Saturday, January 31, 2015

Saturday scenes: "Help Wanted" in San Francisco

I remarked to my small business owner friend that I'd passed a lot of signs of boom times in the few blocks on the way to her store.

"Yeah -- they are always hiring. They pay crummy wages."

"They complain when the people who take the jobs leave as soon as they find something in the East Bay. They don't understand they don't pay them enough to live here."


Friday, January 30, 2015

Central America needs more benign neglect

I can only note with horror that Joe Biden is spinning an Administration plan to turn its attention to Central America. Say it ain't so Joe! Not that tired trope again!

The United States' preoccupation with wars of empire in west and central Asia over that last 15 years has allowed our southern neighbors to get on with developing their own governments and resources. By and large, they are one hell of lot more peaceful and their people live significantly better than back when when Ronnie Reagan and the Reps were obsessing over the red tide rising south of the border, threatening to overrun Harlingen, TX.

Having seen our butts kicked further afield, Joe seems to be promoting a turn to afflict the south again. He's offering to help with "security," with policing. Last time around that meant death squads in El Salvador and genocide against the native population in Guatemala.

He wants to encourage "transparent and fair" legal systems. Hey, we could do with a little of that here at home: how about stopping with the leak prosecutions, reining in the NSA spooks, and prosecuting US war criminals responsible of torture and aggressive war in the last decade? That would encourage lawfulness elsewhere.

He wants Central American economies to attract international investment. Curious. Last I noticed they had. The cash (and the risk taking) are just not coming from the United States. Nicaragua found a Chinese backer for its alternative to the Panama Canal. The project may be an ecological and human disaster, but hey, it's their disaster.

If we want to help Central America, we can stop being a market for drugs. The drug war is a sickness here that fuels many horrors for the neighbors.

Friday cat blogging

While Walking San Francisco, I was observed.

Morty has taught me that these sisal scratching posts are popular. Who knew?

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Flushing Afghanistan down the forgetery

Afghans are still dying; U.S. troops are still dying. The U.S. taxpayers are still paying for it.

But what we get for our money is now classified.

In late December, as they do every few months, American military officials in Kabul sent a trove of data to the office of the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction for its quarterly report. Over the years, such figures have told an often dispiriting story about Washington’s enormous investment in the country’s security forces, laying out their size, readiness, attrition level and the state of their infrastructure.

Five days later, military officials followed up with an unusual request. Commanders in Afghanistan informed the inspector general’s office that they had decided to classify the bulk of that data. The decision came after the military, late last year, classified a periodic report that the inspector general has used over the years as the primary source to assess the state of Afghan forces. ...

The excuse for making the report secret is that revealing what they are doing with the money will help the enemy (whoever that is.) It will also go a long way toward protecting the incompetent, the inept and the merely corrupt.

But hey, that's the signature feature of this empire's phony wars.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Purgation and perplexity in the classroom

A PORCUPINE! ... March 21, 2011
Best assembly ever -- wild animals. We get a fox, opossum, porcupine, a red tailed hawk and great horned owl. A porcupine! How ya gonna beat that? At the end of the day. the school secretary says that there was a baby opossum outside her house once and her husband called the SPCA and they came and picked it up. I figure it might have been the one we saw today and probably grown-up opossums warn their offspring that "if you are bad and don't listen to us, you'll wind up spending your whole life going to assemblies of school children."

You get the sense that Tom Gallagher sometimes wonders whether he did something heinous in a former life that earned him a more than a decade wrangling obnoxious middle schoolers whose teachers have taken a day off. Sub: My Years Underground in America's Schools is a sort of enhanced diary of those encounters and a fascinating window on what really goes on in public schoolrooms in the San Francisco Bay Area. It is a delight. I laughed out loud often. Meanwhile, almost insensibly, Gallagher's deeper concerns show through: these schools, despite most people's best intentions, are failing too many young African Americans. And closer you come to that reality, the less easy it is to imagine easy improvements.

On my second day on this job, let's get serious here for a moment. Third period has seven black kids out of a class of thirty and I have to jump start four of them. One has no book because he forgot it. I give him a hall pass to go get it from his locker, but he comes back saying it wasn't there. Another is spending his time cleaning his binder; two girls are drawing. None of this is antagonistic today, as it was with the kids I kicked out yesterday, but these are the only kids that I have to push.

This is a sort of situation that is repeated all over the place and it's the kind of thing that almost no one knows how to talk about, so they don't. For instance, I haven't even really discussed it thus far. I usually don't even keep notes about how many of the kids I throw out are white and how many are black. But if I really get to talking to someone about what being in the schools is like, I invariably tell them it seriously heightens one's awareness of the plight of black America, a topic to which I shall return frequently.

In one class a black girl with serious vision problems and special large print books complains about the Chinese kid coming up to another Chinese kid across the table from her and asking questions "in their stupid language." "At least we speak another language," the kid says. I tell them both to stifle themselves.

In sixth period the kids have to look up definitions. One of their words is "Martian," but it's not in the dictionary. I give one girl a hint that it has to do with a particular planet. She says, "Pluto?" The kid I gave a referral to is back. He's not disruptive -- other than drinking a can of soda -- which is not allowed in class, but but does no work. I wonder what you do with kids like this in the long run. I tell him he's going to spend the rest of his time in the counselor's office and learn nothing at this rate. He says, "What about when I graduate?" I don't say what's on my mind -- that when he graduates there's unfortunately an excellent chance that a bench in a police station will replace the one in the counselor's office.
At one point, kids who've been doing nothing but talk say they want to work in the hall, but when the aide indicates this is not done, I shoo them back in the classroom. One says, "We'll do our work." I tell him I doubt it, to which he replies, "You say that because I'm black." The aide upbraids him on that and he sits down and continues to noisily do nothing until the aide tells him to go to his proper seat which he refuses to do, and I send him to the counselor ...

Does this guy actually thinks he's discriminated against because he's black, or does he just say it because it gets a reaction? Actually, although I think he's wrong, I don't know that his analysis -- if it really is that -- is any more wrong than most of what goes around on the topic these days. Certainly there are people who think he won't or can't do school work because he's black, although not too many of them will say that publicly these days. And there's others who'll say that his work is poor because his school or his teachers are failing him. And I don't think they're actually on the mark either, to the extent that they think that the primary cause of black students' difficulties lies in unequal treatment or unequal expectations within the educational system. He's not being sent out because he is black, and he's not not doing his work because he's black, and yet insofar as he thinks that his race has everything to do with his relations with the educational system, he's right. ...
And I finish the day in a tranquil island of Algebra Class where a girl who asks me for help is apologetic for asking for the second time. Wow, is that a change! ... Ms. J [the regular teacher] is black, and I really wonder how she feels about the fact that her two best classes -- the Algebra classes -- have not a single black student in them, but I'm sure I'll never speak with her about it. At least I can report a measure of equality on the racial front, though -- the list of students I have ejected from class [throughout the full day] already includes black, white, Asian, and Latino.

And so the beat goes on. The kids think Gallagher looks like Jack Nicholson; some like him a little, some don't. He "yells at children professionally."

He is willing to suggest that maybe African Americans having arrived in this country involuntarily as slaves has something to do with the black kids' troubles -- but he is not on some doctrinaire riff. He's just busy trying to cope.

Can the adults learn to talk with each other more honestly about race and education? Gallagher offers plenty to chew on, entertainingly.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

As the utility of scaring people with the gay menace wanes ...

Here's a little bit more on the fearful fantasies occupying our Republican fellow citizens: Paul Waldman at the American Prospect points to a developing conflation of xenophobia and Islamophobia that he thinks may replace hating the gays as a central theater of culture war:

... a rumor recently began circulating that in many countries in Europe, Muslims have established areas where not only are non-Muslims afraid to go, but where police refuse to go and some version of Sharia law has replaced the actual laws of the country.

... away from debating about what is or isn't happening in Europe, to what might be coming to the United States. Family Research Council head Tony Perkins, an extremely influential figure among the religious right, recently warned that Dearborn, Michigan, and "parts of Minneapolis" are now ruled by Sharia law. In response, Representative Keith Ellison—one of two Muslim members of Congress, who represents Minneapolis—sent Perkins a warm and patient letter inviting him to the city, where he could see that while there are many Muslim Americans who live there, all federal, state, and local laws remain in effect.

While you might think that any whipped-up fears having to do with Muslims are about terrorism, this is as much or even more about immigration. It's an exaggerated version of what so many find disturbing when they see significant numbers of immigrants in and around their communities: that the new arrivals will make them feel like aliens in their own home. People will be speaking a different language, eating different foods, participating in a different culture, and all of it will seem strange and unsettling. ...

The good news: the right is losing on gays, and it will lose on demonizing our latest wave of immigrants, eventually. That's the story of the country.

Noted in San Francisco's Civic Center plaza on a nice fall day. We may be under siege by a wave of tech zillionaires, but as usual, the city by the bay is cheerfully living the conservatives' nightmare.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Fraidycats, the Kochs' errand boy, and Ms. Democrat

So the Republican presidential clown show had its first big meetup in Iowa this weekend and the people who make their living reporting on all these things are enjoying their first outing. Apparently Sarah Palin gave a "bizarro" speech. The rest of the aspirants competed to warm whatever it is that conservatives have in place of hearts. Mostly I intend to forgo this poisonous topic, but I'm letting myself go just this once (for a long while.)

One tidbit that might pass unnoticed deserves highlighting. John Bolton, a crackpot conservative foreign policy intellectual who was George W.'s ambassador to the U.N. (an institution he despises) apparently made quite a hit with his mantra: "it's a dangerous world." Of course it is, but probably less so for citizens of this country, surrounded as we are by two oceans and living under something like the rule of law, than for just about anyone on the planet. But it's the business of the GOP to keep our more credulous fellow citizens scared out of their wits. So prepare for lots of Big Fear.
A friend questioned me over the weekend about which of these lilliputians I think will end up running in 2016. Just for the heck of it, I'll record an early prediction here: look out for Wisconsin governor Scott Walker. He's made a career of demonizing the largely Black population of Milwaukee, repeatedly elected as the county executive by white surrounding suburbs eager to quarantine the darkness in the city. As governor, he made it his main business to break Wisconsin's state employee unions and fought off a labor inspired recall campaign. He demolished a highly plausible woman opponent in the 2014 cycle.

So what if he's an unprepossessing errand boy for the Koch brothers who can't move an audience? He seems to me to have the right qualifications to survive while the rest of these clamoring idiots and self-referential assholes tear each other up. And bring on Hillary: he's already shown he's a tough guy ...

Of course I could be wrong, but I bet some of the money guys for the Reps look at Walker as plausible compromise from among the circus.
Speaking of Hillary, I'll repeat here what I always say about her. Once we elect her, I hope she proves me wrong, but I don't trust any promises she may make to move the country in the direction of greater economic equity. She's run with the wrong crowd, Wall Street and Walmart, for too long. But if she's the Democrat, we must elect her. The majority of us can't afford a president who works only for whites and the one percent. I'll even work to elect Hillary. But since I live in safely Democratic California, I glad I don't have to cast my single personal vote for her!

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Overcoming and outgrowing violence

If, like me, you were introduced to New York Times columnist Charles M. Blow's Fire Shut Up in My Bones (the title comes from a phrase in the Biblical book of Jeremiah, that angry prophet), through the excerpt published in the Times magazine, you might think this was a story of coming to terms with a non-standard sexual orientation. Though Mr. Blow indeed "comes out" as bisexual in this memoir, that's only part of the story. As an old time queer myself, I appreciated viscerally the terror that a child in a gay-inhospitable environment can feel when introduced to their orientation by an unfeeling, often exploitative, older person.

But this is really a book whose center is violence, the violence of growing up poor, rural, isolated and Black, in addtion to being bisexual, in Louisiana in the 1970s and 80s. Charles Blow is a miracle -- maybe we all are, but this vital book makes a strong case that he's a particular one to whom we'd all do well to listen.

Some of the violence was at home.

The only time I ever saw a person actually shoot a gun at another, I was five years old, and it was my mother shooting at my father.

His mother had opened herself to his father after they'd broken off; evidence of his further betrayal led to the shooting. She missed, perhaps on purpose. She also refrained from blowing away one of his lover's who dared to come around when he was seeing his children.

In a family beset by betrayals, Blow was further betrayed by the older cousin who molested him, awakening sexual feelings he had no way to interpret in a place and situation in which he had no one to turn to for explanation. To be labeled "punk or "sissy" would have been to risk his life, literally. He struggled to find a safe way to be a man, in the sight of others and to himself, not always successfully.

There's not much evidence of a successful civil rights movement in this story. Gibsland, where Blow grew up, had a segregated cemetery then; in interviews about the book, he reports that it still does.

In Gibsland, our racial role playing was subtle and sophisticated. We had an unspoken understanding: we simply danced around each other, moving to a tune that everyone knew but no one sang ... I never heard or saw anything overtly unpleasant in public. That is, until the first time I was called a nigger.

... Hearing that word made me reconsider everything I thought I understood about my life. ...

I thought about how older black people tried to pass a fear of white men on to us. "If you don't act right, the police gone git you." "Police" was just a term of art for white men. Sometimes they dispensed with the euphemisms altogether and just said, "That white man is gone git you," pointing to any white man in sight. ...

I could easily have followed these racial cues: that white people were to be feared, to be kept at a distance, to be fed with a long-handled spoon. I began to internalize this fear. ... Luckily, I was saved from that fate by [his grandmother] Big Mama's relationship with a white family she worked for in Arkansas -- the Beales. ... it wasn't the working relationship that stood out and made the most difference to me as a young boy. It was what I registered then as their basic goodness to each other, their sense of sameness. My family's interactions with the Beales prevented racial fear and mistrust from taking hold. ...

Quite likely, Blow is a columnist at the Times today because he saw one humanly decent relationship between whites and blacks in his segregated youth.

Amidst all the violence Blow describes, I found most disturbing the tale of the physical hazing that he and other fraternity pledges at Grambling chose to endure to be admitted to the brotherhood. I am lucky enough to have come of age in a time and place in which the Greek system was viewed as a regressive artifact of a dying social order. (Would that we'd been right!) I've since come to understand that for some African Americans, these organizations provide support in a foreign and hostile white culture. But beating the shit out of each other seems kind of sick. He explains its rationale:

Brothers had to make pledging physically difficult so that the bond would be stronger -- the bond between individual pledges and the bond between them and us. Unspoken in it all, the subtext, was that the hazing, with its brutality and physical hardships, was supposed to connect us to ancestral suffering, providing a generational through line of punishment and perseverance, from bondage to fraternal bonding. Thus, the Brothers saw no wrong in it -- only honor and heritage ...

Blow eventually rejected the practice after having been elected president of his fraternity chapter. Blow does not explicitly address this, apparently preferring to speak of bonds within the fraternal group, but I cannot help wondering: was this violence through which young Black men sought to prove themselves yet another warped residue of our country's original sin, of slavery? That verdict is there in his language, intentionally or not. And he's a pretty darn intentional writer.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: hands

We leave our mark.

Even if the surface is cold and hard.

Even scratched in the concrete -- and colored.

Hands record a moment in time.

Where the hand is art, we want our part.

All byproducts from 596 Precincts.

My congresswoman at her best

As Republicans try, again, to outlaw abortion, Democratic House minority leader Nancy Pelosi reminds a press conference that yes -- she does know more about babies than the pope.

Friday cat blogging

This well-fed creature greeted me as I trudged a precinct in Glen Park.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Occupied minds: into a spiral of never ending violence

The Brazilian liberation theologian Leonardo Boff has offered a thoughtful response to the terrible massacres of transgressive cartoonists, random Jewish shoppers, and bystanders that is riling France and all of Europe. Boff nettled the Vatican in the 1980s and 90s with his insistence on moving theology to the side of the poor and outcast. In 1992, he resolved those conflicts by giving up his priestly functions and "promoting himself to the state of the laity." His blog post on Charlie Hebdo is reproduced in full below.

Understanding the terrorist attack on Charlie Hebdo in Paris

It is one thing, and it is justifiable, to be indignant over the terrorist action that killed the best French caricaturists. It was an abominable and criminal act, which no-one can support.

Trying to understand analytically why such terrorist acts occur is different. Such acts do not fall from a clear blue sky. The sky behind them is dark, comprised of tragic histories, great massacres, humiliations and discrimination, and not just from true wars, such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, that sacrificed the lives of thousands upon thousands of people, or forced them into exile.

The United States and several European countries were involved in these wars. Millions of Moslems live in France, the majority in the peripheries of the cities, in precarious conditions. Many of them, although born in France, are discriminated against to the point that it appears to be true Islamophobia. After the attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a mosque was sprayed with gunfire, a Moslem restaurant was set on fire, and an Islamic prayer house was also shot at.

The issue is one of overcoming the spirit of revenge, and renouncing the strategy of confronting violence with still more violence. That creates a spiral of never ending violence, that produces countless victims, most of whom are innocent. And it will never achieve peace. If you want peace, prepare the means of peace, which is the fruit of dialogue and of the respectful coexistence among all.

The terrorist attack of September 11, 2001 against the United States was paradigmatic. The reaction of President Bush was to declare “endless war” against terror and to pass the “Patriot Act” that violates citizens’ fundamental rights.

What the United States and her Western allies did in Iraq and Afghanistan was a modern war with the loss of countless civilian lives. If in those countries there had only been large date palm and fig plantations, nothing like that would have occurred. But in those countries there are great oil reserves, the blood of the world system of production. Such violence left a residue of rage, hatred and a desire of revenge in many Moslems who lived in those countries and elsewhere, all over the world.

Starting from that background one can understand that the abominable Paris attack was the result of this prior violence, not a spontaneous act. Not that this justifies it.

The effect of this attack is to instill widespread fear. That is the what terrorism seeks: to occupy the minds of the people and make them prisoners of fear. The principal point of terrorism is not to occupy their territory, as Westerners did in Afghanistan and Iraq, but to occupy their minds.

Sadly, the prophesy the intellectual author of the September 11 attempts, Osama Bin Laden, made on October 8, 2001 was realized: "The United States will never again have security, never again have peace." To occupy people’s minds, to keep them emotionally destabilized, to make them distrust any foreign gesture or person, is the essential objective of terrorism.

To reach its objective of dominion of the minds, terrorism follows this strategy:

(1) the actions must be spectacular, otherwise they do no cause widespread commotion;

( 2 ) the actions, in spite of being hateful, must inspire admiration for the ingenuity involved;

( 3 ) the actions must show that they were meticulously prepared;

( 4 ) the actions must be unexpected, to give the impression of being uncontrollable;

( 5 ) the authors of the actions must remain anonymous (using masks) because when there are more suspects, the fear is greater;

( 6 ) the actions must cause lasting fear;

( 7 ) the actions must distort the perception of reality: anything that is different can produce terror. It is enough to see some poor children walking into a commercial center, and the image of a potential assailant is produced.

Let us formalize the concept of terrorism: it is any spectacular violence, done with the purpose of filling people’s minds with fear and dread. Violence itself is not important, what is important is its spectacular character, its capacity for dominating everybody’s mind. One of the most lamentable effects of terrorism was that it promoted the terrorist State that the United States is now. Noam Chomsky quotes an official of the North-American security apparatus, who confessed: "The United States is a terrorist state and we are proud of it.}

Hopefully this spirit does not predominate in the world, especially in the West. If it does, we are headed for the worst kind of encounter. Only peaceful means have the secret strength to overcome violence and war. That is the lesson of history, and the counsel of wise humans, such as the Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr, Francis of Assísi, and Francis of Rome.

Free translation from the Spanish by
Servicios Koinonia,

Emphasis within the article is mine.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Georgia to kill a man with a 6th grader's grasp of the world

On January 27, the state of Georgia plans to execute Warren Lee Hill for bludgeoning a cellmate to death. I wouldn't want to be locked up with this guy. He's apparently a menace, or at least he was in 1990 when he committed the crime.

But didn't the Supreme Court had decided in 2002 that, whoever else this country executes, it shouldn't kill the "mentally retarded"?

Yes, that was the decision. But that merely turns the question of who is "mentally retarded" into something to be argued in the courts. Georgia requires that a claim of intellectual disability be proved "beyond a reasonable doubt." Hill's lawyers argued that his IQ is 70; Georgia responded that it is 77. (I have discussed previously that IQ measures nothing but skill at IQ tests but this is not the ground they are arguing on.) Both sides produced "experts." The American Association of Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities weighed in for Hill; they want the condition of their constituency to be taken seriously.

The Supremes punted, failing to uphold and follow through on defining the implications of their own ruling. So Hill is scheduled to die.

We wouldn't be litigating this stuff if we just locked up dangerous people until/unless they stopped being dangerous. But that wouldn't satisfy some people's need for "closure"/revenge.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Involuntary blog break

This head cold leaves me feeling as if my nose were the size of this bear's. And my brain feels as stuffed as his is. I'm lost in enjoyable reading and will return when I am breathing (and thinking) more normally.

Monday, January 19, 2015

A holiday to remember Dr. King

Two offerings for this day. First, evidence that the schools are trying. Rather sweet. I'm reading and greatly enjoying Tom Gallagher's Sub: My Years Underground in America's Schools, so finding it hard to be sanguine about anything that comes out of what my parents called "the halls of learning."

My friends from Ferguson Action and Black Lives Matter have been disrupting the smooth functioning of everyday life to get the attention of us all. They want us to be reminded that Dr. King was a radical. He was.

It would be hard to find a sentiment more radical than this, from his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, engraved on the King memorial in Washington.
Now to get there ...

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Police preying on the people

A couple of Philadelphia reporters won a Pulitzer Prize in 2010 for what amounts to a local case study of the police misbehavior that Radley Balko explores in The Rise of the Warrior Cop. The book that came out of their investigations, Busted: A Tale of Corruption and Betrayal in the City of Brotherly Love by Wendy Ruderman and Barbara Laker is a terrific companion volume to Balko's, a quick read, and a reminder that shoe leather journalism can bring to life realities that sociological and analytical journalism merely describe.

A terrified police informant turned up in the city room of the Philadelphia Daily News, the city's screaming tabloid, with a story of working for a narcotics cop who sent him to set up acquaintances with drug buys -- and paid him with rental living quarters. Uh-oh ... the two women chased down this improbable tale, verifying its truth. They then started hearing that the same squad was raiding corner stores owned by immigrants, stealing merchandise, trashing their alarm systems, and dropping phony charges on the proprietors. Uh-oh ... so that's why the cops always had candy bars to pass out to street regulars from whom they wanted something. Once these stories hit the news, women began to tell them horror stories of being molested by a particular member of the narco squad who had a thing for baring and fondling the breasts of unfortunate females held in proximity to drug raids.

Unlike Balko, Ruderman and Laker make it abundantly clear that the reason these corrupt cops could get away with this behavior for years was that Philadelphia authorities neither believed nor cared about abuse of African Americans and other residents of color. The cops were white and they wouldn't have thought of trying this stuff in white communities. (The reporters were also white.)

Balko writes that J. Edgar Hoover always refused to commit his beloved F.B.I. to rooting out drug commerce.

[He] knew the issue was a loser and tended to lure law enforcement into corruption.

It would be hard to imagine a more concrete, thorough indictment of how the "War on Drugs" makes police into yet another predatory gang running wild where they can than Ruderman and Laker offer here.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Saturday scenes: on public toilets

National Park facilities often get this right
I take this eruption of wingnut craziness personally: Lawmaker Wants To Pay Students $2,500 If They See A Transgender Person In The ‘Wrong’ Bathroom.

Let me explain: although I've never doubted that I'm a woman, for all my 67 years I've been a woman who all too frequently inspires gender anxiety in people I encounter. They can't instantly identify whether I'm male or female and it is very important to their own equilibrium that the first glance at me answer that question. Because I'm outsize for the average female, strangers who are not paying attention often make me a male.

Okay, their problem. I'm pretty relaxed about this. It's been happening for a long time. But the one place where it continues to trouble me is in public bathrooms. Every time I enter one, I risk being met either with silent looks of shock and perhaps terror -- or with aggressive demands to go use the other room. It's drag. I just want to pee.

Enter a Kentucky legislator who wants to ensure that his state's students never get over this childish gender absolutism. His prescription is radical:
Sen. C.B. Embry Jr. (R) has introduced what he calls the Kentucky Student Privacy Act (SB 76), which would force all students to be identified by their “biological sex” as determined by their chromosomes and what was assigned to them according to their anatomy at birth, essentially erasing transgender students. The bill requires that bathrooms and locker rooms must be divided according to “biological sex,” and schools are forbidden from accommodating transgender students by allowing them access to any facility “designated for use by students of the opposite biological sex while students of the opposite biological sex are present or could be present.”

... The bill provides that any student who encounters “a person of the opposite biological sex” in a bathroom or locker room shall have a legal cause of action if it’s because the school gave the trans student permission or didn’t explicitly prohibit the trans student from using that facility. The “aggrieved” student would be entitled to $2,500 from the offending school “for each instance” he or she encountered a trans student in a sex-divided facility in addition to monetary damages “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered” and attorney fees.
Mr. Embry should take his personal insecurities about gender and go home. No need to visit them on the young people of Kentucky. His anxious binary world simply doesn't exist and the sooner they learn that, the better.

In honor of Mr. Embry, here are some of my collection of public bathroom curiosity photos (sure, I collect these like every other subject; no people included, of course, except me .)

UPDATE: Because of low turnout in last year's essentially uncontested gubernatorial election, it will now require closer to 365000 signatures, instead of over 500000, to put a law on the 2016 ballot. The San Jose Mercury reports that we may be asked to vote on a bathroom anxiety law that didn't make it this year under the old requirements.

BATHROOM BILL: A conservative advocacy group tried putting a transgender student rights bill -- which allows transgender students to pick which bathrooms and locker rooms they want to use -- on last year's ballot as a referendum and narrowly failed. Now that the signature threshold is lower, the group may try again to reverse the legislation.

Friday, January 16, 2015

SF legal community stages a die-in because #BlackLivesMatter

Several hundred lawyers and friends braved disruptions -- which BART (the subway system) called "civic unrest" -- over its address system to show their support for the movement to end police violence this morning. They filled steps outside the California Supreme Court on McAllister Street in Civic Center.

After a minimum of speechifying, the crowd lay on the steps for 15 minutes, four and half minutes to replicate the 4 and half hours that Michael Brown's body lay on a street in Ferguson, the balance in respect of Eric Garner's eleven dying pleas for New York cops to remove their choke hold.

Hearing the taped voice of Eric Garner while lying on cold concrete has moved me the several times I've participated.

The event was one of a calendar of protests calling for communities to rededicate themselves over the Martin Luther King weekend to the radical pursuit of justice.

Friday cat blogging

This calm creature inspected me as I passed by while Walking San Francisco. I was allowed to scratch under its chin.

Thursday, January 15, 2015

We've always been at war with Those People ...

Journalist Radley Balko's Rise of the Warrior Cop: The Militarization of America's Police Forces is an enormously valuable, insightful book with a gaping hole at its center.

Even if the police aren't running wild in your neighborhood, images of law enforcement acting like occupying soldiers, whether against protesters and bystanders in Ferguson or against Ohio State students celebrating a football championship in Columbus are part of all our lives.

Here's how Balko states the case he explicates:
How did we get here? How did we evolve from a country whose founding statesmen were adamant about the dangers of armed, standing government forces -- a country that enshrined the Fourth Amendment in the Bill of Rights and revered and protected the age-old notion that the home is a place of privacy and sanctuary -- to a country where it has become acceptable for armed government agents dressed in battle garb to storm private homes in the middle of the night -- not to apprehend violent fugitives or thwart terrorist attacks, but to enforce laws against nonviolent, consensual activities?

How did a country pushed into a revolution by protest and political speech become one where protests are met with flash grenades, pepper spray, and platoons of riot teams dressed like Robocops? How did we go from a system in which laws are enforced by the citizens, often with non-coercive methods, to one in which order is preserved by armed government agents too often conditioned to see streets and neighborhoods as battlefields and the citizens they serve as the enemy?
Balko's history of the evolution of a professional police force in cities is not a topic many of us have encountered in school; we're encouraged to assume that the presence of overbearing, heavily armed, enforcers is a fact of urban nature, when actually it is something of a novelty in this country. He canvasses how the social disruptions of the 1960s and their exploitation by politicians began to normalize extreme police tactics. But he maintains that considerable respect for restrictions on law enforcement survived the era of the Black urban rebellions (Watts; Detroit; Washington DC and hundreds of other cities). It was the Nixon administration's need for a domestic enemy on whom to demonstrate its toughness that led to the "War on Drugs" and our trajectory toward today's militarized cops who have completely escaped most tactical and legal restraints.

I learned a lot from his account, some of it tangential to his main point. I've never much focused on the ills of the Drug War but Balko clarified for me a vital point about how this sort of ill-defined forcible intervention multiplies violence on our streets and across the globe. In the effort to stop drug commerce, law enforcement picks off dealers and attempts to break up their networks. But drug selling is an ordinary business that happens to be carried on outside the law; if some kingpins are removed, somebody else will rush in to pickup the trade. After all, there are profits to be won. And if there are multiple claimants on the territory, because they operate without law, they often fight it out to the great detriment of our neighborhoods. Presumably just such a fight over state power we've destabilized is also what we are seeing in such targets of U.S. "democratization" as Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, and Somalia.

Balko also documents thoroughly and frighteningly how police departments have come to misuse their authority to seize property they decide has been used in illegal business, usually without any judge's approval. Nice way to equip your force if you can get away with it, and you mostly can. And we've also begun, if we've watched the news, to realize that with the waning of mass U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is unloading surplus war-making equipment to domestic police forces, such as Davis, California's $700,000 armored tank.

This is a frightening picture; Balko does a great job of drawing it. Any engaged citizen of this country would do well to read and digest his account. And just maybe we can reverse some of this -- though probably not without confronting what Balko leaves out of his picture.
So what's to critique here? For all the depth and rigor of Balko's reporting, somehow he has described the militarization of our police forces without coming to terms with the white supremacist history and current white supremacist reality of our society. We permit police to brutalize and kill people, to stomp upon historic constraints on state power embedded in the Bill of Rights, because those of us who are white, largely unconsciously, count on police to protect us from Those People. And for this protection we give cops the benefit of the doubt unless we experience the reality of police violence up close. The reason that most officers are so confident that they are doing the job we gave them is that they are. Even if officers themselves come from communities of color, their institutional role as the guardians of a white country endures.

In the words of an anonymous correspondent at TPM:
the reason that [police who kill Black, brown and crazy people enjoy] support and trust ... is due to the fact that what they are protecting the majority population from, in the minds of far too many in that population, is us!

From the Slave patrollers to the rural sheriffs, to the modern police forces, the threat perceived most vividly by the population they “protect and serve” is that of the (violent) black person. Even a cursory look at the history and culture of this nation will reveal that in popular culture for many decades the majority culture was told to be scared of people of color. The result of this villainization of Black, Brown, Red and Yellow skin is a populace that believes, at least subconsciously, that any stranger with a dark skin is a potential threat. ...
It's true and if we want a less violent abusive society, this is what has to change.

All this seems worth remembering as we approach the weekend on which we claim to honor the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, that radical disturber of a false and unjust "peace."

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

A San Francisco vignette

As I stepped distractedly into Mission Street, I felt a light tug on my elbow. I looked up just in time to jump back to the curb, escaping the onrushing Muni bus that was barreling through a red light.

I looked at the elderly Chinese woman who had alerted me to danger -- and thanked her. She smiled the smile of someone who understands, even if your language is not hers.

When the bus cleared the intersection, she pointed. "Green, go." I thanked her again.

In this international tourist destination, we all learn we must assist tourists, newcomers or simply unconscious residents who need help to understand our ways.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Reflections on "Being Mortal"

In a thoughtful response to Dr. Atul Gawande's new book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, journalist Sarah Kliff captures the difficulty of the topic for most of us:

We don't like to think about death — and so we don't.

And that can make for less satisfying experiences of old age and of death than we need have.

Gawande is a crystalline writer, not what you'd expect from a surgeon. He skips comfortably between sociological exposition, journalistic story-telling and personal reflection. After all, dying is inescapable, but we interact with that reality on multiple levels, as caregivers, healers, patients and unique individuals whose days are always ebbing. This is a wonderful book.

Because this book is being discussed widely (it is currently Number 4 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list), I'm not going do much describing. I'll just borrow some tidbits from Kliff's article and then add some reflections about some deaths in my own family experience.

Here's Kliff:

[Gawande] argues that his profession has done wonders for the living, but is failing the dying. "Scientific advances have turned the processes of aging and dying into medical experiences," he writes. "And we in the medical world have proved alarmingly unprepared for it." ...

"The curve of life becomes a long, slow fade," Gawande writes. That slow, long fade means we get to live longer, but often at the cost of our autonomy, and, in the view of some, at the cost of our most essential self. Autonomy — the freedom to see the people we want, partake in the activities we enjoy, and wake up each morning to our own agenda — is a value that arguably all of us hold dear. Even as physical independence disappears, it is possible (albeit more challenging) for autonomy to remain and for the elderly to retain control of how they spend their days.

Gawande speaks with Keren Wilson, the woman who opened the country's first assisted-living facility. And she gave him one of those quotes that every reporter dreams of — a single sentence where, after hearing it, you can't ever look at the issue in the same way again. "We want autonomy for ourselves and safety for those we love," she says.

My parents both achieved almost Un-American deaths. That is, they died in their own home without much medical intervention. This was not the norm, even in the 1990s. I often say they soldiered on until their bodies wore out, never seemed to imagine changing how they lived even as what they could do narrowed, and never wanted to be a burden to anyone else. When their time came, they slipped away. This was both brave and terrible.

My father had emphysema (COPD: chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) for at least a decade. It was not diagnosed and oxygen prescribed (as is routine) until two weeks before he died. Essentially, he had allowed himself to age out of the medical system. Most of his life, his doctor was either a friend of his parents or someone he had gone to high school with. When the last of those retired, he acquired a nominal connection to some guy in what I thought of as a Medicare mill, an impersonal office in a suburban strip mall. He was by then too old and enfeebled to ever learn that one's name. And the scientific practice there -- blood pressure measurements, weigh-ins, tests -- never made any sense to him. So he sort of fell out. He had a heart attack in the bathtub at age 87 and died before the neighbor my mother summoned to help could move him back to his own bed.

My mother had a somewhat better experience with doctors. After my father died, she canvassed her friends and somehow found a woman geriatrician whom she liked. But she was medically-averse. She didn't expect a doctor to extend her life span. The only expedient she believed in to combat aging was to keep moving. (In fact my father's COPD diagnosis only came because she was so frustrated that he had stopped being able to take his labored half-block walks.) She took no medicines but a vitamin pill; I think she thought drugs would kill her. She eventually had an incapacitating stroke and, thanks to neighbors and that geriatrician, we did not move her to a hospital against the wishes she had long expressed. She died in her own bed four days later.

Gawande's book made me realize that my parents had brought me up to value autonomy over safety, so it never occurred to me to urge on them choices that might have resulted in more medical intervention in their deaths.

But on reflection, I also realize that my parents were not the primitive throwbacks that the stories I've just told might suggest. You see, my mother's mother, my much loved grandmother, had suffered through an aging process -- a medically assisted "long slow fade" -- like those Gawande so vividly explores. She just did this a couple decades before such experiences became the norm, finally passing on at the age of 91. Sometime in the 1950s, the vigorous woman I'd known fell on the Buffalo winter ice and broke a hip. She was given what was always called in the family "that plastic hip." Whatever the doctors implanted never really worked and gave her chronic pain. She never walked unassisted again. She required daily assistance from a paid (and devoted) caretaker as well as family members. Despite being able to afford and secure the most modern medical care, she lost almost all hearing and later her sight. She had at least one surgery to try to fix or upgrade the "hip," but that didn't help. She got pneumonias and bowel stoppages that required hospitalization and even surgery. And she dragged on like this for almost 20 years, patient but frustrated and extremely frustrating to those near her. She died in hospital intensive care in 1972. This was medicalized death in all its horror.

I wonder, after reading Gawande, if some of what I thought was my parents' extraordinary passivity in approaching their own mortality derived from what they had seen happen to this lovely old woman who was very much a part of our lives. They weren't going to go through that.

I hope not to either.

Monday, January 12, 2015

Twitter tête-à-tête

In the wake of terrorist attacks in France, the press magnate bares his ugly entrails:

Harry Potter's creator schools Murdoch:

If only information could really quiet fear ...

H/t Juan Cole.

Sunday, January 11, 2015

If case you wondered ...

Of 247 Republican members of the House of Representatives, 131 are climate science deniers. Thirty-nine of the 54 Republican Senators fall in the same category.

With the retirement of Nebraska Senator Ben Nelson last year and the defeat of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu in December, we've seen the last of prominent Democrats who were outright deniers. But there remain plenty who are reliant on campaign contributions from oil interests, coal mining firms, and energy companies. Still, as David Roberts patiently explains we can assume that

... the rightmost elected Dem is to the left of the leftmost elected Republican.

So if we want action to prevent the worst effects of climate change, We the People are going to have to work for more and better Democrats, while continuing to beat up on the ones we do elect.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: fantastic fungi

I noted this one while Walking San Francisco. The others came along over years of wandering and hiking.

These dangerous looking items were on a peak named Quandary in Colorado.

This one grew on a tree on the side of Mt. Madison in New Hampshire's Presidential range.

I don't have a record of where this one grew. Probably Martha's Vineyard.

I find the close up shot a little frightening.

Friday, January 09, 2015

It's all a Democratic plot!

So that's why the Prez is trying to boost educational levels by making community colleges tuition-free.

Paul Waldman points out that the numbers in the upper graphic refer to white college grads.

Intellectual effervesence in Central Asia

This book enlarges its readers' world and renders that world more complex -- and it is also a strangely defensive, none too well organized, repetitive volume that will likely frustrate many who encounter it. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane by S. Frederick Starr is an exhaustive catalog of historic intellectual glories in the "Stans" -- Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan et al., about which Westerners know very little, even after a couple decades of military adventurism in the region. Starr obliquely suggests as much in this huge volume.

Central Asia's Golden Age, in Starr's telling, lasted roughly from 700 to 1150CE. He argues that the region possessed particularities that should be more recognized.

Above all, Central Asia was a land of cities. ...

It was irrigation, and only irrigation, that made possible the rise of civilization on some of the otherwise barren land of Central Asia. In this sense it is fair to call Central Asia a "hydraulic civilization," one in which the main focus of social energies was on the construction and maintenance of complex systems for the conservation, distribution, and overall management of a scarce resource: water. Over time the stress on irrigation created highly disciplined social orders and strictly hierarchical political cultures -- which Wittfogel called despotisms. The governments assumed full responsibility for the large and complex irrigation systems, including the critically important task of mobilizing and managing the labor force that maintained them.

... Central Asia [formed] a civilization in its own right and not merely a crossroads for the cultures of others.

This was not just where merchants traveling between China met traders from more western empires in Persia and even the Mediterranean basin. It is important to Starr to emphasize that the cities of Central Asia possessed their own cultures, religiously and intellectually diverse, within which the rulers of cities often felt an obligation to fund original thinkers -- polymaths who explored mathematics, astronomy, calendars and engineering principles, not to mention writing poetry. These men (Starr notes they are all men though women were sometimes prominent merchants) also rigorously translated whatever books came their way into regional languages. It is through their translations of Hellenic Greek texts that the writings of Aristotle and Plato were preserved until they were passed back to Europe.

Into this land of city-states came Arab warriors whose zeal for conquest arose from the new revelation of Islam.

The Arab conquest of the late seventh century was a cataclysmic event in the history of Central Asia but by no means an unprecedented one. In fact, external powers had repeatedly conquered the regions city-states and subjected them to their rule. Among these invaders were some of the most powerful empires of the classical age and late antiquity. Yet none of them succeeded in fully controlling, let alone governing, the territory they had gained through force of arms. Their experience -- like that of more recent aspiring hegemonies in the region -- confirms the wisdom of Gibbon's remark that conquered territories are invariably a source not of strength but of weakness.

The reason for this is clear: in the course of their long and difficult history, Central Asians had mastered the art of managing their conquerors. These talents were to be brought into play after the Arab conquest as well.

... The flowering of Central Asian thought and culture that took place over the following three and a half centuries would never have happened without these revolutionary changes introduced from the Middle East.

... The fact that people of the region had absorbed several of the world's major religions prior to the advent of Islam shaped how they received the Islamic message and, later, how they dealt with the appearance of forgotten books by classical Greek authors. In every case the Central Asians began by compiling the holy writings of each new religion to which they were exposed, or the various treatises of the classical authors, editing them, and, in some cases, translating them into local languages. This practice gave them a deep knowledge of each body of thought and an independent perspective from which they could analyze the next incoming set of ideas. Through this process Central Asians became masters at adapting new religions and ideas to their lives, and not passively adopting them. Thanks to this, Central Asia shaped Buddhism and Islam almost as much as those world religions shaped Central Asians.

Each new religion brought its own language, whether the Old Persian of Zoroastrianism, Greek for the Hellenic pantheon, Sanskrit for Buddhism, or Syriac (Aramaic) for Christianity. Islam brought Arabic, which, more than any of the tongues that preceded it, became the chief language of intellectual discourse regionally and a vehicle for international communication. ... the Arabic language became a vehicle for the introduction of new ideas in Central Asia. When it ceased to fulfill this function [became soley the language of religious practice], the intellectual effervescence dissipated.

To outsiders, one of the paradoxes of Islamic intellectual history is that this region of "intellectual effervescence" was also where a rigidity of mind originated that eventually shut down imaginative exploration of the Quran and the Haddiths (stories of the Prophet first collected here). Starr traces this to backlash against Caliph Mamun's "rationalist inquisition" (831-848) which elevated science and reason over belief and spiritual experience. Mamun imprisoned those who would not go along. Two centuries later, the influential Islamic intellectual Abu Ḥamid Muḥammad ibn Muḥammad al-Ghazali inveighed against speculative thinking and

succeeded in marginalizing the philosophers, cosmologists, epistemologists, mathematicians, and theoretical scientists. Henceforth they lived as if in a building with very low ceilings. ... as more and more aspects of life were brought within the embrace of Islamic law, a rigid legalism came to dominate the intellectual sphere, and innovation became a term of opprobrium. The fading of Central Asia's Age of Enlightenment can be neatly calibrated in terms of the number of open questions that remained and the willingness of the intellectuals to explore them.

Though this can seem a terrible disaster for human flourishing, I really appreciated that Starr repeatedly reminds us that such a conclusion may be more an artifact of our own place and time than a realistic description of Central Asian history. After all, when these battles were playing out, Europe was a backwater. Central Asian civilization thrived for over 400 years. Will the civilization we take for granted last so long? It is symptomatic of our own low ceilings if we neglect to ask.
A more accessible introduction to the history of this part of the world is Tamim Ansary's Destiny Disrupted; more here, here, and here.

Thursday, January 08, 2015

There's something about the women ...

Isabel Wilkerson, the author of the acclaimed history of African American migration within the nation, The Warmth of Other Suns, spells out why there's no stopping the uprising for justice in the wake of police killings in Ferguson and Staten Island. The suffering does not end.
We seem to be in a continuing feedback loop of repeating a past that our country has yet to address. Our history is one of spectacular achievement (as in Black senators of the Reconstruction era or the advances that culminated in the election of Barack Obama) followed by a violent backlash that threatens to erase the gains and then a long, slow climb to the next mountain, where the cycle begins again.

The last reversal of Black advancement was so crushing that historians called it the Nadir. It came after the leaps African-Americans made after enslavement during the cracked window of opportunity known as Reconstruction. The newly freed people built schools and businesses and ascended to high office.

But a conservative counteraction led to a gutting of the civil rights laws of that time and to the start of a Jim Crow caste system in the South that restricted every step an African-American could make. Any breach of the system could mean one’s life. African-Americans were lynched over accusations of mundane infractions, such as stealing a hog or 75 cents, during a period that lasted into the 1940’s.

... And now police assaults on Black people for the most ordinary human behaviors—a father tasered in Minnesota while waiting for his children; a motorist shot to death in North Carolina while seeking help after a car accident. It is as if we have reentered the past and are living in a second Nadir: It seems the rate of police killings now surpasses the rate of lynchings during the worst decades of the Jim Crow era. There was a lynching every four days in the early decades of the twentieth century. It's been estimated that an African-American is now killed by police every two to three days.
My emphasis. The new issue of Essence includes additional essays by Angela Davis, Melissa Harris-Perry, Patrise Cullors, Chirlane McCray, and more.