Tuesday, February 28, 2023

On the road again

I never flew out of the Harvey Milk terminal at SFO before. It's kind of sweet. And still appropriate to our moment.

On to Boston and beyond to Martha's Vineyard.

Monday, February 27, 2023

Shards from the embattled republic

Things to think about ...

• Democratic Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur started 2023 off right. Congress has not covered itself with glory since but ...

As we approach the new year with hope and optimism in our hearts, let’s heed the timeless words of Daniel Webster etched in the U.S. House of Representatives: “Let us develop the resources of our land, call forth its powers, build up its institutions, promote all its great interests and see whether we also in our day and generation may not perform something to be remembered."
• GOPer dysfunction as evidenced by the Speaker election has many pundits trying to figure out what's wrong with rightwing politicians. Here's David Lauter in the LA Times:

What the voters on the right and their representatives have demanded is a return to the 1950s, if not earlier — an era when government was smaller, the social safety net weaker and traditional gender and racial hierarchies far more solid. That’s not achievable by democratic means: A large majority of the country rejects that agenda. So they’ve turned to anti-democratic tactics to try to push toward their goal. McCarthy and other Republican figures — one can’t truly call them leaders — have tried to indulge that faction to maintain their hold on power.

But their flirtation with anti-democratic practices has clearly hurt the GOP, especially with the swing voters who decide close elections.

That has brought the GOP to its current dead end: Without the far right, they would forfeit their current majority. With it, they may lose their legitimacy with a generation of voters.

• Meanwhile GOPers continue to try to completely ban abortion despite a strong national majority that supports comprehensive reproductive health care. NPR created an useful quiz which you can use to test your own basic understanding of abortion; many of us haven't had to know all about it for many years. Now we do.

• We're finding there's a lot of history, and a lot of heroes, whose work we need to retrieve.

Jill Filipovic asks: "What's the matter with (rightwing) Men?"

In the US, men commit roughly 90% of homicides, 85% of non-parental murders of children under five, 99% of rapes, 88% of robberies, 85% of burglaries, and 78% of aggravated assaults. Most men who are murdered are killed by other men; most women who are murdered are killed by men, too. ...
The men who enact mass violence do have particular afflictions that separate them out from the Republican voter who may also be xenophobic and misogynist, most notably their misfit-ness — their isolation. But of course many women and girls are misfits, too, and they are far less likely than men to hurt others because of it.
It’s the entitlement, the hewing to narrow gender roles, the sense that one isn’t being allowed to be a true man (and that’s someone else’s fault), and the desire to make other people listen and pay attention and bow down — that’s what seems to drive so much violence from this particular demographic.
And it’s those same dangerous sensibilities that the Republican Party is stoking.

Jamelle Bouie reflects on what makes bad cops.

With great power should come greater responsibility and accountability. The more authority you hold in your hands, the tighter the restraints should be on your wrists. 
To give power and authority without responsibility or accountability — to give an institution and its agents the right and the ability to do violence without restraint or consequence — is to cultivate the worst qualities imaginable, among them arrogance, sadism and contempt for the lives of others. It is, in short, to cultivate the attitudes and beliefs and habits of mind that lead too many American police officers to beat and choke and shock and shoot at a moment’s notice, with no regard for either the citizens or the communities we’re told they’re here to serve and protect.

• A former Sheriff of King County, Seattle WA, Sue Rahr, describes what often motivates officers:

Though the vest, the gun, the training, and the equipment all lessen the physical danger of the job, nothing assuages the fear of rejection from one’s group.
Esau McCaulley on Black history in this disunited country:

What makes America a wonder is that this is the land upon which my ancestors, despite the odds, fought for and often made a life for themselves. We are great because this land housed the poetry of Phillis Wheatley and Maya Angelou, the advocacy of Fannie Lou Hamer, the urgency of Nina Simone’s music, and the faith-inspired demand for change in Martin Luther King Jr.’s sermons. This way of telling the story allows us to speak of American ideals even if the norm is failure rather than accomplishment. It allows our history to chronicle progress without diminishing the suffering necessary to bring it about.

Ezra Klein waxes philosophical, even if many of us can't afford to: 

... many in politics have abandoned any real vision of the long future. Too often, the right sees only the imagined glories of the past, and the left sees only the injustices of the present. The future exists in our politics mainly to give voice to our fears or urgency to our agendas. We’ve lost sight of the world that abundant, clean energy could make possible. The remarkable burst of prosperity and possibility that has defined the past few hundred years has been a story of energy. ...

Meanwhile, innovators and entrepreneurs work toward a more climate friendly future.

Chris Choo is a planning manager for Marin County, California. She tries to look ahead:

“People still tend to think of these things [wildfire and flood] as isolated terrible things, rather than as part of a collective shift … in what the future might hold,” she said. “We live in nature and too often think of ourselves as separate from it … but nature is still very much in charge.”

• The 2024 presidential election comes closer. And feels familiar. Josh Marshall notes:

If the GOP were ready to move on from Trump they would be having a campaign that wasn’t entirely about him. But that is just what they’re doing.

Sarah Longwell conducts focus groups: 

While many Republican voters may be moving off Trump the man, the forces that he unleashed within the party—economic populism, isolationist foreign policy, election denialism, and above all, an unapologetic and vulgar focus on fighting culture war issues—remain incredibly popular with GOP voters.

Katherine Stewart studies Christian nationalism:

The lessons to be drawn from the rise of DeSantis in the wake of his reelection in Florida are stark. The descent of the Republican Party into a uniquely American form of authoritarianism has not stopped. The second coming of the “anointed one” will not be any better for America than a return of the first. We may be spared Melania and Roger Stone, but we won’t be spared the politics of division, demonization, and domination. DeSantis is simply promising to do demagoguery better. No wonder Trump has started calling him names.

• Former Federal prosecutor Joyce Vance isn't giving up.

I hear a lot of people who say, often apologetically, that they just can’t take it anymore. That they have to unplug from the news for the sake of their sanity. I understand that. Truly, I do. But bad things happen when good people look away. We are still in too fragile of a position to be able to afford that luxury. It is often said that every generation has to secure democracy for itself. Our fight is not over yet.

Saturday, February 25, 2023

Ukraine might be an electoral liability for Republicans

Some Republicans seem to want to make U.S. support for Ukraine's resistance to Russian invasion a campaign issue.

Daniel Donner writing at Daily Kos Elections investigates which voters this move might offend. It's a question which came to my mind early on in this war, having grown up in Buffalo where there was and is a significant Ukrainian-American population. 

Here's part of Donner's answer. 

Click to enlarge

The map is a way to represent all 435 Congressional Districts; the blues indicate significant concentrations of people of Ukrainian origin. The Ukrainians I know are proud supporters of Ukrainian independence from Russia; they aren't likely to take kindly to GOPers who like them some Putin.

Donner points out:

Six districts are home to more than than 10,000 residents of Ukrainian extraction: California’s 6th, New York’s 8th and 11th, Ohio’s 7th, Pennsylvania’s 1st, and Washington’s 9th. Notably, these are not all solid blue [Democratic] districts, as half of them are currently represented by Republicans—New York’s 11th, Ohio’s 7th, and Pennsylvania’s 1st. And plenty more Republicans represent districts in the next tier, which each have thousands of residents with Ukrainian heritage.

And which European states are most supportive of a free Ukraine? Why it's eastern European lands which have had the most experience of Russian domination. 

So Daily Kos offers another map:

Click to enlarge
The darkest colors show the most residents of Eastern European extraction. Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania are obvious locations where supporting the Russian invasion may not make for popularity.

Of course the cause of Ukrainian freedom isn't about U.S. politics. The war is about Ukraine. But this is a moment when our domestic cleavages matter.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Friday dog blogging: we have a new neighbor

Bella is too sweet and too cute not to share
As far as we can tell, she is not yet aware that there is a Janeway next door. And the longer we can keep it that way, the better. We keep explaining to Janeway: "cats don't go out!" She is not properly cautious.

Friday cat blogging

To mark the one year anniversary of the Russian invasion, here's a chilly Ukrainian cat, outside recaptured Kharkiv.

A surprising number of photos from this war show cats. Ukrainians seem to like felines. Perhaps the culture of this land on the Black Sea has some of the elements of cultures along the Mediterranean? Certainly those cultures all value their cats.

Janeway will return in this space next week. We'll be out of town, but she's provided lots of pictures I can post while she stays home.

Thursday, February 23, 2023

Colonial wars past

In Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America's Vietnam Harvard historian Fredrik Logevall aims to provide

a full-fledged international account of how the whole saga began, a book that takes us from the end of World War I, when the future of European colonial empires still seemed secure, through World War II and then the Franco-Viet Minh War and its dramatic climax, to the fateful American decision to build up and defend South Vietnam.
This Pulitzer Prize winning history is sweeping, thorough, fascinating -- and, perhaps most surprisingly, gentle. This is a sad narrative, but not, as it might have been, a catalogue of villains.

Logevall writes with empathy for most all the men (there were hardly any women who figure as actors) engulfed in the long running tragedy. He's particularly aware of slaughtered Vietnamese and French colonial draftees, but also of successive French and American officers and officials tasked by their countries with holding back the tide of history.

The American war in Vietnam was my backdrop growing up and coming into young adulthood. I sought then to understand the American war, tuning in to contemporary US journalism, which did convey very early on that this was a futile and probably immoral misadventure. I also dipped into alternative sources, mostly from the left, including the international relations Howard University scholar Bernard Fall and the anti-imperialist Australian journalist Wilfred Burchett who reported from Hanoi. But like most engaged young anti-warriors, my real interest at the time was what this atrocious war was doing to my own country. Vietnam was a symptom of racism, and inequality, and hubris that had to be contested at home. So a very superficial narrative of what was going on in Indochina would suffice for many of us.

This book fills in background that was neither accessible nor seemed important to people like me at the time. Some random highlights, most all of which touch on points when the tragedy could have been, if not averted, played out to a different finish:
• Logevall suggests that if FDR had lived, the sort of instinctive anti-colonialism that was still part of the pre-WWII American mental furniture might have led him to try to keep the French from returning to make war on Indochinese nationalists. We didn't much hold with colonies in those days (while not admitting we'd seized a few from Spain at the beginning of the century.)
But Roosevelt died, and soon thereafter patterns of thought were laid down that would drive U.S. policy for the next twenty years.
• Ho Chi Minh, who had been jousting with French colonialism since the Versailles Conference in 1921 that concluded WWI in western Europe, saw the 1939 European war (WWII) and the German defeat of France as Vietnam's chance for independence. First the Vietnamese had to take on the Japanese; then expel the Europeans. The resurgent French wanted their colony back in 1945 and soon were fighting Ho's Viet Minh. Yet according to Logevell's account, Ho didn't give upon the hope that the Americans would let the French fail and not take up the war as late of 1949.

• John F. Kennedy toured French Indochina in 1951, seeking to burnish his foreign policy credentials. Even then, with French defeat and expulsion by Vietnamese nationalists still three years ahead, he saw where this was going in notes he wrote about the trip:
"We are more and more becoming colonialists in the minds of the people ... we will be damned if we don't do what they [the emerging nations] want."
• Yet by the time the Kennedy administration succeeded Eisenhower in 1961, the young president and his country had succumbed to the inertia of continuity that pervades our political system.
A White House aide of the time, when asked years later how the U.S. interest in Vietnam was defined in 1961, answered "it was simply a given, assumed and unquestioned." The given was that Ho Chi Minh could not be allowed to prevail in Vietnam, that the Saigon government must survive, that failure to thwart the Communists here would only make the task harder next time.
And so the Americans replicated the terrible trajectory of the France's failing empire and tried to impose our own post-WWII imperium. It's a bit of an investment of time to read Logevall's whole story, much of it intricately descriptive of military folly in terrible jungles amid both bravery and stupidity on all sides. Mostly there was death -- but eventually (in 1954) there was pride in the new Vietnam in the north and determination to finish the job by winning national freedom in the south. And eventually the intruding Americans too were swept away, though it cost of at least a million Vietnamese deaths and 20 more years of suffering.

• • •

The Vietnamese siege of the French outpost at Dien Bien Phu was the first world event which stuck in my consciousness as a child. I had no idea what it was about, but I have vague memories of the 15 minute nightly TV newscast repeating day after day that the battle for this obscure jungle redoubt raged on -- and then it was over and the oh-so-foreign Vietnamese had prevailed. Reading Logevall's detailed account, I realized that I was being drawn back into my mother's feelings during that event. 

She had been devastated in 1940 by what was called "the fall of France," the overrunning of that country by Nazi Germany -- she was among the relatively small contingent of Americans who had urged preparedness to fight on an isolationist United States. During WWII, listening to the war on the radio, she developed great affection for the Free French and its leader Charles DeGaulle. Some of that carried over into her reaction to France's colonial war in Vietnam. She worried about the French and was oblivious to the dignity of Asian colonial subjects. She conveyed that to me as we listened to "the fall" of Dien Bien Phu. Reading about Dien Bien Phu, I felt again her emotions, an odd sensation.

• • •

The title of Logevall's book derives from a remark by the journalist David Halberstam that the American war in Vietnam occurred "in the embers of another colonial war." Halberstam wrote his own account of America's Vietnam quagmire, appearing in 1972 when the war had not yet ended, The Best and the Brightest. Yes, I'm rereading that one ...

Wednesday, February 22, 2023

On the seductive nature of hate

This first day of the Christian season of Lent, when we are enjoined to self-examination and turning away from the evil all humans inevitably take on and foster in the societies we create, I offer for reflection a Twitter thread by a British author, podcaster and musician. Musa Okwonga writes:

Today in Berlin. Was getting a cab to see the preview of a new TV series, on the evacuation of Jewish refugees from Marseille in WW2. Had a great chat with the cab driver about society. Just before he dropped me off, he stated the main problem for the world’s ills: the Jews.

We had been chatting for a good fifteen minutes before that so I didn’t explode at him, I patiently explained why I thought he was wrong, in the same tone we’d been using before. Sometimes this stuff feels like defusing a bomb. 
The guy was young, smart, otherwise progressive. It shocked me because of how casually he said it, and also because I have been feeling recently - just this weekend, in fact - that so many of these old cruelties are reviving themselves.
I know this thread is anecdotal, so you can say, okay, pinch of salt; or, it’s just a data point. But there have been a few data points like this of late. Like the furious rant against gender and LGBT people by a loved one. The rage isn’t new. What’s new is the boldness.
I had a chat with a friend and I said, I think it’s partly this: if you look around us, there aren’t that many winners, are there? Many people aren’t getting what they want and never will - they won’t own homes, their workplaces are brutal to them. Where do they get their wins?
A lot of people will get their wins from counting their blessings. But a lot of people will lash out at others to get their wins. People who are trans, black, Jewish, or any assortment of those are an easy win for people like that. And the wins sound so satisfying. So cathartic.

These last few days have really reminded me of the seductive nature of hate. I just thought I would put this down here before I forgot about it. It feels like a moment, and not a good one.

Never heard of Mr. Okwonga before I happened on his tweet. But his thoughts seem a good introduction to the season.

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Even a necessary war is evil

Good for Joe Biden for dropping into embattled Kyiv. And good for the United States for our support for the brave Ukrainian national resistance to genocidal aggression. And good for Volodymyr Zelenskyy for hia exemplary performance of leadership for a country under threat of extinction.

This is the first war in my lifetime in which the United States has played a role in which I could, more or less, feel my country was throwing its massive weight onto a right side. It's a bizarre feeling and I know I'm not alone in this.

But let's not get all triumphal about it. Even a "good war" is an evil. Let's not spew happy talk about defending "the rules-based international order." The U.S. has little standing to deliver that message.

Let's continue U.S. support for a democratic, free Ukraine. That will require a domestic political fight, one that ought to be engaged and won.

But let's not pretend that war is anything but evil.

Monday, February 20, 2023

Good riddance

By the time the fourth scooter riding on the sidewalk nearly flattened me during a two mile walk around Mission streets, I'd had it. And then this oblivious idiot came along, looking like a tourist out to turn wheelies among the wild San Franciscans on a busy sidewalk. He was part of a small pack, all looking to be frolicking non-residents.

Go play on your home turf, wherever that may be, and leave us alone.

Heather Knight of the San Francisco Chronicle moans that the Bird scooter company is planning to abandon the city, claiming burdensome regulations. I am completely prepared to believe that the city is miserable to deal with. But I will not miss any scooter company that cuts and runs. These things are dangerous to pedestrians and I have no hope for effective enforcement of any city restrictions. That's just not how things work around here.

Sunday, February 19, 2023

Black patriotism should not be mistaken for Christian nationalism

A recent PRRI (Public Religion Research Institute)/Brookings study of the Threat of Christian Nationalism in the United States has been getting a good amount of mainstream media coverage. There probably are as many as thirty percent of us who proclaim their adherence to Christianity (usually of the white evangelical Protestant variety and its offspring) and combine that belief/culture with aggressive nationalism. These folks are a menace to their neighbors and to our democracy.

But I felt drawn to dig a little into the methodology of the study. Researchers used the answers to a battery of five questions to identify "adherents" and "sympathizers" with Christian nationalism. Did respondents agree or disagree with the following questions?

• The U.S. government should declare America a Christian nation.
• U.S. laws should be based on Christian values.
• If the U.S. moves away from our Christian foundations, we will not have a country anymore.
• Being Christian is an important part of being truly American.
• God has called Christians to exercise dominion over all areas of American society.
I have to admit that I have some sympathy with the second of these statements. I believe U.S. laws should be based on Christian values -- and Jewish values, and Muslim values, and Hindu values, and Buddhist values, and Wiccan values, and all other historic sources of morals -- because I think all religious traditions lead to reverence for humanity and the earth, whatever culture they derive from.

But obviously, I'm not a Christian nationalist sympathizer. I'm not a nationalist at all. But I'm not ready to deny that religions have some good ideas that might inform how we structure our lives together. 

I find it easy to imagine that a goodly lot of people who might have some sympathy for these statements might be far more nationalist than Christian. Researchers have documented that plenty of Trump and Republican supporters who loudly proclaim their Christianity aren't regularly to be found in churches.

Washington Post data journalist Philip Bump asks what seem to me a relevant question about the PRRI study:

What isn’t clear from the research is the extent to which these religious views are the motivator for political or cultural views. Are these Americans centering their beliefs on religion, or do their views broadly lead them to agree with questions centered on the primacy of Christianity? To put it another way, if Christian nationalism is the chicken and right-wing politics the egg, which comes first?
PRRI and Brookings may simply be measuring the same right-wing group in another way. Of course, this doesn’t diminish how unsettling the findings might be in the least.
One of the oddities of these PRRI findings is that, on this survey's metrics, Black Americans are no less likely to be Christian nationalist "adherents" or "sympathizers" with Christian nationalism than white evangelicals. That simply seems wrong. 

To PRRI's credit, they addressed this discordant finding with a short talk at the study's public launch event by Jemar Tisby, president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion, and culture.  This is preaching to be savored ...

"White Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to democracy and the witness of the Church in the United States today.
"I define Christian nationalism as an ethnographic-cultural ideology that uses Christian symbolism to create a permission structure for the acquisition of political power and social control.
"Black Americans as a group are a highly religious group. Ninety-seven percent of Black Americans believe in God or a higher power. And the vast majority of those folks are Christians, Protestant at that. ... it wouldn't surprise us that this language of God and Country resonates with Black people. ..
"The difference is, what do we mean? ... I contrast white Christian nationalism with Black Christian patriotism. ... When you are talking about white Christian nationalism it tends toward a rigid, narrow, authoritarian politics. When you are talking bout Black Christian patriotism, you are talking about an expansive, flexible, inclusive politics ... White Christian nationalism is the greatest threat to a multiracial inclusive democracy."

Saturday, February 18, 2023

DiFi is finally done

So Senator Diane Feinstein is finally ready to go. The pundits are chiming in -- Scott Gerber, her former communications director; former L.A. Times editor Nicholas Goldberg; current L.A. Times political columnists Mark Z. Barabak and many others.

DiFi has been a fixture of my political world for nearly 50 years. Mostly I haven't been happy about that. 

In the mid-1970s she lost a second campaign for mayor because there was no room between loosely left and far right in San Francisco's political spectrum of the day. One could hope that would be the end of this prissy matron. 

The assassination of the city's progressive Democratic mayor George Moscone and gay pioneering elected supervisor Harvey Milk thrust her into the job she'd wanted. She held on through ten tumultuous years. 

When she left the mayor's office, it once again looked as if California politics would be done with Feinstein. She lost a campaign for governor in 1990. It wasn't until four years out of office that she was elected to the U.S. Senate seat she's held since 1992.

To many San Franciscans, she always looked like a centrist clogging up the way forward for more modern, more liberal California Democrats. Though she managed to restrict assault weapons for a time, to lead passage of the Violence against Women Act, and supported gay rights, she wasn't the sort we warmed to in office. For years I would explain proudly that, despite living in parallel to DiFi's political history, I'd never voted for her.

In recent years I've mellowed in my feelings about my Senator -- maybe grown more tolerant.

There's Feinstein at Obama's swearing-in, wearing purple, at the far right next to Nancy Pelosi.

I first softened toward Feinstein watching her perform her role in Barack Obama's 2009 inauguration. She served as the official event organizer for the Senate. She came across as careful, very competent, and deeply anxious. I may have been reading into what I saw on TV, but I am pretty sure she feared, as many of us viewers did, that someone might try to kill Obama rather than see him take office. Would they shoot him? This was not abstract for her; after all, she had literally discovered the murdered bodies of colleagues in San Francisco City Hall. She was a right choice to be the formal organizer of that precedent breaking inauguration.

Feinstein finally won a degree of respect from me in the past decade when she led the Senate Intelligence Committee's fight to uncover the tortures used by U.S. spooks in the service of George W. Bush's panicked "War on Terror." U.S. security professionals stonewalled against admitting what they'd done by every legal and some illegal means. Republicans too wanted maximum concealment. Feinstein managed to get 600 pages of summary into the public record. When/if the full thousands of pages of documentation are finally made public, we will know yet more of the crimes done in our name.

”There may never be a right time to release the report,” Feinstein said, but she added that the report is “too important to shelve indefinitely.”

She has always annoyed because she came across as above the fray, a genteel throwback to a different era. Yet this woman has actually seen a great deal of the material violence in politics, very possibly more than some of her bombastic colleagues. 

I'm glad she's leaving, apparently in acceptance of the inevitable. The finale could be worse.

Friday, February 17, 2023

Friday cat blogging

If posts here sometimes turn up late in the day, understand that I serve an important function every morning. I must provide a lap for Janeway in her most affectionate mode to loll about out. Note the corner of the laptop on the right. It's hard to type without disturbing a cat.

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Sharing the road

Imagine my surprise when I ventured to the third floor parking lot of San Francisco's Costco and discovered that almost every space was filled with a Cruise autonomous vehicle. I've seen a few of these "self driving" cars around town (always with a driver aboard). But apparently this was where they hole up when off the road.

Cruise -- majority owned by General Motors -- has enjoyed limited permission to offer cab rides in its vehicles between 10pm and 6am. The city is not entirely happy with the result. There have been complaints of hard braking that endangered following autos and occasionally a pack of these cars just bunch up irrationally and block traffic. 

Perhaps to overcome human anxieties triggered by these robot vehicles, the Cruise company gives each car a cutesy name.

Click to enlarge

Meet Mocha, Banana Slug, and Beet.

Nearby I noticed a Cruise in the wild ...

There goes Tootsie.

It's not clear yet whether they'll get beyond the testing phase. Probably. At that point, I imagine they'll drop the cutesy monikers.

Wednesday, February 15, 2023

Gun deaths top other causes among US young people

I did not know what this this graphic shows. Click to enlarge. Now that I do know, I'm not surprised by who is dying.

"Black boys are now eight times as likely as other children to die by gunfire."

Source: New York Times.

Tuesday, February 14, 2023

Another take on "what's with these people?"

National Book Award– and Pulitzer Prize–winning New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos' contribution to the question -- what's with these people? -- received a lot of plaudits when released in 2018. He describes Wildland: The Making of America's Fury as "a book about public life, revealed in private experiences." As with the book in toto, that description seems both accurate and elegant.

After a decade reporting from such places as Baghdad, Egypt, and China, he came home to live in Washington, D.C. His native land felt unfamiliar.

This book is a crucible, a period bounded by two assaults on the country's sense of itself, the attack on New York and Washington, on September 11, 2001, and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, on January 6, 2021. It is a period in which Americans lost their vision for the common good, the capacity to see the nation as larger than the sum of its parts. A century and a half after the Civil War, America was again a cloven nation. Its ability was foundering on fundamental tensions over the balance between individual freedom and the protection of others, over the reckoning with injustice, and over a basic test of any political society: Whose life matters?...

I spent a decade in parts of the world where people tend to be skeptical about American promises and values, and I often found myself making a case for the United States, urging citizens of Egypt, Iraq, or China to believe that, for all of America's failings, it aspires to some basic moral commitments, including the rule of law, the force of truth, and the right to pursue a better life. When I returned to the United States, I began to wonder if I had been lying all those years to people around the world -- and to myself....

Osnos rooted this deeply reported book among people in three locations where he had lived and worked: Greenwich Conn., where he grew up professional class in proximity to hedge funder millionaires; Clarksburg, West Virginia, where he'd broken in as a green reporter in beautiful, mutilated land in a dying coal town on a dying local newspaper; and Chicago, where his immigrant grandfather was shot in a street mugging and where his immigrant family had nonetheless taken root.

This is in many ways a lovely book. He cares about the people whose life travails provide his narrative. He certainly hopes through these revealed lives to provide a window on "what is with these people?"

I wanted to like the book; I certainly appreciated it. It is almost devastatingly well done. But (perhaps in part because I absorbed it in audio, read by Osnos himself) I came away more tired than enlightened. For me, the author's anguish overwhelmed his reportorial accomplishment. Your mileage might vary. I guess I'm a bit of a "what is to be done?" reader.

Monday, February 13, 2023

Not my kind of encounter with Jesus

If you watched the Stupor Bowl live, and didn't silence the commercials as you might ordinarily, you were treated to slickly produced ads from something called HeGetsUs.com. 

I figured I should suss out who is selling what kind of Jesus and pass the information on. Here's what CNN reports:

In between star-studded advertisements and a whole lot of football, this year’s Super Bowl watchers are being taken to church.

He Gets Us,” a campaign to promote Jesus and Christianity, is running two ads during the game as part of a staggering $100 million media investment. ...

The chain of influence behind “He Gets Us” can be followed through public records and information on the campaign’s own site. The campaign is a subsidiary of The Servant Foundation, also known as the Signatry.

According to research compiled by Jacobin, a left-leaning news outlet, The Servant Foundation has donated tens of millions to the Alliance Defending Freedom, a conservative Christian legal group. The ADF has been involved in several legislative pushes to curtail LGBTQ rights and quash non-discrimination legislation in the Supreme Court.

... While donors who support “He Gets Us” can choose to remain anonymous, Hobby Lobby co-founder David Green claims to be a big contributor to the campaign’s multi-million-dollar coffers. Hobby Lobby has famously been at the center of several legal controversies, including the support of anti-LGBTQ legislation and a successful years-long legal fight that eventually led to the Supreme Court allowing companies to deny medical coverage for contraception on the basis of religious beliefs.

It hurts when Jesus is used to belittle and repress people. I do not trust these sponsors.

Oh, I'm not not being entirely fair calling the big game "the Stupor Bowl." I just didn't have a horse in the race this year. But it was an entertaining game, unlike so many such contests.

For the record: Social Security on trial again

Since we are condemned by Republican crazies to spend another season defending Social Security from tinkering that could devastate people who depend on the program, a little more awareness of how the program actually works might be helpful.

By way of Josh Marshall:
Social Security and Medicare are funded (almost entirely) by a payroll tax of approximately 15% on wage and salary income up to a statutory cap, which currently stands at $160,200. That is tax is split between the employer and the employee. That funds the two programs. A couple generations ago, Congress increased the tax to build up a surplus to pay for the benefits of the baby boom generation. That’s the “trust fund”. Social Security “lent” that extra money to the rest of the federal government, i.e., it purchased government bonds. Eventually that Trust Fund will run out of bonds to cash in. The current estimate is that that will happen in the mid-2030s. This is when Social Security supposedly become ‘insolvent”.
But that’s a meaningless term. The federal government has to pay its promised benefits and if they can’t all be paid by out of payroll taxes the remainder can and will be paid out of general revenues. This was actually the assumption about what would eventually happen back when the program was founded almost a century ago. ...
This doesn’t mean it’s a non-issue. It means there will be funding gap and that’s just a budgetary issue to be resolved. It’s not ‘insolvent’. That’s just scare talk. Now, how can the funding gap be resolved? You could just pay the remainder out of general revenue (the general tax base of income, corporate, capital gains and other taxes that are not tied to any specific program). ...

The aging of the baby boom generation does stress the system; when we arrived in the 1950s needing more kindergartens, our sheer numbers stressed the public school system too. This is a repeat of a phenomenon that our numbers have repeatedly triggered over the decades. And any sane politician who acts surprised is lying.

Marshall goes on to delve into the weeds a bit (and his take is interesting), but those of us who need the Social Security we worked for can stay focused on the main point rather than the details.

The money exists to pay what Americans earned in our working years. If the government needs money, the answer is get it from people who have it, not to nickel and dime people who don't. Raise taxes on rich people and corporations -- that's where the money is.

Saturday, February 11, 2023

What's with these people?

I think that, as the Republican Party has reconstituted itself (or been revealed?) as a vehicle for outright American semi-fascism in the years of Donald Trump, the rest of us can't stop taking an occasional pause to try to understand. What's with these people? Fruitful communication between those who are appalled and the adherents of the Orange God-King is usually impossible. The major media resorted to sending bemused reporters to diners to attempt to have the conversation. And there is a genre of books that take a stab at explanations, especially of this right wing plague's Christian component, such as Sarah Posner's Unholy and Robert P. Jones' White Too Long.

Angela Denker's Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump is a worthy contribution on this group. Her perspective is not what we get through the big media. She's a white, married, midwestern, middle-of-the-road Lutheran pastor who resides in Minnesota. She's got plenty of connections including family who have been Trump voters. And she's a former sportswriter who presents her travels to and among various Trump-sympathetic churches and venues as she might have written profiles of teams and athletes.

The book is a kind of pilgrimage between Christian institutions from Florida, through Orange County, on to Missouri, Appalachia, New England, with a smidgen of Texas thrown in, all to listen and attempt empathy with people whose sort of Christianity and whose politics are not hers, but whom she seeks to treat with respect.

Some of what she records we have gotten used to over the last six years. An awful lot of Trump-voting Christians simply found Hillary Clinton repulsive, not only because of her support for abortion, but in some deeper sense which remains opaque to me. (I'm no Hillary fan, but I never got the Hillary-hate.) Many of these folks feel that American culture has pushed them aside and they feel dissed by elites. We know that. And we know that there's plenty of racism behind the American authoritarian phenomenon. But just when I would think there's nothing new here, Denker would offer an observation I found thoughtful and broadening.

For example, at the anti-abortion DC March for Life in 2017, she mingled with the crowd as they listened to Trump orate on the Jumbotron:
Trump had the fortune of looking like a sheepish little boy in need of love, and even at his most offensive, I wondered if the women and mothers in the crowd who'd managed to vote for him had done so in the same way we excused our husbands and sons, think of grown men as petulant, overgrown little boys.
In Florida, she attended River at Tampa Bay Church whose worship leaders ostentatiously carry guns and preach fear of immanent attack ... by someone or something. This is worship shaped by paranoia. Denker has a very Lutheran take and writes:
Lost at the River [Church] is the biblical idea that we aren't the ones who are called to earn or defend our salvation. We are called instead to gratitude for life rather than ultimate fear of death, for Easter follows Good Friday, and eternal life follows death. But grace is unsatisfying in the winner-takes-all world of the River ....
Few of this author's red state Christians are this bellicose. But they are very much attuned to their respective American cultures.
Trump, with his own combination of bombast and celebrity, would not have appealed to conservative American Christians had they not first been warmed up bo the idea by conservative celebrity preachers, many of whom had their genesis in Orange County and Southern California. ... It's not surprising that American Evangelicals, thus desensitized, were willing to sacrifice purity for popularity. They'd already done so in the largest and most profitable and influential churches.
In the midwest and Appalachia, she delves into the feelings among white Christians of being left behind, perhaps as retribution for ancestral crimes which they could not bring themselves to recognize.
They had felt chastened by President Obama and by Democrats. They did not want to be called racist, but they hesitated to confront past instances of racism and injustice. ... The rural midwestern Americans I met carried a mix of pride and a sense of shame, a hesitation to admit America's original sins because their identity was tied so strongly to being an American and the pride that went along with it.
At ultra-conservative Roman Catholic Thomas More College in New Hampshire, where this Lutheran pastor felt herself very much an anomaly,
they fear their culture is being threatened. For the conservative Catholic families that send their children to Thomas More, the truths that have sustained their power are changing and they are losing their grip on Western society. Much of that fear is about changes in acceptable family structures and increased racial diversity, about the loss of absolute truth and what that means for a church that has been dependent on hierarchy and obedience.
Denker ends her odyssey among midwestern family, certain that what endures are the bonds we preserve, rather than those we sever. She is undoubtedly correct, and also aware that this stance may be easier for her than for others who enjoy less security,

This isn't a great book, but I found it a broadly helpful response for my question: What's with these people?

Friday, February 10, 2023

Friday cat blogging

She's a fine lap sleeper -- but then she wakes up. No smart lap-providing human would risk offering to scratch Janeway's proffered belly.

Thursday, February 09, 2023

Do the right thing, Joe

For two decades, a determined bunch of human rights activists and lawyers has been pushing to end this travesty of justice, the irrational and extra-legal consequence of our panic after 9/11.

Since Biden came to office, six prisoners have been released. 

Twenty men still held at our Caribbean gulag have been cleared for release -- determined to be no threat to the United States and charged with no crime. 

Eleven men, most of them charged with participating in planning the 9/11 attacks, are stuck in a phony "military commission" process which seems never to advance. Three more men are "forever prisoners" -- not charged, but our government plans to hold them forever. Most of this latter set were tortured while being held by the United States.

Thank you to the dedicated activists of CloseGuantanamo for keeping this struggle for more justice alive.

Wednesday, February 08, 2023

Found item

This is too delicious not to pass on. The Los Angeles Times, on February 8, 1952, reported the coronation in a fashion it today calls "cheeky."

She continued to strive to be a "good queen," whatever that means. If anything.

Her coronation is my first memory of seeing a "world event" on television in flickering black and white. I guess it could then still be considered something of a "world event" since Britain was still very much a world empire, though that wouldn't last long. And the royal family then was something more than a source of gossip, though just what it meant was already up for grabs.

The current Los Angeles Times publishes surprisingly good national political coverage. It helps to be in a sizable market outside the East Coast bubble.

We can't let myths take over

In October 2022, in an article in the Atlantic which skewered the hypocrisy of Trump-enamored evangelical Christians, David French wrote:

A partisan mindset is a dangerous thing. It can make you keenly aware of every unfair critique from the other side and oblivious to your own side’s misdeeds. I was indignant about attacks against Romney, for example, while brushing off years of birther conspiracies against President Barack Obama as “fringe” or “irrelevant.”

Then, of course, Republicans nominated Trump, the birther in chief, and the scales fell from my partisan eyes.

French is a former staff writer for the National Review. That is, he's a conservative guy. He hold views on abortion that privilege a zygote over a living, breathing adult potential mother. But he's also a morally serious member of the never-Trump center right who will argue that the contemporary Republican Party is a danger to majoritarian democracy. He knows his Christian comrades on the right and I find his explorations of that world thoughtful.

This excellent background has now earned French an opinion writing slot at the New York Times. I will read him with some interest, especially if his new digs don't cut him off from the grassroots Republican evangelicals I find so inexplicable. He seems genuinely interested in overcoming partisan strife.

But his introductory column includes a casual affirmation of a right-wing myth that no serious commentator should be peddling. He writes of "the riots of summer 2020" in reference to the Black Lives Matter protests over the police murder of George Floyd -- and of so many other victims. 

The notion that the protests of that summer were somehow widespread eruptions of deliberate mob violence -- on a par with Trump supporters' attack on Constitutional process on January 6 -- is propagandistic nonsense.  

93% of Black Lives Matter Protests Have Been Peaceful, New Report Finds

The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) analyzed more than 7,750 Black Lives Matter demonstrations in all 50 states and Washington D.C. that took place in the wake of George Floyd’s death between May 26 and August 22.

Their report states that more than 2,400 locations reported peaceful protests, while fewer than 220 reported “violent demonstrations.” The authors define violent demonstrations as including “acts targeting other individuals, property, businesses, other rioting groups or armed actors.” Their definition includes anything from “fighting back against police” to vandalism, property destruction looting, road-blocking using barricades, burning tires or other materials. In cities where protests did turn violent—these demonstrations are “largely confined to specific blocks,” the report says.

Sure -- there were a few locations where protests turned into violent chaos -- Portland and Kenosha come to mind. But mostly folks marched and demonstrated peacefully in cities and towns across the country. Getting the rage and grief out in the open threatened some people but engaged millions of others carefully and thoughtfully.

This small, mostly white, gathering on Martha's Vineyard was probably quite typical.
In the same issue where Mr. French's new column appeared, the paper is still following up on the New York's Civilian Complaint Review Board's report on the 750 complaints against the police that came out of the 2020 protests. Even this quite toothless body reckoned that, in some instances, police had used pepper spray indiscriminately and beaten protesters with batons while covering up their identifying badges. The Police Union is predictably wroth that any blame for violent episodes might be placed on the cops. I'm sure protesting New Yorkers think the report is a whitewash.

It's hard to credit writers who casually repeat partisan myths. We all have to be conscious of our partisan blinders.

Tuesday, February 07, 2023

Interesting people; engaged reporting

Historian Deborah Cohen's Last Call at the Hotel Imperial: The Reporters Who Took On a World at War strikes me as an odd but charming picture of a coterie of journalists who were significant interpreters of the wide world -- so foreign, so exotic -- for middle Americans in the 1920s and '30s -- and who have nearly disappeared from our, always feeble, historical memories. These people were part of my parent's mental furniture in the 1930s.

Cohen's core subjects are HR (Knick) Knickerbocker, Vincent (Jimmy) Sheean, Dorothy Thompson, and John Gunther. They lived within an "outer circle" of people whose fame has proved more enduring: the playwright and novelist Sinclair Lewis, Dorothy's brilliant, unhappy alcoholic husband; William Shirer, the author of the magisterial Rise and Fall of the Third Reich; in Britain, the literary Bloomsbury Group; and in India, the anti-imperial movement leader and later president, Jawaharlal Nehru.

They ventured from the American midwest to the old world, young and brave after the Great War of 1914-18. They checked out Moscow, open to seeing a new sort of human being raised up in the Soviet Union after the horrors of war and revolution. Disillusionment in the person of Stalin and with his dictatorship came by the end of the 1920s, as one man and his apparatus replaced the creative moment they had welcomed.  

The United States was not yet much of an empire, so an instinctive anti-British, anti-colonialism came easily. Some of them developed real connections to the Indian National Congress movement; Jimmy Sheean was visiting Gandhi in 1947 when that mystical and mysterious figure was murdered. In the interwar period, Zionism in Palestine also seemed to some of them an anti-colonial cause, a struggle against the British mandate authorities who had been imposed on the land by the Peace of Versailles in 1919. Others were alert to Zionist fascism, an exterminationist force frighteningly akin to American treatment of our continent's native peoples.

But the center of their reporting was Europe, especially fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the European states -- Austria, Czechoslovakia, Spain -- where the rising authoritarian moment played out. They worked for whatever newspapers and syndicates would pay them and chased interviews with heads of state and political leaders, who to an extent amazing today, often took them up on their invitations to talk.  Gunther boasted of having landed British Prime Minister Lloyd George, President Mazaryk of Czechoslovakia, and King Carol of Romania while Knickerbocker one-upped his friend by getting to Mussolini and Francisco Franco. Dorothy Thompson was the first American woman to head a major news bureau in Berlin -- and the first American to get an interview with Hitler in 1931. The Nazi leader had not yet come to power, but his party's popularity was surging.

She was all prepared, she would write, to be bowled over by Hitler. But less than a minute in his presence, and what struck her was his "startling insignificance." "I Saw Hitler!" was scathing. "He is the very prototype of the Little Man," she began, noting the dictator's boneless face, his awkward gestures, his shyness. ... Could such a man rule Germany? He was "an agitator of genius," Thompson judged. Of course his theories made no sense, but she well knew too, that "reason never yet swept a world off its feet."
Thompson was the first U.S. correspondent expelled from Berlin when the Nazis came to power. And with time she became ashamed of how lightly she'd taken Hitler's potential for evil. All Cohen's subjects were viscerally anti-fascist by the late 1930s. Knickerbocker and Sheean served in the American military in World War II; Thompson broadcast for NBC from Britain under the German bombs of the Blitz.

They make fascinating subjects for biography because they were interesting people as well as interesting as journalists. They were premature practitioners of a loose, if often tortured, culture of sexual exploration, their biographies a chronicle of complicated marriages, affairs, and gender fluid liaisons. As proper interwar moderns, they had a faith that they should understand themselves (and fuck better) by undergoing Freudian analysis. They were seldom very happy.  

Their journalism was emphatically not fair and balanced. They brought fixed principles, which they thought of as American and democratic, to their subjects and reported what they observed through a moral lens. Their journalistic employers let them get away with discarding any pretense of objectivity because, I think, the wide world to which they introduced Americans seemed so exotic. How could you be "objective" when writing about a mystic like Gandhi and monsters like Hitler and Stalin? 

We do not, I think, see their like today. Reporters and pundits are required to nod to "one the one hand, on the other hand." We could use more of such free spirits; if we're to preserve American democracy, we need them.

Monday, February 06, 2023

Erudite Partner muses on California, fire, and flood

This common San Francisco configuration with a garage below street level hasn't served well this winter.

She writes:

California has been “lucky” this fall and winter. We’ve seen a (probably temporary) break in the endless drought. A series of atmospheric rivers have brought desperately needed rain to our valleys and an abundance of snow to the mountains. But not everyone has been celebrating, as floods have swept away homes, cars, and people up and down the state. They’ve shut down highways and rail lines, while forcing thousands to evacuate. After years of thirst, for a few weeks the state has been drowning; and, as is so often the case with natural disasters, the poorest people have been among those hardest hit. ...

Yes, it's climate change. And how we decide to live with what we've wrought is still up to us.

Sunday, February 05, 2023

A proud American

House Republicans thought to crush Michigan Representative Ihlan Omar. They voted, unanimously, to throw her off the Foreign Relations Committee. She had plenty to say about their bigotry, speaking on the floor of Congress.

"Is anyone surprised that I am being targeted? Is anyone surprised that I am somehow deemed unworthy to speak about American foreign policy? Or that they see me as a powerful voice that needs to be silenced? Frankly, it is expected because when you push power, power pushes back...

"Representation matters. Continuing to expand our ideas of who is American, and who can partake in the American experiment is a good thing. I am an American, an American ... I didn't come to Congress to be silent. ... my leadership and voice will not be diminished if I am not on this committee for one term. My voice will get louder and stronger and my leadership will be celebrated around the world ... Take your votes or not; I am here to stay and I am here to be a voice against harms around the world and to advocate for a better world."

It was interesting to hear on a podcast what "Never Trump" Republicans Charlie Sykes and Tim Miller had to say about Omar's statement. They assume she is some kind of anti-American radical and anti-Semite; like the Republicans who used to be their comrades, they can't imagine that she simply emerges from a worldwide culture where the United States is a known bully empire and the Jewish state of Israel is simply the oppressor of native Palestinians. (She's had to learn explain her understanding in a more nuanced way in office.) But the two Never Trumpers could hear Omar in this clip. Do listen up!

Saturday, February 04, 2023

For anyone who needs or wants to understand US immigration

Our historical understanding of immigration to the United States is cloudy, full of misconceptions, and hard to make sense of. The legal rules which govern immigration in 2023 are tough to decipher -- and, aside from past eras when nativism successfully outlawed most migrant arrivals, always have been a tortuous maze.

In 1994 I was plunged into considerable responsibility for fighting against a state initiative campaign (Prop. 187) which aimed, unfortunately successfully, to make life hell ford California immigrants. I needed to learn about immigration, fast. It proved surprisingly difficult to find clear, authoritative information about migrants and the system they lived within as well as their true impact on existing California society -- not to mention what their individual lives and prospects were like.

Streets of Gold: America's Untold Story of Immigrant Success by academic economists Ran Abramitzky and Leah Boustan provides an up-to-date primer on precisely these issues, as well as a history of immigration since 1850. I sure could have used something like it back in the day.
Our aim in this book is to rebuild the story of immigration to America from the ground up, uncovering the patterns that the patterns that emerge from data on millions of immigrants' lives. ... The data gives us clues about why immigrants chose to come to the United States, and tells us when they left school, how well they spoke English, the occupations they held over their work lives, their earnings, whom they married, the names they chose for their children, and their children's outcomes as they became adults.
Some of the myths and issues they examine include:
• the reality, and the difficulties, of economic mobility for newcomers
• whether current immigrants learn English rapidly (not in the first generation)
• whether current immigrants assimilate to US customs as quickly as previous migrant generations (yes)
• do new successful arrivals hurt the US born (no)
• does global diversity benefit all of us, culturally and economically (yes, emphatically)
What Abramitzky and Boustan bring to the subject is a database of immigrant history of which they are almost inordinately proud. They began their efforts by sucking information uploaded by amateur family historians out of the Ancestry.com service. When the company noticed their work, it "worried that some computer bot was downloading their data to package and resell." The company sent a "cease and desist" letter. After conversations, the site welcomed their project. They then added in everything they could find from historical census files, Social Security records, tax records and birth certificate files. They were both able to follow the life histories of individuals and put those histories in the context of the picture drawn by the entire data set.
Individually, each record reflects a life quietly lived -- perhaps as a beloved teacher, or a hopeful parent, or a kindly neighbor -- achieving no fame as a result of their strivings. Together, these stories paint a portrait of the immigrant experience that largely overturns conventional wisdom.
For anyone needing to learn the basics about US immigration history and policy, I would recommend this book unhesitatingly. People will keep on coming; that's not easy for them or simple for those of us already here. But when you steal a continent from its native inhabitants and make the resulting polity unimaginably prosperous and relatively safe and secure, expecting to keep the world out is criminal folly and impossible. And the newcomers benefit us all.