Monday, January 15, 2018

Under assault ...

... a little frayed, but still the banner of hope is still there.

Saturday, January 13, 2018

This is where this flu leads

After last night, I may need this place.

Bakson.

Friday, January 12, 2018

Is my discomfort with Feinstein's re-election merely ageism?


My Senator, Diane Feinstein, is testing my principles.

I've never much liked her, ever since she was a prissily conventional mayor of my then-wildly unconventional city. I don't think I've ever voted for her. She moved on to Washington in 1992 (one of those evanescent "years of the woman") and has pursued a solid but conventional course as a pragmatic Democrat. Unlike her California Senate colleague Barbara Boxer, she voted for the Iraq war, later saying she'd been "misled" by the GW Bush administration. By the time of that vote she'd been in Washington ten years and ought to have known a thing or two.

And she is currently the oldest sitting Senator in a body which is "the oldest Senate ever." Born in 1933, she was fully an adult before the tumultuous 1960s. For goodness sakes, her daughter took retirement, though not quite joining the Medicare tribe, in 2012! Isn't it time for someone younger to represent California's millennial-dominated, racially diverse electorate? I know I want a Democratic presidential candidate who'll be under 60 in 2020; it's younger folks' turn. I wish Feinstein had decided to retire instead of running again for a term that would end when she is 91. 91!

But she's running -- and I have to ask myself whether my discomfort at the prospect of her re-election is merely ageism.

In the last 10 years, she's used her perch to do work that matters to me, breaking with the "intelligence community" (beware of bullshit whenever anyone uses that phrase without scare quotes) to investigate the Bush regime's torture policies -- and put into public view some tiny portion of the findings. It was Obama, not Ms. Oh-so-uptight Senator Feinstein, who kept the torture report under wraps.

Is my discomfort with Senator Feinstein's re-election merely ageism?

Lately she's done this sort of work again, releasing testimony about Fusion GPS' role in the investigation of Trump's Russia connections that the Republicans were trying to hide.

Is my discomfort with Senator Feinstein's re-election merely ageism?

And she most recently put herself out as the Senator who asked Trump to agree to a "Clean DREAM Act" thereby confusing him so much that he verbally contradicted his own cruel policy on DREAMERS and other immigrants.

Is my discomfort with Senator Feinstein's re-election merely ageism?

Yes, I know, on some level this current Feinstein-in-polite-resistance to Trump/GOPer horrors is the very good product of the tireless work of Indivisible, Move-On, Bay Resistance, and thousands of other activists letting her know her constituents want more and better from her. But hey, that's how democracy is supposed to work and we're getting something for our efforts.

Is my discomfort with Senator Feinstein's re-election merely ageism?

I can't answer my own question right now. I am deeply uncomfortable with the idea that I might well vote for an alternative in the June primary just because Feinstein seems "too old." That's not good enough, a violation of my principles. Kevin de Leon, her challenger, has to make the sale with me. He seems to have been a good and useful state senator (I've heard him speak for immigrant rights), but he has to make the case that he'd be a better choice. Feinstein is doing the right stuff for re-election -- let democracy flourish!

Friday cat blogging

What's going on out there?

Thursday, January 11, 2018

Republicans got to have someone to hate

Thomas Edsall offers this chart as support for the contention of Daron Acemoglu of M.I.T. and Pascual Restrepo of Boston University that the move among white working class males (non-college educated) to Trump in 2016 correlates with areas where Chinese competition and industrial robots have trashed their jobs.

Some part of the swing almost certainly can be accounted for that way. But what jumps out to me is that shifts among white working class males to the Republicans also, and even particularly, correlate with overt expressions of white racism by Republican presidential candidates. Come on, folks -- Reagan always worked for the white supremacist vote, launching his first campaign at the Neshoba Country Fair in Mississippi with a "states' rights" speech. In 1984, his theme was "Morning in America," an only slightly less blatant racist dogwhistle than Trump's "Make America Great Again."

George W. Bush might seem an exception -- except that he too ran hard against a marginalized outgroup: in Bush's case that group was LGBT people. (That backfired quite satisfactorily didn't it? White working class males sometimes have queer children and they like marriage ...) As the working class becomes more brown, the present GOP strategy will also backfire, if we can preserve enough democracy to make people's preferences felt.

Sick day

Bakson. Apologies to A.A. Milne and E.H. Shepard. Somehow, Disney is not quite up to scruff here.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Resist for #NetNeutrality

Via The Root comes word that Democrats have collected enough signatures on a resolution under the Congressional Review Act to force a vote on whether Senators want to preserve net neutrality. (The CRA is the law Republicans have been using to undo regulations issued in the last year of the Obama administration.) This doesn't mean that they are going to have the votes to overturn the Federal Communications Commission order that telecom companies must be allowed to discriminate in pricing for internet service. But it should ensure that every Senator will have to go on record one way or another. That provides an opening for a popular campaign to restore net neutrality which might well change some minds; fully three quarters of us tell pollsters we don't want the FCC to break the internet. We want government regulation to ensure fairness for all.

Confused? Pollsters found that too. Here's an exceptionally clear video explanation of the concepts.
Monique Judge vents her disgust with Trump's FCC chairman Ajit Pai who has led the charge for the corporations:

Now we all sit back and wait to see which company will be the first to rob its customers blind with outrageous pricing tiers.

Now we wait to see which company will introduce internet packages based on which types of services you want to use while accessing the internet.

Now we wait to see just how much Ajit Pai sold out the American people for.

Tuesday, January 09, 2018

The outrages keep coming

Next to ordering the breakup of hundreds of thousands of Salvadoran families, this may not seem the worst of the Trump/Republican regime's atrocities this week, but I want to note it here.

On Thursday there is supposed to be a Judiciary Committee hearing on the nomination of Howard C. Nielson Jr. to a lifetime appointment as a judge on the United States District Court for the District of Utah.

Who is Howard C. Nielson Jr.?
  • Californians may remember him as the lawyer who picked up the defense of Prop. 8., the initiative that outlawed LGBT marriage, after the elected state government declined to represent a measure they thought unconstitutionally discriminatory. Now any of us who look to support the rule of law understand that legal representation ought to be available to any party in a courtroom. But Nielson made it part of his argument that Judge Vaughn Walker, an experienced and acerbic federal judge, who was hearing the case should have been barred because he is gay. His argument: Walker might sometime benefit from the right to get married. Much of the legal world, including the judge, found this mixing of personal identity with the law both offensive and silly. But it certainly fits with Trump's attitude to judges, as when he attacked a Chicago judge for his his Mexican ancestry.
  • Nielson also comes from the clutch of Office Legal Council lawyers in the George W. Bush administration who cooked up legally spurious and morally offensive memos of allowing torture in the War on Terror. Jay S. Bybee, the lead torture lawyer, was subsequently put on the bench by GWB; the judiciary doesn't need another of these guys.
The Alliance for Justice is organizing opposition to terrible judicial nominees like Nielson.

I find I cannot resist reproducing this ...

as a long time fan of the Pirates of Penzance.

Monday, January 08, 2018

Post-truth might be another artifact of a particular moment

Here's a fascinating longread for anyone who had begun to feel that political persuasion was hopeless. Some of those social science studies that have been telling us that offering to counter inaccuracies only created an anti-truth backlash may themselves be a product of the journalistic impulse to promote flashy results based on flimsy data and weak statistical tests.

Yes, people do engage in motivated reasoning. Yes, it’s true that we prefer to cling to our beliefs. Yes, we do give extra credence to the facts we’ve heard repeated. But each of these ideas has also spawned a more extreme (and more disturbing) corollary—that facts can force the human mind to switch into reverse, that facts can drive us even further from the truth. It’s those latter theories, of boomerangs and backfires, that have grown in prominence in recent years, and it’s those latter theories that have lately had to be revised.

... Why, then, has the end-of-facts idea gained so much purchase in both academia and the public mind? It could be an example of what the World War II–era misinformation experts referred to as a “bogie” rumor—a false belief that gives expression to our deepest fears and offers some catharsis. It’s the kind of story that we tell one another even as we hope it isn’t true. Back then, there were bogie rumors that the Japanese had sunk America’s entire fleet of ships or that thousands of our soldiers’ bodies had washed ashore in France. Now, perhaps, we blurt out the bogie rumor that a rumor can’t be scotched—that debunking only makes things worse.

Or it could be that our declarations of a post-truth age are more akin to another form of rumor catalogued during the 1940s: the “pipe dream” tale. These are the stories—the Japanese are out of oil; Adolf Hitler is about to be deposed—we tell to make ourselves feel better. Today’s proclamations about the end of facts could reflect some wishful thinking, too. They let us off the hook for failing to arrive at common ground and say it’s not our fault when people think there really is a war on Christmas or a plague of voter fraud. In this twisted pipe-dream vision of democracy, we needn’t bother with the hard and heavy work of changing people’s minds, since disagreement is a product of our very nature or an unpleasant but irresolvable feature of our age.

Daniel Engber, Slate

As is often the case for me, putting what we are urged to believe in an historical context clarifies. We're living in times that encourage us to doubt the existence of hard realities -- at least until we fall on our faces and bust our noses. This corrective essay is well worth the time to read.

Sunday, January 07, 2018

Six North Korean lives

Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea is a haunting narrative of six North Korean lives -- accounts of daily struggles, delights, loves and pain -- during the late 1980's through the early '00s. Barbara Demick, a Los Angeles Times journalist reporting from Seoul, South Korea, spent seven years interviewing her subjects and confirming as many details as possibly about a place from which she, like all outsiders, was barred. She follows a young couple who could never quite connect within their homeland; an older woman who was a true believer in the Kim family Confucian/Communist project and ends up a successful small entrepreneur; a doctor who saw one too many of her pediatric patients starve to death; and an orphan whose survival skills would probably cause him to be classified as a delinquent in any society. Since her subjects lived to tell their tales in South Korea, the reader knows how each story comes out. Yet Demick narrates the perilous and unexpected accidents of these lives so dramatically that I felt as if I was reading a novel. I cared what happened to these people.

Along the way, this book contains a lot of information and reflection about North Korea that is probably not common knowledge as we, the US people, make an unwilling audience for a couple of cartoon characters, ours and theirs, trading insults.

The division of the Korean peninsula is completely unnatural, an artifact of the messy end of World War II and the Cold War. For seventy years before 1945, this ancient kingdom was an unhappy colony of Japan. Because U.S. mapmakers feared Russian ambitions at the end of the Pacific war, they drew a line across the country, each big power occupying one half of Korea. The Korean war of 1950-1953 didn't lead a redrawing of that line (or, to this day, a peace treaty) but did leave two states, the capitalist South, long a corrupt dictatorship and then a democracy, and the Communist North, led by Kim Il-sung. Older Koreans remember when the North was the more prosperous society, materially bolstered by Soviet and Chinese governments. Kim was the author of his own brand of nationalist communism in a country his regime successfully walled off from the outside. Demick explains:

To a certain extent, all dictatorships are alike. ... all these regimes had the same trappings: the statues looming over every town square, the portraits hung in every office, the wristwatches with the dictator's face on the dial. But Kim Il-sung took the cult of personality to a new level. What distinguished him in the rogues gallery of twentieth-century dictators was his ability to harness the power of faith. Kim Il-sung understood the power of religion. His maternal uncle was a Protestant minister back in the pre-Communist days when Pyongyang had such a vibrant Christian community that it was called the "Jerusalem of the East." Once in power, Kim Il-sung closed the churches, banned the Bible, deported believers to the hinterlands, and appropriated Christian imagery and dogma for the purpose of self promotion.

The resulting nationalist, collective, Confucian/Communist mix, called juche, became the faith of the North. Kim's death in 1994 was a defining trauma for Demick's six protagonists. How to live on without the leader was not an abstract question for North Koreans.

The question was exacerbated by the consequences for North Koreans of the collapse of Soviet Communism and the emergence of Chinese capitalism. The North had never fed itself, always dependent on importing about 40 percent of its food. For its people, "the crowning achievement of the North Korean system was subsidized food." People labored not so much for money as for rations and housing provided to workers by the state. When comradely subsidies ended, North Koreans, especially in disfavored areas, literally starved. The life stories in Demick's book are grueling, tales of foraging for grass and bark, of watching helplessly as loved ones simply wasted away, collapsed and died. Demick's summation is brutal:

In a famine, people don't necessarily starve to death. Often some other ailment gets them first. Chronic malnutrition impairs the body's ability to battle infection and the hungry become increasingly vulnerable to tuberculosis and typhoid. ... normally curable illnesses suddenly become fatal. Wild fluctuations of body chemistry can trigger strokes and heart attacks. People die from eating substitute foods that their bodies can't digest. ...

The killer has a natural progression. It goes first to the most vulnerable -- children under five. They come down with a cold and it turns into pneumonia; diarrhea turns into dysentery. Before the parents even think about getting help, the child is dead. Next the killer turns to the aged, starting with those over seventy, then working its way down the decades to people in their sixties and fifties. These people might have died anyway, but so soon? Then starvation makes its way through people in the prime of their lives. Men, because they have less body fat, usually perish before women. The strong and athletic are especially vulnerable become their metabolisms burn more calories.

Yet another gratuitous cruelty: the killer targets the most innocent, the people who would never steal food, lie, cheat, break the law or betray a friend. ... As Mrs. Song would observe a decade later, when she thought back on all the people she knew who died during those years in Chongjin, it was "the simple and kindhearted people who did what they were told -- they were the first to die."

The famine abated at the end of the 1990s; although some international aid came in, it seems not to have reached the most desperate people.

... the worst of the famine was over, not necessarily because anything had improved but, as Mrs. Song later surmised, because there were fewer mouths to feed. "Everybody who was going to die was already dead."

Some estimates make the toll three million out of a population of 22 million North Koreans; all numbers about things North Korean are disputed and the Kim government isn't telling.

Demick's book relates what her protagonists did to survive the famine, how even such a closed system as North Korea was altered by such a trauma, and the various routes they followed when they left their country. They are all exceptional in having managed to get to South Korea. Most people who leave the North end up on the margins of Chinese society. These people are the almost unimaginably lucky ones. South Korea, for its own political purposes, considers them citizens and makes a significant effort to integrate them into its thriving capitalist society. This is not easy.

The sad truth is that North Korean defectors are often difficult people. Many were pushed into leaving not only because they were starving but because they couldn't fit in at home. And often their problems trailed after them, even after they crossed the border. ...

Though this book is full of political observations, ultimately it is about human individuals. Their stories will fill my bad dreams for a long time.
***
The quote immediately above exemplifies one of my few quarrels with this book: Demick uses the locution "defector" throughout. I think of that word as signifying some political intent. Yet, though her subjects are certainly disaffected, their departure from North Korea does not really come across as political. I'd call them "escapees" from a society they came to feel was intolerable and unsurvivable.

This was published in 2010 and ought to be in many public libraries. Get ahold of it if you want to know a little more about people our president is threatening with incineration. H/t to Ezra Klein for recommending it.

Saturday, January 06, 2018

Two plagues: the invisible war zones of HIV/AIDS and opioids


Just about every retrospective on 2017 includes something like this:

Last year, more than 63,600 people died of drug overdoses, up from more than 52,400 in 2015. About two-thirds of overdose deaths — more than 42,200 — were linked to opioids. ... In comparison, ... more than 43,000 died due to HIV/AIDS during that epidemic's peak in 1995...

As a longtime gay San Franciscan, I live with memories of what it was like to live through the HIV plague years -- deaths were all around. When you encountered an acquaintance who looked a little wan, you wondered if he would be the next to go. You'd realize that the house down the block where the neighbors always seemed to be changing was an AIDS residence. Phone poles were covered with flyers for AIDS charity fundraising events. Gay newspapers carried pages of obituaries.

I thought I'd assemble some short notes on the many similarities and the many differences between these two murderous plagues, just to clarify my own thinking.

Similarities
If the current epidemic is intense where you live, I'm sure that you feel as if you are living in a war zone that is invisible to most of your fellow citizens. The gay film historian Vito Russo captured the feeling in 1988:

Living with AIDS is like living through a war which is happening only for those people who happen to be in the trenches. Every time a shell explodes, you look around and you discover that you've lost more of your friends, but nobody else notices. It isn't happening to them. ... No one else seems to be noticing.

Occasionally mainstream media will send a reporter to look into your plight. Each epidemic had archetypal victims whose suffering served as the image of the malady: fags and Haitians with HIV; "left-behind" rural whites today. In each epidemic, there were others, usually poor and dark, caught up in the plague, but a textured human panorama was largely beyond the perceptual capacity of sensational, yet conventional, media. Most of these reporters mean well ... but I would not be surprised if their subjects end up feeling unseen.

In both epidemics, one of the most prominent people who was/is not noticing was/is the president of the United States. Ronald Reagan wouldn't even say "AIDS" for six years as the disease spread, until his buddy, the actor Rock Hudson, succumbed. Donald Trump mentions his epidemic and even appointed a commission to suggest action -- but has done nothing except try to take Obamacare away from people who need treatment for addiction.

And in both epidemics, society at large gawked at the dying and shielded themselves from the horror by believing that the sick people were at fault for their pain. AIDS is a disease, not a sin (we more or less know that now); opioid addiction is a disease (when will we figure that out?)

Differences
When young gay men in Los Angeles, New York and San Francisco started dying around 1979, nobody knew what was killing them. Medical researchers rather quickly realized that finding a cause (it turned out to be a retrovirus transmitted through sex and blood products) and inventing a vaccine (they didn't) might win the scientist who could claim success a Nobel prize (it hasn't). An ugly competition ensued between Dr. Robert Gallo of the National Institute of Health and Professor Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in France over who had identified HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) first.

It was not until the mid-1990s, that drug treatments were invented, making AIDs a longterm, chronic disease among affluent populations, though poor and marginalized (colored) people still die disproportionately if infected.

Nobody is wondering today what is making people addicted to opioids (pain pills, heroin, and fentanyl) and frequently to overdose. The trajectory of morphine dependency has been known for over a century. And there's not much fame or honor in treating addiction; doctors and others working in the field are still paid less than other health workers.

Because we do understand addiction, we also know a lot about how to treat it. Addiction changes human physiology; drug dependence is a physical condition with secondary mental, social, and emotional symptoms, not a sin. Like high-blood pressure or depression, there are longterm drug treatments that work. But the stigma of addiction (and the cost of treating "unworthy" patients) keeps these treatments unavailable to most addicts.

People with AIDS and their loved ones in the '80s and '90s sometimes came to their suffering with enough relative class, race and economic privilege so that they could fight for their lives, and by extension the lives of the less privileged. AIDS activism demanded research and treatments from sluggish governments and medical institutions. In particular, people with AIDS and their friends became very good at highlighting "innocent" victims -- hemophiliacs, children born with the virus, health workers exposed to infected blood -- whose very existence showed that this was a disease, not some mysterious curse on bad actors.

It's not yet clear what opioid addiction activism would look like. Being strung out is not conducive to protest, though neither is having a collapsing immune system. It's probably the loved ones, the families burying sons, daughters, husbands, and wives, who may emerge as the activists. But they'll have to get over the shame associated with addiction; many families just don't dare to talk about what hit them. Neither did those ornery fags in the '80s either, until speaking out came to seem a matter of life or death.

Sam Quinones' Dreamland gives hints of how opioid activism might emerge. One of the "gateways" to addiction in the heartland (everywhere?) is high school football; young men strive to overcome almost inevitable injuries and easily and "honorably" end up habituated to pills. A few parents have taken the lead in sounding the alarm after a child died of an overdose. And where did those pills and other drugs come from? Albany County (New York State) is suing big pharmaceutical companies for deceptive marketing of their pain killers. This kind of suit has not yet fared well, but this is the sort of effort for which activism can sometimes create a positive environment.

People caught up in the opioid epidemic need to find their version of Vito Russo's proud harangue:

Someday, the AIDS crisis will be over. Remember that. And when that day comes -- when that day has come and gone, there'll be people alive on this earth -- gay people and straight people, men and women, black and white, who will hear the story that once there was a terrible disease in this country and all over the world, and that a brave group of people stood up and fought and, in some cases, gave their lives, so that other people might live and be free.

***
In addition to Dreamland, I would strongly encourage anyone wishing to understand the opioid epidemic to follow the journalism of German Lopez at Vox. Lopez has spent the last year learning and growing into this topic. This post would have come out long ago if I had't stopped to read it all -- and that was well worth my time.

Friday, January 05, 2018

Follow the marijuana light

Today, even before Attorney General Jefferson Davis Sessions relaunched the federal war on grass, Kos offered Democrats political advice.

If Democrats are smart, they will finally nationalize the pot issue, and its impact could spread through the entire map. The more young voters turn out, the bigger the Democratic landslide will be. And a great step toward making that happen would be full-throated Democratic support for full legalization at the federal level. Heck, leave it up to the states to decide for themselves! But the feds need to get out of the business of banning marijuana. And as far as political calculations go, there is little downside to Democrats. The public supports recreational legalization by 2-1 margins, and medicinal legalization by 9-1 margins or even higher. 

Yes. In the recent Alabama election, Doug Jones won under 45 voters by 28 percent. Let's turn 'em out. Thanks Jeff.

Friday cat blogging

Morty likes his carrot. No wonder, it is catnip filled.
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