Saturday, August 31, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: a walk around Seattle’s Green Lake

 On a perfect late summer day, it’s hard to imagine a more bucolic urban stroll than around this 2.8 mile circuit.

Some users trot along, vigorously.

And some seem to be managing a small crowd.

Pleased as this young man was, the fish was too small to keep.

A few people have found a way to get out on the lake.

While for others, more cerebral exercise is available ...

Reading in the park is a kind of exercise, isn’t it?

Others have vigorous private routines.

At some turns on the shore, there was the slightest hint that autumn might be not far away.

Friday, August 30, 2013

Dumb wars; dumb means

The man in the White House came to prominence, at least in part, because almost alone among prominent Democrats, his gut reaction to Dick Cheney’s Iraq adventure was that it was a “dumb war.”

Apparently there is something in the water in Washington that makes Presidents think that repeating dumb actions over and over will eventually produce a different result. Although the Arab League, the United Nations, and now the Brits have said “no” to launching an air attack on Bashir al-Assad’s Syria in response to chemical atrocities, President Obama seems bent on going forward, just the U.S. military alone, on his say-so without even a Congressional vote.

The Presidential fantasy that there’s a way to achieve the impossible on the cheap through the air is not new. According to Lynne Olson in Those Angry Days: Roosevelt, Lindbergh, and America’s Fight Over World War II, 1939-1941 Franklin Roosevelt pioneered a variant in the 1930s:

He was captivated by the idea of waging war from the air, telling his cabinet that it “would cost less money, would mean comparatively few casualties, and would be more likely to succeed that a traditional war.”

Air Force generals and the companies that live off building bombers and missiles always advertise that this time they’ve come up with a sure weapon that will impose their user’s will without cost. But events have never proved to be so simple and smart leaders should know that by now. In the great world war in which FDR led the United States, it wasn’t air power that triumphed over Hitler and Imperial Japan. Defeating these brutal expansionist powers took massive armies, ours and our allies.

Now that his likely partners have backed off, couldn’t the intelligent man in the White House come to his senses? Okay, so he made a dumb remark about a “red line” against the use of Syria’s chemical weapons. But sending in the bombers and missiles is no less dumb.

Simon Jenkins, reporting the British debate for the Guardian writes:

Syria: it takes more courage to say there is nothing outsiders can do …
In Syria the human misery is intense and agonising to watch. It merits extremes of diplomatic engagement and humanitarian relief, to which outside attention and expense should surely be directed. Bombs are irrelevant. They make a bang and hit a headline. They puff up the political chest and dust their advocates in glory. They are the dumbest manifestation of modern politics.

There is something the United States could do that might help the suffering people of Syria: commit real resources to aiding both the refugees from that awful civil war and the neighboring states that have taken them in. That would be a smart response to ghastly horrors.

Do we always have to be dumb? Not to mention murderous?

Friday cat blogging: Spanish city cats

If you ever find yourself traveling with me, you’re likely to find yourself walking down a street when I blurt “Cat!” and suddenly become absorbed in trying to snap a photo.

Here’s such a scene from the Spanish city of Tarragona.

That Siamese was cautious, but cooperative.

Otherwise, Spanish cities didn’t provide frequent cat subjects. Maybe the urban hubbub spooks them? This calm beauty watched us eat in a quiet outdoor cafe in the Albaicin neighborhood of Granada. There was no car traffic there, though plenty of wandering tourists.

A true exception to the cautious custom of cats, this one greeted the hordes visiting the Alhambra, clearly well adapted to whatever attention they might bring.

Next Friday I’ll post a collection of Spanish country cats, a much larger set.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

On disturbing the "conventions of what is"

The Christian Science Monitor reports that a person who I take to be a Russian security intellectual (and spook?) drew an interesting conclusion about a trio of controversial figures whose actions have made them heroes to those of us who still hope to rein in the universal surveillance state.
Alexander Konovalov, president of the independent Institute for Strategic Assessments in Moscow, says the Snowden saga shows that all the nations involved, including Russia, were reacting to moves made by a very smart fugitive who represents a cause that is new – and probably unwelcome – to all big governments. ...

"After all, Snowden spilled his secrets to the Guardian, not to us [the Russians]. He wasn't looking to work with our special services at all, but to inform the world public about a threat he perceives...

 "Snowden, [Chelsea] Manning, [Julian] Assange are all a new type of people that nobody appears ready to deal with. In the past, people defected for ideological or more venal reasons, but these people are children of the new information society and believers in total freedom. Snowden probably frightens Putin as much as he scared the US establishment. Hence all the official confusion. But these people have followers in Russia, and around the world, and we probably need to expect more of this in future," he adds.
It seems ironic that today President Obama, in a speech at the Lincoln Memorial commemorating the great 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom, gave a shout out to young disturbers of the established order.
"There’s a reason why so many who marched that day and in the days to come were young, for the young are unconstrained by habits of fear, unconstrained by the conventions of what is. They dared to dream different and to imagine something better. And I am convinced that same imagination, the same hunger of purpose serves in this generation."
Really Mr. President? Your prosecutions and your charges against people who try to recall the powers-that-are to their professed principles tell a contrary story.

Let's hope such brave and foolish shit-disturbers continue to rile the governments of the world.

Photo from a London demo by way of ChelseaLibera.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Today's commentary on impending US belligerence

U.S. Army Soldiers of Regimental Higher Headquarters Troop, 278th Armored Cavalry Regiment, Tennessee Army National Guard participate in training, Dec. 12, 2009, in preparation for a scheduled deployment to Iraq...Photo by Staff Sgt. Russell Klika )
Here's Soonergrunt, retired US Army/Army National Guard.
So Assad most likely used chemical weapons against his people in Syria.  Well, that’s bad.  It’s pretty fucking horrifying, actually, but those people are no more dead than the people who’ve been killed with bullets, bombs, rockets, and whatever else was at hand.  It is only in the minds of people who’ve never seen incoming that this matters.  Dead people are dead people and every weapon system ever devised including thrown rocks has lasting effects beyond the immediate strike.

My children have never known war, hunger, or want.  But they live with the after effects of war every day of their lives.  I submit to you all that barring some major threat to US National Security that can only be reduced or eliminated by American military action, that we shouldn’t be doing that to people, and we shouldn’t help others do that to people.
All the more reason why a President should not make war on his own say-so, especially when polls show strong majority opposition and no debate has taken place.

Warming Wednesdays: more accurate naming plan for extreme storms

After all, the extremity of our situation is caused by some humans ...

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

War: just another commodity to raise the ratings

If you are not ready to puke already, watch these morons on US cable TV salivate and bloviate about the prospect of an attack in Syria.

Shameful. H/t TPM for digesting this garbage so we don't have to.

U.S. to make war in Syria

People live there, you know.
As he often does Charles Pierce explains US policy in Syria cogently:
It looks as though the skids are properly greased, and the United States will be making some sort of war in Syria pretty soon. I say "making war in Syria" because that's different than going to war in Syria. We aren't sending troops. We're going to be sending cruise missiles and dropping bombs because that is how you make war without going to war and, if you make war without going to war, then it's a lot easier to pretend back home that you're not at war. Again.

…when you make war in a place, actual people die actual deaths. Fathers get killed. Children get killed. School buildings and hospitals fall down all around the people inside them. The message you are sending with your missiles gets just a trifle muddled. Make no mistake. If we strike, we will be making actual war in Syria. Ordinary Syrians will not see our missiles as "bomb-o-grams," telling them with every deadly explosion that we're really on their side. We will be another belligerent making their daily lives brutal and deadly, and there will be enough of them to hate us for that to guarantee that we will have to make more war in that place, or in some other place, very soon.

That is what we do now. We make war in a place without going to war in a place, and nobody is fooled except ourselves.
I find this so depressing that I have no more to say.

Monday, August 26, 2013

What the hell is that going to do?

After a weekend of war rumors, it appears today likely that the United States will lob cruise missiles at targets in Syria -- targets that the administration will claim serve to punish the Assad government.

Even liberal commentators seem to think that the murderous chemical warfare attack in the Damascus suburbs last week means that the United States has to "do something."

But what if additional US violence does nothing but raise the level of violence? We're already supplying arms and supporting allies like Turkey that are doing far more.

There is no popular support in the United States for a wide effort to intervene in Syria's civil war. If the administration shoots, it will be because these days a President can, without democratic (small"d") debate, fire at will to prove his toughness. (And I have no doubt that a female president would do the same.) This is war as theater with human victims.

Last month this picture of the Zaatari Refuge Camp in Jordan grabbed my attention. This is what the war in Syria means. These people's lives have become a killing ground for powers great and small. And my country appears ready to add to the carnage -- because it can.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Recalling the 1963 March for Jobs and Freedom in 2013 in Oakland

"Let this moment be a spark!" the Rev. B.K. Woodson prayed.
Some of the small crowd, perhaps 200 over several hours. Labor groups brought many.
SambaFunk roused the crowd.
Many got moving ...
Delight helps ...
Pastor Wanda Johnson, mother of Oscar Grant, who was killed on New Years Day 2009 by a BART policeman
Ms. Johnson has responded to her unwelcome celebrity by becoming an inspiring speaker:

When my son was murdered, I just wanted to give up. But it was as if I heard Oscar whispering to me, saying we have to fight. We have to fight for rights for everyone. No one's life is worth more than another's. I know that, even though the man who killed my son only served 6 months in county jail.

We can make a change if we work together. If you have that calling -- to fight for justice -- don't give up the fight. We have to win equality for everyone.

Not all inspiration requires going to Washington.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: locked in love

Perhaps this custom is practiced somewhere nearer home, but I first saw it on my recent trip to Spain. Mike and Noza sealed their love with these locks left "forever" on a bridge over the Ebro River in Zaragoza. The entire railing was dotted with these very visible tributes to various relationships.

The practice wasn't particular to one bridge. These padlocks hung on a span over the Rio Onyar in Girona.

The Catalan flag in the background was most everywhere in that city.

Friday, August 23, 2013

Civil Rights 2013 -- a cautionary view from Alabama

Scott Douglas breaks down a campaign at a training.
Approaching the anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, here's a reflection from Scott Douglas, the executive director of Alabama-based Greater Birmingham Ministries. Reprinted from Equal Voice.

In July of 1963, I was preparing for my senior year at Nashville’s Pearl High School. Three years earlier, Diane Nash, John Lewis and other Black college students had marched past our school on their many trips downtown to the Nashville sit-ins. They were members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), a group that was leading sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Some of Pearl’s students were bold enough to sneak out of school to go downtown behind them. Not me.

Little Stevie Wonder’s “Fingertips II” was redefining (and refining) rhythm and blues among my generation. Finding the next party with lights hung like Christmas ornaments from the backyard clothes line occupied our time when we weren’t consumed with extra credit summer school classes as we aggressively accumulated points toward our coming admissions to college.

In the summer of 1963, the Birmingham demonstrations — which were nonviolent direct actions — were no longer on television, but Medgar Evers, field secretary for the Mississippi National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), had been assassinated in his front yard in Jackson, Miss. For me, news about the civil rights movement became an unsettling blend of darkest tragedies and heady victories.

In Craighead Barber Shop on Nashville’s Jefferson Street (the main Black business and cultural artery), Black men debated the pros and cons of the actions of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Whitney Young, SNCC and others. One debate centered on whether Dr. King’s coming to town again was good or bad.

I still remember the letdown I felt when the arguments began to turn on the question: What would the good white people think? On one hand, I didn’t have the words to describe such deference to how others might feel and, on the other, I felt it was not yet my turn to speak my 16 years of accumulated wisdom and courage to those grown men.

It was at the barbershop that I first heard about the upcoming national “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.” When I heard that the march was going to be the subject of the next mass meeting at Clark Memorial Methodist Church – a congregation that had already hosted many of Nashville’s civil rights organizing activities – I went. Although, to this day, I can’t recall who spoke, who sung or who prayed, I immediately got caught up in the spirit of the meeting.

The speakers talked about the significance of going to Washington, that there would be thousands in attendance and that they wanted youth participation from Nashville. And then someone said one seat was left on one of the buses for a youth. I raised my hand and, before my hand could be recognized, I was running to the front of the church saying I wanted to go.

Mrs. C. E. McGruder, then president of the Nashville NAACP, explained that I had to have my parents’ permission to go on the march. No problem, I thought. Mere technicality. Excited, I ran home and breathlessly told my mom that I needed her permission to go to the “March on Washington.”

My mother looked at me with a stare I had come to know over my young life of testing her patience. Trying to get ahead of the dooming stare, I told her how important the march would be and how much I wanted to go.

She listened, mostly for me to finish, and said simply, “No, you might get hurt.” The decision was final. I ran, but not as fast, back to the church to tell Mrs. McGruder that my mother would not let me go.

What I did not understand at the time was that violence befalling Black folks in the South seeking change at any level and in any venue was a constant reality. What I did not understand was that when racist violence was not absolutely capricious, it was absolutely arbitrary. What I did not understand was that I was being protected by generations of Black mothers’ wits against an old, cagey and dangerous foe.

The March on Washington was hailed as the largest protest in American history – and a peaceful one at that. But the glow from the nonviolent march evaporated when, less than three weeks later, four young Black girls were killed in the bombing of Birmingham’s 16th Street Baptist Church. As if to claim dominance over hearts and minds, violence struck three months after the march with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

A year after the march, it was time to go to college. I had decided to go to the University of Tennessee (UT), where I was to major in engineering physics, a five-year interdisciplinary program that combined a technical education with a heavy offering of liberal arts, basic sciences and languages. Graduates of the curriculum were expected to become project managers with companies and institutions such as NASA. The saying was scientists couldn’t build anything, engineers had no vision and this profession was needed to manage the two. Vain.

In UT’s new thousand-student freshman dorm, the only two African-American students were roommates. Across the hall from my room was another engineering physics major, who stood out among white students because he was friendly to me. Early in that first quarter, he asked if we could study together. I welcomed the opportunity because I loved the idea of team-tackling science and math problems.

After a couple of sessions, however, it became obvious that this teaming wasn’t an even deal. I was helping him far more than he was helping me. He asked me what scholarships I had. I told him none, that I was there on educational loans. He expressed some shock, and I asked why. He replied that he was on a full physics scholarship provided by the university. Then I expressed shock. Here I was tutoring a white, out-of-state scholarship student while I was on a college loan.

It was that moment, in that freshman quarter, I lost my “glad to be here” attitude and opted for something else. By my junior year, I had co-founded UT’s Black Student Union, helped elect UT’s first African-American student-government president and discovered a haven for challenging my limited worldview – Knoxville’s Highlander Center.

The 1963 “March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom” called upon the best of the American promise. As Dr. King noted, though the arc of the “moral universe” is long, it bends toward justice. Of that, there was ample contemporary evidence as the global struggles for national liberation resonated with African-American struggles with a call-and-response, mutually reinforcing cadence.

But, looking back over the span of 50 years since the march, other, more sinister, arcs come into view. The civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s – its gains and the transformations it occasioned – occurred during a period of American economic growth. In addition, from World War II until around 1980, the wealth gap between the poorest American and the richest actually closed. In that economic environment, reactionary and backward reactions to demands for racial justice were heard but not heeded.

Today, however, with the wealth gap expanding and the middle class on the same downward trajectory as the poor, a near maniacal fear of the future is a potent weapon in the arsenal of political forces that would divide America’s families for power and profit. Add the coming majority-minority nation to the mix, and it becomes a potentially toxic brew.

The upcoming March on Washington – called in the era of Supreme Court decisions gutting the Voting Rights Act, a Congress hamstrung by deliberate attempts to frustrate the interests of the people and the presidency, and open economic and political power plays by billionaires desirous of even greater democracy-bending license – has its own challenges to meet. It must address those challenges in what can be, at times, a more threatening environment than that of the 1963 March on Washington. In many ways, the 2013 march has a harder challenge.

The 1963 march carved out new ground. The 2013 March on Washington can be significant in recovering lost ground and building the foundation for a national movement that includes brighter prospects for low- and moderate-income American families, a movement in which those families work together to overcome fear and division, jingoism and xenophobia, racism and sexism.

Or as Dr. King stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and declared to the nation 50 years ago this month: “We can never be satisfied…until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Top Secret. Really? From who?

Since neither brain nor body seems to have their usual energy this morning, I've been postponing ordinary tasks by reading up on what we know and what we are saying about the surveillance state. Roughly speaking, that means Edward Snowden's disclosures, the all-seeing and duplicitous NSA, the determined secrecy from the Obama administration, Chelsea Manning's sentence, David Miranda's detention by the Brits … the whole clusterfuck.

By far the best stuff I've read comes in two very different batches:
  • Marc Ambinder at This Week is close enough to the spooks that he tries to give them a fair hearing, but knowledgeable and honest enough that he asks extremely difficult questions.
  • Jay Rosen at Pressthink mulls over how journalism is evolving along with the universal surveillance state and society. Is democratic decision making possible in this technological world is one of his questions -- and mine.
How people respond to all this often seems to turn on how much they believe in the credibility or sanctity of government "classified" information and activities. That's a no-brainer from me. I don't really believe the government has significant secrets. And I do believe that information is largely "classified" not to hide it from adversaries but to hide it from the US people.

Remember Saddam Hussein's "weapons of mass destruction" -- we were supposed to believe the government had "secret" intelligence of these, even if on the ground arms inspectors couldn't find them. Oops. Then there are all the "secret" terrorist plots the FBI is so proud of rolling up in the last few years -- mostly dumb boys with dumb hatreds who were ripe to be enticed into dumb plots by informers.

I don't even believe the USA has real military secrets. If we can penetrate the secrets of our adversaries, it seems likely that in this interconnected world the Chinese, the Russians, the Brits, and whoever else is doing just fine at finding out what we want to hide. I even think our government knows that. Look at the recent "revelation" about the "secret" Area 51 -- it turns out the US long ago told the Russians about it under the Open Skies treatment.

We live in a world where "secrets" exist only to mislead the suckers -- that is, the citizens.

And now for something completely different ...

A friend sent this along the other day, saying everyone should view it. I think she was right. Maybe everyone already knows this, but I didn't.

Years ago I took a CPR class -- and the main thing I learned was that I probably couldn't do it. But if someone keeled over next to me, I might be able to begin this ...
Too tired to write to today. Blog break ...

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: the politics of what it takes

I often have a hard time deciding on Wednesdays whether to focus on tidbits of science and the partial solutions that come into sight each week or on the politics of citizen efforts to win some action. I'm far more qualified to deal with the latter, but I also want to keep beating the drum: we can't just turn away from what's happening, however much we might want to.

Two weeks ago I posted two short bits, one of each sort, rather than decide.

This week, I'll share some political reflections, even though personally I'm obsessing about Federal government responses to the Western drought.

First, a snippet from David Roberts who is about to take a year long break from writing this stuff so he can rediscover what it is like to live.

… I just don’t think there’s any way to make the facts of climate change congenial to the contemporary U.S. conservative perspective. Once they accept the facts, the severity and urgency of the climate crisis, they are committed to either a) supporting vigorous government policy meant to diminish the power of some of their wealthiest constituents, or b) passively accepting widespread suffering.

Cognitively speaking, that’s an untenable position for them. That’s why they avoid it by rejecting the science. There’s no way to package the science in a way that avoids this dilemma. It is today’s hyper-conservatism, not climate communications, that is ultimately going to have to change.

Let me finish by broadening the point a bit: The anti-government dogma of contemporary conservatives isn’t just ill-suited to climate change. It’s ill-suited to modernity, to the 21st century. The problems that face humanity now are transnational, incremental, and complex (think, e.g., global pandemics) and will inevitably require active national governments and some form of global cooperation. The paranoid revanchism of today’s American right is a relic, a circus act, not a serious response to the world we live in. That is not the responsibility of climate hawks and there’s little they can do to change it, no matter how they communicate. It’s just going to have to burn itself out.

This insight isn't really any different from what I wrote about in my post yesterday: the only circumstances in which we the (majority of the) people will be able to reform and recover responsible governance is when Republicans are effectively self-marginalized. We've seen that in California. Republicans are working away at becoming irrelevant, but can climate catastrophe be staved off in the interim?

The good folks trying to stop the Keystone XL pipeline have created a street campaign (taken the fight outside elections) as usually is necessary to break new ground on any struggle. The politicians come along later. I was impressed by this description of Texan tree sitters who have been literally putting themselves in the way of "progress." These are some brave folks indeed. The article sums up how such actions are adding up to more than each individual one appears to:

In their own ways, all of Keystone XL’s opponents have worked to delay for a few hours, a few days, a few weeks, the moment when the spigots turn and oil starts flowing. This can look a bit absurd, if it involves, for instance, litigating the fate of an endangered species of dung beetle. Many of the tactics that established environmental groups are using are slow-moving: In Nebraska, a lawsuit that was filed a year ago and that could further stall construction of the northern section of pipeline is scheduled to go to trial in September—a big victory, considering that TransCanada tried twice to get the suit thrown out.

Even if the Obama administration gives TransCanada the permit it needs to build the longer section of the pipeline, from Alberta to Oklahoma, this will still be the strategy: delay—by injunction, by blockade—but delay, delay, delay. Every day of delay can cost the company money, cause investors to lose their nerve or their interest, and increase the chance that Keystone XL will no longer make financial sense.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

California Republicans: not worth fixating on the elephant

A couple of odd items flew by yesterday. Ed Kilgore highlighted this (via Politico):

“Republicans in California ignored demographic changes,” state Republican Party Chairman Jim Brulte said in an interview. “As a result, we’re a significant minority.” Republicans on a national level should take notice, because players in the California GOP argue that they’re merely experiencing what states like Colorado, Nevada and Texas will experience in a few years: a drastically weakened party that’s routinely rejected by booming minority populations.

That seems about correct, not that I want to see Republicans crawl back from their racist "blunder."

Meanwhile, I learn via Hullabaloo that California Republicans are importing Texas Governor Rick Perry, the guy who couldn't remember what government departments he wanted to kill, for their big fall meeting.

The Texan economy is a hollow mess of low wages, poor education, high poverty wages and flimsy safety nets. The California economy, meanwhile, is resurgent after voters gave Democrats a 2/3 supermajority in the statehouse. Yet Republicans are intent on trying to convince America and California of how well they've run Texas into the ground, and how much the rest of us should want that for ourselves.

Not going to fly here. Guess Perry is looking for right wing money, something we do have.

All this reinforces what I find myself saying every time I get into a political conversation: if you want to see where the country is going, look at California. In this state, Republicans spent the 1970-2000 fighting demographic and economic reality. In the process they broke the instruments of government: we ended up with a state system that mostly could not tax or pass budgets; consequently schools, infrastructure and economic development floundered. But Republicans so marginalized themselves that they became vestigial, only able to win in older, white enclaves.

Now Democrats are striving to rebuild the state. There's a lot that is damaged. Choices have to be made about how we'll go forward. Education, water policy, and transportation can't be ignored much longer. Because politics (and every interest group) abhors a vacuum, that means progressives and the saner business oriented conservatives are now fighting out our futures within the Democratic party. Concerned citizens miss the real action if we don't pay attention; that's where our future is being decided.

Monday, August 19, 2013

Share the country?

After a long weekend spent on retreat with friends who make up War Times/Tiempo de Guerras, I'm too pooped to write coherently this Monday morning.

But I'll share what I'm pondering. Stephen Walt has opined that

The only solution for Egypt that I can see is one where the contending groups agree to share the country. The competing factions will eventually have to realize that none of them can rule alone and that a political order must be devised that gives each a stake and guarantees each at least some degree of political influence. That's the only formula for successful participatory politics:

Perhaps. Certainly Egyptians need to end the pattern of the guys with the most guns shooting their way into dictatorial power. I hear on NPR this morning they are about to release the old dictator, Hosni Mubarak ... WTF?

Let's turn Walt's prescription back on our own society. How do we "share the country" with people who approve shooting black and brown teenagers for being out of their presumed place?

With people who equip local police departments with tanks?

With folks who've brought back veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars and set them up as a Border Patrol?

The same folks are enacting legal barriers to full access to the vote wherever they can. And these same people believe they can and should dictate to women what we can do with our bodies.

How do we "share the country" with these folks without giving up on building a more equitable and more just society?

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Why won't Obama cut off Egypt's generals?

In view of the Egyptian military's brutal violence against the large segment of their own people who think they've illegally seized power, there are loud calls in Washington for the Obama administration to cut ties with the generals.

The Prez announced last week that he'd canceled a planned joint war game -- and was denounced as a wimp from many directions. Let's think for a minute why he might be reluctant to cut off the more than one billion dollars we give Egypt's military annually. After all, this is not chump change.

Obama has shown himself cautious and deliberate in dealing with foreign governments -- and by and large that has been a good thing. Republicans are demanding posturing; that is not the incumbent's style.

However he has also been consistently willing to defer to Israeli interests. The Israelis much prefer a military dictatorship in Egypt to a government headed by the Muslim Brotherhood. On those grounds, we might expect Obama to choose to stick with the generals.

Moreover, Obama can probably assume that any cash the US might withhold from Egypt's rulers will only be replaced by Saudi oil money. Perhaps he thinks he retains some shred of influence if he continues the payouts.

But it is also worth noting that the US has simple, practical motives for staying on the good side of Egypt's generals. USA Today has the story:

During the past year, more than 2,000 U.S. military aircraft flew through Egyptian airspace, supporting missions in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East, according to U.S. Central Command, which is responsible for the region.

About 35 to 45 U.S. 5th Fleet naval ships pass through the Suez Canal annually, including carrier strike groups, according to the Bahrain-based fleet. Egypt has allowed U.S. warships to be expedited, which often means getting to the head of a very long line of ships waiting for access to the canal.

If US foreign policy requires power projection in west, central and south Asia, we need Egypt's cooperation.
One of the few clear facts about the Egyptian situation is that three quarters of us in the United States don't want our government to get involved. At long last, that might help.

H/t Samuel Knight at Political Animal for the USA Today report.

A difficult decision

My neighbors are apparently trying to agree on a color scheme for a new paint job. Their building is 6 or 8 units, all condos I think. They seem to be leaving each other notes with pointers.

We'll all see what they decide.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Saturday scenes and scenery: from the Alpujarras

The Alpujarras is an agricultural region on the lower slopes of Spain's Sierra Nevada mountain range. It's a rugged landscape, dotted with tiny whitewashed towns. I've just returned from a week hiking here.

The peak of Mulhacen, at over 11,000 feet the tallest mountain on the Iberian peninsula, looms over the towns.

Terraced fields stand out from the rocky hillsides. They are watered by an irrigation system that dates to the time of the Moors, before Catholic rulers expelled the Muslims in 1492.

At mid-summer, contrast between cultivated land and parched areas adjacent is stark.

Every town is dominated by a church tower.

The houses in the area use a distinctive style of chimney pot. Here's a forest of the things.

In the town of Trevelez, the main employment is in curing and drying hams brought from all over Spain.

Many houses are covered with potted flowers.

This path was the main way between a couple of villages as the street lighting makes obvious.

The harshness of the landscape contrasts with the cleanliness and order of the towns. I was fascinated.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The uses of terror

For anyone not paying attention -- and how many in the United States have been paying attention during our own last decade of inept imperial blundering? -- Russian journalist Masha Gessen's The Man without a Face: the unlikely rise of Vladimir Putin is eye opening. Unhappily, the book also triggers comparisons with some of our country's gyrations. Faltering empires apparently trod well worn paths.

The President (and sometime Prime Minister) Putin about whom Gessen writes is a rather limited apparatchik who seized on the opportunity created by the collapse of the Soviet Union to grasp power and wealth for himself. He's not a man of ideas or beliefs.

Like most Soviet citizens of his generation, Putin was never a political idealist. His parents may or may not have believed in a Communist future for all the world, in the ultimate triumph of justice for the proletariat, or any of the other ideological cliches that had been worn thin by the time Putin was growing up; he never even considered his relationship to any of these ideals. … Like other members of his generation, Putin replaced belief in communism, which no longer seemed plausible or even possible, with faith in institutions. His loyalty was to the KGB and to the empire it served and protected: the USSR.

Insofar as this thuggish character has objectives beyond collecting the most toys in good capitalist fashion, they apparently consist of restoring the Russian empire's lost glories.

Gessen believes -- and adds to -- the evidence that shows that the Russian secret police were responsible for a series of awful bombings of apartment blocks in 1999. These bombings scared Russians into supporting Putin in his first election. The terror unleashed by the explosions

… could have been used to elect anyone: if enough blood was shed, any previously unknown, faceless, and unqualified candidate could become president.

The bombings created support for reinvigorating the project that Gorbachev and Yeltsin had wound down of suppressing Russia's restive Chechen Muslim minority, a task Putin has brutally pursued. Gessen is not willing to say Putin's secret service carried out the 2002 Moscow theater hostage crisis or the 2004 Beslan school occupation and massacre. Much as I never thought Dick Cheney had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks, she thinks Putin merely used Chechen attacks for his own ends. That is, she's not a "truther," she's a "delighter." Terror served these rulers' purposes of social control.

One thing is certain: once the hostage taking [at the Moscow theater and the Beslan school] occurred, the government task forces acting under Putin’s direct supervision did everything to ensure that the crises ended as horrifyingly as possible -- to justify continuing warfare in Chechnya and further crackdowns on the media and opposition in Russia, and, finally, to quell any possible criticism from the West, which, after 9/11, was obligated to recognize in Putin a fellow fighter against Islamic terrorism. There is a reason that Russian troops in both Moscow and Beslan acted in ways that maximized bloodshed; they actually aimed to maximize the fear and the horror. This is the classic modus operandi of terrorists and in this sense it certainly can be said that Putin and the terrorists were acting in concert.

The terror threat has legitimized the ongoing rule of the “Party of Crooks and Thieves” as some Russians call Putin's ruling group.

Gessen has lived the painful trajectory of the Russian state for the last 25 years and her book contains fascinating glimpses of the feelings those changes unleashed. During the brief democratic "spring" in the early '90s, those who had once been dissident outsiders experienced an ecstasy of new liberty. She quotes Yelena Zelinskaya, a purveyor of samizdat under Gorbachev and later the vice-president of the Media Union, on the changes.

"We could no longer breathe among the lies, the hypocrisy, and the stupidity. There was no fear. And as soon as the first rays of light seemed to break through -- as soon as people whose hands had been tied were allowed to move a few fingers -- people started to move. People weren’t thinking about money or about improving their standing in life; all anyone thought about was freedom. Freedom to conduct your private life as you wish, freedom to travel and see the world. Freedom from hypocrisy and freedom not to listen to hypocrisy; freedom from libel, freedom from feeling ashamed for one’s parents, freedom from the vicious lies we were all of us submerged in as in in molasses."

With Putin's ascent to power, the sparks were gradually extinguished:

Something shifted, instantly and perceptibly, as though the sounds of the new/old Soviet/Russian national anthem had signaled the dawn of a new era for everyone. Soviet instincts, it seemed, had kicked in all over the country, and the Soviet Union was instantly restored in spirit.

Nonetheless, popular protest against the sense of stifled life of civil society keeps breaking out. She describes a demonstration of thousands in 2011:

If you have spent years feeling as if your views are shared by only a few of your closest friends, being surrounded by tens of thousands of like-minded people really does feel like hearing a million funny jokes at once.

Any of us who've struggled to drag our own countries in a more just and peaceful direction know that feeling.

The Man without a Face is a fascinating, both inspiriting and depressing, window on contemporary Russia -- perhaps not a total picture, but a necessary glimpse.
As I read Gessen's book, I kept thinking, the woman writing this is a lesbian. There are hints in the text, references to the partner with whom Gessen is raising children, but mostly this was my "gaydar" working. I was correct according to Wikipedia. Since this book came out, Gessen has had difficulties with her employment. She writes occasional reportage for Western media. Given the anti-gay panic currently being used by the Russian regime to rally nationalist excitement, I can only hope Gessen and other Russian gays weather this new storm that follows on so many others. Many of us in the West are more likely to pay attention to these abuses than we have to Putin's increasingly deadening polity.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Revolution: "a long process of social and political transformation"

The news out of Egypt is grim, painful. I trust very little of what I read or hear reported. I know I don't know what is going on. But in this moment of bloodshed, military violence and apparent religious and social polarization in that country, I remember something suggested by the editors of the Middle East Research and Information Project (MERIP) over a month ago:

Was the gathering of millions in Egypt on June 30 the continuation of a revolution or the occasion for a coup d’état? The answer is “both,” but the question is not the right one to ask.

There is, first of all, no necessary contradiction between the two terms. All of the revolutions in human history have involved the overthrow of heads of state by force or the threat thereof. The revolutionaries, whether they wield weapons themselves or not, must commandeer a portion of the state’s army or persuade the soldiers to lay down their arms. The French Revolution -- the canonical model -- took nearly a century to complete, during which period there were three republics with three different constitutions, two empires, two restored monarchs and plenty of interceding events that might be called “coups” and “counter-revolutions.” …

… there remains ample reason to believe that [the Egyptian military's] coup is a moment in a long process of social and political transformation that will continue for years to come. … 

Democratic social revolution as a series of struggles, a long process … I'd say the idea is almost "un-American." In this country, we are raised on a fantasy of a single "revolutionary" moment in 1776 that led to the establishment for all time of a perfect system of government that has endured without much trouble ever since.

This is nonsense of course.

Most obviously, U.S. society and governance was shaped by a brutal civil war to end slavery. This war extended citizenship to all males born here -- and killed some 750,000 combatants -- out of a total population of some 32 million. It too was part of our revolution.

The successive struggles of the excluded -- men without property, religious dissenters, women, people of color, gays -- for full citizenship have left less obtrusive death tolls, though they've cost plenty of lives. We've made a lot of progress.

And those struggles aren't over. There are forces that are doing their damnedest to shove most everyone but rich white men out of political participation. (See my friend Bob Wing's current summary.) This country's "revolution" isn't complete -- it isn't even over.

Neither is Egypt's.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Warming Wednesdays: eco-skies?

Last night we flew west across three time zones and I'm a little blurry this morning.

United Airlines offered this before take-off. I thought it was interesting.

Two observations:
  • United knows the company's future well-being depends on carbon reduction and fuel efficiency. We're not talking altruism here; we're talking costs -- and sustainability. But motives don't count. Actions do.
  • United believes that it will get props from customers when it tells us about this. I trust that means that market research has shown that, despite partisan protestations, more of us than not do support measures to avert the worst of global warming. Good.
It's ain't that inspiring, but this is what progress looks like.

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

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

What to do with the NSA?

Stephen Walt, the international relations professor, has a good idea.

Use the NSA's vast trove of phone information to put [robocallers] out of business.

That would certainly improve the quality of life for those holding on to a landline.

I’ve got another idea, one that might change many things about the nation. Get rid of voter registration.

Once upon a time, forcing people to sign up with the local authorities in a new locality before they could vote made a certain amount of sense. But no longer. We have the technological capacity to enumerate the population and automatically qualify all adult citizens to vote at their current addresses. “They” already know where we are … I mean, come on.

The hurdles in the way of universal, automatic, voter registration are artifacts of the previous technological era. Yes, where some people want to make it hard for some people (usually young, poor, and black or brown people) to vote, these are convenient artifacts. But voter registration should more and more come to be seen as an anachronism, a relic of past times.

I wonder how long it will be before this becomes obvious? States, like even enormous California, that trust their state databases to enable election day registration are on the right track.

Get to work, re-invented NSA!

H/t for graphic Electronic Frontier Foundation

Looming lobsters

The lobster painted on the side of Stanley Larson's Fish Mart in Menemsha, MA is big.

But that one has nothing on this sculpture alongside the harbor in Barcelona.

That's more crustacean than I ever want to meet.
Travel day today, home to San Francisco. May blog more enroute -- or not.