Monday, February 29, 2016

Urban vignette

Are these transit cops questioning this woman because she's Black? Or because she's poor? Or because she's not perhaps living in quite the same dimension as the rest of us? Whatever the answer to that, they clearly felt empowered to talk to her and she seemed to acquiesce before their assertion of authority.

The officers had come out of a passing train and advanced directly toward her. I noticed them before I saw her.

After an exchange of words, they watched her move down the platform and kept her under watch until she boarded a train.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Prosperity gospel

A gripping, gut-wrenching New York Times opinion piece alerted me to Duke Divinity School professor Kate Bowler's Blessed: A History of the American Prosperity Gospel. Fortunately the author had read it as an audiobook, so I downloaded and listened to it. But when I came to write about it here, I discovered that I could not obtain a hard copy from either of my usual sources -- the San Francisco Public Library (status: missing) or the library at the University of San Francisco (never acquired).

I appreciated the book and Bowler's insights so much that I did want to say something about it, but I am left to start with some description of the work from Bowler's NYT article:

No one had written a sustained account of how the prosperity gospel grew from small tent revivals across the country in the 1950s into one of the most popular forms of American Christianity, and I was determined to do it. I learned that the prosperity gospel sprang, in part, from the American metaphysical tradition of New Thought, a late-19th-century ripening of ideas about the power of the mind: Positive thoughts yielded positive circumstances, and negative thoughts negative circumstances.

Variations of this belief became foundational to the development of self-help psychology. Today, it is the standard “Aha!” moment of Oprah’s Lifeclass, the reason your uncle has a copy of “How to Win Friends and Influence People” and the takeaway for the more than 19 million who bought “The Secret.” (Save your money: the secret is to think positively.) ...

After outlining the intellectual history of this very American-exceptionalist form of Christianity, Bowler relates and elaborates on her experiences among property gospel adherents on the themes of wealth, health and victory. In her Times article, she sums up some conclusions from the experience of researching the book:

... The prosperity gospel tries to solve the riddle of human suffering. It is an explanation for the problem of evil. It provides an answer to the question: Why me? For years I sat with prosperity churchgoers and asked them about how they drew conclusions about the good and the bad in their lives. Does God want you to get that promotion? Tell me what it’s like to believe in healing from that hospital bed. What do you hear God saying when it all falls apart?

The prosperity gospel popularized a Christian explanation for why some people make it and some do not. They revolutionized prayer as an instrument for getting God always to say “yes.” It offers people a guarantee: Follow these rules, and God will reward you, heal you, restore you.

... The prosperity gospel has taken a religion based on the contemplation of a dying man and stripped it of its call to surrender all. Perhaps worse, it has replaced Christian faith with the most painful forms of certainty. The movement has perfected a rarefied form of America’s addiction to self-rule, which denies much of our humanity: our fragile bodies, our finitude, our need to stare down our deaths (at least once in a while) and be filled with dread and wonder.

So why did I call Bowler's Times article "gut-wrenching"? Because, it begins with her announcement that she has been diagnosed with Stage 4 cancer and is necessarily living the antithesis of the controlled certainty that her prosperity gospel research subjects spend their lives and substance grasping for. Again, just read it.
Blessed was for me a sort of Lenten exercise, an opportunity to look at my reactions to the book and ask what those feelings meant about what sort of person I am. You see, I found Bowler's careful ethnographic descriptions of churches where pastors enjoined their flock that God wanted them to become rich (and enrich their pastors too) viscerally repellent. I believe that Jesus's injunction that we cannot "serve God and money" is simply true; the notion that the great goal for our lives is material accumulation strikes me as living in "camel through the eye of the needle" territory. For middle class and better off Americans, Christian practice ought to be about not hanging on to the bounty we enjoy.

Yet throughout Blessed, Bowler insists that we not approach the good and frequently quite poor believers in this Christian perversion with supercilious scorn. And she's right. These folks are doing their best within the constraints of their country and the leadership they find in their surroundings. (Those leaders, on the other hand ...) My instinctive reaction to their beliefs is mostly just rationalized class and educational privilege.

Bowler sees better what matters in that same article:

... mostly I find the daily lives of [prosperity gospel] believers remarkable and, often, inspirational. They face the impossible and demand that God make a way. They refuse to accept crippling debt as insurmountable. They stubbornly get out of their hospital beds and declare themselves healed, and every now and then, it works. ...

Before leaving the topic of the prosperity gospel, it seems timely to share this on why many U.S. evangelical voters may be attracted to the seemingly so un- and even anti-Christian Donald Trump:

For many evangelicals, Pentecostals and charismatic Christians, magical thinking has found its expression through the prosperity gospel, much to the consternation of Christians who consider it a heresy and a fraud. A uniquely American contribution to the evolution of Christianity in the modern age, the prosperity gospel teaches that God wants believers to be rich.

It’s also called the health and wealth gospel: Its adherents believe that God blesses the faithful with great wealth, keeps their health robust and cures the faithful of every malady. Successful televangelists boast of revelations received directly from God and of their ability to produce miracles.

If you’re poor or if you’re sick, that’s a sign of a lack of faith. Or in Trump’s parlance, a loser.

religion reporter Sarah Posner, Washington Post

If I thought a literal Hell existed -- which I don't -- I'd think there would be a special place in Hell for the peddlers of this rot.

Saturday, February 27, 2016

Saturday scenes: San Francisco is a Bernie town

This will come as no surprise. This is (has been?) Left Coast City, after all.

Working pickup trucks here boast of many causes.

We're not much for lawn signs, but we're big on window signs.

Our partisans use all available media to proclaim their allegiance.

Somebody can claim to have been ahead of the times.

And campaign volunteers pass out the swag.

I have no doubt that, if Senator Saunders is still campaigning by the time of the June 7 primary, we'll give him our votes here. We know our role: push, push, push for better Democrats.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Nicaragua 2016

Friends from my church just got back from digging latrines in El Sauce, Nicaragua. Fr. Richard (that's the buff looking older white guy with a small goatee) made a video.

In February of 2016, 12 members of St. John's Episcopal Church in San Francisco went to Nicaragua with El Porvenir to help a small rural community build latrines. Along the way, we enjoyed the beauty of that great country, and the gracious hospitality of so many people. An unforgettable experience for all of us!

They report this was really hard work -- and both useful to the community and wonderful for them!

Friday cat blogging

This handsome creature was exploring an open window above a busy street in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood. Seconds later, two hands snatched him back inside. Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Urban economic inversion

Most mornings I receive an email from 48 Hills that keeps me up to date on doings in our city. I recommend this coverage; it is worth the additional email box pollution.

Yesterday, I was absorbing the latest outrages: Mayor Lee and powers-that-be are beating up on our homeless people as politicians who feel their support slipping usually do. That's what they do always do and we can protest it, but it is likely to remain popular.

A short sentence in an article about increasing the minuscule sum developers of new residential and office buildings pay to offset the costs their profitable enterprises impose on the city stopped me cold. Here is that sentence:

It’s astonishing that the city is willing to say: You can build and make millions in our city without paying even a fraction of the cost of that growth.

In most of this country, that probably seems counterintuitive. I grew up in Buffalo. I don't think they'd say that in Buffalo; they'd bend over to attract builders. In parts of California -- think Riverside or Bakersfield -- likely the same.

But San Francisco is such a desirable location that the normal rules of supply and demand are flowing backward. There is NO reason to believe that developers can't pass through to their rich clients any increased costs the city imposes on them. Tech innovation winners and overseas buyers are snapping up luxury condos here as fast as the developers can throw them up. (Mere tech workers are beginning to the feel the pinch of high rents themselves.) Winners want to be here (or to have a pied a terre or investment property here.) And their companies want the prestige of locating some of their business here. They'll pay. We don't have to be beggars here; given land scarcity and high demand, we couldn't kill the goose laying the golden egg if we tried.

This is hard to get our minds around; it's not how urban economics have worked in most cities for a very long time. But it it is how supply and demand are working in San Francisco at present.

You'd think this would be a no-brainer. Here's the grown-up policy argument from the same article:

Every time someone puts up an office building in the city, that building fills with workers, and those workers (or many of them) take transit, which means the city has to buy more buses and hire more drivers and spend more money.

How much? A city study puts the figure – the actual, cash impact, the amount that the city (that’s us, the taxpayer) will have to spend to support new office buildings is about $87 a square foot.

The city wants to charge developers $18.

It’s a huge giveaway to developers, worth billions. It’s astonishing that the city is willing to say: You can build and make millions in our city without paying even a fraction of the cost of that growth.

So [Supervisor John] Avalos wanted to hike the fee just a little bit – not to the $87 level where it ought to be, but closer to $20. That would bring in another $2 million a year for Muni [public transit], and backdating it would bring in a one-time payment of about $30 million.

The Mayor is expected to veto this minimal increase. The rest of us will continue to get ripped off to support the moneyed invasion.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Confirm the Librarian!

I do not often look at videos from the White House. There's a limit, for goodness sake!

But because I love libraries, I looked at this one:
Unfortunately, the appointment of Dr. Carla Hayden requires Senate confirmation. I wonder if Republicans will do their job on this -- or insist the appointment of a librarian should wait for a new President. They don't seem to want to want to do anything but complain and campaign.


This coming Friday, we'll be remembering that one year ago, the SFPD fired #6shots2theback of Amilcar Perez Lopez, a Guatemalan construction laborer who may never have even understood that the men with guns chasing him were "law enforcement." All are invited.
Today Erudite Partner's latest article for TomDispatch is bouncing around the internet. In this piece, she aims to dispel any misconception that this Left Coast city has its police force under control. Mario Woods, Alex Nieto, and Amilcar are dead because too many San Francisco cops shoot first and inquire later. One racist detail from that article:

In 2015, a series of text messages involving at least 10 different SFPD members came to light during a corruption case against one of them, Ian Fruminger. Sent between 2010 and 2012, these messages revealed just how ugly the attitudes of that hard core are -- and how entitled they seem to feel to end the lives of people they believe deserve it.

Here’s a sample: Fruminger texted a friend who was an SFPD officer, "I hate to tell you this but my wife [sic] friend is over with their kids and her husband is black! If [sic] is an Attorney but should I be worried?"

He wrote back: "Get ur pocket gun. Keep it available in case the monkey returns to his roots. Its [sic] not against the law to put an animal down."

Furminger responded, "Well said!"

When the city moved to fire the officers involved, a judge ruled that the police department had missed a legal deadline for disciplinary action.

Read it all to take in San Francisco's shame.
Among the ongoing obstacles to holding police officers accountable to the citizens they are expected to protect and serve are privacy protections more far reaching than any normal employee can imagine enjoying. Records of police misconduct complaints and use of force incidents are treated as top secret, confidential matters which are routinely withheld by cities under a 1978 law and subsequent court decisions. Cops are allowed to carry and fire guns, but the citizens who hire them are barred from knowing even their names on many occasions. This is simply wrong. If police are to be allowed to use lethal force, they must be more, not less, accountable to the public than a garbage collector or city hall bureaucrat. They kill people!

State Senator Mark Leno has reintroduced a bill in the state legislature to open up police records.

Under the Increasing Law Enforcement Transparency bill, the public would be allowed access to records of serious instances of use of force — those that cause death or serious bodily injury — and records of sustained charges of misconduct, including sexual assault, racial profiling, job dishonesty, violation of rights and illegal search or seizure. That means officials have completed an investigation and found the officer in violation.

Those who file complaints would be able to obtain more information on the investigation, the findings and any discipline imposed, rather than a current cursory response that informs the person if charges were “sustained” or “unsustained.”

In cities, including San Francisco, the bill would also allow local officials to decide whether to restore public hearings and public appeals on allegations of misconduct.

When local officials can decide, we can sometimes browbeat them into doing their jobs ...

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Where's the justice?

Last Saturday night, San Francisco celebrated the Year of the Monkey with the Chinese New Year's Parade, one of our great annual civic festivals.

On Saturday afternoon, San Francisco hosted this parade down Market Street, estimated by police to number several thousand persons. Photo via Hoodline, a neighborhood news aggregator. Marchers were protesting the manslaughter conviction of New York City police officer Peter Liang for the shooting of Akai Gurley, a Black 28 year old walking down the stairs in a housing project. The rookie cop accidentally fired down a dark stairwell; a ricocheting bullet pierced Gurley's heart. Testimony that after the shooting Liang seemed more interested in saving his own career than in trying to save the dying man probably weighed against him with a Brooklyn jury.

As soon as I heard of this shooting, I thought to myself "Damn -- I bet they go after the Chinese cop." And "they" did. A "justice system" that couldn't indict the officer who was videotaped squeezing the life out of Eric Garner did manage to convict Liang. It's not surprising that many in the Chinese community can easily imagine that bigotry was involved; the discrepancy between what usually happens to cops who kill and Officer Liang's fate seems glaring.

Yet Asian American organizations which have decades of experience struggling for more justice from the police have advanced an opposing view. The Asian Pacific Labor Alliance responded to the verdict:

APALA continues to demand Justice for Akai Gurley and stands with his family who still have to deal with the reality of losing a loved one too soon at the hands of police. No matter the identity of an officer, we believe we must hold all cops accountable for their actions, especially when innocent lives are lost. ...

Members of our community are not immune from police brutality. Examples include Cao Bich Tran, who was shot and killed by a San Jose police officer, Fong Lee, who was killed by a police officer in North Minneapolis, and Sureshbhai Patel, who was left nearly paralyzed after being brutally beaten by an Alabama police officer. In these cases, AAPIs demanded the officers involved be held accountable - no matter their race or other identities. ...

CAAAV (founded 30 years ago as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) wrote of the Gurley shooting:

On November 20th, NYPD rookie Officer Peter Liang shot and killed Akai Gurley, an unarmed, Black, 28-year old father, while conducting a vertical patrol in the Louis H. Pink Houses in East New York.

We put out this statement to be clear: that the murder of Akai Gurley is a part of the systemic targeting of Black people by the police, and that Officer Liang must be indicted. As a police officer, he is a part of the institutional injustice we see everyday with law enforcement. We demand an indictment of Officer Liang, just as we have with Darren Wilson and Dan Pantaleo.

To be clear, the problem is not just individual police officers; the problem is systemic. The NYPD’s vertical patrols of public housing have led to unwarranted harassment of the residents and guests of those buildings, as part of the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy. When the police abuse their power, kill, and aren’t held accountable for their actions, officers are affirmed that they can kill with impunity. When, as a society, we are taught to equate “Black” with “criminal” and there is no overhaul of the so-called criminal justice system, then police officers and other armed vigilantes will continue to kill unarmed Black people every 28 hours.

My emphasis.

On DailyKos, a report on a study of police killings concluded that simply increasing the number of officers of color isn't going to be enough to stop police shootings. Law enforcement will still be most active and visible in poor, usually non-white, communities where cops are socialized to see themselves as keeping underlying "thuggish" violence under wraps. With this mindset, regardless of individual ethnicity and even good intentions, they will believe they are licensed to kill if threatened. The struggle to make police departments subject to the law they claim to represent will be long and must be won if "justice" is to have any meaning.

Monday, February 22, 2016

The next torture book is coming ...

Erudite Partner (Rebecca Gordon) read for the first time from American Nuremberg last night at wonderful musician Dawn Oberg's Nepotism Night in the Haight. The event was a showcase for Dawn's many creative friends. She has fabulous friends!

I guess I'm biased, but, if you're fated to have to talk to the world about torture, E.P. manages it with grace and energy. The book will be out in April.

Here's the teaser for a terrific short film on the same program that brought down the house. Enjoy.

End Credits - Teaser from Loose Cannons on Vimeo.

Sunday, February 21, 2016

Whatever happened to El Niño?

I went running in Marin Headlands yesterday. The formerly brown hills have greened up a bit, but there's no sense they are bursting with new life. And there's almost no mud on the trails. In past El Niño years, I remember dodging through sections where a wrong step would have caused me to lose a shoe to the muck.

Some weather commentators continue to insist this season is "one of the most powerful El Niño events on record." In Northern California, precipitation, while not heavy, was at least close to "normal" -- that is, to pre-drought levels. But in SoCal, it simply hasn't rained. The first 15 days of February were completely dry. CBS Los Angeles asked NASA climatologist Bill Patzert, who had labeled what was coming the "Godzilla" El Niño last fall, for an explanation.

"El Niño remains immense," Patzert insisted to CBS News. "It's had a powerful impact over the last six months, and even this winter, all the volatile weather we've had across the United States -- the fingerprint of El Niño is on all these events."

Turns out the El Niño is so big, it shifted the jet stream further north, allowing storms to batter Northern California and the Pacific Northwest.

But the northern storms are also dramatically boosting California's snow pack -- now the deepest it's been in more than a decade. Spring snow melt will help fill the state's depleted reservoirs and provide 30 percent of California's water supply.

Weather watchers still hope El Niño will dump more rain in the North and finally get to the South -- but so far, he's a bit of a bust.

And other federal scientists fear California has missed its chance.

Forecasters now say conditions are likely to flip to their opposite phase, known as La Niña by late summer or early fall, which could set the stage for another drier-than-normal winter and prolonged drought in California.

“We are reasonably confident that there will be a La Niña,” says Huug van den Dool, seasonal forecaster at NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center, “but we plead ignorance as to whether this is going to be a small, moderate, or strong La Niña.”

Just as the stronger El Niños tend to favor wetter winters in California, the mirror-image La Niña is sometimes a harbinger of drought. Strength is measured by how much ocean waters deviate from their normal temperatures. Warmer waters provide more moisture to brewing Pacific storms, while colder waters tend to dry things out.

I guess we'll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, February 20, 2016

Republicans vote today in South Carolina

It would probably be good for my mental health to look away. But years of disciplining myself to watch this stuff means I've seen this.
At his closing rally, the Donald excited his partisans with this:

The standout topic, however, was terrorism and national security. Trump repeated – favorably – an apparent myth about how General John Pershing summarily executed dozens of Muslim prisoners in the Philippines with tainted ammunition during a guerilla war against the occupying United States.

“He took fifty bullets, and he dipped them in pig’s blood,” Trump said. “And he had his men load his rifles and he lined up the fifty people, and they shot 49 of those people. And the fiftieth person he said ‘You go back to your people and you tell them what happened.’ And for 25 years there wasn’t a problem, okay?”

...The moral of the tale, according to Trump: “We better start getting tough and we better start getting vigilant, and we better start using our heads or we’re not gonna have a country, folks.”

Benjy Sarlin, MSNBC

The reporter helpfully points to a source explaining that the story is a recurring fantasy, passed around among Islamophobic Israelis police and settlers, movie super heroes, and U.S. spooks. Snopes explains:

... the desire for simplistic solutions to complex problems has spawned several widely-circulated notions that seek to transform a fight against terrorism to the easily-manageable level of a horror film or a comic strip. One popular notion is the concept that a pig is to a Muslim as a crucifix is to a vampire: simply arm yourself with a porker, and you can use it to render even the most fanatical terrorist helpless, sending him cowering in fear lest he come into contact with anything porcine.

... messages such as the ones quoted above could be considered as silly as Muslims' proclaiming that a good way to throw the U.S. into disarray would be to "bomb" America with juicy steaks on Fridays, because "Americans are Christians," and "everyone knows Christians who eat meat on Fridays go to Hell."

Not that people who lap up this stuff are going to be dissuaded either by reason or mockery.

I wonder whether, as they have with Trump's "Mexican rapists", the Donald's GOP competitors will feel obliged to take on this crackpot notion as well.

Friday, February 19, 2016

Our worst demons come out when we're scared

In this moment of exaggerated panic about vague foreign threats, while the Donald bleats for a registry of Muslims in the USA, we should recall we've been here before -- and we're mostly ashamed about it.

On February 19, 1942, two months after the U.S. was attacked by Japan at Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed an executive order that permitted military authorities to declare areas from which "any or all persons may be excluded." General John L. DeWitt used this authority to force almost all Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps. Two thirds of the approximately110,000 persons sent to the camps were born in the United States and therefore were citizens; 30,000 were children; the rest were legal residents.

The military internment unleashed unabashed nativism and racism. Japanese ethnicity was rapidly made into a race in the classic white pattern. One of those military authorities, Major Karl Bendetsen, explained his plans:

"I am determined that if they have one drop of Japanese blood in them, they must go to camp."

This racializing of an ethnic group had broad consequences in the internment orders:

These edicts included persons of part-Japanese ancestry as well. Anyone with at least one-sixteenth (equivalent to having one great-great grandparent) Japanese ancestry was eligible. Korean-Americans and Taiwanese, classified as ethnically Japanese because both Korea and Taiwan were Japanese colonies, were also included.

And it is inadequate to think of the internment only as the mass imprisonment of families in hastily converted stables and remote tent camps; this was also about envious white neighbors seizing the property of the more prosperous Japanese-Americans. Many white residents of California and parts north had always resented their Japanese-American competitors. Austin E. Anson, managing secretary of the Salinas Vegetable Grower-Shipper Association, spelled out his views to the Saturday Evening Post:

We're charged with wanting to get rid of the Japs for selfish reasons. We do. It's a question of whether the white man lives on the Pacific Coast or the brown men. They came into this valley to work, and they stayed to take over... If all the Japs were removed tomorrow, we'd never miss them in two weeks, because the white farmers can take over and produce everything the Jap grows. And we do not want them back when the war ends, either.

Internees lost their businesses, their savings, and their even their personal property.

In Hawaii, which had suffered an actual attack and sat in the midst of the Pacific battlefield, only 2000 of 157,000 residents of Japanese ancestry were placed in camps. The military there needed Japanese American labor in the fields and ship repair yards!

On the mainland, although by end of the war many Japanese Americans had been released and even recruited into the military,

... the exclusion order was not rescinded until January 2, 1945 (postponed until after the November 1944 election, so as not to impede Roosevelt's reelection campaign).

Most Japanese Americans never got their property back, but they campaigned long and hard for legal vindication and even reparations. In the late 1980s, Congress ordered payments of $20,000 to surviving detainees.

Hardship and mistreatment aren't good for anyone, but many Japanese Americans of the generation consigned to the camps became tenacious fighters for human freedom including Fred Korematsu, Gordon Hirabayashi, Minoru Yasui and Yuri Kochiyama. The Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) advocates for the civil and human rights of all people. They can be bold: JACL came out for legalizing same sex marriage in 1994 when most LGBT people had barely thought about this remote possibility. Today JACL is in the forefront of activities in support of the civil rights of Muslims and of calls for resettling Syrian escapees in the United States.

We should all be so generous.

The photo is a detail from a commemorative monument Japantown, San Francisco. I have used Wikipedia liberally here to check numbers and dates. The article on the internment is exceptionally good.

Friday cat blogging

The cable TV company shipped us a new box. Morty insisted on helping with installation.

Thursday, February 18, 2016

Let the women decide

Despite having had an aunt who once lived in the state, South Carolina is seldom on my mental radar. The racist slaughter at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church last June certainly got my attention; so did the subsequent removal of the Confederate battle flag from the state capital grounds. But thereafter I went back to not thinking about South Carolina -- until the state was dragged back to mind by polling about the Republican primary contest scheduled there for Saturday.

Most surveys show Donald Trump crushing the pack of GOP clowns chasing him.

The Democratic pollster PPP took a look at the opinions of some of his Palmetto State supporters. The results make it all too obvious where his candidacy is getting its energy here.

Trump's support in South Carolina is built on a base of voters among whom religious and racial intolerance pervades. Among the beliefs of his supporters:

  • 70% think the Confederate flag should still be flying over the State Capital, to only 20% who agree with it being taken down. In fact 38% of Trump voters say they wish the South had won the Civil War to only 24% glad the North won and 38% who aren't sure. Overall just 36% of Republican primary voters in the state are glad the North emerged victorious to 30% for the South, but Trump's the only one whose supporters actually wish the South had won.
  • By an 80/9 spread, Trump voters support his proposed ban on Muslims entering the United States. In fact 31% would support a ban on homosexuals entering the United States as well, something no more than 17% of anyone else's voters think is a good idea. There's also 62/23 support among Trump voters for creating a national database of Muslims and 40/36 support for shutting down all the mosques in the United States, something no one else's voters back. Only 44% of Trump voters think the practice of Islam should even be legal at all in the United States, to 33% who think it should be illegal.
  • To put all the views toward Muslims in context though, 32% of Trump voters continue to believe the policy of Japanese internment during World War II was a good one, compared to only 33% who oppose it and 35% who have no opinion one way or another.

We really do live in a country with these people.
But we also live in a country with some other people, perhaps especially in South Carolina. Toni Monkovic at the Upshot points out that when Democrats vote in their primary a week later, a very different segment of the electorate may be the deciders.

In the last South Carolina Democratic primary, black women made up for 61 percent of the black vote. In the 2012 presidential election, black women voted at the highest rate of any group across race, gender and ethnicity, and 96 percent of them voted for President Obama, according to exit polls. It is not an exaggeration to say that black women, in formation and flexing their political power, could have the final say over whether Mrs. Clinton becomes the first female presidential nominee of either party.

Whether the eventual Democratic nominee is Clinton or Sanders, these women count and they are seizing their own future.

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

On looking backward before we plunge forward

Damn -- I didn't think I'd need that image again. But last Saturday, the Donald said this about the US invasion of Iraq at the Republican debate:

I want to tell you. They lied. They said there were weapons of mass destruction, there were none. And they knew there were none.

Today Max Fisher at Vox put on record a really valuable deconstruction of this assertion, demolishing the GOP mantra that GWB was a victim of faulty intelligence, while explaining that the U.S. public, the unfortunate peoples of Iraq (and Syria and beyond), and the world were actually victims of neoconservative (imperial) ideology's hold on the Washington's power elite.

A movement of high-minded ideologues had, throughout the 1990s, become obsessed with deposing Saddam Hussein. When they assumed positions of power under Bush in 2001, they did not seek to trick America into that war, but rather tricked themselves. In 9/11, and in fragments of intelligence that more objective minds would have rejected, they could see only validation for their abstract and untested theories about the world — theories whose inevitable and obvious conclusion was an American invasion of Iraq. ...

Neoconservatism, which had been around for decades, mixed humanitarian impulses with an almost messianic faith in the transformative virtue of American military force, as well as a deep fear of an outside world seen as threatening and morally compromised. This ideology stated that authoritarian states were inherently destabilizing and dangerous; that it was both a moral good and a strategic necessity for America to replace those dictatorships with democracy — and to dominate the world as the unquestioned moral and military leader.

Neoconservatism's proponents, for strategic as well as political reasons, would develop an obsession with Saddam Hussein's Iraq. That obsession would, by the end of the decade, congeal into a policy, explicitly stated: regime change. ...

... As Donald Trump's stunt showed, America's public debate over Iraq, now 13 years later, still turns largely on Bush's claims and their truth. But even if Saddam had turned out to possess weapons of mass destruction, if Bush had been right, what would it really change? The war would still have cost some 4,500 American lives and well over 100,000 Iraqi lives. It would still have destabilized Iraq, opened up the country for violent extremism, and contributed directly to the rise of ISIS.

Fisher's article is long, carefully argued and documented, and utterly sound.

All this still matters because the so-called moderates on the Republican presidential clown car have learned nothing from the Bush II disaster. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are still peddling the virtue of unilateral, military US hegemony in the Middle East.

And, according to Fisher, Hillary Clinton may not have learned much either, likely clinging to "a belief in humanitarian interventions." He concludes:

The lesson, which extends to both parties, is that a potential president's ideological views are just as important to examine and vet as are his or her policy proposals; that the line between obscure policy journals and American military action can be much shorter than we'd like to think.

That is true of any ideology, but it is especially true of neoconservatism, which we have still not chosen to vet, remarkably, even after we invested billions of dollars and thousands of lives in testing it directly in Iraq, to results apparently so damning we have still not fully absorbed them.

The Prez's foreign policy leaves a lot to be desired (Obama sure likes his drones and spooks) but his maxim might do the world some good: "Don't do stupid shit."

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Marco Rubio, direct mail, and other swindles

Another post about the nuts and bolts of election campaigns ...

Right wing godfather Richard Viguerie markets his direct mail business this way:

Known as the “Funding Father of the conservative movement,” [he] helped build the modern conservative movement, mailing more than 3 billion letters and helping raise over $7 billion since 1965 for pro-freedom groups and causes.  As the acknowledged pioneer of political direct mail, Richard led the way in bypassing the mainstream media monopoly to directly reach millions of Americans, empowering them to shift the political landscape of the country. 

In the 1960s and '70s, Viguerie's lists were a top of the line resource for conservative politicians. He got his start hand-copying the names of donors from public records; with 12,500 to start with, he'd built his list to 25 million entries by 1980.

In an important exposé, historian Rick Perlstein explains that Viguerie and his conservative imitators in the mail business, no matter how genuine their rightwing sentiments, were always operating a con game, fleecing gullible marks through a business model where most of the take went to the data vendors -- themselves.

The Viguerie Company’s marketing genius was that as it continued metastasizing, it remained, in financial terms, a hermetic positive feedback loop. It brought the message of the New Right to the masses, but it kept nearly all the revenue streams locked down in Viguerie’s proprietary control. Here was a key to the hustle: typically, only 10 to 15 percent of the haul went to the intended beneficiaries. The rest went back to Viguerie’s company. In one too-perfect example, Viguerie raised $802,028 for a client seeking to distribute Bibles in Asia—who paid $889,255 for the service.

The business has become more technologically savvy and still goes on today, as you know if you've ever gotten on one of these lists; my father made that mistake and he still gets heartfelt pleas for conservative causes -- despite having died in 1991.

All this is introduction to a terrific explanation from Daily Kos Elections which tells the story of how the right wing mail con machine enabled one of their presidential clowns to game his way to a Senate seat.

Want to fake being a good fundraiser? Let Marco Rubio be your guide!
You see, before Rubio was frustrating everyone from his debate coach to his dentist, he was the clear underdog against Florida Gov. Charlie Crist in the GOP Senate primary. As the Tampa Bay Times' Adam Smith explains in a great 2010 article, in the summer of 2009, Rubio resisted calls to just get out of Crist's way and run for attorney general, but his stubbornness could only take him so far. Rubio had only raised $340,000 from April to June, and he knew if he turned in another weak quarter, he'd lose any hope of looking like a viable candidate.

So Rubio took a big risk on direct mail to temporarily augment his fundraising. Direct mail brings in tons of money from small donors, but it costs so much to implement that candidates end up netting very little moola. Rubio and his team knew full well that they wouldn't be keeping most of his cash, but that wasn't the point: By turning in an eye-popping quarter, Rubio could draw lots of attention and endorsements from Crist-hating Republicans, who would send money to him that he could actually use later.

And it worked like a charm. In October, Rubio reported that he'd raised $1 million for the quarter. The well-funded Club for Growth quickly endorsed him and suddenly, Rubio's once-hopeless campaign had momentum. People eventually found out that Rubio had burned through most of the cash that he'd brought in, but by then, it didn't matter. As one of Rubio's advisors later put it, his direct mail stunt "was one-third confidence in our long-term prospects, one-third rolling of the dice, and one-third smoke and mirrors."

The DK Elections piece goes on to point out that Montana's Ryan Zinke and Utah's Mia Love -- both Republican Congressmembers in relatively safe seats -- seem to be copying Rubio's scam.

In a similar vein, it seems appropriate to ask why Dr. Ben Carson is still pretending to be running for President? His support has cratered. I can only conclude that for Carson and his staff, the campaign really is a "for profit venture." What a sad end to an accomplished career.

Monday, February 15, 2016

It was ever thus ...

I don't want to think about how any of the GOP clowns might be remembered. Or much of anything else until this rhinovirus departs my sinuses. If you have a holiday, enjoy the day. I'm taking a holiday ...

Sunday, February 14, 2016

Gentle passages

Gratitude, a last little set of articles from the renowned doctor and essayist, is well worth the 45 minutes it takes to read. Oliver Sacks was a delighted connoisseur of human variety; his gentle observations will be missed. In Gratitude he observes his own decline and approaching death from the same humane vantage point he adopted in his many books.

Yet I was struck that -- just perhaps -- we may be moving toward a world in which no one has to pass through this:

I chanted my bar mitzpah portion in 1946 to a relatively full synagogue, including several dozen of my relatives, but this for me was the end of formal Jewish practice. I did not embrace the ritual duties of a Jewish adult -- praying every day, putting on tefillin before prayer each weekday morning -- and I gradually became indifferent to the beliefs and habits of my parents, though there was no particular point of rupture until I was eighteen. It was then that my father, enquiring into my sexual feelings, compelled me to admit that I liked boys.

"I haven't done anything," I said, "it's just a feeling -- but don't tell Ma, she won't be able to take it."

He did tell her, and the next morning, she came down with a look of horror on her face, and shrieked at me: "You are an abomination. I wish you had never been born."

Not every gay person has lived this sort of rejection, but every gay person until very recently had to fear this, and far worse. Many (most?) are none the worse for this stressful passage. Some stresses make us stronger. When, (if?) this recoil from our beings ever comes to be viewed as an historical curiosity, we can't know yet what gay and straight lives will be like. But they'll be different.
I found the ad at the end bearable; h/t Time Goes By.

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Francisco's wall lions

While many of San Francisco's lion figures guard porch stairs, others stare out from walls. Until I began Walking San Francisco, I had no idea I'd start seeing the heads of big cats everywhere. The city swarms with lions if you are looking for them.

Now why would a lion head serve to hold the end of a beam? This one looks slightly hungry to me.

Was that mouth intended to hold a small flag -- perhaps to indicate to the mail carrier to pick up a letter? Not what I'd have thought of ...

A ferocious entryway, this one.

This king of the jungle is a mural detail.

This one may once have been functional.

This one is from our ornate, magnificent and slightly absurd City Hall. Have to have lions there after all.

Friday, February 12, 2016

World changers to thank and inspect closely

The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, struck me as poorly organized, often glib, unserious about serious matters of women's well-being -- and nonetheless interesting. Eig recounts the history of the development and public introduction of oral contraceptives through the lives of four individuals: the sexual freedom and feminist agitator Margaret Sanger; the hormone researcher, Gregory Goodwin Pincus; the fatherly Roman Catholic physician John Rock; and the funder who bankrolled the effort, Katharine McCormick. Certainly these are interesting people, but Eig's choice to tell the story through them erases individuals and aspects of the history that might have made this a more significant book.

Sanger remains the most famous and the most notorious of the Pill's progenitors. Her schtick was flamboyant flaunting of a transgressive program. A white Progressive-era U.S. visiting nurse, she was moved by the sufferings of poor women, many of them Roman Catholic immigrants, who she saw burdened by frequent pregnancies and enormous families. And she found her own middle class marriage and child raising boring. Any discussion of birth control was illegal in the early 20th century, but Sanger propagandized, imported diaphragms by the thousands and even fled the country briefly rather than answer a criminal charge. On her return in the 1920s, she founded the advocacy group that evolved into Planned Parenthood and remained an unflagging evangelist for birth control. Gradually, her movement forced women's hope and ability to limit pregnancies into public discourse.

But none of this agitation produced what she really hoped for: a simple pill that would allow women to decide when or if they wanted to get pregnant. In 1950, she found a scientist to help with her quest:

Margaret Sanger met Gregory Pincus to talk about nothing less than a revolution. No guns or bombs would be involved -- only sex, the more the better. Sex without marriage. Sex without children. Sex redesigned, re-engineered, made safe, made limitless, for the pleasure of women. ...Sanger gazed across a coffee table at Pincus and made her pitch. She was seventy-one years old. She needed this. So did he.

"Do you think it would be possible...?" she asked. ...

"I think so," Pincus said. It would require a good deal of research, he added , but yes, it was possible. ...

"Well," she said, "then start right away."

Pincus was a maverick scientist who felt he'd been denied the fame and respect he deserved. He'd been booted from Harvard in the mid-1930s because newspaper accounts of his experiments with rabbit fertility implied he might want to do similar work with human subjects. Subsequently he set up a poorly funded independent research lab in Worcester, MA. His work on hormone biology did make development of the birth control pill possible. But he carried the same disregard for the effects of his experiments on his women subjects as he had had on his unfortunate rabbits. Somewhat reluctantly, he partnered with Dr. Rock who really was interested in helping infertile women get pregnant, but also hoped a Pill that mimicked nature might pass muster with his own Catholic authorities. And Sanger found Katharine McCormick to pay for it all.

McCormick received a science degree from M.I.T. in 1904, an extraordinary accomplishment at that time. She married soon after, forgoing a medical career -- and not long after that, her husband sank in to schizophrenia. Though Katharine never gave up her feminist convictions, agitating for votes for women and birth control, she devoted the next 43 years to ensuring the care of her husband. He died in 1947, leaving her 35 million dollars. And thereafter, she devoted herself to supporting Pincus' research on the Pill and building a dorm for women at M.I.T.

These four were colorful characters, but I could have wished that Jonathan Eig could have given us a little more about some of the other figures and matters he mentions in passing.
  • I would have liked to read more about Pincus' co-worker M.C. Chang, a Chinese scientist who turned up via studies in Scotland and England, lived in a corner of the laboratory, and seems to have spent years dissecting rabbits for Pincus. Eig says he put up with these conditions because of his Confucianism. Huh?
  • It seems clear that early trials of the Pill in Puerto Rico would never meet current ethical standards for informed consent from human subjects. And the researchers knew they somehow had a good thing going in this exotic locale where they found compliant subjects, women who would stick to the trial and take their pills, despite side effects which caused medical students and mainland women to drop out. Yet Eig never really explores why the Puerto Ricans were so much more cooperative. There seems to have been an intersection of poverty, social and familial conditions, as well as women's self-realization going on there that this book never explores -- just as the scientists seem to have been oblivious to the lives of these women.
  • For feminists who've heard of Sanger nowadays, we've probably heard of her as a racial eugenicist, a privileged advocate for the purity of a white race. Eig takes the view that her eugenics enthusiasm was only in part a true expression of her beliefs:

    [Eugenics in the '20s meant] a biological program that would reduce the size of immigrant and racial groups they deemed less desirable. It was no great surprise that Sanger, who learned about eugenics from Havelock Ellis, would find it attractive. 'More children from the fit, less from the unfit -- that is the chief issue of birth control,' read a 1919 editorial in Sanger's Birth Control Review. She believed that women should be empowered to control and limit their own reproduction. She also argued that the government would not have to resort to welfare for the poor if society used the same efficient reproductive techniques as 'modern stockbreeders' to improve the health of the populace. ... Even after World War II, when the Nazis attempted to eradicate whole races and religions using sterilization and mass murder to accomplish their goals, Sanger held firm.'Parenthood,' she said repeatedly, 'should be considered a privilege, not a right.' ...

    ... Sanger had begun her crusade as an advocate for the poor and disenfranchised, but in cozying up to the eugenicists she had effectively converted it, as historian David M. Kennedy wrote, 'from a radical program of social disruption to a conservative program of social control.' ... If she wasn't quite married [to the racial eugenicists] she'd been in bed with them for so long that there was no way to call it off. ...

    How to come to terms with a figure with such repulsive views who nonetheless helped liberate sex for women? Now there's a worthy topic.

Friday cat blogging

Billie found the Super Bowl less than exciting. Also the dozen screaming fans around him.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

World torture approval

The Buenos Aires Herald reports: Argentines have world’s lowest tolerance for torture. Three Latin American countries included in the survey, Argentina, Venezuela and Chile, had plenty of experience with torture in the 1970s and '80s -- often led by U.S.-trained military officers -- and have consciously put a distance between their current regimes and prior practices. It is good to see Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine in the same low-torture-approving cluster. Again, these are nations with all too much experience.

According to Pew, the “US public is among the most likely to consider torture justifiable: 58 percent say this, while only 37 percent disagree. There are only five nations in the survey where larger shares of the public believe torture against suspected terrorists can be justified: Uganda (78 percent), Lebanon (72 percent), Israel (62 percent), Kenya (62 percent) and Nigeria (61 percent).”

... support for torture within the United State is hardly uniform. The research centre found that “nearly three-in-four Republicans (73 percent) think torture can be justified against people suspected of terrorism, compared with just 58% of independents and 46 percent of Democrats. Similarly, 69 percent of conservatives say it can be justified, while 59 percent of moderates and 43 percent of liberals agree.”

Nonetheless the ideological divide is not unique to the United States. Pew wrote that “ideological divisions on this issue are not unique to the US. In all five Western European nations surveyed, people on the political right are more likely than those on the left to believe their government could be justified in using torture.”

We're both outliers, and not that unusual.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Good man down

I was stunned to learn yesterday of the passing of Ibrahim Farajajé. I did not know this brilliant, mischievous teacher well, but I always appreciated his smile and his energy when we crossed paths. Back in the day, before he converted to Islam and when he was an Orthodox Christian priest (as Elias Farjaje Jones), he led the most inspiring Easter vigil celebration in which I've ever taken part.

You can read more about Ibrahim at this link.

This video catches some dimensions of why he was important to so many; he will be missed.

A new season

No, not only the welcome transition from Football to Not-Football, but also the beginning of the Christian season of Lent. We are entering, again, an annual period given over to examining our human mortality, our human frailty, and that, inexplicably, that the God-Person affirms it's gonna be alright.

Naturally, theologians try to explain the inexplicable and so offer reflections for the season. Rowan Williams, the former Archbishop of Canterbury, takes a swing at this difficult target in Meeting God in Paul. Less than 100 pages, this little volume assembled from lectures delivered at Cambridge in 2015 looks at the Apostle Paul's "social world," his "disturbing idea," and his "Christian universe."

For liturgical Christians, there are particular obstacles to the project of making Paul come alive. We hear his letters (epistles) read every week in snippets, become familiar with these bits, but seldom think of his "theology" as a whole -- if, indeed, it is accurate to call "theology" the often practical reflections of someone who was propagandizing a novel, blinding, direct experience of God to noisy, fractious communities.

Williams tries to put across how startling was Paul's central message in this rendering of the letter to the church in Ephesus (which Williams concedes may have been written by a follower of Paul):

'Now at last,' he says, 'we have got the point. The penny has dropped. The secret that has been hidden from before the world was created has been made clear.' And what is the secret? That God is already determinedly and lastingly in love with ... Creation. That's the secret, and now it is out there in the plain light of day.

This puts me in mind of a line from the opening prayer of the Ash Wednesday service that marks the beginning of Lent:

God hates nothing that God has made ...

For an academic theologian, Williams is wonderfully readable. For example, this:

Why is there a world? Because God is that kind of God. Why are we able to give thanks to God? Because God is that kind of God. Why can we be confident that we have reconciliation and absolution for our failures and sins? Because God is that kind of God, the God whose form and face we see in Jesus.

You can find this gobbledegook, or you can, as I do find it rich material for cogitation, the right stuff for "the observance of a holy Lent" as today's service enjoins.

Tuesday, February 09, 2016

John McCain denounces GOP torture ardor on Fox

If all goes according to the polls, the Donald will win big in New Hampshire today. He has made it clear: he's all for some waterboarding and he'll "bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding." Some large fraction of citizens of the "Live Free or Die" state apparently think that's a great idea.

Nice to see that the crochety Arizona Senator is repulsed.

"Do we want to be on the same plane as people who are chopping off heads?"

H/t Digby.

New Hampshire primary day

Time to bring this cup out. I assume every contestant seeking New Hampshire votes today has shaken hands at this place.
Charles Pierce provides an insight into the Democratic primary and Hillary Clinton's ongoing positioning in our politics that I think captures something true. Since Bill Clinton's presidency, the trajectory of US history has taken some big turns:
... there [were] two huge intervening events: One was the debacle of the Iraq War, and the other was the economic vandalism that came to light in 2008. Neither of those ever was properly litigated by the proper institutions. So, they get litigated in our politics.

In 2008, fairly or unfairly, [Democrats] litigated the Iraq War by hanging it around HRC's candidacy. There's more than a little evidence that, this time around, fairly or unfairly, they're litigating the near-destruction of the economy the same way. That's a tough albatross to shake.
She's not doing herself any favors by embracing the albatross of Madeleine Albright -- the Bill Clinton-era Secretary of State who famously allowed as how killing half a million Iraqi children was "worth it."

Nonetheless, this remains true: