Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Can solo acts spark social movements?

The other day at Lawyers, Guns & Money, Erik Loomis, who I usually consider a sharp observer of popular organizing, wrote a post with a strange premise about Bree Newsome's wonderful direct action in pulling down the Confederate flag at the South Carolina capital.

The Role of a Single Activist
... This fantastic episode of direct action ramps up the pressure on South Carolina to get rid of the flag and continues placing the anti-flag movement in the public eye where it has been since the attack on the Charleston church last week. ...

What’s also interesting about this to me is the outsized role single activists can sometimes have in moving conversations forward, setting off new movements, and exposing the power structure that oppresses people. Most of us are simply not going to climb that flag pole. But we probably should. ...

It had not occurred for me for a minute to think of Newsome as a "single activist." Her brave step seems so obviously to arise out of organized demands, out of the wonderful eruption of justice energy that is the Black Lives Matter movement. She was undoubtedly aware of a community of sisters and brothers who would have her back. That posse would leverage the resources to support her. Her life matters.

Now Loomis is of course right that lonely acts can sometimes prompt vast movements. But lonely acts will often -- usually -- sink without a ripple. What's hard is to predict which actions will make enduring waves. What Newsome did certainly amplified a cresting tide already in motion. She's won an honored place in the long river of resistance -- but she is certainly not alone.
All that was introduction to this video which struck me as presenting a worthy, semi-solitary, effort to advance a movement. Walking for justice has many precedents. The guy has a big union at this back. Somehow I doubt his pilgrimage will fan many sparks that aren't already smoldering along his route. But of course I could be wrong. And when what you need is movement, you need as many solo actors as possible, hoping that one will raise a conflagration.


Monday, June 29, 2015

Pride pushing forward

For many gay people of my generation, the annual LGBT Pride bash evokes mixed emotions, if we even attend. We remember terrifying times. We remember so many causalities among our age group who dared to flaunt forbidden love when such conduct required heedless optimism -- and who are dead. A few were gay-bashed. Sometimes the drug and alcohol abuse which can be the refuge of outcasts did them in. In this city, HIV/AIDS killed a generation. We never imagined we'd see a majority of our fellow citizens affirm that our love could be just as good as theirs. The Supreme Court's marriage decision, even though the more politically attuned among us were confident it was coming, leaves us slightly stunned. Happy, yes. But still a little disoriented.

Lots of older people carried these muddled feelings to the San Francisco city streets today, mingling with crowds -- gay, lesbian, trans, straight and whatever -- whose celebration is not complicated by such tangled memories. It was a grand day.

On the BART train home from the gargantuan civic party, I noticed this tableau and ad. There's a pill called PrEP these days that protects uninfected people from the HIV virus, if they take it every day. Since that kind of rigorous health regimen is hard to sustain -- who does anything every day? -- the San Francisco Health Department via a program called Bridge HIV is looking for additional reliable methods to deliver the drug to protect sexually active people. Where better to recruit pharmacological volunteers than on the Bay's transit system?

One of the enduring consequences of the AIDS crisis that so decimated our community is that this appeal to ordinary people for help with expanding the science is now a more conventional practice.

Here's a good Center for Disease Control video about the PrEP drug. Knowledge is still power.

What is PrEP? from Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis on Vimeo.

Sunday, June 28, 2015


This has been a week of such grief and such joy, I'm just about wrung out. Both images in this post are true. We have a choice which is most potent.
Black church burned in Charlotte, NC

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Supreme Court gets it right

Nobody gets to vote on anyone's marriage any longer!

It's sad to see the Republican presidential scrum defaulting to the position that marriage equality should have been decided state by state. There's a history to that sort of appeal:
  • When the more populous and prosperous section of the nation turned against slavery in the 1840s and '50s, Southern slave interests turned to state nullification and then secession preserve their property in human beings.
  • Having lost their war for slavery, the same forces claimed "states' rights" for their imposition of segregation and disempowerment on their Black populations.
  • When the Black civil rights movement rose up against continuing repression in the 1950s and '60s, Southern governors claimed "states' rights" to exempt their region from providing equal opportunity and justice under law.
"States' rights" has been the last recourse of those who reject the full inclusion of all of us in the national experiment.

We might imagine and even hope that federalism could be something other than a shield that protects privilege and inequality. But that is not how our history has worked.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Yeah! Obamacare is here to stay

... at least if the next President is a Democrat.

“In America health care is not a privilege for a few but a right for all,’’ Mr. Obama declared in the Rose Garden after the Supreme Court decision.

It was nice to hear the Prez make the moral case for providing health care to all, in addition to the prudential and economic cases. It would also be nice if health care were available to all -- but the ACA is step in that direction.

The health policy wonks are chattering about a study of a naturally occurring experiment: Oregon lacked the funds to extend Medicaid to an entire group that would have been eligible, so it assigned the small number of available slots by lottery. Health economists thus could study the difference in health outcomes between the winners and the much larger population of losers. Guess what? The winners were not (over a short period) any healthier now that they could see doctors. But they were happier and more financially secure. Well duh ...

Ezra Klein points out the limits of this study clearly:

... the paper can't answer whether there are gains from giving people actual Medicaid insurance rather than leaving them to whatever patchwork, uncertain system of care they're using now. That is to say, it doesn't even try to estimate how much it's worth to be able to see a doctor when you need one, as opposed to when the situation is so dire you simply rush to the ER; it doesn't know how to value the long-term health benefits of stable care or the differences in the kind of care that the insured and the uninsured get; it has no formula for weighing what it means for John to be able to get treatment without begging his brother to lend him cash.

Second, there is real cost — in anxiety and terror, as well as in money — to families scrambling to come up with the money to pay for heart medication or chemotherapy. There's real cost to parents who need to beg their local church group to help pay for their child's medicine. How do we value the relief a family gets — both emotional and financial — of knowing a child can get the medical care he or she needs? This study can't measure that.

Third, the study can't test the value we, as a society, place on everyone being able to go to the doctor when they need medical care. As an example, Social Security offsets a certain amount of support children used to provide for their parents. So a dollar in Social Security is not worth a full dollar to Social Security's beneficiaries, because it partially replaces support they would have gotten anyway. But as a society, we've decided it's really, really important for the elderly to have guaranteed income, and we are willing to pay the cost of that guarantee.

And there's another potential benefit from Obamacare's survival that I've written about here -- and about which I have not found much research. Before the ACA passed, a student of health economics who has made it his business to understand these things assured me that having health insurance was close to a complete predictor of being registered to vote. He didn't know why, but he'd seen the figures.

Well, millions more citizens now have and will have insurance. Might this not lead to increased voter registration? Certainly most people who can manage to sign up for a policy online are demonstrating the contemporary skills that might suggest they can navigate the various registration mazes set up by the states. Under the National Voter Registration Act of 1993 (NVRA), the exchanges should be pointing their users toward whatever state facilities exist for registration. Just maybe, they'll use them.

Nobody could object to that ... except possibly Republicans who can't compete if everyone is included.

Friday cat blogging

I thought I was going to sit down to work -- but there was an obstacle.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Agist junk mail rant

I get mail. Not just email, either. Some of it provides employment to the letter carriers of the US Postal Service. I don't mind that; they need those union jobs.

Recently I received this oddly shaped gargantuan envelope. The New Yorker is included in the picture for size.

On the envelope was a personalized message.

There was a return envelope which will go back today, by snail mail, to "Max Richtman" with this note.

Dear Mr. Richtman,
I am fully in sympathy with the proclaimed goals of the "National Committee to Preserve Social Security and Medicare. These vital, earned, benefits are one of our country's great achievements. In too many respects, we in the United States do not seem to know that the only legitimate purpose of a country is to care for its citizens. All of us, not just the one percent.

Any politician who threatens these programs will be hearing directly from me as well as finding me supporting any worthy challenger. This is bottom line stuff. In fact, most politicians I support already back extending Social Security rather than cutting it.

But YOU are NOT going to get from me your petition and a donation, a "membership renewal." Your outfit has repeatedly sent me expensive direct mail packages designed to scare money out of older citizens. These communications treat us as credulous suckers.

To have any chance of getting money from me, you would have to explain that your efforts are part of a political strategy for extending Social Security and for protecting Medicare by extending a single payer system to ALL residents of the country. We need that sort of leadership from Washington advocacy outfits, not creepy direct mail appeals.

And you would reach me through modern communication media. I'm sure you have my email address. True, I won't get it if my filters decide you are sending spam because you fill the letter with attachments and other frills, but that is your problem. Stop wasting trees on junk mail. And please remove me from you direct mail list.

Indeed, sincerely,
One annoyed elder!

I do not expect this to stop the flow ... but I've tried.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

It's confusing ...

My ATM encourages me to celebrate gay pride.

I remain a little bemused by this development. Happy about it, of course. It is nice being affirmed.

But I remember all too well when to be visible as gay or lesbian was to risk verbal abuse and even violence.

These days, our visibility is a sign to urban U.S. liberals that, despite so many indications to the contrary, this country eventually gets it right. In San Francisco, we swim in a warm bath of loving approval and liberal self-satisfaction.

San Franciscans know there are intolerant regions out there somewhere in the U.S. hinterland. In those places, gay kids get thrown out of their families. (They still migrate to San Francisco; without money, they live hard lives.) In those places, it is still tough for gay immigrants and for gay couples of color (because most everywhere, it is tough for ALL immigrants and people of color.) In those places, trans-folk who are visible have a hard time getting and keeping jobs. (That's too often true here too, but we don't think much about it.)

We've come a long way; and the big "we" that really includes everyone hasn't yet come as far as it should. It's confusing and also good.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Saving water

Nice to see that the park authorities at Rodeo Beach have shut down the rinsing stations in response to the California drought. Since the area is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, I'm not sure the beach is subject to the state rules -- but since I think the effective purpose of the state rules is to make us all more thoughtful about saving water, the move seems all to the good.

On the subject of saving water, I was much heartened by this Mother Jones article about the U.S. Open Golf Championship: "The Best Golfers in the World Are Playing on a Poop-Watered Course."

According to the Alliance for Water Efficiency, a typical golf course soaks up between 100,000 and one million gallons of water a week; golf courses in California's Palm Springs use on average 800,000 gallons per day—more water than an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Golf resorts in dry states facing government-mandated water reductions and drought-shaming have begun to find ways to use recycled water and minimize the area they irrigate.

Chambers Bay [in Washington State] -- located in a region that's also suffering from drought -- aims to change golf courses' wasteful reputation. The course is irrigated with reclaimed wastewater and fertilized with sewage from a nearby treatment plant. The groundskeepers landscape with native plants and have cleaned up land and marine habitats for local wildlife. Oh, and that brown grass everyone is fussing over? That's Fescue, a drought resistant grass well-adapted to the relatively cool climate of Western Washington.

My trips to Hawaii, where so much land is given over to golf courses groomed with non-native European grasses, have made me instinctively hostile to most courses. But perhaps the sport can adapt ...

Monday, June 22, 2015

May there be rest for the weary and comfort for the suffering

After a weekend of grief and rage, I could post more here about the violence and cruelty of my nation -- or I could attend Compline. I opted for Compline.

Compline is an evening contemplative service in which we acknowledge that we can do no more about the cares of the day and consign ourselves in trust to God's care for the night to come.

... protect us through the hours of this night, so that we who are wearied by the changes and chances of this life my rest in you eternal changelessness ...

Endersnight is offering this contemplative service at St. John the Evangelist in the Mission.

Taking its name from the 15th-century century English carol “This Enders Night,” Endersnight is an a cappella vocal ensemble specializing in the performance of sacred polyphonic choral repertoire of the 14­th-16th centuries. Members of the choir are veterans of the leading professional choral groups of the San Francisco Bay Area, including Chanticleer, San Francisco Symphony Chorus, Philharmonia Baroque Chorale, American Bach Soloists, Clerestory, Volti and the Grace Cathedral Choir of Men and Boys, among others. They come together out of camaraderie, a passion for early choral music and a shared appreciation for liturgical tradition. Though professional musicians, the singers of Endersnight have volunteered to take part in the birth of Night Music at St. John’s.

Now it is night; tomorrow is another day.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Unsettled consciences

Last week Pope Francis' much anticipated encyclical on climate change was released. The pope enjoins us to take care of what is happening in front of our noses. Will anyone listen? One of my favorite observers of U.S. politics mused:

... there’s a lot to be said for the power to unsettle consciences.

In the interests of my own edification and Erudite Partner's new book project, I'm reading Guantanamo Diary, Mohamedou Ould Slahi's account of his rendition and torture by my government between 2000 and 2004. Slahi is still locked up at Gitmo, despite a federal judge ruling in 2010 that the government's evidence was:

"so attenuated, or so tainted by coercion and mistreatment, or so classified, that it cannot support a criminal prosecution.”

The government didn't like that result and has succeeded in stymieing the case. Slahi has now been in U.S. custody for 13 years, with no criminal conviction and no end in sight.

I was in no hurry to read this book. Who wants to read details of torture and of my government behaving badly? But at length, I began. And in the introduction I came across this anecdote about Lieutenant Colonel Stuart Couch who was assigned by his Marine Corps superiors to prosecute Slahi (first brought forward by reporter Jess Bravin in the the Wall Street Journal and reproduced here via an account from America Magazine.) Couch learned that Slahi was not only physically and mentally abused under a regime approved by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, he had also been told his mother would be brought to Guantanamo and gang raped. Couch's conscience was evidently unsettled.

Mr. Bravin deftly portrays the moral anguish of Colonel Couch... [A]t a Sunday church service in Falls Church, Va., during a routine renewal of baptismal promises, the questions began to take hold of him. “Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?” All persons included Mr. Slahi, Colonel Couch realized. Mr. Bravin writes: “He was surrounded by people, but suddenly Couch felt very, very small. It was as if he stood alone in a dark, cavernous hall, a bright, single shaft of light illuminating him, unseen persons, or powers, awaiting his answer.” United with those around him, he responded, “I will. With God’s help.”

Colonel Couch decided to drop the case against Mr. Slahi. A 9/11 case. “I’d hate to say it, but being a Christian is gonna trump being an American,” he explained.

I thought that a book marred by over 2500 black bars indicating U.S. government redactions from the text would make a miserable audio book. I was absolutely wrong. Editor Larry Siems' footnotes clarify what is left out -- such as nearly every reference to female guards and interrogators. A terrific cast of readers enact Guantanamo Diary so as to preserve Slahi's lively personal witness. Though tortured within an inch of his life, he comes across as an appealing smart ass. English is his fourth language, learned in custody, after he'd absorbed Arabic and French in his native Mauritania and German while studying in that country. He wields his new tongue vividly. It is his interrogators who often come across as ignorant and verbally inept dumb clucks. Yet nearly everywhere his captors carry him, he finds remnants of humanity among some soldiers and guards.

You do not need to be exceptionally brave to read this book, just appropriately unsettled.

My father as a young fellow

I would make this image just over 100 years old. He loved his "weenie pups," though we only ever had cats ... he was no fan of Father's Day, but I miss him.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

City discontents: mostly but not only in the Mission

We are not happy in the 'hood these days. People with wheat paste distribute their messages.

We're not happy with many of the local politicians who act as if they'd prefer to replace the Mission's raucous cast of characters with more people who agree with them that the highest and best use of the city is to make money.

Google buses are a convenient symbol of the economic tidal wave that is driving out long time residents. The buses do make it practical for lots of people who make far more money than most of us to live here. That drives up rents and pushes out lower income people.

People don't go quietly.

It's hard to keep a sense of humor amidst all this, but some people do.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Before the white supremacist massacre in Charleston ...

Forty-eight hours ago, the Reverend Clementa C. Pinckney was alive and leading his flock in prayer. I can think of no better way to honor his memory than to share this video of a talk he gave last February to group of 60 doctoral students traveling through his state on a tour studying civil rights. It's a little longer than what I usually post here, but we are fortunate to be able to hear from the man himself.

We don't see ourselves, or many of us don't see ourselves, as just a place where we come and worship, but as a beacon, and as a bearer of the culture and a bearer of what makes us a people.

... that's what church is all about: freedom to worship, and freedom from sin, freedom to be fully what God intends us to be and to have equality in the sight of God. And sometimes you've gotta make noise to do that. Sometimes maybe you have to die like Denmark Vesey to do that. Sometimes you have to march and struggle and be unpopular to do that.

...There are many people who say why would you as a preacher -- as a pastor -- be involved in public life? ... Our calling is not just within the walls of the congregation, but we are part of the life and community in which our congregation resides. .. we don't like to see our church as a museum, but as still a place of change ...

Let's keep the changes coming. Ta-Nehisi Coates writes that it is time that the Confederate battle flag be consigned to a museum.

H/t Talking Points Memo.

Friday cat blogging

Sometimes all Morty will give us is an impervious back.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Immortality achieved

My mother has been dead for over 15 years. She lives on in the database of these right wing hucksters.

Loosely liberal outfits promoting improbably cuddly critters are also chasing her.

I can't decide whether this sort of mistaken immortality is comforting or appalling.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Looking backward: whatever happened to the Republicans?

I'm still trying to capture what I found missing in Rick Perlstein's Invisible Bridge.

The Berkeley economist Bradford DeLong took a crack at the question in the title of this post yesterday. I think his rant gets at what Perlstein either wasn't willing or able to raise up. Here are some long excerpts:

... You and I alike still wonder what Pete Wilson thought he was doing, and how the other senior Republicans in the California Republican Party reacted, when Wilson decided that he could try to win another term's governorship by blowing up the party's future in an increasingly Hispanic California. Wilson's strategy [a nativist initiative in 1994] was momentarily advantageous to him, but enormously shortsighted--and unjustifiable if he has any sense of loyalty to his Republican comrades or to the Republican Party of the future.

Perhaps it is be[s]t to think of it as the curse imposed on the Republican Party by Barry Goldwater and Richard Nixon. The 1964 Civil Rights Act seemed to them to create an opportunity for the Republican Party. It could attract Southern Democrats conservative and hostile to civil rights by covering the flag of racism under the banner of libertarianism and individual freedom. They could thus make the South competitive.

There is this line in the comic book The Watchmen: "You think I am locked in here with you. But actually you are locked in here with me!"

Nixon and Goldwater thought they were locking a segment of ex-Southern Democrats into the Republican Party under conditions that would [gi]ve them a subordinate role. But now the Eisenhower, the Nixon, and I would say even the Herbert Hoover and Barry Goldwater Republicans find themselves locked in and in a subordinate role with a bunch of people who are very difficult to live with. People who think the world is against them. People who think that, somehow, others are manipulating the system and stealing their stuff. Sometimes those others are "eggheads"; sometimes they are, in Nino Scalia's terms, those "pursuing the homosexual agenda"; Black welfare queens are a constant threat; immigrants--God alone knows why a party that thinks it is for the entrepreneurial and upward-striving doesn't regard someone who has managed to dodge the dogs and walk a thousand miles from Chiapas to get here as their best friend--are a threat; feminists seems to be a constant threat. I really do not understand it.

... Alongside this transformation of the Republican Party into the Party of the Wingnuts, there has come the end of the Republican Party as a party of economic development, economic growth, and upward mobility. They are, now and for the forseeable future, much more the party of entrenched, and increasingly, inherited wealth--people for whom economic development and creative destruction is actually a minus.

A generation ago the Koch enterprises were interested in economic growth: disrupting old arrangements and building a high-productivity petroleum-based economy as the energy sector and energy businesses expanded massively. A generation ago Sam Walton was very interested in growth, productivity, prosperity, and disruption as he sought to build up the most efficient nationwide retail chain in the world. And now? Are the Koch brothers today interested in accelerating and profiting from the structural transformation that is coming as we move from a petroleum to a non-carbon energy economy? Not at all. Kansas governor Sam Brownback used to be in favor of wind energy in Kansas. The Koch brothers said: "frog". He hopped. Now he is opposed to it.

Are the grandchildren of Sam Walton going to be incredibly interested in creative destruction when it takes the form of the destruction of the value of Walmart? No. ...

I note that DeLong, located in California, knows that racism underpins what Republicans have become. As in Nixonland, Perlstein's big picture history can't reach that conclusion. Perhaps professional conventions or his location makes that impossible. But it is still true. Republicans embraced white supremacy explicitly. And the rest is history.

The Washington Merry-Go-Round whirls on

Maybe this book doesn't seem to hold together because the events it covers were a falling apart -- and they presaged no subsequent coming together. Or maybe Rick Perlstein really has just thrown a lot of research at a wall and we're presented with what sticks. I came away from reading it unsettled. I wanted to be enthralled, but The Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan, an account of the political history of the years 1973-76, didn't impress me as equal to the analytical coherence of Perlstein's superb Nixonland. (I still have not gotten to his earlier Barry Goldwater book, Before the Storm, and still mean to.)

As with Nixonland, my reading of this one is influenced by having lived this history, though since I was in San Francisco, I was busy enough locally not to pay very close attention to national events. During the Watergate investigations, I worked as a messenger on foot in downtown San Francisco. Sometimes it seemed as if every time I emerged from a building, a new headline had gone up on the boxes of the San Francisco Examiner on every corner. I consciously decided at that time that I would not try to follow the ins and outs as they emerged, but would wait for more coherent journalistic accounts after the fact. Eventually I read All the President's Men and probably some other Watergate books, but I don't carry a catalogue of malefactors and events around in my head the same way I do for more recent eras. I did enjoy that great moment when the U.S. was expelled from Vietnam and also watching Nixon slink away after his resignation. Some good things happened in those awful days.

So what new insights do I take away from Perlstein's over-800 page opus? Certainly a much clearer grasp of the history and chronology of Watergate. An explanation of why Massachusetts is still flying the POW/MIA flag: I had not known that the Nixon administration allowed relatives to believe that many US soldiers fallen in Vietnam whose bodies were not returned might someday turn up, even when they knew better. That cruelty should have been an impeachable offense! I also learned that many of the so-called "Watergate Babies" -- Democratic Congressmembers elected in the wake of Nixon's fall -- were skeptics about using government for reform from the get-go, setting up the center-right Democratic policies of Carter, the ineffectual Democratic opposition to Reagan, and the accommodating Democratic Leadership Council style of "reinventing government" under Clinton(I).

At the center of Bridge is that putrid con man, Ronald Reagan. Perlstein makes the case that for several decades our politics were dominated by a politician who responded to being raised in an alcoholic home by constructing his own reality and then honing his ability to draw others into his fantasies. As a child, he wished himself into boys' adventure tales; as a man he presented himself as the hero-savior who would rescue a forever innocent and always good America from evildoers. And far too many of us wanted just that in a leader. Sadly, Perlstein's picture feels a truthful indictment of this country much as Stephen Kinzer's The Brothers concludes we wanted comforting Daddies in the frightening atomic '50s.

People want to believe. Ronald Reagan was able to make people believe.

We're suckers for this kind of thing.

The era Perlstein is chronicling here included the nation's last attempt -- before the Senate Intelligence Committee report released last December -- to rein in our spooks. In the Senate, Frank Church investigated the CIA and turned up assassinations and coups in other nations galore. I had not, before reading this, been so aware of Congressman Otis Pike's House committee whose work was perhaps even more revealing.

The report ... was, for a government document, a literary masterpiece and hard-hitting as hell. ... [it documented] the CIA's wasteful spending, ... its bald failures at prediction, its abuses of civil liberties, and its blanket indifference that any of this might pose a problem. ... it detailed a number of failed covert actions -- not naming countries, but with plenty of identifying details to make things obvious enough for those who cared to infer. ...And something about all this seemed to spook cowed congressmen -- who were soon voting to neuter themselves.

The CIA offer the usual complaints -- security would be harmed and operatives endangered -- and Congress voted to suppress its own report. CBS reporter Daniel Schorr had a leaked copy and, with some difficulty, got it released. Most of the media thought he should have been fired. The upshot was the creation of the ineffectual Congressional committees that still offer the sole legislative oversight of our spooks. Perlstein reports an interview with Congressman Pike:

"It took this investigation to make me realize that I had always been told lies, to make me realize I was tired of being told lies." And he explained why he thought the intelligence scandals hadn't achieved the public concern of Watergate ... "Oh, they think it is better not to know. There are too many things that embarrass Americans in that report. ... they are asked to believe that their country has been evil. And nobody wants to believe that ...."

Still true -- but if we can't toughen up enough to look at what is done in our name, this so powerful, so unconscious, so well-meaning, so brutal country will remain a force for evil indeed. Will we settle for that?

I borrowed the title for this post from a newspaper column I connect with that time. Now I have discovered that Washington Merry-Go-Round has a sort of life after death as an occasional opinion piece.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Senate votes to reinforce torture ban

On coming into office, President Obama issued an executive order against the torture practices of the Bush administration. Until today, the only bar to resumption of these crimes was that, for the moment, we had a President who had said "no." (As least we hope Obama's ban is comprehensive -- amidst our rulers' addiction to secrecy, we have no real way of knowing.) Today the Senate (78-21) voted to add a ban to the Defense Authorization bill. Whether this will survive legislative sausage making remains to be seen.

Joan McCarter at Daily Kos provided these portraits of shame.
  • All the votes for executive freedom to torture were from Republicans. Yet those 21 were less than half of the Republican caucus. That might not always have been the case.
  • Nice to see that no Democrats voted for torture.
  • Two Republican women (Fischer of Nebraska and Ernst of Iowa) apparently think a little cruelty is just fine. It's important for such women to prove their toughness?
  • Among Republicans running for president, Lindsey Graham loves him some enhanced coercion, while Cruz and Paul voted for the ban. Marco Rubio ducked, the only senator not voting.
Turning the country away from torture is not a moment. It is a process -- one that requires vigilance.

Your birth month may predispose you to some diseases

Wonkblog has come up with another intriguing study that may (or may not) tell scientists something about how seasonal environments facilitate adult susceptibility to some conditions and diseases.

Mary Regina Boland, Nicholas Tatonetti and other researchers at the Columbia University Department of Medicine examined records for an incredible 1.75 million patients born between 1900 and 2000 who had been treated at Columbia University Medical Center. Using statistical analysis, they combed through 1,688 different diseases and found 55 that had a correlation with birth month, including ADHD, reproductive performance, asthma, eyesight and ear infections.

... For respiratory, reproductive and neurological illnesses, people born in October and November were more at risk. For cardiovascular disease, those born from September through December were more protected, while those born in winter and spring (January to June) had higher risk. And since so many lives are cut short due to cardiovascular diseases, being born in the autumn was actually associated with living longer than being born in the spring.

...Tatonetti, the principal investigator, said it’s not yet clear exactly why some diseases are prevalent in certain birth months, but that it likely often has to do with the environment that a baby is born into, including seasonal variations in vitamin D and allergens.

Apparently, I lucked out by being born in July. And October and November look like bad news.

I do wonder whether these results are peculiar to people born in a northeastern U.S. climate.

Who knows what they'll do with big data next?

H/t Kevin Drum.

Monday, June 15, 2015

No Fly list sputters along

For awhile, because we'd been told we were on it, I wrote a lot about the U.S. government's No Fly list -- and the various other watch lists that popped up after 9/11. Last year I wrote up a good book on the history of terrorist watch lists. It seems governments instinctively restrict travel when they can get away with it.

These days, I fly unimpeded.

But lots of people -- mostly Muslim people it seems -- remain stuck in No Fly hell, not entirely predictably or rationally.

The latest case I've run across is that of Mourad Benchellali. Benchellali was released from Guantanamo in 2004. A French citizen, he was sold to the U.S. by Pakistanis after he escaped Afghanistan in the wake of the U.S. invasion in 2001. By his own account, as related by the British human rights activist Andy Worthington, he was a dumb 19 year who blundered into a mess.

His father was a radical imam who had tried (and failed) to fight in Bosnia, his brother Menad had tried (and failed) to fight in Chechnya, and his brother, his father and even his mother had all spent time in French prisons, but he insisted that he went to Afghanistan for “an adventure” and as a way of enhancing his status, hoping that he would be “viewed differently” in his neighbourhood, and that his reputation might “match” that of his brother. He admitted that his sense of adventure was “misguided and mistimed,” and blamed his brother for encouraging him to go, and for arranging for him to attend a training camp. “For two months, I was there,” he wrote after his release, “trapped in the middle of the desert by fear and my own stupidity.”

The U.S released him to his home country in 2004, where he was tried, convicted of associating with terrorists, and given credit for time served in Guantanamo. A complex appeal process actually got the charges dropped, and re-raised, and dropped again. In 2008 Worthington reports that he explained further in an interview to McClatchy Newspapers:

It was June 2001, and I thought I’d take a vacation, be back in time for classes in September. Later, the papers would say I was a desperate outsider [in France], trapped looking in on an uncaring nation. But that’s not true. I was happy. I was getting an education. I had a job. I had a fiancee. I just thought I wanted a bit of adventure.

So what has he been doing since he returned to France beside writing a book alleging he was tortured by the U.S. in Kandahar and Guantanamo? He's been traveling about, using his own experience as an example to discourage young people tempted by the Islamic State's recruitment pitches. He's a counter-jihadi recruiter! He has flown in Europe with no trouble.

But when invited to speak at a conference on peace and radicalization in Montreal, he was prevented from attending by the U.S. No Fly list.

No, he wasn't coming to this country. But the U.S. makes any airline passing through U.S. airspace submit a passenger list. He was refused boarding in Lyon. At least he was told the U.S. list prevented him from keeping his appointment; too often people are just kept in the dark about what prevents them from flying.

I can't help wondering -- is Benchellali's continued inclusion on the list inefficiency on the part of list keepers who never remove anyone? Or do they really think this speaker against terrorist recruitment is a danger? Or is it because his story puts the U.S. in a bad light? We are not allowed to know, of course. National security theater in action ...

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Creeping Koch coup?

This post will be a little wonky but I hope of some interest. It's about what, in electoral organizing, we used to call "the damn lists" and now are more likely to call "the data." These are the files of voters that campaigns use to choose the people they seek to reach and turn out to vote. If during election season you are afflicted with calls and mailers, you've been selected by one or more campaigns to target. They have their reasons, or at least think they do.

Until quite recently, "the lists" were both expensive proprietary commodities purchased from private list vendors and full of garbage, such as names of people who had moved, died, or even never existed. Any phone numbers were as much as 50 percent wrong. The hanging chad fiasco in Florida in 2000 led to enactment of the Help American Vote Act. This federal law had a very mixed record of improving election administration, but state voter files did gradually become more accurate during the early '00s. As more state and local records came online, lists also became cheaper.

Meanwhile, internet connectivity became near universal and computers themselves became faster and cheaper. By the 2008 election cycle, well funded campaigns, especially Obama's, provided sophisticated user interfaces to their various offices and volunteer operations while keeping the data on central servers. They invested in improving that data by cross-referencing registered voters with commercial information that might suggest their leanings and interests. What had been horribly complex and clunky in the 1990s became far easier and much more efficient. (People still printed "the lists" and struggled to organize them -- see above.)

There's more going on here than just better computerization. Every time a campaign uses this voter data within the master system, that experience improves the quality of the records. Bad phone numbers and addresses get removed; sometimes new voters are even added. The quality of the information gets better.

Fast forward to the present ... according to Jon Ward writing at Yahoo News, the Republicans are currently having a struggle about just who controls their data. In 2008, they fell far behind the Dems in their data management. In the 2012 cycle, the Romney campaign tried to play catch up and create its own Republican system. This famously blew up on election day, completely screwing up Get Out The Vote operations. Ever since, both the Republican National Committee and the Koch brothers' various political ventures have been jousting over systems and most importantly who controls the underlying master data. The Koch empire has apparently created a front end called i360 that operatives consider more functional than the RNC's offering. But the Republican National Committee, not surprisingly, thinks the Party itself ought control the data.

Ward reports on the Republican national chairman's aim in this kerfuffle:

The core issue, from [Reince] Priebus’ point of view, is one of loyalty and allegiance. The RNC is a permanent entity, committed to the Republican Party without question. The Koch network is too independent from the party to be trusted with possession of the GOP’s most valuable core assets. If the Kochs — whose political history is steeped more in libertarianism than it is in any loyalty to the Republican Party — decided next week to use their database to benefit only their massive multinational corporation, they could do so.

... And the problem for the RNC is that while it has political data going back roughly two decades, you need more than just data in order to be the data hub for a political party. And that is where the RNC has fallen short. Its data is good, and it has continued to enrich it and even to help campaigns and key battleground states build sophisticated voter universes through the work last year of a company called TargetPoint. But campaigns need to use data, not just have it on the shelf. This is where companies like i360... have gained an edge.

... [The RNC] decision to take their dispute with i360 public shows the level of alarm inside the RNC at the growing clout of the Koch political empire. They have concluded that the Koch political machine wants to replace them and to essentially become a shadow party. “It’s pretty clear that they don’t want to work with the party but want to supplant it,” the source close to the RNC said.

... The fear at the RNC is that this would give a private business empire the master voter file in Republican politics, and the party’s main committee would be reduced to that of playing a bit role.

A couple of months ago, I speculated that the decision by the Supremes that billionaires could try to buy elections might lead someone to decide to dispense with all these clamoring Party pols and just purchase the presidency for himself. (I assume a male Daddy Bucks, though of course I could be wrong.) Looks like at the moment the Kochs are maneuvering for a somewhat unfriendly takeover of an entire political Party. This is dangerous to democracy, because for all their faults, political parties are mass-based citizen organizations. But it sure is "pass the popcorn" territory for political junkies.
In the 1990s when I was training community organizations how to get into the electoral arena, hardly any of them could afford "the lists." They were begging, borrowing and stealing from whatever political or union sources might give them data to work with. One of the first points I made to these groups was always: whoever provides the voter data determines what your campaign is accomplishing. And if you don't know their interest in supplying you, you are opening yourselves to being used. Still true, but the scale looks much larger among Republicans at the moment.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

Ikea stigmata

Too many screws; too small holes; too few calluses. All done.

Friday, June 12, 2015

A little less hysteria, please

In 2004, then Senator and Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry told a reporter:

'We have to get back to the place we were, where terrorists are not the focus of our lives, but they're a nuisance.''

I still think he was right. To me, this was Kerry's finest moment in a unfocused and sometimes craven campaign.

The people of this country used to be far more able to slough off occasional outbreaks of political violence without lapsing into hysterics. This is a big country. Unless terrorists obtain some real weapons, the damage they can do is limited, though obviously devastating for anyone unlucky enough to cross their path.

Does anyone reading here remember this?

... in New York, terrorists took advantage of peak holiday travel to explode a bomb, equivalent to twenty-five sticks of dynamite, that they had hidden in a coin locker -- collapsing the floor and ceiling, hurling shrapnel from the metal lockers that pierced through flesh and left body parts scattered through the main baggage claim area at La Guardia. Fourteen people were killed. No one ever claimed responsibility. No perpetrator was ever found.

Rick Perlstein, The Invisible Bridge

That was in 1975. I certainly don't recall that particular horror. If it happened today, we would be exhorted to immerse ourselves in the story 24/7, hold commemorations, and take on the full trauma. There were 89 bombings that year in the United States attributed to terrorists. I don't remember us deforming our entire society in response. We may not have kept calm, but we simply carried on.

This week Gallup published a poll about our attitudes to the proper balance between civil liberties and intrusive government measures against the threat of terrorism.

Republicans and Democrats currently hold similar views of whether maintaining security or protecting civil liberties is more important in government anti-terror efforts. Among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents, 66% say civil liberties should be the higher priority and 29% say protecting citizens from terrorism should be. Meanwhile, Democrats and Democratic-leaning independents prioritize civil liberties over security by 64% to 32%.

At the same time, most people (55%) think the sort of spying on citizens for which Edward Snowden provided evidence does not violate their civil liberties. But 41% do feel violated. Frankly, I'm surprised the latter number is that high. Our "civil liberties" are very abstract as they relate to government spying without felt consequences. For a lot of people, liberty means not being shot by a rampaging police officer, not some agency collecting your internet activity. Meanwhile we freely give away our "private" preferences and excitements on Facebook.

The question about whether we feel violated is a new one for Gallup. We won't know until they ask it repeatedly whether this is a perception that changes with the news. I think it might -- either way.

In general, this poll made me feel a little better about the good sense of my fellow citizens. Maybe we can stop responding foolishly to distant provocations. That would be hard with politicians fueling fear, but collectively we're not completely nuts.

H/t Digby for pointing to the poll.

Friday cat blogging

Let's give Morty the day off today. He might not think so, but there are other cats in the world. This one observed me very early on a Sunday morning when I sometimes run in the streets before there is anyone stirring. There are a goodly number of urban outdoor cats slinking about at 6 a.m.

This slightly moth eaten survivor is bolder yet. We met in downtown San Francisco on a major street in South of Market. Perhaps the adjacent store is home?

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Nepal since the quakes

I have traveled in search of mountains. Among the many places I've been lucky enough to put down a toe, something about Nepal and its people seeped into me especially deeply. In gratitude from a world away, I continue to try to see the aftermath of the violent earthquakes of April 25, 26 and May 12.

Anagha Neelakantan, writing at the International Crisis Group blog, describes the disaster:
Nepal’s people live a constant struggle to accumulate some insulation from the hardships and arbitrariness of life. They contend with a challenging landscape of hills, high mountains and plains threatened by dangerous rivers, capricious weather, an immutable bureaucracy and treacherous politics. It often takes just a little thing to tip the balance against survival. ...

... So far, over 8,500 people are known to have died and close to 18,000 injured. About a fifth of Nepal’s 28 million people have been affected, with hundreds of thousands still enduring unimaginable suffering. Thirty of Nepal’s 75 districts were hit, 16 of them severely. About 600,000 homes have been destroyed, and tens of thousands more rendered uninhabitable, leaving some three million people without a roof over their heads. Over one million people may end up being displaced.
Neelakantan was deputy director of the Crisis Group’s Asia program until 2013. Previously she worked for the United Nations Mission in Nepal and as a political analyst, becoming executive editor at the Nepali Times. In a place where foreigners are easily bewildered even as we are delighted, she knows what she is seeing. Some of her observations:
... there are already sharply divergent narratives about the earthquake and the response to it. These accounts reflect some of the faultlines in Nepali politics, governance and society, and in international engagement with Nepal. The complex politics surrounding the response to the earthquake will influence how much people suffer and for how long. They will also determine whether the enormous reconstruction effort needed in the affected part of the country will bring the country together, or return Nepal to the politics of partisanship and bitter polarisation.

One narrative, often embraced by some internationals, has the government as the bad guy: slow, incompetent, power-hungry and criminal, thus incapable of leading the reconstruction. From a Nepali perspective, internationals are often seen as unaccountable and un-transparent, expensive, and disrespectful of Nepali expertise and sovereignty. ...

... It is deeply ingrained in the psyches of internationals and many professional Nepalis that the way to fix grave problems in Nepal is by treating them as the subject of development projects. So reconstruction efforts after a natural disaster, for example, or compensation for war victims, are treated just the same as if they were programs in maternal health or sanitation and hygiene. Yet clearly, a natural disaster on this scale needs a response that is more robust, transparent and creative. Replicating often inefficient and overly complicated habits from the development world is one of the worst things that could happen to the reconstruction efforts, even if it is perhaps inevitable.

Nepal’s development industry, by which I mean international agencies and NGOs, as well as Nepali NGOs, the government and bureaucracy, is sclerotic and often inefficient. This is not to say it does not ever work; it obviously does, in some ways. Yet it also sometimes creates or entrenches dynamics of inequity or resentment. The development industry is by now fused with the Nepali state by such great mutual dependency that a rupture of any significance seems unlikely. ... All sides bear responsibility for the storied corruption of the sector and, at the worst of times, insensitivity to what could trigger new conflict.

Donor agencies are far from innocent in this grubby picture, despite holier-than-thou criticism of the government of Nepal and Nepali partners: their programming often ignores history; they are so enamoured of comparative experience and international best practice that they can miss the reality right in front of them; they privilege “expert”(read foreign) knowledge over “local”perspectives; they play favourites; and at their worst, they count the lives of internationals as having greater value than of Nepalis. Like their Nepali counterparts, their perspective is grievously Kathmandu-centric. ... [Kathmandu is the capitol and only large city, over 4 million people.]

... The tussle between Kathmandu and internationals is only part of the story. Politics, in the form of party politics, became an increasingly formalised part of the development projects following the peace deal. In the districts, “all-party mechanisms” became a way for parties to divide up the spoils of the development budget as a way to keep the peace at the local level. Similar mechanisms are being put in place for relief distribution. While in some areas they appear to be functioning reasonably so far, there have been reports from other areas that the distribution of relief has been politicised to the point of endangering lives. ...
Nepalis achieved a tenuous national peace after a decade of civil war in 2006. But institutions of government are still "under construction." Will they be able to rise to and constrain the challenges of this massive disaster?

Overlooking Kathmandu, 2010
And will Nature compound the human agony? The annual monsoon rains will soon drench Nepal. Accordingly to Accuweather:
... the wettest period stretches from the end of June to the beginning of September, a nearly three-month chunk of the year where storms bring unsafe conditions to those without a proper form of shelter.

During monsoon season, up to 80 percent of the yearly average rain will fall. With this year expected to align with average rainfall totals, Kathmandu could receive more than 40 inches of rain in less than four months."

[According to Tim Osburn of Shelterbox,] in some cases... villages sitting in higher elevations could see a landslide start a mere half mile up the terrain. At that point, there's nothing else to do.

"They've spent a lot of time and energy getting temporary shelters up," Osburn said. "But when standing up to a monsoonal rain, you could see the work going right down a hill after one of those."
World Policy reports that only 22 percent of the international appeal for the Nepal disaster has been funded.

Personally, I've contributed via Oxfam America and Mercy Corps, in both cases because they had programs in the country before this emergency. I can't swear these are good channels for aid, but I make the guess they are better than newcomers without experience. The Nepalis need us to do what we can.
Fields outside Kathmandu. Did they slide? Will they wash away? Or fill with displaced migrants?

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

A brutal and compassionate memoir

Back in the day -- not even so long ago, say the 1980s -- before gay people won assimilation within the great mass of everybody, we produced a goodly amount of identify fiction. These books were often unpolished stories in which we simply existed. And we needed this kind of writing. We needed to see ourselves as characters among the rest. These novels didn't have to be great, though some weren't bad; their being good enough to exist served an affirming purpose. There was a moderately solvent cottage industry publishing and distributing these efforts. I know. I worked in it briefly.

And then, there were a few writers whose output was more challenging. Jeannette Winterson's novel, Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit, the story of a child-woman diverted from Pentecostal ministry in working-class northern England by discovering she loved a girl, was one. The novel won the Whitbread Award in 1985, became a TV series, and is included within the English high school curriculum.

Winterson has returned to some of the same ground in a 2011 non-fiction exploration of what it meant to be an adopted child, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? The title is what Winterson's adoptive mother asked her when she learned of her first girlfriend.

Young Jeannette had what seems, from the outside, a dreary and violent childhood. Even if the family who adopted her had been more functional, life in working-class Accrington, near Manchester, was hard. Frequently they were hungry.

Dad got paid Fridays and by Thursday there was no money left. ... Everyone on the street was the same.

But the couple who took home this baby wasn't functional at all. Her adoptive mother -- always referred to as "Mrs. Winterson" -- was plain crazy and broken. She ruled the family, imposing on them all her misery and fear through irrational petty cruelties. She was utterly unready for the arrival of a baby she had not borne.

Until I was two years old, I screamed. This was evidence in plain sight that I was possessed by the Devil. ...

Babies are frightening -- raw tyrants whose only kingdom is their own body. My new mother had a lot of problems with the body -- her own, my dad's, their bodies together, and mine. She muffled her own body in flesh and clothes, suppressed its appetites with a fearful mix of nicotine and Jesus, dosed it with purgatives that made her vomit, submitted it to doctors, who administered enemas and pelvic rings, subdued its desires for ordinary touch and comfort, and suddenly, not out of her own body, and with no preparation, she had a thing that was all body.

A burping, spraying, sprawling faecal thing blasting the house with rude life. ...

The young Jeannette found two consolations: the pubic library and her parent's Pentecostal Church. The former offered access to the foundation for her future profession:

The Accrington Public Library was a fully stocked library built out of stone on the values of an age of self-help and betterment. ... Outside were carved heads of Shakespeare and Milton, Chaucer and Dante. Inside were art nouveau tiles and a gigantic stained-glass window that said useful things like INDUSTRY AND PRUDENCE CONQUER.

The library held all the English lit classics, and quite a few surprises like Gertrude Stein. I had no idea what to read or in what order, I just started alphabetically. Thank God her last name was Austen ...

The Church was one of those institutions that those of us in the comfortable reaches of English-speaking culture look down upon. Winterson's picture of its life is fascinating, gentle, and reflective.

Elim Pentecostal Baptist Church, Blackburn Road, Accrington was the centre of my life for sixteen years. ...

Elim Church did not baptize infants. ...There are psychological advantages to choosing life and a way of life consciously -- and not just just accepting life as an animal gift lived according to the haphazard of nature and chance. ... I know the whole process very easily becomes another kind of rote learning, where nothing is chosen at all, and any answers, however daft, are preferred to honest questioning. But the principle remains good. I saw a lot of working-class men and women -- myself included --living a deeper, more thoughtful life than would have been possible without the Church. These were not educated people; Bible study worked their brains. They met after work for noisy discussion. The sense of belonging to something big, something important, lent unity and meaning....

...the certainty of a nearby God made sense of the uncertainty. We had no bank accounts, no phones, no cars, no inside toilets, often no carpets, no job security and very little money. The church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility. I don't know anyone, including me, who felt trapped or hopeless. What did it matter if we had one pair of shoes and no food on Thursday nights before payday?

I like that: "the church was a place of mutual help and imaginative possibility." It seems a good vocation for any organization whose central precepts cannot be proved by the benchmarks available to a scientific culture.

This same nurturing church subjected Winterson to a violent exorcism and cast her out because she loved another young woman.

I'm not going to summarize further. This is very much a book for anyone whose life has included adoption, from any side of the exchange. I've seen adopted and adopting friends wrestle with conundrums and demons I would never have appreciated, coming as I do from a very conventional family and lineage.

What I come away with is an impression of Jeanette Winterson's mature kindness. For all the rage and pain her adoptive mother's demons visited on her, she concludes:

Unconditional love is what a child should expect from a parent even though it rarely works out that way. I didn't have that, and I was a very nervous watchful child. ... Mrs Winterson did not have a soothing personality. Ask for reassurance and it would never come. I never asked her if she loved me. She loved me on those days when she was able to love. I really believe that is the best she could do.

This is one of those books I read by ear. The author reads the audiobook; she's a wonderful reader of distinctive prose.