Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On historical lessons

History does not repeat, but it does instruct. ... History can familiarize, and it can warn.

Yale historian Timothy Snyder's On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century consists of 20 admonitions which can inform resistance in this scary time, enveloped between a prologue and an epilogue that asserts the necessity of appreciating rigorous historical knowledge.

No one who reads here will be surprised when I rejoice -- this is my kind of book. It's accessible and even concrete. In all likelihood, I'll be drawing on the 20 lessons in future posts about discrete current events and circumstances.

But here I want to reflect on what Snyder writes about our society's relationship to history. He indicts us for embracing two opposite fallacies. The first he calls inevitability:

... Until recently, we Americans had convinced ourselves that there was nothing in the future but more of the same. The seemingly distant traumas of fascism, Nazism, and communism seemed to be receding into irrelevance. We allowed ourselves to accept the politics of inevitability, the sense that history could move in only one direction: toward liberal democracy.

... To be sure, the politics of inevitability seem at first glance to be a kind of history. Inevitability politicians do not deny that there is a past, a present, and a future. They even allow for the colorful variety of the distant past. Yet they portray the present simply as a step toward a future that we already know, one of expanding globalization, deepening reason, and growing prosperity. This is what is called a teleology: a narration of time that leads toward a certain, usually desirable, goal.

... The politics of inevitability is a self-induced intellectual coma. So long as there was a contest between communist and capitalist systems, and so long as the memory of fascism and Nazism was alive, Americans had to pay some attention to history and preserve the concepts that allowed them to imagine alternative futures. Yet once we accepted the politics of inevitability, we assumed that history was no longer relevant. If everything in the past is governed by a known tendency, then there is no need to learn the details.

I read this and I can identify with it. Often enough, meditating on some past or present atrocity, I've called to mind Theodore Parker's eloquent formulation made famous by Dr. King: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice." I've labeled Steven Pinker an "arrogant twit" but conceded that I've learned something from his insistence that, on the whole, the world is becoming kinder and gentler. It's probably true that I'm a determined optimist about the positive potential in human societies.

But that only makes me more determined to "learn the details." It is in the details that the hints of hope are hidden. I don't think that dooms me to an "intellectual coma."

Snyder's second fallacy is what he calls eternity.

The second antihistorical way of considering the past is the politics of eternity. ... In the politics of eternity, the seduction by a mythicized past prevents us from thinking about possible futures. The habit of dwelling on victimhood dulls the impulse of self-correction. ... politics becomes a discussion of good and evil rather than a discussion of possible solutions to real problems. Since the crisis is permanent, the sense of emergency is always present; planning for the future seems impossible or even disloyal. National populists are eternity politicians.

I wish Snyder had been more specific about where eternity politics is located in U.S. society. That is, about this I crave details. Does he mean the white supremacist politics of the Confederate Lost Cause, the impulse that led to Alabama's new law outlawing removal of statutes of slavery's defenders? Okay, point taken, this is a remarkably durable thread in our history. But where else? In nostalgia for a romanticized 1950s when (white) men were men and women stayed in our place? Perhaps, but do even the nostalgists really believe anymore this existed? I doubt it. He says the reference decade for eternity politics is the 1930s, but aside from a few right wing crackpots, I think we'd be hard put to find anyone who lives within any picture of that decade.

But though I'm unsure about Snyder's two sided polarity, I resonate with his plea for the necessity of knowing some history if we are to find a way forward.

History allows us to see patterns and make judgments. It sketches for us the structures within which we can seek freedom. It reveals moments, each one of them different, none entirely unique. To understand one moment is to see the possibility of being the co-creator of another. History permits us to be responsible: not for everything, but for something. ... History gives us the company of those who have done and suffered more than we have.

... One thing is certain: If young people do not begin to make history, politicians of eternity and inevitability will destroy it. And to make history, young Americans will have to know some. This is not the end, but a beginning.

Let us resist and protect much.
Two previous blog posts about Snyder's histories:
Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin
Thinking the Twentieth Century

Tuesday, May 30, 2017

Caption contest

He stared at me so fixedly, I just snapped his picture -- while Walking San Francisco.

Monday, May 29, 2017

He's alright!

Micah David-Cole Fletcher, who survived his attempt to intervene in the hate crime on a train in Portland, is a 21-year old pizza server and poet.

I am alive
I spat in the eye of hate and lived
This is what we must do for one another
We must live for one another
We must fight for one Mother
We must die in the name of freedom if we have to.
Luckily it’s not my turn today.

African-Americans invented Memorial Day

The graves on the racecourse
When I was a child, my mother would take me to the cemetery on what she called "Decoration Day" to check the placement of the memorial flowers which the management was paid to place on the graves of family veterans, including ones who fought in the Union army during the Civil War. They pretty much always located them wrong; we'd move the vases ... I remember feeling bemused by the ritual.

Yale historian David Blight has made it his business to correct the national memory of Memorial Day as a part of the project of correcting the wider historical understanding of the Civil War and Reconstruction eras. In Race and Reunion, he documents how the white Southern side won the history after losing the battles and tries to retrieve a more truthful story.

As part of a Yale Online Course he told the story of the first Memorial Day.
[In April 1865, shortly after the South surrendered to the Union army] ... the black folks of Charleston had planned one more ceremony. That ceremony was a burial ceremony. It turns out that during the last months of the war the Confederate Army turned the planter's horse track, a racecourse — it was called the Washington Racecourse — into an open air cemetery — excuse me, prison. And in that open air prison, in the infield of the horse track — about 260-odd Union soldiers had died of disease and exposure — and they were buried in unmarked graves in a mass gravesite out behind the grandstand of the racetrack. And by the way, there was no more important and symbolic site in low country planter/slaveholding life then their racetrack.

Well, the black folks at Charleston got organized, they knew about all this. They went to the site. They re-interred all the graves, the men. They couldn't mark them with names, they didn't have any names. Then they made them proper graves and they built a fence all the way around this cemetery, about 100 yards long and fifty, sixty yards deep, and they whitewashed the fence and over an archway they painted the inscription "Martyrs of the Racecourse."

And then on May 1 they held a parade of 10,000 people, on the racetrack, led by 3000 black children carrying armloads of roses and singing John Brown's Body, followed then by black women, then by black men — it was regimented this way — then by contingents of Union infantry. Everybody marched all the way around the racetrack; as many as could fit got into the gravesite. Five black preachers read from scripture. A children's choir sang the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and several spirituals, and then they broke from that and went back into the infield of the racetrack and did essentially what you and I do on Memorial Day, they ran races, they listened to sixteen speeches, by one count, and the troops marched back and forth and they held picnics.
In one marker that the South Carolina white planter class has so far won the battle for historical memory, the site of the racecourse is now "Hampton Park," named for Wade Hampton, a Confederate general later turned politician who is remembered for violently suppressing the Black vote.

Sunday, May 28, 2017

Too much violence ...

Last Friday night, the motley community of people who have invested themselves in seeking some sanction for the San Francisco police officers who killed young Guatemalan immigrant Amilcar Perez Lopez with six shots to the back gathered on Folsom Street near where he was shot. Perez Lopez died on the 26th of February 2015; we plan to return to the site every 26th of the month for the foreseeable future. If we achieve nothing else, we will remember that, despite the thumb in their favor on the law's scale, cops should not be empowered to kill just because they get heated or maybe feel afraid. Police impunity is simply wrong and shouldn't require commissions, and investigatory bodies, and debates about procedures, and all the paraphernalia of bureaucracy for our city leaders to take a stand against police killings. And it's obvious the color of who continues to die by police bullets; the Mission has seen three police shootings of Latinos in the last three years.

Saturday morning I woke to the news that an angry white man spouting hate on a Portland commuter train had killed two men and injured another who had interrupted his threats to two young women of color, one of whom was wearing a hijab. Presumably the killer was somehow nuts -- he apparently tried to commit suicide by cop by taunting police who surrounded him after the crime. But the killer lives and is in jail facing charges and psych eval today. Apparently he was known to Portland police as a white supremacist and neo-Nazi enthusiast who had threatened violence at demonstrations.

To my surprise, I was heartened by seeing this video of the Portland police spokesperson explaining the little they knew last night about the crime on the train. Unlike our cops, he's not some defensive, awkward commander decked out with medals and weapons who speaks only stilted legalese. I don't know if Portland police have practiced acting like humans when confronted by trauma, but I do know that our cops could take some lessons in communicating. Watch a few minutes if intrigued.
The Portland horror felt close to home. Not long after the election, one of EP's students reported that she'd been riding on BART when a man started harassing a woman wearing a hijab. That student sat down next to the victim and then got off the train with her, even though neither was at their intended stop. It feels as if the violence is all around, as if demons had been loosed.

And then there's the Republican congressman from Montana who responded to a question about the effects of the GOP Trumpcare bill by body-slamming a reporter ...

Meanwhile, sage military reporter Thomas Ricks is book touring Churchill and Orwell: The Fight for Freedom. (Will write about this soon enough.) He told the Foreign Policy podcast that these times remind him of the 1850s when this country, unable to resolve its conflict over slavery within the Constitutional governing structure, drifted from violent outbreak to greater violent episode as prelude to civil war. I've explored this parallel before. Ricks went on to point out that police are killing nearly 1000 people each year; this statistic was collected by the Washington Post. Though numerically most of the dead are white, Blacks are 2.5 times more likely to be shot by police, considering Blacks 13 percent share of the whole population.

For a country ostensibly at "peace," there's a lot of violent death happening here ...

Saturday, May 27, 2017

Saturday scenes: here's Jerry!

The deceased Grateful Dead lyricist, guitarist, and all-round musical genius is a very present figure in the city of his birth. He grew up in the Excelsior neighborhood, attended Balboa (public) High School, and never really left this playground by the bay.

His boyhood home rates a plaque.

In Civic Center, his image is embedded in the sidewalk in front of Bill Graham Auditorium.

In the Haight-Ashbury neighborhood, he overlooks the street scene benignly from a mural covering an entire exterior.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Friday, May 26, 2017

On memory fatigue and other falsehoods

Erudite Partner is at it again at The Nation magazine:

... If the age of Trump doesn’t end relatively soon, the daily effort to sort out what happened from what didn’t may eventually become too much for many of us. Memory fatigue may set in, and the whole project of keeping the past in focus shelved. ...

Read it all at the link. She reminds us what keeps us human.

Friday cat blogging

I wouldn't call the "full Morty" position dignified -- but this is what he looks like when he's had a few minutes with his catnip-filled banana.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

Moral afflatus, war, and living with lies

In Black Reconstruction W.E.B. DuBois surprised me by repeatedly using a word I'd never encountered: afflatus. The Wiktionary tells me this means a sudden rush of creative impulse or inspiration, often attributed to divine influence. DuBois' enthusiasm for the word is of a piece with a feature of his history of Reconstruction that feels foreign to most contemporary historical writing -- he is interested in the power and consequences of vehement passions in shaping outcomes. This is particularly notable because the book is predominantly a materialist history. But for all his effort to apply a materialist framework to the Black experience in the U.S. between 1857-1880, DuBois often finds the motive force for particular people and events in a kind of moral excitement.

Thus, he attributes much of the momentary break in the pattern of relentless suppression of Black people that made possible the citizenship amendments of the Reconstruction era to the "moral afflatus" of the experience of the victorious war against the rebel South. Campaigning radical Republicans (the good guys of that era) knew what feelings would enhance their cause: in 1866, they could publicize how southerners were trying to re-enslave recently liberated blacks.

... [for] the ordinary everyday people of the North, who, uplifted by the tremendous afflatus of war, had seen a vision of something fine and just, and who, without any personal affection for the Negro or real knowledge of him, nevertheless were convinced that Negroes were human, and that Negro slavery was wrong; and that whatever freedom might mean, it certainly did not mean re-enslavement under another name. (p.180)

... the situation of the Negro was the most appealing thing that could be used to bring a majority to vote for the industrial North. It would increase the tremendous moral afflatus which made the war more and more symbolic in the minds of the people of the United States of a great triumph of human freedom. (p. 301)

... People had faith in laws and wanted some great enactment in keeping with the greatness of the war. It was a ripe time for amending the Constitution and inaugurating final reforms. These reforms might be in advance at the time, but they were worth trying, and there appeared to be no middle path. (p. 319)

The war they had just won (with a boost from freed Black troops!) unleashed a desire on the part of the mass of Northerners to feel good about themselves -- smart politicians (whose cause we too might think was just) knew how to harness those feelings.

Yet for all the positive consequences of the Civil War that DuBois recounts -- above all the opportunity that defeat of the Southern planter class gave the freed Black people to experiment with creating a short-lived social-democracy in the South -- he's very attentive to the social, economic and moral destruction that attend a large scale armed conflict. He describes the violent residue of the war that freed the slaves as persisting into the South's subsequent war against their freedom.

The lawlessness in the South since the Civil War has varied in its phases. First, it was that kind of disregard for law which follows all war. ... It is always difficult to stop war, and doubly difficult to stop a civil war.

Inevitably, when men have long been trained to violence and murder, the habit projects itself into civil life after peace, and there is crime and disorder and social upheaval, as we who live in the backwash of World War know too well.

But in the case of civil war, where the contending parties must rest face to face after peace, there can be no quick and perfect peace. When to all this you add a servile and disadvantaged race, who represent the cause of war and who afterwards are left near naked to their enemies, war may go on more secretly, more spasmodically, and yet as truly as before the peace.(p. 670)

DuBois saw the residue of war's terror permeating all of society. And he concluded that, despite any short term successes that could be built by harnessing that residue, war had prepared the ground for violent repression.

From war, turmoil, poverty, forced labor and economic rivalry of labor groups, there came again in the South the domination of the secret order, which systematized the effort to subordinate the Negro. ... How is it that men who want certain things done by brute force can so often depend upon the mob? Total depravity, human hate and Schadenfreude, do not explain fully the mob spirit in America. Before the wide eyes of the mob is ever the Shape of Fear. Back of the writhing, yelling, cruel-eyed demons who break, destroy, maim and lynch and burn at the stake, is a knot, large or small, of normal human beings, and these human beings at heart are desperately afraid of something. ...

How then is the mob to be met and quelled? If it represents public opinion, even passing, passionate public opinion, it cannot permanently be put down by a police which public opinion appoints and pays. Three methods of quelling the mob are at hand: the first, by proving to its human, honest nucleus that the Fear is false, ill-grounded, unnecessary; or secondly, if its Fear is true or apparently or partially true, by attacking the fearful thing openly either by the organized police power or by frank civil war as did Mussolini and George Washington; or thirdly, by secret, hidden and underground ways, the method of the Ku Klux Klan.

Why do we not take the first way? Because this is a world that believes in War and Ignorance, and has no hope in our day of realizing an intelligent majority of men and Peace on Earth. ...

DuBois was an unblinking realist about human behavior under extreme stress.

He also saw an additional consequence of the moral corruption in which the South wallowed as it fought back against freedom for all.

Particularly has the South suffered spiritually by the effort to use propaganda and enforce belief. This always results in deliberate lying. Not that all white Southerners deliberately lie about the Negro, but to an astonishing degree the honest South allows known lies to stand uncontradicted. The wide distortion of facts which became prevalent in the white South during and after Reconstruction as a measure of self-defense has never been wholly crushed since.

This still rings all too true. This is why the current effort to remove Confederate monuments -- the symbols of an untrue romantic history that covers up violence against Black humans (and white dissenters from the false narrative) -- is such an important step.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The young people are alright!

San Francisco students brought a carefully written, widely negotiated resolution to the elected school board last night. The Undocumented, Unafraid, United (U3) Student Resolution included three points:
  • SFUSD staff may not assist or cooperate with Immigration and Customs Enforcement or other immigration law enforcement agents
  • SFUSD staff may not consent to agents’ access to campus. This does not prevent law enforcement from continuing their work.
  • SFUSD staff must refer agents to the Superintendent and Legal Office in person for a review of document, such as warrant
The students worked with their peers to figure out what they and their communities needed to feel protected by the schools. Their teachers and the board worked with them to figure out what might be possible.

The adult school board voted for this "sanctuary" measure unanimously -- and discussed their ongoing responsibility to make sure that it is actually implemented.

This is what an institutional commitment to resist and protect might look like.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The social welfare state we all missed out on ...

It's not hard to get hold of a version of W.E. B. DuBois' Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880. In addition to the print paperback, there is also an audiobook, a Kindle edition, and even a free .pdf file. Reading the book is another matter. This is a 729 page tome, packed with contemporary speeches, accounts of obscure legislative maneuvering, and demographic statistics. Think of the sort of intricate story some future historian with a determination to omit nothing might produce about U.S. health policy debates from 2007 to perhaps 2020. The result is dense and a little daunting.

And yet, Black Reconstruction is one of the essential texts about our national history and perhaps the essential text for understanding the enduring, never-completed democratic (small "d") struggle against racial caste and white supremacy. Writing in 1935, DuBois upended historical accounts of the post-Civil War period which had been dominated by apologists for southern Jim Crow rule, putting Black freed-people at the center of their own story. This was not easy; as a Black scholar located at Emory University in Atlanta, DuBois was not even allowed into many archives because his skin was the wrong color. But he persisted ...

The Emancipation Proclamation of 1863 only ended the legal bondage of slaves held within Confederate (Southern) territories that the Union (North) had not yet conquered. That is, it is a war measure designed to encourage slaves to down their tools and run away, crippling the Southern economy. This they did -- and, as Lincoln had hoped, many enlisted and fought bravely for the Union army. Without this movement, what DuBois calls a strike, there would have been no Union victory.

Hundreds of thousands of slaves were very evidently leaving their masters' homes and plantations. They did not wreak vengeance on unprotected women. They found an easier, more decent and more effective way to freedom. Men go wild and fight for freedom with bestial ferocity when they must -- where there is no other way; but human nature does not deliberately choose blood -- at least not black human nature.

... this was the proof of manhood required of the Negro. ...He was called a coward and fool when he protected the women and children of his master. But when he rose and fought and killed, the whole nation with one voice proclaimed him a man and a brother. Nothing else made emancipation possible in the United States. Nothing else made Negro citizenship conceivable, but the record of the Negro as a fighter. ... How extraordinary, and what a tribute to ignorance and religious hypocrisy, is the fact that in the minds of most people, even those of liberals, only murder makes men.

And so, once the Confederate insurrection was put down, what was to be done about the four million Black former slaves set free without means of support? In DuBois telling, we are reminded that the freed people knew quite clearly what they wanted:

... these black folks wanted two things -- first, land which they could own and work for their own crops.... then, in addition to that they waned to know; they wanted to be ale to interpret the cabalistic letters and figures which were the key to more. They were consumed with curiosity at the meaning of the world. .. they were consumed with desire for schools. ... Free, then, with a desire for land and a frenzy for schools, the Negro lurched into the new day.

The rest of the book is DuBois' narrative of the intricate struggle between the many forces at play in post-bellum South and the industrializing North, principally free black labor, free white labor often newly-immigrated, southern planters who had lost their human possessions but kept the legal right to most of the land, and Northern capitalist industry which wanted to exploit the resources and labor of the entire nation. There were radical anti-slavery politicians who aimed to enact a generous vision of black (male) citizenship; many who saw opportunities for personal gain in this unstable situation; and plenty of vile white racists whose main aim was to re-subjugate Black people, South and North. On the one hand, the country came out of Reconstruction with the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments which, however incompletely, create the most democratic elements of a barely democratic citizenship and Constitution. On the other hand, the South succeeded in disenfranchising black people for generations and constituting itself as a bulwark against the more generous impulses of the popular will -- to this day.

For a short period along the way, roughly 1867-1873, while the old planter class remained out of power, in a few Southern states radical governments deriving their force from black voters and the presence of the occupying Union army, showed what might have been possible if the freed men had been able to keep the vote. Everywhere they founded public school systems (which endured after Reconstruction mainly for white children), founded teachers colleges (many of which still survive as "Historically Black Colleges and Universities"), built hospitals and mental health facilities (which the South quickly stopped paying for), subjected local law enforcement officials to popular control, and regulated the terms of labor. For a brief season, the rule of law applied to both black and white, largely equally. The enduring hope that Black citizens still place in government intervention for justice is an experiential residue of this period. Until the northern army withdrew and the Klu Klux Klan imposed white terror, the U.S. South was inventing the social welfare state we still lack!

If that part of the white South which had a vision of democracy and was willing to grant equality to Negroes of equal standing had been sustained long enough by a standing Federal police, democracy could have been established in the South. But brute force was allowed to use its unchecked power in the actions of the whites to destroy the possibility of democracy in the South, and thereby make the transition from democracy to plutocracy all the easier and more inevitable.

DuBois argues that the ins and outs of the struggle during Reconstruction set the parameters of the US state up to his time (and still do, I would say, though the Civil Rights era of the '50s and '60s changed some of the terrain of struggle.)

The true significance of slavery in the United States to the whole social development of America lay in the ultimate relation of slaves to democracy. What were to be the limits of democratic control in the United State? If all labor, black as well as white, became free -- were given schools and the right to vote -- what control could or should be set to the power and action of these laborers? Was the rule of the mass of Americans to be unlimited, and the right to rule extended to all men regardless of race and color, or if not, what power of dictatorship and control; and how would property and privilege be protected? This was the great and primary question which was in the minds of the men who wrote the Constitution of the United States... It still remains with the world as the problem of democracy expands and touches all races and nations. ... The emancipation of man is the emancipation of labor and the emancipation of labor is the freeing of that basic majority of workers who are yellow, brown, and black.

Black Reconstruction is not an easy read. I was glad I had studied some of the historical background, so I had a frame within which to put DuBois' insights. His writing style seems florid today and his unformed marxism is both unsubtle and unorthodox. He does not seem to know that there were any women in this epoch! But this a gargantuan effort at making sense of our country, well worth the effort.

I was lucky enough to read this book as part of a course offered by the Center for Political Education. Course materials are still online at the link.

Monday, May 22, 2017

So much ferment, but stability wins

Rachel Aspden, a newly minted 23 year old aspiring British journalist, wanted to "discover some of the truth," so she arranged to drop herself into Cairo in 2003. She would study Arabic, pick up a low-paid writing job for an English-language news magazine -- and try to figure out what this strange city and country were about. Over the next 12 years, on and off, she achieved something fascinating, becoming simply friends with a diverse group of young Egyptians. This book follows these people through the suffocating stasis coupled with glimpses of consumer modernity that was the Mubarak era, through the exhilarating uprising in Tahrir Square that overthrew that dictator in 2011, and then through the political and religious morass that buried democracy and left Egypt under the thumb of its current military tyrant, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, friend of our Orange Cheato. Somehow everything changed -- and nothing changed.

All of Aspden's (authentic, even if necessarily disguised) cast of characters survive, though it was a near thing for several Islamist teenage women who took to the barricades in support of the one freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Others among them organized to depose Morsi and cheered their new army boss. Most just tried to keep their heads down and get on with life. This is not about heroics; the best of it is simply about everyday life.

The Cairo that Aspden found herself in, a city of 15 million people, was a place where "the idea of 'privacy' barely existed, while social bonds and social judgments were everything." And, though a foreigner and carrying the stigma combined with privilege of former colonizers, she was a woman.

Because I happened to be female, I was now surrounded by people who wanted to dictate what I could do, say and wear; where I could go, who I could go with and when I could go there; where I could sit in public; how I could travel; what time I could enter and leave my house [a shared apartment] and who I could invite there -- and the finely gauged range of disapproval, harassment and intimidation they could mete out if I crossed these boundaries.

Most of these strictures had little to do with formal Islamic teaching. ... I found that many men assumed that a woman with no male "protection" was an easy source of sex for those with the initiative to take it. ...It was the state that had laid the ground for these sex-crazed citizens -- like their puritanical mirror images ...Sexual harassment and assault were not criminalized, the police dismissed reports of domestic violence and rape -- and were themselves responsible for beating, sexually humiliating and raping detained men and women ...

She did meet a woman -- she calls her Amal -- who had escaped, literally, a strict upbringing in a Nile village, made her way as a teacher and lived on her own in the city, owning her own car. Other Egyptian women were not inspired by Amal's story.

"Why would I want to live apart from my parents, when I love them? Or pay for everything myself? ... Unfortunately, no man will ever agree to marry her," they said.

By the end of the book, Amal has indeed married -- to an Irishman and they are emigrating.

The demands of a patriarchal society also weighed heavily on the young men, with paradoxical results. Aspen describes Abdel Rahman, who entered college with romantic dreams of choosing a perfect mate among the brilliant Egyptian girls he studied alongside. Those dreams were dashed because the father of the object of his hopes pointed out he was still penniless.

Like his friends, he had grown up watching Western porn, first at illicit video parties, then online and he realized the whole world wasn't like Egypt. After he graduated and got a job at a newspaper, he met a string of European girls who smuggled him past suspicious bawabs [doormen] to drink, smoke hash and have sex. ... For a few years, it was fun. But as he neared thirty, it stated to feel empty. He felt guilty and stressed when he thought about the drugs, parties and one-night stands. ...

He realized he had to change. ... Now he began to listen to Quartic recitation as he stop-started through the choking Cairo traffic to and from work every day. It made him feel calm ... He started to pray ... He went to the mosque on Fridays ...

[Soon he explained to Aspden what he wanted in a wife.] "She must be one, beautiful, ... two, religious, three, respectable. ... Men like me, who have done this stuff, think like this more than anyone else ... We know what girls are really like, what they get up to in secret. ... After all my experiences, I've realized that the personality of the Egyptian man tends to stability. Religion is important, marriage is important, who you marry is important ..."

Abdel Rahman turned to his parents to arrange a marriage but the process disgusted him.

"It's like the Camp David negotiations, haggling between the families about money. I'm not a bridegroom, I'm just a walking back account. ... All the burden falls on men. ..."

Abdel Rahman wanted social approval, to make choices that would be endorsed by family and the state. Being a man, that option remained to him. At the book's close, he was still a respectable man about town in Cairo media circles.

Aspden's explorations of her friends' political participation in the Tahrir Square insurrection and in the subsequent flailing and failed democratic project seems less perceptive than her social observations. She came to realize that some friends brought to these events (or learned from them) what she found an unfamiliar source of stability.

[Mazen and Ayman] both hated the old regime and thought of themselves as revolutionaries ...They both had a passionate desire for freedom. But for them, religion was far from a restriction or a burden -- it was a means of liberation.

... Ayman and Mazen's lives were a whirl of instability. Their parents' values could no longer guide them, their country was in upheaval, and their future was uncertain. Islam was their rock in the middle of chaos.

Ayman adopted ultraconservative Salafi Islam for awhile, then turned toward studying comparative religions and writing a novel about how different religions treat women. Mazen landed as a cog in his family's business, cynical and disappointed about all enthusiasms, but conventionally Egyptian in believing that ISIS is a creation of Israel and the US meant as cover for a Western imperial plot to seize oil.

Most of Aspden's people end up disillusioned and frustrated or bent on emigration. Insofar as Aspden's story in Generation Revolution tries to draw any conclusion, it is that for diverse reasons, most Egyptians she knew between 2003 and 2015 came to crave stability above all. Before judging them, I think we need to ask ourselves whether our deepest wishes are any different.

I came away from this intriguing little book unsure whether I'd been exposed to any truthful insight into Egyptian society and events. There are so many social filters between how I understand the world and how Aspden's people do. And she sits in the middle, not always helping much. There are limits to the explanatory power of this kind of participant observation of an unfamiliar society. But this is an interesting attempt to share the realities of people she obviously cares about. It was worth reading, though not for me deeply illuminating. Someone with a less instrumental intelligence might feel differently.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cheato takes to the road

Unlike me, Erudite Partner puts herself through watching video of the Orange Cheato prancing around the world. She caught this unlikely image from the Muslim speech to kings, princes and prime ministers in Saudi Arabia:
Apparently we've just recognized a "State of Palestine." Would that it were so and that we had a president who knew what that meant.

Oh, and that state is properly considered yet another Muslim country? Palestinian Christians might feel threatened by being erased, though it is true that Israeli occupation has pushed out a disproportionate exodus of Christian Palestinians. "The West" has been more hospitable to Christians than Muslims, 'natch.

Formerly "protected" Haitians threatened with deportation

Amidst the flood of Trump scandal news last week, it would be easy to miss the growing tally of human casualties. Even if institutional checks partially neuter this authoritarian crew, a lot of people are going to get hurt. The administration's anti-immigrant agenda is hitting home.

Immigration arrests are up 37.6 percent over the first 100 days of 2016. Although Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says the raids focus on "criminals," pickups of people without records of criminal offenses are up 150 percent.

The better news is that the deportation forces are clogging their own arteries. The backlog of immigration cases that need to go before a judge before someone can be deported are up from about half a million at the beginning of the year, to 585,930 cases as of the end of April. Until GOPers in Congress manage to put together a budget and then hundreds more immigration judges can be hired, the backlog just grows. If immigration advocates continue to be able to help with legal aid in many cases, it is going to continue to be difficult for authorities to follow through. The Republican Congress could make legal tweaks which would ease deportations, so Democrats in Congress have a role to play in obstructing cruel legal moves -- and resisters will have a role in keeping their Congresscritters' feet to the fire.

Meanwhile, people who did nothing wrong live in fear -- fear for themselves, fear for their relatives, fear for their children.

We instinctively think of the migrants at risk from the current immigration panic as Latinx, as coming from Mexico or perhaps Central America. And these are the bulk of the people Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is chasing down. But there are many others we should be aware of.

The Trump administration is apparently preparing this week to end the "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS) which has allowed some 50,000 Haitians to stay in the U.S. since the 2010 earthquake which killed something like a quarter million people and left the nation's capital smashed to rubble. U.N. troops sent in to aid the country then brought a cholera epidemic as well as corruption.

The Haitians after all are black -- and citizens of the only nation ever to end slavery via black slave revolt. This Caribbean country has long made the US uncomfortable, and suffered in consequence. According to Alicia Caldwell/Associated Press, now the administration is trying to scare up evidence that the TPS Haitian population are criminals.
The Trump administration is taking the unusual step of hunting for evidence of crimes committed by Haitian immigrants as it decides whether to allow them to continue participating in a humanitarian program that has shielded tens of thousands from deportation since an earthquake destroyed much of their country.

The inquiries into the community's criminal history were made in internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services emails obtained by The Associated Press. They show the agency's newly appointed policy chief also wanted to know how many of the roughly 50,000 Haitians enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status program were taking advantage of public benefits, which they are not eligible to receive.

The emails don't make clear if Haitian misdeeds will be used to determine whether they can remain in the United States. The program is intended to help people from places beset by war or disasters and, normally, the decision to extend it depends on whether conditions in the immigrants' home country have improved enough for them to return. But emails suggest Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who will make the decision, is looking at other criteria.
It doesn't seem crazy to assume that this is a particularly vulnerable group, stigmatized by race, who the nativists can come after without much legal process -- the project of Making America White Again, one vicious act at a time, continues.

UPDATE: Department of Heimat Security has extended TPS for Haitians for six months.  Good sign, but similar determinations about Hondurans and Salvadoreans are still ahead and raising anxieties among vulnerable people.

Trump's own medicine

The New York Times has done something unexpectedly smart in its coverage of the Orange Cheato. Instead of turning to the prestigious (and pretentious) big guns of Washington journalism, they gave the White House job to reporters seasoned by covering local New York City politics and scandal. The fit is a good one.

Glenn Thrush came up from public high school and college in Brooklyn via covering New York mayors for Newsday. He finds insight and the right tone in stories like this.

WASHINGTON — President Trump was determined to leave his mark on Washington quickly. Now the city is leaving its bruising mark on him, with the same astonishing swiftness that has been a hallmark of his lightning-strike political career.

Mr. Trump has worn out opponents, journalists, members of Congress, foreign leaders, his staff — and now himself — with a breakneck barrage of executive actions, policy proposals and reversals, taunts, boasts and drowsy-hour Twitter assaults, all meant to disrupt American politics as usual.

... Ten days of shocks, kicking off with Mr. Trump’s surprise ouster of James B. Comey on May 9 and continuing through the revelation on Friday that the president had called the F.B.I. chief a “nut job” in front of Russian officials, have left the West Wing reeling.

... What unnerves Mr. Trump and his staff the most is the eerily familiar tempo of these disclosures. It is as if some unseen adversary has copied Mr. Trump’s own velocity and ferocity in an attempt to destroy him, several people close to the president said. Sources are shuttling all kinds of information about Mr. Trump to reporters at a pace the White House cannot match.

... So far, Mr. Trump, who lives by a hammerhead shark’s swim-or-die credo, has shown no signs of slowing down.

I like the image of Washington combining without conscious conspiracy to burn the guy out. Can the various elements of the regular order keep throwing stuff at Trump from all directions? We small fry out in the boonies can certainly keep up our good work of resistance. Let's create more friction.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday scenes: Mission critters

In the last few weeks, the sidewalks in the Mission have sprouted images of skeletal animals.

I have no idea of either their source or their meaning.

The bear seems a lover-bruin.

The cat is cheerful.

The owl seems a bit threatening, but that may just be how such a bird of prey looks to a human eye.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday cat blogging

We call this posture the "full Morty." Most mornings, he assumes it and plays with his catnip filled carrot and banana.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Resistance is not a spectator sport

It's still time to resist and protect much.

All this week, as I've kept up with the thrill-a-minute scandal dumps from Washington, a nagging concern has been building in the back of my mind: yes, the system, our quasi-democratic system of government, seems to be trying to spit out the immature poison pill momentarily lodged in the White House. Though we're just seeing the end of the beginning, we can begin to hope we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.

But that doesn't mean citizen resistance can turn away from the ongoing clusterfuck. This isn't just about the Orange Cheato. This is also about an empowered Republican party which, no less than its figurehead, wants to make America white again for the benefit of the one percent.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions just ordered federal district attorneys to throw the book at all drug offenders, guaranteed to fill up prisons with more black and brown people.
  • All the GOPers seem down with enhanced deportations of undocumented people -- and with wider restrictions on the number of immigrants and refugees allowed in through the regular process.
  • There's nothing these human turds won't do to befoul the only planet we've got so as to support coal, oil and gas company profits.
  • So-called "health reform" is a scam to throw 14 million or so people in need of help off of insurance so as to make sure billionaires don't have to pay inheritance taxes.
  • Oh, and just for shits and giggles, these guys want to "defund" Planned Parenthood, ensuring the millions of women lose access to appropriate, affordable health care.
People who have been resisting the Trump-led shitshow are moved by a different vision for the country: instead of the Trump/Republican nightmare, in our various ways we want to work toward a national and global turn toward multi-racial, economically egalitarian, gender non-constricting, woman affirming, and peace choosing democracy that preserves the habitability of earth for all.

As Washington ties itself in knots, citizen resistance can't ease up. Citizen resistance gums up the machine and stiffens spines. When Congress gets around to continuing its attack on our paltry social welfare state -- on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security -- we have to be screaming bloody murder. We need to do all we can to protect Black, brown and Muslim communities under siege. We need to fight voter suppression with voter registration. Eventually we'll have to put Democrats in power -- and then keep beating up on them to keep them accountable. There's much still to do. Lets' do it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What are you listening to now?

Since I'm training for an ultramarathon these days, I'm getting as much of my news by ear (podcasts) as by eye (reading). As I lumber along, sometimes I'll listen to escapist fare -- but often I'll want a dose of new White House outrages.

To this end, I've added some new podcasts to my repertoire:

These four come from an outfit that calls itself Crooked Media. Whenever there is a change of administration, there are staffers cut loose from important, often satisfying, sometimes powerful, jobs. When the incoming administration is a wrecking crew of doubtful rectitude, what better for such people to do than take their communication skills, their knowledge of how systems actually work, and their commitment to progressive policy goals -- and create a small political podcast empire?

Jon Favreau (former Obama speech writer), Jon Lovett (speech writer to both H. Clinton and Obama), Dan Pfeiffer (Obama communications strategist) and Tommy Vietor (former national security spokesman) discuss all things political on Pod Save America. Their background gives them access to major political figures like Senator Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while their relative youth and new outsider status keeps things fresh.

On Pod Save the World, Vietor uses his foreign policy experience to talk about ... well, the world. His previous job gives him access to actual experts on places like Syria and China. Would that the Trump administration seemed to have a clue about any of this.

Pod Save the People is activist Deray McKesson's showcase for everything from the fight for voting rights to an interview with Edward Snowden in which the fugitive gives his slant on Trump firing FBI director Comey.

With Friends Like These is Ana Marie Cox's attempt to prove that people can talk with each other, often across wide differences. Cox founded Wonkette, a great site for raw news.

Two other podcasts I find informative these days:
There was a time when discussions among national security legal eagles would have repelled me. I don't trust that their point of view leads anywhere but justification for overreach by the powers-that-be. But Trump's shenanigans have brought me to this source and so I find myself appreciating Lawfare. Somebody still thinks law matters, even if it isn't the President and his enablers.

On the Media is a long time favorite, now more vital than ever. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Edwards are journalists who can pick up the scent of bullshit -- most notably when it emanates from people whose sympathies they might well share. We need this talent these days.

What are you listening to?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"A hood ornament on the Trumpmobile"

The closest Republican Congressman to San Francisco who deserves early retirement in 2018 is Jeff Denham in CA-10, a district centered in Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley. Along with friends, I'm researching the district's concerns, wanting to be more a help than an intruder as his constituents work to elect a replacement. The guy voted to yank access to health care from thousands of his constituents; the district is poor and heavily dependent on Medicaid (we call it Medical in this state). Otherwise he's a standard issue "deregulating" GOPer, all in for letting coal companies dump their garbage in streams, allowing offshore oil drilling, and closing down Planned Parenthood's services to women.

Folks in Turlock seemed to be doing an energetic job of getting on his case on May 9.

There will be more ...


In the style of the discourse from the Orange Cheato, "many people say" this photo is authentic. I'm too busy to try to verify. But it seems deliciously true.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What you aren't able to see can hurt you

The Washington Post has created an easily understood video explainer on the Trump administration's spreading practice of hiding or trashing government data that once was available for all to see.

Across the vast breadth of the government, agencies have traditionally provided the public with massive data sets, which can be of great value to companies, researchers and advocacy groups, among others. Three months ago, there were 195,245 public data sets available on, according to Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, who studies the handling of public data. This week it stood at just under 156,000.

Data experts say the decrease, at least in part, may reflect the consolidation of data sets or the culling of outdated ones, rather than a strategic move to keep information from the public. But the reduction was clearly a conscious decision.

[Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law] said the Obama administration increased the amount of government data offered to the public, although the information was at times incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes used as a “regulatory cudgel.” Under Trump, the government is taking transparency “in the opposite direction.”

The outrageous actions of our aspiring autocrat are often easier to track than what his minions are simply disappearing.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

My mother

My mother has been dead nearly two decades. I frequently wonder what she would have made of our contemporary USofA. There's been a lot of water under the bridge -- especially 9/11, meaningless forever wars, torture at Abu Ghraib -- that I am glad she missed.

She was a politically engaged person. Although more to the right than the left, during the 1930s, she was well aware that something evil was brewing in Germany, something that decent people and countries would have to fight. The spectacle of Nazi atrocities led her to reject bigotry when she recognized it, though she carried vast reservoirs of WASP supremacist assumptions about which she was oblivious. Having listened breathlessly to the European war on shortwave radio, she feared and hated war itself. Though a lifelong Republican, she could not bring herself to vote for Barry Goldwater; his bellicose conservatism was not hers.

Her Republican allegiance was not mean or angry in the current style. She raised me to do grassroots election work, keeping a card file of registered voters in the neighborhood and chivvying them to turn out. But she expected to lose those elections. Buffalo was a working class Democratic city; for better (and often worse), her kind were not the local government.

I don't recall how she responded to Watergate; we were politically distant in those years. She was not a particular fan of Ronald Reagan, though his marriage to a graduate of Smith College where she had spent four exciting, independent years atoned for his Californian swagger. George H.W. Bush was more her sort; I think she saw him as more New England than Texas.

She lived just long enough to endure the revelation of Bill Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern. She was not amused. In fact, I think revulsion from his boorish behavior probably would have delayed a political trajectory that would have made her a Democrat by now. She believed in women's rights, in reproductive choice, and in general decency. She would have liked Obama -- I can hear her saying "such a nice family."

I think Donald Trump would have disgusted and frightened her, as he disgusts and frightens me.

The photo is from about 1950.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What do all those egg labels mean?

I'm suspicious about food labels. And these Costco eggs sure seem to carry a lot of claims. Consumer Reports offers a site call Greener Choices/labels which tries to provide some idea which are meaningful.

Let's start with the bold text claim "Organic", reinforced by the round green and white USDA Organic seal. Greener Choices is currently a little dubious about this one, as applied to meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods.

The standards are meaningful for promoting sustainable agricultural practices and eliminating toxic synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other synthetic inputs. ... [But] Inconsistencies in the organic standards and oversight include:
- outdoor access for organic chickens
- the allowance of antibiotic use in organic chicken hatcheries,
- the use of certain unapproved synthetic nutrients in organic processed foods, including infant formula, and
- the continued approval of non-organic ingredients that raise human health concerns, such as carrageenan.

If you are a purist, (I'm not) you wouldn't put much stock in this one.

"Pasture raised" turns out to be even more dubious.

A “pasture raised” claim suggests that the animals were raised on or with access to a pasture. However, government agencies that oversee food labeling do not have a common standard for a “pasture raised” claim and do not require third-party verification or on-farm inspection.

Oops. Not much to go on here.

"No hormones or antibiotics" doesn't live up to its promise either.

Choosing animal products from animals raised without antibiotics is an important step consumers can take to help address the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. ... [But] For dairy product and egg labels, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), label approval is not required. The FDA has no regulatory definition for “raised without antibiotics” labels.

The small circular label in the upper right corner next to USDA/Organic turns out to receive strong approval.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed label is highly meaningful and verified. It means that the animals used to produce meat and dairy were raised on certified organic farms ... Animals have to be managed in accordance to the USDA organic standards, which means the animals cannot be treated with antibiotics or artificial hormones to promote growth. Organic standards also prohibit the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides on pasture and crops. Genetically engineered crops, such as genetically engineered alfalfa (hay), are also prohibited.

This certification doesn't seem to say anything about the living conditions of laying hens.

Nor, according to Greener Choices, does the round yellow, blue, and red circular label in the far upper right from "American Humane Certified" mean much.

The American Humane Certified label is somewhat meaningful and verified. While the American Humane Association says its standards aim to ensure the humane treatment and improve the welfare of farm animals, the requirements fall short in meeting consumer expectations for a “humane” label in many ways. Most Americans think that a “humane” label should mean that the animals had adequate living space (86%), went outdoors (78%) and were raised without cages (66%).

The American Humane Certified standards do not always assure consumers that these basic requirements were met. For example, minimum space requirements are sometimes greater than the industry norm, but do not always allow for freedom of movement. Animals such as chickens, pigs and turkeys can be continually confined indoors .... The indoor space requirements for laying hens vary depending on the type of housing that is used, and the American Humane Certified standards require slightly more space than the industry norm (which is roughly 9 inches by 7.5 inches in a cage). The minimum space requirement for a hen in an enriched colony house is at least 10 inches by 11.6 inches. ...

I'm glad I'm not a chicken.

Interestingly, these particular Costco eggs get high marks from "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" which itself is a label Greener Choices considers "meaningful and verified."

Obviously, the people selling us eggs think we care about this stuff. But it looks as if even somewhat conscientious farmers and vendors have a long way to go to be marketing to us products which accord with what we expect from their claims. On the other hand, pretty good food is abundant and often quite cheap. I'm glad I have it.

Friday, May 12, 2017

Tapes, more tapes, and choices

Is Donald Trump his own Alexander Butterfield? Butterfield was the Nixon aide who, without understanding that he was throwing a flaming torch on gasoline in the midst of the Senate Watergate investigation, told committee lawyers that everything Nixon did in the Oval Office was taped. Until Butterfield's testimony, the taping system was a secret between the President and his closest aides.

Now Donald Trump has tweet-threatened the FBI director he just fired that he will reveal previously secret tapes of their conversations. James Comey says, essentially, "bring 'em on."

Richard Nixon's efforts to deny and then retain control of the tapes led to the legal crisis that would be labeled the Saturday Night Massacre when Justice Department leaders (Republicans themselves) resigned rather than fire the special prosecutor who sought a ruling that Nixon must give over custody of these records. The long unraveling of Nixon's defenses lasted almost another year, but as transcripts of taped conversations revealed his direct involvement in illegal acts of political chicanery, he eventually chose to resign rather than be the first president removed from office by impeachment.

Many historians think Nixon would have weathered the storm and served out his term without the tapes Butterfield revealed.

Subsequent Presidents have sometimes taped themselves. The Washington Post (after all this was their great journalistic coup) provides a solid history of Presidential taping, as well of Donald Trump's pre-presidential delight in recording his own utterances.

A post-Watergate reform measure, the Presidential Records Act of 1978, requires presidents to preserve and archive recordings made in the White House.

I imagine Trump, and his enablers, assume he is not subject to these rules. Will Republican-controlled investigating committees go along with shielding Trump from producing the conversations he himself has revealed? Or are they just doormats, willing to go along with whatever lawless acts Trump commits -- all so as to strip healthcare from millions to give the One Percent a big tax break?

This is where we are. Resist and protect much.