Thursday, December 20, 2012

Newtown, Occupy and The Book of Mormon

1.  When I first heard about the school shootings in Newtown, I didn’t have a particularly strong reaction.  I saw the headlines, I saw the number 20, then it became 26, but I didn’t read the details.  When a friend said on the phone, “That’s so sad,” I agreed without really thinking about it.

Friday evening I went to a meeting at a cafĂ©.  The Palestinian owner served my wine.  I noticed he looked upset.

“How are you?” I asked and he said, “Not very good.”

I asked why and he pointed to the television.  Military guys were moving around ambulances and at first I thought something must have happened in Palestine.  But the words on the screen said it was Connecticut.

He has an 18-year-old daughter.

It was only then that I stopped to feel the news.
Omar al Masharawi, killed by Israeli shelling
in Gaza, November 14
2.  The mainstream media is nonstop funerals, speculation about the shooter, debates on gun violence, tedious interviews with the same law enforcement people and politicians.  The progressive media has moved on to speculations about how different the discourse would be if the victims or the perpetrator had been people of color, at home or abroad.  They remind us of all the deaths we’re not grieving, from kids killed by gun violence in Chicago (117) to kids killed by drones in Pakistan (168) to kids killed in last month’s Israeli bombing of Gaza (30) (read their names).

These are totally valid things to remind us of, fair and even necessary questions to raise.  Usually I’d be right there with them.  But the efforts at parallelism are making me uncomfortable.

I think that’s because it emphasizes the profound alienation we leftists feel from the rest of our society.  It feels like we want to wallow in our alienation and fling it in people’s faces.

And I can’t help feeling that wallowing in alienation is what brought Adam Lanza to the point where he could think it was right to kill 20 children and 6 women.

Aren’t drones the ultimate expression of the alienation our society promotes?  It’s a form of warfare that alienates the actor from their actions, the shooter from the target, the person from their compassion. I don’t want to encourage any more alienation, by seeming to criticize people for their emotional response to the suffering of other parents.

I know that’s not what my friends and fellow leftists are aiming for.  They want people to feel the same compassion for the parents in Gaza and Pakistan and Oakland that they feel for the parents of Newtown.  But I can’t help feeling that heaping negative information onto people’s consciousness will only encourage them to distance more, to dull their awareness of other people.

For years, I believed that if only people knew what was happening, knew the cost of our policies, they would care, and they would do something.  But the evidence is that it doesn’t work that way.  What it usually takes for people to change their positions or their actions is deep personal contact with someone who is hurting.

Would white Americans feel the pain of Palestinian parents if they could see a Palestinian father grieving for the families in Newtown?
3.  In my writing class on Saturday, we discussed the first few chapters of my novel, Murder Under the Bridge.  Most people found the American peace activist highly annoying.  (Everything I do to try to make her more sympathetic seems to have the opposite effect.)

A young woman said, “I knew a lot of people like her in college.  They all went into the Peace Corps.”

“Yes,” said the teacher, “people who go into the Peace Corps are usually annoying.”

“They’re idealists,” someone else said.  “And idealists are annoying.”

That’s true, I realized.  In our culture, idealists are considered very annoying.  Why?  Because their refusal to be suitably alienated makes us question our own alienation?
4.  A friend and I saw The Book of Mormon on Thursday night.  (Please do not ask how much we paid!)  It’s hilarious.  It’s also deeply offensive on so many levels: casually racist, sexist, making jokes about things that aren’t funny like AIDS and rape.  A lot of its comedy is mean-spirited, but it’s sharp and the music and dancing is incredible. I couldn’t decide which I was more ashamed of: enjoying it or criticizing its political incorrectness. I’m pretty sure the fact that it’s such a huge hit says something about how we can do such terrible things to each other, not to mention those we consider Other.  Cynicism has become our religion.  Idealists are annoying.  Alienation is our god.
5.  Karl Marx predicted that under capitalism, workers would “inevitably lose control of their lives by losing control over their work.”  But Marx did not see capitalism continuing for this long.  He foresaw that the working class would rise up and reassert control over their lives through socialism.  Aren’t these mass shootings, at their most basic level, a response to the prolonged alienation of people from our labor, our environment and each other?

But a transition to socialism, whether by revolution or some more gradual means, can only take place if the alienation that separates us from each other is somehow lessened or challenged.

Occupy was the answer.  People were coming together, relating without the mediation of wages and commodities, representation and hierarchy.  That’s why it had to be so swiftly and thoroughly repressed.  It might also be why the crime rate in Oakland declined during the encampment at Oscar Grant Plaza.  But the repression succeeded.  The new manifestations of Occupy, smaller, targeted campaigns for foreclosure defense, debt relief, labor support, are great but they do not offer that broad, easy access to an alternative vision of what our society can be.

What the brief flame that was Occupy/Liberate/Decolonize did was cut through the cynicism that says that idealism is just annoying.  It made a space for ideals and the people who hold to them to be loved and cherished.
6.  Today is the Solstice, the End of the Mayan Calendar, The Great Turning.  Let it be a turning toward a world in which idealism is cherished, not annoying.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Does Mental Illness Exist? Yes!

I was trying to write something very different, something much more cerebral and complicated, about Newtown and alienation and Occupy and The Book of Mormon, which I saw the other night.  Maybe I still will.  But I just couldn't get it done because I kept being drawn to people's Facebook chatter.  A lot of it centers around this piece by Liza Long:
I Am Adam Lanza's Mother.
Three days before 20 year-old Adam Lanza killed his mother, then opened fire on a classroom full of Connecticut kindergartners, my 13-year old son Michael (name changed) missed his bus because he was wearing the wrong color pants.
“I can wear these pants,” he said, his tone increasingly belligerent, the black-hole pupils of his eyes swallowing the blue irises.
“They are navy blue,” I told him. “Your school’s dress code says black or khaki pants only.”
“They told me I could wear these,” he insisted. “You’re a stupid bitch. I can wear whatever pants I want to. This is America. I have rights!”
“You can’t wear whatever pants you want to,” I said, my tone affable, reasonable. “And you definitely cannot call me a stupid bitch. You’re grounded from electronics for the rest of the day. Now get in the car, and I will take you to school.”
I live with a son who is mentally ill. I love my son. But he terrifies me. Read more

Someone posted it.  I sat in the cafe where I am writing and tears ran down my face.  I resonated with it, because I grew up in a family with mental health issues.  I knew that out-of-control feeling, of knowing that someone you loved was going through something you could not get at.  Just loving them, just wanting to help wasn't doing it.  I was a kid but I saw the helplessness in my parents' eyes because they couldn't heal this deep pain and couldn't get the help they needed.

I have a friend whose sister is troubled.  We don't know exactly why or what's going on with her, but she's a sweet kid who can erupt in violent behavior.  Her mother is scared.  My friend hides in her room when her sister has outbursts, which is mostly what I did.

I was struck by some of the comments to Long's piece.  Some were preachy and blaming, others filled with vitriol for herself or her son.  Some tried to be compassionate at the same time as they were saying Long wouldn't have this problem if she were not such a bad mother, or had not gone to bad doctors.  After I posted it to my wall, friends posted other responses, like this one:
You Are Not Adam Lanza’s MotherAfter this blog post was republished on Huffington Post, I thought it necessary to summarise the main reasons why it’s a terrible springboard for further conversation on the subject.

1) The suggestion that this woman’s son is of the same type of person who would or will commit a “rage murder”, without any real evidence to back up this suggestion.

2) ...By reducing ‘mental illness’ to ‘outward behaviour’ the article dehumanises the mentally ill and completely glosses over the inner mental life and experiences of those with mental illness.

3) The article complains about mental illness stigma while reinforcing it by explicitly tying it to violence, and in particular, mass killings. The reality is that there is no such observed link: “after analysing a number of killers, Mullen concludes, ‘they had personality problems and were, to put it mildly, deeply troubled people.’ But he goes on to add: ‘Most perpetrators of autogenic massacres do not, however, appear to have active psychotic symptoms at the time and very few even have histories of prior contact with mental health services.’” And most people with mental illness are not violent, although they are far more likely to be victims of crime (see here, for instance). more
The author of that post makes good points, but its emphatic conclusion is:
You are NOT Adam Lanza’s mother. The sort of quasi-solidarity expressed in “We are [oppressed people]” or “I am [dead person]” appropriates the experiences of people who are unheard, in this case the victim of a mass homicide, and uses that to bolster a narrative that doesn’t even attempt to discover or represent the experiences of those they claim to speak for. Don't do that.
Author, did you miss something?  Liza did not claim to "be" the victim of the mass homicide, unless you are saying that Adam Lanza is the victim, in which case, who is the perpetrator?

Liza is saying she never wants to be the mother of a mass murderer.  I have friends who have said that, who held their breaths during their sons' violence-riddled teenage years.  Nancy Lanza is dead, but we should still have some empathy for her.  She didn't raise Adam to do what he did, but he did it.  It could happen to any of us who dare to raise kids in a deeply troubled society.

I have friends who deny that mental illness exists at all.  People are merely misunderstood, not challenged in school, not valued for who they are, not given the freedom to run around, too smart, too creative, too special for this one-size-fits-all society.  It's true that our first twenty efforts to solve behavior problems in kids and adults should center around trying to figure out what they need that they're not getting, give them more attention, more love, more opportunity.  It's true that the loss of empathy required to commit mass murder is fostered by capitalism and militarism.

But mental illness exists too.  I know it from painful experience and so do many of you.  For years, I felt I was teetering on the edge of it.  I was always able to pull myself back, but others in my life have not been so lucky.  A number of friends of mine have recently had to deal with suicides - more than one, by people who obviously could not get whatever they needed.  Depression is anger turned inwards.  If it turns back outward, it can be dangerous.  I don't know what to do about it, and Goddess knows, I don't want it to involve any more guns or prisons or laws (which it inevitably will).  But denying its existence will not make it go away and neither will heaping blame on the parents who are every day worrying and trying to figure out how to help their kids.

I've written about the problem of trying to isolate causes and effects before.  Saying that mental illness can cause violence is not the same as saying that all or most mentally ill people are violent.  They are not.  Not all unemployed people are poor, either - look at Mitt Romney.  But we all know unemployment can cause poverty.  Cancer can kill you, but not everyone who dies has cancer.  We need to get a lot better about this cause and effect thing.  And we need to treat the causes in a hurry.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

9 (Sort of ) Revolutionary (Sort of) Gifts for the Holiday Season

A number of my friends have the misfortune to have birthdays very close to Xmas.  It's a misfortune because it’s hard to schedule parties and because people like me, who hate shopping, avoid it even more ferociously as December wears on.  But of course, the Internet has changed all that.  In the cozy privacy of my office, I figured I could be a good friend and not give IOUs or “love yas” instead of real live gifts this year.  But having made that earth-shattering decision, I was stuck when it came to where on the ever expanding world wide web I might actually find something suitable for the revolutionary who has almost everything she could want except revolution.

So I Googled “gifts for revolutionaries”.

I skipped right over the ones that were using “revolutionary” to modify an app, device, fabric or appliance – surprisingly, there weren’t that many.  I guess maybe the days when “revolutionary” got anyone’s attention are bygone, since it must by now be the second most common word in the English language.

I did get a little excited by “Redesign revolution” because boy, do we ever need to do that!  But sadly, it wasn’t a how-to guide for a consensus process that works in just 45 minutes or getting media attention for your creative direct action.  Instead it was “Gizmos, Gadgets and Gifts – Oh My! Holiday Gift Guide for Gadget Geeks.”  I am kind of a gadget geek, but I don’t wanna be so I clicked away in a hurry and went on to:

1.      The very first item was Jesus Christ Revolutionary, and it actually said “You searched for Jesus Christ Revolutionary” which I certainly did not!  But I clicked through to, which features a Jesus-as-Che Viva La Resurreccion Baseball Jersey.  The cutest thing I found there was the No Justice No Sleep baby bodysuit.  I don’t have any revolutionary friends getting ready to deliver, but when I do, I know what they’re getting for baby shower gifts.  

2.      From Amazon comes The History Channel Presents The Revolution (2006).  Revolution in a box for $49.99 would be a good deal, but sadly it’s a 13-part miniseries about The American Revolution.  No doubt I’d learn something, but not what I had in mind.

3.       Zazzle, as it turns out actually does have a “revolutionary gift” site offering everything from U.S. Army mugs to revolutionary war memorabilia to pictures of Villa and Zapata to Ron Paul bumper stickers to Socialist Party pins.  I clicked on the last and found myself at the page entitled “Home > Politics > United States > Parties > Communist” – wait, was it a socialist or a communist pin?  Couldn’t buy it unless I knew.  Oddly, the Red Star on a black field pin was not on that page, but on the “Philosophy and Belief” page.  Go figure.  At the top of my screen, underneath “Revolutionary Gifts - T-Shirts, Posters, & other Gift Ideas” it said:  “Related Searches:  vladimir lenin without, war, war cannon”.  Huh?

4.       There’s Revolution Tea:  “Revolution Tea is proud to introduce you to the wonderful world of tea. In the past, you may have experienced the bitter taste of low quality teas served in paper bags. At Revolution, we are committed to changing the way tea is served in addition to offering high quality, great tasting teas crafted to suit the taste of today's palate.”  In addition to tea, they offer tea lights, tea cups, tea servers, tea cakes but sadly not "Revolutionary Tea Party," my favorite CD by the great Lillian Allen.  You can get it on CD baby though.  

5.     Revolution Books, marketing hub of the formerly-antigay-now-only-mildly-heterosexist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), offers “shirts, sweatshirts, mugs, hats, calendars, tote bags and more with challenging and inspiring quotes from…the cutting edge work of Bob Avakian, whose new synthesis of communism envisions a radically new society that is overcoming all of the oppression of the current world while giving great scope to the intellectual work, ferment, and dissent as integral to the complete emancipation of humanity.”  Okay, just how “new” and “cutting edge” can his work be after 50 years?

6. offers Chinese propaganda posters.  Site labels include “Posters”, “Calendar cards”, “Fakes & reproductions” and the ever-popular “Personalized oil paintings”:  “A revolutionary gift idea: your portrait oil painted like a propaganda poster."  I thought about it.

7.     Mug Revolution was actually kind of tempting, as both I and one of my Saggitarian friends love mugs.  These boast lead-free glazes and certified 100% non-toxic local clay.  They are hand-made in Oregon, meaning they wouldn’t be being shipped too far, but they're kind of ugly, at least in the pictures. Maybe it takes toxic clay or lead glaze to make pottery that looks pretty? (No offense meant to any of my potter friends, who all make gorgeous and I'm sure healthful stuff.)

8.    Revolutionary Girl Utena: The Apocalypse Saga L.E.”  I gather is a Japanese animated TV series.  It’s a 3 DVD set and sounds rather gender-bending:
"Utena, fueled by her desire to protect Anthy, continues to prevail over the feeble ambitions that drive the Student Council to fight.
The Council's ambitions are reignited, however, when they hear a sound. At first, it's faint, but soon it becomes clear: the promised revolution is within reach - and the duels must go on.
And what of Utena's own ambition? To become a prince, the duels may be only one of the trials she has yet to face."

It might be just the thing for friends or kids who like anime, which I don’t.  Though for full disclosure, one of the swordswomen on the box cover is wearing a long pink gown.

9.   Revolution Brewing, a Chicago brewpub has a host of “Revolution Brewing” paraphernalia, including shirts, caps, signs, and bottle openers.  Cute for a revvy who drinks beer, but I'm going to keep looking.

Monday, November 12, 2012

The Week After the Day After

Unable to beat Obama with tried and true tactics – racist fearmongering, voter suppression and the grand coalition of pissed off white men – the Republicans are apparently going for the one thing that never fails: a sex scandal.  Somehow they are trying to tie an extramarital affair, or two, by CIA director Gen. David Petraeus to the attack on the embassy in Benghazi.  Huh?  Doesn’t matter if it makes sense.  An extramarital affair took down Clinton, it will take down Obama, even if it’s not his affair and even if House Majority Leader and superreactionary Eric Cantor also knew about the affair and didn’t broadcast it.

What’s that you say?  The Lewinsky affair didn’t take down Clinton?  Of course it did.  Just ask anyone.  History cannot be changed by the facts.
So like many of you, I breathed a sigh of relief on Wednesday.  One because the right wing did not win.  Two, because a few good things passed in California and the worst ones didn’t.  And three because it’s over.
I had been pretty sure that if Obama won, Romney would refuse to concede, demanding recounts in every state, even possibly challenging the electoral college itself.  Maybe it was the fact that that particularly anti-democratic provision of the Constitution was designed to overempower the slave states, which as a number of analysts have noted, closely correspond to today’s red states, that stopped the Republicans from pursuing that strategy.  Or maybe it was the fact that they were truly shell-shocked, caught by surprise, having 100% swallowed their own bunk so that they believed they would win fair and square by cheating and lying, and had no back-up plan.  Maybe, as the new uberman Nate Silver had suggested, their minds were in such a twist that they had lost the simple ability to count to 270.  Anyway, it’s exciting to realize I’m capable of more diabolical thinking than the Republican party!  Have to consider what havoc I can wreak with that special power.
Now as for the Obama victory, I am not so ecstatic, as I’m sure most of you are not either.  As we all know, it means more drones, more deportations, more charter schools, more gay marrying while cities burn and flood.
However, I learned something about myself this election season.  And that’s that as I get older, my appreciation for left-wing self-righteousness, purity and cynicism wanes.  Now this is kind of a shock to my system, because those have been my staple foods for many years.  It’s not that I want to hold hands and sing Kum-ba-yah.  I’m definitely not going to go out there and register voters for the Democrats, or even vote for them very much (in this election, I think the only one I voted for was Congresswoman Barbara Lee, and I’m not all that thrilled with her.)  It’s just that the ability to see the cloud behind every silver lining no longer seems radical to me, instead it seems like another way of preserving and protecting the status quo.
Here are a few posts that reflect the negativism emanating from my corner of the virtual universe on Wednesday:
I am so fucking DONE with being subtly and not so subtly called stupid by my so called friends and comrades in and around the anarchist community for making a different choice than the one they'd like to make for me. All this campaign cycle I have been paralyzed by the ways I've internalized the shaming and silencing tactics. I've been questioning my passion and then trying to quell it. It's hard to stand up and say, yes, I am one of the people you think are morons because I make this particular choice, but I wish i'd done that. Right now I am waiting for the returns and feeling really sad that i didn't go out and fight for Prop 30, and really frightened about what's going to happen if it doesn't pass. having worked on a school budget last year. And I'm pissed at myself for allowing the opinion of people who, frankly, don't care about the same things I do, matter to me.”
--RJ, on Facebook
“…the delirium of liberals this morning is understandable: the night could scarcely have gone better for them. By all rights, they should expect to be a more powerful force in Washington. But what are they going to get from it? Will they wield more political power? Will their political values and agenda command more respect? Unless the disempowering pattern into which they have voluntarily locked themselves changes, the answer to those questions is almost certainly "no"….
“With last night's results, one can choose to see things two ways: (1) emboldened by their success and the obvious movement of the electorate in their direction, liberals will resolve that this time things will be different, that their willingness to be Good Partisan Soldiers depends upon their core values not being ignored and stomped on, or (2) inebriated with love and gratitude for Obama for having vanquished the evil Republican villains, they will follow their beloved superhero wherever he goes with even more loyalty than before. One does not need to be Nate Silver to be able to use the available historical data to see which of those two courses is the far more likely one.”
Glenn Greenwald, "Obama and progressives: what will liberals do with their big election victory?"
“I’m really ready to be done with the in-fighting among the Radical Left….Some folks voted for President Obama, albeit in a range from enthusiastic to reluctant support. Some voted for progressive third party candidates like Jill Stein, choosing to give the side eye to the binary of the prevailing two party system. Others abstained altogether, rejecting the notion that voting for the lesser of two evils is any choice at all.  The Radical Left is not a monolithic entity, but rather a diverse set of communities that approach the realization of justice in a variety of ways. I’m not suggesting that we become more alike, but I am concerned that the way we talk about our differences is not only unproductive but oftentimes a violent distraction from our shared goals….The past two years have been like a family reunion gone terribly wrong.”
“…there are those of us that would have rather seen Romney in the house. Imagine if he took away women's rights, then many people would surely rise up in opposition, bc it effected them directly. Unfortunately since americans don't YET feel the extent of the austerity measures, and haven't YET experienced a drone strike, killing one of their children - so it's super easy for them to ignore the daily horrors done by US (over the past several decades, but significantly advanced by Oboma!), for many in the world...”
the person writing this is too young to remember Reagan, but not to remember GW Bush

It makes me incredibly sad and angry to hear a spectacularly talented and hard-working young activist say she feels shamed and silenced by the people who are supposed to be fighting for a better world.  Isn’t shaming and silencing what we have Rush Limbaugh for?
Let’s get one thing clear: in my lifetime, people have not risen up because we had woman-hating budget-slashing right-wing presidents.  The only significant rising in my adult life came under a Democratic president – Obama, one year ago, remember?  It wasn’t a fluke.  It was because, as Frances Piven and Lorraine Minnite pointed out in The Nation a few weeks back, for a social movement to flourish, people have to feel that there’s a chance they’re going to be listened to.  In 2002-3, we had an enormous outpouring of antiwar energy, millions in the streets, tens of thousands doing civil disobedience.  Bush/Chaney made it clear that they did not care, were not listening, were never going to listen, and the movement fizzled quickly.
For whatever it’s worth, Obama and other politicians heard the Occupy movement.  It changed the conversation, suddenly 99% was on everyone’s lips.  Obama turned around on the Keystone XL Pipeline because of the thousands brought to Washington by and other environmental groups.  He changed his position again, yes, but that doesn’t negate the accomplishment.  He signed Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals one day after a group of immigrant kids sat in in his campaign headquarters.  Coincidence?  No.  He didn’t do it because he’s a nice guy, he did it because he needed the Latino vote.  Great, that’s what pressure politics is about.
People waste way way way too much time arguing over whether Obama is the most progressive president since FDR or more right-wing than Reagan.  It doesn’t matter.  It doesn’t even make sense.  As many people have reminded us over the last four years, FDR did not get elected as a progressive; he got elected as a deficit hawk, and became progressive to avoid socialism.
Who’s in the White House is not nearly as important as who’s in the streets.
If your goal is to be right about Obama, or about liberals, then congratulations.  You are.  You can go home and say Mission Accomplished.  But if you want to make change, you actually have to work at it, and you have to do it with a belief that change is possible.  As a magic teacher of mine used to say, if you can’t believe it’s possible, pretend you can.
In the next two months, Obama and the congressional leadership are going to make decisions – in the name of avoiding the “fiscal cliff” – that will have long-term important effects on the lives of millions of seniors, students, workers, on the environment, on transportation, on everything.  Left to their own devices, they will definitely make decisions that will hurt.  If everyone who attended an Occupy march last year hits the road immediately with “No Cuts - Tax the Rich” signs, banners, guerrilla ads, paid-for ads, letters, petitions, lawn signs, window signs, you name it, the leaders may still make terrible decisions.  Or they might make less terrible ones.  Only one way to find out and that’s to stop snarking and start organizing.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Don't Drink the Cool-Aid: Yes on 34

As some of you have noticed, I've been on a blogging holiday, but I just have to respond to some of the things that have been circulating recently from progressives opposing Proposition 34, to repeal the death penalty in California.

Proposition 34, dubbed “SAFE California”, or “Savings, Accountability, and Full Enforcement for California Act” is not the death penalty repeal I would have written.  I don’t support the imposition of life without parole for anyone.  I don’t support slavery in prison or anywhere else.  I hate using arguments of cost savings, efficiency and “making these criminals work and pay instead of sitting around in private rooms watching television” to overturn a horrific and immoral policy.  But none of those are legitimate reasons to vote against Prop. 34.

I understand why death row inmates have blasted the initiative, promulgated by Death Penalty Focus and the ACLU.  If the initiative passes, these inmates, who are uniformly low-income and mostly African American or Latino, will lose the right to court-appointed counsel for appeals which have not been filed.  Many of them are old and have been on Death Row for decades.  They will be sent out to maximum security prisons all over the state, far from friends, family and lawyers.  They fear they will be targeted for violence and unable to defend themselves against younger prisoners.

A friend works at San Quentin and she tells me that death row inmates can’t even sit down on their beds because they are covered with legal papers.  They live for their appeals.  It’s a heart-rending image.  But the fact is that there are 700 inmates on death row, and since 1981 only 6 have been released, while 13 have been executed.  So these guys are at least twice as likely to be killed by the state as to be freed if we do not eliminate the death penalty.

Some inmates have painted Prop. 34 as a secret plot by Jeanne Woodford, former warden of San Quentin and now executive director of Death Penalty Focus, to deprive them of their appeals and funnel more money to police.  That is fantasy.  According to law professor Ellen Kreitzberg, “Long-time opponents of the death penalty approached Jeanne Woodford and asked her to consider being a spokes person in support of Prop 34.”  I know for a fact that the ACLU and Death Penalty Focus spent a lot of time doing focus groups and workshops to figure out what they could get broad enough support for to actually have a chance of winning.  And California is not all that is at stake.  We have by far the most people on death row in the country, and if California votes to end it, that will give huge momentum to the abolition movement in other states.

People have argued that Proposition 34, in replacing the death penalty with Life Without Parole, would create a terrible new law that we would never be able to change.  That’s absolutely false.  There’s no law that we can’t change.  In fact, 34 would not create new law.  We already have LWOP in California, we already have work requirements for prisoners and prisoners’ wages are already seized by the state.  That doesn’t mean these things are okay.  We should be working against them.  If we do not have to work to end the death penalty, that would free up a lot of time for a lot of people who care about civil rights to work on eliminating LWOP or abolishing prisons.  About 300 current death row inmates would lose automatic access to court-appointed counsel for their appeals (the remaining petitions have already been filed and would still be heard).  There’s nothing to stop us from starting to raise money to fund those appeals.  For years psychologists and civil libertarians have pointed out that the conditions under which death row inmates live – 23-hour-a-day isolation in tiny cells – is a form of torture.  Now suddenly, people on both sides of the issue are romanticizing these torture cells as “private rooms” that the inmates will lose if death row is eliminated.

We are nowhere close to having the political will in this state to abolish the death penalty and life sentences, with or without parole.  We’ve had the death penalty for 30 years and it hasn’t brought us any closer to prison abolition or sentencing reform.  While I sympathize with the people on death row, we cannot risk the lives of more innocent Californians because of the delusions of 300 people that they’re going to win their appeals and be freed.  That’s like opposing food stamps because everyone’s going to win the lottery.

If passing Proposition 34 is the last thing we do for justice, that will be a travesty.  But not passing it will be an even bigger travesty.  It doesn’t require LWOP for anyone who has not already been sentenced to death.  In fact, fewer people would end up with life sentences if DAs could not use the death penalty to coerce people into pleading guilty and accepting life sentences.

However you look at it, there’s just no upside to keeping the death penalty.  Vote yes on 34.

Friday, September 28, 2012

An Anarchist's Yom Kippur - If Not Now, When?

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

What does a Jewish pagan atheist do on Yom Kippur?
I fast, for a complicated series of reasons – tradition, memory, connection with a community, and because I look forward to the spacey, open, vulnerable feeling at the end of the day.  A friend and I begin and end the 25 hours with services but don’t spend the whole day there as I did when I was a kid.  Usually in the early part of the day I read.  I pull books off my shelves and look at them, reading snatches of this and that.  Sometimes one catches my interest and I read it for a few hours; other times I just keep browsing my own library.  It’s another way of reconnecting.  Last night I pulled out a book called Reconcilable Differences:Confronting Beauty, Pornography and the Future of Feminism.  I don’t think I ever read it closely, but I can see that I kept it on my bed for a while because the cover is all chewed up (meaning my cat gnawed on it for quite a while).  It’s interesting, trying to grapple with some of the issues that have divided feminists over the decades.  This morning I picked up Of Woman Born, motivated no doubt by the death of Adrienne Rich in the last year.  It’s still so powerful after so many years.  It’s a document of the early Second Wave women’s movement, yet still feels alive and relevant.
That made me start thinking about something I’ve been increasingly preoccupied with: the apparent disconnect between social progress and technological progress.  Watching all the recent shenanigans to disenfranchise poor people and people of color through carefully crafted photo ID requirements, limits on early voting and same-day registration, I keep thinking, “How is this possible?  People died for the right to vote in the fifties and sixties – we’re approaching the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.  How can we be headed back where we started?”
I’m sure union activists are wondering the same thing about the attacks on the right to organize, and certainly abortion rights champions have been facing this rollback for a long time.  We thought we had won those victories, but the people who opposed them didn’t think they had lost them.
It’s been well documented that the minute Roe vs. Wade became the law of the land, the Church and the right wing started organizing to overturn it.  The same, of course, was true of labor rights.  Capital did not simply accept the Wagner Act once it was passed in 1935; they started looking for ways to weaken it (Taft-Hartley, 1947), get around it (JP Stevens 1960-74, Pittston Coal 1989), crush it (Phelps Dodge Copper 1983, Hormel Meat 1985), or effectively destroy it through anti-union appointments to the NLRB.
At the same time, the women who had fought to legalize abortion and provided underground abortion access got busy building their clinics.  They incorporated and got grants and built huge fundraising networks.  They took ads in the phone book and the newspapers, letting women know about all the wonderful services they could provide.  They built international empires like Planned Parenthood, or community-controlled women’s health centers like the Berkeley Women’s Health Collective.  The more radical among the activists fought medical schools to teach abortion techniques, and sued for publicly funded abortion.  Some continued to do policy work, trying to block the Hyde Amendment, which eliminated all federal funding for abortion.  When that failed, women established the National Network of Abortion Funds, to try to make abortion accessible to poor women.
The union leaders focused on organizing workers and negotiating contracts.  That’s what unions are for, right?  They built strike funds and trained stewards.  After Reagan and PATCO, when they realized they were losing (perhaps not realizing they had already lost), some hunkered down and concentrated on how to keep from losing any more, while others branched out, aggressively trying to organize more and more sectors.  They looked at the unorganized low-wage workers and explored new organizing models (community campaigns, worker associations like the Asian Immigrant Workers Alliance) that would be less threatening to workers and raise fewer red flags with employers.
The civil rights leaders of the sixties ran for Congress, became ambassadors, wrote books, won Pulitzers, got teaching jobs, started poverty programs.  Some started institutes to spread what they had learned to other oppressed communities and movements.  Some helped to organize anti-nuclear or anti-war campaigns.  Some became progressive ministers, serving their communities in myriad ways, speaking out on a range of social issues.
I’m not trying to blame feminists, civil rights activists or unions for the backlash against them.  But because technological progress is linear – steampunk aside and barring a cataclysm, I don’t see anyone giving up their iPads for stone tablets – we imagine that social progress is also.  Social progress often flows from technological progress.  Agrarian families needed more kids to work the fields, while wage laborers need to be able to limit the mouths they have to feed.  Industrialization made slavery unprofitable.  But that doesn’t mean that society keeps pace with technology.  People continue to hunger for the bygone eras, even as I hunger for the well-read books on my bookshelves.
When I was in college, “new institutionalism” or “new structuralism” was in vogue.  Under this analysis, structural or institutional change leads to cultural change, rather than the other way around.  Thus, if you want to change society, you change institutions and “hearts and minds” will adapt to the new reality.  It’s the basis for policies like integrating the military through executive order, which worked relatively well (though Danny Chen’s family might not think so).  It’s also the basis for things like forced school integration through busing, which has worked notoriously badly.  That seems to cast some doubt on the soundness of institutionalism as a premise, which might explain the predicament we are now in.
Of course, feminism, civil rights, labor did capture people’s hearts and minds.  Very recently, over 50% of unorganized workers said they would join a union if they had the chance.  77% of the electorate believes women should have the right to an abortion.  For whatever self-interested reasons, 43% of white Americans, and a majority of those under 30, voted for a Black president in 2008.  The minds of the people most hostile to our goals are always going to be hardest to change, and can’t be our focus.  But the anti-abortion movement was able to change the discourse in the country, so that abortion is now widely seen as a tragedy rather than a medical option.  If we had been as organized as the right wing, they could not have done that so easily.  (The most ironic expression of this is that the numbers of people identifying as pro-choice are going everlower, while the numbers who support the right to abortion stay relatively constant.)  There would not have been more than twenty years without a single television character choosing abortion and going through with it.  The anti-union establishment can foment anger against public sector unions because the vast majority of those private sector workers who would like to join a union never had the opportunity to do so.
Okay, but if we have to keep fighting every battle even after we’ve won it, how can we ever move on to anything new?  There are only so many active feminists, so many civil rights activists, so many union organizers.  Someone had to set up the clinics and the fundraising networks, train the doctors and organize the workers and negotiate the contracts, fight discrimination in schools and housing and employment, take on the prison-industrial complex.
Ultimately, the cultural shift – however you make it – is the key.  If all women understood that reproductive rights are core to their ability to be free, there would be enough of us out there to keep the clinics functioning AND fight the right.  We would be adding new voices and new talents all the time.  If we – and I say “we” loosely, because I was never really part of this – had kept doing consciousness raising through the seventies and eighties and nineties, we would have a whole lot more engaged feminists now.  We would not have lost a generation of women who gladly took the gains feminism had won but didn’t identify with the movement, didn’t even see that they wouldn’t be able to be a lawyer-mom, a lesbian fire fighter or a woman boxing champ without those humorless, dowdy feminists everyone loves to hate.  They would have passed the values of the movement on to their daughters, instead of haranguing them about their weight and offering them boob jobs and facial surgery for their sixteenth birthdays.
The movement itself would have evolved too.  We would have grown bigger and broader, deeper and stronger.  Working class women and women of color would not feel (or be) invisible in the movement, and Wal-Mart wouldn’t be as easily able to exploit and underpay them.  We would have helped women in China and Vietnam organize for higher wages so offshore sweatshops wouldn’t have been such easy tool to break U.S. unions.  Sisterhood would truly have been Global and Powerful.
The theme of a lot of the Yom Kippur liturgy is that it’s never too late.  On this day we acknowledge our shortcomings, atone and renew our commitment to what’s right.  It would have been good never to have stopped doing consciousness raising and transformative cultural work, but it’s not too late to start again.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Teen Dating, Arranged Marriage, and Hating on Women's Bodies

Two best things I've read this week:  

An Anti-Teen-Dating Diatribe

Syrian-born, U.S.-raised author, poet and scholar Mohja Kahf, on the double standard applied to "teen dating" and "arranged marriage" in the West.
Teen dating supplanted family-based courtship in the U.S. fifties. Sure there was dating before, but only for adults. Whole industries spawned to support teen dating, and now the entire culture seems to assume it is a universal human right.
Cotillion pressure begins early in Aunty Mohja’s Southern hometown. Mothers gussy up eleven-year-old daughters in strapless gowns to be pawed awkwardly by boys at a school dance where lights are low and paper decorations evoke adult notions of “romance.” Fathers grin and push seventeen-year-old sons out the door with car keys and hotel reservations for this bizarre ritual called “prom.”  Oho, Aunty Mohja went to American high school and knows all about prom night.
This, but delicate sensibilities are shocked, shocked, at traditions of teen marriage among some sectors of Muslims. Aunty Mohja is not saying early marriage is best. But compare the two customs, both acknowledging teen sexuality. For Muslim parents to provide a nubile woman with a reliable life partner, with whom she can build a home as well as satisfy her sexual desires—someone who bears witnessed responsibility if she conceives a child, in a union nurtured by surrounding family—this is oppressive, while parents providing ill-prepared teens with the means for furtive groping amid all sorts of conflicting messages about what they are to do in this badly set-up ritual, that’s benign?
This is a must-read

Tennis: Serena Williams and Taylor Townsend - Race, Weight, USTA, and US Open

Cliff Potter on why the #1 junior tennis player in the world almost didn't get to play in the U.S. Open.  Funny, I watched a lot of the Open and heard nothing about that.  Why?  Could it be because Patrick McEnroe, who made that horrendous decision, is part of the broadcast team?  Can you say "conflict of interest?
Serena Williams has a body that is bodacious in all respects. Totally dissimilar to most bodies on tour, men and women.
Williams' physique is shared with Taylor Townsend, a 16 year old African-American and the number 1 seed in the girl's juniors in singles. Taylor lost on Friday in the junior girl's US Open singles tournament, but won the US Open girls doubles title.
Like most of us, you would have thought nothing of Taylor Townsend's weight or race.
But you are not the USTA and Patrick McEnroe, at least as to weight.
Read about what happened to Taylor, her response and how Serena Williams stood up for her and made the federation back down.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Four questions about elections

Warning:  This is not a blog for those of you who are already sick to death of election talk ...

The other night I went to the 30th anniversary party of Urban Stonehenge.  It’s a peeling pink house atop Potrero Hill, right at the intersection of 26th and Wisconsin.  In 1982, a group of anarchists, many of them veterans of the campaign to shut down the nuclear weapons production facility in Rocky Flats, Colorado, moved in there, and it’s remained a collective house ever since.  There are more or less four bedrooms upstairs and a basement which was once a church (the baptismal font is still recognizable), is now a den, and in between housed hordes of traveling activists, punks, squatters, slackers and such like.  I lived there for a year around 1985-86, in a room that had no windows.  If it hadn’t been across from the kitchen, I would never have known when it was time to get up.  A few years later, my friend Sheila moved into that room and put in a window, a skylight and a loft, rendering it quite charming.

The people who live there now have much better cooking and cleaning habits than the household I was part of, which might be why someone who moved out last year had lived there for seventeen years.

Maximum Rock n Roll reporting on
the DemCon protests in 1984 (I was there)
One of those Rocky Flats veterans and founding collective members, now a lawyer, was at the reunion wearing a t-shirt that said, “I’m Organizing for America.”  I knew I recognized the slogan but couldn’t quite place it.  When I asked him, he said, “Well, it has to do with the Obama campaign.”  I was pretty surprised, because let’s just say that when I last saw him, the Democratic Party wasn’t on his Christmas card list.  We didn’t get too deep into why he was doing it (though I did ask kind of incredulously, “Do you believe in Obama?”), but we did talk about what he is doing – organizing phone banks in Berkeley and Albany to call up voters in Nevada and New Mexico.  He said one thing I found very interesting.

“There are no undecided voters,” he said.  “It’s all about getting out the vote.”

He overstated it a bit, but the general point is correct:  there are many fewer undecideds than in previous elections and despite what they claim, the campaigns are not really trying to appeal to them. Instead they are trying to motivate their bases to come out and volunteer.

My acquaintance went on to say that the most effective way to get an iffy voter to the polls is a face-to-face meeting with a volunteer.  The second most effective way is a phone call from a volunteer.

“Television ads have virtually no impact,” he said.

I wondered if that was true.  It certainly flies in the face of the now-commonplace assessment that whoever raises the most money is most likely to win an election.  Big bucks are important for big ad buys, not for recruiting droves of volunteers to go door-to-door.  I decided to look into it.

Question 1:  Is major media advertising ineffective in getting out the vote?

The effectiveness of in-person get-out-the-vote efforts (GOTV) is undisputed, but the question of the how and whether mass media advertising, positive, negative, partisan or non-partisan, effects turnout is hotly contested.

Looking at evidence from the 2008 elections, Matthew Holleque and Sarah Niebler of the University of Wisconsin political science department conclude:
Laboratory experiments, like the ones conducted by Ansolebehere, Iyengar, and their colleagues (1994; 1997), find that exposure to negative advertising decreases the probability that people will turnout to vote.  Negative campaigning, they argue, turns people off from politics and angers citizens about the tone of politics. This demobilizing effect translates into as much as five percentage point drop in voter turnout, disenfranchising approximately six million potential voters. Ansolebehere and Iyengar (1997) conclude, “In election after election, citizens have registered their disgust with the negativity of contemporary political campaigns by tuning out and staying home.”
Contrary to these findings, subsequent observational studies show no evidence that political advertising—even negative advertising—depresses voter turnout. Numerous studies posit that campaign advertising actually stimulates voter turnout, although these effects are sometimes conditional. For example, Freedman, Franz, and Goldstein (2004) find that exposure to advertising can raise the probability of turning out by as much as 10 percentage points.
Hillygus (2005) finds that all campaign effects (including television advertising) raises an individual’s probability of voting by at least 10 percent. However, despite these findings, the jury is still out on the question of whether campaign advertising affects voter turnout at all.
Many studies find that campaigning advertising has no effect on voter turnout…. While it is safe to say that campaign advertising is probably not causing millions of people to stay home on Election Day, it remains debatable whether or not campaign ads actually mobilizes citizens to head to the polls.
Question 2:  With such questionable return, why are all these super-PACs so hot to spend millions of undisclosed dollars on TV ads?

Here are a few theories scantily clad in facts to back them up, but not for lack of looking:
  • They may not accept or even know of the hypothesis that there are not many voters to convince.  When the electorate is less polarized, advertising is potentially more effective.  At least one study of the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections claims to find that eliminating advertising would have cost Bush 22 electoral votes in 2000, giving Gore the election.  (I say “claims to find” because not being a geek, I can’t begin to understand whether their methodology is sound.  I just skip from theAbstract to the Conclusion.)
  • Consultants tell them they advertising is effective. “Television and Politics – Nothing Makes a Bigger Impact,” is the headline of a 2009 article in the online magazine ElectWomen .  The article is largely a rehashing of the political advice of a guy named Doug Heyl, who is, not surprisingly, “a political media adviser who develops campaign media strategies, develops and creates commercials and directs the purchase of television and radio airtime.
R. Michael Alvarez wrote in a 2011 article in Psychology Today:

… do voters pay attention? Does this barrage of political ads influence the outcome of an election?
Candidates and political consultants think the answer to both questions is yes. For example, candidates running for office in big states like California pump amazing amounts of money into their television advertising budgets. … Recently we had a contested city council election in my home city of Pasadena, and in that race our incumbent city councilmember produced and aired a television ad in his re-election bid, and this was an election in which about 4,000 votes were cast.
But many political scientists have questioned the extent to which television advertising --- indeed, pretty much any type of campaigning --- changes voter perceptions and election outcomes.
  • Ads are more important in races where the candidates are less well known.  Says Ezra Klein,
If in the final days of the presidential campaign some hedge fund billionaire begins a multimillion-dollar assault on Obama, some Hollywood billionaire will probably help the president out. Either way, the ads would have a limited effect. By the end of the presidential campaign, most voters will have made up their minds. They’re not waiting for one more black-and-white clip narrated by another grim voice to push them over the edge.
In contrast, even at the end of the campaign, many potential voters will know very little about their congressional candidates. They will be susceptible to ads telling them terrible things. Some of those candidates won’t have the resources to fight back.
Didn't see this on MSNBC
There’s even some speculation of a “reverse coattail effect,” that if people get revved up to vote against down-ticket candidates of a particular party, it will subtly affect the presidential race.  Everyone who has tried to find such an effect has failed, but as we know “fact-based politics” is not that fashionable in some circles.
  • They hope to discourage voting by demoralizing the people who favor the other guy.  Though polls keep finding that negative campaign ads don’t depress voter turnout, people who want to thwart democracy are nothing if not persistent.
  • They keep the base energized and worried about the people who might be planning to vote for the other guy.
  • They make the candidates believe they are beholden to the people who paid for the advertising.
Question 3:  If it’s all about getting out the vote, why are the Democrats (and the Obama campaign in particular) so unworried about the people who came out for them in droves in 2008 and are clearly not enthused about them now? 

People keep saying that African Americans, labor, Latinos and progressives have “nowhere to go,” but the fact is that nowhere is a place, and those folks are very likely to go there.  Especially since for many of them – the Latinos and African Americans in particular – it’s getting harder and harder to vote, something the Democrats seem fairly laconic about challenging.  My acquaintance at the party claimed that wasn’t true, that the Demos have filed suits in every state where there are photo ID laws and discriminatory restrictions on absentee and early voting.  If that’s so, they sure are being quiet about it.  I keep hearing that the reason 11% of eligible voters don’t have photo ID (!) is partly that they can’t get to wherever they need to go to get it.  So you would think that MoveOn and David Axelrod and all those other annoying people I get emails from would be sending out pleas for volunteers to go drive people to the DMV.  Maybe there are sending them to someone, but none have seeped through my spam filter.

Question 4:  Why is racism so pernicious?

As NYT columnist Bob Herbert said the other day, the semi-secret Republican subtext in this campaign is race race race.  Whether it’s “jokes” about “I was born here,” or comments about the “food stamp president” or calling Obama a Marxist who wants radical redistribution of wealth (would that it were true), it all adds up to the same thing, and it’s all they need to say to trigger the deep fear of middle-class white older (and not so much older) voters.

Now the people who study these things claim that “race” as a concept has only existed in human history for a scant six hundred years or so, that “whiteness” never existed before the importation of slaves from Africa to this continent.
In the middle of the 20th century, a new generation of historians began to take another look at the beginnings of the American experience. … Their research revealed that our 19th and 20th century ideas and beliefs about races did not in fact exist in the 17th century. Race originated as a folk idea and ideology about human differences; it was a social invention, not a product of science. Historians have documented when, and to a great extent, how race as an ideology came into our culture and our consciousness.
Dr. Audrey Smedley, Virginia Commonwealth University Professor Emerita, Understanding Race
The role played by America is particularly important in generating and perpetuating the concept of "race." The human inhabitants of the Western Hemisphere largely derive from three very separate regions of the world—Northeast Asia, Northwest Europe, and Western Africa—and none of them has been in the New World long enough to have been shaped by their experiences in the manner of those long-term residents in the various separate regions of the Old World.
It was the American experience of those three separate population components facing one another on a daily basis under conditions of manifest and enforced inequality that created the concept in the first place and endowed it with the assumption that those perceived "races" had very different sets of capabilities. Those thoughts are very influential and have become enshrined in laws and regulations. This is why I can conclude that, while the word "race" has no coherent biological meaning, its continued grip on the public mind is in fact a manifestation of the power of the historical continuity of the American social structure, which is assumed by all to be essentially "correct."
Dr. Loring Bryce, Does Race Exist?
According to Theodore Allen, the knowledge, ideologies, norms, and practices of whiteness and the accompanying "white race" were invented in the U.S. as part of a system of racial oppression designed to solve a particular problem in colonial Virginia. Prior to that time, although Europeans recognized differences in the color of human skin, they did not categorize themselves as white. I will provide more detail later. For now, the important element of his theory is that whiteness serves to preserve the position of a ruling white elite who benefit economically from the labor of other white people and people of color.
Judy Helfland, Constructing Whiteness

So why does such a relatively recent, artificial concept have such enormous staying power, not only in this country, where it was (ostensibly) born, but in many places around the world?

More on that some other time, unless one of you can supply me with the answer.