Monday, November 30, 2015

Sunday, November 29, 2015

And so we enter a new season

No, this is not only the climax of the college football preliminaries (the run up to rivalries, bowls and playoffs.) But also, for Christians, we begin the season of Advent in which we anticipate in joyful hope the coming of a child, of New Life. (This probably works better in the northern hemisphere; every year I wonder how it feels to spend Advent in a place where the turning of the earth signals an onrushing midsummer.)

Change is coming and we are enjoined to hope that something better is ahead.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place ..."

How contemporary.

In The Ransom of the Soul, Princeton historian Peter Brown explores how early Western Christians' understanding of the collapse of the empire of the day (Rome), and of wealth, bled into each other in an Augustinian piety in which inescapable sin required perpetual almsgiving for the construction of clerical institutions.

To get there, he describes the relation of money and the afterlife in the understanding of the first Christians, the ones for whom Jesus' warming of "rumors of war" and "not to lay up treasure in heaven" were more immediate.

I found Brown's picture of that early Christian understanding compelling:

... the notion of treasure in heaven gripped the imagination because it seemed to join apparent incommensurables. To transfer money to heaven was not simply to store it there. It was to bring together two zones of the imagination that common sense held apart. In an almost magical imaginative implosion, the untarnished and eternal heavens were joined to earth through "unrighteous mammon" -- through wealth that was the most transient and, indeed, with all that was most sinister, on earth -- all too heavy with associations of violence and deceit and, even when honestly come by, still smelling of the grave. If the brutal antithesis between heaven and earth, pure spirit and dull matter, could be overcome in this way, then all other divisions might be healed.

Not the least of these divisions was the gulf between rich and poor. In the Christian imagination, the joining of heaven and earth was refracted (in miniature, as it were) through the joining of two persons (or groups of persons) in incommensurable social situations -- the rich and the poor -- through the gift of alms. Hence we should not imagine that the relation between rich and poor in Christian circles was governed only by compassion and by a sense of social justice. Christians could be compassionate. Their reading of the Hebrew scriptures (the Old Testament) kept them fully aware of the passionate concern for social justice of the prophets of ancient Israel. But both Jewish and Christian giving to the poor involved something more than that. Almsgiving was not only a matter of "horizontal" outreach to the poor within society. It evoked a symbolically charged "vertical" relationship. It tingled with a sense that almsgiving created a bridge over a chasm that was as vertiginous as that which separated earth from heaven, and human beings from God.

For, like God, the poor were very distant. Like God, the poor were silent. Like God, the poor could all too easily be forgotten by the proud and the wealthy. Sense there was an imaginative weight, for early Christian readers, in the seemingly matter-of-fact reminder of Saint Paul in his Letter to the Galatians "that we should remember the poor." But remembering the poor, pious believers (Jewish and Christian alike) took on something of the vast and loving memory of God. God never forgot the poor, while human beings -- whether because they were proud or simply because they were too busy -- found the poor to be, alas, eminently forgettable.

In this way, "to remember the poor" was seen as a joining of opposites that echoed, in society itself, the paradoxical joining of heaven and earth, of base money and eternity, and of God with humanity. Without such perilously anomalous bridges (each of which flouted common sense), the universe itself would fall apart. The rich would forget the poor. The living would forget the dead. And God would forget them all.

For Brown this was prologue. I find quite enough to contemplate here without, yet, going further.

Saturday, November 28, 2015

Domestic insecurity

Word of the attack at Planned Parenthood in Colorado broke into the family's comfortable post-Thanksgiving stupor.
By way of Global Post
The holiday feast itself is such an excessive project that it's accomplishment on the holiday is a bit of an anti-climax. The day after, more active amid the bustle of household projects, is also more of a vacation interlude, less a driven ritual of semi-hysterical cooking.
The shooter turns out to have been 57 or perhaps 59, say the news accounts. Otherwise he qualifies.

According to the Times:

Security concerns at the clinic were high enough that the clinic had a “security room” with a supply of bulletproof vests, but, according to an officer on the scanner, some of the vests are still in the room, and one may have been worn by the gunman.

One of us who had accompanied women to a Planned Parenthood clinic over twenty years ago sighed: "I got out just as we started to have to do that."
Few witnesses to terrorism are this composed. It doesn't stop.

Friday, November 27, 2015

Friday cat blogging: peaceable kingdom edition

Jack and Jupiter (L to R) are fast friends.


Sure -- I do that as often as I can. Outside is my destination.

Thanks REI.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Thanksgiving 2015: join us in gratitude ...

Atlantic contributing editor Peter Beinart points out two very different narratives favored by two different Presidents about this country:

For George W. Bush, the story was about America being roused from its complacency by external danger. In 1999, then candidate Bush quoted Winston Churchill as declaring, in the late 1930s, that “the era of procrastination, of half measures-of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close.” Then, in his second inaugural, Bush described his own era as “years of relative quiet, years of repose, years of sabbatical” followed by “a day of fire.” The implication was that to fulfill his role in history, Bush needed to rally Americans against the evil that lurked beyond their shores.

Obama tells the story of American history differently: as America overcoming the evil within itself. In his 2008 Democratic convention speech, he talked about “a promise that has led immigrants to cross oceans and pioneers to travel west, a promise that led workers to picket lines and women to reach for the ballot.” The first two references—to immigrants escaping foreign oppression and pioneers overcoming nature’s hardships—are standard political fare. But by twinning them with workers battling exploitation and women battling sexism, Obama suggested that external and physical forces aren’t the only barriers to American progress. Sometimes, the barriers are other Americans.

In the spirit of that latter narrative, I'm giving over this Thanksgiving Day post to an oped interpreting the holiday by Nihad Awad of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

Remember the Refugees at the First Thanksgiving

This Thursday, friends and family will gather to commemorate the resettlement of the first wave of refugees to what would become the United States. While we as a nation are now more cognizant of the terrible toll this resettlement took on the native inhabitants of the land, we also recognize that the resulting ethnic and religious diversity of America is unique in all the world.

In the midst of eating turkey and stuffing around the dinner table, we will be reminded that, at its core, America is a land of immigrants, a nation comprised of innumerable waves of men, women and children fleeing oppression and seeking a better life.

The history of our country is one defined by overlapping layers in which new groups of individuals have joined our national fabric and given it new shape through their cultural, artistic and intellectual contributions.

As we come together on this day to celebrate the tremendous blessings we enjoy as Americans, we must therefore also remember our shared work of fighting for freedom, equality and dignity for all people, regardless of their national, ethnic or religious background.

As the executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), I believe strongly in the values and principles on which our country was founded, established by the descendants of those first refugees fleeing discrimination in their homeland.

They sought to create a country in which anyone could be welcome, their contributions valued and where freedom and justice would be the law of the land. For more than 20 years, and to this very day, CAIR has worked tirelessly in support of these founding principles. We are proud of what we have accomplished, but recognize that much still remains to be done to make them a reality for all Americans.

In the days and weeks leading up to this day of thanks, we have seen a darkening of the tone on the place of American Muslims. We have witnessed a Christian Ethiopian immigrant in North Carolina being threatened and beaten after being mistaken for a Muslim; we have seen airlines remove passengers because of their racial background or spoken language; we have watched as a pregnant Muslim woman was assaulted on the street in San Diego while pushing her child in a stroller; and we have seen too many mosques vandalized, shot at, threatened, and defaced by those who say that Islam has no place within America – the same rhetoric that has too often been leveled at Jewish, Catholic, Irish, and African-Americans.

Tragically, even those who hold or seek public office have turned this hatred against the newest wave of refugees seeking shelter in our land. Descendants of immigrants who came to our country seeking a better life have forgotten their past, and now turn their backs on Syrian refugees fleeing the horrors of ISIS on one side, and the brutality of the Assad regime on the other.

Groups such as the coalition of governors who demanded that President Obama suspend Syrian refugee resettlement coldly ignore the plight of innocent children who have the potential to become our next generation of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and elected officials. They place no confidence in our country's robust system for vetting newcomers and they forget that some of the greatest contributors to American society, such as Albert Einstein, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and Steve Jobs' father (himself Syrian) have also been refugees from hostile countries.

They would sacrifice our shared humanity on the false altar of security, unable to understand the core truth that these values can only exist when they exist together.

On this day, I encourage us all to not only be thankful for the blessings we enjoy as Americans, but to recall the circumstances surrounding the first Thanksgiving: a huddled group of newcomers, fleeing persecution, giving thanks for the generosity of their hosts in a challenging new world.

Today, I invite you to join us in gratitude for all that we enjoy in this land, and to share in our efforts to make this bounty available to all.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Vermont's favorite son

Driving across central Vermont, it was striking how many of these Bernie for President signs were on display. I mean, I figured that he enjoyed a comfortable majority of support among Vermonters, but the level of enthusiasm surprised me.

I became less surprised when I learned that Bernie has the highest approval rating (83 percent) of any Senator among his home state voters.

My Vermont friend explained: "He's perfectly in tune with this state. Though parts of Vermont form an elite outdoor playground, this is mostly a very poor state. Bernie knows how to listen to the people here."

Once upon a time, Presidential elections usually attracted a goodly number of semi-contenders who were properly described as "favorite sons" (we didn't elect daughters in those days). These men could count on the loyalty of a state or region where they'd made a local reputation as good public servants. In those days, Presidential campaigns became national much more slowly. The favorite sons sought to extend their appeal to the rest of the country. Sometimes that required a steep learning curve; I think particularly of Massachusetts patrician John F. Kennedy's eye-opening experience of Appalachian poverty in a West Virginia primary. In those distant days, there were no national debates and pols could take time learning more about this enormous country.

Perhaps Bernie should be thought of as a figure in the favorite son tradition -- forced these days very early to encounter racial and cultural diversity which his state never thrust at him.


To succumb to fear is to commit societal suicide. This is the threat the mix of terrorism -- mostly two oceans away, but we scare easy -- and clamoring proto-fascists in the Republican primaries offer. As a country we have choices.

Thomas Edsall summarizes:

Terrorist attacks, especially if they are reinforced by new assaults, have the potential to undermine the legitimacy of a tolerant liberalism. Based on the present risk of terrorist violence here and abroad, this is a threat Democrats cannot avoid. The goal of terrorism is to destroy the liberal state. ...

The liberal state isn't perfect, but it is a darn sight better than the alternatives.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Why do fear and stupidity dominate the stage this month?

In a primary season, “there is very little political upside to being the sensible voice right now,” said Matt Duss, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace.


A better question might be, what will it take for us to get tired of a diet of panic, Islamophobia and security theater?

Monday, November 23, 2015

"We are NOT a nation of cowards!"

Catch the inimitable Katie Sherrod unmasking some politicians' shameful incitement of fear directed against refugees fleeing violence in Syria:
Now there's a theme for the Christmas season about to engulf us.
I'm on the road this week observing the Thanksgiving holiday, so blog posts may be somewhat erratic.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

"Hospitality is the right of all and the duty of all" -- a view from the South

This week U.S. politicians have bravely declared our country a nation of cowards, too frightened of people fleeing war and terror to recognize the shared humanity of the desperate.

Leonardo Boff is a Brazilian theologian and academician whose conflicts with the Roman Catholic hierarchy led him out of that church in 1992. He has referred to the Church, Western leaders, and Middle Eastern fanatics as all representing a "fundamentalism" that oppresses the poor.

Boff doesn't think much of the response of rich countries to the anguish of migrants. In the present circumstances, his hope in the humanity of ordinary people, not the generosity of rulers.

As always, the global refugee problem presents an ethical imperative of hospitality at both the national and international levels. We are witnessing a human migration much as occurred during the decay of the Roman Empire. Millions of people seek new homelands so as to survive, or simply to escape the wars and to find a modicum of peace. Hospitality is the right of all and the duty of all.

...If we want a lasting peace, and not just a truce or a momentary pacification, we must live universal hospitality and respect for universal rights.

... If we do not undertake good will in earnest, we will not find a way out of the desperate social crises that tear up the societies on the periphery, and causes the millions of refugees that are headed for Europe.

Good will is the last life boat that is left. The world situation is a disaster. We are living in a permanent state of siege or global civil war. No one, not even the two Holy Men, Pope Francis and the Dali Lama; not the intellectual or moral elites, nor techno-science, offers any clues for a global path. In fact, we depend solely on our good will. ...

America Latino en movimiento

As has often been the case, people whose countries have been torn apart by global elites have a clearer view of reality than those of us protected, but isolated in our bubble, within Top Nation. This week the focus was on Syrians, but imperial firepower, fundamentalisms, civil wars and the disasters of climate change will set populations on the move across the globe in our time. We better get ready to deal as humanly as we can; we all might need help one day.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Saturday scenes and scenery: grasses still stand tall

It's been a strange autumn in drought-stricken northern California. We've had a couple of moderate rain storms, but temperatures have remained comfortably in the 60s and most days have been bright and clear.

Anticipating that one of these days El NiƱo storms will drive me off the hills, I've been out on the trails every chance I can seize.

The pampas grass is thriving everywhere. It seems to be an invasive species from the Andes, considered noxious by horticultural purists. I'm rather fond of it. These hills were cleared of whatever was native here many decades ago.

Friday, November 20, 2015

New York Times has amnesia

On Wednesday, the French authorities said they had carried out more than 414 raids across the country, arrested 64 people and placed another 118 under house arrest.

Under the emergency, the authorities are permitted to conduct raids and make arrests without first obtaining a warrant. But as soon as someone is arrested or property is seized, the regular legal system kicks in. Suspects in terrorism cases are already allowed to be held without charge for up to six days.

In the United States, even in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, raids on that scale would have created a storm of criticism, but the French, only 10 months after Islamist radicals attacked the newspaper Charlie Hebdo and a kosher supermarket, have generally accepted the crackdown as necessary.

November 20, 2015

Actually, by November 2001, the Times was reporting that somewhere between 500 and 1000 miscellaneous Muslim males, of varying immigration statuses, had been picked and held, largely incommunicado, mostly without charges or lawyers.

Then as now, this wasn't law enforcement; it was a panic attack. Like the French, few in the U.S. objected to this blanket racial and religious profiling. None of those swept up in this dragnet were ever charged with terrorism. Perhaps the French can undercover some real perps? That doesn't seem to be what dragnets do.

California's roll of dishonor

The following Democratic Congresscritters voted Thursday to further impede some minuscule number of refugees from the Syrian civil war from reaching our shores.
  • Pete Aguilar (CA-31)
  • Ami Bera (CA-07)
  • Julia Brownley (CA-26)
  • Jim Costa (CA-16)
  • John Garamendi (CA-03)
  • Janice Hahn (CA-44)
  • Scott Peters (CA-52)
  • Raul Ruiz (CA-36)
The current panic is Republican hate theater. The "vetting" (bureaucratic hoops and endless delays) to which refugees are subjected is so cumbersome that we have allowed entry to less than 2000 people, mostly children and elders, in the last four years.

These cowardly Congresscritters are aiding Daesh (ISIS), demonstrating that we share the terrorists' disdain for victims of violence. Would they have voted to leave Anne Frank to her fate under the Nazis in 1939? Most likely. In the spring of that year, according to the Holocaust Museum, Congress allowed a bill to die in committee that would have admited 20,000 Jewish children.

Resilience and Remembrance

The Transgender Day of Remembrance #TDOR is observed annually on this day to remember those who lost their lives in acts of violence against gender non-conforming people.

The organization Strong Families has created a Trans Day of Resilience Art Project for the occasion. See the rest of the images at the link.
Meanwhile, there remains a generation of transpeople who transitioned before the current outburst of affirming awareness and remain extremely vulnerable to mistreatment for the offense of becoming themselves. According to a transman named "Marc," these older people often

"don’t have families of origin. They don’t have spouses, family or children,” he says. “If you don’t have those people advocating for you, you’re far more likely to be abused in a living facility or nursing home.”

For this highly marginalized group, the idea of going into an assisted living facility is a nightmare. Michelle Evans’s worst fears about care facilities came true just after she transitioned.

Evans, a 59-year-old trans woman from Orange County, Calif., knew from a young age that her body and mind were at odds, although it took her nearly a lifetime—over 50 years—to fully transition. About a year after she did, she broke both legs in an accident and was forced to stay in a nursing home after surgery. Except that no nursing home would take her, she says.

When she finally found one that would, it insisted on putting her in the men’s ward. Evans protested and eventually ended up with a room of her own, but she says the doctor in charge told her that identifying as a female was “wrong.”

The doctor eventually stopped Evans’ hormone treatments and took her off blood thinners—medication she needed after her surgery. Soon Evans developed dangerous blood clots in her legs. A friend finally intervened and took her back to the hospital, where she was told she had only 24 hours to live—the clots had made it to her lungs.

Evans survived and won a cash settlement -- but what can repay her for such trauma? Read her story and more here.

Friday cat blogging

By popular request, here's Morty, being himself.

Apparently he has been posing for some stencil artist -- so I had to conclude while finding this on a lamp post while walking for 596 Precincts.

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Fraidy cat nation

A Central Maine newspaper knows what it thinks of Governor Paul LePage's attempt to ban Syrian refugees.

The anti-refugee argument goes like this: At least one of the killers in Paris was carrying a Syrian passport and he appears to have come into Western Europe on the migrant trail, along with hundreds of thousands of refugees from Syria’s brutal three-way civil war. Since it is difficult to tell real refugees from impostors, the argument goes, the U.S. can’t risk helping any of them.

This is ridiculous.

If they had been pretending to be tourists instead of migrants, would we end tourism? If they had been hiding in cargo ships, would we stop world trade? No, and we should not abandon people in need just because we’re scared.

A young New England friend has no truck with the fear among her friends:

... you are scared they are going to make a bomb and blow you up? Well, you are American. America is home of the brave. You are suppose to be BRAVE dum dum, and if you aren't, go move to Switzerland, oh wait, Switzerland is accepting refugees.

Republican cowards just want to keep us scared witless, I guess.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Working day and night but without work

What if a "reform" made the life of 1.5 million U.S. households with approximately 3 million children dramatically more challenging -- and scarcely anyone but the unfortunates themselves noticed? In $2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America that's what social scientists Kathryn Edin and H. Luke Shaefer document, both vividly and convincingly. The "welfare reform" of 1996 has created a huge, largely invisible class of destitute families who struggle to get by in our cash economy with only the tiny sum that the World Bank uses as the marker of deepest global poverty.

Our intuition is not entirely accurate about who these families are:

... the experience of living below the $2-a-day threshold didn't discriminate by family type or race. While single mother families were most at risk of falling into a spell of extreme destitution, more than a third of the households in $2-a-day poverty were headed by a married couple. ... the rate of growth [in this extreme situation] was highest among African Americans and Hispanics. Nearly half of the $2-a-day poor were white.

Food stamps (SNAP) and a few housing subsidies help, but since around 2000, the number of these extremely poor people has increased 50 percent.

These researchers went looking for people in this category whose stories were representative in both small and large cities and in rural areas. They thought it might be hard to find suitable subjects; in fact it was relatively easy. The book delves deeply into the stories of eight families, their survival strategies, their ups and downs (instability is the name of the game when you are that poor), their delights, and their values.

There's no question the 1996 welfare reform has had an effect. Meant to wean poor mothers off "dependence" and get them into the labor force, there's no question that today to be in $2-a-day poverty is work. And paying work is what poor people now most want, but struggle to find and keep.

The "welfare reform" assumed a stable growing economy where everyone could get jobs and poor working people would be buoyed by the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) which raises the effective incomes of low wage workers. But the EITC does nothing for the officially unemployed. For a while in the late 1990s expansion, "reform" more or less "succeeded," at least for some, though many still cycled from crisis to crisis, in and out of wage employment. But when the economy stagnated and then crashed in the '00s, there turned out to be no safety net for many.

And the poor have internalized the values of the reformers. A single mom insisted that

... to be a good parent, she had to model the value of education in getting a job. For these single mothers, the idea of returning to welfare violated their views of what being a good parent required, adding a self-imposed stigma to the potent societal stigma that came with claiming benefits ...

As far as they know, "welfare" is something that "they don't give out no more." Even at the depths of the 2008 economic implosion, TANF (state-run cash assistance program) rolls didn't grow; the poor expect no help from the state.

Edin and Shaefer report the difficulties the low-wage work market throws up that prevent really poor people from getting and keeping jobs: lack of transportation, need for internet access, expensive housing, short shifts, unreliable schedules, and always racial discrimination against African Americans. This is all true for most low wage workers. But the people who fall the furthest often have additional obstacles to escaping from poverty:

... they've had their share of hard luck; they've made their share of bad moves; they have other personal liabilities (asthma, or the same name as a notorious ex-con, for example); and their kin pull them down as often as they lift them up. ...

To a large extent, chance determines who stays employed and scrapes by and who falls out of the job market.

So what do $2-a-day people do? Move in with family members, often no better off or exploitative. Sell their blood plasma. Collect scrap metal and recycling. Illegally self off their food stamps to buy clothes for kids. Learn the round of food pantries and clothing giveaways. Sell the use of their kids' Social Security numbers. Learn to get by with society's scraps, to reuse and do without. Go hungry. Dream. There are few people who work harder, but we call these people unemployed.

These authors believe that the "reform" which trashed the safety net became possible, even inevitable, because

any program so out of sync with American values was doomed to fail. [Cash assistance] created a class of outcasts forced to trade their sense of citizenship for relief. ...

Our approach to ending $2-a-day poverty is guided by three principles: (1) all deserve the opportunity to work [for money]; (2) parents should be able to raise their children in a place of their own; and (3) not every parent will be able to work, or work all the time, but parents' well-being, and the well-being of their children, should nonetheless be ensured.

Nice ideas, but count me skeptical. Rapid changes -- technological, cultural, racial, international -- and the fears they unleash, are making this a pretty nasty society these days. Too often, too many of us, wish we could wish the Others (Those People) away. Too often, too many of us, shut out awareness of others' pain. A viable safety net arises from the knowledge "we're all in this together." Too often, too many of us, think erroneously that we're on our own.

And the very poor have no choice but to keep working away to survive.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Obama talking sense

This post may disturb some of my leftish friends, but I'm thanking my stars in the aftermath of Paris that we have a President who is seven years in office. He never has to face a misinformed, xenophobic, and easily frightened electorate again. He has learned that U.S. power has many limits. And he still shows some instinct to avoid "dumb" wars. Obama was goaded into telling the press a lot of truths Monday at the G20 summit in Turkey.

“What I do not do is take actions either because it is going to work politically or it is going to somehow, in the abstract, make America look tough or make me look tough.”

... he said large numbers of American troops on the ground would repeat what he sees as the mistake of the Iraq invasion of 2003 and would not help solve the terrorism problem around the globe.

“That would be a mistake, not because our military could not march into Mosul or Raqqa or Ramadi and temporarily clear out ISIL, but because we would see a repetition of what we’ve seen before,” Mr. Obama said. Victory over terrorist groups, he said, requires local populations to push back “unless we’re prepared to have a permanent occupation of these countries.”

... he said he would not be pressured into “posing” as a tough president by doing things that will not make the situation better to satisfy his critics.

“Some of them seem to think that if I was just more bellicose in expressing what we’re doing, that that would make a difference,” he said. “Because that seems to be the only thing that they’re doing, is talking as if they’re tough.”

... “The people who are fleeing Syria are the most harmed by terrorism; they are the most vulnerable as a consequence of civil war and strife,” Mr. Obama said. He added: “We do not close our hearts to these victims of such violence and somehow start equating the issue of refugees with the issue of terrorism.”

Without naming him, Mr. Obama singled out a comment by former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida, one of the Republicans seeking to succeed him, for suggesting the United States focus special attention on Christian refugees. “That’s shameful,” Mr. Obama said. “That’s not American. It’s not who we are. We don’t have religious tests to our compassion.”

New York Times

Now we've seen him back off a lot of other relatively sane things he said before. Maybe he'll crumble and plunge us into more ground war this time too. He did that in Afghanistan. Not only will the Republican clown show howl for his head, but the C.I.A. is already trying to use Daesh atrocities to justify more and better spying. Will he give them their latest wish list? Can he keep his grip on reality?

In truth, the U.S. practice, as opposed to promises, of providing refuge to escapees from Syria stinks -- less than 2000 admitted since the civil war broke out.

And the Syria policy -- a preposterous attempt to defeat two sides of a civil war at once -- is not likely to succeed.

But people in the United States who know better than to respond to Daesh crimes with more atrocities need to be making our voices heard. For the moment, that means having this deeply flawed President's back. He certainly can't stay his course if left out on a limb among the hostile mob.

Teaching moment, off the field

How often do we hear such simple good sense from a football star? This is enough to make me proud that Rodgers is too a Cal Berkeley alum.

Before the start of the game at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., an unidentified spectator appeared to yell, “Muslims suck!” during a moment of silence, which preceded all N.F.L. games on Sunday.

...Asked about the gesture honoring those killed in the Paris attacks, Mr. Rodgers said: “I think it’s important to do things like that. We’re connected, a connected world — you know, six degrees of separation.”

He then paused and added: “I must admit though, I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was who made a comment that I thought was really inappropriate during the moment of silence. It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that, I think, puts us in the position that we’re in today, as a world.”

New York Times

Monday, November 16, 2015

Disaster for all but the happy few

Lyricist Sheldon Harnick knew the score, in 1959 writing the cheery line in the song "Merry Minuet": "What nature doesn't do to us will be done by our fellow man ..."

In The Disaster Profiteers: How Natural Disasters Make the Rich Richer and the Poor Even Poorer, John C. Mutter provides an academic account of this present day fact. Like many of the storms Mutter recounts, this book begins slowly, carrying only a hint of its powerful and distressing conclusions. Careful chapters catalog the general categories of "natural" catastrophe, their effects, but most importantly the nearly universal character of their aftermaths.

The Columbia professor in Earth and Environmental Sciences and International and Public Affairs defines the sequence of the phenomena he discusses:

The important thing to recognize is that disasters are processes, not single events ... The first phase takes place before the event [-- the quake, the storm, the flood --] occurs. It is when societies should be preparing for disasters that will surely come, but typically do not ...The second phase is the event itself ... The third phase, which is talked about the least, is what happens after the disaster. ... It is the period of time when individuals try to get back on their feet and societies try to function in some semblance of the way they did before the disaster. ... No one has a formula for how to recover quickly, effectively, or completely. Some societies succeed very well and might even prosper from the experience; some don't.

Mutter's book is not all doom and gloom. Though worldwide media saturation means that we are more aware of terrible events halfway round the world than we might have been until recently, in fact he concludes that lower rates of extreme poverty have lowered the annual death toll from "natural" disasters from 120,000 in 1970 to 20,000 today. Not that we really know; he goes to some lengths to explain how poorly the toll of most events is counted. And most events don't even show up in national GDP calculations because the kind of wealth destroyed in disasters -- especially property rights in land -- aren't part of that economic abstraction.

But mostly -- whether in Haiti or China after earthquakes, in Sri Lanka and Japan after tsunamis, or in Myanmar or New Orleans after cyclones -- a dreary pattern can be documented.

Post disaster situations ... are fertile ground for some and wastelands for others. An elite few make out-of-sight decisions about rebuilding or not rebuilding, about who will benefit from the lucrative contracts that will be part of any reconstruction and who will not. But more important are the actions of another elite group (perhaps with some of the same members as the first), operating outside media scrutiny, to exploit an opportunity to reshape society in order to secure its hold on power and capital.

... What all these cases do reflect is an ordering of society and a geography of poverty and wealth that increasingly put physical and financial distance between the classes. And every disaster, because it harms the lower ranks and merely inconveniences the upper, separates us more and more.

Mutter's conclusion extrapolates his model to climate change:

It's completely expected that in a world of great inequality that the outcome of a natural disaster will also be unequal. Disasters may well affect everybody, rich or poor, in some way, and they are never pleasant for anyone. We want to believe that a disaster is a moment when everyone pulls together, but it is not. It is a moment of pulling apart because the effect on each group is so different, and the way each group can cope is vastly different. ..."

... What is very likely to happen is that the true injustices of disasters will increase. As the gap between the wealthy elite and the 99 percent grows and grows, it will become easier and easier for the elite to control the outcomes of disasters amid the chaos. And that is no accident. ... it is because inequalities can be made greater still by the actions of those who have power. The disaster itself provides a cover, a sort of shield to hide behind, a distraction. Most people will believe that what is going on is natural, but the natural part of the drama of disaster is over fairly quickly.

Many natural scientists believe that burgeoning climate change will increase the frequency of extreme weather disasters, including intense droughts, prolonged rainfall, and strong storms. ... A smaller and smaller habitable planet will be asked to serve the needs of a much larger number of people. ... the elite will grab more and more habitable land for themselves, leaving the majority in the badlands. If there is anything certain about climate change, it is that it will send us further apart than we already are. Natural disasters teach us how it will be done.

If the poor, Black residents of New Orleans, especially those who were never able to make it back to the city, had known about Mutter's theoretical construct, might they have been more able to fight back against displacement? They certainly already had known for generations that elites considered them throwaway people. But wider understanding of how "natural" disasters always are seized upon by the wealthy to enhance their existing advantages might at least have helped them pick their fights in the traumatized aftermath.

This is not a fun read, nor is it particularly cogently written. I picked up a few historical tidbits I may pursue one day, for example that the 1906 San Francisco quake was followed by vigilante murders of poor residents, just as happened in post-Katrina New Orleans. But I'm glad to have a stronger familiarity with the ugly pattern. After all, I live in earthquake and tsunami country; this typology could be all too personally relevant.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Once again: our grief is not a cry for war

As we recoil from the atrocity in Paris, the bombing of a Shi'a neighborhood in Beirut, and the downing of a Russian civilian airliner, it's worth remembering there are two groups who are delighted by these events.

Obviously the perpetrators are delighted -- presumably that means ISIS, ISIL, IS, Daesh or whatever it is called. Surfing the web, it is possible to read pundits, scholars, and general bloviators of numerous stripes and tendencies explaining how the recent string of crimes represent a strategic shift by that force. Some of these theories may be correct, but in the heat of the moment, it probably would be smart to suspend judgment, investigate, and respond with more thought than emotion. Among the pundits, I like the speculation by Gilbert Ramsay, a British international relations scholar:

If there is a reliable strategic purpose to terrorism it is simply this: to shake things up. To change things. To kick over the table and play a different game instead. The best way, always, to win that particular game is not to accept the invitation to play.

The other group that is delighted by these events are the permanent war hawks of the U.S. national security state. These "delighters" screwed up so badly after the terrorist crime of 2001 that a generation has come along who are somewhat inoculated against their hysterical fear mongering. The most diverse generation ever is not down with their elders' Islamophobia, racism, and defense of imperial domination. The right wing Slate columnist William Saletan is salivating over the disillusionment he hopes will follow the current round of atrocity.

If you’re one of the millions of young people who enjoyed this period of relative comfort, I’m sorry tell you that it’s coming to an end. If Madrid, London, or Mumbai didn’t wake you up, Paris should. ... If you grew up watching thousands of Americans die in Iraq, along with many thousands of Iraqis, it’s easy to say that the Iraq war was a mistake. ... In a world full of religious violence and terrorism, you’ll have to choose among some bad options. ... You might have to send American troops abroad. You might have to join the fight yourself.

We can expect from our domestic right-wingers a full scale assault on the "Iraq War syndrome" -- the successor to the Vietnam syndrome. We the people may be slow sometimes, but we do eventually notice when our leaders blunder into fruitless imperial wars and the experience fosters a reluctance to go abroad [seeking] monsters to destroy.

We can trust Republicans to delightedly bang the war drums. Daesh gives them the enemy they need. We can't trust the Democrats not to embrace war fever, even if somewhat reluctantly. This country still needs people of good will to rein in the follies of our rulers.

Graphic dates from Sept. 22, 2001. Still true.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Sign of the times: R.I.P. the daily fish wrap

My neighbor still receives that daily print edition of the San Francisco Chronicle. When I go out in the morning, there it is in the drought-parched yard.

She lives behind the gate.

I used to throw the paper over the bushes. But it has lately become so slight that it gets stuck in the bushes.

It does, however, slide easily under the gate.

"Fish wrap" is what the late, lamented San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen affectionately called the paper that employed him.

Friday, November 13, 2015

Houston trans folks explain: "it's not about the bathrooms"

These are the folks who need to take the lead on this fight for non-discrimination. It's a lot for the rest of us to ask of them.

Why is this guy so repulsive?

I find Ted Cruz' appearance stomach turning (and that's without taking into consideration anything he stands for.)

I'm not alone in this. Paul Waldman confesses the same feeling:

... a necessary confession: I find Cruz utterly repellent, on a real gut level, and most of the liberals I know feel the same way.

That's no basis on which to make rational political judgments, but it is what it is. There's a self-satisfied smarminess about Cruz that is just inescapable. His manner is always exactly the same, the varieties of human emotion distilled down to a smirk and a sneer. He's about as charming as the lawyer who sues the school district because his kid got a 99 instead of 100 on a geography quiz.

Or may as charming as Martin Shkreli, the greedy pharmaceutical billionaire. Though pictures of Shkreli don't make him quite as bad looking.

An odious appearance is unusual in a major politician. Why is this guy so repulsive?

Friday cat blogging

Let's give Morty a Friday off and look at some amazing cats I ran across in an otherwise unremarkable San Francisco neighborhood while walking 596 Precincts.

These improbable felines were glued to the exterior of a quite ordinary gray van.

I rather suspect that the creator worked from photos.

I found them pleasantly antic.

Who covers their car with patchwork cats? Beats me.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Yes -- the climate is out of whack

Do you still know people who doubt the climate is warming because "hey, it snowed a lot last winter?"

Argument doesn't often change minds, but here's a visualization that might help a few:

Click "Learn more" on the lower left for a simple explanation. Click on the 1950s to see how much more out of balance climate has become over the decades.

Thanks to Hunter Cutting and Climatenexus. If for some reason this widget isn't working, try that last link.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Why do men wear ties?

My busy day on Tuesday meant that it was late evening before I read a news site and discovered the Republicans had put on another episode of "Presidential Survivor." (This appropriate "debate" description via a communications prof named Patrick Stewart.)

I haven't paid any attention to anything any of these characters may have said; they aren't uttering anything but rubbish, so I don't have to.

But occasional pictures have left me with a nagging question: why do men wear ties? They trot out there in their dark suits uttering inanities and the sole differentiation between them is the color and perhaps fabric of their neck wear.

Actually it was the Donald who got me going on to this question. He not only wears ties: he favors shiny, solid color ones that probably are quite expensive but look to me merely slick and cheesy.
I tried asking the web my question, but Google and Wikipedia offered little help. Neckties are apparently the successor to a garment called the "cravat" but that doesn't explain the "why."

The most convincing answer I ran across was this:

... the cravat is the forefather of the present day tie. Men continue to wear one because they believe that it gives them an air of intelligence and authority far greater than they actually have. If a tie gets you the job, it says a lot about the people who hired you.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Seeking justice and keeping love alive

When the San Francisco Police Department shot and killed Alex Nieto on Bernal Hill in March 2014, they didn't just do away with some anonymous, no-count, young Brown male -- they killed a City College student pursuing his dreams, raised in the neighborhood, embedded in a family and an extended Mission community that loved him.

Yesterday friends, community and family came together on the windy steps of the old Federal Building to celebrate a judge's decision to allow to allow a civil suit against the killers to go forward. Trial date is now set for March 1, 2016. The two dignified persons on the right are Alex's parents.

Members of Danzantes Xitlali invoked the earth's directions.

Mission activist and poet Tony Robles read a poem for homeys.

And Benjamin Bac Sierra reported the sworn testimony of a witness, an individual unknown to any of Alex's friends, who had seen the killing and whose story convinced a judge to send the case to trial.

Under sworn testimony and critical examination, a neutral third party witness of the killing swears Alex Nieto never pointed or activated a taser at Officers. The witness observed Alex walking casually and coolly as though he had no idea that the police were after him (and we now know that Alex had no idea that anyone had called the police on him BECAUSE ALEX NIETO HAD DONE ABSOLUTELY NOTHING WRONG).

It is undisputed that the Officers did not give any warnings before they opened fire on Alex Nieto with 48 shots that ultimately killed him.

To be continued.

Monday, November 09, 2015

Overrun by the Google buses

Signs have gone up in the 'hood announcing a meeting on November 17 at City Hall. These list the locations where Google buses have been stopping under the "Pilot Program" which was our local rulers' ruse for legalizing the use of the city of San Francisco as a transit hub for Peninsula tech companies. Yes, the list is long.

The San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency has issued a report on this venture. I'm sure the beleaguered employees assigned to write this document did their best. But what comes through is an agency without any independent capacity to gather data, which received only sporadic cooperation from shuttle operators, and which was grossly understaffed to either verify that information or enforce any limitations on bus behavior. Some of the underlying tone of the report is almost plaintive.

Despite these limitations, some of the conclusions within these writers' bureaucratic jargon suggest that double-decker tour-bus size vehicles flooding city streets makes for tensions:

Shuttles block travel and bike lanes about 35% of the time that they stop...

Keeping streets safe, keeping transit moving, and preventing shuttle-zone blockages are key objectives of enforcement, but are not reflected in citation data ...

More enforcement staffing, and a focus on enforcement both at shuttle zones and along shuttle routes, would assist in keeping traffic flowing smoothly throughout the shuttle-zone network ...

The vast majority of community feedback focused on large shuttles being unwelcome on the streets, especially residential streets ...

Real-time shuttle vehicle data would greatly assist the SFMTA in regulating and managing commuter shuttle activity ...

According to the report, the "Pilot Program" was mandated to "provide a positive partnership" between the tech companies that hire the bus companies and the City as well as "increase acceptance of commuter shuttles by community members." To that end, it emphasizes that Google buses

reduce drive-alone trips, vehicle miles traveled, and greenhouse gas emission.

I'm quite willing to believe the Google buses do all those good things.

But I remain galled by the arrogance of tech companies which have simply appropriated San Francisco for their unfettered convenience without regard to the costs they inflict on those of us already here. It's not the workers who ride the buses who are at fault here or even the bus companies that the tech giants hire. It's the corporations which expect to operate without meaningful check or regulation while raking in billions.

Sunday, November 08, 2015

Make Election Day a federal holiday!

Love this campaign!

Sign on at this petition.

Here come the bathroom wars

Since the defeat at the polls of Houston's civil rights ordinance, I've been thinking what we can learn from afar from this campaign experience.

Houston voters struck down a non-discrimination ballot measure Tuesday, delivering a blow to the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender rights movement that had campaigned heavily for passage.

Prop. 1, known as Houston's Equal Rights Ordinance, would have barred discrimination on the basis of race, age, military status, disability and 11 other categories in a variety of areas. (Religious organizations and institutions would be exempt from the requirements.) 

It was HERO's protections on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, however, that attracted the most attention and made the ballot measure the center of the LGBT community's efforts this election.

The circumstances in which such measures are fought are always particular and immediate to their place and time. But each also may offer some insights useful to the continuing struggle for full equality for any of us who differ from conventional norms.

There are always recriminations after a defeat like this. Michelangelo Signorile provides a catalogue for this occasion:

Political strategists warned LGBT activists in the days ahead of the vote: There was little Spanish-language outreach, no big ad buy in Spanish-language media -- in a city that is 44% Hispanic -- countering the lies of the opposition, who'd certainly been doing their own outreach. Monica Roberts, a long-time African-American transgender activist, warned of little outreach in the black community, which makes up 24% of the city. ... And no ads by LGBT rights proponents held the equal punch that the nasty hate ads embodied. Instead, they overwhelmingly ran nicey-nice ads about good neighbors and equality and human dignity.

I have no way of knowing whether that is a fair assessment of the campaign's failings. I've certainly seen and experienced similar indictments after gay rights campaigns before -- and these complaints were usually somewhat accurate. The people who get us into and lead these fights -- economically secure, usually white, LGBT leaders -- are usually not the same people as the queers who would have to put themselves on the line in their own communities to win them.

And this time around, the right wingers and Christianists made sure the fight was about public bathrooms. Apparently we walked into this one.

Restrooms are not specifically mentioned in the measure, which is why conservatives were accused of fearmongering. Still, it was the ordinance’s supporters, not its opponents, who appeared to first raise the issue of bathrooms last year. A draft of the bill included a section, later removed, that would have let transgender people use the bathroom that best reflected their gender identity. Opponents seized on the issue and never let go.

Weeks before Election Day, the Campaign for Houston aired a TV ad that shows a man stepping into a woman’s restroom and hiding in a stall. Then a girl wearing a school backpack walks in. The ad, shot in black and white, ends with the man entering the girl’s stall and shutting the door. It was one of several ads they released, but “the one we ran the most,” Mr. Woodfill added.

Creepy and false, but damned effective.

Public bathrooms are always a bit fraught for most women -- maybe most people. After all, we enter them in order to perform what most of us think are very intimate function -- in a place open to strangers! My friend, Rinku Sen, explains cogently why we (all humans) are so good at perceiving "race" even when we are not aiming to be "racist."

The last two decades of neuroscience have revealed the existence of implicit bias, an unconscious form that determines our behavior, even without instruction to discrimination. Such bias stems from the human brain's efficiency and its programmed need to determine in a flash who is in our group (safe) and who is not (dangerous).

And just as quickly we filter our reactions to unknown persons by tribe and race, we also filter for gender -- anyone of the "wrong" or of hard-to-determine gender creates anxiety. Bathrooms are the perfect arena for this.

Once upon a time, pretty much all LGBT people inspired this kind of gender anxiety in pretty much everyone (even some gay people). The accomplishment of the gay movement, through mass coming out and a lot of individual bravery, has been to render many of us just a normal part of the social fabric.

But some people (not all LGBT) who can't or won't conform to gender norms still set off alarms in the anxious environment of public bathroom. I know -- I'm a 68 year old white woman-identified woman who has that effect in airport restrooms. It's annoying to have women gasp when you emerge from the stall. This reaction is no threat to me, but it might be to a young person or a person of color using what others thought was the "wrong" facility.

We can expect right-wingers to run with this anxiety as far as they can stretch it. In California, proponents of an initiative to repeal the right of students to use the bathrooms and locker rooms of the gender with which they identify have until November 20 collect enough signatures to qualify for the 2016 election. They just might do it; that will probably depend on whether national anti-gay organizations have thrown down the money to do the job.

Even if this threat passes as previous initiative attempts have, the Houston defeat means fights over bathroom access aren't going away. Some of the most vulnerable members of our communities will be on the line in these fights. How are we all there with them?

Graphic via Media Matters which has taken up the thankless task of reminding journalists that equal rights are not solely about bathrooms.