Friday, July 31, 2015

Wayback machine: the little pseudo-courts that couldn't

In The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay, Jess Bravin, Supreme Court correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, gives readers some inkling of what it felt like to earnest lawyers working in circumstances where there was no legitimate law. This is a novelistic narrative of bad men enlisting subordinates who were sometimes better men [few women appear] in a perversion of justice.

On November 13, 2001, President George W. Bush casually signed off on a scheme coming out of Vice President Dick Cheney's orbit within the administration to create "military commissions" to judge and punish captured prisoners associated with al-Qaeda. No more Geneva Conventions or even trials within the federal judicial system for men labelled terrorists!

In one early draft, the secretary of defense would select all the participants -- the members of the commission, the prosecutor, and the defense attorney -- and then would decide any appeals.

Administration legal hacks -- John Yoo, Alberto Gonzales, William "Jim" Haynes -- cobbled together an executive order that created a facade of legality for novel pseudo-courts charged with inventing rules and procedures to free our government from obligations to either national or international law. Their incurious Chief went along.

And so this sad, unnecessary, and cruel train of malfeasance and incompetence was set in motion. Bravin's book follows Lt. Col. Stu Couch, a well-meaning Marine Corps Judge Advocate General officer, who stumbled from obstacle to obstacle trying to make this jerry-rigged edifice function. It's a tale of bureaucratic futility and of Couch's growing awareness that he was struggling to go through legal motions in a context where no approximation of the law he believed was his profession was respected.

Nearly every case he was ordered to prosecute led back to a tortured defendant. His first visit to Guantanamo was revelatory.

Couch trusted President Bush and the chain of command. To him, criticism from liberal activists, European governments, and the news media was suspect. ... Prisoner mistreatment was a possibility in any jail, but Couch assumed that any abuse was an aberration. ...

Still, Couch was concerned because nearly all prosecution evidence came from detainee statements -- or rather, summaries of detainee statements, paraphrased by an interrogator and edited by higher-ups. These were hearsay, and inadmissible in federal court ... But since the reports were "probative" -- the only evidentiary requirement of Bush's military order -- they were not automatically barred from the commissions. For that matter, the rules did not prohibit use of statements taken through coercion or even torture.

Yet defense attorneys were certain to challenge interrogation summaries as unreliable and unfair. To respond, Couch felt he needed to know everything about a criminal investigation .... [So he finagled a visit to one of his target defendants at Guantanamo.]

An Air Force reservist serving as base escort brought Couch to the interrogation control room to watch the [Ahmed] al-Darbi session by video feed. Awaiting Darbi's arrival, Couch was startled by an unlikely sound: blasting heavy-metal music. ... On the floor [of a nearby interrogation room] amid flashing lights and the deafening metal sounds, was a shackled detainee, kneeling , mumbling, rocking back and forth. Praying. This man was in agony...

Being a ethical officer and a competent attorney, Couch was horrified -- and immediately aware he was not going to be able to press charges against men who had been subjected to such treatment.

There were other difficulties. A British Muslim named Moazzan Begg had been picked up in Pakistan and imprisoned at Guantanamo. British Prime Minister Tony Blair was getting heat at home about this guy; if he was a terrorist, why wasn't he being tried? The Bush administration wanted charges against Begg and the job was given to deputy chief prosecutor Navy Commander Scott Lang.

Reviewing Begg's file, Lang had a question: "What's the crime?"

Figure it out, [acting chief prosecutor Marine Lt. Col. Bill] Lietzau said.

This was not an easy task, because no crimes yet had been defined for military commissions. Lang was confronted with the inverse of a regular criminal case. Police and prosecutors normally began with a crime report and then tried to find the likely suspects. At military commissions, however, "they gave you the criminals and said, 'Go find crimes that might fit these criminals,'" Lang said.

That was in 2002. Three years later, Couch was given an Australian defendant named Mahdouh Habib to prosecute, again under pressure from the man's home country. He found that nothing had changed.

He had a defendant. Now he needed a crime. Despite countless hours sifting through the dossier, he couldn't find one. Habib came across as obnoxious and untruthful, but his contradictory and uncorroborated statements added up to nothing approaching a war crime. He needed to see what the intelligence community had on Habib ...

He never got that CIA file, though eventually it came out that Habib had been rendered for torture to Egypt and had told wild tales under duress that he later denied. There was no other evidence. The case had to be dropped.

Subsequently, Couch was given the case of the alleged mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, Khalid Sheik Mohammed, to prosecute. But again, he was denied access to the intelligence files on his target.

...the administration concluded that holding Mohammed accountable for 9/11 was less important than concealing the circumstances of his CIA interrogations.

Not surprisingly, Couch began to feel left out on a limb by his bosses. Eventually the habeas case of Salim Hamdan was argued before the Supreme Court. Couch reported his feelings.

Hundreds of layers, professors, consultants and students attracted by a historic cause had joined Salim Hamdan's defense team, taking small roles and large, as the case evolved into a constitutional showdown between executive power and individual rights.

At the Office of Military Commissions, meanwhile, Stu Couch found himself practically flying solo.

"Here I am prosecuting allegedly the most important damn thing we've done in military justice since World War II, and I'm a frickin' Army of One," he grumbled ...

Not long after, Couch finally managed a transfer to a different, less conflicted, military law job.

Bravin relates the story of the Bush Administration military commissions unjudgmentally, as I have not. His narrative is probably more convincing for playing it straight. He offers this simple summation of how such a travesty could come to be:

During the Bush administration, commissions were conceived and championed by officials whose primary motive was redistributing powers from the legislative and judicial branches to the executive. Commissions were an expression of that ideology rather than a pragmatic response to an irresolvable problem.

The military commissions at Guantanamo still limp along, somewhat regularized but not replaced by real courts, under Obama. They still have not come close to trying Khalid Sheik Mohammed. Carol Rosenburg of the Miami Herald is still the go-to reporter on this farce, as she has been for over a decade. The latest news from this misbegotten folly is that the compound which the military put up in Guantanamo for the trials may be some kind of toxic site. Among those who have worked at the site, there appears to be a cancer cluster including several deaths.

A Wayback machine post is about something I've dug into that is tangential to E.P.'s new book project.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Happy Birthday, Medicare!

Several hundred people rallied to celebrate today in downtown Oakland. We were a happy crew.

Yes, there were younger people there, but I decided to photograph mostly elders.

Veteran activist Ying Lee has a candidate. This was a single-payer, Medicare for All, sort of crowd, so I trust Bernie will do well.

A hat and shades helped.

Now there's a proper hat.

Some people found a bench while they read the inevitable handouts.

Even those who ventured into the sunny central amphitheater were mighty happy at this party!

Medicare at 50 years old

Fifty years ago, President Lyndon Johnson signed the bill that created the promise of the health insurance that I now enjoy. That's his wife, Lady Bird, looking over his shoulder, former President Harry Truman sitting down (he had tried and failed to win universal healthcare nearly twenty years before), and Vice President Hubert Humphrey smiling broadly.

Like just about everyone else who manages to stumble to 65 and receive Medicare, I'm enormously grateful. How dare Jeb Bush push to phase out Medicare? Ferget it and ferget him!

My friend Ronni Bennett has up a terrific post about the history and current health of Medicare. Take a look. Read the comments too; we elders sure need this program!

When I signed up for Medicare three years ago, the process was complicated by the fact that I'd been getting my insurance through my partner's coverage, but the federal government didn't recognize our relationship. I told that story at Ronni's place. All that nonsense is so over. We're just another couple of old married ladies these days.

Later today I'm going to look in at a celebration of this anniversary called by some of the health care unions. I'll try to get some pictures.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Enslavers built this country with the whip

If you care about how white supremacy came to be the unhealed wound in this country's body and soul, I suggest two history books that provide a grounding through which to interpret that evil's current manifestations. The first was published four decades ago, Edmund Morgan's American Slavery, American Freedom. (The link is to my short discussion of it.) Morgan describes how adopting slavery made possible early colonial Virginia's tobacco economy and how maintaining slavery by violence warped the intellectual world of the U.S. founding generation. Last year, Cornell historian Edward E. Baptist's The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism extends analysis of slavery to the frontier states where cotton became king and U.S. capitalism accumulated its foundational wealth.

What Baptist has done is simple, if laborious and painful: he has studied many, many slave narratives and post-slavery interviews with the institution's survivors and discerned patterns of horror which render a story quite different from what we may have learned in school. Then he has woven this material into a powerful narrative of the pre-Civil War United States.

His central assertion, which I would say is unlikely to be refuted, is that southern planters in the then-southwest (Alabama, Mississippi, Texas and so on) invented a new system for exploiting bound human labor that yielded previously unimagined productivity. Enslaved African Americans literally created the wealth of the emerging United States, under the lash. Here's a longish, but I hope understandable, set of quotations that summarize Baptist's case:

The kind of slavery that [the slave Charles] Ball was encountering and that was emerging on the frontiers of the early nineteenth-century South was inherently new. For centuries, slavery in the New World had expanded by a process of extension: adding new slaves, clearing new fields ... By 1820, whites had already transported more than 200,000 enslaved people to the South's new [southern and western] frontiers in the years since 1790. ...

What made this forced migration truly different was that it led to continuous increases in productivity per person -- what economists call "efficiency." ... The first slavery [in Virginia and on the east coast] had not yielded continuous improvements in labor productivity. On the nineteenth-century cotton frontier, however, enslavers extracted more production from each enslaved person every year.

The source of this ever-rising productivity wasn't a machine like the ones that were crucial to the textile mills. In fact, you could say that the business end of the new cotton technology was a whip. ...

... The best known innovation in the history of cotton production, as every high-school history student knows, is the cotton gin. It allowed enslavers to clean as much cotton for market as they could grow and harvest. As far as most historians are concerned, the gin is where the study of innovation in the production of cotton ends ... But here is the question historians should have asked: Once enslavers had the cotton gin, how then did enslavers produce (or have produced, by other hands) as much as the gin could clean? ... [E]nslaver-generals took land from Indians [think Andrew Jackson and Sam Houston], enslaver politicians convinced Congress to let slavery expand [most prominently South Carolina's John C. Calhoun and such Presidents as Polk, Pierce and Buchanan], and enslaver-entrepreneurs created new ways to finance and transport and commodify "hands." And, given the finite number of captives in their control, entrepreneurs created a complex of labor control practices that enslaved people called "the pushing system."... Innovation in violence, in fact, was the foundation of the widely shared pushing system.

... "Their plan of getting quantities of cotton," recalled Henry Bibb of the people who drove him to labor on the Red River, "is to extort it by the lash." In the context of the pushing system, the whip was as important to making cotton grow as sunshine and rain. ...

[And the whip, squeezing productive creativity from the enslaved pickers, worked.] From 1805 ... to 1860 in Mississippi, the amount of cotton the typical "hand" harvested during a typical day increased three, four, six, or even more times over. In 1801, 28 pounds per day was the average from several South Carolina labor camps. ... by the 1840s, on a Mississippi labor camp, the hands averaged 341 pounds each on a good day ... To alienate one's hands and rewire them for someone else was torment. Enslaved people, however, discovered how to do it.

Southern planters could sell any amount of cotton to English mills; their riches rapidly increased. Northern financiers and budding industrialists got in on the bounty by buying up securitized shares of slave "hands" who worked on the plantations, financing yet further geographical spread of the system. This financial tie-in, in turn, meant that in the Panic of 1837, Northern bankers ended up owning the debt of some of the the biggest planters. Now it was their system.

From the perspective of the Southern planter class, the means by which their slave-enabled boom could be revived and made to last forever was through expansion to new lands. They sought (and obtained) Texas and yearned to seize the entire U.S. Southwest, Mexico, Cuba, and Central America for the slave production system.

African Americans had been saying for years that slavery's power built on the acquisition of new territory. On the frontier, enslavers could destroy the old standards of production, disrupt families, securitize the individuals extracted from them as commodities, sell the financial instruments thus created on financial markets around the world, and ride the resulting boom of excitement.

So why did resistance emerge in the North to extension of slavery? Baptist makes a solid case for the North's complicity in the profits of slave production, but is less clear on how countervailing forces emerged. Certainly most Northerners were not abolitionists until perhaps the middle of the Civil War and even then their abolitionism did not extend to sympathy with enslaved African Americans.

My understanding is that a critical fraction of Northerners came to resent being impeded by the "Slave Power" from developing the country in a different direction. The South's insistence on its "institution" stood in the way of "free labor," of "internal improvements" like railroads aided by the federal government, of a Homestead Act offering public land to settlers, and of the launching of land grant colleges. This vision had significant popular force behind it; Congress enacted much of it within a year of Confederate secession. Meanwhile, the South saw Lincoln's election by northerners with these ideas as a sign that they and their system had lost. Hence the wild throw of the dice that was the Confederacy and the Great Rebellion.

Baptist insists that we misunderstand how defining slavery was to the mid-nineteenth century United States.

It has been said that the Civil War was "unnecessary" because slavery was already destined to end, probably within a few decades after the 1860 election. Yet this is mere dogma. The evidence points in the opposite direction. Slavery yielded ever more efficient production, in contrast to the free labor that tried (and failed) to compete with it, and the free labor that succeeded it ... Forced labor that is slavery in everything but name remained tremendously important to the world economy will into the twenty-first century. [See this for example.] And the lessons the enslavers learned about ... forcing ordinary people to reveal their secrets so those secrets could be commodified, played out in unsteady echoes that we have called by many names (scientific management, the stretch-out, management studies) ...

I think Baptist would question, as we all must, whether the rebels of 1860 have even yet definitively lost their war to retain driven, powerless labor. This is what Harold Meyerson questions this month in How the American South Drives the Low-Wage Economy. The country is still fighting it out; at least some of the time, the contemporary "we" is a broader, more inclusive one than in 1860.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Mission District cultural artifact

I complain a lot about how San Francisco is losing its soul. We mostly all do around here. And we're not wrong. The big tech money is sanitizing the place.
But we do still encounter improbable reminders of some decidedly non-standard cultures. Let's take apart this snippet of a poster I noticed not far from my Mission home this morning.

If you are not familiar with the genre, you may not recognize this as the effluent of one of two competing Trotskyist sectlets that hang on in the city. They use very similar typography, so are instantly recognizable to those of us who've been afflicted by them for years. I'm not going to link or tell you which one.

In case the Spanish is not understandable, it reads roughly "Marriage Equality -- how was it won? what does it mean" and advertises a public meeting about this topic at which "all are welcome." Whoever tore off the bottom of the poster spared us any further information.

This is still a neighborhood where a significant number of residents speak Spanish, so the language is not inappropriate. Apparently our sectarians are looking to attract Spanish speakers. Good for them.

On the other hand, very few people around here look like the lovely Black lesbians in the photo (more's the pity.) And somehow I doubt that people who are attracted by the topic are looking for a friendly, affirming clerical-collared pastor to marry them (though there are such persons available in the 'hood if that's someone's thing.)

Finally we get to the response someone has scrawled: "I want to marry my dog..." This might be an expression of hostility -- or, then again, perhaps not. Maybe someone really does want a movement that would enable her to marry her dog? If this is the coming thing, you saw it first on a poster in San Francisco's Mission.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Dickhead of the week

Mr. Dickhead has been in temporary retirement around here for too long. It is time to pull him out again as Kentucky Senator Rand Paul is trying to reinvigorate his sagging presidential campaign by going after Planned Parenthood's funding for women's health. Like all the Republican clowns, he's latched on to some hoax videos claiming to show that PP sells fetal tissue for research. (They don't, but if women are willing to donate, they will pass such material on, at their cost, to scientific labs.)

According to Reuters, Paul

plans to push Congress to cut federal funding for the non-profit reproductive healthcare organization Planned Parenthood in a debate over its treatment of aborted fetal tissue. ... Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has started a fast-track process to bring Paul's legislation for a vote soon, McConnell's spokesman told Reuters on Sunday.

...Paul has urged cutting the nearly $500 million in annual taxpayer funding for Planned Parenthood in the latest Republican effort to limit government support of the group over its abortion services.

... Abortions comprise 3 percent of Planned Parenthood's health services, according to the organization's website. About 40 percent of the non-profit's funding comes from government sources, including Medicaid managed-care plans.

Planned Parenthood is the medical provider of last resort for millions of women who fall through the cracks of our crazy quilt healthcare system.

Paul doesn't give a damn about them. He just wants to strut his stuff for the crazy Republican electorate that wants to force unready women to bear (and care for) unwanted children.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Not so long ago, she was among us

This morning she smiles at the streets of the City as the annual marathon flows by.

Rumors of war over the South China Sea

As I walk around San Francisco, I often bemoan how soaring land values are transforming this peninsular city. There's construction everywhere and it sure doesn't look as if there will be room for immigrants and workers as it gets done. But there are still an astonishing diversity of people and concerns. Not infrequently, I come home from walking a precinct and rush to the web for answers: what are these residents so stirred up about?

Allow me to share what I learned from my superficial research into that sign. The Paracels look to be off Vietnam, but were taken over definitively by the People's Republic of China in 1974 after a naval battle. Though there's not much to the islands, including no reliable fresh water, the Chinese are developing them as a tourist destination. Meanwhile both Taiwan and Vietnam maintain the Paracels are part of their countries.
Via Wikimedia Commons
The Spratly Islands seem even less likely to be objects of international strife: no people, no arable land, and little water. All that's there would seem to be fish and guano, all that is except the possibility there is undersea oil.

That last presumably explains why six nations claim these isolated reefs: Brunei, the PRC, Malaysia, the Philippines, Taiwan and Vietnam. All of them maintain some military presence on the islands and there have been several skirmishes among the claimants since 1946. Most recently, China has been dredging and building an airfield which the other claimants consider evidence of aggressive intent. The U.S. and China engaged in some classic jockeying for position over the region this spring. Presumably the U.S. Navy is being deployed to protect the possibility of U.S. oil operations.

Just as the Quemoy and Matsu crisis was scary background noise for those of us who grew up in the 1950s, the Paracels and Spratlys are simmering hot spots today for those aware of these remote atolls.

UPDATE: Just in case anyone arrives here from Google -- the New York Times has published a detailed explainer and maps about these island.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Get arrested; end up dead

Leah Libresco at FiveThirtyEight ran the numbers.

African-American arrestees are at a considerably higher rate of arrest-related death by homicide than whites. Those homicides are overwhelmingly likely to be committed by law enforcement personnel, not other jail inmates. The U.S. Justice Department counted 2,958 arrest-related homicides between 2003 and 2009; 99 percent of those were committed by law enforcement.

The Justice Department notes in both its report on deaths in jail and on arrest-related deaths that its numbers are likely to underestimate the true rate of deaths, because of underreporting, but that they have more confidence in the relative rate of different causes of deaths.

My emphasis. #Blacklivesmatter

Saturday scenes and scenery: snapshots in and around the loo

Here in parched California, we take saving water seriously. Still this sticker inside a portapotty seems self-servingly didactic, given its captive audience.

Somebody has been making art inside this portapotty door.

There seems to be a movement in upscale San Francisco neighborhoods to encase the temp toilets at construction sites within enclosures like this. We are living in a new gilded age!

Meanwhile this excellent facility occupies several parking spaces on one of our still seedy downtown streets.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Lust for more war is looking like a partisan issue

And that is not a good thing.

As the Times reported yesterday, Senate Republicans seem to be working themselves up to repudiate the Iran nuke deal.

... the vast majority of Republicans appear to have made up their minds before a single classified briefing, hearing or visit with administration officials.

Fortunately, they can posture all they like and hold symbolic votes against the agreement, but unless they can bring a lot of Democratic Congress members to join them, they can't stop it.

But in general, at this moment, the closest thing we have to a bulwark against more stupid shit -- against another on-the-ground U.S. adventure in the Middle East -- is that Democrats still oppose throwing masses of soldiers into the meat grinder. A new Pew Poll shows strong ongoing anxiety about the Islamic State. Hey, we're still suckers for beheading propaganda. But 49 percent of us still don't want to send U.S. troops, while 44 percent think that would be just the thing.

What's scary about these numbers is that 63 percent of Republicans are panting for a ground war while the same percentage of Democrats are saying no way. Independents break more evenly, though slightly against.

If there is any good news in this survey, it is that young people under 30 are far more suspicious of any drive toward war than their elders. White men are the most likely to want to attack the Islamic State, while women across races and people of color are a little more cautious.

Facing the 2016 election, it is important to point out loudly and clearly that Republicans seem to be awfully casual about leading the U.S. into a hornet's nest. Republicans -- both the politicians and most of their constituents -- are currently a war party.

But probably even more important, Democrats need to push Hillary Clinton to commit to using international diplomacy to advance U.S. policy aims instead of sending in the Marines (or more likely JSOC). Why she's even got the background to do it. We rarely get a President with that experiential skill set.

Friday cat blogging

I thought that was my pillow, but apparently Morty thinks different(ly).

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Whatever the weather, it's too damn hot!

The first six months of 2015 were the hottest, ever.
Good visual summary of the condition our condition is in.

From the Carbon-Freeze campaign.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Nightmare for anti-militarists

Kevin Drum makes a plausible prediction about next year's presidential race (once we get through the foolishness and the Republicans settle on someone):

Right now, everyone thinks the Iran treaty is going to be the big foreign policy issue of next year's election. Maybe. But I think interest will fade after it's a done deal. Instead, ISIS will probably dominate the conversation, and Republicans will have to put up or shut up. If President Obama's limited strategy of training and airstrikes isn't working, are they willing to commit to a large-scale intervention using ground troops? That's likely to be the big foreign policy issue of the election.

He's riffing off Professor Stephen Walt's sensible observation that the entity called ISIS, or ISIL, or Islamic State or Daesh seems to be successfully establishing itself as the effective government of a goodly swath of Sunni Muslim former Syria and Iraq and isn't going to be dislodged by U.S. bombing and ineffectual, fragmented enemies. As Sarah Chayes would highlight, at present it has banished a humiliating, exhausting culture of corruption from its conquests and that would give any governing authority a novel legitimacy. Even the New York Times documents this:

... its officials are apparently resistant to bribes, and in that way, at least, it has outdone the corrupt Syrian and Iraqi governments it routed, residents and experts say.

“You can travel from Raqqa to Mosul and no one will dare to stop you even if you carry $1 million,” said Bilal, who lives in Raqqa, the Islamic State’s de facto capital in Syria, and, out of fear, insisted on being identified only by his first name. “No one would dare to take even one dollar.”

... increasingly, as it holds that territory and builds a capacity to govern, the group is transforming into a functioning state that uses extreme violence — terror — as a tool.

I hope we can be confident that, whatever provocations the aspiring caliphate may pull off before next year, the outgoing Obama administration is unlikely to dump U.S. troops into the fray. The Prez seems determined as I write to go out without "doing stupid shit", an admirable policy framework we could use more of.

But Drum may be right that an argument about whether the U.S. should go crashing into another war could become a central issue next fall -- and the idea has disquieting implications.

For Hillary Clinton, this will require some fancy footwork. Aside from her Wall Street ties, distrust of Hillary over her hawkishness is probably her greatest liability among Democratic voters.

On the other hand, we can count on any Republican to promise to (re)establish imperial dominance by maximum force and violence. Anything less would unmanly, un-exceptional, unAmerican. And just consider, that nominee could be named Bush ...

People who care about peace can't allow this horror show to develop without loudly raising up a picture of a more peaceable posture. Otherwise we'll be as organizationally enfeebled as we found ourselves after the 9/11 attacks.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Choosing life

In Kansas City, Missouri, there's a blogger who calls herself "Blue Girl." Blue Girl is seriously pissed off with the dickheads who released a heavily edited video of a Planned Parenthood doctor discussing how to transmit donated fetal tissue to research facilities. She used to work in just such a lab and she has lived what she is writing about.

The morgue is downstairs, connected by tube and elevator.

So we do the autopsies.

Sometimes, that autopsy is on a stillbirth, and sometimes it's on a neonate that was born alive but didn't survive.

Those are the really quiet ones.

We have in front of us a perfectly healthy full-term infant.  Except it's dead.

... I have stood at that table and searched for the elusive cause of death to give a family grieving the greatest loss imaginable an answer to the question they must have an answer to. "Why me? Why my baby? Why???"

... The causes of fetal demise are varied, but that doesn't matter to the family going through the loss. To them, no one has ever hurt this bad, felt this much pain, been this mad at God...

And that is what pisses me off so bad about the latest attack video on Planned Parenthood.

And guess what, pro-lifers? If you get the fuck out of the way and stop playing "gotcha" and setting up front groups with no other purpose than to entrap a Planned Parenthood (only 3% of their work is abortions) official discussing a topic that is inherently unpleasant on hidden camera so they can heavily edit the footage, research can happen and less wanted children will die. These people are so monomaniacally stupid it makes me want to scream.

Let's talk about organ transplants for a second.  Everyone knows someone who got a new-to-them-organ.  That is really icky if you think about it...taking organs out of one dead person and putting them in several other live ones, and I bet most pro-lifers check the box on their license anyway. Well, guess what? if we harvest a heart in KC that goes to Denver and two kidneys that go to Des Moines and Wichita and corneas that go across town to KU Med and a liver that goes to someone here in town at another hospital, part of that processing includes a shipping and handling fee. I'm trained in this shit, you don't get the butcher from Hy-Vee to process organs for shipment.

I know what the doctor was talking about is a topic that makes people uncomfortable, and makes people squirm, but the tissue and organs she talked about preserving as doomed fetuses were aborted were shipped to labs -- much like, hell, EXACTLY like -- the one I used to work in, those tissue samples, those intact defective organs, allow for medical advances in the fields of perinatology and neonatology, and those advances mean the pathologist and the technologist have a lot fewer opportunities to clasp hands and say a silent prayer before beginning an autopsy on a stillbirth or a dead neonate.

As Blue Girl says -- do read it all -- the practice of medicine is ICKY! But all that icky stuff saves lives. Having just seen a friend brought back to life by a donated kidney from a grieving family, I'm touchy about this.

H/t Ed Kilgore.

Monday, July 20, 2015

A head scratcher post: now what?

Every time I turn around, a new study pops up suggesting that people in this country are deserting their historic Christian religious affiliations. Here's a recent one if anyone needs one.

There are now approximately 56 million religiously unaffiliated adults in the U.S., and this group – sometimes called religious “nones” – is more numerous than either Catholics or mainline Protestants, according to the new survey. Indeed, the unaffiliated are now second in size only to evangelical Protestants among major religious groups in the U.S.

... More than 85% of American adults were raised Christian, but nearly a quarter of those who were raised Christian no longer identify with Christianity. Former Christians represent 19.2% of U.S. adults overall.

The "nones" -- some fraction of whom identify as "spiritual but not religious" -- tend to think Christianity is about guilt, condemnation and hypocrisy. They are not fans of claims that churches are being denied liberty.

Fr. Thomas Reese, a Jesuit and a senior analyst for the National Catholic Reporter writes about the concerns of Douglas Laycock, a professor of law and religious studies at the University of Virginia. Laycock thinks that religious leaders who claim "religious liberty" -- though unspecified he clearly is talking about Catholic bishops and the evangelical Christian right -- are effectively delegitimizing and marginalizing themselves and their institutions.

"For tens of millions of Americans, conservative churches have made themselves the enemy of liberty." He fears that more and more Americans are coming to perceive claims of "religious liberty" as a cover for believers who are trying to impose their views on others.

This is more interesting coming from Laycock than it would be from me, because he was one of the drafters of the federal Religious Freedom and Restoration Act, a version of which brought infamy on Indiana last spring amid accusations that it would legalize homophobia.

"One of the ironies of the culture wars is that religious minorities and gays and lesbians make essentially parallel demands on the larger society," he writes. "I cannot fundamentally change who I am, they each say. You cannot interfere with those things constitutive of my identity; on the most fundamental things, you must let me live my life according to my own values."

Each side of the sexual revolution sees itself as opposing a grave evil and protecting a fundamental human right.

... Laycock quotes Colorado State Sen. Pat Steadman as telling those who wanted a religious exemption to a bill he authored, "Get thee to a nunnery and live there then. Go live a monastic life away from modern society, away from people you can’t see as equal to yourself, away from the stream of commerce where you may have to serve them."

Laycock grounds his perception of what is happening in this country by looking at the history of established religion in France. In that country, religion was the enemy of the anti-monarchical revolution, of democracy, of liberty and equality. So liberty is identified not with protecting religious expression but with tamping down religious power: France has regulations against wearing Muslim headscarves, against some kinds of evangelism, and has tight controls on religious schools which are funded by the government.

We don't have to look across the ocean to see what can happen when religion becomes identified with repression. The Mexican government is officially secular, despite the religiosity of the country. Does anyone still read Graham Greene's novel The Power and the Glory? It's potent, in a somewhat horrifying way.

In this country, religion has largely lost the power to dictate personal morals. (Yes, abortion access is a partial exception to this generalization; it's not yet clear where the country will come out there.) If anything is going to save "religious liberty" amid the secular tide, it is probably going to be religion's perceived weakness as much as the enumerated guarantee against governmental interference in the Constitution's First Amendment.

Yet societies do need some kind of moral compass. Whatever we use for that function is not going to be traditionally Christian or even religious. Where do we find it?

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Wayback machine: unconvincing lipstick on too many pigs

A psychologist is a mental health professional who holds a doctoral degree (not medical) earned by studying some aspect of what makes the human mind tick. Col. (Ret.) Larry C. James Ph.D. was the professional sent by his superiors to the U.S. prison camp at Guantanamo and then to Abu Ghraib in Iraq to clean up the public relations and all-too-real messes that the Bush administration's "war on terror" had wrought. He describes his work clearly and cogently in Fixing Hell: An Army Psychologist Confronts Abu Ghraib.

He seems a decent guy, smart, a capable leader who cared about the U.S. troops he found in these hellholes. When he arrived in Guantanamo in January 2003, a younger psychologist he had mentored, Major (Dr.) John Leso, told him what he had been seeing.

.. .The bar for what might be considered abusive was raised higher and higher, and the leaders at the base turned their backs on conduct that was, at a minimum, questionable. The interrogators learned that they could try pretty much whatever they wanted to get the prisoners to talk, and a lack of good information often just spurred them to attempt something more extreme

... he had received increasing pressure to teach interrogators procedures and tactics that were a challenge to his ethics as a psychologist and moral fiber as a human being. ... He witnessed many harsh and inhumane interrogation tactics, such as sexual humiliation, stress positions, detainees being stripped naked, and the abuse of K-9 dogs to terrorize detainees

James takes pride in improving conditions at Guantanamo for three underage detainees; the U.S. eventually shipped them home after a year. We are not told whether our government ever came up with any rational basis for holding these young men.

He reports anecdotes about trying to teach untrained, immature soldiers how to extract information without abuse, probably succeeding in mitigating the worst violence.

Much of the culture at Gitmo in 2002 and 2003, perhaps due to the anger over 9/11, involved projecting one's rage onto the detainees.

It is hard to believe that James' intervention reached deeply into the structure of the place however, as we know from Mohamedou Ould Slahi’s Guantanamo Diary that the Mauritanian was being tortured while James was at the base.

After Seymour Hersh blew the whistle, including pictures, on torture at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq in 2004, James was sent to try to clean up that U.S. embarrassment. On first inspection of the place, he retreated to his room to cry and pray. And then he sussed out the totally screwed up realities of the U.S. invasion and occupation that revealed themselves at that iconic location: the hopeless ignorance about Iraq and Iraqis at all U.S. levels; the absence of a clear mission after Saddam was blown away; the rafts of generals, bureaucrats and contractors who hunkered down in air-conditioned Baghdad quarters, providing little direction to revolving groups of GI personnel suffering in the field on one year deployments. Because the U.S. political leadership had seen their project delegitimized by the torture story, and because the military was concerned for its "honor," James' demands for resources, better officers and more training probably had some positive effect at Abu Ghraib. But, of course, since the army still didn't know what it was doing, waves of new prisoners -- mostly guilty of no active wrongdoing -- kept washing through the system, making new enemies for the occupation and of the occupiers with each raid and detention.

James is very affecting when he writes about what our wars do to our own soldiers. He recounts how a warrant office and interrogator

often talked about how she had seen two interrogators blown apart by a mortar attack. ... "Sir, they died right in front of my eyes ... One of their body parts were laying on the ground. I stood there dazed when the medics picked them up and put them in a body bag. After a while, I couldn't do my work and I just cried a lot. Sir, we didn't have no psychologists, no chaplains or anybody to help us deal with this. Colonel, sir, it was shameful how they just left us there with no help."

James agrees. This neglect was shameful.

Precisely because James is such a sensitive observer of the harm done to U.S. troops, his mystification about the motivation of men he labels Taliban (how did he know?) in Cuba and among Iraqis at Abu Ghraib strikes me as strange. He does know he has seen hate before: when a prisoner called him "kaffir" and promised to slit James' throat,

he reminded me of the hate I saw in the eyes of many Klansmen as a young [black] boy in Louisiana. Also, like the Klansman of old, no reason, no logic or amount of information could change this detainee's mind nor clear his heart of the hate and evil he spewed. His rage was foul and almost inhuman.

While I sure as hell wouldn't want to meet this prisoner, his rage seems utterly human to me. Alien beings had crashed through his world, destroyed the structures of livelihood, family and security and added to the insult by presenting themselves as models of decency and civilization. Most of us would feel pretty murderous.

One of Colonel James' objects in this book is to rehabilitate Major General Geoffrey D. Miller who commanded at Guantanamo in 2002 when Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld was pushing for abusive interrogations and was then sent to Iraq to "GTMO-ise" detainee treatment. James' mentions none of this, praising Miller repeatedly for supporting James' work. Human rights organizations view Miller as one of the most visible authors of the U.S. torture policies.

Since James' book is a call for command responsibility to prevent crimes incident to war, his defense of Miller rings hollow. And, though he claims to have understood from before our invasion that "a group of angry Girl Scouts could have posed more of a threat to our national security than Iraq did," he repeatedly tries to pin responsibility for the Abu Ghraib outrages on the eight GI reservists whose photos blew the scandal sky high. He apparently can't imagine that the top levels of military and civilian leadership should bear responsibility. How can there be responsible leadership if we absolve the powerful authors and enablers of the crimes?

A Wayback machine post is about something I've dug into that is tangential to E.P.'s new book project. The topic seems all the more pertinent with the release of the report on how leadership of the American Psychological Association abetted government torture.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Segregation lines in U.S. cities

The Washington Post's Wonkblog has published an interesting set of demographic maps which highlight the human-made barriers which mark lines of racial demarcation. These turn out to be remarkably durable. When I left Buffalo in 1965, east of Main Street was mostly black, the west side very white. The area just south of the "Main Street" label on the map was just turning black. The street may be even more of a barrier now than then, since it has acquired trolley tracks since I left.

We did go across, because the Sears store (long closed) was on the other side as was the route to the airport, but there was with a sense of crossing over a barrier.

What's new since then is the concentration of Latinos and Asians (Vietnamese mostly I think) on the west side along the Niagara River. At first the Latinos were Puerto Ricans, then Central Americans in the '80s, now I expect more Mexicans. That area was Italian and Irish in my youth but I guess those folks moved north to the suburbs.

I grew up in the east-most corner of the blue (white) rectangle that is just northwest of the "M" on the map.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Horror and rage come in waves

What to do? Start by signing the Color of Change petition asking Loretta Lynch's Justice Department to get involved.

Friday cat blogging

Some precincts seem to harbor many cats in windows.

This area, in the Inner Sunset, was particularly well supplied ...

... even if not all the felines were animated.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

A agreement among "morally dubious" people and states

At Vox Max Fisher has an interview with Jeffrey Lewis, director of the East Asia Nonproliferation Program at the Monterey Institute of International Studies. That is, he's found someone to talk with who is capable of making a substantive evaluation of the Iran nuclear deal, not just indulging in political posturing.

Lewis is pleasantly surprised at what the negotiations have produced. He gives it an "A" for moving concretely in the direction of preventing nuclear proliferation.

... there was always a deal to be had here if reasonable people could make reasonable compromises. I never really count on that, but it seems like they did it.

... I was talking to a colleague who is unhappy [with the deal], and it's kind of fascinating. He's unhappy because, he said, "We spent eight years, and the deal we got is not better than the deal we could have gotten eight years ago." And it's like, oh, no kidding. That's not an indictment of the deal, my friend, it's an indictment of eight years of fucking around.

... If you are interested in the nonproliferation piece — how to say this. As a deal, this is what deals look like. Actually, they usually don't look this good. So if you don't know that...

... When I read people saying, you know, "I can't believe we're making a deal with these morally dubious people," I understand why a regional security specialist might feel that way.

But when you work in the arms control field, they're all morally dubious people! These are people who are building nuclear weapons — there are no not-morally-dubious people involved.

I don't know whether Lewis really means the implication of what he seems to be saying. The conversation is ambiguous, possibly intentionally. Perhaps delving into what nuclear weapons really mean for human beings while working on nonproliferation breaks down comfortable imperial illusions that there any good nuclear powers.

No one should have nuclear weapons. No state should be getting its way by threatening another with annihilation. Any deal that chips away at the nuclear threat is a move in the right direction. As I pointed out above, Lewis gives this one an A.

The whole Lewis interview is absolute worth reading.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

District 3 candidate is lost

Apparently the Supervisor who Mayor Lee appointed to shill for the tech companies doesn't even know where her district is located. I was surprised while walking toward City Hall to see that she'd opened a campaign office in District 6.

Or perhaps she has located herself right where she belongs, where the money flows. Apparently her real job is to protect AirBnB's profits.

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Credit where credit is due

Congratulations to all the diplomats who achieved what looks like reasonable give-and-take between adversaries. I wish the Republicans in Congress could learn from this, but I'm not holding my breath.

And congratulations to all the peace advocacy groups that were ready when the news came through to work on mobilizing their constituencies to defend the deal. Miracle of miracles, they managed to combine on a joint petition to begin assembling their forces. That probably took some major diplomacy in itself. If you haven't signed yet, now is the time. Click the link.

Sadness and determination in wake of murder

San Franciscans gathered outside City Hall today to remember Kathryn Steinle, who was murdered while walking with her family on the Embarcadero on July 5, and to put some stuffing into any of our politicians who might take right wing braying about the crime as reason to revoke policies protecting the constitutional rights of immigrants.

The victims of stupid, random gun violence are supposed to black people, brown people, poor people, not suburbanites strolling in the city. This awful crime has been candy for immigrant-haters: the Donald Trumps, Fox News, and their angry compatriots.

This woman testified to what used to happen before it was made city policy for our law enforcement to require warrants before they would hand residents over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. She called the police to report a crime and ended up in immigration detention until her community and lawyers were able to bring her back to her family.

Let's hope our authorities have the guts to resist calls to use a terrible case to undermine good law.

A sigh of disgust ...

Best comment I've seen on the German choice to bring down Greece democracy via Euro-politics:

The Germans try to destroy Europe ever fifty or sixty years or so, so we were due.

Comment at LGM

Here's a bit of Paul Krugman, slightly more measured:

... we have learned that the euro is a Roach Motel — once you go in, you can never get out. And once inside you are at the mercy of those who can pull your financing and crash your banking system unless you toe the line.

Europe was supposed to be a part of the world that more or less worked for its peoples. That seems to have been a misapprehension.

Monday, July 13, 2015

Somebody learned something from Afghanistan

If they'd been born in each other's countries, they might have swapped places.

In 2011, a brave Afghan woman leader, Malalai Joya, toured the U.S. explaining to peace movement audiences that the Karzai government imposed by our invasion had merely replaced the Taliban with rule by thieving warlords who robbed and oppressed the people.

In the same year, Sarah Chayes, a former National Public Radio reporter who worked in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2009 on economic and political development, was touring countries where the Arab Spring uprisings were unsettling long standing power arrangements as a special advisor to Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff. And she, too, was trying with very little success to explain to anyone with the power to make change just how kleptocracy was giving the lie to every project embarked on by U.S. forces.

Thieves of State: Why Corruption Threatens Global Security is Chayes' complex statement of the simple conclusion her unusual life trajectory has led her to: the indignities and injustices of "acute and systemic corruption" provide the sparks that turn habitual discontents into violent eruptions of protest, of revolution. When minor functionaries can demand bribes as a matter of right, when no one's property is safe from expropriation by some politician or landlord, when even the smallest business transactions required greased palms, when the most ordinary tasks require accepting humiliating subordination to crooks, eventually people will rise up.

The central insight from Chayes' years of work in Afghanistan is that, in a kleptocracy, government is just organized extortion.

Karzai was not, as conventional wisdom had it, doling out patronage. He wasn't distributing money downward to buy off potential political rivals. If anything -- with exceptions especially before elections -- the reverse was true. Subordinate officials were paying off Karzai or his apparatus. What the top of the system provided in return was, first, unfettered permission to extract resources for personal gain, and second, protection from repercussions.

... The whole system depended on faithful discharge, by senior officials, of their duty to protect their subordinates. The implicit contract held, much as it does within the Mafia, no matter how inconsequential the subordinate might be. Every level paid the level above, and the men at the top had to extend their protection right to the bottom.

... what if the Afghan government wasn't really trying to govern? ... Perhaps GIRoA [military-speak for the Government of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] could best be understood not as a government but as a vertically integrated criminal organization -- or a few such loosely structured organizations, allies but rivals, coexisting uneasily -- whose core activity was not in fact exercising the functions of state but rather extracting resources for personal gain.

... I was often asked, moreover, why it was so hard to find honest people to serve in government. If that government was actually a crime syndicate in disguise, the dearth of good people was no surprise. Mafias select for criminality, by turning violation of the law into a rite of passage, by rewarding it, by hurting high-minded individuals who might make trouble. An absence of integrity within this system did not mean Afghans as a people were intrinsically or culturally corrupt. ... constructive men and women had been stripped out -- and by now might prefer to stay clear. "No one would dirty his clothes getting near this government," a Kandahar-area farmer exclaimed to me once.

... That was the Afghan government. It was not incapable. ... Governing -- the exercise that attracted so much international attention -- was really just a front activity.

Having come to these insights, Chayes achieved next to nothing to help Afghans. Some U.S. generals, including Mullen, did act as her patrons for occasional periods. She had the opportunity to travel much of the world -- Tunisia and Egypt (she speaks Arabic), Nigeria, Uzbekistan -- and test her understanding that it is corruption, not ideology or religion, which ignites violent upheavals, expressed in each instance within each country's culture. In this book she also interweaves what sages in the Western European and Islamic traditions wrote about bad governance and corruption. She throws off some interesting historical speculations about what enabled societies grounded in the European enlightenment to substitute law for the more historically common rule by kleptocrats. And she even dares to ask whether contemporary financial oligarchs in the United States might not be succeeding in restoring the dominion of arbitrary pillage.

This is a far better, more subtle, well argued, interesting book than I've conveyed here. It resists summarization.

It is very hard to unstick significantly how I understand the world. I've been working on constructing a framework within which I make sense of events for a lifetime. Greatly to my surprise, this book has moved some of my basic understandings. I think most readers might experience a similar shift. Read it and see.
Inevitably, I do have two caveats to this endorsement.

Chayes describes her repeated experience of more observant U.S. and European soldiers and development workers in Afghanistan who could see the society's corruption, but dismissed its significance with a breezy assertion: "that's just how these people do things." Since she likes and respects (some) Afghans, she was able to look beyond that cultural dismissal. But she never raises what seems obvious to me as a white person working to be attuned to white supremacy. I am all too reminded of pundits and bad sociologists who ascribe the miseries of poor brown and black neighborhoods to a "culture of poverty." When we go abroad to conquer, we take our national racist assumptions with us.

And then, how can I trust what Chayes sees when she is not explicitly critical of that national drive to go abroad to conquer? U.S. forces never had any business setting up a "government" in Afghanistan. We had a right to demand that bin Laden and his confederates be turned over for trial. But it was up to Afghans to clean up their corner of the world. No good has come from our rooting around in what we never understood and, after much pain and (mostly Afghan) suffering, we decided not to pay for.

I get that Chayes is striving for results. She includes a significant chapter called "remedies." But I wonder whether without more root and branch critique of the international power structure whether there can be remedies. That's for us to find out.
I read this book by ear. Chayes narrates her own text wonderfully; she is determined to share what she has learned and I have great respect for that.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Richmond neighbors march against bomb trains

They fear they could be next. In Lac-Mégantic, Quebec in July 2013, a freight train carrying Baaken formation crude oil from western Canada exploded, killing 47 people and burning down 30 buildings in the small downtown.

Residents of the Atchison Village community are in the "blast zone." The Richmond Kinder Morgan oil train facility has received permission from the Bay Area Air Quality Management District to bring these trains to the rail yards adjacent to their homes.

Roger Lin, an attorney with Communities for a Better Environment, explained the litigation against passage of the oil trains.

A drummer from Idle No More led several hundred marchers past the rail yards on a sunny Saturday.

At present lower oil prices have interrupted the shipments. But this pause may not last."If you don't stop it, we will block it."

This is the sort of direct threat to life and limb about which people can work together. Groups involved include: APEN, CBE, ForestEthics, CBD, Sunflower Alliance, Idle No More, Sierra Club SF Bay Area Chapter, 350 Bay Area, Artisan Hub, CNA, Martinez Environmental Group, Bay Area Refinery Corridor Coalition, Crockett-Rodeo United to Defend the Environment, Benicians for a Safe and Healthy Community, Movement Generation, AFSCME District 57, Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA), and Bay Area Labor Committee for Peace & Justice.