Friday, February 28, 2014

Fast for Families Bus Tour Across America

Last fall, immigrants and their advocates fasted in front of the US capital asking for Congressional action. Now Fast for Families is carrying their campaign to enact commonsense immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship across the country on a bus tour to the home districts of key Congressmembers. They set off in two buses from Los Angeles on Monday
Travelers Dae Joong Yoon and Rudy Lopez
Thursday the tour made a stop in San Francisco at Congresswomen Nancy Pelosi's district office.

Lopez listens to South Bay activists from the Catholic Archdiocese and SIREN.
In the evening they met with a broadly representative array of area immigrants' rights advocates at St. John the Evangelist in the Mission.

The people lay hands on the touring party.
The people gathered round the travelers to bless them on their way.

Anyone can express support for the Fast for Life by signing on to skip a meal each Wednesday during the Christian season of Lent from Ash Wednesday, March 5, through the tour's conclusion in DC on April 9.

You can enter your pledge to fast at this link.

Thursday, February 27, 2014


I've been writing here for nine years. Nine years! This week, I'm feeling a little tired of it all, but I hope that may pass. Here are a few thoughts on some changes since 2005-- some for better and some for worse.

In the world and empire at large

My fellow Amuricans have gotten heartily tired of imperial wars. That hasn't stopped our rulers from killing people in other countries, but it has restrained them from sending US troops to do the dirty work. Besides killing people, theirs and ours, these adventures have been bankrupting us. And the US certainly doesn't "win" the aftermath -- no wonder we're war weary.

People in the US are probably also less secure in many respects, having given millions of people more urgent reasons to hate us. But hey, we're still behind some big oceans. …

At home: economic and democratic discontents
The US and European casino economies crashed and burned in 2008, causing widespread insecurity and misery. Though by accident of geography I live at the epicenter of a tech boom and see its consequences daily, for most people economic prospects have not recovered. It's a dreary time to be an ordinary person. Meanwhile we continue to proliferate plutocrats who somehow missed out on the lessons about sharing and responsibility for community in kindergarten.

Our Constitutional system is not weathering technological and social storms very well. We're spied upon without meaningful restraint, because our rulers can. Right wing politicians and courts are warping the legal system to privilege money, illiberal religion, and inherited class status.

On the other hand, the demographic changes that are the prerequisites for meaningful change within our democracy -- such as it is -- march on. It was obvious from the early 1990s that white anxiety about losing our majority status in California was driving a series of increasingly desperate measures affirmed by an aging shrinking majority to retard the advance of Those People -- African Americans, Latinos, Others. And then, rather suddenly, the 40 percent of the white electorate that wanted peace and prosperity more than cultural dominance joined with emerging voters of color and BINGO! -- Republicans in California became vestigial, no more significant than an appendix, though sometimes becoming gangrenous.

What this means in California is that policy fights take place within the Democratic party, not so much between the political parties these days. (See also the Mike Honda/Ro Khanna Congressional race this year: both Dems, both of "Asian" ancestry, one the candidate of traditional Democratic voters, the other of Silicon Valley venture capitalists.)

Nationally, the emergence of the new, more brown, majority means that we can elect a Black Democratic president -- who'd have foreseen that in 2005? Not many of us. Yet Obama's two elections have stimulated creative open expression of the nation's historic racism. The NRA's open gun carry project, abetted by rightwing Supremes plus "Stand Your Ground" laws, makes for what seems open season on young men of color. We can't seem to do right by our underclass of immigrant workers upon whom we depend for the country's dirty work. And in many states (usually those of the old Confederacy and friends) posturing about nullification of federal authority or even secession seems popular.

If the country follows the trajectory of California, and I think most of it will, unevenly, haltingly and grudgingly, we can anticipate a time, coming sooner than we now imagine, when a plural society without a single dominant demographic becomes simply who we are.

Unsticking a homophobic consensus
No shit -- it looks like gay people are well on our way to being normalized in this country -- though certainly NOT everywhere in the world. We even got married right here in this house, after 34 years … I sure never thought in 2005 that would happen in the next decade.

I worked in these vineyards some during the last nine years and learned something important and perhaps little recognized. Sometime about a dozen years ago, some smart LGBT leaders convinced some smart funders that work among religious people to (at least) reduce knee jerk antigay sentiments would have a huge payoff for winning gay equality. It's hard to assemble money behind a relatively novel strategic insight, but they were right. There came to be (some small) funding for work in the more approachable religious denominations and even on the fringe of more hostile ones. And when people met people and were reminded of the injunctions of their own best angels, good things happened. Among my Episcopalians, we pretty much went whole hog for full inclusion of all God's children. Other religious bodies may not have quite gone there -- and some probably went further sooner -- but lots of religious people, the people in the business of putting out social and moral norms, got a lot more used to having LGBT folks about. Why we even came out in their families!

The result of all this agitation was to bring a new force to bear in the to-and-fro of this social and political arena. And it was the arrival of a new force, not an enormous one, but a novel one, that gave a big push to move concerns that had been buried or stuck for a long time.

I think any of us who hope to move anything in society can learn from this, as I did. Actually the lesson was right in front of me, but it took the trajectory toward rising acceptance of my people to pound it into my thick head. In order to change society/politics/cultures, some new force has to be introduced to overcome the inertia of "how it has always been." The Right did this in the 1980s by turning apolitical evangelical Christians into engaged reactionary voters. Liberals are doing this whenever we work for increased political participation by the emerging majority of color. Gays found just the right allies by enlisting the closest thing our society has to moral arbitrators.

Getting older
Yes, I'm doing that and so is the population. And it looks as though I'm going to put some energy into exploring the political implications of being a member of the increasing large elders' category.

I do think my lessons of the last few years are profoundly relevant here. Old white people are the bedrock constituency for bad outcomes in today's United States. But hey -- I am one. Those of us who think differently need to explore what makes us different and whether there is anything we can do to peel a few more of our cohort away from the politics of fear and distrust. We don't have to win everyone, just reduce the reactionary impulse at the margins. That could be enough to help a lot in the current configuration of forces.

And the Democrats need to get over it with offering cuts in the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid benefits we and our parents paid for. This is a no brainer. There's money in this country to pay the bills; get it from the plutocrats, not grandma.

Our over-heating planet
A friend responded to yesterday's post about global warming: "Please tell us what to do to stop this clock."

I don't merit that kind of confidence. I don't know the answer. We need to bring new forces into this struggle. There are people -- especially oil and coal barons like the Koch Brothers -- who literally profit from heating up the planet. Most of us don't want to carry a constant consciousness that our very own, often comfortable, capitalist civilization is abetting future disaster. But it is. And we, together, have to stop this.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

There's a new widget on the sidebar here ...

I mean that maroon thing headlined "Nowhere to hide ..." right below the archive list.  It's designed to visually demonstrate how rapidly the earth is accumulating heat from the greenhouse effect that human emissions of carbon dioxide gas have stimulated. According to the folks from Skeptical Science:

The earth has warmed rapidly over the past century due mainly to human activity, and especially over the past few decades. The increased greenhouse effect has warmed the land and air and melted ice, but most of it (about 90%) has gone into heating the oceans. ... for recent decades the earth has been heating at a rate of 250 trillion Joules per second.

“Joules per second” is a difficult unit of measure to appreciate, and is especially foreign to people who are unfamiliar with science. This widget attempts to put that heating into terms that are easier to visualize. 250 trillion Joules per second is equivalent to:

  • Detonating four Hiroshima atomic bombs per second
  • Experiencing two Hurricane Sandys per second
  • Enduring four 6.0 Richter scale earthquakes per second
  • Being struck by 500,000 lightning bolts per second
  • Exploding more than eight Big Ben towers, with every inch packed full of dynamite, per second

Since I'm in San Francisco, I set up the widget to display the heat increase in "6.0 earthquake equivalents." I started the clock in 2005, because that's when I started this blog. By clicking on the icons at the bottom, you can see the other measures of heat energy. Under the "i" icon for each of them, you are led to further information.

Any way you measure it, we're emitting a lot of heat and if we don't slow and stop it, we can expect to fry.

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, February 25, 2014

Everyday talk

As we approach the end of another Black History Month, Fox News can go back to its usual habits.

Sure, this is a hit piece, but Fox sure offers its critics a big target.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Winter Olympics afterthought

The above chart ... looks at the average GINI coefficient per medal won. GINI is a measure of income distribution—the closer the number is to zero, the more equal the country is, and vice versa. What we see here is essentially the opposite of the per-capita G.D.P. rankings. Poorer countries may do better at figure skating and short-track skating, but they’re also more unequal places. Meanwhile, the most equal countries in the world are Scandinavian, and events they excel at, such as ski jumping and Nordic combined, have the lowest GINIs.

The New Yorker

I might have guessed that my smart ski-jumping friend out of working class Vermont was onto something.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Does Russia still matter?

Some very smart people think not.

At the end of day the Russia just doesn't matter that much in the early 21st century world, certainly not as an any sort of primary let alone existential threat to the United States. Constantly wondering whether there's going to be another Cold War is either based on ignorance or the continuing presence of people in the US who simply grew up with the Cold War and haven't ever been able to think outside of its constructs and thus, paradoxically, pine for it to come back.

That's Josh Marshall, purveyor of liberal link-bait at Talking Points Memo, but also a serious journalist with an historian's education and a sharp eye for world trends.

The combination of the Sochi Olympics, Russia's escalating crack down on dissenters and its gay people, and the upheaval in Ukraine that inherently involves its huge neighbor has awakened contrary voices seeking to overcome the US media's dismissive attitude toward Russia. Most prominently on the loosely left, publishing in the Nation magazine, has been Stephen F. Cohen, professor emeritus of Russian studies and politics at New York University.

The degradation of mainstream American press coverage of Russia, a country still vital to US national security, has been under way for many years. If the recent tsunami of shamefully unprofessional and politically inflammatory articles in leading newspapers and magazines—particularly about the Sochi Olympics, Ukraine and, unfailingly, President Vladimir Putin—is an indication, this media malpractice is now pervasive and the new norm.

...the most crucial media omission is Moscow’s reasonable conviction that the struggle for Ukraine is yet another chapter in the West’s ongoing, US-led march toward post-Soviet Russia, which began in the 1990s with NATO’s eastward expansion and continued with US-funded NGO political activities inside Russia, a US-NATO military outpost in Georgia and missile-defense installations near Russia.

..And what of Barack Obama’s decision to send only a low-level delegation, including retired gay athletes, to Sochi? In August, Putin virtually saved Obama’s presidency by persuading Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to eliminate his chemical weapons. Putin then helped to facilitate Obama’s heralded opening to Iran.

The first two paragraphs above seem to me a necessary corrective to US arrogance toward Russia, as does Cohen's contention that President Putin rescued Obama from starting his very own dumb war in Syria last fall. But that bit about the US Sochi delegation -- it smacks of the left's historic admonition to women and people of color and gays to postpone their self-assertion while the white boys get on with the important things …

However I remembered Professor Cohen as one of the very few interesting voices in our media writing in the 1980s about Russia's Gorbachev era, so I decided to get hold of his more recent book, Soviet Fates and Lost Alternatives: From Stalinism to the New Cold War and see where he was coming from. I found a lot to ponder. Cohen writes about a series of turning points when different choices might have resulted in a different Russia, beginning with Buhkarin's alternative path to that set for communism by Stalin, through Khrushchev's incomplete "thaw" of the 1950s and 60s, and on into the Gorbachev reforms of the late 1980s and the subsequent break-up of the Soviet Union into its component states.

Cohen doesn't want any of us to forget how much Russians suffered from the break up of the Soviet system and its replacement by an oligarchic kleptocracy while US and European elites applauded.

The result was the worst economic and social catastrophe ever suffered by a major nation in peacetime. Russia sank into a corrosive economic depression greater than that of the American 1930s. Investment plunged by 80 percent, GDP by almost 50 percent; some two-thirds of Russians were impoverished; the life expectancy of men fell below 59 years; and the population began to decline annually by almost a million people. In 1998, with nothing left to sustain it, despite several large Western loans, the Russian financial system collapsed. State and private banks defaulted on their domestic and foreign obligations, causing still more poverty and widespread misery.

The disaster shattered whatever post-Soviet consensus had existed about the nation's future. A new debate and political struggle began over what kind of economy was needed to save the country from further collapse and foster Russia's general development without its recurring episodes of "modernization through catastrophe," as many viewed the Stalinist 1930s and the Yeltsin 1990s.

It is not surprising that a people so traumatized didn't know where to turn. Cohen maintains that Russian experience, not only during the 20th century but also much older, has left its population open to looking to authoritarianism for stability.

Opinion surveys taken fifty-five years after Stalin died, a half a century after most survivors of his terror had returned, and nearly twenty years after the Soviet Union ended showed that the nation was almost evenly divided between those who thought Stalin had been a "wise leader" and those who thought he was an "inhuman tyrant," with pro-Stalin views no less widespread among young Russians.

Those findings mean that the struggle in Russia's political life (and soul) over the significance of the Stalin era, which is as much about the nation's present and future as about its past, is not over. …

… it would be a mistake to think that the Soviet system over seven decades, or Sovietism, was nothing more than the Moscow state and its ruling Party. It was also a political civilization with defining features, including collectivist economic attitudes, popular concepts of social justice, authoritarian rulership, and bureaucratic practices that had deep roots in Russia's pre-Communist history. If Soviet Communism had simply been imposed on Russia, as many Western and Russian commentators maintained after 1991… the nation should have quickly escaped its twentieth-century past. That, of course, did not happen.

Meanwhile, "the West" -- meaning Bill Clinton and successor US leaders -- has in Cohen's telling engaged in a foolish triumphalism that has helped ensure that Russia's evolution has been toward an authoritarian internal system and a xenophobic posture.

The new cold war and the squandering of the post-Soviet peace began not in Moscow but in Washington.

  • A growing military encirclement of Russia, on and near its borders, by US and NATO bases, which by August 2008 were already ensconced or being planned in at least half the fourteen other former Soviet republics, from the Baltics and Ukraine to Georgia, Azerbaijan, and the new states of Central Asia. ...
  • A tacit (and closely related) U.S. denial that Russia has any legitimate security concerns outside its own territory, even in ethnically akin or contiguous former Soviet republics such as Ukraine, Belarus, and Georgia. ...
  • a presumption that Russia does not have full sovereignty within its own borders, as expressed by constant U.S. interventions in Moscow's internal affairs since 1992. …
  • familiar Cold War double standards condemning Moscow for doing what Washington does -- such as seeking allies and military bases in former Soviet republics, using its assets (oil and gas in Russia's case) as aid to friendly governments, regulating foreign money in its political life, and recognizing secessionist territories after using force to abet them. …
  • the United States has been attempting, by exploiting Russia's weakness, to acquire the nuclear superiority it could not achieve during the Soviet era [by repudiating the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and installing missile defenses in Poland and the Czech Republic.] ...
  • Above all, the growing presence of NATO and American bases and U.S.-backed governments in the former Soviet republics moved the "front lines" of the conflict, in the alarmed words of a Moscow newspaper, from the epicenter of the previous Cold War in Germany to Russia's "near abroad." ...

That last item certainly catches what Moscow has been saying about Ukraine over this eventful weekend.

So what? Does Russia still matter? Cohen answers an emphatic "yes," for reasons of US security as well as out of humane concern for what happens to Russians.

As long as catastrophic possibilities exist in that nation, so do the unprecedented threats to U.S. and international security. Experts differ as to which danger is the gravest -- the proliferation of Russia's enormous stockpiles of nuclear, chemical, and biological materials, all of which are sought by terrorist organizations; poorly maintained nuclear reactors on land and on decommissioned submarines; an impaired early-warning system controlling nuclear missiles on hair-trigger alert; or a repetition of the first-ever civil war in a shattered superpower, the terror-ridden Chechen conflict. But no one should doubt that together they constitute a much greater constant threat than any the United States faced during the Soviet era. If nothing else, the widespread assumption that the danger of a nuclear apocalypse ended with the Soviet state is a myth. …

… [When US politicians like John McCain and Dick Cheney chatter about 'regime change,"] they seem indifferent to what it might actually mean --- if not political chaos, even civil war, certainly not a "regime" of their anointed Russian "democrats," who lack any meaningful popular support in the country, but of forces much more repressive, nationalistic, and uncompromising than those represented by Putin.

Is Cohen right and Marshall wrong? I certainly don't have the answer.

But as the excitement of watching people rise up in Ukraine and apparently chasing out a kleptocrat grips us (wonder if the departed President Yanukovych was BFF with Jamie Dimon?) it would behoove us to have a somewhat more sophisticated picture of the region. Professor Cohen provides one set of nuances.

There are others -- for example this article by Yale professor Timothy Snyder which offers a passionate description of the breadth of the Ukrainian protest and insists it represents a native Ukrainian turn away from Russian domination.

The protesters represent every group of Ukrainian citizens: Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers (although most Ukrainians are bilingual), people from the cities and the countryside, people from all regions of the country, members of all political parties, the young and the old, Christians, Muslims, and Jews. Every major Christian denomination is represented by believers and most of them by clergy. The Crimean Tatars march in impressive numbers, and Jewish leaders have made a point of supporting the movement. The diversity of the Maidan is impressive: the group that monitors hospitals so that the regime cannot kidnap the wounded is run by young feminists. An important hotline that protesters call when they need help is staffed by LGBT activists.

As the author of the magisterial history of the area in 20th century --Bloodlands-- Snyder undoubtedly knows the terrain and the languages. But his sanguine picture of the Ukrainian uprising -- will he be correct? or will Ukraine turn out more like what Cohen fears?

Guess the Ukrainians and Russians will have to work that out -- presumably with massive meddling from Europe and the U.S. if this declining empire still has the capacity. One thing I am sure of: people in the United States are much more eager to spend the nation's resources on improving life at home than on Russia's frontiers, whatever lingering resentment and fear we carry from the Cold War era.

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: Loma Alta Open Space

Last week we went for a walk in Marin. We encountered various wildlife.

Beyond that gate there was a quizzical cow -- actually many more than one, but this was one of the closest.

A turkey vulture explores the road.

These scavengers are magnificent in flight. That wing span is at least 5 feet across.

Since it was Marin, it was no surprise that there were also these critters.

Friday, February 21, 2014

Can we recognize the best of times ...

... as well as contemplate the worst of times?

More people have seen their lives improve more quickly in the past few decades than perhaps at any time in human history. In 1990, more than 40 percent of the world lived in extreme poverty. By 2015, the World Bank predicts, the figure will be just 16 percent. Among people who work in global development, the goal of eradicating extreme poverty by 2030 is now controversial because it’s not considered ambitious enough.

As extreme poverty has fallen, so too has child mortality. The number of children dying before their fifth birthday has declined by about a third since 1990. This is in part because of extraordinary progress in fighting diseases that prey on the young. India, for instance, just celebrated its third year without a single case of polio.

Rapid development in China, and India is among the best news in the history of the human race. It will also profoundly alter the U.S. role in the world -- and its sense of mission and place -- as the century wears on. The U.S. will not be, and should not be, the world’s largest economy for long. That shift will be accompanied by loss of the pre-eminence in global affairs that the U.S. has known -- and exploited -- since World War II.

Ezra Klein, Bloomberg View, 2/19/2014

I like to try to remember this when I contemplate a world full of violence and danger.

Klein goes on to point out that anything can happen. And his picture doesn't include abrupt climate change, as it should. Still ... a lot less children are dying.

Friday cat blogging

I heard a rustle behind my head. There he was, atop a cabinet.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

San Francisco comings and goings

The picture shows parts of San Francisco, centered on the Mission and Bernal areas. Those blank spaces in the lower of center portion of the image: think Bernal hill and Holly Park.

I snagged the map from James Fallows. Here's his explanation:

The green dots on the maps are the neighborhoods and cities expected to grow rapidly by 2017; the blue shows "average" growth rates; and the magenta dots show areas that people are leaving.

... This map was prepared by Jim Herries at the mapping firm Esri, our partner in this project, and it offers a very fine-grained look at expected "population pressures" over the next few years.

That won't come as any surprise to anyone living in contemporary San Francisco. The city's population is churning madly in response to healthy tech companies enabling their workers to use the city as a bedroom community.

I do wonder though about that magenta rectangle in the Mission. Were densities so high among immigrant and other low wage workers in that sector (think apartments where single rooms were rented to whole families) that upscaling the neighborhood reduces population? Perhaps.

Here's the same mapping technique applied to the whole country, again from Fallows. Anyone interested can do what I've done above at his post, zeroing on an area of particular interest.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Awesome ad

Worth watching, even if you've never thought of visiting Louisville, Kentucky.

These people are not actors. The dad was fired for appearing in this.

Warming Wednesdays: New York Times obfuscation

That's the headline in a recent Times article. Here are the 7th and 8th paragraphs of the story:

California has been warming along with most regions of the United States, and temperatures in recent months have been markedly higher than during the 1976-77 drought. In fact, for some of the state’s most important agricultural regions, summer lasted practically into January, with high temperatures of 10 or 15 degrees above normal on some days.

The consequence, scientists say, has been that any moisture the state does get evaporates more rapidly, intensifying the effects of the drought on agriculture in particular. “We are going through a pattern we’ve seen before, but we’re doing it in a warmer environment,” said Michael Anderson, the California state climatologist.

That is, the drought as we are living it, is unequivocally shaped by climate change. What is in doubt is how much of this particular drought's origins and effects should be attributed to periodic variations and how much to the incontestable reality of global warming. That human-induced general temperature increases are playing a role is simply not in doubt.

The headline is willfully misleading.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Four Reasons Why Torture (Still) Matters

Reprinted with thanks to Rebecca Gordon from WarTime/Tiempo de Guerras.

1. It’s still happening.
Shortly after his first inauguration in 2009, President Obama issued an executive order forbidding torture and closing the CIA’s so-called “black sites.” But the order didn’t end “extraordinary rendition” – the practice of sending prisoners to other countries to be tortured. (This is actually illegal under the U.N. Convention against Torture, which the United States signed in 1994.) And it didn’t close the prison at Guantánamo, where to this day, prisoners are held in solitary confinement.

Periodic hunger strikes are met with brutal force feeding. Samir Naji al Hasan Moqbel described the experience in a New York Times op-ed in April 2013:

I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.

The CIA’s black sites may (or may not) have been shut down, but we don’t have any idea what is going on in the detention centers run by the Joint Special Operations Command, especially in parts of Africa. (See Jeremy Scahill’s excellent Dirty Wars for more on this.)

Nor did Obama’s order end torture in another place where it is a daily occurrence, hidden in plain sight: U.S. prisons. It is no accident that the Army reservists responsible for the outrages at Abu Ghraib worked as prison guards in civilian life. As Spec. Charles A. Graner wrote in an email home, about his work at Abu Ghraib, “The Christian in me says it’s wrong, but the corrections officer in me says, “I love to make a grown man piss himself.”

Solitary confinement and the ever-present threat of rape are just two forms of institutionalized torture so commonly suffered by the people who make up the world’s largest prison population. The most recent Guantánamo hunger strikes just happened to coincide with similar actions by people held in solitary confinement in California’s high security prisons.

2. We still don’t have a full, official accounting.
As yet we have no official government accounting of how the United States has used torture in the “war on terror.” This is partly because so many different agencies, clandestine and otherwise, have been involved in one way or another. The Senate Intelligence Committee has written a 6,000-page report just on the CIA’s involvement, which has never been made public. Nor has the Committee been able to shake loose the CIA’s own report on its interrogation program. Most of what we do know is the result of leaks, and the dogged work of dedicated journalists and human rights lawyers. But we have nothing official, on the level, say, of the 1972 Church Committee.

Frustrated because both Congress and the Obama administration were unwilling to demand a full accounting, a blue-ribbon bipartisan committee produced their own damning report. Members included former DEA head Asa Hutchinson, former FBI chief William Sessions, and former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering. The report reached two important conclusions: 1) “[I] t is indisputable that the United States engaged in the practice of torture,” and, “[T] he nation’s highest officials bear some responsibility for allowing and contributing to the spread of torture.”

3. No high-level officials have been held accountable for U.S. torture.
Only low-level soldiers like Charles Graner and Lynndie England have done jail time for prisoner abuse in the “war on terror.” None of the “highest officials” (people like Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, and George W. Bush) have faced any consequences for their part in a program of institutionalized state torture. Early in his first administration, President Obama argued that “nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past,” but this is not true. Laying blame for the past (and the present) is a precondition for preventing torture in the future, because it would represent a public break with the practice. What “will be gained” is the possibility of developing a public consensus that the United States should not practice torture any longer. Such a consensus about torture does not exist today
4. Tolerating torture turns us into a nation of cowards.
We tend to think of torture as a set of isolated actions – things desperate people do under desperate circumstances. But institutionalized state torture is really an ongoing, socially-embedded practice. It requires an infrastructure and training. It has its own history, traditions, and rituals of initiation. And – importantly – it creates particular ethical habits in those who practice it, and in any democratic nation that allows it.

Since the brutal attacks of 9/11/2001, people in this country have been encouraged to be afraid. Knowing that our government has been forced to torture people in order to keep us safe confirms the belief that each of us must be in terrible danger, a danger from which only that same government can protect us. There is a word for the moral attitude that sets personal safety as its highest value; the word is cowardice. If as a nation do not act to end torture, we do not demand a full accounting and full accountability, we risk becoming a nation of cowards.

Rebecca Gordon is a WarTimes collective member, and author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States, coming in May from Oxford University Press.

Monday, February 17, 2014

She says it is like flying

I haven't been able to get into the Sochi Olympics -- guess I can't get over that disheartened post I wrote last week about Russian homophobia and chauvinistic nationalism.

But I can share this video of my friend who may well find her way to the next Winter Olympics -- hard work and good luck willing. Enjoy (best viewed in full screen). Tara is also an up and coming bialthlete. Lots more about this emerging athlete here.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Crimes catalogued and documented

I thought I had a pretty comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the ignorant and shameful policies chosen by the leaders of the United States since 9/11. But though I've worked to keep up with ongoing revelations, and I'm certainly not uninformed, I now believe I was wrong. Jeremy Scahill's new book, Dirty Wars: The World Is a Battlefield, paints a panoramic picture of murder, arrogance, desperation and folly. For the moment, until additional sources spill further dimensions of perfidy and evil as they well might, this is the definitive account of our global "war on terror." Certainly see the movie, but if you can stand to care, you do need to read the book.

Unavoidably, lots of us have some awareness of what an ongoing horror show the US invasion of Iraq made of that unhappy country. That war was a bloody imperial lie from start to finish. And, painfully, we've gotten to the point that a majority of us think the Afghanistan adventure wasn't worth the blood and treasure (not to mention the dead Afghans.) But other escapades of empire, especially those in Pakistan, Yemen and Somalia, have gotten less notice. Scahill's been there.

I found the sections on Somalia informative; somehow I'd missed a lot of this. The CIA took the lead in our war in that nation and apparently replicated its practice from Afghanistan, buying up shady, vicious warlords to attack other factions it considered Islamist threats. In retrospect, it is hard to see any of them as "good guys." When many Somalis rallied around a faction that threw these warlords out, the US hired the Ethiopian state to invade. When Somalis rose up against the Ethiopian occupation, the US picked up a new set of warlords and the small al Shabab Somali set signed on with al Qaeda. Along the line, US special military forces (the Joint Special Operations Command [JSOC] -- the guys who finally offed bin Laden) took over the bulk of Somali operations, as they have also the better known US drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen.

President Obama seems to have become a great fan of using JSOC to do his dirty work. This military force seemed such a clean, safe alternative to George W.'s blunderbuss style of empire. He got his introduction to JSOC's value in 2009 when Somali pirates seized the merchant ship Alabama and carried its captain off in a small boat.

The commander asked, 'Do I have your permission to execute?' And the President says "Yes you do." The commander gives his order.

Pop. Pop. pop. Three shots, fired almost at the exact same moment by three different snipers. Three dead Somali pirates.

Captain Richard Phillips was rescued and returned to the United States with much fanfare. President Obama won praise from across the political spectrum for his leadership in taking down the pirates and bringing an end to the hostage situation without losing a single US life and with just three bullets fired. Behind the scenes, it was a powerful lesson for President Obama about the clandestine force that President Bush had once praised as "awesome" -- JSOC.

JSOC had given a politically dangerous made-for-TV movie episode a politically advantageous outcome -- and Obama apparently realized a President possessed a ready-made weapon controlled by him as Commander in Chief to replace George W.'s "dumb wars."

Scahill goes on to tell the story of our drone wars in Pakistan and Yemen and of the administration's embrace of targeted assassination, including of US citizens. The account is detailed and depressing and, like Mark Mazzetti's book on the CIA role, leaves me wondering how real a threat truly exists if so much energy can have been wasted on bureaucratic chest bumping over who got which piece of the action.
For me, one of the most significant parts of Scahill's story is the reconstruction of what US forces, under the JSOC mantle, did at Camp NAMA near Baghdad during 2003-4. Though there have been numerous reports, there have been no consequences, no trials, no true accounting for this torture regime that didn't even serve any plausible military purpose.

The acronym NAMA stood for "Nasty-Ass Military Area," Its motto, as advertised in posters throughout the camp, was "No Blood, No Foul." A Defense Department official said it was a play on a task force adage: "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it."

… The task force at NAMA was run by lSOC, but it was built by pulling personnel from a variety of agencies and units. There were CIA and DIA interrogators, air force interrogators, and a variety of analysts and guards. "They told us we can't tell our chain of command about who works here or what [the task force] does. You're completely shut off. You can only discuss it amongst yourselves. That's what they told us from the very first day," recalled an interrogator who worked at Camp NAMA in 2003-2004. … Many of the members of the task force would grow long beards and seemed eager to make themselves look as frightening or intimidating as possible. "This is the dark side of the forces. This is the realm where you have essentially a cadre of folks who have a great deal of freedom. 'The folks that get to this level are treated with a certain amount of deference," Lieutenant Colonel Anthony Shaffer told me.

… The harsh interrogation methods that were being refined in black sites and in Afghanistan were to be unleashed in Iraq. "There were two reasons why these interrogations were so persistent, and why extreme methods were used," said a former senior intelligence official. "The main one is that everyone was worried about some kind of follow-up attack [after 9/11] But for most of 2002 and into 2003, Cheney and Rumsfeld, especially, were also demanding proof of the links between al Qaida and Iraq that [former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed] Chalabi and others had told them were there." … Each morning, the crisis action team had to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier. One official quoted him as saying, 'They must be there!' At one briefing, he picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers," according to [journalist Rowan] Scarborough.

… The JSOC Task Force did not categorize Camp NAMA as a prison but rather as a "filtration site" where intelligence was being obtained. This gave cover for all the dirty activity and the secrecy that shrouded it. … The interrogations … often incorporated extremely loud music, strobe lights, beatings, environmental and temperature manipulation, sleep deprivation, twenty-hour interrogation sessions, water and stress positions, and personal, often sexual, humiliation. The forced nudity of prisoners was not uncommon. Almost any act was permissible against the detainees as long as it complied with the "No Blood, No Foul" motto. But, eventually, even blood was okay.

One former prisoner -- the son of one of Saddam's bodyguards -- said he was made to strip, was punched repeatedly in the spine until he fainted, was doused with cold water and forced to stand in front of the air-conditioner and kicked in the stomach until he vomited. Prisoners held at other facilities also described heinous acts committed against them by interrogators and guards, including sodomizing detainees with foreign objects, beating them, forcing water up their rectums and using extreme dietary manipulation-nothing but bread and water for more than two weeks in one case.

Members of the task force would beat prisoners with rifle butts and spit in their faces. One member of the task force reported that he had heard interrogators "beating the shit out of the detainee." According to a former interrogator with the task force, one of his colleagues was "reprimanded and assigned to desk duty because he pissed in a bottle and gave it to a detainee to drink." Members of the task force would also interrupt non harsh interrogations and begin slapping or beating detainees. On at least one occasion, they abducted the wife of a suspected insurgent being hunted by the task force "to leverage the primary target's surrender." The woman was a twenty-eight-year-old mother of three who was still nursing her six month-old baby.

…The abuse and torture at Camp NAMA was not an anomaly, but rather a model. When the US government began probing how the shocking horrors meted out against prisoners at Abu Ghraib happened, how it all began, the investigation revealed that those running the prison had looked to the example set at Camp NAMA, Guantanamo and at Bagram in Afghanistan.

President Obama says "we don't torture." That's dubious; we certainly do still "render" prisoners to other countries to torture and hold others in uncharged military detention. There has been no accountability for the intellectual authors who ordered these crimes, even if we were to choose to let the actual perpetrators off the hook as dupes of authority. The stain lingers.
I should mention that Jeremy Scahill is practicing journalism these days along with Glenn Greenwald, Laura Poitras and others at The Intercept.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Francisco valentines

As I walk San Francisco precincts with my camera, I've been struck by how often the little alterations people make to their environments fix on "love." This time of year there are the obvious Valentine's Day references like this heart, but "love" occurs many forms in all seasons. 

 On a garden fence ...

In a car ...

Stenciled on the sidewalk ...

Embedded in the sidewalk ...

Quizzical ...

Perhaps a little desparate ...

Elaborately proclaimed.

For more of my photographic finds, drop by 596 Precincts.

Friday, February 14, 2014

Apparently Valentine impeded raising an imperial army

On February 14 around the year 278 A.D., Valentine, a holy priest in Rome in the days of Emperor Claudius II, was executed.

Under the rule of Claudius the Cruel, Rome was involved in many unpopular and bloody campaigns. The emperor had to maintain a strong army, but was having a difficult time getting soldiers to join his military leagues. Claudius believed that Roman men were unwilling to join the army because of their strong attachment to their wives and families.

To get rid of the problem, Claudius banned all marriages and engagements in Rome. Valentine, realizing the injustice of the decree, defied Claudius and continued to perform marriages for young lovers in secret.

History Network

Claudius disposed of the disobedient Valentine, brutally. It's not at all clear anything like this ever happened, but it makes a nice legend for our Valentine's Day.
The Rev. Giles Fraser contributed a contemporary mediation for the day to the Guardian, titled "Love has been privatised, and it cannot be brought back into public ownership."

... Israeli academic Eva Illouz ... argues, that slippery word 'love' has become a nest of personal fretfulness because it has lost its social bearings. ... fewer people are trapped in unhappy marriages, but more people are left to shoulder the successes and failures of their own love life, being thus obliged to look deeper into themselves and their own personal psychology for whatever romantic failures they encounter. This has become, Illouz argues, a modern form of self-torture. When things don't work out, or one is alone, or one doesn't have a date for the big night, it becomes a personal failing, a matter of individual responsibility. ...

... Love requires a broader social infrastructure than the one provided by individual feelings. In other words, when it comes to understanding love, we need less psychology and more sociology. I guess this is why some still argue for the success of arranged marriages. After all, the success rate of love matches is hardly anything to write home about.

But here's the thing. Though I nod along to all this intellectually, I don't really believe a word of it emotionally. I'm not sure there is any way of taking love back into public ownership. Privatisation has been too successful. Yes, when we turn love into some sort of deregulated market then the failures of our romantic attachments inevitably point back to some personal failure within me – just like financial success.

Even as we send each other hearts and chocolates, 'love' remains a political matter, as it was in Valentine's era.

H/t the Lead for the Fraser article.

Friday cat blogging

We got tired of having Morty destroy the furniture. So we got him his own house.

He been gingerly about the new digs, but I caught him here the other day.

Thursday, February 13, 2014

Culturally appropriate signboard

Perhaps a little wistful. Spotted in Noe Valley neighborhood, San Francisco.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: a Chinese car share venture

This video is quite fascinating and worth watching. (You can turn off any ad that pops up by clicking the x.) Smart entrepreneurs are looking to meet rising demand for individual autos among China's growing middle class with a sophisticated urban electric vehicle sharing scheme. This extends the principle of bike share programs to cute little smart cars stored in vending machine-like garages.

It all looks like a great idea and might make China's notoriously smog-afflicted cities more liveable.

But such a program won't necessarily do anything about the quantity of invisible carbon pollution that growing Chinese affluence adds to the planet's CO2 load. China currently gets nearly 80 percent of its electricity from coal-fired plants and looks to be still getting 66 percent of a vastly larger quantity in 2040.

Emissions from burning coal are the most significant contributing factor in carbon pollution that is warming the globe. Yet the rest of us can hardly deny over a billion Chinese the conveniences we accept as necessities. That's the global bind.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Bye bye quaint old rules

Conor Friedersdorf at the Atlantic guesses how the Obama administration might rewrite the Fifth Amendment, the Constitutional provision usually construed as guaranteeing some kind of legal process before a citizen is killed by the state. Here's the new version:

No person shall be held to answer for a capital crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, or upon being declared a terrorist at a secret meeting. Nor shall any person be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, unless accused of terrorism by the executive branch. In that case neither charges nor evidence nor a trial nor any review by the legislature or the judiciary is needed. Being accused of terrorism, even by anonymous U.S. officials, shall be considered sufficient evidence of guilt.

Apparently the administration has a U.S. citizen in its sites and is leaking that it is preparing its legal rationale for blowing away the guy (and anyone around him) in some other country.

Should we expect a public demonization campaign? Possibly justified, but not the same as a trial. Or do they just figure nobody cares?

Just do it

Follow the link to find out how.

UPDATE: collective success!

Monday, February 10, 2014

All because an FBI agent checked the wrong box ...

… an innocent Malaysian professor was placed on the U.S. no-fly list, had her visa revoked and, when she reapplied to enter the U.S., received a denial with the word "terrorist" scribbled on the form. Dr Rahinah Ibrahim was a graduate student at Stanford in 2004 when she first found herself enmeshed in this Kafkaesque nightmare. She is now dean of architecture at Universiti Putra Malaysia.

Federal Judge William Alsup revealed the details that led to her listing in a heavily redacted opinion ordering U.S. authorities to remove all references to Ibrahim in their various terrorist databases. He apparently also ordered the U.S. to stop impeding travel by Dr. Ibrahim's U.S. citizen daughter, but the entirety of that part of his opinion is blacked out.

Dr. Ibrahim's is the first lawsuit that has successfully penetrated the mysteries of a post 9/11 government watch listing program and won a verdict requiring removal. Her result suggests that the government's insistence on concealing the process by which it assembles its lists may be as much about avoiding revelations of overreach or incompetence as about protecting us from people they believe are terrorists.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

Something I never thought I'd live to hear

Speaking before Sweden’s Parliament a few days ago, Mr. Holder called fighting for gay and lesbian rights one of “the defining civil rights challenges of our time.”

The remarks on Saturday by Mr. Holder, the first black attorney general, cast the gay-rights movement as a continuation of the civil rights efforts of the 1960s.

“As all-important as the fight against racial discrimination was then, and remains today, know this: My commitment to confronting discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity runs just as deep,” his speech said.

New York Times

If the gay rights movement is a continuation of the 1960s civil rights movement (and I think it is, though also, vitally, a continuation of the women's liberation movement), how do its rapid advances in the United States share one of the underpinnings of that previous struggle? African American civil rights insurgents of the 50s and 60s struggled for justice with great bravery, smarts, and moral clarity. At the same time, they benefited from the U.S. national need to be "on the right side" of progress in a rapidly de-colonizing world framed by Western capitalism's competition with Soviet communism.

So I ask myself: what does the United States get today from positioning itself as an international champion of LGBT rights? We certainly didn't go first. Most of western Europe, parts of Latin America, even the post-apartheid Republic of South Africa were at least nominally ahead of us on this. Is our international advocacy a kind of "ethical shower" after a decade and a half of being the world's most violent rogue state? After all, we seem to claim the right to "defend" ourselves by lobbing Hellfire missiles liberally into other peoples' countries and occasionally invading if we feel like it. We've forced international air travel to conform to our security theater and we make crossing our borders far more troublesome than most countries. Is advocacy for LGBT equality supposed to give us a pass on human rights concerns while our gulag in Guantanamo continues to operate? Can we really pose as "the good guys"?

Don't get me wrong. I like having my government more or less on my side. It sure beats the alternative. But I'm not going to give them props for altruism on this.

Further, I wonder whether Holder realizes how much larger a can of social worms he is opening by championing not only the rights of persons defined by variant "sexual orientation" but also those with variant "gender identities"? Somehow I doubt that our authorities understand that contemporary culture is undermining "gender" itself, the "natural" locus of historic hierarchy -- and that has the potential to change human societies in ways we do not yet imagine.

Saturday, February 08, 2014

Why I'm uneasy watching the Olympics

I think anyone who has thought seriously about Nazi Germany has probably asked herself: if I had been a Jew in that time and place, would I have been smart or lucky enough to get out? Would I have chosen uprooting and exile, if such was possible?

Russian gays are asking themselves the same thing, for the same reason: they are targeted by their own state for who they are, not anything they have done.

An authoritarian state apparatus has chosen to mobilize Russia's latent cultural homophobia to fuel nationalist zeal. Russians need an ego boost. Communism and the country's imperial superpower status collapsed in the 1990s; Russians were left with a kleptocracy and a secret police thug for a permanent president. It has not been an inspiring trajectory. Where else in the world did life expectancy fall during the 1990s? Maybe Afghanistan?

Last November, journalist Jeff Sharlet captured this explanation for Russia's surging homophobia from a journalist named Elena Kostyuchenko.

"Putin needs external enemies and internal enemies. The external enemies are the U.S. and Europe. Internal enemies, they had to think about. The ethnic topic is dangerous. Two wars in the Caucasus, a third one, nobody knows how it would end. Jews? After Hitler, it's not kosher. We --" she waves a hand at herself and Zhenya [Sharlett's lesbian translator] -- "are the ideal. We are everywhere. We don't look different, but we are." She inhales. She's one of those smokers who hold your eyes when they're smoking. Cigarettes disappear into her lungs. She says, in English: "It's our turn. Just our turn." She exhales. She has a pleasant smile.

She met her girlfriend four and a half years ago, at a lesbian movie night in a club. The movie was Lost and Delirious, translated into Russian as They're Not Gonna Get You. Mischa Barton, prep-school lesbians. They both thought it was a little childish. Elena liked Anya's seriousness and her broad grin; she liked her earnestness and her calm. Their love was quick and deep and strong. Soon Elena was thinking about a home together. "Then I was thinking, ‘I have health issues. I'm hospitalized once in a while. I can be unconscious—who will come and make medical decisions for me?' Then, at one moment, I realize Anya is the one I want to have my children with." That's when she got scared. "Before that, I didn't feel like I was discriminated against. Then Anya appeared."

Kostyuchenko was beaten so viciously at a Gay Pride demonstration that her skull was cracked and she lost most of her hearing. The whole Sharlett article is chilling and absolutely essential reading if you care about LGBT people.

David Remnick, the New Yorker editor, asked two former Pussy Riot activists how the Olympics fit into Putin's plans when they were in New York last week speaking for prisoners' rights. They'd just been released after serving nearly two years for an episode of pro-feminist iconoclastic performance art they'd done in a Russian Orthodox Cathedral. Such cultural sacrilege is punished in contemporary Russia.

“For Putin, the Olympic Games are an attempt to inflate the inflatable duck of a national idea, as he sees it,” Tolokonnikova told me. “In Russia today, there are no real politics, no real discussion of views, and meanwhile the government tries to substitute for this with hollow forms of a national idea -- with the Church, with sports and the Olympics. … "

These Olympic Games are central to the meaning of his life -- they are as important to him as anything he has done,” Alekhina said.

So these Olympics are the play fantasy of a fascist gay basher of the most vicious sort: not just a bigot, but a manipulator who incites the resentments of others for his own purposes. These women think we in the outside world fail to realize how hollow Putin's autocracy is. May they be right.

Meanwhile, no opening pageantry can make me feel the Sochi games are anything by putrid, through and through.
Yet I'll probably watch, at least bits and pieces. I couldn't get behind the call for a boycott; that would have primarily hurt athletes in obscure sports for whom these extravaganzas are their only wide exposure. Olympic sports bureaucrats, the TV broadcasters, and advertisers do have responsibility here. I hope we hear from them, again and again, that Russian persecution of gays contradicts everything the Olympics are supposed to stand for.

Friday, February 07, 2014

Information empires and democracy

If you ever wanted to know what is this "net neutrality" thing is that internet junkies meander on about, Tim Wu's The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires serves as a great historical primer.

Wu's accessible volume tells the story of what he calls "the Cycle" in communication media beginning with the telephone, moving on into movies, through radio and broadcast TV, and then cable. Today we have the Internet -- and we confront further turns of a long established pattern -- or perhaps a chance to break or modify the Cycle.

…when we look carefully at the twentieth century, we soon find the Internet wasn't the first information technology supposed to have changed everything forever. We see in fact a succession of optimistic and open media, each of which, in time, became a closed and controlled industry …

Each of these inventions to end all inventions, in time, passed through a phase of revolutionary novelty and youthful utopianism; each would change our lives, to be sure, but not the nature of our existence. For whatever social transformation any of them might have effected, in the end, each would take its place to uphold the social structure that has been with us since the Industrial Revolution. Each became, that is, a highly centralized and integrated new industry. Without exception, the brave new technologies of the twentieth century -- free use of which was originally encouraged, for the sake of further invention and individual expression -- eventually evolved into privately controlled industrial behemoths, the "old media" giants of the twenty-first, through which the flow and nature of content would be strictly controlled for reasons of commerce. …

… if the Cycle is not merely a pattern but an inevitability, the fact that the Internet, more than any technological wonder before it, has truly become the fabric of our lives means we are sooner or later in for a very jarring turn of history's wheel. Though it's a cliche to say so, we do have an information-based economy and society. … if the Internet, whose present openness has become a way of life, should prove as much subject to the Cycle as every other information network before it, the practical consequences will be staggering. ...

So there we are: are we going to be controlled by those who own the information pipes (and the political entities those owners buy up) or are there other possibilities?

I really liked this book as clearly written history. Wu leans toward a libertarianism faith in the innovative genius of unrestricted markets that I don't entirely share, but he sure is not ideologically blinkered about this. Highly recommended.
The Master Switch made me think a lot about regulated monopolies. I'm old enough to remember well the days when AT&T was the only game in telephone service. When you moved into a new residence, you called the phone company, they sent a man (always a man) to install one or more instruments that they owned, you paid your bill whose parameters were set by a state regulatory agency -- or you didn't have telephone service. Dealing with the phone company was straightforward -- maybe expensive, sometimes infuriating, but you knew what the game was.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has found developments in communications since the mid-80s break up of that old Bell monopoly bewilderingly hard to get a grip on, as well as, sometimes cheaper and technologically delightful. These days voice communications over distance is a maze. Unless you are willing to devote significant amounts of time and energy to understand the latest wrinkles, you are almost certainly being overcharged for technologically anachronistic service. Presumably communication providers make much of their profit on lagging consumers of legacy technology, using their surplus to attract the ever-desirable cohort of early adopters with new goodies. Under the regulated monopoly of the past, innovation was the enemy of the business, a danger to be squelched. And as Wu documents, in film, radio, television and communications, the mid-20th century behemoths kept progress profitably at bay for decades. With their monopolies blown away, we're getting the fruit of progress and its confusions.

From a consumer perspective, it feels as if we're condemned to be either captives of soulless monopolies or exploited technological suckers. Neither role is pleasant to occupy. I think there's some evidence that a return to some regulated monopolies would be good for society. That's obvious in the financial sector: how about highly regulated basic banks that make home and smaller commercial loans backed by deposits -- and are the only recipients of government insurance for their customers? If some of the one percent want to play among Wall Street's casino options, let 'em -- with their own money. In telecoms, might most of us gain from regulated monopolies offering basic service with transparent pricing to consumers willing to foregoe the latest wrinkles?

Wu is certainly right the current telecom anarchy will not last. In our information society, it matters how this gets sorted out. Meaningful democracy may depend upon the shape we give to communications. This stuff is never easy and there are always commercial and political incentives to screw most of us ...
Tim Wu is a founder of Free Press which advocates on these issues.