Monday, December 11, 2017

GOPers love the "poorly uneducated"

You probably know this, but clear communication counts. The fact checking site Snopes rates this as true.

The 2017 tax reform bill eliminates personal deductions for state and local taxes (primary sources of public school funding), while offering tax breaks for parents who send their children to private schools.

They haven't actually passed this monstrosity yet. If you've got a Republican Senator or Congresscritter or know someone who does, NOW is the time to make a stink.

The headline refers to the President's characterization of his voters after the Nevada primary in 2016.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

Slouching toward apocalypse

We can take it as a given that, in order to encourage his white evangelical Christian supporters to turn out for aspiring-Senator Pedophile in Alabama, President Predator decided to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. embassy there. For his evangelical Christian base, this was even more attractive candy than anti-abortion federal judges. Ever since the Israelis occupied the city fifty years ago, the U.S. and Europe have been refusing to confer this mark of legitimacy on that conquest. The "peace process" between expansionist Israel and their subject Palestinian population has long been a sham and the U.S. claim to be an "honest broker" nothing but hegemonic flimflam. Still Trump was ready to roil multiple unstable countries and get some number of protesting Palestinians killed for domestic political gain.

Harry Enten at 538 lays out Trump's political math:

Today, Israel is a voting priority for many evangelicals. A 2015 poll noted that 64 percent of evangelical Christian Republicans say that a candidate’s stance on Israel matters “a lot,” compared with 33 percent of non-evangelical Republicans and 26 percent of all Americans.

And evangelical Christian voters, unlike Jews, represent a significant percentage of Republican voters. Some 26 percent of the electorate identified in the 2016 elections as born-again or evangelical Christian, and 81 percent of them voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton. Capturing evangelical support is essential for Republican candidates; as of 2014, evangelical and born-again voters represented the plurality (45 percent) of voters who are Republican or who lean Republican.

Those of us who are not part of this particular Christian subtribe, "dispensational pre-millennialists," may not realize why advancing Israel's power matters so much to these people. They believe that they are seeing Biblical prophecies of end-times being played out right now, that Jesus will return only when the Jews retake Jerusalem, destroy the Islamic holy mosque which has occupied what was the Temple Mount for centuries, and then rebuild King David's temple. Bloody battles will ensue (no kidding!) and the Jews will accept Christ and all will be hunky-dory for a 1000 years. This is the lovely fable which some 50 million Americans absorbed from such texts as The Late Great Planet Earth and the Left Behind series. They believe it with all their hearts and unhappy souls. And they believe that a serial liar and sexual predator can serve as God's instrument to make it all happen.

Diana Butler Bass, a scholar who writes on U.S. culture and religion, grew up in this tradition though she long ago left it. She's good at conveying how it feels:

When I was a teenager in the 1970s, I attended a "Bible church," a nondenominational congregation that prided itself on a singular devotion to scripture. We read the Bible all the time: in personal Bible study and evening Bible classes. We listened to hourlong Sunday morning sermons. For us, the Bible was not just a guide to piety. It also revealed God's plan for history. Through it, we learned how God had worked in the past and what God would do in the future.

Central to that plan was Jerusalem, the city of peace, and the dwelling place of God. It was special to the Jews because it was the home of Abraham and David. It was special to us because it was where Jesus had died and risen. We believed that ultimately, Christ would return to Jerusalem to rule as its king. We longed for this outcome -- and we prayed that human history would help bring about this biblical conclusion.

Jerusalem was our prophetic bellwether. God's plan hung on its fate. Whenever Israel gained more political territory, whenever Israel extended its boundaries, it was God's will, the end-times unfolding on the evening news. Jerusalem, as the spiritual heart of Israel, mattered. Jerusalem was God's holy city, of the ancient past, in its conflicted present, and for the biblical future.

Almost a decade ago, the documentary Waiting for Armageddon followed an evangelical pastor on a congregational bus tour through holy sites in Palestine; various teachers make sure the tourists understand they are seeing arenas of fortunate future carnage.

"There will be an ultimate final battle and it will be a lot of fun to watch ..."

"Christ will come back with a sword at this side ... we're going to be behind him with swords in our hands ... we're going to be his army ... the blood from this battle will be as high as a horse's bridle..."

When not anticipating such jubilant slaughter, this chilling film shows the group belting out the "Star Spangled Banner" under a U.S. and an Israeli flag while riding on a boat on the Sea of Galilee.

Though some references show when it was made (in the film, rumors of war look to Babylon in Iraq, not Gaza and Sana'a), the documentary holds up frighteningly well. Many (most?) evangelicals still believe this ugly stuff; they still want to make it happen; and now they have a friend in the White House.

Here's the trailer. The entire film is available on YouTube and well worth watching.

Saturday, December 09, 2017

Rerun

Take it from somebody who has seen this play out:

... the Republican Party has not learned from the mistakes of the Catholic bishops. True, some Republicans are appalled by Moore’s candidacy, but the leader of the party and its national committee have publicly endorsed Moore.

Moore supporters are operating out of the same playbook as the bishops did before they wised up and changed their policies. The accusations are denied. The credibility of the victims is challenged. “Why did they not come forward earlier? Why did they wait so long?” Then the actual offense is minimized. “She was consenting.”

Bishops, because of the shortage of clergy, were often persuaded to keep a priest in ministry because there was no one to take his place. Likewise, the Republicans faced with a narrow majority in the Senate are willing to compromise their ethics in order to maintain their power.

Jesuit Father Thomas Reese, Religious News Service

Friday, December 08, 2017

I didn't need this


It's time to start trying to get in shape again after months of travel and too little exercise. So I headed off this week to run over the delightful little mountain just south of San Francisco: 5 or more trail miles and 1000 vertical feet. It's a pretty isolated place; often I don't see anyone else on my usual circuit.

So I encounter this posted by the parks department:
Apparently this guy has been molesting women who run these trails. Two attacks were reported in October and November. There's no indication the authorities have caught the perp.

Yes, I decided to run my usual circuit anyway. And all was well. But I am mightily annoyed that I have to carry this anxiety. I am not willing to let this guy keep me away from one of my favorite routes. So far, he's done nothing worse than grope; my calculation would almost certainly be different if he'd been violent. Am I crazy?

Sweet!

Motivated by seeing our elections hijacked by some combination of the Koch brothers, Putin, Donald Trump and a bunch of rightwing knuckle draggers, unexpected candidates are joining the fray all over this year. David Ermold is running against Kim Davis to be the county clerk in Rowan, Ky. The long serving incumbent refused to issue a marriage license to Ermold and his male partner in 2015, defying the Supreme Court decision legalizing same sex marriage. I have no idea if the challenger has a chance, but it's a gutsy move.

Friday cat blogging

Reflections almost hide this noble creature surveying the street. Does the animal know she's nearly invisible?

Encountered while Walking San Francisco.

Thursday, December 07, 2017

A reckoning is coming ...


And that reckoning has become partisan. That's a good thing. In order for a social change to take root, at least one of our major political parties has to adopt it. Change doesn't emerge from political position papers; it bubbles up among constituencies. Parties take up formerly unthinkable causes -- think racial integration, or transgender rights, or sensible gun control, or even what I think are crackpot nods to "religious liberty" -- when the change has already percolated through parts of their base. Leaders find they have no choice and "evolve." After awhile, the novelty becomes just part of what we expect from Democrats (somewhat frequently) or Republicans (less frequently -- who needs novelty when you have plutocrats?).

So John Conyers had to go despite his record as the longest serving Congressman and Black Caucus groundbreaker. Al Franken has to go, despite being a pretty darn good Senator with a sense of humor. I would expect Congressman Kihuen to go soon enough. Men who think it their right to impose their sexual desires on women will discover such conduct is an impediment for career advancement among Democrats. Women who want to work in politics will be more likely to be believed when one of these guys violates their limits. Given the deep, deep extent of male certainty that men are entitled to women's attractiveness and availability, there will be back-sliding, awkwardness and actual transgressions. But gradually, we'll all learn the new dance. It's worth demanding that Democrats get serious about this because after this amazing moment, it can happen.

Meanwhile Republicans are yoked to President Predator and (most likely) Senator Pedophile. They are in no position to respond to this social change, even if they wanted to, and even when it bubbles up from some of their base, as it certainly must. In this moment of change, GOPers may still be able to win elections. But having the Democrats draw the contrast to their newfound principles will still help peel off some doubters.

But, but, Republicans sputter, what about that last Democratic predator president, Bill Clinton? Sorry guys, but the electorate is outgrowing its anchor in the Clinton era. Here's Ronald Brownstein explaining the transition we're living through:

The baby-boom generation, which has voted reliably Republican in recent years, has been the largest generation of eligible voters since 1978. But in 2018, for the first time, slightly more Millennials than baby boomers will be eligible to vote, according to forecasts from the Center for American Progress’s States of Change project. Higher turnout rates among baby boomers will preserve their advantage among actual voters for a while. But sometime around 2024, Millennials will likely surpass them. The post-Millennials, Americans born after 2000 who’ll enter the electorate starting in 2020, will widen the advantage. This generational shift will trigger a profound racial change: While about 80 percent of the baby boom is white, over two-fifths of Millennials and nearly half of the post-Millennials are not.

Where boomer women of all colors thought aggression from powerful men was just something you had to put up with, younger cohorts are learning higher expectations. They can certainly sometimes be cowed or silenced, but they have far more peer and social support for "silence breaking."

Meanwhile, a few conservatives even realize they have their own ancient skeleton in their closets; read Jay Kaganoff calling on Justice Clarence Thomas to resign. Change is happening at a most unexpected moment.

Wednesday, December 06, 2017

The bill is too damn high: the medical market fails us

Why didn't the Affordable Care Act (ACA) -- that's Obamacare -- rapidly earn more fans when it managed to add 20 million people to the number covered by some kind of health insurance? Because, from the point of view of many (most?) of us who have tried to access medical care whether or not on Obamacare, that necessary good still cost an arm and leg -- or at least too damn much!

Elisabeth L. Rosenthal's An American Sickness: How Healthcare Became Big Business and How You Can Take It Back dissects the grim truth:

In the past quarter century, the American medical system has stopped focusing on health or even science. Instead it attends more or less single-mindedly to its own profits.

Rosenthal is a physician with a degree from Harvard Medical School and and journalist with twenty-two years experience working for the New York Times on a variety of beats including Beijing, bird flu, and environmental degradation. Back in New York, she covered adoption of the ACA and moved on to researching the cost of U.S. medicine. (She's now editor-in-chief at Kaiser Health News.)

In this utterly readable volume, Rosenthal lays out through anecdote and expertise what has gone wrong in the delivery of medicine. Separate chapters explain how all facets of the system have organized themselves over the last 25 years to extract maximum cash from largely defenseless patient/consumers. We're being ripped off every which way -- by insurance companies, hospitals, doctors, drug makers, medical device vendors, lab testing and other ancillary service contractors, and increasingly by monopolistic health conglomerates.

The second half of the book is as deep and detailed as Rosenthal's description of the problem. She is full of ideas about how to fix this foul cesspool of exploitation of human helplessness. She explains what individual patients should question and what they should protest; she even provides sample letters. She makes suggestions for how play various parts of the system off against each other, such as insurance companies, doctors, and pharmacists; make 'em work for your business. She has solid suggestions for collective political remedies, particularly in the area of strengthening and making responsive the various state-level insurance commissioners. (This caught my attention because California made this an elected position by initiative in 1988 and some subsequent occupants been quite useful to patients.) There are numerous state and regional regulatory tweaks that could help some.

But ultimately the federal government is going to have to root out the greed that defines the healthcare system. Obviously with the party representing the One Percent in power, that's not currently happening. But we can and will demand better; it is our lives at stake. Rosenthal reminds us, patients do have allies within the system:

There are many great doctors, nurses, pharmacists, and others working their hearts out, even in these troubled and troubling times. Even as the healthcare sector faces a future of great financial uncertainty and humiliating bureaucracy, many of the best and brightest students are flocking to medical school. They're doing it because they want to take care of patients ... We have to remind everyone who has entered our healthcare system in the past quarter century for profit rather than patients that 'affordable patient-centered, evidence-based care' is more than a marketing pitch or a campaign slogan. ... When the medical industry presents us with the false choice of your money or your life, it's time for us all to take a stand for the latter.

Here are Rosenthal's Rules for understanding the U.S. medical system to ponder; click to enlarge:
***
Want to think about how serious this is? We understand what is happening. Today in a discussion of how Republican tax cuts aim to undermine Medicare, one elder offered a suggestion:

I was discussing this legislation with my younger sister, and pointed out the obvious, which is that I probably will not survive long since I am facing a 9K copay on my cancer drug alone when I go on Medicare in a couple of months (this is not hyperbole). She suggested that when the time comes to expire, maybe I could plant myself near an entrance to the Senate chamber. I know the timing would be difficult, but I am intrigued by the idea. Could be my last act as a public educator.

Rosenthal would recognize this sentiment and this determination.

Tuesday, December 05, 2017

As Southern California burns, remembering a friend

These apocalyptic scenes from the fire near Ventura last night put me in mind of my friend Hattie who succumbed to metastasizing cancer last month.

Optimism was not her thing.

We are obviously a species that has outsmarted itself.

Hattie was well read, well educated, well traveled, kind, and thoughtful. She made her art, raised orchids, struggled with the League of Women Voters newsletter, and loved her friends, family and her husband.

She raged at the damage that people she unhesitatingly labelled "foolish" and "greedy" were doing to her country.

Sure people are terrified, I understand that, but thinking that not protecting others will save them is foolish. The worst consequences of capitulating are to the soul as even I, an atheist, understand.

OK. I guess I have to out myself as a person who knows a lot about stuff.  I studied the history of the rise of the Third Reich during the Weimar period, and I studied the history of the Third Reich and the aftermath of WW II in Germany.  My Masters' thesis was about the way young Germans experienced the period.  ...

A few day later in November 2016:

I am giving a lot of credit to myself and all the people of goodwill who are the backbone of this country, the real people of substance. We can be proud. And we will prevail, ultimately, as we have already done in our personal lives. People like me have fought against fascist tendencies all our lives, including within our families, in schools, at work. We are not done yet. We have a lot of strategies and most of the brainpower in the country and most of material assets,too. We are not going to flee, since there is nowhere to go;  we will stay here and save our country. So, although we do have to mourn, this is not a time to despair.
In fact, when I think about my fortunate life, I am filled with gratitude today. I can feel, I can reason. I don't believe stupid things.

Living on a knife edge between between hope and despair is hard. Hattie chose to balance there.

We only met twice, but we stayed aware of each other through our blogs for many years. I miss her and can only imagine what her absence means to her family and friends for whom she a vibrant presence.

Monday, December 04, 2017

Called to choose a side

Bishop Gene Robinson (retired bishop of New Hampshire and the first openly gay bishop in the Anglican Communion) preached at our little San Francisco parish of St. John the Evangelist yesterday. This photo of the Bishop giving communion to two of our current crop of little girls is cribbed from my friend Susan Hansen. What a wise, brave man the Bishop is!

After the service, Robinson answered questions from quite a crowd of parishioners. He admonished those of us LGBT people living in the protected environment of this city to remember that in 29 states we queers may have a constitutional right to get married -- but we can be fired the next day for our sexual orientation. Here's a current map showing the state of employment discrimination law:
In all those gray states we have no protection at all; only the deep purple states offer wide protection to queers of (most?) flavors. From Fortuynist at Wikipedia.

He was asked where is the Church in these dire times. Like so many of us, he's mighty unhappy with attacks on poor and marginalized people from the President and the Republican Congress.

But he hastened to add gently that he was sure there were Republicans among us ... I'm not so sure about that in this congregation. We're a pretty radical bunch even in a radical city.

And I do wonder about how people claiming to be followers of Jesus can also be followers of Trump, Pence, Ryan and McConnell. There is little about which the Bible is more clear than this: "... do not oppress the widow or the orphan, the stranger or the poor; and do not devise evil in your hearts against one another." Zechariah 7:10.

Denouncing oppression is not something to be carefully polite about.

I think that wonderful escaped evangelical the Slacktivist has it right about how faithful people and churches must orient themselves toward our current regime; he takes direction from the abolitionist Frederick Douglass in calling out blasphemy.

“Blasphemy” is not hyperbole there. It is a term of acute theological precision. It is the correct and apt and necessary term. It is the word we need to be using now, today, to describe the blasphemous champions of oppressors with their so-called piety ...

... Many white churches support white nationalism and Trumpism.

Other white churches allow the option of not supporting it. But it is only that — an option, one that is permitted and tolerated, but never demanded.

This, too, is blasphemy.

Sunday, December 03, 2017

After the Steinle verdict: the decent, the losers, and the winners

Kate Steinle is still tragically dead. The 32 year old woman was just walking on the Embarcadero with her father in July 2015 when a bullet punctured her heart. The apparently dim-witted homeless man who randomly fired a found weapon was acquitted of responsibility for her killing by a San Francisco jury on Thursday, though held guilty of being a felon in possession of a gun.

And much of the country is up in arms. Rightwing Twitter wants a boycott of the City by the Bay. I kind of suspect they weren't coming here anyway, and wouldn't enjoy the place if they did, so that's not so worrisome. President Cheato is raving that this has something to do with San Francisco's welcome to immigrants and we should build his wall. Just as in the 2016 campaign, he's using other people's pain for his gain and inflaming racial fears.

I don't have any special knowledge of the case beyond what I read in the papers, but I have observations that I haven't seen brought together in most sources.

Devastated and decent
The Steinle family. The Chronicle recorded a short video, Mending the Heart, in which Steinle's father conveys his dignified determination not to participate in a blaming circus. He tries very hard to keep focus on the real harm, his daughter's death. And he stays away from vengeance-filled vituperation against the shooter or the city. (Kate's brother isn't so measured, but her father is the main spokesman.) Watch this soon at the link and weep; Chronicle links aren't always durable.

Losers
District Attorney George Gascon. Gascon's job is to decide who is to be charged with what crime in this city. He routinely throws the book at very young men rounded up on drug charges. He routinely exonerates police officers who shoot unarmed suspects. Presumably feeling political pressure to appear tough, he charged Jose Ines Garcia Zarate with intent to kill, including first degree murder. No wonder the charged didn't stick; the evidence showed Steinle was hit by a ricochet and Garcia Zarate seemed to lack both motive and capacity. If Gascon had dared to charge what the facts as found by the jury seemed to indicate, he might have gotten a conviction on some level of accidental manslaughter. But by going for broke, he chose to make a weak case unsustainable. (See Tim Redmond's devastating description of Gascon's failure here.)

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). It gets lost in the fog, but Garcia Zarate was on the street that fatal day because ICE neglected to get a warrant to pick him up from San Francisco County custody. San Francisco's "sanctuary" status means we don't just turn over inmates because someone at the Feds calls the jail and asks for a prisoner. Our law enforcement officers are required to follow the rules. In this country, it takes (or should take) a legal warrant to hand someone into custody. ICE didn't do its job and get the right judicial order; the SF Sheriff's Department merely followed the rules. Garcia Zarate became yet another homeless San Franciscan.

Winners
Matt Gonzalez. Gonzalez's past political career didn't make me a fan; a guy who would run as Ralph Nader's VP choice in the 2008 election demonstrated a complete lack of seriousness about U.S. politics. But in his role as lead public defender in this case, he did his job masterfully, enabling the jury to get beyond the noise and stick to the evidence. And his subsequent warning to the Cheato and company was timely:

“For those who might be critical of this verdict, there are a number of people that have commented on this case in the last couple of years — the attorney general of the United States, the president and vice president of the United States — let me just remind them that they are themselves are under investigation by a special prosecutor in Washington, D.C.,” Gonzalez said outside court.

“They may themselves soon avail themselves of the presumption of innocence and beyond a reasonable doubt standard,” Gonzalez said. “And I would ask them to reflect on that before they comment or disparage the result in this case.”

SFGate

The jury. Mostly criminal cases never get as far as being heard by a jury of fellow/sister citizens (much less a jury of their peers.) In 2012, 94 percent of state cases never reached trial. Most charges end in a plea deal with the defendant agreeing to guilt for some offense in order to receive a lesser sentence. But in the rare cases in which defendants do face a jury, ordinary people can prove thoughtful and discerning as I've written here from personal experience. Jurors often end up taking the momentous task they've been stuck with very conscientiously. Somehow it doesn't surprise me that a San Francisco jury made up of people who've likely seen quite a few individuals like Garcia Zarate on their streets needed more evidence than raw prejudice to make the man a deliberate murderer.

I have jury behavior on my mind as I'm on the hook for such service myself next week. I'm confident that nothing will come of it, as no attorney on either side would put me on a panel, but going through the motions is a welcome citizenship task.

Saturday, December 02, 2017

Game change? or not?


Washington pundits are agog that Robert Mueller's investigation has flipped President Trump's former National Security advisor Michael Flynn. The crew at 538 thought Flynn's guilty plea merited a special podcast. #NeverTrump Republican Jennifer Rubin writes "Flynn could deliver a knockout blow to Trump." Both the New York Times and the Washington Post have blaring stories.

I'm not feeling it. Flynn is pleading guilty to something we've known since last February: he talked with the Russian ambassador during the transition about sanctions and lied about it to the FBI. For an Intelligence guy he's not too bright; didn't he know that the U.S. almost certainly would be listening in on the Russian?

And as for Flynn's boss, the Orange Cheato, he publicly solicited help from a hostile foreign power (that would be Putin's Russia) during the campaign. I heard it myself when trapped in front of a cable news feed on a ferry in late July 2016. We know that. I happen to think Trump's behavior was (and is) treasonous; his disavowal and destruction of the more decent elements of our polity give aid and comfort to our enemies. But a sizeable minority of us -- well distributed -- thought not and put him in the White House.

Mueller can prove Trump's misdeeds -- mostly done in the full light of day -- and still achieve nothing unless Republicans decide the con man has outlived his usefulness and impeach him. Perhaps they might get around to that when they've given their rich donors their tax cut? We'll see.

Friday, December 01, 2017

What happened to give us the opioid epidemic?

These days you'd have to live under a rock not to know that the U.S. has a raging opioid addiction crisis. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse,

Every day, more than 90 Americans die after overdosing on opioids.

Over half a million U.S. residents are hooked on heroin and a couple of million more are hooked on prescription pills.

(For anyone curious, as I was, about terminology: heroin and morphine are derived from the opium poppy and thus are opiates. However pharmaceutical industry chemists have come up with synthetic compounds that act on the same receptors in our bodies, the opioid receptors, including hydrocodone [Vicodin], oxycodone [OxyContin, Percocet], and fentanyl. These drugs, as well as the opiates, are termed "opioids.")

Sam Quinones' Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic is a vivid journalistic account of what got us into this sorry situation. The emphasis here is on "what happened" -- he's not attempting to answer "why" so many people might have been vulnerable, though the book is a catalogue of hints. But we can't try to make sense of the "why" without a firm grip on "what happened" -- who, where, and when -- this is terrific reporting in that vein.

Quinones relates how by the 1990s doctors came to believe they ought to prescribe more drugs to relieve pain, how pharma companies, especially Perdue which invented Oxycontin, marketed to maximize profit from that worthy medical impulse, and how other unscrupulous doctors set up pill mills and made fortunes dispensing vast quantities of opioids to addicts who had started on prescriptions. Ordinary capitalist greed teed a plague up to explode.

During the '00s, public health authorities and cops gradually realized something had gone terribly wrong and that the ready availability of addictive medicines had to be curbed. New regulations reduced over-prescription. But as Quinones puts it, the change only meant that decade was "a great time to be a heroin dealer." A brilliantly organized entrepreneurial illicit drug distribution system out of the town of Xalisco in the Mexican state of Nayarit was ready, willing, and able to import their black tar heroin into areas where Oxy and fentanyl had created a plentiful supply of buyers. Their story, culled from interviews with imprisoned and/or deported drug distribution peons, is where Quinones' reporting really shines; heroin came to the heartland not through the Mafia, Central American gangs, or violent drug cartels, but by way of enterprising small businessmen originally united by family ties who thrived on offering reliability and practicing customer cultivation.

Quinones concludes with stories of what came after addiction mushroomed: of children who overdosed, of parents who retreated into shamed silence, and of other parents who became evangelists warning of the danger of drugs. And he shares stories of cops, judges and communities which fought back, which began to treat addicts as sufferers from a disease that required treatment and rehabilitation, and where some pride of place began to return.

Quinones writes a blog where he continues, beyond the Dreamland reportage, to try to explore what this plague means in our national life. He's acutely aware that the addiction epidemic is haunting our national debates, even when it's not in the foreground for many of us.

Politicians would do well to better understand the deep well of pain and anxiety surrounding, and thus the political power within, this issue. It’s not something expressed easily in polls. People aren’t likely to admit to a pollster on a phone that a loved one is an addict.

But it’s there and dims the view of the future of so many people, the prospects of so many towns and counties, the economies of so many regions, and thus is of paramount importance to them. Right up there with jobs – connected inextricably with jobs, in fact. In so many depressed areas, huge numbers of folks can’t pass an employer’s drug test.

Nor does it take many addicts for that foreboding to spread. A few cases in a small town, I think, are all that’s needed. People see it hit almost anyone and seemingly at random – like a plague – including families who before had no connection to the drug world or the criminal justice system. Soon everyone’s view of the future turns negative.

***
The opioid addiction crisis is treated in our public life as peculiarly a contemporary "heartland" phenomenon. Certainly that's the story Quinones tells. But it doesn't seem so far away to this city dweller.

I have friends who came back from being drafted into the Vietnam war who have never overcome drug using habits acquired in that imperial folly. And I have seen a friend get so hooked on opioids prescribed by a high end pain doctor that, whenever she checked into a hospital for treatment of ongoing injuries, she was in danger of suffering through withdrawal because medical personnel would not believe she actually could tolerate the volume of drugs she was habituated to.

Addiction is not solely the story of sad white people in Ohio -- we are an addiction-prone society in which we are taught to hope we can get happiness from a bottle or a pill. It's always worth asking, who benefits when drugs are the available answer to fear, disappointment, and pain?

Friday cat blogging

Meeting Jack through this snapshot, you might think he's a pensive, even dignified, gentleman.

But then, you might encounter this.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Worth pondering


... Communism arose in reaction to the Industrial Revolution, became a major force during the era of heavy industry, with all those spewing smokestacks — and then ended along with it. So, I wondered, will there be a similar political reaction to the Information Age? If so, is that new ideology already being born?

Thomas Ricks, NYT Book Review

We seem to be watching -- and living through and for many suffering -- a collapse of a mostly stable democracy with considerable elements of egalitarianism and rule of law. Imperfect sure, but those of us on the left had a pretty clear idea what was wrong with it and whose fault that was. We still have a pretty clear idea of the obstacles to something better: white supremacy, plutocracy, ignorance, greed.

But "new occasions teach new duties" in the language of James Russell Lowell's poem written in 1845. He was trying (floridly) to imagine possibilities for the new American republic without the blot of slavery. Can we imagine something better in our day?

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Slave markets in Libya; U.S. crimes; and known unknowns

A recent CNN report, People for sale: Where lives are auctioned for $400, documents how the flow of migrants from Africa escaping destitution and violence has turned some Libyan towns into slave markets. Human smugglers, their business thwarted by a crackdown on boats heading across the Mediterranean, have taken to selling their cargo to Libyan bidders. You can see video captured by hidden cameras at the link.

The U.S. right-wing has leaped to affix blame for this atrocity. Obviously, since the story involves Libya, Hillary Clinton must be the villain. This tells me these people have neither imagination nor decency. Simon Balto eviscerates this right-wing crackpot conspiracy theory. In that argument Balto casually throws off an observation that he doesn't seem to think even requires any argument:

... regime change in Libya appears to have made a bad situation worse, which is in line with the U.S. history of foreign regime change more generally. This was true under Obama/Clinton. It was also true under Bush/Cheney and pretty much every presidential administration since the beginning of the Cold War.

I agree. We should know that by now. It's pretty much irrefutable. But is it yet conventional wisdom?

I've been reading Oona A. Hathaway and Scott J. Shapiro's ambitious The Internationalists: How a Radical Plan to Outlaw War Remade the World. The book makes an historical case that, during the last century, nation states laid the groundwork in international law and effectual custom to end the era of "might makes right." This argument is both fascinating and debatable; I'll discuss the book more thoroughly soon. But I was struck by how closely Balto's observations echoes something in this volume:

We should be clear about what our data show and do not show. They show that conquest, once the rule, has become the exception. But they reveal nothing about whether strong states use or threaten force to dominate weaker ones without actually conquering them. Indeed, we can point to cases when states have used their militaries to exert significant pressure on—and, occasionally, domination over—other states. ...

... in several cases, states have forced a change in regime, or prevented one. Most famously, the CIA orchestrated a coup to remove Mohammad Mossadegh and reinstall the Shah of Iran in 1953, the Soviet Union crushed the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 and invaded Czechoslovakia in 1968. Much more recently, the United States invaded Iraq in 2003, toppled Sadaam Hussein, and installed the Coalition Provisional Authority to govern the country. But what’s most notable about these “nonconquests” is how ineffective and unstable they usually are. ... influence often wanes as soon as the threat disappears. ...

This book simply throws off an assertion very like what Balto assumes, this time within the arena of legal scholarship. The notion that hegemonic conquests do not "work" cannot become conventional wisdom too soon if we're to have a more peaceful international order. Mucking about by force in other peoples' countries builds nothing worthwhile and leaves only suffering behind.

The Internationalists is about how an idea whose time had come gradually spawned supporting and sustaining structures around what might seem a weak formality. Sometimes, when world circumstances change, we "know" novel things long before we "know" them. The truth that strong powers cannot effectually impose viable governments by conquest may be one of those things we know that we don't even know that we know.

If you followed that, I apologize for sounding like a certain war criminal (remember "known unknowns"?) but I think there is something to this idea.

And let's give props to CNN for exposing the contemporary slave markets. Will anything change for migrants as a result? It is hard to see how. Photo is via International Organization for Migration (IOM).

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Want to watch Mount Agung blow out ash and lava?

If this Indonesian eruption continues on the scale scientists expect, it may even cool earth's temperature briefly. The full screen view is amazing, even at midnight, local time.

On the road again

Have been visiting a friend who lives in an assisted living community. Residents have put up this collection of bumperstickers on a pillar in the communal garage. Click to enlarge.

Who says all old people are right wingers?

Monday, November 27, 2017

Hope for Democrats

The Washington Post makes the narrative a version of "Watch out for these (blonde) suburban ladies!" And that story is not wrong. The work of the Liberal Women of Chesterfield County in the recent Virginia elections is inspiring, turning a piece of the Richmond suburbs into fertile ground for Democratic votes. They came together through Facebook in response to Trump's election, created community and organization, and canvassed 50,000 addresses before this November's election. Do that in enough places and 2018 can begin the work of turning the country around.

But there was a lot more to Chesterfield County's shift to the Democrats than appears in the Post's lede and that analysis points to a more complex story.

“In presidential years and in governor’s races, the county where Republicans had their largest margins was Chesterfield,” said Bob Holsworth, a retired Virginia Commonwealth University political science professor. “It was where Republicans did their best.”

But the county evolved as its population mushroomed by nearly 25 percent between 2000 and 2016. While the number of whites in Chesterfield declined by 10 percent from 2000 to 2010, the percentage of blacks grew by 4 percent and Latinos more than doubled from 3 percent to more than 7 percent.

At the same time, Republicans’ victory margins steadily declined. In 2001, Mark R. Warner was the first Democratic gubernatorial candidate in four decades to get more than 40 percent of Chesterfield’s vote. By 2013, the Republicans’ winning margin had shrunk to eight percentage points. In 2016, Trump defeated Hillary Clinton by only two percentage points in Chesterfield, setting the stage for Northam to surpass Gillespie.

“I don’t think this election was generally about demographics, but in Chesterfield it was,” said Quentin Kidd, director of the Wason Center for Public Policy at Christopher Newport University. “In the next 10 years, it’s not going to be the Chesterfield where you slap an ‘R’ next to someone’s name and they win.”

Demographics are not destiny. The shift in the direction of a more diverse population was not huge -- but it helped open a crack for a progressive coalition.

Such a coalition is rooted in women of all colors, the broad communities of color, and even white men (often but not always college educated) who see hope for themselves in a more regulated, less individual-focussed, economy. Democrats win when all parts of that coalition can work if not entirely together at least in parallel. The Democratic coalition is the absolute majority nationally and becoming the majority in more and more localities.

Since the other guys offer literally nothing to the members of the coalition, if we lose in reasonably fair elections, we either failed to play well together or neglected to do the work of engaging with our communities. Neither should be acceptable anywhere when democracy itself is under threat, despite the often unpalatable reality that we're all going to have play as Democrats for a season. Equitable democracy is a longterm goal, not a political party.

Sunday, November 26, 2017

These men just don't get it

Guest post from my friend Michele:

NPR had an “ad” for the book Sleeping Beauties [by Stephen King and Owen King] and the tag line was basically: “Imagine waking up in a world without women.” That sentence tells us the root of the sexism in our society. Who is listening to the tag line? Men and women. Who will wake up in a world without women? Men. It didn't occur to the writer, or to the people who approved the message, or anyone else who had veto power before the line was read on the air, that it was for the ears of men only.

Imagine waking up in a world without women? We apparently already live in one.

BTW, I read the book and it’s not very good.

YMMV. I'm unlikely to read this one.

This is serious

Since the New York Times in its wisdom has seen fit to give space to one of our contemporary neo-Nazis, allowing a young fascist to project himself as just another warm, fuzzy American boy in the heart land, it seems time for this. [No link to the NYT on this one; they can promote their own click bait.]
If you want to know how the NYT screed reads, try "Nazis Are Just Like You and Me, Except They're Nazis" from the brilliant James Hamblin.

And to go deeper, there's this: "The Making of an American Nazi."

Saturday, November 25, 2017

I love New England


Spotted outside a Congregational Church, Thetford, Vermont.

Friday, November 24, 2017

Friday cat blogging

Thanksgiving with Bella, Boris, and Yaz. Bella catches voles for her breakfast; Boris is a happily retired barn cat who adorns the lap of his friend; Yaz is a bit suspicious, but lovely when one is allowed a glimpse.

After the holiday feast, I think I'll probably #OptOutside for a day. Blogging resumes tomorrow.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Reason for thankfulness: Trump can't make America white again


Maria Sacchetti and Nick Miroff provide an exhaustive and horrible catalogue of the multitude of ways our white nationalist regime is trying to prevent foreigners from coming here, whether they are family members of residents, refugees, or immigrants seeking a better life. The list is long; the toll of human suffering from cruel and arbitrary regulations is immense.

But Trump and his frightened MAWA backers can't avert the inevitable. The time is coming when this will not be a white man's country.

“You can slow the rate of Latino and Asian immigration, but it won’t make the population whiter,” [William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution] said. “It will just become less white at a slower pace.”

Or we all can just get used to living alongside each other.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Is Trump so bad we have to rehab George W. Bush?


Erudite Partner takes a look at this question in her latest article for TomDispatch. She thinks we need to remember some facts:

By invading Iraq, Bush broke both international and US law.

In addition to his crimes against peace, Bush and his administration were also the authors of such traditionally recognized war crimes as torture and the use of chemical weapons. One of the uglier aspects of the US military’s battle for the Iraqi city of Fallujah was its use of white phosphorus, an incendiary munition. Phosphorus ignites spontaneously when exposed to air. If bits of the chemical attach to human beings, skin and flesh burn away. The burning continues as long as there is oxygen available, sometimes right into the bone.

In short, isn’t it a little early to begin rehabilitating the man responsible for indefinite detention at Guantánamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques,” and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and at least 150,000 Afghans—not to mention the trillions of US dollars shoved down the memory hole in pursuit of the futile wars that followed?

...So what if—after 16 years of fruitless war, 16 years of disintegrating American infrastructure, 16 years of almost unprecedented inequality—George W. Bush does find Trump’s rhetorical style distasteful? Is that really any reason to turn a presidential war criminal into a liberal hero?

It's going to take a lot more than expressions of tepid disdain for Trump to improve George W.'s place in the history of terrible U.S. presidents.

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Another Russia scandal


As a narrative arc, the Netflix documentary Icarus is a mess. Author/playwright Bryan Fogel, an accomplished amateur cyclist, was inspired by notorious professional cycling doper Lance Armstrong's successful demonstration that drug testing could be beaten to see whether he could duplicate that feat at his level of competition. So he tried doping, got good advice on how to beat the system, and filmed himself sticking a needle in his butt, repeatedly.

Fogel's mentors in the dope detection business put him in touch with Dr. Grigory Rodchenkov, the head of Russia's anti-doping lab and the guy who oversaw drug testing at the Sochi Olympics where Russian athletes won an unprecedented 13 golds. Vladimir Putin awarded Rodchenkov an Order of Friendship after that accomplishment.

For reasons that the movie never makes clear, Rodchenkov involved himself gleefully in Fogel's doping experiment, including welcoming the filmmaker into his home and life in Moscow -- along with his urine samples. The two men became buddies.

And then a World Anti-Doping Association (WADA) investigation concluded that there was something rotten about the Sochi drug monitoring. Rodchenkov's world starts to collapse; he fears he'll be made to take the fall for this insult to Russian pride. He has been locked up previously when Russian sport was under threat; he knows the secret police, the FSB, are looking at him.

So he takes off for Los Angeles to join his friend Fogel, carrying a hard drive of doping records and samples of the tools for urine sample swapping. Back in Moscow, at least one other mid-level sports doping figure turns up dead. The film recounts the Fogel and Rodchenkov's struggle to get protection from US legal authorities, convince WADA (however unwelcome they may find the information) that he's got the goods, and finally how he took the story to the New York Times which continues to follow the story. Although the evidence is close to irrefutable, international sports bodies, including the International Olympic Committee and FIFA which runs World Cup football, have so far chosen to protect Russian inclusion over the truth of their sports' corruption. Rodchenkov ends up under "witness protection," hidden somewhere in the United States.

I can only wonder whether Rodchenkov worries whether somewhere among the nest of con-men that surround our Putin-admiring president, there's an official willing to sell out his location to the FSB. After all, apparently a former National Security Advisor was discussing a kidnapping for pay for the Turks...

The movie could have used a lot of tightening up. Fogel's original project gets lost; international intrigue takes over. When/if the Russian doping saga becomes more resolved, I would not be surprised if there's a deeper remake; Rodchenkov is a fascinating figure. Until then, this is certainly worth a couple of hours.

Monday, November 20, 2017

Sunsets can be pretty great too ...


though seeing one the same day means a LOT of airport and airplane time. This from Charlotte, NC on the way to New Hampshire. Blame the airline hub system ...

On the road again


Sunrise over SFO. I reflected on why I seem so frequently to get good sunrise pictures when in airports. Oh yes, I'm up and awake early ... but also, airports are usually located on flat expanses. Not a deep thought ...

More for rich people! Whoopee!

You may have heard that Republicans want to repeal the mandate in Obamacare that everyone must buy health insurance. The mandate is meant to draw insurance companies into the market by ensuring that healthy people are part of the risk pool, offsetting the sick people such companies would otherwise try to exclude. Kevin Drum passes along this chart of who would win and who would lose as a consequence of the "savings" in Medicaid, Medicare and other government health spending if Congress repealed the mandate and thereby drove millions off insurance.
In answer to a query from Oregon Senator Ron Wyden, the Congressional Budget Office explains:

As you requested, the Congressional Budget Office and Joint Committee on Taxation’s staff have analyzed the distributional effects of those changes in spending using income categories consistent with JCT’s analysis. In calendar year 2021, for example, those excluded amounts would total about $19 billion:
•$18 billion less spending for Medicaid,
•$4 billion less spending for cost-sharing reduction (CSR) payments
•$1 billion less spending for the Basic Health Program (BHP)
•$4 billion more spending for Medicare because of changes in payments to hospitals that serve a disproportionate share of low-income patients.

On average, federal spending allocated to people in tax-filing units with income less than $50,000 per year would be lower under the proposal than under CBO’s baseline projections throughout the next decade. ... That outcome would stem largely from the reduction in Medicaid spending allocated to them. The increase in spending allocated to higher-income people results from the allocation to them of part of the change in Medicare spending.

My emphasis. The GOPer "tax" bill screws sick poor people, in order to pass through the savings to rich people as tax cuts.

It's easy to call out the morals of a political party that stands by a candidate whose pursuit of juvenile girls got him 86'd from the local mall. But what's wrong the morals of politicians who loot people in need for those who have plenty?

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Choosing to forget injuries, at least for awhile

A few weeks ago I found myself in a discussion of how the Catalan independence movement was roiling Spain, a country where I'd just spent a delightful month. I quickly realized that I didn't know my ass from my elbow about contemporary Spanish politics. The historical reading I'd done on the country tended not to extend forward beyond the end of the Civil War in 1939 or perhaps the death of the dictator Francisco Franco in 1975. That was a long time ago; how did contemporary Spain come to be and how did the country work? After all, the place is not just a glorious historical artifact.

Tellingly, the only hint I got from a Madrid friend felt cryptic: "Nobody talks about it."

Seeking answers, I went looking for my preferred source of information -- a book, preferably in English since I'm linguistically challenged. Somewhere I happened on Democracy Without Justice in Spain: The Politics of Forgetting by Omar G. Encarnación. The author, a professor at Bard College, is actually writing within a discussion among political scientists about what makes for a successful transition from authoritarian rule to democracy, but along the way he provides an accessible narrative of the modern Spanish political developments which are the backdrop of the current impasse.

The Franco regime won power in the 1930s and cemented its long rule through brutal repression of any hint of opposition. It might have been natural, as international circumstances changed, the dictator died, and Spain tried to emerge from being an European fascist throwback and pariah, for opponents to respond to any hint of that regime crumbling by seeking revenge. In fact, in the mid-1970s, the political classes did the opposite. They chose fully conscious "forgetting."

Spain suggests that in some cases a political solution that abridges, circumvents, and delays justice against the old regime might be preferable. This hard truth gets us to the question of why forgetting flourished in Spain in the first place. In Spain, the question about what to do about the past was approached not as an ethical or legal challenge, as the transitional justice movement is prone to do, but rather as a political dilemma. This entailed doing what was possible rather than what was right.

Franco's designated successor was the nominal monarch, but King Juan Carlos knew that royal absolutism wasn't going to fly. A politically nimble politician of the old regime, Adolfo Suárez, offered Spain's repressed Socialists and Communists democratic rights -- freer speech, elections, a written constitution (1978) -- in return for a broad agreement not to relitigate the Civil War. According to Encarnación, the opposition was almost as willing to keep silence as the former Francoists.

... the Pact of Forgetting aimed at arriving at something of a consensus about Spanish history, especially the Civil War. Although the memory of the Civil War remained polarized, for the main actors of the democratic transition the conflict came to be understood as a guerra de locos (war of collective madness) that produced no winners and losers, only victims. In this problematic formulation, both sides bore equal responsibility for the Civil War, which made it redundant to ascribe blame to any particular group in society. The important thing was to ensure that a similar conflict would never happen again, and the best way to achieve that result was to forget and to look to the future.

Both left and right simply wanted to go on -- to transform Spain into a "normal" European state. When the Socialists won power through election in 1982 (and the right allowed a peaceful transition of power), rejoining Europe, modernizing Spain in the eyes of the continent, remained their priority.

Throughout Spain's democratic transition, regional separatisms erupted around the transition's edges. Basque separatists blew up Franco's designated successor, Prime Minister Admiral Luis Carrero Blanco, in 1973 while the old dictator still lived, a deed which certainly impacted the transition. But, though Carrero Blanco may not have been missed, ETA's bombings did not create broad support for regional separation. And ETA rejected what the rest of Spain was doing:

... like other revolutionary movements of the period, ETA members chose to distance themselves from the democratization process in Madrid in protest against what they perceived as an illegitimate transition to democracy, since neither the right nor the left approved of the principle of regional self-determination. Herri Batasuna, ETA’s political branch, branded the democratic transition “the pure continuity of Francoism”.

Majorities of Spaniards simply wanted an end to political violence.

Between 1979 and 1980, a period that coincided with the negotiation and ratification of the Basque autonomy statute, ETA killed 242 persons—one third of all those killed since the beginning of the transition

... the political class sought to solve the conundrum posed by the demands for self-governance by Spain’s separatist-nationalist communities. The failure to deal successfully with these demands in the 1931 constitution was widely seen in 1977 as having contributed to the failure of the Second Republic. ... The solution arrived in the form of a highly contradictory constitutional compromise that stresses the “indissoluble unity of the Spanish nation,” effectively eliminating the possibility for self-determination, alongside the recognition of a variety of “nationalities” in the Spanish territory and the right of any region to self-governance. This compromise opened the way for the creation of las autonomías, a system of regional self-governance distinguished by its asymmetry, with the “historic” autonomous regions (Catalonia, the Basque Country, and Galicia) enjoying more autonomy than the rest. As such, the system remains closer to “regionalism” than to “federalism,” a term studiously avoided in the 1978 constitution ...

It is the residue of these compromises, and subsequent economic, political, and attitudinal twists and turns, that set up the Catalonia impasse today.

It was not until 2007 that the Spanish parliament passed the "Law of Historical Memory" which reckoned more openly with the painful past, apologized to Franco's victims, and led to removal of many Francoist monuments. This was at least partially enabled by the judge Baltasar Garzón's decision in 1998 that the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet could be held legally accountable for his crimes in his country. Spain's movement away from "forgetting" and toward openly engaging with its past involved a sort of positive blow-back from Latin American struggles for democracy. Encarnación quotes Carlos Castresana, the lead prosecutor in the Pinochet case, and latter head of the International Commission against Organized Crime in Guatemala:

"The truth about the past is the compensation that we owe those who made the miracle of our transition possible with the sacrifice of their silence. "

I'm sure there are better histories of this complex progression, but I was glad to find Democracy Without Justice in Spain to cast light on some of my questions. This was only possible because of access to academic libraries through my Erudite Partner; the book is beyond expensive which probably means it is less read than it might be.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Saturday scenes and scenery: San Juan Island

Getting there requires a ferry trip. If it is a clear day, you might glimpse Mt. Baker out a porthole.

The surrounding waters of the Strait are seldom this calm, but for a morning moment, there was this.

Forest trails are well groomed.

Quiet roads provide bucolic sights.

Cow tipping perhaps?

And if you climb high enough, there's Mt. Baker again.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Liberia got off to a bad start and turned to Old Lady to dig itself out

The West African country of Liberia was born out of the desire of white people in the still young United States to rid themselves of a small, but increasing, anomaly: free black persons.

In early nineteenth century, America found itself with a growing class of freed blacks, many of them children of slaves who had somehow found themselves freed, for reasons ranging from happenstance to, in many cases, interracial rape. White slave owners had impregnated their slaves, who then had mixed race children whose skin color was a daily reminder of the hypocrisy that infused antebellum life. Many of these mixed race children were eventually freed.

The rising number of freed blacks worried the white slave owners. ... And so began the "back to Africa" movement, centered around the thought that the best way to prevent slave rebellions was to send free blacks back to Africa.

In 1820 the first of many shiploads of mixed-race freed slaves and blacks headed to West Africa ...

These new colonists were mostly lighter skinned, literate, and Christian as against the native population, Africans who naturally resented being told they had new superiors. These newcomers forcibly installed themselves as a ruling class over 28 indigenous ethnic groups, came to be labelled "Congo people" because the locals associated them with slave traders, and proudly ruled Liberia as an outpost of "civilization" among "savages" for over 100 years.

Helene Cooper, a New York Times and Wall Street Journal correspondent, is descended from these Congo people; her family emigrated to the U.S. in 1980 as a coup plunged the country into violent upheaval. The subject of her book, Madame President: The Extraordinary Journey of Ellen Johnson Sirleaf is also a descendant of those immigrants, but her family background is complicated, giving her from early life an ability to move between native Liberian culture and the highfalutin world of the ruling class. This biography tells both modern Liberia's story of mis-development, misrule, mistakes, and misfortune that made it ripe for a bloody 25-year war of all against all and also the life story of the complex, charismatic, talented, not always admirable individual, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, who won two elections that finally brought some stability to a battered country.

It's hard to overstate how brutal Liberia's civil conflict was. From the 1980 military coup that evicted the Congo establishment through rule by a series of warlords until 2003, at least 250,000 people were killed and perhaps a million displaced. Exhaustion, global disgust with the warlords, and mobilization among some of the war's most helpless victims and enduring survivors, market women, finally brought an unstable peace. Along the way the last warlord, Charles Taylor, won a disputed election in 1997 in which Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, still very much a proud Liberian, but also a U.N. Development officer and banker, participated without much success.

For all the death and destruction he had heaped on Liberia, Taylor somehow had the support of a great many people. Those supporters -- including masses of young boys singing and dancing for their Pappy in the streets -- adopted the unofficial campaign slogan "He kill my ma, he kill my pa, I will vote for him." To most Westerners that made little sense, but to Liberians, it was a perfectly understandable extension of Darwin. Taylor had proven to be the strongest at war ... he deserved his shot at the presidency. "He spoil Liberia -- so let him fix it."

Taylor won that round and soon the war resumed, drawing in the neighboring West African nations. (Taylor is now serving a 50 year sentence in Britain, condemned by a U.N. tribunal for war crimes, torture and mayhem.)

In November 2005, after two years of anxious peace, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf did win the country's new presidency. Her rise was foreshadowed by the rising of market women that brought the warlords to peace talks. The country's interim government had thrown them a scrap in the form of a new Ministry of Gender. As elections approached, the minister, Vahba Gaylor, threw her scant resources into getting women registered. Out of the country's disrupted population of 3 million, 1.5 million were enrolled, of whom 51 percent were women. Sirleaf campaigned on her history of resisting (some of the time) the depredations of a generation of warlords.

"Old Lady was old. But Old Lady knew how to fight!

The election came down to a runoff between Sirleaf and the soccer star George Weah. His support consisted mainly of young men, but "the women had their own tricks ..." Her women supporters worked overtime to get young men to trade their voter ID cards for beer or cash -- or simply stole them from sons and brothers.

Years later there was no shame among the women who stole their sons' ID cards. "Yeah, I took it. And so what? ... That foolish boy, wha' he knew? I carried him for nine months. I took care of him. I fed him when he wa' hungry. Then he will take people country and give it away? ..."

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became the first woman ever elected president of an African country. Then she had to govern it, overcome constant male resistance, reduce some corruption, wrangle reduction of its unsustainable foreign debt, win re-election, try to revitalize a broken society and economy, and fight back against the 2014 Ebola outbreak that threatened to wipe out a million Liberians. Somehow she did all this, or something like it.

Cooper's account is detailed, surprisingly objective since this author obviously admires her subject hugely, and completely fascinating, a window into a world of which it is easy for people to the U.S. to stay ignorant.

This is a book to "read in the audio version." It is performed by Helene Cooper's sister, Marlene Cooper Vasilic, and offers an intelligible rendition of the Liberian English phrases sprinkled throughout the text. It's a chance to hear a little bit of West Africa.

As I write this, Liberia is again in political turmoil, still striving to achieve a peaceful transfer of power to another elected leader. Sirleaf, now 78, is termed out. An older George Weah is still the leading candidate of young men, while Sirleaf's vice-president Joseph Boakai runs against him. Neither received a majority in an October poll and a run-off has been postponed over charges of irregularities. For the sake of Liberians, let's hope this vibrant country can extend its short history of peace.
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