Monday, March 31, 2014

Raw Pussy Riot

"Virgin Mary, Mother of God, chase Putin out
The phantom of liberty is up in heaven,

Gay pride sent to Siberia in a chain gang
Virgin Mary, Mother of God, become a feminist."

For singing these lyrics for 30 seconds in the Orthodox Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow in 2012, two young women were condemned to endure nearly two years of forced prison labor. A third participant who never even got to open her mouth was sentenced to three years on parole. Other participants and hangers on were never identified or charged. This was the art of Pussy Riot, the anonymous punk performance group, that has been chronicled by Russian-American journalist Masha Gessen in Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot.

I've never been able to make anything of performance art or, more broadly, of most protest art. I'm pretty literal. I respond well to the bold statement, not so well to satire or irony. If I'd been there, I probably would have just gawked. So I'm attentive when Gessen tries to set the context for this unfamiliar tale. She portrays a Russian society in which only the dramatic interruption of the drab humdrum stands a chance of gaining attention within a repressive state and apathetic populace.

To create, and to confront, one has to be an outcast. A constant state of discomfort is a necessary but insufficient condition for protest art, however. One also has to possess a sense that one can do something about it, the sense of being entitled to speak and to be heard. ...

In all societies, public rhetoric involves some measure of lying, and history -- political history and art history -- is made when someone effectively confronts the lie. But in really scary societies all public conversation is an exercise in using words to mean their opposites -- in describing the brave as traitorous, the weak as frightening, and the good as bad -- and confronting these lies is the most scary and lonely thing a person can do.

To the Russian state, Pussy Riot itself was blasphemous, so the women were charged with blasphemy against the Church, an institution in bed with the state. Their trial, whose proceedings Gessen details exhaustively, was reminiscent of Soviet-era show trials.

The motivation of Pussy Riot and their lawyers was exactly the same as that of their predecessors half a century earlier: they aimed, on the one hand, to act as one would in a courtroom and country where laws were meaningful and respected, and on the other hand, they wanted to use the forum of the court to make political declarations that would be heard.

There was vast international media coverage and many expressions of support from artists and human rights organizations, but the verdict was never in doubt.

Nadya's, Maria's, and Kat's arrests had heralded a new Russian crackdown. In the months following, dozens of people were arrested on charges stemming from various kinds of peaceful protest. ... The courts had become Russia's sole venue for political conversation, the only place where the individual and the state confronted each other. Not that most political defendants in Russia had a clear idea of how to use such venue or a language for speaking in it. But Maria and Nadya knew a stage when they saw one... They were doing what Pussy Riot had always done: illuminating the issues and proposing a conceptual framework for discussing them. ...

The two women who were imprisoned served hard time. Maria became an effective jailhouse lawyer; Nadya sought anonymity among the general population, but eventually resorted to a hunger strike against the brutality of prison conditions. Both were released two months early as part of Vladimir Putin's pre-Olympic effort to quiet international criticism of the human rights climate in Russia.

Gessen's book is not easily comprehensible for a U.S. reader. I felt as if I could know all the words and still not be quite sure I had gotten the meaning. Rather than violate the women again by interpreting their art, their actions, their lives, and their pains in terms that are more readily understandable to us, Gessen transmits their own self-descriptions without much cultural mediation. In our easy apparent freedom, I feel pretty sure we don't quite get it. But I think those of us who are progressive have to recognize that we are on Pussy Riot's side insofar as we can understand their cause. Or maybe I should say insofar they can understand their cause. They have come up in, and choose to remain in, a place and time where life and action define more than self-conscious explanations.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

What is justice?

When I spent a year working to end the death penalty in California -- sadly unsuccessfully -- I was exposed to some deep lessons. One stands out: when we held telephone sessions into which people could phone to ask questions, repeatedly some perverse fate made me the individual who picked up the call from a person whose loved one had been murdered. Somewhat to my surprise, not all these trauma survivors wanted to see the victimizer executed. But all of them wanted "justice," whatever they meant by that. We ended up having long, usually inconclusive though amicable, discussions of where is justice might be found. I'd argue that the death penalty would not deliver it; sometimes they agreed, often they did not.

I was reminded of this when reading The Greatest Prayer: Rediscovering the Revolutionary Message of the Lord's Prayer by that prolific chronicler of the historical Jesus, author John Dominic Crossan. I found this little book a challenging delight. It is neither history nor textual Biblical exegesis, but rather a wide-ranging meditation on the familiar prayer, drawing on Crossan's broad scholarship and faithfilled imagination.

Those discussions from the death penalty campaign came back to me when I read his effort to explain how the western Christian world has trapped itself in a theology written out of a very particular feudal metaphor, a worldview that met the needs of Norman overlords imposing themselves on a conquered Saxon and Celtic Britain. The doctrine of vicarious satisfaction or substitutionary atonement entraps us in a picture of God as a rather nasty father who expressed his "love" for humanity by requiring the torture and murder of his only son. If that's what "Jesus died for our sins" means -- and that is pretty much what Anselm, who became archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, argued in his influential Cur Deus Homo? -- no wonder we struggle to envision justice. Crossan explains what this hyper-rational medieval prince of the church was driving at:

Philosopher and theologian, monk and bishop, mystic and saint, Anselm preferred nonviolent debate to violent crusade. His idea was to defend the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus by confronting those he called "infidels" -- that is, Jews and Muslims -- with reason and logic alone. ... His purpose, as he tells us in the book's prologue, was to argue against "infidels, who despise the Christian faith because they deem it contrary to reason."

... Anselm is quite clear on why God must "will" the incarnation and crucifixion of Jesus and why God cannot simply forgive everyone without punishment at all. That would mean, he says, that God is indifferent to evil, that God does not care about sin one way or another. But that would be impossible, he concludes, for a just God. ... His major argument was that God had to punish evil or else he was not a just God. ...

Without punishment, the order imposed by the feudal overlord on a rebellious society would be impossible. There's enough obvious experiential truth in this that it can still appeal. When people do bad things, somebody has to suffer -- or so we feel and a millennium of Christian tradition has encouraged us to feel, especially because in this form of shaping the story, Jesus's undeserved pain and death let the "good" ones (us?) off the hook.

Crossan wants to get across that we don't need to constrain our understanding of justice in this narrow frame. We can understand Jesus' life and death as pointing us toward another way of seeking "justice."

I take very, very seriously that the Bible's first mention of "sin" is not just fratricidal murder, but escalatory violence itself. Escalatory violence means that we have never invented a weapon we did not use, never invented one that was not surpassed by the next one, and never slowed down the speed of that replacement. We got, for example, from the first iron sword to the first hydrogen bomb in less than three thousand years.

The death of the nonviolent Jesus as the revelation of God's nonviolent character is a sacrifice (a making sacred) that atones for our sin of escalatory violence. ... Not just the Romans, but every government our world has ever known would have removed or silenced Jesus one way or another. ... God did not "will" the death of Jesus as a vicarious punishment for the human sin of escalatory violence. But did God "will" it as a consequence for that sin? The execution of Jesus was certainly a consequence of normal imperial violence and a witness against it on behalf of God. ...

If we decide to use anthropomorphic, or human-just-like-us, language for God, we should at least allow the same distinctions for God that we make for ourselves. Parents or householders, for example, may will something directly, deliberately, or emphatically for their children. They may also will some other things reluctantly. They may tolerate them, accept them, allow them,but positively not want them for those same children. There are, in other words, consequences of freedom that must be accepted even if never willed. So also with what God "wills." Every martyr needs a murderer and God's will allows such events as the positive and negative results of human freedom. God "wills" our human freedom. All else is consequence.

I find this a fruitful exposition of central Christian mysteries. Anselm's exposition may have worked for his time and place but it is repulsive -- leads away from truth and justice -- in mine.
As a I sat in church this morning, I realized I hadn't said the most important understanding which I brought away from all this plowing through Christian history: there is no necessity for us to believe that just because one very bad thing has happened that something else bad has to follow. We can come closer to "justice" by breaking the cycle than by extending it. Or so I am sure.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My favorite new Senate candidate for the 2014 cycle

If, like me, you occasionally donate even small sums to political candidates you find worthy, your email is probably jammed today with fundraising appeals. We're two days out from the next legal reporting deadline for many local and all federal candidates -- they each want to scare the competition with a big haul. And, if you support them, it's not crazy to help. I do my tiny bit.

Meet Shenna Bellows speaking at a house party this month. She is running for the Senate in Maine against Susan Collins. That's a tough job: the four term incumbent is a fixture in Maine. Collins is called "a moderate." But come on, Collins is a Republican -- what she does in Washington is to enable her party to block anything that might be a progressive agenda. That's her job: making sure her party can prevent any raise in the minimum wage, any effort to get the rich to pay their fair share, any serious attempt to rein in the spook apparatus.

Bellows is good on the economic needs of ordinary people who need government to curb increasing inequality. She is terrific on restoring civil liberties and the rule of law; that's her expertise. We need one of those in the Senate.

If you are at all moved to try to get a better Senator elected and you don't have local candidates to assist this year, take a look at Shenna Bellows. This will be a tough race. Senators can usually die in office if they choose (some seem to have kicked off without anyone much noticing.) It would be great to help install a fresh face among those tired old timers.

San Francisco: what to do about the books?

Sometimes our accumulations overwhelm us and we put the unwanted portion out on street corners -- perhaps someone will adopt these cast offs? The pile looks wistful.

Sometimes we create very personal exchanges:

These street libraries can be more elaborate.

Fortunately we've chosen to build up for ourselves a PUBLIC library; we don't entirely have to spread our books ourselves. The Friends of the San Francisco Public Library will take donated books and facilitate our selling them to each other, for the public benefit.

I imagine that, within the next couple of decades, most reading will be done on electronic devices. But for now, those of us who are readers still struggle with the question: what to do about the books?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Should we split California into six smaller states?

One of our venture capitalist robber barons thinks this would be a great idea. This snarky Economist video spells out the proposed boundaries. Tim Draper is spending nearly a million dollars to get an initiative to do the deed onto the November ballot, proving that you can force the people to vote on almost anything if you spend enough money. The political pros all think the idea is an electoral nonstarter -- even Draper seems less than serious according to USA Today:

"I'm just putting it out there for all of you," he said. "And I'm only doing this once, I don't have unlimited capital. Then I'm going back to work."

Back to work in Silicon Valley – which even if it never becomes a state, is certainly a dream-anything-you-want state of mind.

It took the most minimal research to discover that Draper is part of the growing elite of inherited wealth that Paul Krugman discussed in a column today. Draper's father and grandfather were also venture capital investors. Here's Krugman discussing the trajectory of such figures:

... it’s interesting to look at the Forbes list of the wealthiest Americans. By my rough count, about a third of the top 50 inherited large fortunes. Another third are 65 or older, so they will probably be leaving large fortunes to their heirs. We aren’t yet a society with a hereditary aristocracy of wealth, but, if nothing changes, we’ll become that kind of society over the next couple of decades.

A lot of them seem to think having enough money means they can do anything like to the society we all live in together.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Crazy corruption, guns, and brutal politics in the city

Yee at an immigrant rights protest, 2006
Like most of political San Francisco, I'm stunned by the arrest of state Senator Leland Yee on charges of taking political bribes and seeking to profit from facilitating gun running -- including "shoulder-fired weapons or missiles" -- by Philippines-based traffickers. Guess that's not as bad as the concurrent accusation against one of his former fellows on the School Board for murder-for-hire. Still, it is a shocker. The San Jose Mercury has the clearest summary of the charges against Yee (the moribund Chron isn't keeping up).
A 137-page criminal complaint charges 26 people -- including Yee and [Chinatown gangster Raymond "Shrimp Boy"] Chow -- with a panoply of crimes, including firearms trafficking, money laundering, murder-for-hire, drug distribution, trafficking in contraband cigarettes, and honest services fraud.

Yee is charged with conspiracy to traffic in firearms without a license and to illegally import firearms, as well as six counts of scheming to defraud citizens of honest services. Each corruption count is punishable by up to 20 years in federal prison and a fine of up to $250,000, while the gun-trafficking count is punishable by up to five years and $250,000.

The charges are particularly shocking given that Yee has been among the state Senate's most outspoken advocates both of gun control and of good-government initiatives.
Yee seems to have said an awful lot of incriminating things to undercover agents who were recording them.

Yee has always felt like an odd duck. Like any city pol, he's had to show himself at thousands of neighborhood political events over the years. I've photographed him at a few. He would perform his part, but he always looked a little uncomfortable, like an actor who wasn't quite sure what the character he was playing was supposed to feel.

Journalist Tim Redmond, then with Bay Guardian, wrote an insightful profile of Yee in 2011 when he was gearing up to run for mayor (he lost badly). The Guardian had another candidate in 2011, so something of a hit was to be expected, but the article was thoughtful. Besides pointing out that Yee seemed to have more money than his ostensible income could account for, Redmond's picture was of a pol who had been forced by his location in a very liberal city to mask narrowly conservative instincts. I'd call the piece sympathetic -- and devastating.

Yee seems to evoke that sort of response. He seems misplaced in a city whose signature features he doesn't much love. He seems to be someone with no true friends, but an enormous circle of political acquaintances, always a bit of a foreigner. I'm not, by that assertion, saying Yee is Chinese-American -- this city is full of Chinese-origin political players who seem far more "at home."

Redmond's current response to Yee's arrest carries the same mix of empathy and condemnation:
Yee was termed out at the end of 2014, and his state Senate seat has been reapportioned out of existence. He was, as one person told me today, “a political loner,” someone with few close friends or allies in the local scene. I watched him over the years take strange and inexplicable positions on legislation; he was never a pro-tenant vote and as a supervisor was independent of the Willie Brown operation, but generally a fiscal conservative.

I feel sorry for Yee’s family and for the people who have worked with him and trusted him over the years. He has kids; the notion that their dad has gone from prominent and powerful political leader to alleged criminal in one day has to be disturbing, and I wish them the best.

The feds have wrongly charged plenty of people, and Yee has the right to mount a defense. But I don’t see this going to trial; he’s going to take a plea bargain. The only question is what else comes out in the next few weeks, how the Democrats in Sacramento are going to respond, how badly the reputation of the Legislature is damaged – and whether a city that has allowed several generations of politicians to get away with a climate of corruption will finally get the message.
I wonder what Yee has to bargain with. This could be when having been a loner really hurts him. Or we may be in for a season of "pass the popcorn" in city politics.

Yee with "a wolf in sheep's clothing" on campaign with his labor buddies in 2010.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: why we don't act on climate change

Weatherdem thinks he knows:

... the screaming isn’t helping, is it? You’re not an idiot. The volume of words isn’t the issue. The issue is you are motivated by things outside of the climate realm – things like having a job; a job that pays a living wage so you can pay for your mortgage and car payment and keep your children educated and happy. An existence in an affluent world that allows you the time and energy to think of complex problems beyond your perceived immediate needs. If those needs aren’t met – if you have insecure affluence – you place climate change and the environment far down on a list of priorities – just like a majority of other Americans.

... Like previous efforts, [the latest American Association for the Advancement of Science report] will not spur people to action, mostly because the actions listed are about limits, stopping, restricting, reversing, preventing, and regulating. The conceptual model from which these words arise works in direct contrast to the fundamentals of American culture. We are a people who are imaginative, who innovate, who invest.

As I have written before, there is no way we will achieve greenhouse gas emissions reductions without substantial investment into innovation of new technologies that we research, develop, and deploy at scale. There is nothing limiting or restrictive about this framework. It it the opposite of those things. This framework recognizes and sets out to achieve opportunities; it allows for personal and cultural growth; it is in sync with the underlying cultural fabric of this country. It directly addresses people’s perception of the security of their affluence in the same way that developing countries’ economic growth allows people to move beyond basic material needs to higher order needs.

The reality of insecure affluence among many Americans today might be an indirect outcome of the 1%’s efforts to increase wealth disparity, but it is real. We have to address that disparity first in order to address the real, valid perceptions of insecure affluence. Only after Americans feel their personal wealth is secure will they have the resources to devote to higher order needs such as global climate change. That can happen with concerted focus on investing and innovating a post-carbon economy. But you won’t see that at the top of any policy prescription from the majority of climate scientists.

He's not so much saying that we have break the stranglehold of the one percent here, but that if scientists really want action, they'll put as much effort into imagining how we can use their expertise to innovate out of the civilizational carbon trap as to bemoaning that we are in it. I don't know whether that is realistic, but there is something to this.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Democrats and demographics, part 2

A week or so ago, I posted "Democrats and demographics" arguing that, in California,

the Democratic coalition doesn't need a majority of white voters; it needs a significant fraction, maybe 40 percent of these mostly married whites, and a lot of other voters.

The post was a little lazy. I didn't bother to dig into election results outside of California to report exactly what the national picture of the white vote looked like. In particular, that 40 percent number was just an informed guess. Slate columnist David Weigel has done the digging in discussing the prospects for President Obama's Democrats in 2014:

In 2006 the electorate was 79 percent white. Didn't hurt the party; boosted by the Iraq War backlash, Democrats won 47 percent of the white vote, up from 41 percent in 2004.

Then came 2008, the best Democratic election in a generation. Barack Obama won only 43 percent of the white vote in an electorate that was 74 percent white.

In 2010 the electorate vanilla'd up again—77 percent white this time—and the white vote for Democrats collapsed. They won only 37 percent of it, and only 34 percent of white men.

Now, here's the part that worries Obama. In 2012 the president won re-election despite his share of the white vote tumbling to 39 percent. How'd he do it? Whites made up only 72 percent of the electorate.

Thus, on the national level, Democratic Party victory seems at present to require getting close to 40 percent of the white vote -- and Democrats do just fine (nationally) whenever they exceed that percentage. That's hard to achieve in much of the country in midterm elections in which younger and browner voters are less likely to turn out. In some races, Democrats are throwing money and field staff at the turnout problem. The California experience -- all those community-based and union campaigns -- again suggests that such an effort can make a difference.

I doubt money can build a community voting practice in one or even several cycles, but we do here demonstrate that if funded activists stay with the project, electoral dynamics change. The change may not be in direction, but well placed efforts can speed up underlying trends. The underlying trends continue to favor a Democratic populist electorate for the foreseeable future.

Europe too is divided over immigration

MARCH 22: Members of Guardia Civil hold back a crowd of people trying to cross through the Beni Enzar border point to Morocco once the gates opened again on March 22, 2014 in Melilla, Spain. Police closed the Beni Enzar border point to Morocco for two hours when tens of Syrian would-be immigrants tried to force their entry into Spain. Around 500 would-be immigrants entered the Spanish enclave of Melilla on March 17 from Morocco, forcing the Temporary Immigration Centre (CETI) to shelter around four times its capacity, which is 480 people. The army has placed temporary tents outside the Centre to make space.

Or maybe the Old Continent is just hypocritical. The billionaire George Soros of all people recently explained:

Soros: That there is an unbridgeable conflict between North and South on the political asylum issue. The countries in the North, basically the creditors, have been generous in their treatment of asylum seekers. So all the asylum seekers want to go there, particularly to Germany. But that is more than they can absorb, so they have put in place a European agreement called Dublin III, which requires asylum seekers to register in the country where they first enter the EU. That tends to be the South, namely, Italy, Spain, and Greece. All three are heavily indebted and subject to fiscal austerity. They don’t have proper facilities for asylum seekers, and they have developed xenophobic, anti-immigrant, populist political movements.

Asylum seekers are caught in a trap. If they register in the country where they arrive, they can never ask for asylum in Germany. So, many prefer to remain illegal, hoping to make their way to Germany. They are condemned to illegality for an indefinite period. The miserable conditions in which they live feed into the anti-immigrant sentiment.

New York Review of Books

The European Union has granted asylum to some 60,000-100,000 refugees from the civil war in Syria; so far, 9 million Syrians have been displaced and some 2.5 million are living in neighboring countries.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Sunday, March 23, 2014

The Vietnam war viewed from Hanoi

The U.S. war in Vietnam was the back drop of my youth. Like so many of my generation, I assumed during early escalations that our authorities must know what they were doing. The grinding, meaningless carnage and a rising sense that the Vietnamese had a right to choose their own direction made me a student protester by 1967. Participation by the U.S. on the ground endured for another six years ... somehow the war just kept claiming more victims and spreading further in South East Asia.

Yet for all that, I know comparatively little about this war that seared my early consciousness. In part, that is because what my generation learned was not to trust the confident voices of men in charge who kept telling us lies; reading the mainstream media about Vietnam or listening to politicians and generals made a person less informed rather than more. So for some decades, I stopped consuming mainstream news about foreign places. This lifelong habit has served my shit-detector well.

Fifty years later, Professor of History (U. Kentucky) Lien-Hang T. Nguyen provides a new narrative: Hanoi's War: An International History of the War for Peace in Vietnam. Having acquired access to some (but not yet all) of the archives of the victorious Vietnamese state, she reconstructs a war history in which the North (DRV -- Democratic Republic of Vietnam), the various Saigon-based Southern regimes (RVN -- Republic of Vietnam) and southern insurgents (NLF-PRG -- National Liberation Front, later Provisional Revolutionary Government) take center stage.

The perspectives of the Vietnamese parties ... constitute three-quarters of the story and the United States only one-quarter. Despite that obvious, albeit contrived, ratio we know much more about America's war than we do about the Vietnamese sides of the conflict.

She aims to redress the balance in our collective picture of what happened.

Central to Professor Nguyen's reconstruction is that the North Vietnamese leadership did not function the way the outside world long believed. We even had a very incomplete apprehension of who was calling the shots in Hanoi.

The key to unlocking these puzzles lies with one individual who has managed to escape scrutiny: Le Duan. Despite being the architect, main strategist, and commander-in-chief of communist Vietnam's war effort, the former first secretary somehow resides on the historical margins of that conflict ....

... Dominating the highest rungs of Party power, Le Duan identified Vietnam's most visible leaders -- Vo Nguyen Giap and Ho Chi Minh -- as the greatest threats to his authority. Although credited with leading Hanoi's war against the United States, Ho and Giap were sidelined by Le Duan and Le Duc Tho at nearly all key decision-making junctures. In 1963 and 1964, Le Duan blackmailed Ho into silence when the aged leader attempted to oppose the first secretary's decision to escalate the war and attempt all-out victory. In 1967 and 1968, Giap became the target of a large-scale purge when Le Due Tho arrested the general's -- and Ho's -- deputies and friends. The two leaders thus paid dearly for voicing their disagreement with Le Duan's plans for what would become the Tet Offensive.

On both occasions, however, Ho and Giap proved correct in their call for moderation: Le Duan's 1964 and 1968 offensives exacted enormous costs on the revolution. While Ho died in 1969, Giap continued to be the recipient of Le Duan's scorn. In 1972, the general found himself once again on the losing side of the military debate, this time over the Easter Offensive.

... The common notion of the Vietnamese struggle for national liberation as a unified war effort comprised of North and South Vietnamese patriots led by the Party conceals a much more complex truth. In reality, Le Duan constructed a national security state that devoted all of its resources to war and labeled any resistance to its policies as treason. Although there was vast support for the communist war effort on both sides of the seventeenth parallel, especially in the early years of the fighting, opposition and later war weariness also existed. ... While "North-first" moderates in the DRV objected to Le Duan's southern war as a means to reunification, local southern communists resented orders from Hanoi that often put the insurgency in peril.

This book is the story of how the uncharismatic, somewhat unimaginative, Le Duan led the Hanoi government through Washington's deadly assaults, encouraged competition between Russia and China in their support, and built international sympathy. These were all elements in the DRV victory in 1975 after the U.S. finally pulled out. She believes the last element tipped the balance in favor of the DRV:

The key to Hanoi's ultimate success in the war lay not in launching general offensives or even winning hearts and minds in South Vietnam; rather, it resided with its world relations campaign aimed at procuring the support of antiwar movements around the world. ... The Vietnam War ... witnessed the pinnacle of power enjoyed by the revolutionary Third World on the international stage, and Vietnamese communist diplomacy during the war constituted the key catalyst to this "diplomatic revolution." Hanoi tapped into a revolutionary network of relations that managed to bridge the Global South with the progressive segments of the West. In the end, Hanoi's radical relations -- fueled by the global antiwar movement taking place in the streets of Washington and Paris, Havana and Algiers, and even New Delhi and Tehran -- as well as its shrewd small power diplomacy, managed to blunt not only Saigon's regional relations but also, and more important, Washington's superpower diplomacy. This is perhaps the greatest legacy of Hanoi's war.

... Hanoi and Saigon were not only active agents in their own destinies, but they also heavily influenced the terms of American intervention and ultimately the outcome of their war.

Oddly, I feel less equipped to assess whether Professor Nguyen has written a "good" history of the Vietnam war than I might if she'd written about some more distant conflict. What was really going on then outside Washington is still not common knowledge or assimilated understanding, at least in the U.S. Those who care to revisit that agony still have to wait for more Vietnamese points of view. This 2012 volume has been well reviewed by the experts. Though Professor Nguyen's style takes on some of the turgid qualities of the Party prose she so diligently explores, she is offering a fascinating new vantage point.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

For World Water Day ...

This video from China Central Television's America service tells the story of Nicaraguan communities that, with the help of foreign non-governmental organizations, are building their own wells and catchment systems to ensure access to clean water.

In poor countries where increasing human population and sometimes drought dry up once more abundant water sources, access to water especially burdens the life chances of women: women become, literally, the essential haulers of water and little more.

The clip features the projects of El Porvenir, the US-founded NGO with which I had the privilege to travel in 2007. That year, we visited the tiny hamlet of Cerritos, kilometers off any paved road, where foreign help had enabled the community to build sanitary latrines. Folks threw quite a celebration for the new facilities.

This news story shows Cerritos seven years later finally completing a clean water supply of their own.

Saturday scenes and scenery: the hills are alive ...

with new spring growth.

After a week in New York, it was great to get out on the trails again this week. Fortunately, I know enough to jump around this stuff.

Friday, March 21, 2014

On "Moral Injury": residue from empire's wars past

This too we must learn from our country's wars of empire in the '00s: not only did we leave in our wake hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans and over 5000 dead of our own in two countries which we never understood. Those countries remain trashed and burning. Thousands of our former soldiers suffer not only from lingering physical wounds, but also the misplaced adrenaline rush we label PTSD. In addition a significant fraction of these veterans experience an enduring form of trauma that those who seek to treat it call "moral injury."

David Wood, senior military correspondent for the Huffington Post, has published a searing series of three articles on Moral Injury written from the perspectives of various "grunts," "recruits," and of those who attempt to heal the sufferers. Read it all, starting here.

The entire rest of this post consists of short excerpts.

  • Moral injury is not officially recognized by the Defense Department. But it is moral injury, not PTSD, that is increasingly acknowledged as the signature wound of this generation of veterans: a bruise on the soul, akin to grief or sorrow, with lasting impact on the individuals and on their families.
  • “Definitely a majority” of returning veterans bear some kind of moral injury, said William P. Nash, a retired Navy psychiatrist and a pioneer in stress control and moral injury. He deployed as a battlefield therapist with Marines during the battle of Fallujah in 2004. “People avoid talking about or thinking about it and every time they do, it’s a flashback or nightmare that just damages them even more. It’s going to take a long time to sort that out.”

It was a young Afghan boy, Martz found out later, who detonated 40 pounds of explosives beneath Martz’s squad. He was one of the younger kids who hung around the Marines. Martz had given him books and candy and, even more precious, his fond attention. The boy would tip them off to IEDs and occasionally brought them fresh-baked bread. One day, as Martz’s platoon walked a routine patrol, the boy yanked a trigger wire from a hidden position. Whether he had been a secret enemy all along or whether some incident had turned him against the Americans are questions Martz wrestles with to this day.

... Martz told me that he looks on that incident as his own failure because he didn’t spot the IED before it went off. Because he didn’t warn his men away. “I’d say one of the things I struggle with the most is, all my guys got hurt and I let them down. It’s a constant movie, replaying that scenario over and over in my head. I constantly question every decision I made out there.”

Almost three years later, he’s “kind of stuck,” he said. He seems to be moving on with his life, taking college courses to become a mental health therapist. But inside, he’s not healed. “I have a hard time feeling comfortable around kids, because it was that kid that we got close to, and to have that same kid turn around and blow you up, it shatters your reality of what’s OK and what’s not OK. Your trust has been ruined and broken. The only ones you trust are the guys you went with.”

Stephen Canty, now 24, is living in Charlottesville, Va., and trying to make sense of his own wartime experience. He told of manning a vehicle checkpoint one day, when along came a middle-aged man on a moped with two bruised little boys on the back. They had makeup on and their mascara was running because they were crying, and the Marines knew they’d been raped. “So you check ‘em,” Canty said of the men and boys, “and they have no weapons, and by our mission here they’re good to go – they’re OK! And we’re supposed to keep going on missions with these guys.

“Your morals start to degrade.”

On his second combat deployment in Afghanistan, Canty shot and killed an Afghan who was dragged into the Marines’ combat outpost just before he died. “I just lit him up,” he recalled, brushing his long hair out of his eyes. “One of the bullets bounced off his spinal cord and came out his eyeball, and he’s laying there in a wheelbarrow clinging to the last seconds of his life, and he’s looking up at me with one of his eyes and just pulp in the other. And I was like 20 years old at the time. I just stared down at him … and walked away. And I will … never feel anything about that. I literally just don’t care whatsoever.”

But Canty wondered what kind of person didn’t have qualms about killing. “Are you some kind of sociopath that you can just look at a dude you shot three or four times and just kind of walk away? I think I even smiled, not in an evil way but just like, what a fucked-up world we live in – you’re a 40-year-old dude and you probably got kids at home and stuff, and you just got smoked by some dumb 20-year-old.

[A medic explains] " ... moral injury is the one that really gets you,” she said. “It’s hard to find yourself again, because you’re never going to be the same person. I am trying to figure out how to forgive myself for everything I did over there, and it’s hard to figure out." ...

We, the people of the United States, didn't stop these wars; our country proved unable to "win" them. Those of us who have long been part of the peace movement helped make it impossible for the US to use enough force to simply wipe out stubborn faraway peoples; maybe that's something. Maybe it is not.

The least we can do is listen attentively and respectfully to the victims who come home to us. As the military downsizes, these severely injured former soldiers have to try to make it among people who have no idea what they've experienced.

Wood's articles each conclude with a resource list for vets who suspect themselves to be suffering from moral injury.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

We're dumber than I thought -- and the anniversary of a crime

I have to admit, I was gobsmacked by this finding:

Overall, Americans report that they trust the information they get from local TV news stations to a greater degree than any other source of news, with 52 percent who seek out local TV news saying that they trust the information very much or completely. At similar levels, 51 percent of those who use the newswires say they trust them, 48 percent trust radio news, and 47 percent trust newspapers and the three broadcast networks, NBC, ABC, and CBS. Forty-four percent of those who use cable news say they have a high level of trust in it. Users of magazines (print or online) as a source of news report slightly more modest levels of trust (40 percent completely or very much).

American Press Institute

Do more than half of us really believe that local TV news is credible, more than we trust other sources? Help!

Not that I quite know where to look for credible news myself sometimes. The situation in Ukraine is stumping me this week. As has been true so often since 9/11, there don't seem to be any "good guys" in this one. Putin is loathsome, but Samantha Power, representing the U.S. at the U.N., is fatuous.

Everyone might benefit from simply taking a deep breath ... and remembering that today we mark the 11th anniversary of our own assault on the nation of Iraq, a far more extravagant violation of international norms than Russia's occupation of Crimea. The media did a particularly poor job on that dumb war, uncritically peddling outright lies.

The Nation Magazine has somewhat more sane suggestions than most outlets in this crazy moment.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Warming Wednesdays: "“No snow. Zip. Zero. None.”

What's a 975 mile sled dog race across Alaska look like in our warmer world? How about this: photo
We all know that no particular weather event can be firmly tied to global warming, but things are sure getting weird. More from Think Progress.

The American Association for the Advancement of Science plans to try to pound the message that we must cut CO2 emissions now into our public discourse.

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, March 18, 2014

Paul done it

In popular religious historian Reza Aslan's Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus was a

revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, [a] magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the TempIe priesthood in Jerusalem, [a] radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost ...

This is not a book about the person subsequent Christians believe is truly God and truly human; it's a vivid picture of turbulent and bloody eruptions in first century Roman-occupied Palestinian countryside and in the Jewish temple city of Jerusalem. That's what the historical records -- as opposed to the founding documents of the Jesus movement, the Gospels -- make available.

... It is a miracle that we know anything at all about the man called Jesus of Nazareth. ... The first century was an era of apocalyptic expectation among the Jews of Palestine, the Roman designation for the vast tract of land encompassing modern-day Israel/Palestine as well as large parts of Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon. Countless prophets, preachers, and messiahs tramped through the Holy Land delivering messages of God's imminent judgment. Many of these so-called false messiahs we know by name. A few are even mentioned in the New Testament. ...

In the end, there are only two hard historical facts about Jesus of Nazareth upon which we can confidently rely: the first is that Jesus was a Jew who led a popular Jewish movement in Palestine at the beginning of the first century C.E.; the second is that Rome crucified him for doing so....

Aslan recounts the trajectories of five or six of these disruptive Jewish revolutionaries, most of whom were hailed as "messiah" by themselves or by their followers; all of them and their movements were brutally suppressed and are largely forgotten.

Aslan places the Gospel stories of the wandering Nazarene preacher within the cosmos of Jesus' contemporaries. Here's a sample of how he explicates Gospel accounts of miraculous healing.

Jesus was surely not the first exorcist to walk the shores of the Sea of Galilee. In first-century Palestine, professional wonder worker was a vocation as well established as that of woodworker or mason, and far better paid. Galilee especially abounded with charismatic fantasts claiming to channel the divine for a nominal fee. Yet from the perspective of the Galileans, what set Jesus apart from his fellow exorcists and healers is that he seemed to be providing his services free of charge.

... To the modern mind, the stories of Jesus's healings and exorcisms seem implausible, to say the least. Acceptance of his miracles forms the principal divide between the historian and the worshipper, the scholar and the seeker. It may seem somewhat incongruous, then, to say that there is more accumulated historical material confirming Jesus's miracles than there is regarding either his birth in Nazareth or his death at Golgotha. ... All that can be known is how the people of his time viewed them. And therein lies the historical evidence. For while debates raged within the early church over who Jesus was -- a rabbi? the messiah? God incarnate? -- there was never any debate, either among his followers or his detractors, about his role as an exorcist and miracle worker.

... Well into the second and third centuries, the Jewish intellectuals and pagan philosophers who wrote treatises denouncing Christianity took Jesus's status as an exorcist and miracle worker for granted. They may have denounced Jesus as nothing more than a traveling magician, but they did not doubt his magical abilities.

Though Aslan is (at least by ancestral culture) a Muslim, this book reads as a very Jewish account of the founding figure of Christianity. The hinge that turned the times in Aslan's telling is the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, the essential center of Jewish religion, and the murder of the city's people by the empire forty years after the empire had casually snuffed out the insignificant Galilean. Rome intended to kill or completely scatter this troublesome bunch and so thoroughly succeeded that the result was a new form of Torah Judaism, centered on the book rather than the Temple, that is the ancestor of today's religion.

This development killed off the Jewish adherents of the Jesus movement still located in Jerusalem just as thoroughly as it killed off establishment Jewish leaders and practice. The suppression of Jewish Temple religion put the gentile converts assembled by the controversial apostle Paul at the center of the emerging worship of Jesus. According to Aslan, the horrible example of what the empire had done to militant Jews encouraged Christian communities to separate themselves from remaining faithful Jews and to renounce the militant strands in the Jesus story such as their leader's assault on Temple commerce and corruption. Early Christians wanted to keep their heads down and avoid unsettling the powers that might eradicate them. Paul had once been considered an outlier by the Jesus community around James the brother of Jesus -- but no longer.

After the Temple was destroyed, the holy city burned to the ground, and the remnants of the Jerusalem assembly dispersed, Paul underwent a stunning rehabilitation in the Christian community. ... the only writings about Jesus that existed in 70 C.E. were the letters of Paul. ... Without the mother assembly [Jerusalem Christian community] to guide the followers of Jesus, the movement's connection to Judaism was broken, and Paul became the primary vehicle through which a new generation of Christians was introduced to Jesus the Christ. ... Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. ... Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul's creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history.

This interpretation of the emergence of the religion of Christianity is not original with Aslan. In fact, it comes up periodically as historians grapple with the sheer improbability that such an obscure figure and his movement might have have somehow sparked a worldwide religion. Unimaginative Christians routinely find such interpretations offensive; Aslan has been the target of a lot of ignorant insults about his exegesis of the historical record -- and the controversy made his little book a best seller.

I appreciated Aslan's honest statement of the real problem with the history of Jesus -- that in the absence of much of what moderns consider evidence, that we find ourselves trying to plumb the truth of his life at all. This book provides an unvarnished account of the brutality of an empire past ...

I can agree with this

We elected this man to begin to recover hope. He can do more, even if he doesn't think so. We have to keep demanding more.

Monday, March 17, 2014

We still must say a loud "NO" to torture

You can pre-order the hardcover version of Mainstreaming Torture from Amazon (publication date is May 6, 2014), or download the Kindle version now.
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Torture Still Matters

U.S. torture didn't start with George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, and it didn't end when they left office.

The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 reopened what many people in America had long assumed was a settled ethical question: Is torture ever morally permissible? Within days, people in government, academia, and the mainstream press began to suggest that, in these new circumstances, the new answer was "Yes."

In Mainstreaming Torture from Oxford University Press, Rebecca Gordon argues that September 11 did not, as some have said, "change everything," and that institutionalized state torture remains as wrong today as it was on the day before those terrible attacks. Furthermore, U.S. practices during the "war on terror" are rooted in a history that began long before September 11, a history that includes both support for torture regimes abroad and the use of torture in jails and prisons here at home.

Torture is not a set of isolated acts that arise in moments of crisis. It is an ongoing, socially-embedded practice, one that shapes not only its practitioners but the society where it finds a home. When torture goes mainstream, it affects all of us. To the extent that we accept torture as the price of an illusory safety, we risk becoming a nation of cowards.

We can stop torture. But first we have to understand what it is, and what happens to a country when torture leaves the shadows and enters the mainstream.

Advance praise for Mainstreaming Torture:

"This remarkable morally and politically challenging and courageous work confronts unblinkingly the profoundly disturbing truth that both popular and scholarly discourses in America consistently distort and sanitize the essential nature of the torture that has become a socially embedded practice in our country. If you care about our national character, consider these insightful and telling analyses and demand an appropriate accounting from our political leaders."---Henry Shue, Senior Research Fellow, Centre for International Studies, University of Oxford
"We would rather avoid facing the reality of torture. In this book, Gordon shows us that our primary ways of thinking about torture are in fact ways of avoiding the full reality of it. Arguments for and against torture treat it as isolated acts by individuals, but Gordon shows that torture is embedded in a system of social practices with a set of moral habits which are in many ways fostered by society as a whole. This is a well-researched, well-argued, and disturbing book." --William T. Cavanaugh, Professor of Theology, DePaul University
"Torture by our U.S. military and spies is not new. Nor is it the result of a few bad apples. Gordon documents the systematic teaching and use of torture by the U.S. since Vietnam. This excellent book challenges us to end torture. Not only by prosecuting the front line people who get caught, but also going after the high-ranking public officials who are torture's intellectual authors." --Bill Quigley, Professor of Law, Loyola University New Orleans

If you would like Rebecca to speak at your school, university, place of worship, or organization, please contact her at

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Copyright © 2014 Rebecca Gordon, Ph.D., All rights reserved.