Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Bye-bye, 2019!

Obviously the scholar of anti-democratic populism Yascha Mounk isn't seeing what's overwhelming my email. He worries that

... the fear and anger that propelled such big protests in the first months of 2017 seem to have dissipated.

Perhaps -- or perhaps what was once an anguished inchoate #resistance has institutionalized. It's thrown up local protest groups, legal efforts, immigrant assistance projects -- and candidates galore. They all want year end donations, but there's no way to give to all of them. They clamor. That's what a maturing social movement looks like.

He's certainly right to be frightened by the prospect of a second Trump/Republican/white supremacist election. But that evil outcome hasn't happened yet and there's more than enough to get involved with to prevent it.
Meanwhile, New Yorker journalist Robin Wright has her eyes on the true big story of 2019: popular rebellions are breaking out everywhere.

When historians look back at 2019, the story of the year will not be the turmoil surrounding Donald Trump. It will instead be the tsunami of protests that swept across six continents and engulfed both liberal democracies and ruthless autocracies.

Throughout the year, movements have emerged overnight, out of nowhere, unleashing public fury on a global scale—from Paris and La Paz to Prague and Port-au-Prince, Beirut to Bogota and Berlin, Catalonia to Cairo, and in Hong Kong, Harare, Santiago, Sydney, Seoul, Quito, Jakarta, Tehran, Algiers, Baghdad, Budapest, London, New Delhi, Manila, and even Moscow. Taken together, the protests reflect unprecedented political mobilization. The global consequences dwarf the turmoil of the Trump year and his rippling impact beyond America’s borders.

... Leaderless movements are not designed to govern, but they often generate momentum among politicians who take up or exploit their causes.

She has interviewed "experts" and doesn't know in what direction these eruptions are taking us. That remains to be seen. But people are refusing to be silent.

But we do seem to be living in 1848, and 1968, and 1989 again. On to 2020.

Monday, December 30, 2019

Catching up with California's rep as the tech capital

Among the bounty of new laws on California's books for 2020, changes in the voter registration process seem some of the more significant. The Secretary of State's database capacity is finally being used to allow same day registration at the polls.

Californians will be able to register to vote on election day at local polling places and voting centers ...

The new law provides for a significant expansion of so-called conditional voter registration, which allows a new voter to cast a ballot that is counted after eligibility is determined during the 30-day vote-counting period after an election. That process began in last year’s statewide election, but registration was available only in county elections offices. Starting next year, voters can register on election day anywhere ballots are cast.

L.A. Times

Not so long ago, county voter registrars would have been unable to process such changes in real time and provide the new voter with a geographically appropriate ballot. No longer, and this will be particularly significant in sprawling Los Angeles.

... new voters should be able to have ballots printed that match the precinct in which they are registered.

Moreover, same day re-registration will help prevent frustration in the primary election -- no one will be told they can't have the ballot for the party they wish to vote in when they arrive to vote.

There are less and less excuses for not voting.

Sunday, December 29, 2019

Democratic primary discontents

The Economist's data guy, G. Elliott Morris, is having an argument [paywall, I think] with Dr. Max Barreto of UCLA about whether Democratic primary polls are accurately representing Latinx voters. I'm not qualified to adjudicate who is right, though I'm always sympathetic to complaints that Latinx sentiment is poorly captured in polls. Far more than Anglos, many Latinx voters will try to tell an interviewer (or canvasser!) what they think the questioner wants to hear. Good polling requires getting beyond that, investment in linguistically and ethnically sensitive survey workers, and is expensive and difficult.

But Morris goes on to lay out his general complaints about the Democratic primary process which I think are interesting enough to be worth engaging with.

Polls-based thresholds keep unpopular, but qualified, candidates off the debate stage. Just ask Julían Castro, or Michael Bennett, or Steve Bullock. If they want to win elections and perpetuate good governance, the Democratic Party should incentivize qualifications and electability beyond topline poll numbers 10 months before people are voting.

Come on -- Castro and Bennett did qualify for some early debates and, despite the exposure, failed to catch on. As it happens, I like Castro a lot. But whoever is the Dem candidate has to demonstrate the ability to raise money, organize a campaign, and have enough charisma to be noticed by primary voters. For all their qualifications, these guys haven't done that, so I don't think the DNC would be serving their constituents by keeping them in the mix. Maybe the Dem primary should be more about qualifications and less a popularity contest. U.S. democracy in general is often a popularity contest and the DNC probably can't fix that. Blame we the people.

Polls-based thresholds let popular, but unqualified, candidates on the debate stage. It is not in the Democratic Party’s interest to let unqualified candidates like Tom Steyer, Mike Bloomberg, Marianne Williamson or Andrew Yang on the debate stage. When they do, sometimes it is clear that they are abusing the polling/donor thresholds by (a) spending tens of millions of dollars in select states to shore up support or (b) mobilizing an intense, but small, network of online and social media activists to donate to their campaign; 200k donors is nothing for Mr Yang, for example, who has 1.1m Twitter followers and a Reddit forum of nearly 100k constant posters and activists.

Truth be told, I could do without these candidates as easily as Mr. Morris could, except possibly Yang. (He's got a glimmer and should have the chance to promote his policy idea.) But it is sloppy thinking to label Bloomberg "unqualified." He sure isn't my choice, but a former mayor of New York actually knows a thing or two about fractious democracy and impossible policy choices, even if he also probably missed a lot that's relevant to those of us outside the Big Apple. (Note that Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles was smart enough not to run; he certainly looks plenty qualified to me.) Steyer is just using his billions to buy his way onto the stage -- then seems to have nothing much to offer when he gets there. And there ought to be some way to exclude the Williamsons of the world; despite the antics of the incumbent, the U.S. presidency is a serious job.

Polls-based thresholds magnify the impacts of statistical noise. It is worth stating the obvious: polls are not perfect. Sometimes, they produce errant results—be it via a poor selection of weighting variables, small populations, bad likely voter filters or something else. Polls also tend to jump around a little bit just by random chance; if the “true” support for a candidate is 25%, we should expect an average poll to get a number anywhere between ~20% and ~30% in 19 out of 20 polls. If a candidate is polling at 1, then, there’s a good chance they might meet a 3% threshold by chance alone. Do we really want chance deciding who gets to run for president?

Now here, Morris has a strong point. The difference between 3 percent and 5 percent for a candidate in a poll simply isn't real. It's noise, even if the polls are quality ones.

There has to be a better way. Evidently, the present moment has evoked in an awful lot of people a belief that 1) the presidency might well be uniquely available an outsider candidate and 2) the standard set by the DNC in the interest of trying to be fair are set so low that WHY NOT? Such a combination is not likely to exist in most years -- but now we know that a true free-for-all looks like: kinda ugly, too damn white -- and possibly too much for many voters to sort out.

And for goodness sake, let's move away from Iowa and New Hampshire next time round. These perfectly pleasant places just don't look enough like the Democratic party to have as much influence as they have.

I'm glad the actual voting starts in about a month -- most likely we'll know a whole lot more by the 3rd week of March. Meanwhile -- melodrama and angst.

Saturday, December 28, 2019

Race, avarice, and entertainment in bowl-ville

Among the glut of year-end college football bowls, I figured the Cotton Bowl in Texas between Penn State (ranked #10 in the country) and Memphis (#16) was just another ho-hum match up. Players eligible for the NFL draft would strut their stuff optimistically for any scouts present; students and alums who managed to make it to the game would cheer their home gladiators; coaches would flaunt their worth to watching athletic directors as advertisements for the schools. This might even amount to an entertaining athletic display -- a good game.

Well the Cotton Bowl was all those things, but it turned out to be more.

I got my first inkling there would be more when the ESPN announcers felt they should explain the "WT" decal on Penn State helmets. The school was proudly calling out the fact that, in 1948, their squad had included African-Americans Wally Triplett and Dennie Hoggard. Previously the team had assented to Southern segregation rules by not bringing their African American players along to games in the old Confederacy. This time, Penn State said no, everyone comes, even though the team had to stay at a US airbase, as no hotel would have the integrated group. Triplett scored in the game and was later drafted into the NFL. He died in 2018 at age 92.

It turns out that James Franklin, the Penn State coach, insists on talking about race when necessary. In October, he stood up publicly for a player who was being criticized for choosing to wear dreadlocks.

And, despite the fact that there only 12 Black coaches leading teams at the top college level, Franklin has announced that he intends to be the first Black college coach to lead his team to a national championship.

That's ambitious -- the game Franklin's 10-2 team played against Memphis was a kind of consolation match for also-rans in the cut throat College Football Playoff system. When the most affluent conferences -- the Power Five: Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference, and Southeastern Conference (SEC) -- created the current national championship structure, all the other football-playing schools were left out in the cold. Even if schools had perfect records, there was no way in for them to the high-paying, high-attention bowl games. So, they were given this one sop: the highest ranked non-Power Five school would get to play in one highish-profile bowl game against a high-also-ran from the rankings. That's the game that Franklin's Penn State dominated in the Cotton Bowl on Saturday.

The situation of Memphis' team and coach illustrates the crazy cut-throat nature of college football. The Memphis team won its place in the Cotton Bowl with an 11-1 record under head coach Mike Norvell. After the season but before the bowl game, Norvell was able to parley their success into a new, more prominent, job for himself at Florida State. So the Memphis players had to compete in the Cotton Bowl under a new coach, Ryan Silverfield, who'd never before been in charge during a game.

Penn State won 53-39, but the contest was no beat-down. In fact it was an enjoyable game to watch. That's college football for you.

Saturday scenes: very local

I don't know where they came from; they are infiltrators. They've taken over the backyard.

As far as I know (and I don't intend to find out), we can't eat them.

Friday, December 27, 2019

Friday cat blogging

While we were away, nursing the sickly Morty, one of E.P.'s wise knitting friends sent an admonition: "The people usually give up before the cat."

When Morty neglected/refused to eat or drink for nearly a month, we took this to heart, pledging to each other that we wouldn't give up. E.P. force fed him vitamin-enriched prescription food through a plastic syringe multiple times as day. We punctured his lose skin and dripped electrolytes into him every day. And, as he retreated under the covers of our bed, we kept telling him: "You have to eat." "You have to drink for yourself."

And, finally, he did! The home-again Mort has now returned to his food bowls and his water fountain was if nothing had ever kept him away.
Unless he does something unbearably cute, I think I'll give Morty a break from cat blogging for awhile. We all need a rest from feline obsession.

Thursday, December 26, 2019

A proposal for a qualification requirement for pundits

Ezra Klein is depressed. His impeachment podcast went looking for a new angle on the unhappy process in the House of Representatives. They came up with partnering with a survey research group (a pollster) to listen to a group of "undecided voters mainly" in New Cumberland, Pennsylvania about these events.

The experience had a similar effect on him to what so often seems to happen to the consumers of focus group research (like, say an earnest campaign committee): he found his neighbors astonishing, inarticulate, and inhabitants of another planet from the one on which he lives. Overwhelmingly, they can't stand conflict, yet conflict is the stuff of our polarized politics and a weaponized instrument wielded by the current Republcan Party.

My reaction to Klein's reaction was all too familiar. I wanted to tear my hair. These pundits should all have to spend a few weeks knocking on doors and talking with voters before they are allowed to pontificate. The experience would give them far more understanding of, and appreciation for, their fellow citizens.

I was so annoyed by listening to this that I got myself a transcript -- quotes here are from that, slightly smoothed because people don't talk in complete sentences and the translating algorithm still finds our patterns of speech confusing.

Here's my take, derived from years of knocking on doors. These are decidedly not undecided voters. I suspect that, although many are probably registered whatever variant of "no party preference" Pennsylvania offers, most of these people vote for Democrats most of the time. They don't want to throw down with a party team; Washington is "similar to a Patriots fan defending Spygate." But they are open to Democrats.

If, and this is a big if, Democratic activists search out and create ongoing contact with this sort of people (as so many extra-party organizations did in 2018), they'll be there for whoever the Dems get around to nominating. If neglected, they may not vote.

Why am I so sure? Because the leanings and values expressed by these nice, mostly lower middle class workers (of the sort who shower before, not after, work) are so overwhelmingly ethical in a secular frame. They think of themselves as citizens and want to do the right thing. They find the political fray hard to grasp, but they want to be good within it. Some examples:

  • ... I am not paying much attention to it. I'm exhausted. ...
  • ... I work for the government, but I've always believed in process and things happening according to a procedure ...
  • ... this is unethical behavior or illegal behavior if he did what they're saying that he did
  • ... I just want a smooth transition of power no matter what ... I have stopped thinking about the minutiae. I'm just worried about like not dying...
  • ... I just think about my kid. I only have one now I have but one on the way. It is scary, it's a scary world, you know...
  • ... I want people to have acceptable behavior. ... Where my kids go to school, there is a big focus on kindness ...

As any responsible pollster always reminds the consumer of a focus group, this is just one tiny group of people who may or may not be representative of anything. But years on the doors have shown me that there are a lot of these good, ethical, somewhat detached, citizens waiting to experience personal contact with someone who will listen and gently explain. That's the job in 2020: we must go find them.

Wednesday, December 25, 2019

Tuesday, December 24, 2019

Herod's Christmas today

The 81-year-wise Brazilian liberation theologian and enduring disturber of any complacent peace, Leonardo Boff, offers this seasonal reflection.

Christmas always has its idyll. There can be no sadness when life is born, especially when the puer aeternus, the Divine Child, Jesus comes into the world. There are angels that sing, the star of Bethlehem that shines, the shepherds who watch their flock at night, but there are mainly Mary, the good Joseph and the Child lying in a manger, "because there was no room for them in the inn". And, behold, some wise men, called magicians, who opened their chests and offered gold, frankincense and myrrh, mysterious symbols appeared also from the East.

But there was also a bad king, Herod, very cruel to the point of executing his entire family. He heard that he was born in the city of David, Bethlehem, a child who would be the Savior. Fearing to lose the throne, he ordered all children under two years of age to [be] kill[ed] in Bethlehem and its surroundings.

The sacred texts retain a lament [among] the most lacerating of the entire New Testament: ”In Ramah a voice was heard, many cries and many groans. It is Rachel who cries to her children and does not want to be comforted because they no longer exist ”(Evangelist Matthew 2:18).

This year's Christmas brings to mind the current Herods who are decimating our children and youth. Between 2007-2019, 57 children and young people under 14 died in Brazil from bullets lost [random shootings;stray bullets] in police actions. In this year of 2019 alone in Rio de Janeiro, 6 children and 19 teenagers lost their lives in police actions, reports the Crossfire Platform. In the metropolitan region of Rio there have been 6,058 gunfire, with 2,301 people shot, of which 1,213 were killed and 1,088 seriously injured. The most clamorous case was that of the 8-year-old girl Agatha Felix killed by a gunshot in the back when she was inside a Kombi van going home with her mother.

Their names deserve to be mentioned. With a few more years, they had the same fate of the dead for Herod: Jenifer Gomes, 11 years old; Kauan Peixoto 12 years; Kauã Rozário 11 years; Kauê dos Santos 12 years; Agatha Felix 8 years; Ketellen Gomes 5 years.

The governor of Rio de Janeiro, with his fierce police, is being accused of crimes against humanity, as he orders to attack the communities with helicopters and drones, terrorizing the population. Mayor Marcelo Crivella confessed that in the 436 schools installed in the communities, due to police operations, the children lost 7,000 classroom hours.

Together with Agatha Felix's mother, Vanessa Francisco Sales, who was carrying her daughter's doll at the funeral, the same voices are heard as those of the Biblical Rachel: the mothers of Morro do Alemão, of Jacarezinho, of the Chatuba de Mesquita, from Vila Moretti de Bangu, from the Chapadão Complex, from Duque de Caxias, from Vila Cruzeiro in the Complexo de Penha, from Maricá. Let's listen to your regrets:

“There are many voices, many cries and many groans. Mothers mourn their beloved children, killed by lost bullets; They don't want to comfort themselves because they have lost their children forever. They ask for an answer that comes from nowhere. Between tears and many regrets they plead: stop killing our children. Stop, for the love of God. We love our children alive. We want justice".

This is the context of this Christmas of 2019, aggravated by an official policy that uses the perverse means of lies, of fake news, of much rage and visceral hatred. Jesus was born poor and lived poor all his life. And a president emerges who frequently has Jesus on his lips but not in his heart, because he spreads offenses to homoaffectives, blacks, indigenous people, quilombolas and women.

He says openly that he does not like the poor, that is, he does not like those of whom Jesus said: "Blessed are the poor" and called them "my younger brothers and sisters", and that in the twilight of life they will be our judges ( Mt 25.40). That he does not like the poor means that he does not want to govern for the majority of Brazilians who are poor and even miserable, for whom he should govern first and take care of them.

Despite all that, you have to celebrate Christmas. It is dark, but we celebrate humanity and the joviality of our God. He became a helpless child. What happiness to know that we will be judged by a child who only wants to play, receive and give love.

May Christmas grant us a little of that light that comes from the Star that filled the shepherds of the fields of Bethlehem with joy and that guided the wise-wizards towards the grotto. "His light illuminates all the people who come to this world" (Jn 1,9), you and me, everyone, not just the baptized. " Merry Christmas.

We rejoice in the birth of the divine child -- the child who "only wants to play, receive, and give love."

Boff's text in the original Portuguese at his site. Translation, slightly smoothed, from the comments here.

Your blogger has been completely felled by a raging head cold. I hope to be back in regular form when the fog clears.

Monday, December 23, 2019

Sutter will pay up -- at least something

For as long as I've been blogging here, I've been writing about how Sutter Health/California Pacific Medical Center (CPMC) has screwed the Mission community. First Sutter ingested and shrank St. Luke's Hospital. Its unions fought back, but the corporate colossus rolled on.

IN 2014, unions did what unions do (and which they are the only force that has the cash to do) and sued Sutter for antitrust violations. Sutter has settled:

Sutter Health, one of California’s largest health care and hospital chains, will pay $575 million to settle a suit alleging it violated California’s antitrust law.

The United Food & Commercial Workers sued Sutter in 2014. The California Department of Justice joined the case in 2018. Sutter agreed to the settlement last week.

While admitting no wrongdoing, Sutter agreed to be monitored for the next 10 years.

Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced the settlement:

“I don’t think anyone gives up $575 million freely, or agrees to change behavior in future business practices freely.”

Health care prices are 70% higher in Northern California, where Sutter is dominant, than in Southern California, Becerra said. Sutter overcharged by 15.5%, the settlement document says.

Sutter operates 24 hospitals in the Bay Area, Sacramento and Northern California, plus 35 outpatient centers. More than 12,000 physicians are in its network.

Healthcare consumers won't get the cash directly, but we can hope this is more than a token slap on the wrist for the greedy behemoth.
Your blogger has been completely felled by a raging head cold. I hope to be back in regular form when the fog clears.

Sunday, December 22, 2019

Night prayer

In this season of long nights and short days, this from the New Zealand Prayer book with paintings by Marc Chagall, seems appropriate -- and perhaps comforting. The music is chant from the 12th C French composer Perotin.

... what has been done has been done; what has not been done has not been done.

Your blogger has been completely felled by a raging head cold. For the next few days, whatever appears here will have to be thoughts and images from others, less fog-brained than I. I'll be back in regular form when the fog clears.

Saturday, December 21, 2019

Saturday scenes: happily home again in the Mission

Not a sight I'd expect to encounter where we've been for three months ... love the Mission.

Also this, ever hopeful in the city.

Friday, December 20, 2019

Friday cat blogging

After all his adventures, Morty sleeps today in his house in San Francisco, seeming not so different from the cat who crossed the country so unhappily. A little thinner after his nine days in the wild and his weeks of forced feeding and subcutaneous hydration. On the return trip, he rode on our laps in the front seat, never really trying to get under the pedals as we feared. He's a tough old guy.

And we're tough old girls, though slammed by a horrible cold since about Illinois and still hacking monstrously. This too will pass. We're emulating the sleeping Morty as much as we can.

We go forward, because that’s all we can do

The most cogent comment I've seen about the impeachment vote was this:

An historic day. Imperfect as always. We go forward, because that’s all we can do.

Someone who uses the handle Sand

Michelle Goldberg, observant as always, points out that, if you watched the House speeches without sound, you would have seen oldish white men yelling at a parade of women, people of color, and young people -- because that's who the two parties are.

David Corn of Mother Jones magazine and David Remnick of the New Yorker -- two sharp old white guys there -- point to the inevitability of it all, an outgrowth the character of the man who is President. As a wise friend of mine taught me years ago after an acid trip, sometimes all there is to say is that "it never could have been any other way."

Resistance to injustice, to cruelty, to meanness of spirit, to a cramped vision of the possible, to fear that cripples moral imagination, was always the right action confronted by this brokenness. We resist and persist.

Sunday, December 15, 2019

On the road: laying over in Albuquerque

Morty doesn't seem disturbed that we've been felled by a rhinovirus. He eats and sleeps and we will too for another fuzzy-brain sick day. Off again soon enough.

Friday, December 13, 2019

On the road: Oklahoma City

Five hundred more miles today and many more long haul trucks boasting sentiments like this:
Too bad we can't support the people sent to fight our endless wars without suggesting that dissent is treason.

I was heartened to run across this. Good for Rapinoe for stepping out.
None of them are perfect and I'll work for whatever Dem prevails, but this is delightful.

Thursday, December 12, 2019

On the road: from Vandalia, Illinois

I was going to use Mr. Google to find out how Vandalia got its interesting name, but it turns out sources are uncertain.

Different theories can be found in almost all of the books written about Vandalia over the years. In her book Vandalia: Wilderness Capital of Lincoln's Land, Mary Burtschi tells of a conversation between one of the original surveyors of the town and a Vandalia resident. The surveyor, Colonel Greenup, explained that Van was suggested by one of the men. He recommended this as an abbreviation to the word vanguard meaning the forefront of an advancing movement. Another suggestion was made for the term dalia, derived from the Anglo-Saxon word dale which means a valley between hills. Greenup takes credit in the conversation for connecting the two terms to form the name Vandalia.

Another possible source of the name is the Vandalia colony, a failed attempt to establish a fourteenth colony in part of what is now West Virginia and Kentucky. The Vandalia colony was named in honor of Queen Charlotte, who claimed descent from the Wendish tribe of Obodrites, also called the Vandals.

Another theory put forth is that Vandalia was named by those who located the state capital in the town; according to the story, they mistakenly thought the Vandals were a brave Native American tribe, rather than of Germanic origins.


The town was the capital of the state of Illinois for 20 years from 1819 to 1839 -- Abraham Lincoln served as a legislator here and apparently played a role in moving the government center away, to Springfield.

Vandalia feels forlorn to this day, but what do I know.

We stopped at a Love's truck stop on the way here and returned to the car to find Morty exploring the dashboard.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

On the road again

From Youngstown, OH:

The E.P. and I, along with the revitalized Morty, are driving cross-country again. Morty appears to be having bad memories of riding in Wowser.
A difference is this time is that he is allowed to ride on the lap of the one of us who is not driving. It doesn't look as if he takes very kindly to that either, though it's got to be less lonely than being locked in the back.
Meanwhile, the weather is doing what the weather does in December. Lovely ... but means driving requires complete attention.

Blogging along the way will be sporadic.

Tuesday, December 10, 2019

No chance of working

The Washington Post has surfaced a trove of US government documents which show that both military and civilian operatives in Afghanistan have known for years that the "mission" was FUBAR -- deadly, ill-considered, usually pointless.

As is so often the case about this country's wars of empire, it was possible to know at the time though mainstream and alternative media, even from half the circumference of the planet away, much of what is now "revealed" here.

I was struck in particular by what they have surfaced about the drug trade. In 2006 and 2007, I wrote on this blog about the history of drugs in our wars and the rise of opium of production under US occupation. Here's what's now come out:

From the beginning, Washington never really figured out how to incorporate a war on drugs into its war against al-Qaeda. By 2006, U.S. officials feared that narco-traffickers had become stronger than the Afghan government and that money from the drug trade was powering the insurgency.

No single agency or country was in charge of the Afghan drug strategy for the entirety of the war, so the State Department, the DEA, the U.S. military, NATO allies and the Afghan government butted heads constantly.

“It was a dog’s breakfast with no chance of working,” an unnamed former senior British official told government interviewers.

The agencies and allies made things worse by embracing a dysfunctional muddle of programs, according to the interviews.

At first, Afghan poppy farmers were paid by the British to destroy their crops — which only encouraged them to grow more the next season. Later, the U.S. government eradicated poppy fields without compensation — which only infuriated farmers and encouraged them to side with the Taliban.

“It was sad to see so many people behave so stupidly,” one U.S. official told government interviewers.

Afghanistan was never "the good war" as the early Obama administration hopefully asserted. Like Iraq, it was and is misbegotten and lethal to no good end.

Monday, December 09, 2019

A season to reject hate

Several churches on Martha's Vineyard that display the LGBT rainbow flag found themselves tagged with this offensive sticker recently. Nearby on the mainland, the Falmouth Jewish Congregation had its property defaced at the time of the Yom Kippur (Day of Atonement) in September.

The Island Clergy Association offered a vigorous statement:

We state unequivocally that we and our various religious traditions are united against hatred and discrimination, and that we stand together in respecting the dignity of every human being.

We make this statement in our current climate of rancor and divisiveness that many of us have not seen since the Civil Rights Movement and the Vietnam War. We are deeply concerned by the erosion of civility and the current trend that relegates those who disagree to a demonized other, one whose voice and opinions are not worth listening to.

We are as concerned and more by the motivations and actions of those who have taken their ideology to the next step of doing harm to others through their speech or actions. We acknowledge that people, often religiously or ideologically motivated, may disagree and hold differing views concerning the beliefs and actions of others. ...

The statement from the religious leaders received respectful coverage from the local media. Islanders don't want to think that the conflicts which roil the nation rumble on here in this isolated, slightly precious, community as well. But they do, of course.

The Rev. Stephen Harding of Grace Episcopal, where we've been attending, preached on the clergy statement which he obviously had some role in assembling. Quite properly, he spoke for our imperative as followers of Jesus to seek reconciliation with all people, to meet hatred with love. That's not easy.

I wish he'd also more clearly coupled that message with a bold restatement of our concurrent call to work for justice and dignity for the oppressed, which the day's readings from the biblical prophet Isaiah emphasize as part of the content of the prophet's vision of peace. This too is our calling.

I think my Congressmember, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, caught a right balance between justice and love in her recent responses to a loaded question about whether she "hated" Donald Trump. Of course she has differences with the man and his party about policies.

“I think the president is a coward when it comes to helping our kids who are afraid of gun violence,” Pelosi said. “I think he is cruel when he doesn’t deal with helping our ‘dreamers,’ of which we are very proud. I think he’s in denial about the climate crisis.”

[But] “As a Catholic, I resent your using the word ‘hate’ in a sentence that addresses me. I don’t hate anyone. I was raised in a way that is full — a heart full of love — and always pray for the president. And I still pray for the president. I pray for the president all the time.”

I think she means this.

I'm not as good a Christian as my Congressmember; I despise Donald Trump. That is, my heart is ready to consign him to the category of less-than-human. He's not, of course. He's just a terribly damaged specimen of humanity who inflicts his vile neediness on everything he touches. The best I can do about him is try not to fixate on him, a practice I think I achieve relatively successfully for a person who tries to be an active political actor where I can. I recommend this.

Fortunately we have Pelosi, many Democrats, and many others who are doing their darnedest to curtail Donald J.Trump's assault on truth, rule of law, and decency. Let's also build as we resist.

Polls, polls and more polls

Can we learn anything true from public opinion surveys? Does anyone have coherent opinions about what sort of improvements they want to how we access health care? Does the public really care about a President offering a reward to a foreign country to hurt an electoral opponent?

We're drowning in this sort of semi-scientific survey research. This little video describes how pollsters design their questions. They aren't perfect, but the responsible ones are at least thoughtful about the task.

Saturday, December 07, 2019

Martha's Vineyard: History is not dead, or even past

This Civil War era soldier figure still dominates the Oak Bluffs ferry landing on Martha's Vineyard. I've been wondering about it for years. What's a monument to Confederate soldiers doing on the green in Oak Bluffs? Or so I thought, apparently oversimplifying a slightly more complex story. In the early 20th century the figure was donated by a former Confederate officer "in honor of the Confederate soldiers" as some kind of token of reconciliation with his former antagonists in the Union army. A plaque added in 1925 read "The chasm is closed." That seems an effort to "disappear" this country's bloodiest war.

Such gestures aimed to whitewash the truth: the Civil War was fought to determine whether African-descended human beings were property or people. There was plenty of death, gore, and cruelty -- and darn little honor and brotherhood -- in that war, but ex-Confederates had an interest in drawing a pretty picture to obscure the reality. Hence Mr. Strahan's gift to the town, already a place long occupied by and often visited by Black citizens.

Last spring, at the prompting of the NAACP, the town selectmen (local council) held a public forum.

David Vanderhoop, a member of the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah) and founder of Sassafrass Earth Education, was one of the first people to speak. He said he wanted to see the plaques removed and replaced with a memorial representing the resilience of all people, specifically Wampanoag and African Americans.

“Martha’s Vineyard should not and does not stand for white male supremacy — a symbol of the Confederacy,” Vanderhoop said. “We need to be able to look each other in the eye and stand side by side for the sake of our children, our grandchildren, and their children, and so on.”

Jocelyn Coleman Walton said the plaques should be removed because it hurts people of the Vineyard and those who visit.

“The chasm has never closed for me,” Coleman Walton said. “Think about how this affects all our African American, our Wampanoag, our people of color.”

Tom Rancich, a Navy veteran, spoke about his combat experience, and said he is glad his children will never have to experience what he went through. “I can tell you stories that will make you all cringe. I can tell you about the horrors of what humans do to each other,” Rancich said. “War is horrible, humans are fallible … I think those memorials ought to be removed.”...

The selectmen voted to consign the "chasm is closed" plaque to the Martha's Vineyard Museum and cover its space on the statue with plywood. I found the plaque hanging in a back corner without, yet, an explanatory display.
The museum is still studying the fraught question of how to explain its new artifacts to visitors.

Friday, December 06, 2019

Race and religion, oh my!

Erudite Partner is all over the internet again today, discussing White Anxiety and Imperial Christianity: The GOP Pathologies that Twin them with Trump. Read all about it.

No wonder we're an unhappy polity

The young people are decidedly NOT alright when it comes to their economic security.

This chart, from a Washington Post analysis, shows how bleak prospects must feel to all too many. It's not about how much income folks are making in their jobs, if they have jobs, which at present they probably do of some sort.

It's about wealth:

Wealth is a measure of what people own: their assets (which typically include homes, cash savings and stocks) minus their debts (like mortgages, student loans, consumer debt). Its importance to an individual, a nation or an entire generation cannot be overstated; it gives families a safety net during hard economic times, such as a layoff, and is intertwined with such milestones of adult life as buying a home, starting a business or retiring comfortably.

The article doesn't emphasize this as much as I might: these days, ambitious young people who might otherwise be buying houses or other assets are trapped under a burden of education and other debt which gets in their way. This means their "wealth" nets out to not much of anything at all, even if they are making a decent income.

There's nothing novel in this, but the article is succinct and worth reading.

Friday cat blogging

To see Morty on his bed by the wood stove, you'd hardly know that he'd been a patient in our amateur cat hospital for the last two months. Force feeding and watering have helped him restore himself to a less hefty version the pre-adventuring Morty.

He's looking and acting pretty normal for an old feline. Let's hope he's built up enough reserves to endure another car trip across the country when we set off for home next week.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

Kamala Harris quits: she had no tough campaign experience behind her

So Kamala Harris is out of the Democratic presidential sweepstakes. The pundit media are full of commentary on what went wrong for her. Nothing comes easy for a Black woman, a mixed race woman, any woman. So all that was against her. And, as most commentators point out, she never settled on a coherent reason -- a message -- why she should be President, besides fulfilling the promise her brains and obvious star-power.

Full disclosure: Harris was never my preferred candidate, but like so many who follow politics, I thought she might just run away with the nomination, serving as an acceptible compromise between our aspirations for change and our desire for conventional credibility. Didn't come to pass.

I have no desire to dance on Harris' grave. If she'd won the nomination, it would have been easier to work up enthusiasm for her than for some of the other potential presidents. We don't have to fall in love with any candidate; we just have to commit to engaged citizenship and democracy over squalor, graft, and deliberate cruelty. She'd have at least made necessary work interesting.

Before Harris gave up, the pundit media was full of stories about trouble in her campaign; the Times wrote one that claimed 50 (!) informants among staff and supporters. A presidential campaign is a big enterprise, but that's a hell of a lot of disgruntled inside voices. And their willingness to talk to the media shows what I think was a big part of doing Harris in: she brought no almost experience of running a big, fiercely contested campaign in which she was not the establishment candidate.

This is not so obvious outside California. After all, Harris had won in a state of 40 million people. That's a lot bigger than the electoral accomplishments of some of the other contenders. But in fact, Harris has followed a charmed political path. That's not to say she didn't work for what she won -- it's to say her path didn't much involve attracting and mobilizing broad swathes of the people as she would have needed to do to win the White House.

Kamala Harris won her first election, as District Attorney, in San Francisco in 1996. She knocked off the incumbent, Terence Hallinan, a leftish long-time fixture of city politics whose career of fisticuffs and muck-stirring had worn out his welcome. He was colorful and on the side of the angels for a prosecutor, but inspired little confidence that he was getting law enforcement done. Harris was backed by the powers-that-be including Senator Diane Feinstein, Willie Brown, then jumping from state Assembly Speaker to Mayor, and the police union. Vaguely liberal, she was a good fit for a weary city.

In 2010, after a mixed record little noted by the general public as San Francisco D.A., Harris ran her only really tough electoral race, running statewide, and defeating Steve Cooley to become California Attorney General. This was the first time she'd face a well-funded, moderate Republican; we don't have those in San Francisco. Out of over 9 million votes cast, she squeaked by with 46.1 percent and a 74,157 vote margin. In the same year, Democrat Jerry Brown running for Governor destroyed Meg Whitman by a 53.8-40.9 margin, and over a million votes. Harris' contest was one of those oh-so-Californian elections: counting of mail-in ballots continued for days and the election day result was overturned in favor of the Democrat. (We have to get our people voting more promptly!) This one was a tough campaign, but Harris ultimately rode the statewide Democratic wave into office.

By 2016, California's capitol had two rising Democratic stars, Lt. Gov. Gavin and A.G. Kamala, and faced a potential clash of titans. Jerry Brown would be termed out as governor in 2018. Who would get the nod for the big prize? Senator Barbara Boxer simplified things by choosing not to run for re-election after three terms. To all appearances a deal was cut: Kamala got the Senate spot, while Gavin would run for Governor (and win) in 2018. The 2016 Senate election was almost a laugher. Harris defeated her conservative Democratic opponent (who was vying for Republican votes) with over 62 percent. And thus Harris was launched on the national stage, without ever having shown she could manage and win a tough campaign on her own.

She had proved that she knew how to line up parts of the establishment behind her star power. She always had that in California and her presidential run had some of the same: when she quit, she was second only to Joe Biden in endorsements from political figures, including older members of the Black Caucus.

This accomplished, ambitious politician certainly isn't done just because her presidential ambitions have been checked. We don't entirely know who she is yet. I hope she evolves into an accomplished Senator and finds more grounding in principled work on behalf of her constituents. Such potential there ... not yet realized.

Wednesday, December 04, 2019

We see what we expect to see

As we come into the Christian season which anticipates the birth of the baby Jesus, a dose of art history explains the mystery of why medieval representations of the holy child render him so ugly. Apparently the reason is theological, reflecting doctrine about the nature of Jesus.

Medieval concepts of Jesus were deeply influenced by the homunculus, which literally means little man. "There's the idea that Jesus was perfectly formed and unchanged," [art historian Matthew] Averett says, "and if you combine that with Byzantine painting, it became a standard way to depict Jesus. In some of these images, it looks like he had male pattern baldness."

Apparently it wasn't until much later that the adult Jesus came to be represented as a long-haired hippy.

Renaissance society adopted a novel notion of childhood innocence, so its representations, both of the baby Jesus and aristocratic children painted for wealthy art patrons, drifted toward saccharine and cherubic.

Tuesday, December 03, 2019

A meandering meditation on "Losers' Consent" and other democratic virtues

People who read the blog are likely concerned about the health of U.S. democracy. The extraordinary, even bizarre, contortions British democracy is going through over Brexit may have some relevance to thinking about our condition.

I'm not going to try to dig into Brexit here; that's beyond me. The simplest narrative is that in a referendum in 2016 a small majority (52-48) of British voters opted to pull the country out of its over-40 year participation in the customs arrangements and governing structures of the European Union. Most Leave voters were older, white, rural, and traditionally English; most Remain voters were younger, urban, came from Scotland, Northern Ireland, or cosmopolitan London, and many were non-white. One way of looking at the referendum is that Britain's past voted against its future. Seem familiar? Britain has still not actually departed the EU; implementing Brexit has snarled British politics in previously unimaginable tangles ever since the vote. This may (or may not) be resolved in the upcoming election on December 12. Meanwhile the EU is frustrated and getting impatient.

Watching the Brexit mess and reading commentators, I've found myself pondering the concept of "Losers' Consent." This political science concept (outlined in a 2005 book) means what it says: democracy only works when losers accept the legitimacy of electoral defeats. This lament from a 2016 Remain voter who plans to vote this time around for a pro-Brexit party catches its essence:

“The vote was to leave, so you know, recognize the vote,” the man said. “To me, once you vote, that’s it — you either accept it, or if you don’t accept it, democracy means nothing.”

He's sticking up for democracy in his own way.

The current British election is being contested amid violent threats that are shocking in what believed itself to be a more restrained political polity. During the 2016 campaign, a young rising star Labour Party parliamentarian, Jo Cox, who stood against Brexit and for inclusion of immigrants, was knifed on the street in her district. Fears linger. Richard Wyn Jones of Cardiff University has found surprising levels of approval for political violence. He opines:

... one factor that may be contributing to the “industrial quantities” of threats is that those on the losing side haven’t accepted defeat. And they haven’t accepted defeat, he said, because they feel they were “lied to, cheated and that the referendum was held under false pretenses.”

He added that on the winning side, “there was no attempt to reach out to the very, very large minority who voted a different way to say, ‘I hear your concerns, this is how we will assuage them.’ … Instead they are called ‘saboteurs’ or ‘remoaners’ or ‘traitors,’ and Brexit is redefined in an evermore hard-line way.”

Again, sound familiar amid our present U.S. situation?
When Losers' Consent follows from a democratic process, the political science literature says democracy is strengthened. In our domestic experience, it's hard to be convinced that it true. Al Gore affirmed losers' consent in the arguably stolen election of 2000; in 2016, Hillary Clinton gracefully affirmed losers' consent when a systemic curlicue (the Electoral College) denied her what the popular vote total would indicate was the democratic outcome. Winners -- George W. Bush and Donald J. Trump -- sought to brush aside or deny the questions about their lack of popular vote legitimacy.

Contemporary norms of democratic fairness -- an expectation that the candidate with the most votes wins -- have been violated, repeatedly. The shrinking old, white, rural base of the contemporary Republican Party can't win by attracting raw numbers -- more and more they have can only win through stratagems that disempower the voting strength of their opponents, that undermine popular electoral democracy.

And so we are living with an impeachment drama well described by scholar Danielle Allen in a recent oped.

For Democrats working their hearts out, on behalf of one or another candidate, the discovery that President Trump appears to have marshaled the unmatchable power of his office to conjure up investigations into a leading political rival is a heavyweight punch to the gut. The unfairness of having to fight against someone willing to fight that dirty, and with the power and resources to distort the election almost at will, is enraging.

For Republicans who worked their hearts out in 2016 on behalf of candidate Donald Trump, the relentless investigations into the president are equally enraging. The unfairness of having to constantly fight against what feel like efforts to undo a legitimate election result causes them to see red. Conservative media is full of angry denunciations of Democrats for failing to accept their humiliating political defeat.

We are all enraged, the entire polity. We are enraged because few of us believe the other side respects, and will protect, free and fair elections.

She's accurate of course; hardly anyone is in the condition of mind and heart to offer losers' consent to those with whom they differ.
I'm reminded that this is a country founded in refusal of consent to governance that our founders believed to be illegitimate. I'm reminded that the Declaration of Independence grounds the colonial rebellion against the English monarch in the bold assertion that governments derive "their just powers from the consent of the governed." We still believe this, most of us.

And that "we" who demand a democratic right to consent is an ever larger fraction of the people of this land; there were a lot of "non-people" around in 1776 and 1787 -- women, native people, enslaved people, non-Christian people, and others with no property. Now we all want and expect to be insiders in our democracy, not just spectators. Hence rage and #Resistance.
Political scientists who have elaborated the losers' consent concept suggest that there's an important fraction in a democratic polity who we overlook and who can tip the balance in a closely divided context.

[This is] the conventional image of the ideal citizen: informed, sophisticated, committed, and able to overcome their frustrations after a defeat. However, the findings suggest that the stability of democracies may also depend on other groups of voters rarely celebrated by analysts – namely some of the late deciders and those voters torn between contradicting considerations.

These two groups have a reputation for being less politically educated and deciding how to vote in emotional or expressive ways. We suggest that the ‘graceful’ losers amongst them are an indispensable component of the democratic majority in the aftermath of an electoral campaign, and that they contribute to the stability of democratic regimes.

This observation points to the necessary target of the grand democratic mobilization that will be the 2020 election. There are still a few people who are disengaged from contemporary politics -- and who don't want participate in the general rage. Their desire for social harmony is a healthy contribution the wider polity, even if infuriating to those of us feeling an existential threat to ourselves and our country's possibilities. There aren't many, but they can be won, but only if we organize ourselves to talk with them rather than just yell louder.

The LA Times interviewed such a voter. Christie Black is a 35-year-old stay-at-home mom who abandoned the GOP and voted independent in 2016 rather than support Trump. Now she might be open to voting for a Democrat.

“I think right now the most important thing is to get those principles of democracy tied down, get that return to regular order, and then we can worry and get back to squabbling about conservative versus liberal.”

That's not how I think, but the winner of the 2020 election needs to reach the Christies. To the annoyance and even fury of many, they may be what keeps this listing democratic vessel on an even keel.

Monday, December 02, 2019

Impact to be determined ...

From what I have been able to ascertain, this explainer offers a fair exposition of what California's new law governing police shootings means. The law sets the stage for more litigation every time the cops kill someone -- litigation about whether the killing was "necessary."

Cops have a lot of legitimacy and clout within the entire legal system. Cases about police use of force are probably just as likely to go the cops' way as they always were. What that means is that community vigilance and community pressure will still be needed to win any justice, especially for victims of color.

But, just maybe, the new standard creates a new discouragement to blatant police misconduct. Perhaps a few cops may have a new incentive to think twice before pulling the trigger.Perhaps it creates a new instrument bereaved families and friends can use to demand reform. None of that is going to happen without ongoing community pressure.

What conditions make democracy possible?

Political scientist Sheri Berman has gone big and wide in Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day . She's applied a schematic analysis of modern European history to most of the continent's states, tracking their various system evolutions toward -- and away from -- stable liberal democratic governance. The result offers intriguing details that both bolster and sometimes seem more insightful than her grand frame. I appreciated the ambition of this book, but reading it sometimes felt as if I were being herded along a prescribed track that had more reality in the author's brain than in the lives of these societies.

So what's Berman's framing premise? She posits that for states to become (relatively) stable democracies, they need to 1) clear away old regimes in which authoritarian monarchs tussled with privileged aristocrats and localities, excluding most popular ferment; 2) define and achieve broad legitimacy for national boundaries, both geographical and usually ethnic; and 3) then create popular democratic institutions which deliver enough widely shared well-being to defuse insurgent challenges from either a populist left or a conservative right. She describes the evolution of governments in a series of case studies, beginning with Britain which took a very early path toward democratic state legitimacy, through France, Italy, Germany, Spain, moving on to the successor states of the Austro-Hungarian and post-World War II Soviet Russian empires.

Some of Berman's generalizations:

... Often forgotten is that at some point all states were “new,” even those currently viewed as “natural” or “inevitable,” and building national identities and strong states has always been a lengthy and difficult process.

... democracy is considered consolidated when citizens believe in its inherent superiority or suitability for their society, separate from the particular outcomes it produces or the leaders and governments in power at particular times.

... [a] pattern that emerges clearly from the European past and a crucial lesson for the contemporary period is that achieving consolidated liberal democracy easily or quickly is extremely unusual.

... liberal democracy is so rare and difficult to achieve because it requires transforming not merely the political procedures and institutions of dictatorship, but societies and economies as well.

... there was no easy or peaceful path to liberal democracy.

If you bring to this book a moderate familiarity with modern European political history (what I have), there's a lot here that can enlarge an understanding of that past. I found Berman's expansive account of the evolution of the French Second Republic, especially during the anti-Semitic Dreyfus episode, particularly enlightening; it had been too easy just to dismiss the stumbling French republic as evidence of national frivolousness, an Anglo-Saxon bias. Her exposition of Spain's torments on the road to its present state is chilling; when democracy formation went fully off the rails, the result was devastating.

Overall, the [1936-39] civil war brought to a violent culmination the growing tendency of left and right to deny the legitimacy or even basic humanity of the other: “political rather than ethnic cleansing” was the consequence of democracy’s collapse in Spain.

Berman's concluding note about the relevance of this schematic discussion to the United States seems worth quoting at length:

Americans have particular difficulty grappling with the chaotic and circuitous nature of democratic development, and here too a better understanding of the past can help. We commonly think of our country as having always been a liberal democracy and thus assume democracy is “natural” or at least fairly easy to achieve.

But using common political science standards, the United States was not, in fact, a fully liberal democracy until the second half of the twentieth century. Before the Civil War an entire section of the United States—the South—was a tyrannical oligarchy and it took the bloodiest conflict in our history—the Civil War—to begin changing this, and another century before the political and legal infrastructure of liberal democracy was fully in place. It was only in the 1960s that the national government was able, or willing, to ensure that democratic and liberal rights were enjoyed by all citizens, including African Americans.

Moreover, even though the political and legal infrastructure of liberal democracy was finally in place by the 1960s, the economic and social legacies of our old regime—in the form of racial inequalities and animosities and a national identity that while inclusive in theory had long been exclusionary in practice—remained, and continue to mar the functioning of American liberal democracy up through the present day.

This political scientist brings us a warning.