Monday, July 26, 2010

The geek's alive! Alive!

Two recent geeky things I came across:

1. NASA's Kepler mission uses a space-based telescope to search for exoplanets (ones outside our Solar System) by detecting the changes in the light reaching Earth from a star when an orbiting planet passes in front of that star, that is, between us and it. What's special about Kepler is that it's designed to look for "Earth-sized" planets: ones with a radius of half to double that of the Earth. And guess what:
Scientists celebrated Sunday after finding more than 700 suspected new planets - including up to 140 similar in size to Earth - in just six weeks of using a powerful new space observatory. ...

Astronomers said the discovery meant the chances of eventually finding truly Earth-like planets capable of sustaining life rose sharply. ...

“The figures suggest our galaxy, the Milky Way [which has more than 100 billion stars] will contain 100 million habitable planets, and soon we will be identifying the first of them,” said Dimitar Sasselov, professor of astronomy at Harvard University and a scientist on the Kepler Mission.
NASA has formally announced only five of the discoveries because it wants to be certain they are planets before it does so. But the initial results are very exciting.

2. Even as Stonehenge is slowly revealing its long-held secrets, it turns out to have some new surprises.
Archaeologists have discovered a second henge at Stonehenge, described as the most exciting find there in 50 years.

The circular ditch surrounding a smaller circle of deep pits about a metre (3ft) wide has been unearthed at the world-famous site in Wiltshire.

Archaeologists conducting a multi-million pound study believe timber posts were in the pits.

Project leader Professor Vince Gaffney, from the University of Birmingham, said the discovery was "exceptional".
He said the team "would guess" the newly-discovered site, which lies about 900 meters (2950 feet) west-northwest from the famous stone circle, dates back to about the time when Stonehenge was emerging at its most complex, about 2500 BCE, or 4500 years ago.

Mike Pitts, the editor of British Archaeology magazine, says that it surely is an important discovery but is more cautious about the interpretation of the site as a henge. The pits "might just be very big pits: there is a henge in Dorchester, Dorset, known as Maumbury Rings, that fits that description," he said.

He also suggests it could be "something quite different," noting it was previously known as a plowed-out burial mound and that it might still be that, just with "an unusual ditch or pit arrangement" where the large pits were quarries for a center mound.

Surely Mr. Pitts knows a hell of a lot more about such things than I do or ever will, but it does seem odd to me that quarries for a central mound would be evenly spaced around it and each the same size. That suggests more purposeful behavior in the arrangement than just getting material for a barrow.

In any event,
Professor Gaffney said he was "certain" they would make further discoveries as 90% of the landscape around the giant stones was "terra incognita" - an unexplored region.
What's old is new - at least to us as we rediscover it.

Time for a bit of good news, Part 2a, b, and c

1) From JayV at BlazingIndiscretions I learned of the case of Constance McMillen, an 18-year old lesbian in the decidedly uncomfortable environs of Fulton, Mississippi (population 3900).

She wanted to bring her girlfriend to her senior prom only to run afoul of school district rules that banned prom dates of the same gender and said only male students could wear tuxedos.

When she challenged the rules, the school canceled the prom rather than allow her to attend.

The ACLU filed suit on her behalf, saying her rights had been violated. In March, US District Court Judge Glen Davidson refused to make school officials hold the prom, but agreed that the district violated her rights.

A few days ago, McMillen's lawyers said they had accepted a settlement offer from the school district of $35,000 plus attorney's fees.
As part of the agreement, the district also said it would follow a policy not to discriminate based on sexual orientation in any educational or extracurricular activities or allow harassment based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
The school district claimed there already is such a policy - which, if that were true and was actually followed, this case never would have arisen.

2) Then there is, of course, the news that Argentina has become the first nation in Latin America to authorize same-sex marriage, an historic development because it involved facing down the organized, institutional power of the Catholic Church. Argentina is the third country this year to recognize same-sex marriage, joining Portugal and Iceland.

3) The chart at the top, originally from but which I found at this post at jobsanger, is more than encouraging, it is - dare I use the word - hopeful. Bear in mind that this growth has taken place in the last 10 years. There is still a long way to go - but not quite as far as it was.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Time for a bit of good news, Part 1

This past week, a federal district court judge ruled that
Pennsylvania state troopers violated the constitutional rights of a man they arrested for videotaping police while they performed roadside inspections. ... After obtaining the permission of a nearby landowner he peacefully videotaped the officers from twenty feet away in August 2000 and again in October 2002. On both occasions, [Allen] Robinson was arrested for harassment and convicted by a local judge.

"We are not dealing with a 'close case,'" Judge Harvey Bartle III of the US District Court for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania wrote in overturning the 2002 conviction. "There was no justification for the actions of defendants in violating Robinson's right to free speech and his right to be secure in his person against an unreasonable seizure." ...

"To defendants, Robinson was a gadfly," Judge Bartle concluded. ... "It is fundamental that persons such as Robinson may not be deprived of their constitutional rights simply because they are unpopular or disliked or are resented by the police."
At a time when police almost routinely harass people trying to photograph or videotape legally in public areas, a time when trying to record police misconduct (or, as in Robinson's case, any sort of conduct) can get you charged with a felony, a time when many police - unsurprisingly. actually - seem to think they can make up the law as they go along, victories such as this are very important.

What was especially important in the immediate case, in my opinion, is not not only did the judge order the police to pay Robinson $35,000 in compensatory damages, he also ordered the three cops who arrested him to each pay him $2000 in punitive damages. Why is that important? Because it's my firm opinion that this kind of crap will stop only when individual cops have to pay a price for their behavior. In most of those rare cases where there is a penalty imposed, it is all but invariably placed on the town or the police department as a whole while the individual cops skate. I am prepared to guarantee that $2000 out of their bank accounts will provide more of an attitude adjustment for those cops than any number of departmental memos could.

Footnote: Commenting on a different case, David Rocah of the ACLU of Maryland said this:
Police and governmental recording of citizens is becoming more pervasive and to say that government can record you but you can't record, it speaks volumes about the mentality of people in government.
Not only government, Mr. Rocah. In a post about privacy issues way, way back in December 2003, I wrote:
Are the children going to be able to track the parents? Are the employees going to be able to track the boss? Will the public be tracking government agents or Starbucks executives?

Of course not. It seems silly even to ask. ... This is not about protection or accountability, it's about power. Establishing, using, extending, demonstrating power. Whether it's the direct intimidating power of "they know I'm watching" or the more subtle power of "I can catch them at something," both of which assume those being watched are untrustworthy (which is what the watchers always assume about the watched), it is ... something those with power put on those without it.
So no, not only the government. It is a matter of how we think about power in our society.

Speaking of sides

Several days ago, a poster - I think it was Digby, but that doesn't matter - used the phrase "malefactors of great wealth." I hadn't heard the term in a while and it prompted me to look up its origin.

A quick search lead me to two quotes from Theodore Roosevelt, the first from 1895:
Too much cannot be said against the men of wealth who sacrifice everything to getting wealth. There is not in the world a more ignoble character than the mere money-getting American, insensible to every duty, regardless of every principle, bent only on amassing a fortune, and putting his fortune only to the basest uses - whether these uses be to speculate in stocks and wreck railroads himself, or to allow his son to lead a life of foolish and expensive idleness and gross debauchery, or to purchase some scoundrel of high social position, foreign or native, for his daughter. Such a man is only the more dangerous if he occasionally does some deed like founding a college or endowing a church, which makes those good people who are also foolish forget his real iniquity. These men are equally careless of the working men, whom they oppress, and of the State, whose existence they imperil. There are not very many of them, but there is a very great number of men who approach more or less closely to the type, and, just in so far as they do so approach, they are curses to the country.
The second was from 1907, during a recession:
It may well be that the determination of the government (in which, gentlemen, it will not waver) to punish certain malefactors of great wealth, has been responsible for something of the trouble; at least to the extent of having caused these men to combine to bring about as much financial stress as possible, in order to discredit the policy of the government and thereby secure a reversal of that policy, so that they may enjoy unmolested the fruits of their own evil-doing. ... I regard this contest as one to determine who shall rule this free country - the people through their governmental agents, or a few ruthless and domineering men whose wealth makes them peculiarly formidable because they hide behind the breastworks of corporate organization.
Don't you wish we had a president who talked like that - and at least kind of meant it?

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Which side are you on? #4, or Footnote to the preceding two

Updated I wanted to add that I find that "expected list of supposed accomplishments" I mentioned below - which consisted of the Lilly Ledbetter act, the "stimulus," the health care bill, and financial "reform" - not particularly persuasive. For the greatest part, those results had little to do with Obama and far more to do with the press of circumstances or accidents of timing.

The Lilly Ledbetter Act, for example, had been passed by the House in 2008 but was blocked in the Senate by a filibuster. Everyone knew it would pass in 2009. The only thing Obama did was not veto it. Which is good, but he didn't have a damn thing to do with getting it passed and calling it an Obama achievement is like calling the moon landing a Richard Nixon achievement because he was president when it happened.

Health care "reform" is a particular sore spot with me. As any consistent reader of Lotus knows, I opposed the bill that finally came out because it is inadequate, cements in place the power of the health insurance industry, and forestalls any actual reform for at least 10 years - at which time, even the most enthusiastic proponents admit, there will still be at least 18 million people without coverage (at least 23 million according to Physicians for a National Health Program). But even if you like it, I don't see how it's an "Obama achievement." He was virtually AWOL on the issue until the very last minute when it became obvious something was going to pass, AWOL to the point of letting Max Baucus, Ben Nelson, and Olympia Snowe control the debate. Or, more exactly, AWOL except for the secret deals he cut with the pharmaceutical and hospital industries at the outset to protect their interests even as they harmed the interests of consumers.

(On the other hand, there is one thing that can legitimately be called an Obama achievement here: The law sets up high-risk pools to provide interim coverage for people ineligible for regular health insurance due to pre-existing conditions until the exchanges go into effect in 2014. The administration has issued rules imposing a total ban on abortion coverage in those high-risk pools even though nothing in the law requires that.)

As for financial "reform," the collapse of the financial industry made moves in that direction inevitable and politically unavoidable and what good, if any, came out of that reform had a hell of a lot more to do with Chris Dodd and Barney Frank than it did with Barack Obama. Again, Obama was largely AWOL until the very end; about the only thing Obama did was not veto anything. Assuming the bill does actually accomplish anything meaningful in reality rather than in sound bytes - which is a very problematical assertion at the least - it still can't be called an Obama accomplishment.

The only thing on that list that could be called in any sense an Obama accomplishment would be the stimulus: He did help push that along. And it's quite true that things would likely be worse than they are had there been no such stimulus. But "woulda been worse" is a pretty damn low bar to get over and liberal go-to guy Paul Krugman has been arguing (correctly) for well over a year that the stimulus was just too small to be really effective. And now, it appears, the Obamaites are abandoning stimulus in favor of austerity and are setting the stage (with a stacked commission) for making cuts in Social Security. So if you want to chalk that up to him, go right ahead although why any fan of his would want to mystifies me.

I said it below, I'll say it again: These people are not on our side. And, quite bluntly, if you stand with them, then you aren't, either.

Updated with a couple of links and the info about banning high-risk pool coverage for abortions. Oh, and thanks to Tim at Green Left Global News & Info for the link to the article.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Which side are you on? #3

"It is better to vote for what you want and not get it than it is to vote for what you don't want and get it." - Eugene V. Debs

Updated Another thing that brought forth the issue of Which side are you on? was something I expect you heard about: the Politico article that claimed that
[i]n private conversations, White House officials are contemptuous of what they see as liberal lamentations unhinged from historical context or contemporary political realities.
That was taken as a slap against anyone, especially among lefty bloggers, claiming the description of progressive who was critical of Obama's performance in office. It was greeted in some such quarters with a loud harrumph.

In case anyone missed the White House message, earlier in the same Politico piece, in a less-noted reference, was found the assertion by "a top Obama adviser" that progressive dissatisfaction with Obama is driven in part by "the culture of immediate gratification."

Or, to put it more bluntly, if you are not prepared to just shut up except to celebrate everything Obama, you're to be dismissed as an impatient child who just doesn't understand the real world. After all, Daddy knows best.

That is how they think of us. In their minds, we are not citizens to be engaged or commentators to be considered, we are troops to be deployed on behalf of their agenda and, failing that, unimportant know-nothings to be ignored - except, occasionally, to be the selective target of sneers deployed in a woebegone attempt to prove their conservative bona fides to the reactionaries they are perpetually trying to flatter.

Breathlessly eager to be done with the darkness of George Bush, too many of us put our faith in the good intentions of - and to that same degree our futures in the hands of - the cockamamie idea that if only we'd get a few more "good Democrats" in office, all would be well. When our collective ego got stroked by being told "We are the change we've been waiting for," we took the bait.

And they set the hook.

Yet still, now, there are so many, so many loyalists still welcoming the digging in of the barb, so many who are as eager as adoring puppies to take whatever they are offered, no matter how little it is or how much that little by its nature is actually destructive of future progress: So many even now have failed to learn that something is not always better than nothing. The times are still dark.

Hillary Clinton. Timothy Geithner. Robert Gates. Rahm Emanuel. Ken Salazar. Tom Vilsack. The Obama team is peppered with old faces with old agendas and regulators carrying briefcases full of connections to industries and interests they are supposed to regulate and oversee but whose friends they actually are.

These people are not on our side, the side of the underdogs, the victims, the outsiders, the have-nots, the oppressed hungry landless. And they never will be.

Can they - at least some of them - be useful allies on particular limited causes at particular times? Yes, surely. So they still should be lobbied, petitioned, pressured. But do it knowing that when those causes are pushed to the point where they really impact the prerogatives of the powerful, you will perhaps suddenly find that your assistance no longer required, your counsel is no longer desired, your opinions are no longer regarded as having merit.

Can sufficient political and social pressure move them beyond that point, move in ways and to extents they would prefer to avoid? Absolutely. But again, know going in what will be required. Because they are not on our side.

Updated with a Footnote: In comments, JayV points to this highly-relevant commentary from December by Chris Hedges.

Which side are you on? #2

This business of Which side you are on? is obviously not a new thing for me (after all, the letter I quoted was from 21 years ago), but there were two recent things that were the immediate prompts.

One was a comment on a site that is generally supportive - okay, they are hard-line loyalists - of Obama. In one of their own fairly regular discussions about golly gee whiz how can progressives criticize Obama aren't they ever satisfied, a commenter ran down the expected list of supposed Obama accomplishments then allowed as how in the area of security and civil liberties "there was room for some legitimate criticism."

Excuse me? "Some legitimate criticism?" This is an administration that has embraced the very same sort of - and in many cases the very same - arguments and policies on "state secrets" and "inherent powers" adopted by the Shrub gang, arguments and policies that had these same (supposedly) progressive voices screaming to the high heavens how Bush was shredding the Constitution and was a danger to the freedom of all Americans. And now it's just "room for some legitimate criticism?"

In addition to that embrace, consider these, as a partial list just for illustration:

- Early on, the Obama administration threatened the UK government with loss of intelligence-sharing if a UK court case revealed information about the torture of a former Guantánamo detainee.

- It has not only failed to, indeed refused to, prosecute or even investigate Bush-era White House criminality, it has moved in court to actively shield those criminals from facing any possible civil consequences or even any examination of their actions.

- It has secured the renewal of provisions of the TRAITOR (excuse me, "PATRIOT") Act Obama specifically opposed on the campaign trail.

- It has argued that it does not need additional Congressional authority to hold terrorism suspects indefinitely (i.e., for the rest of their lives if it's so desired) and without charges and that prisoners at Bagram do not have any rights at all.

- Shockingly even in this context, it has claimed that the president, on his own authority and without any oversight, can order the murder of an American citizen.

- It has continued the Bush policy of aggressively targeting whistleblowers and has called on Congress to carve out an exception to Miranda rules whenever the White House decides it's an "intelligence" or "terrorism" matter.

If you can look at that and react by grudgingly allowing as how there is "room for some legitimate criticism" then I say you are not on the side of civil liberties and that you in fact, even if you don't think of it that way, actually stand with the criminals, Constitution-shredders, and torturers.

And yes, that's part of why I said the answer to the question "Which side are you on?" may not be obvious. Because it may not be and no matter where your heart may imagine you are or desire you to be, it's where your feet are that matters.

Which side are you on? #1

“While there is a lower class I am in it; while there is a criminal element I am of it; while there is a soul in prison, I am not free.” - Eugene V. Debs

I ended a recent post by saying we all have to think, we all have to decide, which side we are on. Because yes there are sides, sides in a very real practical sense, and the lines are becoming both clearer and thicker, if slowly. At some point we will have to choose a side and better sooner (with thought) than later (under stress of circumstance) and the choice will have consequences for how you proceed after that.

It's important to repeat that this has nothing to do with particular individuals on particular issues at particular times and nothing to do with the hard work of knowing when and where to compromise on legislation or policy - and, at the same time, the harder work of knowing when and where to say "this far and no farther, I will not move," a skill that far too many of those who pass as progressives lack.

Which also means this has nothing to do with Democrats and Republicans. Not a freaking thing. It doesn't have anything to do with who controls Congress and it has even less to do with the political fortunes of Barack Obama or John Boehner. Those things may have an effect, but they are not the point.

Rather, it has to do with principles. It has to do with morals, with ethics - with justice. It has to do with the upper class vs. the lower class, the upper dogs vs. the underdogs, the rich vs. the poor, the insiders vs. the outsiders; it has to do with the bosses vs. the workers and the haves vs. the have-nots. It has to do, ultimately, with the powerful vs. the powerless. Yes, each has allies on the other side of that divide, although in each case that is much truer of the former than the latter, but that doesn't change the basic divide. The root question in each case is: Which side are you on? With who do you stand? And you need to think about that, because the answer may not be as obvious as you think.

In the wake of the 2004 election, I commented on an essay by William Rivers Pitt in which he suggested "We are down to the ethic of total opposition." I think that is even truer now. I've said it before (here, for example) but it does bear repeating: We are on our own and the sooner we realize that the better.

And no, for the upteenth time this has nothing to do with particular bills or with electoral versus non-electoral action or compromise or negotiation or whatever other "Yehbut" bubbles to the surface of those who want to avoid having to make the choice. Not a single goddam thing. It has to do, rather, with knowing where you stand and dammit, being prepared to stand there!

And where is "there?" One answer by way of illustration comes from a letter I wrote to a friend in February 1989. Some of the issues may be dated, but the principles remain the same:
Our proper place to stand in the Middle East isn’t with Israel but with those Palestinians (and yes, they do exist) seeking a just, nonviolent settlement, while talking with the PLO and supporting and playing up its moves toward mutual recognition and establishment of a Palestinian state instead of ignoring or undermining them.

Our proper place to stand in Chile isn’t with Pinochet but with the block committees and the Committees of the Mothers of the Disappeared.

Our proper place to stand in Korea is with the students demanding greater freedom and negotiations with the North, not with the government troops tear-gassing them.

Our proper place to stand in South Africa is with Desmond Tutu, not P. W. Botha.
You want it more contemporary? How about these:

Our proper place to stand is with the children of Fallujah, not with those hoping we've forgotten the very word "Iraq."

Our proper place to stand is with the prisoners at Guantanamo, not with those who have given up even pretending it will be closed.

Our proper place to stand is with the innocent civilians of Pakistan and Afghanistan, not with the wielders of drone rockets.

Our proper place to stand is with those who challenge power, not with those who excuse it, cover for it, defend it, abuse it, and expand it.

Our proper place to stand is with those who at least try to defend our privacy, not with those who increasingly seek to invade it.

Our proper place to stand is with the tortured, not with the torturers or those justify them or cover for them.

Our proper place to stand is with those being locked out, not with those closing the doors.

Our proper place to stand is with the impoverished nations of the world, not with the international banks and moneybags who exploit their desperation to keep them in thrall.

Our proper place to stand is with those who hunger but can't afford food, not with those who profit by the suffering of others.

Our proper place to stand is with those who want to resolve conflict, not with those who appear more interested in continuing it.

Ultimately, as I said in that 1989 letter,
In all cases, our proper place to stand is with the oppressed, not the oppressors, with the hungry, not the sated, with the landless, not the landlords.
As I also said at that time, I
[d]idn’t say it’s easy; often it’s not. Didn’t say it’d always work to our selfish benefit; often it won’t.
But frankly that doesn't matter. Because at the end of the day it's not about personal benefit. It's not really even about winning, at least in the short term. (Even Josh Marshall - no radical, he - declared that "the key condition of political success is almost always a genuine willingness to lose well.") It's about actually knowing - and caring - which side you are on.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Checking in

I haven't been posting much of late - obviously - and I've been trying to decide if I'm going to let this fade away to one of those blogs that gets two random hits a day and has a new post up once every month maybe and when I see those I wonder why they are bothering or if I'm going to get renewedly if there is such a word serious about it.

The thing is, as I've noted a couple of times recently, I am feeling really dispirited, more so than in a long time. That makes it hard to find the energy to keep up with this thing (and, for that matter, with the news, the lifeblood of any political blog). Add to that some personal hassles relating to family finances and health ("family" including here both people and pets), and blogging - especially the way I do it when I do it - keeps falling to the bottom of the pile.

Oh, "the way I do it?" I work on my posts, dammit. They usually refer to multiple sources, are re-written for clarity (though at that I still fail often enough), and never (okay, almost never) consist either of something like "Oy!" or "Wanker!" with a link or a lengthy quote from someone or somewhere else with a one- or two-sentence comment at the end. (Except, that is, when I'm quoting myself, which I do fairly often and I figure kinda doesn't count.) If that sounds egotistical, so be it; I think a number of my posts are worth reading.

But then again, who am I? I'm a nobody, somebody the generalized "you" never heard of and never had cause to, just another schlub with a blog, fantasizing that their ideas, thoughts, opinions, and judgments could be of interest to others although why they should be you occasionally - and sometimes more frequently - allow yourself to wonder. I'm doing a lot of wondering these days, wondering (as I have in times past when I was feeling low) if what I'm accomplishing, what I'm contributing, here is worth the effort I've put into it.

I do know I've sparked some discussion at least once: One of my posts has gotten over 7,000 hits and generated over 300 comments here and elsewhere. And I do know that a couple of people have used some of my posts, particularly on global warming, as source material. But that seems small enough in the face of over 3600 posts over six and a-half years. Ultimately, the thing is that if Lotus went dark I don't know if there is anyone who would miss it. Other than me, I mean.

But I haven't given up, not yet anyway, and I've been working on a post for a couple of days now, struggling to say just what I mean just how I mean and becoming very frustrated because I can't get it to come together that way I want. Eventually I will give up and say the hell with it, here it is, however it is. So is that something to look forward to?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


And another part of my well-spent youth slips away: Tuli Kupferberg has died.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

Attention, strategies, and sides

The second US Social Forum, a gathering of community activists and organizers from across the US that is an outgrowth of the annual World Social Forum, took place in Detroit the last week of June. About 15,000 people gathered to share experiences, ideas, and build ties. The forum opened with a march and rally of several thousand people that gave a taste of the wide-ranging issues and constituencies represented.

And, of course, with the exception of a couple of stories in local press, it went almost entirely unnoticed and unregarded by mainstream media.

In a piece at AlterNet, Sally Kohn tries to puzzle out not only why the press isn't paying attention but "the center-left political establishment isn’t paying attention either."
Why is it[, she writes,] that the Tea Party - the right-wing edge of the conservative political sphere - exerts a gravitational pull on the Republican party and the conservative mainstream while the United States Social Forum and the leaders and groups gathered here, who represent the left of the liberal mainstream, are disregarded as marginal and irrelevant - that is, if they’re regarded at all?
It's a good question and she offers three answers, each of which has value and each of which, in different contexts, I've in some ways addressed in the past - but she omits an important one, and maybe two.

Consider first the three possible answers she gives, which, in brief, are:

1. While the USSF has "a disproportionately large number of poor people and people of color," the predominant demographic of the TPers is white men. That will, at the top, give them more social power.

2. "Shiny, new things" like TP demonstrators "always catch our eye, including our collective political eye, more than old and seemingly tired things." She notes that many of the groups and "ideological perspectives" at the USSF have been around "for decades" and even new groups embrace the sort of "anti-oppression, pseudo-Marxist, liberation rhetoric" that makes them seem old.

3. "[T]he Tea Party is profoundly majoritarian in its rhetoric and vision. The Tea Party claims to represent mainstream America. ... [T]he left wing of progressive politics as represented at the Social Forum does not evidence equivalent majoritarian convictions or aspirations." Instead, she suggests, "the left wing of the left" has "bought into the false dichotomy that there is a necessary trade-off between seeking political power versus sticking to one’s ideological beliefs."

Taking those possible answers in order, her first point has, of course, been made by others but that makes it no less true. I would, however, amend it slightly by saying that it's not only a matter of social power but also of social legitimacy in the eyes of the media and politicos.

Some years ago, in a dispute with the IRS (which we eventually won hooray for us), I came across the term "presumption of commissioner correctness." It meant, simply, that if the IRS said it did something such as send a notice on a certain date, any court would assume that it actually did so unless you somehow could prove otherwise. The reverse, of course, was not true: If we said we sent something, we damn well better have a receipt proving it. I first encountered the legal principle years earlier as a draft counselor, when it was called "presumption of regularity." It was simply assumed, without the need for any evidence, that the government - but not you - acted according to all the rules unless it could be proved otherwise.

Why this is important is that this doesn't just apply in legal or bureaucratic matters. It occurs socially as well. It is simply taken for granted, not even thought about really, that some voices are more legitimate, more worthy of consideration, at the bottom more trustworthy or at minimum more reliable, than others. Just as "official" voices are generally given more weight than "unofficial" voices (even when those "official" voices are confirmed repeated liars); just as "serious" commentators are accorded respect denied to DFHs (even when the latter were the ones proven to be correct about major events such as Iraq and Afghanistan); just as environmental and labor groups are dismissed as "special interests" while corporate PR flacks are not, so too here are the voices of "middle America," defined as conservative suburban and rural white males, regarded as somehow realer, more significant, more "the people," than other voices.

The point I want to emphasize is that this is not some conscious conspiracy, this is not the product of some media cabal sitting around a table going "we have to silence the advocates for justice," this is a built-in assumption, it is part of their, to use a term I've used several times, worldview, the way they mentally organize the world. (And, truth be told, likely part of many of ours as well.) Indeed, I suspect that if you challenged some media figures on precisely these grounds, that they are simply, unthinkingly, biased in favor of certain voices over others, they would deny it, perhaps vociferously - and likely believe they are being truthful. So part of our own thinking has to be about de-legitimizing those dominant voices - or, more exactly, how to de-legitimize them in comparison to others. (That, by the way, is why Jesse Jackson's poem "I am Somebody" resonated so: It was a challenge to the internalization of the assumptions of the broader society by those affected by them.)

That, parenthetically, is one of the reasons that Michael Moore inspires such passionate denunciations from the right: Never mind the particulars of his politics or proposals, few of which go very far beyond the mainstream, but just consider that the effect of his films is to de-legitimize the institutions he goes after. It makes them fair targets for mockery and ridicule - and that is an attack on their social power, on their, if you will, "presumption of correctness."

(As a sidebar, Kohn included "financially well-to" and "well-off" as descriptions of the TPers. That's not really accurate: As I noted in this post, while they are overall middle to upper-middle class and assuredly not poor, they are not generally "well-off" as the term is generally understood.)

Kohn's second point, about "shiny, new things" is surely true and echoes arguments I've made many times over the past my gosh 30 years or so, as when I said this in a talk to a Socialist Party conference in the fall of 1981, discussing some "lessons" from a run for Congress I had made the year before:
That brings me to the subject of words and their use. We Americans like to think of ourselves as a rational, clear-headed people. For that reason, Americans have a very low tolerance for what they perceive as slogans or rhetoric. Now, of course the Democrats and Republicans engage in rhetoric all the time, but the point is most people don't recognize it as such. It's part of the genius of the major parties that they can make their slogans sound like analysis, while we all too often make our analysis sound like slogans.

The message here is: Avoid rhetoric! Avoid lefty slogans! Avoid buzzwords! ... It's altogether possible with a little thought to express the most radical positions in a non-rhetorical fashion and doing that had a big impact, as people who'd always thought of "socialist" as a dirty word found what we were saying reasonable and even at least somewhat persuasive.
That argument was perhaps best illustrated by the reporter who later told me that I had the ability "to make the most radical positions sound like a voice of sweet moderation."

On the other hand, Kohn's (and my) argument here is limited in that it does let the media off too easily. Even if the rhetoric, or at least some of it, was "tired," a gathering of 15,000 political and social organizers and activists could not (and would not) be properly ignored as a news story just because it wasn't shiny. The reasons for the lack of attention must go beyond that and I'm going to suggest two such reasons a bit further down.

Her final suggestion, that of a lack of "majoritarian convictions or aspirations" on the part of "the left wing of the left." takes up the biggest part of her piece, which is proper because it is the most important point, one which connects to a similar point I raised in that same post about the TPers linked above, a point I said then had gotten surprisingly little attention:
[T]here is an overwhelming, an extreme, sense of what can only be called entitlement in the entire undertaking. It comes through clearly.... They repeatedly, repetitiously, say “it’s our country.” They loudly declare that they’re going to “take it back.” They insist that government failure to do what they want is “ignoring the will of the people.”

Leave aside the obvious responses of wondering just who it is that they’re going to “take it back” from and why elections are not “the will of the people” and consider a particular point in that NY Times/CBS survey. One question asked “Do the views of the people involved in the Tea Party movement generally reflect the views of most Americans?” Some 25% of all respondents said yes - while 84% of people who identified themselves as TP supporters did.

Overwhelmingly, they are convinced that they do represent “the people," that they are "the people."
And as a result they act that way and they talk that way, a way we seem to find beyond our psychological reach.

In fact, I remember the time (again sigh some years ago) when during a talk I listed a number of issues where, according to public opinion polls, the position taken by the majority of the public was the same as that pushed by the peace/social justice movement. I punctuated each by saying "On [this issue], we are the voice of the American people." I ended the whole list with "And it's damned well time we started acting like it." Why this is relevant is that I saw a number of people nodding and whispering to each other some version of "that's true" in a way that clearly indicated they hadn't thought about it that way before. They had never conceived of themselves as the majority, even when they were. It appears that we still don't - even when we are.

So I find value in all of Kohn's suggestions as to why the TPers get so much more attention than the USSF did - but there are two others which I believe also matter.

Well, in fairness, this first one may or may not matter in the particular case since I don't know the details involved, but it's valuable enough as a general principle to raise it anyway.

The USSF didn't get much press coverage - in fact, for all practical purposes beyond movement outlets (including such as The Nation, The Progressive, In These Times, and the like), there was none to speak of. (If you want to depress yourself, try for example Google News and do a search on "US Social Forum.") That is simply a fact. However, the question here is, how much press outreach did the organizers do? Did they do any? Or maybe just a press release? Or did they send several releases as plans developed, did they contact the assignment editors and the regional bureaus of the national media and say "Hey, we've got 15,000 people coming to this thing, who are you sending to cover it? We want to make sure we can greet them and get them the info they'll need."

Perhaps the organizers did all that and more and still got skunked for the other reasons laid out here and by Kohn. But if they didn't, they have very little basis for complaint about a lack of coverage. One of the lessons of getting ink and air that we need to absorb is that it's not up to the media to find us, it's up to us to find the media.

Which still, however, leaves that one other thing, that one possibility that Kohn omitted. She did brush up against it a couple of times, as when she noted the supposed separation of "political power" from "sticking to one’s ... beliefs," and again when she mentioned the wind in the sails of the TPers provided by such as Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, but it squirms away each time.

As Kohn says, not only the media, but "the center-left political establishment isn’t paying attention, either." There is something of a mutually-reinforcing cycle in that: Because the "establishment" isn't paying attention, the media (giving deference to the "legitimate" voices) feels comfortable ignoring such as the USSF, which thus get less publicity, enabling the establishment to continue ignoring them, and around we go.

But there is another consideration beyond that, something unrelated to that cycle except as it hints at a means to break it. Again, events such as the USSF get ignored by that center-left political establishment - but more importantly, the perspectives and proposals that form it and grow out of it are ignored as well, even in cases when those perspectives represent a majority or at least a significant minority of public opinion.

And this is the key thing that Kohn does not address: That establishment can act that way because there are no consequences for doing so. They can ignore things like the USSF - and people like us - because they pay no price for it. They are prepared to assume - correctly so far - that when it comes right down to it, we, or at least a sufficient number of us, will meekly accommodate ourselves to whatever half-baked quarter-measure soporific program or candidate they dish up, cowed either into silence by the monstrous looming threat of THE REPUBLICANS! THE TEA PARTY! OMIGOD OMIGOD OMIGOD! or into internalizing an image of ourselves as an eternal political minority by being repeatedly dismissed or ignored.

Over the past few to several months I've sensed a growing anger in some parts of the blogosphere, a growing frustration about the gap between "we are the change we've been waiting for" and actual signs of the change for which we're still waiting. The approach taken by a fair number is to argue for (and offer support to) more liberal (in both meanings, number and degree) primary challengers to Democratic incumbents.

I'm not going to get into the advantages and disadvantages of such a strategy or into the inside versus outside (i.e., primary challenges vs. third party candidacies) argument, as they're not relevant here. What I am going to do it to point out the reaction of the center-left political establishment to such challenges, which is to rally around their own. The most notorious case remains that of Ned Lamont versus Joe Lieberman, but the more recent example of Bill Halter versus Blanche Lincoln serves equally well.

Halter, as Lieutenant Governor of Arkansas, was hardly even an outsider, much less some radical. And if the White House and the Democratic leaders in Congress were really interested in advancing what they claim is their agenda, they would prefer Halter. Instead, that center-left establishment gathered the wagons around Lincoln to the point where in the closing days of the run-off, they openly campaigned against labor on her behalf.

These people are not on our side! Oh, certainly, individuals are and have been on our side at least on specific issues, but as a group, as a whole, they are not. And they will continue to not be on our side, to ignore us, to dismiss us, to deny us as the lord of the manor denied the bastard son he fathered by the servant girl even when he was the legitimate heir - that is, to bring this back to reality, to deny us even when we represent the majority - as long as we continue to make it possible for them to do so. It is when, it is only when, there is an actual cost, an actual consequence, an actual price to be paid through our open opposition and denial of support, done both electorally and non-electorally (i.e., in the streets) will they - grudgingly - pay attention.

In electoral terms, does that mean running the risk of loss? Yes. Does it mean the GOPpers might win some elections that they wouldn't have because we refused to support the Dimcrat who trashed everything and everyone to the left of Ben Nelson? Yes. Does it mean that our favored candidates might lose? Yes.

But does it also mean that to do otherwise, to try to avoid that risk, is to condemn ourselves to an unknown number of years (history says decades) of having such as Joe Lieberman, Ben Nelson, and Blanche Lincoln be regarded as "centrists" and "moderates" while the right is regaled and the left is loathed, the right is "right" and the left gets left? Yes. Period. And that is too big a price to pay. There is no guarantee of the success of resistance but there is a guarantee of the cost of acquiescence.

More and more these days I have been thinking of the old labor song "Which Side Are You On?" That's the question we need to be asking ourselves and each other over and over and more and more these days. This has nothing to do with making political compromises on particular issues or organizing strategies or any other individual or surface considerations. It has to do with your worldview. So ask yourself: Which side are you on?

Sunday, July 04, 2010

July 4th the third

And one last thing I like to post every Fourth. It's something I wrote about a trip to a fireworks display on July 4, 1969.
The 4th of July and Other Downs
The Day dawns again and it's time to love freedom. All the fascists come out to play and long hair and peace are decidedly un-American. Keep muttering things like "My country, right or wrong" and "America, love it or leave it" and you're really in. Middle-class America is out in force to celebrate liberty. Don't look now, but there's a knife in your back. A car goes by covered with flags, streamers, bunting, decals, and assorted other paraphernalia vital to your well-equipped American. Off we go to a fireworks show whose rockets sounded just like mortar fire. (Everything about the Fourth is so appropriate.) A motorcycle cop chomps away on something or other and glares at us with hatred that should have melted his shades as he leans on his bike and tries to figure a way to bust us. Red, white, and blue are the colors of the day, but be careful you don't have more red than blue or you might get lynched in the name of freedom. (You can have as much blue as you want, but the whiter you are, the better off you'll be.) Don't look now, but all the flagpoles look like spears. All in honor of the 36,000 brave boys who've given their lives to bring freedom, truth, beauty, and President Thieu to the South Vietnamese. Three cheers for Richard Nixon and six for J. Edgar Hoover, and better dead than red. The officially sanctioned day of national paranoia has come again, and all is right with the Pentagon.
I've noted with amusement was how the relative meanings of "red" (which at the time, kiddies, meant Communist) and "blue" have shifted over the years.

And if there's anyone who cares, yes, these posts mean I haven't given up the ghost, my continuing lack of spirit notwithstanding. I've been thinking about ways to reinvigorate both this thing and me and while both present their difficulties, it's wise for me to remember that even when a car is running on fumes, well, it's still running - and it still may get you to the next fill-up.

July 4th the second

The second of my annual July 4th posts, this is from a leaflet I wrote for distribution on July 4, 1975. After quoting the paragraph in the previous post, that is, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, the flyer read:
These words should form the backdrop against which the Bicentennial should be seen. Our 200th birthday as a nation should not be a time for celebrating the status quo or for patting ourselves on the back in an orgy of national self-congratulation, but rather a time to reexamine and rediscover the truly revolutionary heritage which America has.

Even more than that, it should be a time to rededicate ourselves to the ideals of the Declaration, to recognize that it is, as the Declaration says, our right and duty to resist dramatically increasing government control of our lives. It is our duty to resist the CIA and FBI when they try to probe every secret of our lives; it is our duty to resist attempts to muzzle, restrict, intimidate, and otherwise restrain both freedom of speech and of the press. It is our duty to resist a militarist US foreign policy that destroys the life and liberty of people in other lands and a militarist US federal budget that proposes to increase spending on weapons by 30% while human needs go unmet. It is our duty to resist government policies that favor big business at the expense of the general public, while inflation and unemployment run rampant. It is our duty to resist a government that seems no longer (if indeed it ever was) interested in and dedicated to securing the "safety and happiness" of the populace.

We do not believe in violence, but we do believe in revolution - nonviolent revolution. And we believe that we are fully within the revolutionary heritage of America when we say we believe it is our duty to demand our rights and our duty to use nonviolence to make any changes necessary to secure those rights, for ourselves and for all others.
And as I did last year, I also want to include the comment I made in posting this in 2008:
In the 33 [now 35] years since, I have been both encouraged and discouraged, hopeful and despairing. So much has changed and so little has changed, so much has been done and so little has been done. Sometimes it seems that the only comfort is that the only reason things aren't worse than they are is because of the struggles there have been both during that time and before. So even where we have - as we have more than often enough - fallen short, we can at least say those struggles were not in vain: No genuine effort for justice ever is, no matter the outcome. And those struggles can be nothing but invigorated when we maintain a day-to-day awareness of, and base the only legitimate patriotism on, our revolutionary heritage.
Footnote: The date for the flyer is not a typo; the official Bicentennial Year ran from July 4, 1975 to July 4, 1976.

July 4th the first

First of three posts I like to put up every July 4.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness. Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.
Footnote: has some interesting background on the Declaration of Independence, including earlier drafts. Some of the changes are revealing - such as one long passage denouncing the English slave trade that was deleted.

And of course there's the bit about the newly-uncovered "fix" in the declaration.
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