Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Meandering through the MOOC

So I have completed my experiment with participating in a Massive Open Online Course: "Heroism in World War One" -- what did I learn?

Well, I encountered a useful German word, displayed here. I am not sure English has an exact equivalent. I am also not certain that this German word existed or had any currency before 1945. But the concept sure seems a good one -- for modern Germans and most certainly for us here in the dangerous, fading U.S. empire.

More generally, this course presented concepts of heroism changing over time. From an initial romantic martial jingoism, the picture of the hero morphed to celebrate ordinary soldiers doing their dreadful duty in the trenches and on to including civilians, even women, simply doing the work of carrying on at home. The faculty from the British University of Leeds made an effort that I found heroic to introduce participants to the difficult truth that what we see in history says as much about the time and place from which we are looking as about the factual fidelity of what we observe.

What remains interesting through it all is our strong human drive to find "heroism" in someone. We apparently need heroes. I think the Left needs to remember that people need heroes, even as we tend to be questioning of individuals who stick their heads up from among the group.

I've commented in a previous post about the enthusiasm with which the Brits are taking up the WWI centenary commemorations. After the Scotland referendum, in a country going into elections in May, these emotions are a force, though for what I have little clue.
As for the experience of the MOOC: as pedagogy, the form will eventually find some improvements. In this particular one, I think the course might have been improved by beginning with an attempt to introduce students to a timeline of basic Great War and subsequent events within which the theme would be explored. Given the vast differences that participants brought to the course in educational background and country of origin (I was fascinated to note fellow students from Japan among many more obvious locations), getting us all more or less on the same page about the sequence of events could have been helpful. (Of course, I say this an historian ...)

What worked very poorly for me was the attempt to encourage student dialogue through a long sequential comment section after each exercise and topic. I just don't have the tolerance to read 70 or 80 comments looking for the few that inspire threads I might care about. There was a technical capacity to "follow" certain commenters, but even that would have required reading through vast numbers of contributions to find those few to follow. I wasn't willing to commit the time.

I wonder if the software to could be programmed to assemble random, but diverse, small groups of participants based on profiles we might submit before the course began. People who didn't want to engage with fellow students could opt out, but those who wanted this online conversation could be grouped in manageable size "sections" within which to have some back and forth. I see no technical bar to such an arrangement. Of course, maybe it has been tried and works even less well.

Like any educational effort, you get out of a MOOC what you put into it. This course took time, far more for me than the four hours a week the organizers suggested it might need. I don't know whether this was the case because I brought a fair amount of background to it or was just what it took to get something out of it.

Much of the course involved visual material. Several hour-long video discussions among the faculty were some of the most interesting parts to me -- these were "extras" but, for me, critical for advancing my understanding. There may be life in the old fashioned lecture format yet.

We were asked to assemble visual collections of our own, exercises that grabbed me less. You can see my annotated war memorials here and some war paintings from a BBC collection I selected and commented on. I probably didn't put as much into these exercises as I might have because the MOOC format meant I'd get no feedback on the exercise.

Would I do this again? I've signed up for the same program's course on "Paris 1919 -- A New World" which reassesses the legacy of the peace conference. I'm sure I'll post on that topic sometime in July.

Monday, March 30, 2015

Lessons from an elder: keeping on and moving on

Hollis Watkins: Early Orientation from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation on Vimeo.

Hollis Watkins was born into a poor farming family in Mississippi in 1941. He recalls a childhood at segregated schools where he and his classmates had only the leftover books from the white children who rode school buses to modern facilities.

I knew something was wrong ... My father said to me: "you always stand up for what is right, even if you are the only one standing." ... I felt like the things [civil rights organizer Bob Moses was doing] would lead me to get answers about things I had not been able to get. ... I made a commitment that I would do everything could, when I could, as long as I could until we get these situations straightened out. They still haven't been straightened out, so I am still trying to live up to my commitment. ... I didn't think it would take this long ...

Today, Hollis Watkins is still working with Southern Echo to fulfill the promise of full freedom that was at the heart of the civil rights struggle of the 1950s and 60s.

Hollis Watkins: Founding of Southern Echo following 1964 Summer Project from Mary Reynolds Babcock Foundation on Vimeo.

... for the most part we are still fighting the same battles ... [for] education, worker's rights, decent and affordable housing and voting rights. ...the major goal was to develop a cadre of young community organizers that would be willing and ready to go into different communities and hopefully their own communities ... we initially decided that we were going to start recruiting college students ... [but] they knew what they was going to do ... so we decided we needed to lower the age level... Ultimately we decided we had to start working with young people when they were 5th or 6th grade ... that was it ... and everybody that came understood, in the small group sessions, they had to give the young people a chance to speak and say whatever was on their minds.

H/t Facing South.

Sunday, March 29, 2015

The ways of art, mind, and heart are wonderful indeed

Given my interests, I am a little surprised that I had not encountered the writings of Jack Miles, Professor of English and Religious Studies at UC-Irvine, until I stumbled across God: A Biography. That's my loss. The guy thinks fascinatingly about ultimate things and now I've got a whole new body of writings to explore. He has just come off the seven year project of editing, with six co-editors, The Norton Anthology of World Religions, all 4400 pages of it. It may be awhile before I get to that one.

In the 1996 volume discussed here (it won a Pulitzer Prize for biography), Miles explains his project like this:

I write here about the life of the Lord God as -- and only as -- the protagonist of a classic of world literature; namely the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament. I do not write about (though I certainly do not write against) the Lord God as the object of religious belief. I do not attempt, as theology does, to make an original statement about God as an extra literary reality. I do not write as a historian and therefore do not focus, as historians do, on the successive Israelite and Jewish communities that believed in God. My interest goes not to those believing communities but ... to the God they believed in. ...

His text is the Tanakh, the Jewish ordering of the books that Christians call the Old Testament. The different orders of both these canons were set several centuries into the Common Era (C.E.) -- that's what we called A.D. until the Christian solipsism of that naming came to seem unsupportable. (Here's a pretty clear article on the two differing arrangements of the books; I don't know enough to say what axes may be being ground within it.)

Perhaps in part because I read this book by ear while running and walking, I got off to a bumpy start with God. This is not how we are accustomed to read the Bible, something I have considerable exposure to by way of the extensive lectionary of my church. It took awhile, listening to Miles' exposition, to hear into his description of God's developing character.

...a medieval mystic once wrote, "God cancels the successiveness of men," meaning that while human beings experience their lives one day at a time, God sees their lives' time as a portrait on a wall, every moment visible to him at once. But human beings have returned the favor with a vengeance, canceling the successiveness of the protagonist of the Bible by a tradition of Bible reading that regards the entirety of the text as simultaneous to itself, so that any verse may be read as the commentary on any other verse and any statement true of God at one point is taken to be true of God at all points. ...

.... True, the Lord God of Israel is the creator and ruler of time, and the Psalms delight in repeating that he lives forever. To that extent he is like Aristotle's unmoved mover. And yet, contradictory as this must seem, he also enters time and is changed by experience. Were it not so, he could not be surprised; and he is endlessly and often most unpleasantly surprised. God is constant; he is not immutable. ...

As the book wore on, I found myself able to listen into Miles' story of the deity. I won't say I came away sure I'd heard a "correct" interpretation; rather, I'd absorbed an epic poem about a multifaceted character. I could swim along in it and this was a delight.

... Knowledge of God as a literary character neither precludes nor requires belief in God, and it is this kind of knowledge that the book before you attempts to mediate.

...The Bible insists on nothing about God more than on his unity. God is the Rock of Ages, integrity in person. And yet this same being combines several personalities. Either mere unity (character alone) or mere multiplicity (personality alone) would have been so much easier. But he is both, and so the image of the human that derives from him requires both.

God is no saint, strange to say. There is much to object to in him, and many attempts have been made to improve him. Much that the Bible says about him is rarely preached from the pulpit because, examined too closely, it becomes a scandal. But if only some of the Bible is actively preached, none of the Bible is quite denied. On the improbably unexpurgated biblical page, God remains as he has been: the original who was the Faith of our Fathers and whose image is living still within us as a difficult but dynamic secular ideal.

In an interview about his more recent opus, Miles gave a clue about how we might approach this strange and wonderful volume:

[These texts] have, at least, a chance to work upon the mind and heart the way a work of art does.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

WWI's Forgotten Photographs

I've mentioned before that I've been taking a MOOC -- a Massive Online Open Course. This one is World War I: Changing Faces of Heroism offered by the University of Leeds. Our final assignment was to read or watch a contemporary cultural production about the war and to describe and comment on it briefly. Here's what I produced.

I watched "WWI's Forgotten Photographs" a BBC Documentary from last fall. It is available free here.

I'm an amateur photographer myself, so I was intrigued to learn that WW1 soldiers in both the British and German armies frequently carried small "vest pocket" cameras, made by Kodak in Rochester, NY, USA near where I grew up.

On both sides, the early days of the war were treated as a jolly adventure. A contemporary magazine article warned deploying soldiers to save some film for the front -- not to use it all enroute! At first the British press begged soldiers for war shots, but soon the high command decided that it should control images. Personal cameras were forbidden to the Tommies and their possession could lead to courts martial. Fortunately, some soldiers persisted in recording their experiences, most especially capturing groups of friends, and, in one notable instance, those friends' graves.

German soldiers seem to have been encouraged by their officers to take pictures. I may be over-interpreting a slight impression, but the Germans are depicted as enthralled by the technological possibilities implicit in soldiers using cameras while at war. The sixteen year old soldier Walter Kleinfeldt turned out to be a master image maker. One of his shots heads this article.

The flood of amateur photos on both sides dwindled after 1916 as the war became no longer an adventure, but a brutal, almost incomprehensible slog.

The BBC documentary, viewed as an artifact of 2014, seems to me "heritage" schmaltz, excessively sentimental and florid. A British and a German photographer, descendants of WWI photographers, meet carrying their cameras at the Somme battlefield where their forebears fought, while mood music rises in a crescendo. I guess they could be thought of as icons of contemporary pan-European good feeling. I note the French don't get to participate.

The TV show made me think about why Britain seems to be so enjoying the centenary of WW1. We Yanks won't be doing that; that war was too marginal in our history (for all its very real consequences which we are still struggling with.) I wonder whether in Britain today, WWI enjoys a happy status as the one more or less modern war that seems 1) definitely over and 2) not an occasion for immediate horror or shame. The grandfathers have all died; the empire has faded away; other European states -- Germany and Russia -- suffered the worst subsequent scourges; the nation both endured and eventually triumphed. Just a guess from across the Atlantic.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Lovable counts

Two years ago when working on a California campaign to end death sentences, I had the opportunity to work with representatives of the state's Roman Catholic bishops. These men -- who had just recently successfully trashed my kind in an anti-gay marriage campaign -- were serious allies to the campaign. They organized in parishes to get initiative petitions signed; used Catholic media to push the proposed measure; and enjoined priests to educate the faithful.

Too bad all this did very little to influence the outcome. In California as in the rest of the U.S., a majority of Catholics seem to support the death penalty. In California as in the rest of the U.S., racial and ethnic identities are stronger predictors of opposition: Blacks (historically Protestant) and Latinos (mostly Catholic) show majorities against. In my campaign role, I discovered polling that suggested that, among all Catholic positions on social issues, opposing the death penalty is the one on which ordinary people in the pews are most likely to break with their hierarchs.

Now Catholics have a pope who is affirming unequivocal opposition.

“Today the death penalty is inadmissible, no matter how serious the crime committed,” Francis wrote in a detailed argument to the president of the International Commission against the Death Penalty, based in Madrid.

The pope said capital punishment “contradicts God’s plan for man and society” and “does not render justice to the victims, but rather fosters vengeance.”

Francis added that executing a prisoner can no longer be justified by a society’s need to defend itself, and he addressed two issues prominent in the American context: He declared that the death penalty “loses all legitimacy” because of the possibility of judicial error, and he said “there is no humane way of killing another person.”

The article from Religion News Service quoted here goes on to remark that U.S. Catholic conservatives "chafed at the abolition pleas." After quoting some of the objectors who point out that historic Catholic teaching includes considerable wiggle room in which to approve the death penalty, it asks:

What will this pushback mean for the Catholic Church in the U.S., and for Francis’ popularity? Probably not much.

Like bishops who pick and choose which people should have their human rights affirmed, ordinary Catholics have a history of picking and choosing when to agree with their leaders.

But it can't hurt that a loveable pope has taken up the cause. Loveable counts when convincing people of new possibilities. My kind knows that.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Sharp policy lessons for presidents and their handlers ...

You can't get more establishment than the two academic giants who wrote Thinking in Time: The Uses of History for Decision-Makers. Richard E. Neustadt was a political scientist known for writing the essential book on the limitations of the power of US presidents; he founded the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. Earnest R. May was a Harvard international relations scholar whose lifelong focus on intelligence failures equipped him to be a senior advisor to the 9/11 Commission.

I've been dipping into this 1986 book which aims to outline for policy makers a series of steps that, if they'd only use them, would help them make better informed and more feasible decisions. The authors' examples jump about through presidencies from FDR through Ronald Reagan and through policy conundrums from the initiation of Social Security to arms control efforts with the Soviet Union. Some of these events, like the swine flu that wasn't under Gerald Ford, look minuscule in retrospect; others, like the Cuban missile crisis still yield lessons.

There's a lot in this little book. I'm only going to discuss a small sample that I enjoyed and which gives the flavor of these authors. One of Neustadt and May's concepts is what they call "placement." By this they mean that you are likely to have a better understanding of the people you are working with (and sometimes against) if you know something of the personal histories that may have shaped their policy instincts. They talk about assigning interns to chase down biographies via such sources as Who's Who. In the age the NSA dragnet and Google, this seems quaint.

But of course the concept holds, perhaps especially in international relations. Their description of Jimmy Carter's inept approach to German Chancellor Helmut Schmidt -- and Schmidt's corresponding incomprehension of Carter -- still probably catches too much of what passes for U.S. international interactions.

From government to government, one is usually dealing with career officials or experienced politicians. Class differences recede. Still, someone from another country ordinarily has little American history in his head, and even that is possibly peculiar to his vantage point. ...

That Americans who deal with foreigners should "place" them in their histories ought to be obvious; one might think therefore the practice was common. As far as we can tell, it is not. ...[E]ven -- or especially -- in dealings with our close allies that sort of empathetic effort seems remote from usual practice.

... Schmidt was only a half a dozen years older than Carter (and looked younger) but his political experience was incomparably wider. [As the leader of a weak parliamentary government, the German politician needed and expected to be listened to in Washington.] ... If Carter felt that he might someday want Schmidt to do something for him -- or not do something to him -- [proper "placement"] would have suggested the President acknowledge the Chancellor's superior experience, listen to him with an air of respect, and, before doing something that might cause Schmidt grief, give him reasons, with a tone of equal speaking to equal, allowing him time to make preparations in Bonn. ...

... The actual tactics of Carter ... were exactly the opposite. ... When Schmidt started to offer advice, Carter cut him off. ... the President said afterward that he found Schmidt "obnoxious."

... But the failure in placement was mutual. ... Just a little reflection might have opened Schmidt's mind to the unpleasing truth that the new President probably knew little more about hm than that he was a Socialist head of government with a frail majority, and possibly nothing about his country except that it used to be Nazi, now wasn't, but sold Americans too many cars.

... One veteran of the Carter Administration, also long acquainted with Schmidt, feels sure in retrospect that, with only a little imaginative effort, Schmidt could have made Carter a dogged friend and ally. We are inclined to agree. With a good deal less brainpower than Schmidt but, partly for that reason, more experience in personal charm, British Prime Minister James Callaghan managed to use Carter occasionally as the equivalent of an extra Labour Party whip.

I suspect that most U.S. policy makers still tromp about the world this oblivious to others. On the other hand, I suspect that improved international communications may well inform foreign leaders who have to deal with us rather better than in Neustadt and May's time. That's what happens when you are an empire that doesn't always know its own strengths and limitations. Others have to suss you out for self-preservation and are likely to become good at it.

The recent antics of the Israeli Prime Minister bringing his election campaign to the Republican Congress would have been fit subject matter for these authors, if they had dared. They seem daring -- though it is noticeable that this Reagan era book does not much delve into that administration's foolishness. We could still use Neustadt and May's candid and acerbic commentary on U.S. policy failures.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Caravana 43: Mexican families of disappeared tour U.S.

Sign on the former police station building in San Francisco's Mission
They behead people by the hundreds. They heap headless, handless bodies along roadsides as warnings to those who would resist their power. They have penetrated the local, state, and national governments and control entire sections of the country. They provide employment and services to an impoverished public, which distrusts their actual government with its bitter record of corruption, repression, and torture. They seduce young people from several countries, including the United States, into their murderous activities.

Is this a description of the heinous practices of the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria? It could be, but as a matter of fact it’s not. These particular thugs exist a lot closer to home. They are part of the multi-billion-dollar industry known as the drug cartels of Mexico. Like the Islamic State, the cartels' power has increased as the result of disastrous policies born in the U.S.A. ...
So begins Erudite Partner's background article published on Monday about the mayhem that the U.S.-sponsored "War on Drugs" has brought to our southern neighbors. It's a good introduction to interconnected horrors in our two countries.

Families of the 43 students disappeared (and murdered) through connivance between politicians, police and drug dealers last September in the town of Ayotzinapa in Guerrero state are currently touring the U.S.
From now until April 28, 2015, parents of the 43 disappeared students are traveling in three caravans throughout the US, covering over 40 cities from the US/Mexico border along the Pacific, central and Atlantic region states. The Caravana43 is calling for justice and accountability, and will shed light on the connection between US foreign policy, and the violence in Mexico.
Families will be in San Francisco over Easter, April 5. More details as they develop.

Family members of disappeared people in Mexico met with the Human Rights Commission of the Organization of American States in Washington DC on Friday. Mexican government officials also attended the meeting. The families are demanding action that leads to searches for their loved ones:

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Essence of journalistic homogeneity

Spotted in downtown San Francisco last week.

Mr. Dickhead steps forward

Paul Waldman reports that Ted Cruz has announced his candidacy for the big prize of 2016 at that bastion of segregation and misogyny, Jerry Falwell's Liberty University.

... he goes on: "Your fight is my fight," he says, and near the end, "I'm ready to stand with you to lead the fight." So now you know what Ted Cruz's campaign will be about. It's about fighting, and leading fights, and standing together while you and he lead fights, or at least he leads the fight while you gaze up admiringly at his fight-leading.

I know I've written that the Republican presidential nomination contest is not worth any waste of braincells, but sometimes it will be just too funny to ignore, as well as scary.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Bloggy day off and suggested read

By the time anyone sees this, I'll have spent 3 days offline in the Sierra foothills and, I hope, decompressed a bit. Back tomorrow ...

If anyone is looking for something longer to chew on, I suggest this significant print review of Erudite Partners' book from The Christian Century.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Juxtaposition: the parish of St. John the Evangelist

The little church I attend embodies the contradictions of its impoverished, artistic neighborhood, just the sort of San Francisco now receding under the tech money tidal wave. Let me offer a translation of a couple of lines from the middle of last week's service leaflet, reproduced above.

For the security of your belongings ...
"Hang on to your purse when you take the bread and wine. Possessions sometimes walk away around here."

Anthem ...
"Enjoy a professional quality performance during the communion by Mr. Daniel Pickens-Jones. In other venues he gets paid, but here he sings for love."

We live and thrive within the mix.

I'm in the Sierra foothills this Sunday, but I thought readers might enjoy this apparent paradox.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Faces stare back at us

Are they warning us off?

Now that's big!

An admonition ...

Is sorrow an appropriate response or am I reading that in?

"I carry the world ..."

It would be easy to miss this one.

All out-takes from Walking San Francisco.

Friday, March 20, 2015

Flag flaps

Last week students at UC Irvine -- apparently a sort of subcommittee of student government -- sought to ban flags, including the Stars and Stripes, from the lobby of the student government offices. Predictably (this is Orange County after all) a lot of people went ballistic. Higher levels of student government, the university administration, and politicians galore condemned and reversed the initiative. The flag was never disturbed, anywhere on campus.

As of three days ago, the UC Irvine Chancellor was still trying to get the internet rage machine turned down. He wasn't much succeeding.

On Thursday, veterans gathered at the campus to stick up for their flag.

Meanwhile, at Pine Bush High School, sixty five miles northwest of New York City, some students and parents were up in arms over a recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in Arabic.

“I think it should be spoken in English. This is America,” resident Joyce Larsen said.

The district said the school’s foreign language department arranged to have the pledge recited in different languages for National Foreign Language Week, which was last week.

Andrew Zink, the senior class president, usually gives the morning announcements and recites the pledge. He said he allowed an Arabic-speaking student to handle the pledge duties Wednesday.

“The intention was to promote the fact that those who speak a language other than English still pledge to salute this great country,” the district said in its statement.

“Had it been done in Spanish first or Japanese first, we wouldn’t be having this conversation today,” Principal Aaron Hopmayer told [CBS2’s Lou]Young.

... Some locals told Young they actually found the district’s apology [to anyone offended by the Arabic pledge] offensive.

“They wouldn’t have to apologize to me or my family for that,” New Windsor resident Patrick Brown said.

Probably the principal does know his community. Does he, or anyone at Pine Bush, know the origin of the Pledge?

The Pledge of Allegiance was written in August 1892 by the socialist minister Francis Bellamy (1855-1931). It was originally published in The Youth's Companion on September 8, 1892. Bellamy had hoped that the pledge would be used by citizens in any country.

Bellamy's kind of pledge might be more to the liking of contemporary young people. The older siblings of these students aren't much on the flag-waving bandwagon according to polling assembled by the Christian Science Monitor.

Just 32 percent of Millennials say US is "the greatest country in the world," compared with 48 percent of Gen Xers, 50 percent of Baby Boomers, and 64 percent of the Silent Generation, according to Pew. Likewise, Millennials are most likely to say America is not the greatest country in the world. ...

American National Election Study found that 45 percent of Millennials say the American identity is extremely important, compared with 60 percent for Generation Xers, 70 percent for Baby Boomers, and 78 percent for Silents.

Only 67 percent of Millennials said flying the US flag made them feel very or extremely good, compared with 94 percent of Silents, according to ANES.

Friday cat blogging

Morty appears such an innocuous fellow when he is passing an afternoon napping. Don't be fooled; at 4 AM he's up and about, often trying to rouse us by grooming our heads. This provokes me to cat tossing. He's not easy to deter.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Obama afterthoughts

Watching the Prez approach the end of his administration, you get the sense that he entered office as the last true believer in the myth of a predominantly benevolent, democratic (small "d"), nation ruled more by considered law than by avaricious interests and irrational passions. He's had quite an education.

"We're here to help ..."

Thanks to Noam Chomsky for a little visual history of the imperial impulse that I'd not seen before.

One of the first [national] myths was formally established right after the King of England granted a Charter to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1629, declaring that conversion of the Indians to Christianity is “the principal end of this plantation.” The colonists at once created the Great Seal of the Colony, which depicts an Indian holding a spear pointing downward in a sign of peace, with a scroll coming from his mouth pleading with the colonists to “Come over and help us.” This may have been the first case of “humanitarian intervention” — and, curiously, it turned out like so many others.

Chomsky is seldom invited to appear in the "paper of record" for all his international acclaim. The whole article is worth your time.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Credit where credit is due

The provisions of Obamacare -- enabling young people to stay on their parents' insurance to age 26 and to buy insurance through the exchange markets that Republicans are trying to kill -- have enabled 16.4 million people to be covered. Sixteen million people have at least a chance of seeing a doctor if they are sick or injured.

We're all going to be sick or injured one day.

Paying off insurers and hospitals was a crazy way to do the job, but Obamacare is working for a lot of people.

H/t TPM.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

It takes a movement ...

Today we celebrate the 153rd birthday of Homer Adolph Plessy. Who was Plessy? His carefully orchestrated protest against segregation was the earliest civil rights test case brought to court that I know of (I could be wrong).

Born in Union-occupied New Orleans in 1862, the young French-speaking Creole grew up in the Louisiana city under Reconstruction (1865-1877). In the racial categories of the day, he qualified as an octoroon, 7/8s white. Thus, according to the law, Plessy was black. He could pass if he wished but he didn't. But Plessy grew up watching the equal rights of people of color eroded by the terrorism of the White League and then by laws mandating segregation by race.

An interracial group of New Orleans residents formed the Comité des Citoyens (Committee of Citizens) to oppose legal segregation. They recruited Plessy to test the separation of races on the railroad.

To pose a clear test, the Citizens' Committee gave notice of Plessy's intent to the railroad, which opposed the law because it required adding more cars to its trains.

On June 7, 1892, Plessy bought a first-class ticket on a train from New Orleans and sat in the car for white riders only. The Committee had hired a private detective with arrest powers to take Plessy off the train at Press and Royal streets, to ensure that he was charged with violating the state's separate-car law and not some other misdemeanor.

Four years later, the case against the segregation law had worked its way up to the U.S. Supreme Court. Plessy's lawyers argued that under the 13th and 14th amendments, he had been deprived of a right (a seat he had paid for) without due process of law. The Supreme Court of the day disagreed, allowing Louisiana's state ban on integrated seating to overturn federal promises and such state laws to prevail until the 1950s.

Plessy legitimized the state laws establishing racial segregation in the South and provided an impetus for further segregation laws. Legislative achievements won during the Reconstruction Era were erased through means of the "separate but equal" doctrine. The doctrine had been strengthened also by an 1875 Supreme Court decision that limited the federal government's ability to intervene in state affairs, guaranteeing only Congress the power "to restrain states from acts of racial discrimination and segregation". The ruling basically granted states legislative immunity when dealing with questions of race, guaranteeing the states' right to implement racially separate institutions, requiring them only to be "equal".

Visiting the Plessy memorial last summer, I was thrilled to learn that this famous test case, even though it was lost, was a product of collective organizing by engaged citizens.

The media usually treats people who take action for justice as if they are only legitimate if their action was a spur of the moment thing, an impulse, not part of any concerted plan. This is seldom the case when people begin to rise up effectively against systems that keep them down.

The classic case is that of Rosa Parks whose determined refusal to go to the back of the bus in 1955 and subsequent arrest kicked off the Montgomery Bus Boycott. It takes nothing away from Parks' legitimacy that others had refused to accept the segregation rules before her, that she was a member of the NAACP which was developing multiple civil rights challenges, and that she had studied non-violent action at the Highlander Folk School. She didn't spring out of nowhere -- she emerged from an engaged community.

That's how effective movements for justice work.

Monday, March 16, 2015

How defense of white supremacy built the Christian right

Once upon a time, evangelical Christians were a progressive constituency in the life of the United States. In the 19th century, evangelicals were a force for abolition of slavery and equal rights for women. They supported public schools and even sometimes criticized the rapacious avarice of capitalism. But for the first half of the 20th century, reeling from ridicule during the Scopes Monkey Trial during which their Bible beliefs were made a laughingstock, they largely withdrew from public life. Religious historian Randall Balmer's Redeemer: The Life of Jimmy Carter makes the case that the pious Georgia politician and 39th President brought them back into the political fray through his forthright affirmation of faith. His presidency then became the hinge that served the purposes of conservative leaders determined to incorporate evangelicals into their right-wing "moral majority." It's an ugly story and Balmer tells it economically and convincingly.

People who came of political age after the 1970s may be surprised to learn that in the preceding decade or so, the religious affiliations of presidents were not front and center concerns. Carter changed that.

Carter's declaration [of born-again Christian faith] represented a departure from the norm in presidential politics. Ever since John F. Kennedy's speech before the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on September 12, 1960, in which he declared his absolute fidelity to the First Amendment and foreswore any influence from "outside religious pressure or dictates," a candidate's religious views simple did not figure into presidential politics. Few Americans knew, for instance, that Lyndon Johnson was affiliated with the Disciples of Christ or that Nixon was nominally a Quaker. Nixon's mendacity changed that equation, and Carter astutely recognized the desire on the part of voters to know that their president possessed a moral compass. Carter, the Sunday-school teacher, came by it honestly, and he spoke the language of born-again evangelicalism fluently.

Having won office by -- honestly -- positioning himself as the moral alternative, Carter ran an administration that was earnest and often inept. He signed the treaty returning the Panama Canal to that country. He proclaimed fidelity to human rights concerns in foreign policy and sometimes even acted on this stance. He had a lot of bad luck, notably being in office when Iranian revolutionaries seized U.S. hostages in Tehran, tickling the national bellicosity.

And he ended up a victim not only of his own failures, of the ongoing distrust among labor and liberals for a culturally conservative southern president, but also of his own white evangelical kind, who were mobilized by far right activists. It is in telling this part of the Carter story that Balmer shines.

... Evangelicals in the late 1960s and throughout most of the 1970s by and large refused to see abortion as a defining issue, much less a matter that would summon them to the front lines of political activism. Abortion simply failed to gain traction among evangelicals, ... Meeting in St. Louis, Missouri, during the summer of 1971, the messengers (delegates) to the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution that stated, "we call upon Southern Baptists to work for legislation that will allow the possibility of abortion under such conditions as rape, incest, clear evidence of severe fetal deformity, and carefully ascertained evidence of the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother."

...Ever since Barry Goldwater's campaign for the presidency in 1964, [conservative activist Paul] Weyrich had been trying to organize evangelicals politically. Their numbers alone, he reasoned, would constitute a formidable voting bloc, and he aspired to marshal them behind conservative causes. Weyrich had the blueprint in place. "The new political philosophy must be defined by us in moral terms, packaged in non-religious language, and propagated throughout the country by our new coalition."...But Weyrich's dream, still a hypothetical coalition, which he already referred as as the "moral majority" (lower-case letters), lacked a catalyst. ... Weyrich, by his own account, had tried various issues to pique evangelical interest in his scheme, including abortion, pornography, school prayer, and the proposed Equal Rights Amendment to the Constitution.

Snubbed on these issues Weyrich recognized by the mid-l970s the necessity of a multi-pronged approach to mobilize evangelical voters. First, he needed to enlist evangelical and fundamentalist leaders in his political crusade; once the leaders were onboard, grassroots evangelicals would follow. Opposition to abortion, as it turned out, would be the secondary, populist issue ... that would energize grassroots evangelicals in the late 1970s. Evangelical leaders, however, had shown little interest in abortion ...

Weyrich found the issue that cut with Evangelical leaders in court decisions denying tax exempt status to institutions like Bob Jones University that practiced racial discrimination. Defending the right of their institutions to remain segregated moved them as nothing else had.

Although there is no evidence to suggest that the Carter White House participated in drafting the regulations, Jerome Kurtz, the lRS commissioner, proposed on August 2, 1978, that schools founded or expanded at the time of desegregation of public schools in their locality meet a quota of minority students or certify that they operated "in good faith on a racially non-discriminatory basis." Evangelical leaders interpreted the IRS proposals as an unwarranted abrogation of their religious freedom. ... When Conservative Digest catalogued evangelical discontent with Carter in August1979, the Internal Revenue Service regulations headed the list. Abortion was not mentioned. ...

... Evangelical leaders, prodded by Weyrich, chose to interpret the IRS ruling against segregationist schools as an assault on the integrity and the sanctity of the evangelical subculture, ignoring the fact that exemption from taxes is itself a form of pubic subsidy. That is what prompted them to action and to organize into a political movement.

And so in 1979, conservatives ousted more moderate leadership of the Southern Baptist Convention (Carter's denomination) and then in 1980 supported the Republican divorced Hollywood actor. Ronald Reagan launched his campaign from Philadelphia, MS where civil rights workers had been murdered, signaling to his sympathies to white segregationists. And most white Christian evangelicals are still running with the party of reaction.

Carter comes off in this telling as a lonely, admirable, individual -- one whose putative constituency perhaps never existed. Not rich, he had to rebuild his bankrupt peanut farm when he returned to Georgia. He chose to leave the local Baptist congregation that had been his home church and join another which was racially inclusive (though insolvent). There was always a cost to sticking with his convictions. Since leaving office, he's built houses with Habitat for Humanity and traveled the world on various peace missions, some of them somewhat fruitful. And through it all, he's taught Sunday school.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

Let's bomb, bomb, bomb Iran for Bibi!

Some right wing twit named Joshua Muravchik wants the U.S. to attack Iran, right now, no negotiations, none of this squishy jawing with other peoples, just blow 'em to bits. He liked the Iraq war too; in fact, he seems never to have met an aggressive U.S. war he didn't like. I hope the Washington Post is enjoying the infamy it is acquiring by publishing this tripe.

I actually read the thing. Muravchik's claim is that Iranians aren't human. They are governed by what he calls "ideology," meaning by that they are incapable of wanting the best for themselves and their children. Why they'd rather die for their "ideology" than negotiate for peace! Therefore we must kill them.

There is a country in the Middle Eastern neighborhood whose leaders too often sound like that, refusing to negotiate for peace (begins with "I" and ends with "L," not " Q" or "N"); Muravchik thinks those leaders' "ideological" blinders are just hunky dory.

What no one seems willing to point out about U.S. relations with Iran is that Iranians make a good case that we started the hostilities. We overthrew the most democratic government they ever had, more or less by giving an adventurous CIA agent his head -- or perhaps to please some oil companies. That government was succeeded by a vicious tyrant whom we propped up for reasons of geopolitics. When they got around to overthrowing the tyrant, we invited him into our country. (We used to offer retirement to used dictators; now they are usually offed, see also Saddam Hussein.) Then some Iranian hotheads got pissed off and seized our embassy and its people. They then played footsie with a right wing Republican running for office (Saint Ronnie R.) and we got the hostages back. Then we supplied both sides in their war with Iraq, pleased to fuel a mass slaughter on a par with World War I. 

So now we must hate Iran forever? Perhaps only because we’ve behaved atrociously toward an ancient people who carry dim but vital memories of ancient empire and don't like to be humiliated.

At present, we're more or less on the same side with Iran, trying to tamp down ISIS.This is a tricky and unstable tactical coincidence, but the Iranians have an advantage we don't in that part of the world: that they are there and we aren't. Yet.

Oh yes -- we are required to bomb Iran because some Israelis (not all -- including for example Israeli intelligence leaders) fear Iran. Projection, maybe? Israel is the strongest military power in the area with some 200 nukes. It can take care of itself!

The United States should be looking out for U.S. interests, not Israeli ones. The interests of everyone in the world (except maybe the military/industrial complex) are served by peace, not war. That should be the object of U.S. power, not Mr. Muravchik's fantasies.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Faces under our feet

They are more common than you may realize until you start looking for them.

Some are quite complex.

Others are rudimentary.

Here someone sought permanence.

The antic ones evoke a smile.

Out-takes from Walking San Francisco.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Our time is coming ...

If I judged books by their covers, this one would be way up there. Fortunately Dr. Muriel R. Gillick, a staff physician at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates and a Professor of Population Medicine at Harvard Medical School/Harvard Pilgrim Health Care Institute, has written a book worthy of its wonderful cover. The Denial of Aging: Perpetual Youth, Eternal Life, and Other Dangerous Fantasies shares her perspective on how we age in this country, focusing first on Medicare, then on the various living options for people who can no longer care for themselves, and ending with a call to the newly old and demographically enormous boomer generation to work for improvements -- improvements that will determine our own fates.

Here's a sample of Gillick's insights and blunt style:

Medicare is an excellent program-for the most vigorous of older people. It is no surprise that Medicare serves very robust elders well, since it was originally designed to provide coverage for older patients with episodic, reversible disease. It works beautifully for a person with an acute illness such as a kidney infection or gallstones, which typically requires a brief hospital stay and a short course of treatment -- antibiotics for the former and surgery for the latter.

But if Medicare is a good program for robust elders, it is profoundly inadequate for people who are frail or who are nearing the end of life. The reason for this inadequacy is that it favors institutional care over home care, it supports technology-intensive treatment rather than labor-intensive care, and it fails to provide adequately for chronic diseases. And people who have multiple medical conditions or are near the end of life fare best with care that keeps them out of hospitals, that helps them manage chronic illness, and that substitutes low-technology treatment for invasive therapy.

Our government insurance systems and the training of medical professionals conspire to rob elders of agency when we become frail (and most of us will.) Medicare doesn't pay for what many old people need to stay in their homes: occasional household help, perhaps to clean, do laundry or cook. Unless relatives step in, elders don't get help from the system until/unless they are sick or injured enough to require hospitalization. And Medicare doesn't cover long term nursing home care; for that, elders must become poor enough to qualify for Medicaid, the state program for the indigent. All of this means systemic preference for the most expensive ways of caring for old people -- and persistent calls to cut the burden to the taxpayer.

Doctors are ill-prepared to help old people hang on to what independence our bodies allow and to make choices that are in accord with our individual values and preferences. Everything about their training makes them aim to defeat disease and decay -- that's medicine's "dangerous fantasy" to which old people are too often sacrificed. Gillick believes it is the doctors job to help patients decide when enough is enough.

... the risk that geriatric medicine might lengthen life without improving its quality is real. The debate about whether existing approaches to care will lead to "compression of morbidity" in which the period of disability and dependence shrinks while overall lifespan grows, or instead to increasingly long periods of frailty, is far from settled.

This book with the wonderful cover was published in 2007. These issues seem to be getting more widespread discussion these days, post-Obamacare, in such works as Dr. Atul Gawande's Being Mortal and Dr. Angelo Volandes' The Conversation. Dr. Gillick continues her reflections at the blog Life in the End Zone.

I should add, if looking for conversation about and among elders, you might like Time Goes By.

Friday cat blogging

As I walked along the fence, I was observed.

Fifty feet further on, another silent presence. Might there be a relationship?

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Second chance citizens

This country is beginning to notice that we over did it. Scared by a real crime wave in the 80s (possibly a consequence of childhood exposure to lead) and, habitually inclined to treat black and brown males as threatening throwaway people, we locked up a larger proportion of our population than any other country in the world.

Now we're beginning to regret it. The costs of incarcerating a felon for a year run around what it costs to attend a public college. And according to the same report, prison terms are "criminogenic." Great word coinage that.

Intuitively, that makes sense: You're locking someone up, away from family and employment, in a place where their only companions are ... other criminals. It would be small wonder to find that when they emerge from an institution, their best employment opportunities lie in the fields of mayhem and mountebankery. But that intuition now has data to back it up: Juveniles who are given harsher sentences are more likely to end up back in the criminal justice system. So the cost to law-abiding citizens may not just include the cost of imprisonment, but also more crime.

We've begun to let some folks out; California voters passed Prop. 47 last fall, leading to reduction of nonviolent felonies to misdemeanors.

But what if, when these people get out, they can't get jobs because employers don't dare look beyond their criminal records?
This Brave New Films video supports a campaign to "Ban the Box" -- to prevent employers from asking prospective employees about their criminal records until they have at least interviewed them. You can sign a petition at that link which will connect you to PICO National Network.

The All of Us or None campaign works in California at removing the many obstacles to bringing people out of prison and back into the community including removing gang injunctions, clearing their records where possible, and restoring voting rights.

The National Employment Law Center publishes an excellent map that shows where victories in the campaign to "Ban the Box" have already been won. California is one of those places.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

"You're not going to shoot someone for stealing a bicycle?"

Henry Morales of CARECEN flanked by Abu Qadir Al-Amin on the left.
One of the speakers at a press conference of religious leaders organized by SFOP-PIA at San Francisco City Hall this morning asked just that this morming. On February 26 in the Mission, the San Francisco Police Department did shoot Amilcar Perez-Lopez for that apparent offense. It has since come out that he was probably the owner of the bicycle in question and that the Guatemalan immigrant may not have understood the cops who were challenging him.

Shootings of black and brown people, mostly young men, just keep on coming. You might think that police departments, however integrated some are, think that's their job.

The joys of learning

There's no better way to learn how something novel works than to try it. In that spirit, I've joined a MOOC -- a Massive Online Open Course. This one is World War 1: Changing Faces of Heroism offered by the University of Leeds.

I've just started, so I can't really comment on the content; but you know I probably will eventually.

The online environment in which the course is offered is something called Future Learn. It is very much based on the idea that we all have different learning styles -- some of us are primarily visual learners, others learn best by ear ... so all materials are presented in multiple styles: videos, text, recordings.

There's a video explaining this, from which I captured the image above. I simply found it interesting. I do "read" a great many books by ear, often while running or walking. Sometimes I feel that I have really comprehended the current book; other times not so well. I think I'll try to collect samples and figure out what makes the difference. The readers? The sort of material? What other factors?

Isn't learning fun?

(By the way, the educational theory that we use different learning styles is currently being vigorously debunked by neuroscientists. Oh well ....)

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

A little more about Selma, 50 years on

In the Times, as he often does, Charles Blow explains why racial relations seem so white hot in Amerkkka these days.

According to the Census Bureau, “The U.S. is projected to become a majority-minority nation for the first time in 2043,” with minorities projected to be 57 percent of the population in 2060.

In response, fear and restrictive laws are creeping back into our culture and our politics — not always explicitly or violently, but in ways whose effects are similarly racially arrayed. Structural inequities — economic, educational — are becoming more rigid, and systemic biases harder to eradicate. But this time the threat isn’t regional and racially binary but national and multifaceted.

So, we must fight our fights anew.

This does go to the heart of our times. I know. I live in California. (And I write this post periodically, because it is still true and still matters.)

You see, in California in the 1990s, the state was very close to its own racial tipping point, reached in 2000. No "racial" group forms a majority here. And guess what? We're fine!

We were not fine in the 1990s. I wasn't just blowing smoke when I was running around telling funders they had to pay for voting rights and citizen participation projects in the state -- that we were becoming the new Alabama. During that decade, the shrinking white majority repeatedly tried to hold off demographic change by popular vote.

In 1994, we voted that we hated (Mexican-origin) immigrants and wouldn't provide those people education for their kids, health care, or other social services. (Fortunately, federal courts mostly said "no" to these attempts by the state to preempt national law and policy.) In 1996, we voted to outlaw efforts to ensure that all groups got a fair chance at public higher education; wouldn't want white prospective students to have to compete with those people. That ban on the affirmative action is still in place and diversity in the University of California system has not yet recovered. In 1998, we voted to ban multi-year bilingual education. Wouldn't want to coddle those people. Let'em speak English, even if they are kids and just arrived.

But demographic change marched on. And though those people are still a minority of the registered electorate, those people voted for Democrats near unanimously. And enough whites also voted for Democrats, so the California Republican Party became vestigial, annually searching for some way to "reinvent" itself. And now the state mostly tries to undo the damage from those years and stumble toward a sustainable future which is going to take the best efforts of all of us.

California is no paradise of racial harmony. Our police departments still kill young people of color with little pretext; they just killed an inoffensive Guatemalan immigrant in my neighborhood last week.

But we're over the hump on demographic change. People struggling to get there in the rest of the country should look to California and feel hope. Change is hard; there have been and will be more casualties. But change very well may not take as long as it looks as if it might from where we are stuck today.
Just one more irresistible moment from Selma. Diane Nash, along with James Bevel, organized the 1965 march. She believed in vigorous nonviolent action for freedom and justice then and she still believes in it now. Last Saturday, she didn't march with the dignitaries -- the participation of George W. Bush detracted too much from what she still holds dear.

... I was not happy there was not a seating section ... for the 'foot soldiers,' the people who actually crossed the bridge 50 years ago ... I think the Selma movement was about nonviolence, and peace, and democracy and George Bush stands for just the opposite, for violence and war and stolen elections. And George Bush's administration had people tortured.

... I think today should have been a celebration of nonviolence. ... it is definitely one of the most significant social inventions of the 20th century. ...

Monday, March 09, 2015

Who knew? Workers and unions gain in Silicon Valley

I admit it. Amid the daily email deluge, communications from the California Labor Federation usually go straight to "delete." But last Friday one such email flew in; I read it; and I learned there interesting developments underway for the people who service the tech industry on the Peninsula.

Apparently the workers who drive buses for Facebook employees to the company's Menlo Park facility voted in November to join the Teamsters. They have now ratified a contract with the contractor, Loop Transportation, that hires them. It looks as if they've gotten a good deal:

Among the provisions of the contract is a pay hike from about $18 an hour to about $24.50, employer-funded family health insurance for full-time employees, more holiday and vacation time, a 401(k) retirement plan and adjustments to workers schedules.

Loop drivers had complained they work marathon shifts that start at 5:45 a.m. and end at 8:45 p.m., with a five-hour break in the middle of the day -- insufficient time for most of the drivers to do anything besides sleep in their cars or in one of the four beds the company provides in a rest trailer. The deal guarantees a minimum six-hour work day and extra cash for split shifts.

Not bad. And thus it is not surprising that bus drivers for Apple, eBay, Yahoo, Zynga and Genentech also have decided to unionize by a vote of 104-38. The numbers may seem small, but of such small victories are overall improvements for workers scratched out.

Meanwhile the deal for the Facebook drivers is not yet final. According to PC World:

The agreement was sent to Facebook for approval as the paying client.

If Facebook has approval on the agreement, the pretense that these people work for a contracting intermediary seems seriously threadbare. Would "Loop Transportation" even exist without the tech companies? Not likely.

Concurrently, Google and Apple seem to be moving away from the contracting-out model for the services that make possible the tech cocoon. According to the same PC World report, both giants have chosen to take their security workforces in-house, paying better wages and offering better benefits. Good for the workers.

What's happening here? I don't expect corporate high-flyers to assume higher costs out of the benevolence of their hearts. One spur might be union organizing rumblings: a community-labor partnership, Silicon Valley Rising, has come together to encourage more responsible corporate practices.

And I don't think all this worker progress in the South Bay is completely unrelated to the flack the tech companies are catching in San Francisco as their highly paid employees turn the real estate market upside down. Allowing some of their low paid people to enjoy union representation pretty well ensures that many unions aren't going to ally themselves with progressive San Franciscans who are looking for ways to curb the tech invasion. They may still offer verbal support -- after all they represent many middle class workers in San Francisco, especially in the public sector -- but they are not likely to throw down for something highly contentious like a ballot measure taxing speculation in housing.

These things are always tricky. As Derecka Mehrens, executive director of Working Partnerships USA explained:

"For every tech job created, there are four jobs created down the supply chain in the region," Mehrens said. "We don’t want the tech industry to go anywhere. It's a job producer."

The same article concludes that maintaining a middle class presence in Silicon Valley is going to pressure from

outside the market — like the labor movements, unions, industry and activists coalitions, and policy demands represented by Silicon Valley Rising. ..[Activists] are going to have to take the jobs the market will generate, and make them middle class.

Just maybe, we are seeing enough economic recovery so as to create an upward pressure on wages which smart organizing can surf toward worker benefits and rights. About time!