narrative without the moral stigma of having fought for what was now considered an immoral social system; over time, the victors too wanted to forget the bitterness. By the early 20th century, many Progressive Era historians promoted the idea that the fight was really over incompatible economic systems.… the new vice president of the Confederate States of America, Alexander H. Stephens, said in a speech at Savannah on March 21, 1861, that slavery was "the immediate cause of the late rupture and the present revolution" of Southern independence.
...The old confederation known as the United States, said Stephens, had been founded on the false idea that all men are created equal. The Confederacy, in contrast, "is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery, subordination to the superior race, is his natural and normal condition. This, our new Government, is the first, in the history of the world, based on this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth…"
Southern historians claimed, influentially, that it had all been about their ancestors attachment to "state's rights." McPherson demolishes this:"Merely by the accidents of climate, soil, and geography," wrote Charles A. Beard, doyen of the Progressive school, "was it a sectional struggle" -- the accidental fact that plantation agriculture was located in the South and industry mainly in the North. … For some Progressive historians, neither system was significantly worse or better than the other -- "wage slavery" was as exploitative as chattel bondage.
In fact, McPherson works to clarify that Southern politicians only gave primacy to "states' rights" arguments when they were losing what had been a vise-like grip on the federal government.Of all these interpretations, the states-rights argument is perhaps the weakest. It fails to ask the question, state's rights for what purpose? State's rights, or sovereignty, was always more a means than an end, an instrument to achieve a certain goal more than a principle. … In the antebellum South, the purpose of asserting state sovereignty was to protect slavery from the potential hostility of a national majority against Southern interests -- mainly slavery.
Because we read history with hindsight generated by outcomes, what's not easy to recapture is that when the Civil War began, the North as well as the South was gripped by a strong feeling of having been unjustly treated by the other side. If Southerners felt insulted because Northerners labeled their slavery "immoral and unworthy," Northerners felt Southern willingness to break up the country would be a repudiation of what their ancestors have won in the Revolution, a democratic republic of (white, male) equality.… state sovereignty was a fallback position. A more powerful instrument to protect slavery was control of the national government. Until 1861 Southern politicians did this remarkably well. They used that control to defend slavery from all kinds of threats and perceived threats. They overrode the rights of Northern states that passed personal liberty laws to protect black people from kidnapping by agents who claimed them as fugitive slaves. During forty-nine of the seventy-two years from 1789 to 1861, the presidents of the United States were Southerners -- all of them slaveholders. … Two-thirds of the Speakers of the House, chairmen of the House Ways and Means Committee, and presidents pro tern of the Senate were Southerners. At all times before 1861, a majority of Supreme Court justices were Southerners.
This domination constituted what antislavery Republicans called the Slave Power and sometimes, more darkly, the Slave Power Conspiracy. … By 1850, when the number of free and slave states was equal at fifteen each, the free states contained 60 percent of the population and 70 percent of the voters but sent only 50 percent of the senators to Washington. [The three fifths compromise, counting Negro slaves as 3/5 of a person, embedded in the Constitution,] gave slave states an average of twenty more congressmen after each census than they would have had on the basis of the free population alone. The combined effect of these two constitutional provisions also gave slave states about thirty more electoral votes than their share of the voting population would have entitled them to have.
Southern politicians did not use this national power to buttress state's rights; quite the contrary. In the 1830s Congress imposed a gag rule to stifle antislavery petitions from Northern states. The Post Office banned antislavery literature from the mail if it was sent to Southern states. …
Lincoln and most of the Northern people were not willing to accept the nation's dismemberment. They feared that toleration of disunion in 1861 would create a fatal precedent to be invoked by disaffected minorities in the future, perhaps by the losing side in another presidential election, until the United States dissolved into a dozen petty, squabbling, hostile autocracies. The great experiment in republican government launched in 1776 would collapse, proving the contention of European monarchists and aristocrats that this upstart republic across the Atlantic could not last.
- My ancestors were Union partisans. Though they mostly avoided actually fighting, they were active Republicans, political supporters of Lincoln. One was a U.S. diplomat in France, working to discourage Napoleon III from jumping in on the Confederate side.They believed their ancestors had fought against injustice and won -- and I was raised to think they had carried on that heritage in the Civil War.
- As a young student of history, I recall being alternatively confused and attracted by the various strains of Civil War historiography. Growing up during the African-American freedom struggle in the South, I never put much stock in the states-rights/War Between the States version of the story. That seemed sectional sleight of hand. But I do remember being much attracted by the Beard clash of economic systems paradigm, if only because it seemed to treat Northern workers as if they mattered. But, really, I have no attachment to any of the historical explanations that erase slavery. Come on -- four million black people in bondage unequivocally mattered!
- But what really sets me off is that contemporary Republicans seem bent on recreating the "Slave Power Conspiracy" in modern dress. The Senate is even more unrepresentative now than then: 38 million Californians get the same two votes in the 100 member body as 564,000 residents of Wyoming? And then there's the filibuster; with the current party breakdown, states with just a third of the country's population can block legislation or Presidential nominations. States are again attempting nullification of federal laws they don't like, such as any gun control measures. Our unrepresentative institutions can't do what majorities understand needs to be done, so our politics are consumed with insignificant media-driven kerfuffles. We can't even take up the real challenge to our system and the world -- abrupt climate change. Before the Civil War, our ancestors put off dealing with slavery and its implications for the nation for two generations; we still have too many of their busted governmental institutions and we don't have 70 years to waste before taking measures to limit the havoc unconstrained carbon emissions are wreaking.
McPherson's essays are so rich I think I'll be writing at least a couple more posts jumping off from them.
Friday cat blogging
Thursday, May 16, 2013
These choices were included in a survey sent out by the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy. They are clearly gathering information to improve their public image and fund pitches. And they get props for noticing some people do not experience gender as binary.
Why don't they just come out and say what they really mean?
The further we go toward recognizing that human societies make choices about how we organize ourselves, and that we can expand those choices to allow greater human possibility and dignity for more of us, the harder it becomes to insist on traditional patriarchy. Too bad, guys."It is the height of irony that the Minnesota legislature decided, and the governor signed into law, the redefinition of marriage just after we celebrated the unique gifts of mothers and women on Mother's Day," he said in a statement the bishops' conference released Wednesday.
Prescriptions for overcoming "well-informed futility syndrome"
Her son is named "Elijah" in memory of the Illinois abolitionist Elijah Lovejoy who was murdered by a pro-slavery mob in 1837. This woman is serious about standing up for the truths she discovers in her work and parental experience.In the absence of federal policies that are protective of child development and the ecology of the planet on which our children's lives depend, we serve as our own regulatory agencies and departments of interior....
Thoughtful but overwhelmed parents correctly perceive a disconnect between the enormity of the problem and the ability of individual acts of vigilance and self-sacrifice to fix it. Environmental awareness without corresponding political changes leads to paralyzing despair....
We feel helpless in our knowledge, and we're not sure we want any more knowledge. You could call this well-informed futility syndrome. And soon enough, we are retreating into silent resignation rather than standing up for abolition.
And she's not into sitting around feeling helpless. In fact, on April 30, she completed a 10 day jail term for blocking the entrance to a natural gas facility that has invaded her 'hood, the Finger Lakes region of New York State.
Steingraber reminds us that we will have the quality of life and democracy that we can win from elites who want to exploit for profit both all of us and the natural world. The book is an accessible introduction to toxics in our daily lives, especially addressed to parents.“I would do it again in a minute. …Being new to civil disobedience, I’m still learning about its power and its limitations…
But I know this: all I had to do is sit in a six-by-seven-foot steel box in an orange jumpsuit and be mildly miserable, but the real power of it is to be able to shine a spotlight on the problem.”
Wednesday, May 15, 2013
Warming Wednesdays: where are your local temps are headed as carbon emissions continue?
Here's what they show for San Francisco:
It does precipitation as well. Again, here's our city by the bay. Looks like rain.
The projections are based on the models used by Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) studies. There's lots to explore here.
Despite every other legitimate concern, we cannot ignore that our economic and social system is rapidly making the planet less habitable. So I will be posting "Warming Wednesdays" -- reminders of an inconvenient truth.
Tuesday, May 14, 2013
Defenders of Israel throw a hissy fit
American Muslims for Palestine board chair Dr. Hatem Bazian announces a campaign that will put this sign on San Francisco buses for the next month.
This bus sign campaign is yet another free speech effort -- we see a lot of them around here, what's the big deal?
Unless I'd happened on one of the buses, I probably wouldn't have noticed this effort. Nor would I have thought much about it. I have no trouble believing retired South African Archbishop Desmond Tutu when he calls Israel an apartheid state. He's got no axe to grind; in fact, as far as I know he labors in retirement for peace and justice. And he knows plenty about systemic discrimination and exclusion. I'll take his word for it. And the ad itself, highlighting the fact that U.S. taxpayers are paying for systemic discrimination and exclusion, seems simply true to me.
But the campaign got a higher profile on my mental horizon when emails started flying by about a clutch of organizations -- the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Anti-Defamation League, and the American Jewish Committee -- branding the ads as "inflammatory rhetoric designed to delegitimize Israel's very existence," "extremist language," and "bigoted lies and demonization." It seemed as if the triggering word was apartheid. Jewish Voice for Peace jumped into the fray with a collection of other people in addition to the Archbishop who have uttered the dread word:
Two comments on this controversy:
- Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "I am aware that many of our Jewish brothers and sisters who were so instrumental in the fight against South African apartheid are not yet ready to reckon with the apartheid nature of Israel and its current government...But I cannot ignore the Palestinian suffering I have witnessed, nor the voices of those courageous Jews troubled by Israel's discriminatory course." Tampa Bay Times, April 30, 2012
- Israeli Defense Minister (and former Prime Minister) Ehud Barak:"As long as in this territory west of the Jordan River there is only one political entity called Israel it is going to be either non-Jewish, or non-democratic. If this bloc of millions of Palestinians cannot vote, that will be an apartheid state." (2010)
- Israeli newspaper Haaretz editorial:"The de facto separation is today more similar to political apartheid than an occupation regime because of its constancy. One side - determined by national, not geographic association - includes people who have the right to choose and the freedom to move, and a growing economy. On the other side are people closed behind the walls surrounding their community, who have no right to vote, lack freedom of movement, and have no chance to plan their future. " (2007)
- Former Israeli Minister of Education Shulamit Aloni:"Jewish self-righteousness is taken for granted among ourselves to such an extent that we fail to see what’s right in front of our eyes. It’s simply inconceivable that the ultimate victims, the Jews, can carry out evil deeds. Nevertheless, the state of Israel practices its own, quite violent, form of Apartheid with the native Palestinian population." (2007)
- B’Tselem,The Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories:This report deals with one of the primary, albeit lesser known, components of Israel’s policy of restricting Palestinian movement in the Occupied Territories: restrictions and prohibitions on Palestinian travel along certain roads in the West Bank. This phenomenon is referred to in the report as the “Forbidden Roads Regime.” The regime, based on the principle of separation through discrimination, bears striking similarities to the racist apartheid regime that existed in South Africa until 1994. In the roads regime operated by Israel, the right of every person to travel in the West Bank is based on his or her national origin. Forbidden Roads: Israel’s Discriminatory Road Regime in the West Bank, Btselem, 2004
- On 21 April 2010, the South African government expressed "the greatest concern" over: Israeli Infiltration Order 1650, saying that the order has a broad definition of "infiltrator" and unclear terms as to which permits would allow a person to reside in the West Bank, as well as how valid residency might be proven. The South African government said the terms of the order are "reminiscent of pass laws under apartheid South Africa."
The ADL has zero credibility with me on anything about apartheid. My friend Jeffrey Blankfort has described the ADL's program in the 1980s and 90s in San Francisco which included funneling "intelligence" from San Francisco police files about US activists to the South African apartheid secret service. I've always assumed that this was the reason that the day after my working group arrived in Cape Town in 1990 to help anti-apartheid newspapers upgrade their technology, we received what seemed a clumsy visit from state security. The men at the door said they were roofers and must look over the house; there was nothing wrong with the roof.
Secondly, it raises my hackles when anyone tries to stifle discussion by outlawing particular language. Israel's existence is not at stake -- unless it manages to commit suicide by fatally alienating all its neighbors and its friends. The charge of legal, forceful systemic discrimination and exclusion of Palestinians by Israelis in the Occupied Territories and even within the 1948 borders is simply true. You can't expect people not to point this out. And pitching a hissy fit when people do won't stop anyone.Posted by janinsanfran at 3:37 PM 1 comment:Labels: Israel Lobby, Muslims, Palestine, politics, San Francisco, south africa
What are they hiding this time?
extreme enthusiasm with which the Obama administration seeks to protect it.
The various phone companies involved are set up technically to grab such information whenever the government asks for it. In investigations of leaks of "national security secrets," the Obama administration has sought twice the number of indictments issued under all previous administrations combined.The A.P. said that the Justice Department informed it on Friday that law enforcement officials had obtained the records for more than 20 telephone lines of its offices and journalists, including their home phones and cellphones. It said the records were seized without notice sometime this year.
… In an angry letter to Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Monday, Gary Pruitt, the president and chief executive of The A.P., called the seizure, a “massive and unprecedented intrusion” into its news gathering activities.
“There can be no possible justification for such an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters,” he wrote. “These records potentially reveal communications with confidential sources across all of the news gathering activities undertaken by The A.P. during a two-month period, provide a road map to A.P.’s news gathering operations, and disclose information about A.P.’s activities and operations that the government has no conceivable right to know.”
The investigation, thought to involve publication of news of a Yemen-based terrorist plot to bomb an airliner, is one of two announced by the Justice Department last June. The other involves leaks to the New York Times about US-initiated cyberattacks on Iranian nuclear facilities. The Times has no knowledge of seized phone records in that case.
What this is really all about is whether the government can intimidate the press. The government wants to be free to decide which of its war-on-the-cheap projects the citizens get to know about. For the moment, we're a nation tired of declared wars and occupations. But our leaders (and particularly our spooks) have lots of places they want to project U.S. power. Maybe some of these efforts actually do protect us. Maybe some of them are monumental screw ups or even crimes that will ultimately make us less safe. None of them can be debated democratically if the government can succeed in hiding them in the name of "national security."
Want to keep on top of these machinations? I suggest reading Marcy Wheeler. She often has the story months before the "news" media.