Saturday, September 30, 2006

Senate Caves In on Border Fence Bill

First, the Dems acquiesce to the Torture Bill, then, the Warrantless Searches Bill. Now, the Border Fence Bill.

Talk Left is spot on.

Sometimes it's important to stand on principle. The Senate failed to do this on the military commissions bill, and now, on the border fence bill. The Democrats got zilch in return. There was no advantage to their concession, except to appear to their constituents that they, too, are tough on crime and tough on immigration.

The left is simply not represented in Congress. We are still perceived as a liability. Centrism sucks. Values message or no values message, if being a Democrat means caving in on every issue that matters to me, from the death penalty to innocence issues to wiretapping to more mandatory minimum sentences to deporting those who have lived here for decades simply because they don't have proper papers, then what's the difference between the parties? Newsflash: There is none.

For years, I used to vote Democratic, but no more. The Greens in Vermont offer zilch. And the national Green Party has moved too much to the right for my taste (David Cobb Dems I call 'em). Not even local Democratic candidates deserve my vote. Even Bernie Sanders has been tainted by his linking to the Dems. I'm on the left for sure, though. In the upcoming election on November 7th, I'll probably vote for candidates in Vermont's Liberty Union Party.

Friday, September 29, 2006

I wanna be posh like them already: NOT

The usually high quality sank to a new low today when they made an advertisement of their front-page news. Is this the way journalism is going? We know it is already moving quickly this way in America (see my previous thread here), but in my beloved Holland? is the morning quick-read tabloidy version of NRC which people take in the train or bus en route to work. NRC can be likened to the New York Times, written for 'liberal intellectuals.'

"Sell it like Beckham" it says next to a full-page photograph of the British football player, David Beckham - and his wife and former Spice Girl, Victoria. It's a report about the couple's new perfume range that will be launched next month. But the NRC doesn't stop at a front-page ad for the couple.

Included is an entire two-page spread, complete with yet another photo of the lovely pair gracing the pages. The article is almost as cheesy as the photos. "This is not David Beckham, the footballer and his wife, the former Spice Girl and singer. This is the brand Beckham." It says. "The perfumes," says their marketing manager, "symbolise the relationship between a man and a woman."


Victoria Beckham herself is quoted as saying "There are so many things that interest us. Fashion, make-up. I look at the bigger picture and think 'yes, music is fantastic, football is fantastic', but it's about the bigger picture."


The marketing man doesn't know when to stop. "With these perfumes," he says, "[the Beckhams'] lifestyle is brought within reach [of the consumer]."

I knew there was something missing from my life.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

A Roaring Silence from Gutless Americans

Ariel Dorfman wrote a piece last Sunday in the Washington Post:

Can't the United States see that when we allow someone to be tortured by our agents, it is not only the victim and the perpetrator who are corrupted, not only the "intelligence" that is contaminated, but also everyone who looked away and said they did not know, everyone who consented tacitly to that outrage so they could sleep a little safer at night, all the citizens who did not march in the streets by the millions to demand the resignation of whoever suggested, even whispered, that torture is inevitable in our day and age, that we must embrace its darkness?

Are we so morally sick, so deaf and dumb and blind, that we do not understand this? Are we so fearful, so in love with our own security and steeped in our own pain, that we are really willing to let people be tortured in the name of America?

I am reminded by words spoken two German Lutheran clergymen who were fervent anti-Nazis during WWII --

Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Action springs not from thought, but from a readiness for responsibility.

Martin Niemöller (there have been various versions of this quote):

First they came for the communists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a communist;
Then they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a socialist;
Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a trade unionist;
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out--
because I was not a Jew;
Then they came for me--
and there was no one left to speak out for me.


Friday, September 22, 2006

A Tortured Debate

The supreme court ruled last June that the administration's military commissions failed to meet US and international standards of fairness, and were not authorised by US law. And a judge in Detroit ruled last month Mr Bush's order to the NSA to conduct wiretaps without court oversight violated the US constitution. So, the Senate is about to debate the legalisation of torture.

That Texas whippersnapper Molly Ivins has a few choice words to say (my emphasis in bold and italics).

A debate on torture. I don’t know—what do you think? I guess we have to define it, first. The White House has already specified “water boarding,” making some guy think he’s drowning for long periods, as a perfectly good interrogation technique. Maybe, but it was also a great favorite of the Gestapo and has been described and condemned in thousands of memoirs and novels in highly unpleasant terms.

I don’t think we can give it a good name again, and I personally kind of don’t like being identified with the Gestapo. How icky. (Somewhere inside me, a small voice is shrieking, “Are you insane?")

The safe position is, “Torture doesn’t work.”

Well, actually, it works to this extent—anybody can be tortured into telling anything that’s true and anything that’s not true. The more people are tortured, the more they make up to please the torturer. Then the torturer has to figure out when the vic started lying. Since our torturers are, in George Bush’s immortal phrase, “professionals” and this whole legislative fight is over making torture legal so the “professionals” can’t later be charged with breaking the Geneva Conventions, Bush has vowed to end “the program” completely if he doesn’t get what he wants. (The same thin voice is shrieking, “Professional torturers trained with my tax money?")

Bush’s problem is that despite repeated warnings, he went ahead with “the program” without waiting for Congress to provide a fig leaf of legality. Actually, we have been torturing prisoners at Gitmo, prisons in Eastern Europe and Afghanistan for years.


I was interested to find that the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition is so in favor of torture he told McCain that the senator either supports the torture bill or he can forget about the evangelical Christian vote. I’d like to see an evangelical vote on that one. I don’t know how Sheldon defines traditional values, but deliberately inflicting terrible physical pain or stress on someone who is completely helpless strikes me as ... well, torture. And, um, wrong. And I’ve smoked dope! Boy, everything those conservatives tell us about the terrible moral values of us liberals must be true after all.

Now, in addition to the slightly surreal awakening to find we live in a country that’s having a serious debate on a torture bill, can we do anything about it? The answer is: We better. We better do something about it. Now, right away. What do we do? The answer is: anything ... phone, fax, e-mail, mail, demonstrate—go stand outside their offices or the nearest federal building in the cold and sing hymns or shout rude slogans, chant or make a speech, or start attacking federal property, like a postal box, so they have to arrest you. Gather peacefully and make a lot of noise. Get publicity, too. How will you feel if you didn’t do something? “Well, honey, when the United States decided to adopt torture as an official policy, I was dipping the dog for ticks.”

As Ann Richards used to say, “I don’t want my tombstone to read: ‘She kept a clean house.’”

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Don't Fly American Airlines

I have not read the current New Yorker, which came in today's post. But thanks to Martin Wisse I read this frightening, yet surreal Talk of the Town
account of disgusting homophobic behaviour by American Airlines staff.

Shortly after takeoff, Varnier nodded off, leaning his head on Tsikhiseli. A stewardess came over to their row. "The purser wants you to stop that," she said.

"I opened my eyes and was, like, 'Stop what?’" Varnier recalled the other day.

"The touching and the kissing," the stewardess said, before walking away.

Tsikhiseli and Varnier were taken aback. "He would rest his head on my shoulder or the other way around. We’d kiss --not kiss kiss, just mwah," Tsikhiseli recalled, making a smacking sound.

The purser asked the men to describe what they’d been doing, and she acknowledged that their behavior had not been inappropriate. Tsikhiseli then asked if the stewardess would have made the request if the kissers had been a man and a woman. Suddenly, Leisner said, the purser "became very rigid." Contradicting what she’d told them before, she stiffly said, "Kissing is inappropriate behavior on an airplane." She then said that she was busy with the meal service and promised to come back.

Half an hour later, the purser returned, this time saying that some passengers had complained about Tsikhiseli and Varnier’s behavior earlier. The men asked more questions. Who had complained? (She couldn’t say.) Could they have the stewardess’s name, or employee number? (No.) Would the purser arrange for an American Airlines representative to meet them upon landing at J.F.K.? (Not possible.) Finally, the purser said that if they didn’t drop the matter the flight would be diverted. After that, Leisner said, "everyone shut up for a while."

Half Maybe an hour later, the purser approached Tsikhiseli and said that the captain wanted to talk to him. Tsikhiseli went up to the galley and gave the captain his business card. The captain told Tsikhiseli that if they didn’t stop arguing with the crew he would indeed divert the plane. "I want you to go back to your seat and behave the rest of the flight, and we’ll see you in New York," he said. Tsikhiseli returned to coach.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

White Hot Momma

Former Governor Ann Richards of Texas died last night of esophogeal cancer at her home in Austin. I worked on her 1991 gubernatorial campaign when I lived in Houston.

Shortly before leaving office in 1995, Richards said: "I did not want my tombstone to read, "She kept a really clean house." I think I'd like them to remember me by saying, "She opened government to everyone.""

She will be remembered for her sharp wit. But primarily for her opening up government in the Lone Star State to women and people of colour; more than any of her predecessors.

Here's the great Sissy Farenthold, also a giant in Texas and national politics, talking about her with Amy Goodman today on Democracy Now! -

AMY GOODMAN: Can you talk about Ann Richards's significance?

SISSY FARENTHOLD: Well, I was trying to look back. When I first knew Ann was when I was in the Texas legislature. And she and her husband were particularly known for their -- she, particularly, for her wit. And I can remember some extraordinary Christmas cards you would get from them, and they would never have their names on them, and you would have to puzzle through what -- who they were from. And then in ’72, I remember she was the campaign manager for Sarah Weddington. I had left the legislature to run for governor in ’72, and Sarah was coming in at the -- during the time I served, I was the only woman in the House. Jordan was in the Senate.

And then, Ann, from there, went to the first woman county commissioner in Travis County. And if you know anything about Texas politics, the county commissioner’s court, which is a very powerful local entity, has really been a male bailiwick. And so that was extremely significant. I was out of the state up as president of Wells College, when she moved from county commissioner to treasurer.

And then, of course, she ran -- the best I can figure out was ’84, I think, when she ran for governor and on the Democratic ticket. And, of course, I think the outstanding thing that she accomplished while she was governor was treatment for people with drug abuse in the prisons. And I think that's something that's just totally out the window these days in Texas, but it was a very, very significant, very significant policy of hers. Also, you know, we do have -- the power of appointment is the strongest thing, I think, that a governor has under our system in Texas. And there were a number of women that came into appointed positions under Ann. And I think that in the long term was another very significant issue for her. And, of course, you could never get away from that wonderful wit of hers. There's just no one who could touch her on that score.

AMY GOODMAN: She was famous for her wit. She exploded on the national stage at the 1988 Democratic Convention, when she made that comment about Vice President George H.W. Bush.

SISSY FARENTHOLD: I was there, and it was quite a moment.

AMY GOODMAN: She said, “Poor George was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” She also said, “I think I was brought out here to let you hear what a real Texas accent sounds like.”

SISSY FARENTHOLD: But she was -- her wit, no one could touch that wit. It was always with her.

AMY GOODMAN: She talked about her legacy, that one of the things she was most proud of was opening up government to women and people of color in her own administration. Could you talk more about that, Sissy Farenthold?

SISSY FARENTHOLD: Yes, and that's what I said. That has a long lasting effect. Unfortunately -- and it has a longer lasting effect probably than her wonderful policy about helping people in the prison [inaudible] structure that we have with drug abuse, because that’s been tossed out. That was tossed out of the window, is my understanding, with the Republican administrations we have. But opening it up to women and, well, both Hispanics and African Americans, was something that was long overdue in Texas.

Hype and Junk Science

Via Talk Left: Eyechecks to be Used to Bust Drug Users

And P-O-R-K, too.


Friday, September 8, 2006

Charity Day Extortion

"There's a new sensation across the nation." Macy's is "celebrating" its launch as America’s national department store with a media blitz of ads in local newspapers.

Part of this "celebration" is a scheme, Shop for a Cause, marketed as an opportunity - a "special celebration in their store in honor of local charities" -
to raise funds for non-profits. You'll find a sampling of charities taking part in Vermont, here, and in other areas of the USA, here, and here.

As Macy's PR blurb states: "This one-day shopping event is another way for Macy's to give back to the community through the support of local non-profit organizations! On Shop For A Cause Day, you have the opportunity to participate in a unique shopping experience including discounts, entertainment, special events and the opportunity to win thousands of dollars worth of prizes."

No doubt several Burlington non-profits (food banks, homeless shelters, churches, private schools, for example) will jump at the chance to participate. Who wouldn't take advantage of it? As Macy's would tell you, "it's so easy!" Burlington non-profits sell shopping pass tickets to be used for discounts when shopping during the Macy’s Shop for a Cause event. The shopping pass is good for savings throughout the day on Saturday, September 16, 2006. As a particiapting non-profit orgnaization, the non-profit retains all proceeds from its ticket sales.

My own church has decided to forge an alliance with Macy's to help defray the costs of running the parish. Yesterday, an email was sent to members of my parish, inviting them to participate.

I have several objections to St Paul's taking part. By encouraging its members to buy tickets, it is sending a clear message: It's not what you do that makes you a good person, it's what you consume. Interestingly, this is precisely the opposite message that Jesus espoused. St. Paul's Cathederal gets the social and economic justice part of their outreach just right. But what happened to simplicity? Why promote this commercialism?

[But wait, St. Paul's might bow out if this alliance. Some parishioners, yours truly included, have made objections about participating. Update possible after the weekend.]

Burlington secular, non-religious non-profits may choose to participate; that is their perogative. But they should think again. Capitalism with a human face, you say? Nah. Macy's is a corporate entity; for them, it's all about profit.Macy's would rather boost their sales here and hoodwink Burlingtonians and non-profits into their scam. Pure hucksterism. To say that they care about the community and non-profits is a joke. They don't put people first, they put consumers first.

And get this: if a participating non-profit sells a certain number of tickets before the event, it will receive a share of the money raised by in-store ticket sales. In some Macy's stores, employees are being forced to purchase the Shop for a Cause tickets before they punch in for their shifts. Read about that here.

Last year's Shop for a Cause event was scheduled on a weekday in mid-October, when shopping levels are low. This year's happens on a big shopping day, a Saturday. It's also insensitive to traditional Jewish people in our community, whose religious practises require keeping Shabbat; and that includes no shopping.

As you may have seen, Filene's in Burlington's Town Center is changing its name to Macy's.

(As part of the fallout from Federated's 2005 acquisition of May Department Stores Co., Filene's isn't the only name change in Macy's rebranding in early September. Other stores are losing their names.)

And you can bet, by attracting it's former Filene's customers with Shop for a Cause Day, Macy's is also hoping to keep them shopping beyond Saturday, September 16th.

Tuesday, September 5, 2006

Labor Day Observations

A few vignettes from yesterday's Labor Day Parade through the Old North End.

En route to pick up my friend, Owen Mulligan, to march in Monday's Labor Day Parade, I stopped at my local coffee bar to purchase a cup. I mentioned to the female sales clerk that I was going to the parade. Astounded, she asked, "You mean there is one? "Yes," said her male colleague, "my wife is part of the nurses union and she's marching, too." The female clerk beamed a 'right on!' smile.

When Owen and I arrived at the starting point of the parade, Wheeler School in the ONE, the crowds of marchers were gathering. The usual suspects, of course - union members from various locals - in addition there were Bernie's crew with their red balloons and assorted Democratic Party candidates for governor, state rep, state senator, and Chittenden County state's attorney plus their supporter adults, children and pets A cute dog was polka-dotted with Rob Backus stickers. A lot more this year than at last year's (2006's a mid-term election year). Progressive candidates were lining up, too, but they were far outnumbered by Democratic ones.

Owen and I found our spots in the line-up. A woman all gussied up with Democratic candidate stickers approached Owen and exclaimed her surprise that he was campaigning for Justice of the Peace. Owen replied that an independent candidate was forced to campaign if he wanted to get elected. (15 JPs are elected and they're all Democratic incumbents this election cycle.) The woman identified herself as Gail Compton and a JP. She said she's been one for years. She had put her name on the ballot just on a lark because she knew she'd be assured of election - she never had to campaign: "Compton's at the beginning of the alphabet" - people just go down the list and check the first fifteen candidates. She also told us that the only way a new candidate could be elected is if an incumbent dies. "I wish you all the luck," she told Owen, but with an extremely condescending 'lotsa luck kiddo' attidude in her voice. Owen could campaign all he wanted, but he didn't have a chance.

The parade wove through the Old North End, along Elmwood Ave, down North Street and turned onto North Avenue into Battery Park. Burlingtonians watched from windows, balconies and sidewalks along the way, some waving signs and balloons. But they were sparse. Competition yesterday morning came from the corporate sponsored Green Mountain Stage Race (If only the parade marchers and the 500 cyclists could have traded places, but not the bystanders.)

After the parade, there was a rally picnic in Battery Park.(Freyne's blog says there were only 250 people in in the Park, but I think there were more.) Ad hominem candidate political speeches, superficially in support of workers' rights (preaching to the choir, here). Eugene Debs might be Bernie's hero, but Bernie lacks the charisma. I was standing in the food line and chatted with an enthusiastic "student for Bernie." Emblazoned on the back of her t-shirt was "Independent's Day is 11/7/06." "Not when he's running as a Democratic candidate for US Senate." I told her. She told me that supporters had put him on the ballot as a Democratic candidate and that once winning the primary, he'll run as an independent. Did she realise that Bernie had to consent to being listed "Democratic"? Political maneuvering, I told her. A deal with Dems to shut out any opposition. I told her that I had used to support Sanders, but with his eyes on higher political office, he had compromised himself and had become beholden to a major corporate party.

Owen and I worked the crowds, gathering signatures for his JP candidate ballot petition. I approached a Democratic flunky I'd seen earlier lining up the marchers at Wheeler School. I asked her to sign Owen's petition. "No, I won't sign it," she told me indignantly, "we've already got all ours lined up."

Last Thursday, I attended Owen's campaign kick-off party at the Euro Gourmet Cafe and Market on Main Street. In his speech to supporters, he said

My campaign is also about “political” diversity.
Currently all 15 seats for JP that are up for election
are held by one party; the democratic party. And this
is not what I mean by political diversity, we need JPs
that are not only Democrats, but Greens, Independents,
Republicans, Libertarians, Progressives, and so on.
We need political diversity in every branch and level
of government. So I also hope during this election, we
can all keep an open mind to the many third-party and
Independent candidates, that may not be well-financed
like the major party candidates, but that are running
anyway--because they believe we can do a whole lot

Friday, September 1, 2006

Meaningful Democracy

Student dissent has been around for a long time. My first personal foray into demonstrating was as a teenager back in the 60s, when I joined Sarah Lawrence College students to protest outside a local barber shop in suburban Westchester County because the shop owner had refused to give an African-American citizen a simple hair cut. As a college student at the University of Hartford, I took part in countless SDS demonstrations and silent peace vigils against the Vietnam War. In May, 1970, just after my 22nd birthday, I joined students there in a strike after the Kent State massacre.

Last Thursday, I read about the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals decision in the Williamstown Middle School t-shirt case. In May, 2004, Zachary Guiles was suspended from Williamstown Middle School for wearing a T-shirt that called Bush “Chicken-Hawk-in-Chief” who was engaged in a “World Domination Tour.” The Vermont ACLU gives more background.

Here's what University of Texas journalism professor Robert Jensen said at a UT teach-in on war and civil liberties, November 1, 2001, and worth repeating in September, 2006, especially apropos the Guiles decision last week:

Tonight I want to talk about why free speech and democracy are in some sense more important than ever. In this sense, free speech is not a trivial matter. How we defend and use our free speech is, quite literally, a matter of life and death.

What is it about this political culture that leads people to see a different political analysis not as something to be argued with, but something to eliminate?

Again, we are left to ponder how the freedoms enjoyed in our version of democracy have produced a culture that is so hostile to intellectual engagement and democratic participation.

What does it mean to live in a society in which the president can declare an unlimited war against unspecified enemies, then begin to fight that war with extreme brutality and disregard for the lives of innocent civilians, and a significant segment of the population simply does not care? When I ask such questions, people often say, "You have a right to your opinion; I support your right to speak."

I think that indicates a fundamental moral, political, and intellectual crisis. Free speech has come to mean not a process of engagement, but a right to shout into the wind. People see no reason or obligation to engage. This tells me that we live in a political system that has democratic features but is not a meaningful democracy. I say that because I believe a meaningful democracy requires an active citizenry. That is why I titled this talk "Against Dissent." Finally, I'll explain what I mean by that.

In a meaningful democracy, citizens would be part of the process by which pubic policy is formulated. That is, citizens would discuss issues and problems, with access to the broadest range of information, leading to an exploration of the widest possible range of solutions and responses. The views of people would not only be relevant to the decisions politicians end up implementing, but would structure the choices politicians could make.

Instead, we live in a system in which many people think they are participating fully if they vote. Some will participate a bit further by working in the electoral process. Others will work at educating themselves about the policy options that politicians and other powerful people have laid out, so that they can better choose among those options. But very few people understand democracy to mean direct engagement in the process by which policy options are formulated.

That is why, for example, so many Americans do not know what to think of the movement to resist corporate domination of the global economy. Those people, such as the folks in the streets of Seattle, were asserting their right to be involved in the formulation of policy options, and it seemed strange to many Americans.

If that is what democracy could be -- an active role for engaged citizens -- then we can see why the term dissent doesn't quite fit. If we all are part of the process of formulating policy options -- if we do not give up the right to be involved in that process -- then we begin with the idea that all policy options are open, and that the people will decide which option they want the government to pursue.

If that were the case, then I, and others who offer an antiwar perspective, wouldn't be dissenting from some already-agreed-upon position. We would be contributing a policy option to the discussion. That wouldn't be dissent; it would be participation in a conversation about which option or options might be most desirable.

Now, after the political process has concluded and a policy is chosen, then it makes sense to say that one dissents from that. But literally from September 12 on, my public speech has been labeled dissent. But it wasn't dissent. It was my contribution to the policy discussion. It was labeled dissent only because this culture assumes that the pronouncements of the president and other "important" people are the policy, and we the people then have a right to either agree with it or dissent from it.

I have a different view of democracy. The antiwar movement has a different view of democracy. The movement for a fair and just global economy has a different view of democracy. In that sense, these kinds of movements are not simply about changing policies; they are about changing the system. They attempt to turn a system that now is democratic in its formal structure into a meaningful democracy in practice.

They are, quite literally, movements engaged in -- to borrow a phrase from my colleague Rahul Mahajan -- the struggle for the soul of a nation.

Ironically, when we engage in that struggle these days we are called anti-American, unpatriotic, or traitors.

We may face the scorn of some of our fellow citizens, or risk the condemnation of our bosses. Some may lose their jobs. But compared to facing down the barrel of a gun or risking jail time, well, let's keep our hardships in perspective. Again, these freedoms we have won are not necessarily permanent; we have to work to hold them. But we do have them.

That means that more than ever, the question for us is whether we will use our voices, our energy -- perhaps before too long our bodies in civil disobedience -- to fight against illegitimate authority and for justice.

"I've sort of evolved in my criticisms of Bush," Zachary Guiles said. "It's more in terms of policies rather than his past decisions."

Guiles called the appeals court's ruling "just."

"It means that there is free speech for students," he said. "You don't leave your rights at the schoolhouse gates."

Indeed. It was not so much the boy's right to wear the t-shirt; the Williamstown school official could have had a discussion with Guiles - aren't we talking about critical thinking in schools? - but instead pulled a top-down power play, so typical of some teachers and administrators in schools.

"[A]n offense against the gods and against civilization, too"

I haven't yet seen Spike Lee's brilliant film, When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts. It's out on HBO, I don't know if it will hit the theatres. The New Yorker gives it much praise.

Viewers seeking detailed information about the economy and the politics of New Orleans will have to go elsewhere. But anyone hoping to reclaim Katrina emotionally—to experience what the city went through in all its phases of loss, anger, and contempt—needs to see Lee’s movie, which is surely the most magnificent and large-souled record of a great American tragedy ever put on film.

There’s one element that seems unredeemable—the dead citizens lying all over the city, bloated and discolored. It’s the primal curse of the Greek myths: the unburied corpse, an offense against the gods and against civilization, too. That’s why the mock funeral at the end of the movie, whatever its precise meaning, is the most eloquent of gestures. Society may have collapsed, but a proper burial is still fitting. The citizens of New Orleans graciously grant to the storm the courtesy that the storm, in its rage, could not grant to them.

h/t to The Tomb for uploaded segments of Parts I & II. Parts III & IV are here.