Monday, February 19, 2018

Once upon a time, there was a president ...

A Presidents Day meditation
When I was growing up in the 1950's, I thought of George Washington as an icon wearing a three cornered hat who had lived in an unimaginably distant past.

But Abraham Lincoln was a much closer presence. You see, my great-grandmother, my mother's grandmother, attended the 16th president's second inauguration as a teenage girl. (She's somewhere in that crowd; Lincoln is the man reading from a paper in the center. I don't know if there was voice amplification; I think not.) Her father was serving a term as a Western New York Congressman. Both those ancient relatives were long dead by the time I came along, but her grandmother had been a lively presence in my mother's youth. So I was raised by someone for whom the era of the war to subdue secessionist Rebellion and preserve the Union was no more distant than World War II is today. Lincoln was nearly a century dead by the time I came of age, but he was not a wispy ghost from ancient history.

The 1850s, the formative decade just before Lincoln was elected President and the (dis)United States went to war over slavery, was easily as partisan and divided as our time and even more violent. The design of U.S. Constitution made it possible for Reaction, in that era dubbed the Slaveocracy, to impose its will on the more populous and "progressive" Free States. (Still true of course: 180.8 million people are represented today by the 49 senators who caucus with the Democrats; 141.7 million people are represented by the 51 senators who caucus with the Republicans.) The atrocity that was the slave system flowed into posses of slave catchers invading "free" states in search of escapees, massacres of abolitionists in the disputed Kansas/Nebraska territories, and a vicious assault by a South Carolina Congressman on an abolitionist Massachusetts Senator in the Senate chamber. Politics was a rough enterprise.

In 1855, the future President Lincoln, then a former one term Illinois Congressman sidelined for the time being, wrote a letter to his slave-owning Kentucky friend Joshua Speed drenched in the brutality around him. It includes one of his few recorded descriptions of seeing humans in chains. But "miserable" as he was at the sight of shackled slaves, the sight led him back to his concern for upholding the country's Constitution. His empathy was less for the slaves than for the feelings of Northerners up against the Slave Power.

I confess I hate to see the poor creatures hunted down, and caught, and carried back to their stripes, and unrewarded toils; but I bite my lip and keep quiet. In 1841 you and I had together a tedious low-water trip, on a Steam Boat from Louisville to St. Louis. You may remember, as I well do, that from Louisville to the mouth of the Ohio, there were, on board, ten or a dozen slaves, shackled together with irons. That sight was a continued torment to me; and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave-border. It is hardly fair for you to assume, that I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable. You ought rather to appreciate how much the great body of the Northern people do crucify their feelings, in order to maintain their loyalty to the Constitution and the Union.

Lincoln did not hesitate to call out the violence he saw the Slave Power doing to his beloved Constitution and Union, exemplified by the act allowing extensiion of slavery to the Nebraska territory.

I look upon that enactment not as a law, but as violence from the beginning. It was conceived in violence, passed in violence, is maintained in violence, and is being executed in violence. I say it was conceived in violence, because the destruction of the Missouri Compromise, under the circumstances, was nothing less than violence. It was passed in violence, because it could not have passed at all but for the votes of many members in violence of the known will of their constituents. It is maintained in violence because the elections since, clearly demand it's repeal, and this demand is openly disregarded.

The Slave Power had trumped representative democracy, though Lincoln would not have used that language as the "representative" and "democracy" had different meanings at the time.

The letter goes on to come close to despair about the country's violent divisions. It had been easy for additional reactionary energies to emerge as a party of northern anti-immigrant nativism and anti-Catholicism, labelled by contemporaries the "Know Nothings." This served the Slave Power well, dividing their opponents.

I am not a Know-Nothing. That is certain. How could I be? How can any one who abhors the oppression of negroes, be in favor of degrading classes of white people? Our progress in degeneracy appears to me to be pretty rapid. As a nation, we began by declaring that "all men are created equal." We now practically read it "all men are created equal, except negroes" When the Know-Nothings get control, it will read "all men are created equal, except negroes, and foreigners, and Catholics." ...

The future president seems to have been a good and moral man, moved by aspirations of empathy as well as by shrewd political calculation, by politics as the "art of the possible."

A little over a decade after emancipation and Lincoln's murder, the abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass summed up what sort of ally Lincoln had been to the Cause at the unveiling of the Freedmen’s Monument in Lincoln Park, Washington, D.C.

I have said that President Lincoln was a white man, and shared the prejudices common to his countrymen towards the colored race. Looking back to his times and to the condition of his country, we are compelled to admit that this unfriendly feeling on his part may be safely set down as one element of his wonderful success in organizing the loyal American people for the tremendous conflict before them, and bringing them safely through that conflict. His great mission was to accomplish two things: first, to save his country from dismemberment and ruin; and, second, to free his country from the great crime of slavery. To do one or the other, or both, he must have the earnest sympathy and the powerful cooperation of his loyal fellow-countrymen. Without this primary and essential condition to success his efforts must have been vain and utterly fruitless. Had he put the abolition of slavery before the salvation of the Union, he would have inevitably driven from him a powerful class of the American people and rendered resistance to rebellion impossible. Viewed from the genuine abolition ground, Mr. Lincoln seemed tardy, cold, dull, and indifferent; but measuring him by the sentiment of his country, a sentiment he was bound as a statesman to consult, he was swift, zealous, radical, and determined.

Though Mr. Lincoln shared the prejudices of his white fellow-countrymen against the Negro, it is hardly necessary to say that in his heart of hearts he loathed and hated slavery. ... The honest and comprehensive statesman, clearly discerning the needs of his country, and earnestly endeavoring to do his whole duty, though covered and blistered with reproaches, may safely leave his course to the silent judgment of time. ...

Political geniuses who combine empathy, subtlety, courage, and moral decency obviously are the rarest of leaders. On this Presidents Day, when we are stuck with a petulant infantile narcissist in the White House, it seems right to remember that, once upon a time, there was a president ...

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Which side are you on? Some forgiveness, some amnesia ...

“If you're in a coalition and you're comfortable, you know it's not a broad enough coalition.” --Bernice Johnson Reagan
Under the Trump regime/Republican regime, spaces for people to fight democratically for a better day are threatened. I have spelled out elements of this all too often here, including through voter suppression, increasing disdain for the rule of law, and brutish warmongering. We are being corrupted in our best impulses, taught and forced to be ungenerous, selfish, and unkind. This assault on the nation's moral potentialities is so immediate, it outweighs for me, for now, the many historic imperfections and even crimes of the US state. I'm doing politics just for room to keep hope alive; we'll go for what we need and want when there is a little more room. The immediate need to fight changes the terrain.

When under attack, people fighting back look for allies, even unlikely ones. Preserving the space to fight another day demands the widest possible variety of allies and other irritants to the powerful. We don't know what is going to help, so we need to be open to many strands of resistance.

So, in this moment of deadly threat, I've been doing my best to listen to and read the thoughts of people who I ordinarily avoid or ignore. Think especially of #NeverTrumpers like the pretentious Canadian neoconservative David Frum, recovering bully boy Max Boot, former Breibart spokesman Kurt Bardella, legal eagle Benjamin Wittes and foreign policy hawk Kori Schake. Ana Marie Cox's podcast, With Friends Like These specializes in talking with dissident Republican political hacks, a curious breed. These voices range through the center-right, to fans of U.S. empire, to even previously hard right, but they agree that Trump must go if normal political decency if to return.

The most prolific of these rightwing voices has been Jennifer Rubin who writes the Washington Post's Right Turn blog. She churns out a volume of anti-Trump/anti-GOPer argumentation and indignation unrivaled in the mainstream media. She's a brutally effective writer. So I was interested to hear her discuss with center-left political scientist Yasha Mounk what the parameters of a momentary left-right alliance might be. She's got a lot to say (my transcription from audio) and I found it both challenging and unsettling:
The first thing we have to do is stop the historical archeology ... If the first reaction of people on the left is, "we would not have had George W Bush if it had not been for Jennifer Rubin"... well the conversation ends. We are where we are. ...We are both in trouble, the boat is leaking, it has a big hole and if you are going to pick a fight with me, we are going to sink together. It's a recognition that however we got here, we have a mutual problem.

The second is the willingness and ability to prioritize ... the highest issue right now is the survival of a rule based republic. Unless we baby-proof, we Trump-proof, the democracy, nobody is going get any of that stuff [that are our policy preferences.] ... We're not going to get back to that stuff unless we can pitch in, so I think some forgiveness, some amnesia ...I think [we need] a sense that we are not going to hassle each other about the second order issues ...

The third is an ability to recognize that a lot of the preconceptions about the other side were wrong ... in fact the left has played by the constitutional rules to a much greater extent than the right has, at least of late. ... I now see the people on that side [she means the center-left] are aligned with me on some of these very fundamental issues: the independence of the courts, the free press, the value of an apolitical civil service, the value of truth, that there really are people on the other side who believe that.

Once you do that, a lot of the other difficulties melt away. ... it is an understanding of what we share; it is a mutual understanding that we really are in a crisis situation, a crisis of western democracy.
In Rubin's view, she is coming a long way toward those of us on the progressive end of things -- and it is fair to say she has (for an archeological peak at how awfully she once used her talent, try this -- and then let it go if you can.)

I'm enough of an historian to know that the Nazis won elections in 1930s Germany without ever becoming a majority; their opponents -- left, center-left, and center-right -- couldn't coalesce to stop them and were swept away. I don't want to replicate that grizzly error because of a political purity fetish. But on the other hand, don't I have some red lines beyond which I can't make common cause? What are those lines? After hard thinking, I've come up with two:
  • We both have to be able to say that white supremacy, white entitlement, Eurocentric racism has been a defining reality throughout the history of this country. We needn't agree on exactly how that works, and what we must do about it, but we have to allow the premise and live from there.
  • We have to be able to say that an unregulated free market is a prescription for individual and planetary death. Again, we don't have to agree on exactly what curbs are needed, but we both have to acknowledge some are.
These two items leave out vital elements of my politics: in particular, I think women are full human beings and wars are pretty much always wrong. But at least right now, those aren't my first order bottom lines. Maybe they should be.

Do you know what your red lines are for cooperation with allies? I found this a question worth pondering.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

San Francisco scenes: a sign of spring

'Tis the season: house painters are out touching up what even a mild winter has weathered.

Sometime it's a small bevy of workers doing a makeover.

Sometimes there's an individual looking a bit contemplative ...

Many are friendly to the passerby with the camera.

Others never know I came by.

All encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Friday, February 16, 2018


I'm heartily sick of being sick. I cough a little and have no strength. Kaiser says "pneumonia". Been here before, done that, ready to be over it.

But I learned something while trawling through Google Images for a suitable illustration for my present condition: about a third of what search returns for "pneumonia cartoon" are pictures of an invalid Hillary Clinton. It is a reminder not to underestimate the staying power of a wacky right-wing lie.

Friday cat blogging

Morty seems to think the Winter Olympics were invented for his pleasure. Sometimes he moves closer to sniff the screen, trying to identify the strange critters who fly by. He does not usually pay any attention to TV, but skiers and skaters pull him in.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

How Luther unleashed unforeseen contradictions

Last year, during the 500th year after the Augustinian friar Martin Luther posted his controversial views on the church door in Wittenberg (if this bit of historical trivia actually happened, which is contested), I thought I ought to read something about Reformation history. Somehow I hit on Brad S. Gregory's Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Though this book was not perhaps what I had had in mind, I'm glad I happened on it.

Gregory is a much honored academic, teaching Early Modern (European?) history at Notre Dame University. He has a clear conclusion about the Reformation events this book sets forth:

The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that let to the secularization of society.

His narrative of the theological currents in Lutheranism and Calvinism, of radical Protestantisms of slightly later vintage like Anabaptism, and of the Catholic counter-reformation seemed clear enough to me, though I am not that well read in this period.

But what was really interesting was where this book comes from and where it proved to be going. At the very outset, I was stunned by Gregory's concern to restate the basic elements of Christian belief. A moment's thought suggested that of course this was necessary. I'm sure his students, even at Notre Dame, come to this history with little concept of the doctrines of creation, sin, incarnation, atonement, and Church that were the framework of daily medieval life (and still undergird the more complex modern Christian formations). I expect Gregory knows his audience. And the need to draw this out points to his central thesis:

The Reformation had the long-term impact of gradually and unintentionally transforming Europe from a world permeated by Christianity to one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.

... ... The first unintended consequence of the Reformation itself was the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism. ...

A second major unintended consequence of the Reformation era came out of the relationship between magisterial Protestantism [established churches] and Catholicism. ... From the Catholic perspective, heresy was institutionalized in multiple forms. As far as the Protestants were concerned, the Antichrist got a major second wind. The Reformation did not overcome or abolish Roman Catholicism; rather, it actually contributed directly if unintentionally to rejuvenating the Roman Church.

In his telling, what he calls the "wars-of-more-than-religion," particularly the Thirty Years War fought across what is now Germany and Austria and the English Civil War, failed to resolve theological differences between various professing Christians, but were too devastatingly destructive to continue. Meanwhile, the enterprising Dutch rebelled against Catholic Spanish overlords and made a virtue of tolerant religious pluralism suggesting another way. In Gregory's view the Dutch replaced the idea of the good life with the "goods" life, and this capitalist invention satisfied a growing number of people and their rulers. Enlightenment thinkers like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison in launching the new United States invented "separation of church and state."

Religion, regardless of its content, could be tolerated so long as all who benefited from individual religious freedom agreed on its newly limited scope and agreed as well to obey the political authorities who extended and protected that freedom. Making religion a personal choice and restricting its scope made religious freedom as well as religious toleration possible. It also led to separating out many other areas of life from religion. ...

... for you and for everyone else, religion is not about how political authority is exercised or how the economy is regulated or what laws get made and enforced.

He wants his readers to see this as a mixed blessing. Can we, for example, respond to the cancerous capitalist economic growth imperative which drives climate change when individual freedom is enshrined as our highest good? Good question, but not one to which Gregory claims there is a simple answer. He concludes:

We find ourselves in our present situation of hyperpluralism because individualism and liberalism have succeeded so well, beginning with an individual freedom that has proven simultaneously to be freedom from religion. You can believe whatever you want and live however you wish within the laws of the state, and so can everyone else. That's both a great blessing and a big problem. ...

As a woman and a lesbian, I tend to come down heavily on the side of needing to allow all flowers to bloom in seeking Truth, whatever that might be. I'd be erased in a less plural society. But Gregory's challenge is bracing and healthy to anyone seeking to envision both good life and good society.

As I read this volume, I kept thinking that, if Dorothy Day had decided to frame broadly how she thought about the Protestant Reformation, I think she might have come up with a view not far from that put forward by Professor Gregory. She did not, that I know of, give the Reformation such thought. But as she seemed to understand this history, Luther, Calvin, et al., had strayed from a flawed but probably retrievable Mother Church; their revolt broke European Christendom, which was already in trouble, and led to ever more splintering into smaller and smaller sects among the Christian faithful. This was properly a source of great sadness. She didn't condemn, but she disapproved and hoped some of those led astray would get over their heresies (as some people in her orbit occasionally did).

As I knew her, Dorothy simply chose to be a loyal, orthodox, daughter of a Church formed by opposition to Protestant challenges, who nonetheless felt no intellectual contradiction in framing for herself a boldly idiosyncratic way of living her piety. She didn't think down-the-line coherence was required of her intellectual furniture -- and she was often open to not demanding greater consistency in others.

Such graceful inconsistency alongside consistency is one way to live with the contradictions Professor Gregory raises -- perhaps the best way.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Unhappy choice

Barring an act of God, one of these two characters will be Governor of California next year.

Gavin Newsom is an empty suit, sometimes filled with "bright new ideas" that usually benefit the sort of people who fund his campaigns. He makes nice noises, but there's no there there. San Franciscans have seen this act.

Antonio Villaraigosa apparently is running to Gavin's right. The former Los Angeles mayor has been endorsed by the police unions because he has supported high levels of incarceration and opposes reform of the cash bail system that keeps low level offenders locked up before trial.

They are both Democrats. This is California, after all.

Gavin leads in the polls. This will almost certainly go two rounds as these two will come out "top two" in June and get to bang away at each other some more until November.

This might be the political ad of the year

Sol Flores is a longshot to win the primary in her contest. But she is sure showing the way for women who dare go there.

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Stickers from the 'hood

In the Mission, formerly barren poles of all sorts -- light, parking signs, bus signs -- rapidly sport stickers.
Some are hostile.

Some seem improbable.

Some are art, of a sort.

And some are hardy perennials.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Wishful recycling is a real problem

... and apparently that's exactly what San Francisco's much vaunted 80 percent landfill waste diversion rate actually encourages. This Grist video explains why much of our "recycling" is problematic.
I did not know this. Since encountering it, I've been trying to be a more discriminating recycler. Our current practice of just throwing anything that might, maybe, be recyclable in the blue bin is a self-indulgence that won't fly as poor countries become able to be more choosy about what effluvia they'll accept from the rich.

On the other hand, what's good about easy civic recycling is that it identifies our waste as a social reality, a byproduct of the entire shape of our collective lives. The detritus of our lives can ultimately only be dealt with collectively. Environmental degradation and climate change are byproducts of how we organize our capitalist society; how we live together (uncomfortably) is choking the planetary ecosystem. Individual actions are good reminders that there is a problem, but we aren't going to solve our ills by some of us carrying refillable water bottles.

This, of course, is why Republicans instinctively hate the steps necessary to reduce carbon pollution. There aren't any individual solutions; none of us in rich countries are innocent and the planet doesn't care about our injured feelings of virtue. Solutions must be society-wide and that will constrict some choices for some people, including all of us here in the rich USofA.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Of naval accidents

Ongoing coverage of the U.S. Navy's plans to hold officers accountable for a two collisions last year in the far Pacific Ocean -- destroyers were rammed by merchant ships -- has been fascinating me. Seventeen sailors died in these accidents.
On Jan. 16, the U.S. Navy announced that it has charged five officers under the Uniform Code of Military Justice with negligent homicide, hazarding a vessel, and dereliction of duty in the deaths of 17 sailors who died as a result of the collisions of the USS Fitzgerald and USS John S. McCain with commercial ships in 2017. A chief petty officer from the USS John S. McCain has also been charged with dereliction of duty. 
Commentators have chewed over whether Navy procedures accord the charged officers a fair and transparent hearing; in the last few decades, such hearings have led to acquittals, possibly to some extent due to improper charging. Some Navy vets think the accidents were the end result of a watch system that allows only short sleep breaks and generally an under-manned fleet.

The aircraft carrier Wasp limped home after the accident with the bow torn off. Source.
Why has all this so caught my attention? Because an uncle of mine, Captain Burnham C. McCaffree, was the commander of the aircraft carrier Wasp in 1952 when the huge ship ran over the destroyer Hobson. The accident has been called the Navy's "worst peacetime disaster."
On the night of April 26, 1952 the Wasp launched a training flight of planes at about 8 PM (2000 hours in military time). As the Wasp was preparing to retrieve its aircraft, her commanding officer, Captain Burnham McCaffree planned to turn the ship into the wind to a course of 250 to 260. On the Hobson, the officer of the deck, Lt. William Hoefer, was planning accordingly. The ships were steaming at 24 knots and the Hobson was 3000 yards off the Wasp's starboard quarter (on the right side and behind the Wasp). The Hobson's captain, 32 year old Lt. Commander William Tierney, was new to sea duty.

... Young Captain Tierney had recently received a communication from fleet headquarters that recommended executing rapid turning maneuvers to maximize efficiency. One simple way to accomplish this would have been for each destroyer to slow down and switch positions behind the maneuvering carrier. Tierney instead chose to execute a Williamson turn, also known as the lifeguard turn. ... to change stations behind an aircraft carrier, the turn called for the Hobson to cross IN FRONT OF the Wasp, with tragic results. Tierney got into a heated argument with Lt. Hoefer, the officer of the deck, who thought that a fancy turn in front of the carrier would be dangerous. Eyewitness accounts have [it that] Lt. Hoefer stormed off the bridge in anger. As he did so, he instinctively turned down the radio receiver volume.

... The Hobson crossed directly in front of the 34,000 ton Wasp and was sliced in two. 176 sailors perished in short order and only 61 survived. On the bridge, 11 out of 13 survived. Young Captain Tierney either fell or jumped off the bridge into the water. He couldn't swim and perished.
Lt. Hoefer told a court of inquiry convened under three admirals the next month that he had shouted: "Stand by for collision."

My uncle Mac explained the accident as he understood it, pointing to radar failure on the carrier.
Capt. McCaffree, an Annapolis graduate, was asked who had control of the Wasp at the time of the collision and the skipper replied: "I did."
All this took place when I was a small child. My mother recalled going to New Jersey to accompany her sister, Uncle Mac's wife, to the hearing. Although the sitting admirals decided that the disaster was the destroyer commander's fault, understandably the accident stalled out the Captain's naval career. He went on to command the Jacksonville Naval Air Station for awhile and retired in Florida. I remember him as a stiff, dour man, not much like this smiling photo from an earlier time. His son who carries the same name went on to a successful naval career, ending up a rear admiral.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Redistricting as 8th grade math exercise

I'm not the only person in my family who is interested in the mysteries of gerrymandering. My cousin Jon Kimmel teaches 8th grade math at Westtown School in the Philadelphia suburbs. The area is ground zero for a legal fight over a Republican Congressional district map which the state Supreme Court has ruled is “clearly, plainly, and palpably” in violation of Pennsylvania's state constitution. The GOPer map achieved its goal:

In 2012, Democrats won 51 percent of the statewide popular U.S. House vote but only 5 out of 18 House seats.

But that's not what Kimmel put in front of his students. Instead, when they saw the odd shapes of Congressional districts in their area, they were curious how they came to be drawn that way. Here's what came next from an article in the Daily Local.

Kimmel’s eighth-grade math students ... had been studying the Census and how it relates to redistricting and, in some modern cases, the unconstitutional process of gerrymandering.

“My students, getting their first taste (of the subject), were amazed at the audacity, flabbergasted at what this meant about democracy, and more than a little amused at the stupidity of adults,” Kimmel wrote in an essay recently.

Someone wondered whether the class itself could do as well, or even better. ... In a little over two weeks of class time, indeed, the group of eighth graders did do a better job than the Legislature, he said. ... “The students learned how their mathematical skills, a sense of fair play, and some common sense could point the way to solving some of the problems we as a society face,” he added.

The students agreed.

“I had a lot of fun doing this,” said Alex McVickar, a West Vincent resident in the first year at Westtown. “I think we all collectively learned that it isn’t too hard to redistrict a single state. It may take some time, but the districts don’t need to be as preposterous as they are now. Also, I personally never realized how much math is involved in politics.”

The students drew eight different Pennsylvania maps using criteria including compactness and, apparently, their own sense of what was just.

“In fewer than 10 43-minute classes, my students created eight different redistricting maps. They are not perfect. We concluded, in fact, that there is no mathematically perfect way to do this, but there are ways that seem reasonable and ones that do not. And, pretty much anyone could tell the difference when looking at the maps from across a large room. The current CD map plainly does not pass that test,” he said.

“If my eighth graders can draft congressional district maps that are very representative and compact, why can’t the Pennsylvania Legislature?” he wondered. “And if the state Legislature cannot figure out how to represent its citizens, I know some great 14-year-olds who already have.”

I was pretty much a failure at 8th grade math. But I might have been able to learn from this guy.

The U.S. Supreme Court has indicated that it is afraid that trying to restrict partisan gerrymanders will drag it into decision making that requires higher math and statistics. Maybe the judges need to meet these kids.
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