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“In all of the five Congresses examined, the voting records of Senators were consistently aligned with the opinions of their wealthiest constituents. . . . In the 110th and 111th Congresses, when Democrats controlled both the Senate and the House, the voting records of Senators reflected the opinions of middle-class constituents as well as upper-class constituents. . . . [but] it was Democrats — not Republicans — who were more responsive to upper-class opinion in the 111th Congress.”

- Eric W. Dolan, “‘Oligarchic tendencies’: Study finds only the wealthy get represented in the Senate,” The Raw Story August 19, 2013

“There is no grassroots organized progressive movement with power in the United States, and none is being built. Indeed, if anything threatens to emerge, the cry ‘Remember Nader!’ arises and the budding insurgency is marginalized or coopted, as in the case of the Occupy Wall Street events.”

- John Stauber, “The Progressive Movement is a PR Front for Rich Democrats,” Counterpunch March 15-17, 2013

The combined message of these quotes is that grassroots activism in America is pointless: you can either be coopted by the corporate-ruled two-party system, and thus effectively turned into an “astroturf” group whose volunteers are deluded if they still think they’re fighting for “the people,” or you can be marginalized and powerless. The obvious conclusion is that motivating government action, especially action drastic enough to address something as big as the global climate crisis, requires support from a majority, not of the voting public, but of the wealthiest 1%.

There are several possible objections to these findings and conclusions. One is simply that studies like the one Eric Dolan reports on, and this more recent one that covers all of Congress and extends back to 1981, are overly pessimistic about the modern two-party system. A study of California ballot measures asserts that state-level representatives there actually do represent their constituents, rich and poor. If true, this may merely be an argument for California being better at democracy than the rest of the country; maybe I should move back there. In any case, it seems exceedingly unlikely to me that these state-level results can be applied to national politics.

Another objection is that we shouldn’t assume that all “grassroots” groups that support Democrats are automatically pawns of the 1%, or that all groups that avoid two-party politics are automatically powerless. Have protest marches really had no impact on government decision-making any time in the past 30 years? And what about Move to Amend, the group that brought the John Stauber article to my attention? In doing so, are they asserting that their deep hostility to the political dominance of the wealthy renders them marginal and irrelevant?

Meanwhile, studies of the general trends in how Democratic politicians vote obscure the fact that some Democrats are more genuinely progressive than others. I’m not sure even John Stauber would be willing to claim that supporting Senator Elizabeth Warren is no different from supporting Wall Street. And the Progressive Change Campaign Committee confidently asserts that recent election results show the “Elizabeth Warren wing” of the Democratic Party is growing. Granted, the linked article points out that “The primaries in question were all for safe Democratic seats . . . But progressives believe notching such small victories is slowly, surely pushing the party to the left.”

The problem is that we simply don’t have time for such slow change. Move to Amend refuses to support the currently active anti-big-money Constitutional amendment on the grounds that it doesn’t address corporate personhood. But even that weak amendment stands no real chance of being approved by either house of the current Congress; odds are good that building enough support to pass any such amendment will take many more years. Meanwhile, the science is clear that for every month we wait before committing to deep cuts in greenhouse emissions, the ultimate cost of climate chaos in lives and dollars grows. If we’re serious about averting the worst impacts, we’ll simply have to find a way to make those cuts within the political system we currently have.

So what on Earth can we do to get the 1% on our side? Well, lots of things, actually. We can point them to a TV show about the climate crisis on premium cable, and a comprehensive climate-action plan “led by business for profit” (it even covers the “what about China?” objection). We can engage in shareholder activism after buying just $2000 of stock in a company. We can ally ourselves with the insurance companies and big investors who are already on board with climate action. Remember, big corporations are the only ones that can build enough solar panels and wind turbines fast enough to meet the demand we’re trying to create, and much of that demand is in the realm of utility-owned wind farms and Google/Apple/Microsoft data centers*. So even if you still think the government is ultimately going to get serious about forcing their hand, we’ve got nothing to lose by lobbying the corporations and their wealthy owners and investors ourselves.

Well, nothing except radical friends, I suppose. Just to be clear, I’m not abandoning the struggle to establish a true democracy where the vote matters more than the dollar, a major reduction in income inequality, and an economic order that doesn’t demand endless exponential growth. We won’t get the 1%’s support in those efforts; somehow we’ll just have to make non-coopted grassroots activism work for actual political change, not just for disaster relief – although the latter is certainly crucial in the global-warming era, and incidentally helps expand our support base.

But as Al Gore once said, “without a planet, we won’t really enjoy all those gold bars.” He was talking to the 1%, of course, but an equivalent message applies to campaigners for economic justice. If effective preventive measures to save countless millions of people from dying in climate-driven storms, floods, and famines require “working with the enemy” for the next decade or three, I’d say we need to hold our noses and do it.

*Obligatory disclaimer: Statements related to Microsoft in this blog are my own opinion and not that of my employer.

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"The real unforgivable acts are committed by calm men in beautiful green silk rooms, who deal death wholesale, by the shipload, without lust, without anger, or desire, or any redeeming emotion to excuse them but cold fear of some pretended future."

- Shards of Honor by Lois McMaster Bujold

This blog entry is not for the faint of heart. I was seriously worried that I wouldn't have the heart to finish writing it, given how much there is to say and how most of it is intensely depressing. But If I don't put it on a (web)page, it will just stay stuck in my head. So:

From the perspective of a radical anti-war activist, every American citizen is drenched in the blood of the countless multitudes of innocent foreigners who have been tortured, mutilated, and/or slaughtered in the name of "keeping us safe." From the perspective of the U.S. military, including its Commander in Chief, those victims are just "collateral damage" and should be left out of our considerations entirely, because they are an inevitable consequence of necessary defense projects. This ideological stalemate has held for decades without either side giving an inch; in fact, the government's militancy has increased quite substantially since 9/11, and this trend shows no real sign of slowing down under President Obama.

Needless to say, my sympathies lie mainly with the anti-war activists, but it took the killing of two American citizens in Yemen with no due process to force me to start considering the real horrors of the current war in Afghanistan and Pakistan. If it weren't for that precedent, which potentially puts anyone who opposes our government's military policies in the crosshairs, I probably never would have read all the way through the Atlantic articles "'Every Person Is Afraid of the Drones': The Strikes' Effect on Life in Pakistan" and "Why I Refuse to Vote for Barack Obama," both by Conor Friedersdorf, who asks the basic question of how can anyone support, in good conscience, any leader who perpetrates and perpetuates this kind of madness.

For a while before I read those articles, I'd had a ready answer gleaned from a humor piece about the Occupy movement by Colin McEnroe: "Obama doesn't have my support. Just my vote." Part of my argument for that answer came from the above observation about the decades-long period of national-security dogmatism we currently live in, which prevents any American leader from changing course and therefore, in theory, makes the question of who wins the presidential election totally irrelevant to the Pakistani victims. Whether I vote or not won't change anything for them, so why not leave them out of my voting decision entirely?

The answer, according to Dennis Loo, a columnist even more radical than Mr. Friedersdorf, is that if we want to be moral, we should withdraw our support entirely from a system this evil, thus beginning the path to delegitimizing and dismantling it. Mr. Friedersdorf and Mr. Loo agree that a vote for either major presidential candidate is a statement of support for that candidate's actions, even those the other major party's candidate would agree with. The only way to save the values of our democracy that are being trampled by our increasing obsession with security, Mr. Loo argues, is not to participate in our democracy.

My first reaction to this claim is to cry "Sacrilege!" I've always believed that voting is a sacred duty, upholding the ideal of self-government. But when we're given so few choices, and such bad ones, it does begin to look like that form of faith is a little too naïve. So I would probably decide to skip over the presidential section on my ballot when it arrives in the mail next week -- if the wars were the only major issue in this election. On some of the other issues, particularly women's rights and of course the environment, I view Obama as by far the lesser evil.

Mr. Loo has anticipated this objection, and in fact his article's subtitle is "An Examination of Obama's Domestic Policies." Using extremely harsh rhetoric, he lists several cases where President Obama's actions have been at odds with progressive values on issues including abortion and the climate crisis, frequently connecting back to the issue of war crimes which is the main focus of his organization, World Can't Wait. For example, in the section "The Oppression of Women and Gay Rights," he focuses on Obama's censorship of photos showing rape and sexual abuse at Abu Ghraib. On climate, he quotes another radical columnist, Rob Urie, who claims that Obama is clearly planning to complete the Keystone XL pipeline next year; if so, well-known climate scientists James Hansen claims, it would be "game over for the climate."

Mr. Urie's theory may be undermined by the massive grassroots mobilization against Keystone XL, in which Dr. Hansen participated (see link above), and which has already had some impact on President Obama's decision-making. And Dr. Hansen's extreme statement, if taken in isolation, makes little sense given that Keystone XL would merely add one more pipe to an already existing network of tar-sands oil pipelines. The real argument behind that claim is that committing to buy more tar-sands oil means declaring ourselves "hopeless fossil-fuel addicts," but President Obama's other actions on climate don't match the hopeless-addict profile. They include the $90 billion for clean energy in his 2009 stimulus package, his recently-finalized major increase in fuel efficiency requirements for cars, and, less impressively, the still-in-process EPA carbon dioxide regulations that would apply to the few new coal-fired power plants still being built in America. Discouragingly, the EPA "has no plans to pursue regulations for existing power plants," but that doesn't mean it won't ever happen.

Republicans, on the other hand, have been attacking new and existing EPA regulations vociferously since they took control of the House of Representatives. It's no secret that they'd defund the whole agency if they had the chance, and Romney seems highly likely to give them that chance. I'm a volunteer with the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign, which has used Clean Air Act lawsuits (focused on pollutants other than carbon dioxide) as an important tool in scheduling over a hundred coal-fired power plants for early retirement, and they're doing it again with the huge plant in Colstrip, Montana that supplies over 30% of my electricity. If Romney is elected President, those lawsuits could have the law they're based on ripped right out from under them.

So here's my answer to Conor Friedersdorf's question: I may be able to support President Obama despite his war crimes, because he's currently our best hope for making progress as a nation toward solving a vastly more serious humanitarian crisis. By one well-researched estimate, the climate crisis already causes five million deaths per year, a number projected to grow to six million (a.k.a. "one Nazi Holocaust per year") by 2030. For comparison, the maximum estimate for all deaths from U.S. drone strikes is just over three thousand, and almost all known drone strikes occurred in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas region of Pakistan, whose population is 3 million, which I'd call a reasonable upper limit on the number of people being traumatized due to constantly circling drones.

Except that reasonable is, of course, the wrong word to describe any of these horrors. Among the three thousand reported dead are one hundred seventy-six children, and a national-security policy that murders children and calls it "collateral damage" is obviously morally untenable (regardless of whether the U.S. military makes good on commitments to massively reduce its fossil-fuel use). So the question is, do I vote to continue to legitimize that policy for the sake of preventing even greater harm, or will that make it impossible to live with myself?

(If it weren't for my pledge to ignore all political ads, my decision would already be made, thanks to a recent pro-coal ad approved by President Obama that cynically tries to out-Romney Romney, while asking viewers to forget about Obama's climate rhetoric and the significant progress toward phasing out fossil fuels that I noted above.)
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The United States Declaration of Independence from the British monarchy

The Occupy Wall Street Declaration of independence from what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt referred to as the “economic royalists”

A speech calling for a return to American greatness (from Aaron Sorkin’s new TV show The Newsroom, for which my cousin Daniel is on the production crew)

Each of these links contains some very dubious statements.  The last item in the list of grievances against the king of England refers to “the merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes and conditions,” an all too typical attempt to reframe Native Americans’ natural tendency to defend themselves and their land against invaders.  Several of the grievances in the Occupy declaration, particularly “They have used the military and police force to prevent freedom of the press,” are disingenuous because they’re actually directed against governments supposedly acting in the interests of corporations.  Roosevelt makes the odd claim that the U.S. Constitution stands “against a dictatorship by mob rule and the over-privileged alike,” even though it was the founding document of a nation to be ruled by its people, and its words were originally interpreted to support rule by white male landowners only.  And in eulogizing America’s former greatness, the main character of The Newsroom makes the unlikely claims that “we never beat our chest” and “we didn’t identify ourselves by who we voted for;” excessive national pride and partisanship may have become more serious problems in recent years, but they’ve always been part of American life.  But hey, nobody’s perfect.

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Reform vs. revolution.  Alliance with like-minded politicians vs. independence from all politics.  Kingian/Gandhian principles of nonviolent resistance vs. "diversity of tactics."  All these dialectics and more are currently drawing fault lines across the active membership of Occupy Seattle, and probably the broader national and global movement as well.

An excellent example of how these ideas play out in practice was provided by the debate at the January 11th General Assembly (GA) over whether to endorse the two events planned by the Get Money Out of Politics workgroup (GMOP) to commemorate the anniversary of Citizens United.  Almost no one disagreed that the events as a whole were a good idea; the sticking point was the fact that U.S. Representative Jim McDermott would be speaking for a few minutes in the middle of the January 21st event.  By narrowing their focus to this single speech and its implied endorsement of an elected official, the debaters were actually broadening the discussion to encompass the fundamental principles and strategies of the Occupy movement as a whole.

Here is a rough list of paired arguments for and against, although it misrepresents the free-flowing debate by implying that it was organized around well-defined series of points and counterpoints:

Argument against: The General Assembly has passed a resolution stating that we're a movement where everyone is a leader equally, and therefore politicians will not be allowed to speak at Occupy Seattle-endorsed events.

Argument for: If we want the general public to support us and come to our events, we should invite the kinds of speakers who draw crowds.  McDermott supporters are part of the 99% too, and we need them as allies.

Argument for: McDermott himself is on our side.  He supports our goal of overturning Citizens United and establishing publicly funded elections, as well as having opposed the war in Iraq, supported women's rights, etc.

Argument against: McDermott has voted for military spending, free trade agreements, etc, and his staff has mistreated people who came to his office.

Argument against: The media will see this as Occupy Seattle endorsing a Democrat and moving toward becoming "the Democrats' Tea Party," when we really need to maintain independence from the two big political parties because they're both corrupted by money in politics.

Argument for: We can get McDermott to talk only as a citizen with experience in Constitutional law, rather than as a politician.  Also, Occupy is too strong to have to worry about being co-opted by the Democrats.

Argument for: Ultimately, if we want to have any major impact in this country, we're going to have to get involved in electoral politics at some point.

Argument against: On the contrary, the goal of the Occupy movement is not to change government policy, but to delegitimize the entire U.S. government and trigger a mass upheaval to create a truly better world.

As the debate wore on, people who supported endorsement tended to stay in their seats, which were arranged in a circle.  Opponents stood up and gradually gravitated toward a raised area off to the side, as far away from Karrsen, the GMOP member who had brought the resolution forward, as possible.  Yet everyone remained respectful of the process, and although a few people were clearly getting tired of the hours-long discussion by the end, we ended up finishing the whole "stack" of people wanting to speak before the final vote.

Karrsen ultimately decided the debate was too divisive, and accepted an amendment stating that the General Assembly would only endorse the event if McDermott agreed to participate in a march of torch-carrying protesters demanding the resignation of the current Seattle Chief of Police.  But this was not enough to mollify the radicals (partly because it was stated in a confusing way), so the vote count was ultimately declared to be a tie, 30-30, and the proposal didn't pass.

I later heard that the GA had endorsed the Friday event by itself, although it didn't matter much since that event was cancelled due to snow (but about 20 people showed up anyway).  Then on Saturday, in the midst of a series of speeches, musical performances, and street-theater-style skits on the stage at Westlake Park, GMOP member Craig Salins gave a glowing introduction for Jim McDermott, whose first words on taking the microphone were "Mic check!"  Clearly, he hadn't been informed that this wasn't officially an Occupy Seattle event.  You can watch most of his talk here.  One of the radicals from the GA, who showed up at Westlake after the end of the event, was extremely disappointed that no one had stood up and challenged McDermott on his politicking, particularly his brief comment about re-electing Obama.

The debate goes on.  Somehow, the regular meeting of the GMOP workgroup the day before yesterday was refocused into a planning session for a discussion about reform vs. revolution and nonviolence vs. "diversity of tactics" (this was partly because Kazu Haga, a well-known teacher of nonviolent tactics from Oakland, happened to be in the building).  Meanwhile, the media continue to assume that because the Occupy movement is so fractious, it must be doomed to fade away.  But this is a movement that was founded on the principles of both diversity and unity--perhaps the most fundamental dialectic of all.

That said, rant about why advocating violence is stupid )
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Click to see more of my photosLast Saturday, during and after my trip to Westlake Park (which is really more of a public square, only shaped like a triangle :-) to participate in Occupy Seattle, I was so caught up in the excitement that I worried I was losing my objectivity.  As I’ve mentioned before, I do believe that progressives need a mass movement to get enough of us seriously involved in politics that our representatives are forced to listen.  But I’m also not a big fan of the political polarization in this country, which the Occupy movement is certainly going to worsen with its calls for “global revolution.”  A large fraction of the participants at Occupy Seattle are socialists, communists, or anarchists, and this is no doubt true in other cities as well.

On the other hand, it’s worth noting that the Occupiers* have some important things in common with their conservative opposite numbers:

"You know, the average American taxpayer knows that at the end of the day, they're gonna be on the hook for the trillions and trillions of dollars that we're using to bail out these companies, some of whom have been irresponsible, and they're expressing their frustration, which I think is quintessentially American."

- Sean Hannity in 2009, referring to the Tea Party, as quoted on The Daily Show on October 5, 2011

That quote neatly matches up with a chant from last Saturday’s afternoon protest march, “Banks got bailed out / We got sold out!”  But it shouldn’t mask the obvious and stark differences between the movements.  For example, while “Tax the rich!” is clearly a central demand of the Occupy movement, Tea Party types are countering with demands to tax the poor and lower-middle class instead.  That’s when they’re not proposing the alternative of simply denying the right to vote to anyone who doesn’t pay income tax, probably marking the first time in decades when any conservative has claimed that paying taxes is patriotic.

Speaking of voting, I was curious whether the New York Times was right in describing the Occupiers and other similar protestors as showing “wariness, even contempt, toward traditional politicians and the democratic political process,” so while I was at the “park” and heading home on the bus, I asked several people whether they planned to vote this year.  I got one no, one maybe, and two or three yeses.  I’d agree that most Occupiers are at least “wary” of the political process in America, given the massive influence of corporate campaign contributions.  But by and large, I think the Occupiers are in favor of democracy if it can actually be made to work for the people.  The guy who told me he didn’t plan to vote was not against democracy itself, but said he preferred the more direct democratic model used for decision-making by the Occupy [City] groups themselves.

Click to see more of my photosI got a chance to observe parts of that open-mike-like process at the evening General Assembly, although there were no actual proposals brought up for a vote that night.  Overall, I was rather impressed at the generally high quality of the comments, and the way the crowd used hand gestures to give immediate feedback to people’s suggestions and help ensure brevity of comments.  This was particularly important not only because the crowd at the Assembly was quite large, with many people waiting to speak, but also because the sound system had been packed up for the night, so each speaker had to pause after every phrase so the crowd could serve as “the people’s mike,” repeating what he/she had just said in unison, which was also quite impressive.  (There was only one case where this method didn’t work, because the speaker’s voice was so quiet that not enough people were able to repeat her words to make them audible from several meters away.)

I do think their process could use some improvement.  The moderators claimed to be keeping track of raised hands and calling on people in the order they were added to the “stack” (technically “queue” would be a more appropriate term), and I was never called on to speak, though there was a smaller session without moderators after most of the crowd had dispersed, where I was able to get some words in edgewise.  I think it’s better to have a physical line of people waiting to speak, which they did have at the open-mike rally earlier in the day (where they also had an actual microphone).  The last thing an allegedly leaderless movement needs is people starting to mistrust even their own moderators when it takes too long for them to be called on.

If you’ve been following the news coverage of the Occupy movement, you’re probably wondering just how divergent the opinions expressed in the General Assembly were, and whether there was any core set of demands that everyone could agree on.  Almost everyone at the Assembly certainly recognized the need for “points of unity,” which would likely include raising taxes on the top 1%, revoking corporate personhood, getting money out of political campaigns, and breaking up the Federal Reserve (which was singled out for criticism more than any other big bank).  One of the self-organized work groups that form Occupy Seattle’s “executive branch” is working to collect and organize people’s ideas for a unified list of demands.

Click to see more of my photosOn more local issues, there was a surprising level of agreement that the amount of drug use in the “park” was excessive and reflected poorly on the movement, as well as repeated calls for proactive inclusion of minority groups, and strong support for green practices like recycling and reusable cups.  Opinions on next steps, the nominal main topic of the General Assembly, were more varied, ranging from “making it legal to occupy the park indefinitely” to “occupying neighborhoods and workplaces,” which strikes me as more likely to work in the long run (that was the comment I made after the moderators left).  Opinions on the cops, who had been harassing the occupiers in various ways, ranged from “they’re our neighbors, families, and friends, and we’d welcome their support if they decided to switch sides” to the anarchist position of “we shouldn’t have a police force at all.”

So yeah, I still haven’t decided what I think of all this.  Maybe the Occupy movement is way too radical and divisive, and yet it may also have finally found a way to reverse America’s gradual drift toward corporate rule.  In any case, I still want to visit Westlake Park for another General Assembly, so I can witness the voting process of a direct democracy in action.  One thing I’m pretty sure of: it would be awesome if my neighborhood had meetings like that.

* For want of a better term, and no, “the 99%” is not a better term.  Like it or not, there is a large fraction of Americans who support policies that favor the rich and megacorporations.  (That said, I don’t regret joining the semi-related Other 98% Campaign.)

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“Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn't about helping the poor. It's about helping the poor to help themselves to others' money.”

- "Registering the Poor to Vote is Un-American" by Matthew Vadum of American Thinker magazine, cited among other quotes by anti-voting-rights advocates in "Conservatives Say It Out Loud: They Hate Democracy" by Dave Johnson of the Campaign for America's Future blog

“'Our parents are grateful because they’re voting,' said Marta Solanas, 27, referring to older Spaniards’ decades spent under the Franco dictatorship. 'We’re the first generation to say that voting is worthless.'

“Economics have been one driving force, with growing income inequality, high unemployment and recession-driven cuts in social spending breeding widespread malaise. . . .

“But even in India and Israel, where growth remains robust, protesters say they so distrust their country’s political class and its pandering to established interest groups that they feel only an assault on the system itself can bring about real change.”

- "As Scorn for Vote Grows, Protests Surge Around Globe" by Nicholas Kulish of the New York Times
So it seems democracy is under attack from both ends of the political spectrum.  If voting were an occupation, conservatives would be trying to fire the liberals (while pointing at the poor to slightly mask their intent), and liberals would be saying, "You can't fire us--we quit!"  This doesn't bode well for liberal political parties.
As you can imagine, I have more sympathy for the liberal protesters (protestors?), who at least seem to have their logic mostly straight.  (By contrast, there are plenty of poor people who contribute to society, and if it were only jobless poor people voting for the politicians who created programs like welfare and food stamps, those politicians could never have been elected.)  But as with any movement that opposes the status quo, you have to ask whether these protests are aimed at any specific alternative vision.  Kulish has an idea of what it might be, but it sounds more like wishful thinking than responsible journalism:
“The critical mass of wiki and mapping tools, video and social networking sites, the communal news wire of Twitter and the ease of donations afforded by sites like PayPal makes coalitions of like-minded individuals instantly viable.

“'You’re looking at a generation of 20- and 30-year-olds who are used to self-organizing,' said Yochai Benkler, a director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. 'They believe life can be more participatory, more decentralized, less dependent on the traditional models of organization, either in the state or the big company. Those were the dominant ways of doing things in the industrial economy, and they aren’t anymore.'”
Uh huh.  I'll believe that when you show me a self-organized wiki group capable of running a factory or a public transit system.  I acknowledge that times are changing fast, but I think I'll stick with democracy for now.
Anyway, about a week after I discovered those articles, I was in Orlando for an astonishing event called the 100 Year Starship Symposium, where other paradoxes could be found in abundance.  Convened by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the event nevertheless hosted plenty of radically pacifist speakers who expressed the hope that the long-term, international project of building a starship would divert resources and passions away from warfare.  Even Matt Bille, a speaker from the defense contractor Booz Allen Hamilton (BAH for short), went so far as to hold up the Rainforest Action Network as a good example of the type of multi-stakeholder organization that should take on the project.  (That last link is to a Booz&Co article Mr. Bille referred me to, which kind of looks like it could have been written by Nicholas Kulish.)
And then there was a speaker from Oregon named J. N. Nielsen, who actually agrees with the claims of romantic and primitivist philosophers such as Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Derrick Jensen about the evils of our industrial civilization--then turns around and uses those claims as support for the theory that said civilization has a moral imperative to expand throughout the solar system and beyond.  The gist of the argument is that as long as our economy is butting up against the limits of one planet's resource base, we will be doomed to produce atrocities and eventually self-destruct (unless we get hit by a killer asteroid first).  A spacefaring civilization wouldn't be utopia, but would at least keep us from running into those limiting factors (and could also deflect killer asteroids).  Nielsen even claims such a society could be nomadic, somewhat in the manner of primitive hunter-gatherer tribes.
This argument strikes me as highly problematic, and not just because it brings cartoon images of "space cavemen" irresistibly to mind.  I'm no primitivist myself, but I know how folks like Jensen and Edward Abbey would react to the notion of carrying the "cancerous" industrial growth paradigm to its logical extreme.  They would doubtless envision something like what Stephen Baxter (who was also at the Symposium) describes in his short story "On the Orion Line": Humanity inhabits an ever-expanding sphere of star systems.  Every time a system's resources are used up, we simply send colonists outward to the next one, driven by the implacable force of the growth paradigm, overrunning any alien biospheres and civilizations that stand in our way.  The outermost colonies are frantically stripping their systems of resources to provide, not just for their own needs, but for those of all the other colonies and Earth as well--worlds that are ravaged and depleted and can no longer support themselves.
On the other hand, I guess it could be worse.  If the people of the outermost colonies shared Matthew Vadum's philosophy, as one suspects they would, they wouldn't willingly send any resources back to "those unproductive freeloaders" in the other systems without some form of compulsion from a higher authority.  So even if humanity becomes an interstellar cancer, maybe at least we can still maintain a democracy.
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Predictably enough, when fiscal terrorists threatened to destroy the global economy, Democrats surrendered.  Obama could have used a Constitutional override and unilaterally raised the debt ceiling, if he were principled enough about not negotiating with terrorists, but that would have meant admitting that our democratic system had gone so badly wrong as to allow people who are effectively terrorists into Congress, which of course is counter to the Democratic Party line.  Of course, the terrorists wouldn't characterize the trillion-dollar cuts they got as a real surrender, because they want so much more--but they needn't worry, because they can do it again any time they please.


As a result, American democracy is effectively over.  You have four choices in the next election: You can vote for the terrorists, you can vote for the people who surrendered to the terrorists (like my Representative, Jay Inslee), you can vote for the people holding up the sane minority and help slow down our government's slide into oblivion a bit, or you can vote for someone who wants to roll back the most damaging cuts but who is unelectable due to Citizens United etc.  None of these choices will change the fact that every time the debt ceiling needs to be raised, or an important spending bill needs to get through Congress to keep the government running at all, another large chunk of services that millions of Americans depend on will be extorted away.  (And yes, they might cut some military spending at the same time, but that's a pretty thin silver lining.)


Of course, by the Principle of Mediocrity, all of the above is probably a gross exaggeration.  Since most Americans and even most Tea Partiers want to keep Medicare and Social Security intact, the terrorists may well be destroying their electoral base, who could replace them with less extreme candidates in the Republican primaries and thus shift the political center a little bit to the left.  But on the Democratic side, it's hard to muster any enthusiasm for voting at all, after watching our party so completely fail to uphold its principles.  When we elected Obama, we thought it was a huge step forward for progressives, but now he talks like a Tea Partier himself, demanding that the government shrink itself to solve the supposedly all-consuming "debt crisis," regardless of the cost to the little people who paid for half of his election campaign.


So the conservatives have managed to convert me, in a sense.  I now see the government as a sick, twisted monstrosity, and can't see any way to seriously believe that it will get better (though admittedly my imagination might improve after a hypothetical good night's sleep).  The difference, of course, is that I don't want the government to become so small that I can safely ignore it.   I see it as "sick" with a particularly ugly and self-destructive autoimmune disorder, and I want it to stop the seemingly inexorable process of destroying anything and everything good that it has ever done for the people it supposedly serves.

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I haven't posted in a couple of months partly due to lack of motivation, but also because I've been quite busy, particularly with my apartment move, which will hopefully result in no water leak incidents for quite a while. Anyway, onward...

Martin Luther King said that “The arc of history is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is some truth to that when it comes to the gradually increasing rights of women and minorities, but for at least the past forty years, our democratic system of government has been bending away from justice, in the sense that our elected representatives increasingly represent the interests of wealthy campaign donors rather than those who actually voted them into office. The Citizens United decision, and the recent actions of 18 Wisconsin legislators aimed at destroying the labor movement's power in blatant disregard of their constituents' wishes, are just the latest steps in this long-term trend. We may be able to turn this trend around, but first we must slow it to a halt, and in the time it takes to accomplish that, it seems likely that we will drift into a state of total corporatocracy in which no policy that threatens Big Business's profits can be contemplated, at least at the national level.

So how do we live through such a period of history without allowing irreparable damage to our society and the biosphere? One answer lies in the fact that “Big Business” is far from a single monolithic entity that always speaks with one voice to demand changes in policy. Different industries want different things from government, and just as different political parties in a democracy can act as checks on each other's more extreme ambitions, so it may prove to be with industry groups. Learning to play these groups off against each other may become a key skill for advocacy groups operating in a corporate-ruled nation. And since more than two such groups can easily be identified, the resulting dynamics may come to somewhat resemble those of multiparty European democracies, so we could consider labeling this potential system of governance “parliamentary corporatocracy.”

As a simple example of how this might work, consider the conflict between transportation and telecommunications technologies. Oil companies, airlines, and the tourism industry would prefer policies that promote long-distance travel (and all the air pollution that goes with it), while companies like Microsoft, Cisco, and Skype would prefer that more people use their videoconferencing and related technologies to avoid much of this travel. The latter group may not have enough power on its own to stand against the likes of ExxonMobil, but they could make an alliance with the actual internet service providers and their parent telecom/media conglomerates, such as the recently established Comcast-NBC-Universal, who naturally want people to pay for the high-data-rate plans that HD video calls will require. (Or do they? These networks are already overstressed with the current level of video-streaming traffic, and all those mergers tend to make it less likely that major innovations will arise to solve that problem. But I'm doing my best to be a little optimistic here, so I'm ignoring that issue.)

Overall, while their legally mandated focus on short-term profits means that most large corporations will have a net negative impact on the commons, it's a mistake to demonize “Big Business” as a whole, even when fighting to limit its influence in politics. Partly this is just because almost all Americans depend on corporations for basic necessities like food, but partly it's because there are substantial and growing numbers of fairly good corporate citizens out there. Take this report from Ethical Markets Media, claiming that “Private Investments In Green Sectors Top $2 Trillion” over the four years since 2007. (“This over $2 trillion total does not include nuclear, ‘clean’ coal or CCS, nor biofuels from food or agricultural sources, which we consider unsustainable.”)

None of this is intended to suggest that we can or should try to adapt to such a system to the point where we won't need to go back to government of, by, and for the people. After all, the more aggressively a company focuses on profit at the expense of all else, the more wealthy and powerful it tends to become, which is why ExxonMobil, Wal-Mart, and the banks responsible for the current recession are among the biggest political powers in America today. We may have to work with some of them for a while, but not to the extent that it renders us unable to simultaneously work against the massive political power they wield. This power will be eroded naturally by declines in the oil supply, but we need to move that erosion along as quickly as possible while doing our best to ensure that the power vacuum is filled by the people (that is, by politicians who actually care what their constituents want), and not by another set of rapacious corporate overlords.


Jul. 5th, 2010 11:16 am
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This post by [ profile] firelizard5 challenged me to think about to what extent the word "patriotic" applies to me.  My gut reaction to the word is to equate it with blind nationalism and childish "my country is better than yours, so there!" thinking, but of course that's not really fair.

So, I can say without qualification that I'm loyal to the basic ideals America strives for: liberty and justice for all, strength through diversity, individual rights that protect citizens from government overreach, giving all adults an equal say in how they're governed, and keeping everyone well-educated and informed so they can use that voice effectively.  And in some ways it's surprising how well we've upheld those ideals over the past 234 years.  We've certainly made major strides toward greater justice as a nation, gradually reducing people's freedom to infringe on other people's rights and freedoms while incrementally expanding various groups' historically limited voice in government, particularly on the basis of race and gender.

Obviously I think there are some things we could improve on, like reducing the influence of money in politics that tends to drown out the voices of those who can't afford their own D.C. lobbyists (hence my participation in the Other 98% campaign), and limiting corporations' freedom to knowingly and recklessly endanger the freedoms of millions of people for the sake of profit (as with the financial meltdown, slipshod safety protocols on deepwater oil rigs, impoverishing future generations through depletion of resources like topsoil and destruction of species, etc).  But what's great about America (and some other countries that were inspired by our example) is that we can work toward this kind of large-scale change without bloody revolutions such as the one that founded this country.  Huge and hidebound institutions like corporations and governments can try to thwart change agents indirectly, but they can't shut us down.
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"From the venerated saints and cathedrals of the Middle Ages to the pop stars and cineplexes of today, [Joe McHugh] explains why images and sound are increasingly supplanting the authority of the printed word, and by so doing, radically altering the cultural, economic, and political landscape of the United States and the rest of the world."
        - Description of a talk I saw at the Seattle Bioneers conference last year called "Slaying the Gorgon: Storytelling and Media in the Electronic Age"

Mr. McHugh is hardly the first person to compare modern media such as TV and movies to a religion; it is now a commonplace in some circles that they serve as the new "opiate of the masses."  But even those who use such dismissive rhetoric can't deny the power of moving images to shape public discourse, rather than merely suppressing it.  This is increasingly true in the Internet era, when passive consumers of media can quickly and easily become producers, with tools that allow them to create and distribute fairly professional-looking video content with very little effort.

The newly released free download Windows Live Movie Maker is such a tool, one I'm proud to have helped to build.  With just a few clicks, considerably more quickly than was possible with our predecessor Windows Movie Maker, our users can turn a selection of their digital photos and videos (along with a probably-copyrighted soundtrack of their choice) into a coherent and compelling story and show it to the world on YouTube or Facebook.

If media is a "religion," it has never been one with a single coherent "scripture"--the stories have always varied widely depending on which "media saint" (Joe McHugh's term for a celebrity actor or talk-show host) is telling them.  Now, though, the diversity of these stories is exploding along with the number of contributors, who no longer need any more wealth and power to become "saints" than is necessary to purchase a computer and Internet service.  Admittedly, we aren't seeing a super-radical reshaping of the media landscape--those with the most money and power still have access to far more eyes than any but the most successful viral YouTube video--but it's a step in what I see as a very positive direction.  (These statements are my personal opinion and not that of my employer.)

P.S. The good news: world electricity usage is projected to decrease this year for the first time since recordkeeping began in 1945, providing a ray of hope that an energy-efficiency revolution could cement this new trend and put us on track to solving the climate crisis.  The bad news: the U.S. just greenlit the Clipper Pipeline to provide ourselves with vast amounts of oil from Canada's tar sands, among the most ecologically destructive fuels per unit usage ever produced.
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There is far too much to tell about the Power Shift 2009 conference for one blog post.  To summarize: over 12,000 young climate activists, most of them college students, gathered in Washington, D.C. last weekend for two days of panels, workshops, famous speakers like Van Jones, Bill McKibben, and new head of the EPA Lisa P. Jackson, grad-school and career fairs, apparently well-known bands Santigold and The Roots (I’d never heard of them, but then I’m a musical illiterate), and training for the big lobby day on Monday.

In addition to hundreds of meetings with legislators, Monday’s festivities also included a big rally on the East Lawn of the Capitol (which was unfortunately covered in snow) and a march to the nearby coal plant, surprisingly well-publicized considering that it included mass civil disobedience (an idea strongly supported by James Hansen, NASA’s top climate scientist, who was going to speak at the conference but had his plane cancelled).  Just last Thursday, perhaps as a result of knowing that thousands of young people were about to descend on the Capitol, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (who was going to speak at the rally but also had her plane cancelled) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid ordered the plant converted to run on natural gas by the end of the year.

To save space, the rest of the story will have to be told in pictures:

The above album display is brought to you by Windows Live Writer, another free product being developed by my team at Microsoft.  I don’t use it much because it doesn’t properly support LiveJournal’s tagging system as yet, but it does have some pretty nifty features.


Sep. 25th, 2008 10:02 pm
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This speech by Mark Pesce, inventor of the VRML language for doing 3D stuff on the Internet, is very intriguing but left me wanting more. The basic premise is that because digital networks are so good at getting around any attempts to control the flow of information, particularly by governments, our whole present form of government is doomed and the future will be ruled by the networked mob, which means...what, exactly?

Now, to be fair, the incredible rate of change that characterizes our era, and our information technologies most especially, means that predicting even the near future in anything more that vague terms is probably a really bad idea. But still, if Pesce is going to throw out vague statements like "the social fabric will warp and convulse as various polities actualize their hyperempowerment in the cultural equivalent of nuclear exchanges," he ought to explain just what he thinks he's saying.

The idea is fascinating because, as Pesce appears to be fond of pointing out, over half of the world's population are cell phone owners and that fraction is still increasing fast, with poor people benefiting massively from the newfound ease of communication at a distance. So the Third World gets to be part of the mob, too. But is this mob actually capable of doing what democracies and dictatorships now do, providing security, building and maintaining basic infrastructure, and so on? Or will it be closer to the classic image of a mob, e.g. a continuous global riot, a literal "war of all against all?" In short, should we be happy or terrified of the direction Pesce sees us headed?

I'm thinking maybe I should read Eastern Standard Tribe by Cory Doctorow to try and sort this idea out--the jacket description sounded similar enough to what Pesce seems to be talking about. On the other hand, the book also sounds rather depressing.

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This is how bad it's gotten: 166 House Republicans cast the only votes in favor of taking serious action by opening a debate of the full House of Representatives on the thirty-five Articles of Impeachment against George W. Bush introduced by Congressman Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) on Monday. The idea was "to highlight the ability of the 'loony left,' in the words of a Republican aide, to force a debate and distract the House from pressing issues like gas prices and funding for the Iraq war." (The Hill) And while "Kucinich himself made the motion to send it to the [Judiciary] committee, saying his detailed allegations should be weighed in a hearing" (ibid), the prevailing view seems to be that the resolution is effectively dead.

It's worth noting, in response to that aide's snarky comment, that pushing through more billions for an illegal and unwinnable* war, which doubtless has played a major role in pushing gas prices through the roof, isn't a particularly productive use of the House's time either. The above article from The Hill also claims that "Republicans suffered politically from the impeachment of President Clinton," providing another easily refuted rationale for leading Democrats' aversion to impeachment. But that's not the point. The point is this:

"As required by Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution, Members of Congress shall be bound by oath or affirmation to support the Constitution. Representatives, delegates, and the resident commissioner all take the oath of office on the first day of the new Congress, immediately after the House has elected its Speaker. The Speaker of the House administers the oath of office as follows:

"'I, (name of Member), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign or domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God.'" (Question 3 on a FAQ page)

Given that all 35 of Kucinich's Articles make reference to violations of the Constitution, it doesn't matter how distracting or politically inconvenient impeachment would be; it is quite simply the duty of Congress to investigate these charges. But of course they never will. Kucinich plans to reintroduce his resolution in 30 days if and when the Judiciary Committee fails to hold any hearing on it, but of course there is every reason to suspect that it will just suffer the same fate again.  Which begs the question: is there a way to impeach Congress?

If you're inclined to dismiss all this as a justifiable attempt on the House's part to ignore a set of patently ludicrous claims, please at least read the list of Article headings below, noting that if even one of them has merit, it serves as sufficient grounds for impeachment: 

*What I mean by this is that we can't win the goal of a stable Iraq by continuing to treat the problem as a war.  There is another way to achieve this goal.   By starting troop withdrawals and scratching plans for permanent bases, we can gain the cooperation we need from groups who currently view us as an imperialist occupation.  That's the only way I can see to make political progress, short of committing to bankrupt our nation over the next decade or more by trying to defeat every insurgent group in Iraq by force of arms.
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"The man explained to Max that . . . both he and the man who had saved Max from the kidnappers belonged to an ancient and secret society of men known as the League of the Golden Key. Such men roamed the world acting, always anonymously, to procure the freedom of others, whether physical or metaphysical, emotional or economic. In this work they were tirelessly checked by the agents of the Iron Chain, whose goals were opposite and sinister. It was operatives of the Iron Chain who had kidnapped Max years before.

- The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon, p. 133
I would like to suggest that the operative word in this fanciful quote, from the backstory of an imaginary comic book series called "The Escapist," is "from." If your opponent wishes to keep people in chains, whether literal or metaphorical, then your goal is to free people from those chains, i.e. from negative impositions by other people or society more generally--anything from debt slavery to overly high taxes on investment income. The corresonding freedom to is much more ill-defined, but clearly centered on the affected individual's abilities, with little direct reference to any positive interaction with society at large.

About four and a half years ago, I posted this screed about the limitations of an ideology whose only tenet is that "freedom is good." I didn't offer much of an alternative, other than an inchoate plea for people to make choices with greater consideration for the survival-of-the-species problem. Here's a better idea, which has a nice yin-yang symmetry to it: rather than viewing society as necessarily opposed to individual freedom, why not accept that humans are social creatures who gain from the formation of friendships, teams, and communities? The best single word I could think of to express this concept is "mutualism," a term from ecology that simply means an arrangement where both or all parties benefit. If you prefer, "mutuality" could also work to describe the general principle. Rather than working against each other, freedom and mutualism can reinforce one another, as each member of a group contributes most when he/she is free to choose how to contribute.

Of course this is all very well for small groups, perhaps up to a few hundred. Large-group mutualism is a basically unsolved problem, as I discussed in my previous entry as well as this post from last year.

My current best stab at a solution in the realm of politics would be something along the general outlines of a soviet democracy, that is, a hierarchical series of councils with each level's representatives chosen from the ones below it. Obviously, I would put in extensive checks to ensure that the power of the highest councils remains limited. I also think it might be better to choose representatives to the next higher council by simply rotating through the lower council's members--send a different pair every few years, not going back to the first pair until everyone else has served (two is better than one because one can serve as a check on the other). That way the council doesn't just select whoever is best at persuading them that he/she will do a good job when given broader authority, since as Douglas Adams observed, "those who most want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it." This probably holds even if you replace the word "rule" with "govern" or even "coordinate."

In fact, if there are councils down to neighborhood level, the whole idea of voting could be removed altogether in favor of a simple aptitude test on the basic workings of government--if you pass, you get to be on the council. Would this still count as democracy? Certainly, in the sense of "a philosophy that insists on the right and the capacity of a people, acting either directly or through representatives, to control their institutions for their own purposes" (from the first entry on Except in my system, we would be working together in the open to achieve this, rather than casting anonymous ballots in a basically statistical exercise that we hope will manage to achieve the greatest good for the greatest number.
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As I've noted before, political liberals tend to choose government as the best provider of services like education, healthcare, and poverty reduction*, while conservatives tend to prefer corporations. Thus a major goal for conservatives is smaller government and privatization, while for liberals it's expansion of some government programs, perhaps replacing entire segments of the private sector such as health insurance. Many of us would also like to shrink some corporations that have grown too big for their markets, usually by splitting up monopolies.

Consider: both big corporations and big governments tend to be bureaucratic, corrupt, and resistant to change. Corporations, of course, have no stated mission of helping people who need help; they're just in it to make bucks, which means vital services often get prohibitively expensive when privatized. It also means it can be very hard to convince corporations to spend extra money on things like avoiding environmental damage. Also, corporations generally have no enshrined democratic principles whereby either the customers or the employees can influence the major decisions of a corrupt few at the top.** Unions can impose this kind of check, but they are not always present or effective enough to have any real impact.

Conversely, if we assume that more power generally equals more corruption, we have to note that the biggest governments are still considerably more powerful than the biggest corporations. Governments also have far less incentive to avoid wasteful spending, which is the conservatives' main complaint, since they don't believe we taxpayers have nearly enough say in how that money is spent. And indeed, the bigger the government, the less democratic democracy gets: us little guys have no real say in who gets to run for high office***, and if your constituents are far away, it's significantly easier to cave to the demands of corporate lobbyists and otherwise act against those constituents' interests.

As I've said before, I lean toward governments as the lesser evil because they're more easily improvable than corporations. A single (admittedly difficult) reform--public financing of elections--would go a long way toward giving us representatives who truly represent us, the people (as opposed to folks who can raise enough money to fund a campaign, often out of their own pockets or from monied interests who expect a return of the favor in the form of legislation). Even reducing the maximum campaign contribution amounts per year for individuals and organizations would help (though that runs into sticky free-speech issues). Granted, if employee ownership can somehow be implemented on a mass scale, it could produce a similar effect in the corporate world. But with no real mechanism to push big companies in that direction, I'm keeping my money on governments for now.

* We liberals may find it hard to imagine that greedy capitalists would ever get into the poverty-reduction business, since it will inevitably lead to pressure for higher wages. But if we move the focus from sweatshop laborers to poor people who want to start small businesses, microcredit loans turn out to be an amazingly effective market-based approach to fighting poverty.

** Customers can "vote with their checkbooks" for certain products or boycott some companies, but that's not true democracy, which I define as "one person one vote." Poor people often have no choice but to shop at Wal-Mart, whatever they may think of the company's labor practices.

*** There are exceptions, of course. Small-time candidate Shirley Golub is challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Democratic primaries on a platform whose major plank is impeachment, and since Pelosi's main constituents are San Franciscans, it's just barely possible that it might work.
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Speaking of famous Churchill quotes (though according to the linked page, Churchill claimed to have gotten this one from somewhere else): if you feel like a heaping helping of disillusionment, check out this post by [ profile] bdunbar, summarizing what is probably the true story of Love Canal, despite the fact that Reason Magazine is the major source cited.*  The gist is that the company that produced the toxic waste was forced to sell the land by the threat of eminent domain, despite their objections that it was clearly unsuitable for building a school on.

The worst thing about this story is that the local government's "desperate" need for any available land was driven by the will of the people, specifically their desire to immigrate to Niagara Falls and/or have lots of babies.  Democracy sometimes leads to really stupidly short-sighted government actions, no doubt about it.  (Incidentally, Churchill thought short-sightedness is something we just have to live with.  I couldn't disagree more--some aspects of the future are definitely predictable enough to act on.)

To my mind, however, the best solution to keep this sort of thing from happening again is a policy of transparency/open government (see page 4 of the linked document), so when our elected officials are trying to do something ridiculous like build a school and a neighborhood on top of a toxic waste dump, it has to tell us that that's what it's doing.  That way we can stop it before it starts, rather than discovering what happened twenty-five years later, when the horrible consequences finally come into the open.

(Of course, limits placed on any conceivable transparency program in the name of national security mean that it won't help us prevent other outrages, such as government spying on Americans without a warrant.  For that, we'll still have to wait for a leak [pun only slightly intended] to the press, and then hope it's possible to embarrass our representatives into stopping it, or replace them with others who will.)

The other good solution to the specific problem of toxic waste, of course, is to make it food for another industrial process.

* The author of the Reason article admits that "Hooker Chemicals may very well have botched others of its many chemical dumps," and that "The customary practices [at the time] were to pile up such wastes in unlined surface impoundments, insecure lagoons, or pits, usually on the premises of the chemical factory, or else to burn the wastes or dump them into rivers or lakes."  But that's not what Hooker did at Love Canal.  (Okay, that sentence just sounds wrong...)

P.S. Things I did not know (earlier) this morning: Pi day (3/14) is also Albert Einstein's birthday.  I wonder if he was born at 1:59...
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The standard progressive story is that terrorists are desperate people who live under oppressive regimes with starkly limited economic opportunities and, unable to strike at their own governments, are pushed instead by unscrupulous leaders to blame the West for their problems. The standard conservative riposte is that many terrorists have middle-class living standards, so why would they be desperate? (Yet both sides basically agree that more democracy would help.)

Still, what if the conservatives have a point? After all, it's not only the terrorists who are willing to sacrifice their own lives for a cause. Maybe they have core beliefs in the superiority of Islam every bit as strong as a good American soldier's belief in the superiority of democracy.* Or, if you don't like the comparison of "cowardly" suicide bombers to our brave servicemen and women, we can consider what terrorists actually are: covert operatives, agents battling in the shadows to try to reshape the world, somewhat as the CIA has done by inciting revolutions and toppling governments.

Of course, it's easy to argue that a typical American soldier or CIA operative doesn't expect to die in the line of duty, though s/he may be prepared to do so (and if religious, s/he probably believes that s/he will go to Heaven in that event). So maybe suicide bombers really are just desperate, for whatever reason--but there are other kinds of terrorists. There are those who merely plan the operations, and those who launch missiles or plant roadside bombs.

So in the shadow war that we hope is being won by our counterterrorism agents around the globe, both sides have similar outlooks--it's just that we view our ideology, with some justification, as better than theirs. They think the world would be better off united under Islam; we believe democracy is best for everyone, because it serves as a meta-ideology, a framework that allows each of us to choose what kind of beliefs we want to follow.

* During a get-out-the-vote drive, I once talked on the phone with a veteran who told me that he was only "fighting for the guy next to me." But my guess is that he was drafted, and of course we don't have any draftees at the moment (knock on wood). And while you could turn the argument around and claim that most of our current soldiers are desperate poor people too, could the same be said of the highly educated covert operatives who "volunteered" for the CIA?
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America is not a country built for war. We sometimes do well at it because of our large size and advanced technical abilities, but mostly we are a different kind of strong. Our primary strengths are our prosperity and a system of government that gives the people a voice. We may not have the highest overall quality of life in the world, or the most effective democracy (in particular, partisan politics can often paralyze our government), but we are the biggest of the First-World nations and the largest economy, so we stand out. We also produce more self-promotional media than anyone else.

Among Second-through-Fifth-World populations, then, there are two main factions. There are those who like what they see and want to join us. We can fight them off as necessary by arresting illegal immigrants and building border fences, but also through foreign policy aimed at raising other countries’ standards of living toward Western levels (preferably using high-efficiency technologies that don’t put too much extra burden on the world’s natural resources).

Then there are those who want to bring us down to their level. Their motivations may be simple jealousy, outrage triggered by the harmful effects of economic globalization or American foreign policy, or religious condemnation of our sinful hedonistic lifestyles. Currently, this faction doesn’t include any entire nations that have the power to strike us directly and get away with it, though growth in Islamic populations and Chinese bellicosity may change that in the future.

For now, we can fight those with the both the desire and the power to hurt us—in short, the terrorists—through covert offense and military and police defense. (We can also try invading whole countries that harbor terrorists, but we’ve already seen that that strategy doesn’t really help.) We can also fight the terrorists by redoubling our efforts to get more people to join the like-what-they-see faction, rather than throwing their lives away for a basically lost cause. (Demographics may someday beat us, but scattered individual attacks, however dramatic, can never bring down the United States.)

The advantage of the military/police/intelligence approach is that it’s more likely to be effective in the short term, but the problem is that it will never make any progress toward eliminating the threat; we can’t prevent every attack, and for every terrorist cell we eliminate, two more will pop up. The advantage of the propaganda approach is that it’s far cheaper in both money and lives, and may in time lead to real reductions in the number of terrorists we face. Needless to say, the answer is to do both.

A specific, though unintended propaganda victory for Western values that's already well underway is the rise of Islamic feminism. The linked article is partly a scathing critique of modern American feminism, but observes that in the Muslim world, "a feminist reformation could be as dangerous to the dreams of the jihadists as any military assault by the West."
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Two days ago, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill expanding the federal definition of a hate crime from "acts of violence against individuals on the basis of race, religion, color, or national origin" to include gender and sexual orientation. This triggered a veto threat from a president who has only vetoed two bills in his six years in office, one of them only four days ago.*

Why? Well, the most likely reason is that "social conservatives . . . say the bill threatens the right to express moral opposition to homosexuality," despite the fact that it only applies to violent crimes. Stab a gay man, and you might get a longer sentence under this law. Tell him that he's a sinner and will burn in Hell, and you will still be breaking no federal law at all, though of course you could always be sued for "causing emotional trauma."

Also, consider this: "Republicans, in a parliamentary move that would have effectively killed the bill, tried to add seniors and the military to those qualifying for hate crimes protection." It can't be the seniors part that would have killed the bill, since seniors vote in large numbers and politicians are always falling over each other trying to please them. So one must admit that Democrats don't like the idea of offering our society's "sheepdogs" protection from the anger of the people they are supposedly trying to protect. Intellectually, we may want to support our troops, but emotionally, it's awfully difficult for antiwar liberals to do so right now: we harbor unreasonable nightmares of trained killers returning to our communities and going on crazed rampages.

Finally, what if the conservatives are right and the punishment of hate speech against a growing number of groups is threatening our First-Amendment rights? I wouldn't be too worried, except I just realized that there could be a major issue when stupid people start demanding hate-speech protection as a group. Personally I have nothing against the IQ-challenged, as long as they understand that their disability makes them regrettably unqualified for key leadership positions. (What I worry about more are the systems in our society that seem to actively encourage the development of said disability.) But if people start getting sued for "unflattering portrayals of people with low intelligence," then humor as we know it in America may cease to exist.

* Key text from the linked article: "[T]he nonpartisan Congressional Research Service has concluded that the Pentagon could wage war through July without additional funding."
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Democracy For America Redlands has a campaign to build local support for this initiative to build grassroots support for carbon caps from the city level. This is the text of a flyer I created to hand out to potential allies in the Redlands area:

What is the USMCPA?

The Agreement is a local-scale program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and work toward the goals of the Kyoto Protocol on Climate Change, while improving the quality of life in urban areas. It was created by the mayor of Seattle, Greg Nickels, and has already been adopted by well over 400 cities and towns throughout the country, including Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, and even our neighbors in San Bernardino and Riverside.

The agreement includes measures to prevent urban sprawl and reduce commuting times, increase fuel efficiency, invest in alternative energy and green building practices, and promote green spaces and tree-planting, among others. Even if the federal government won’t sign Kyoto and get moving to address the threat of global warming, with the USMCPA we can change our nation’s policies from the grassroots up!

Why act locally?

The evidence for a human-caused greenhouse effect is now far too substantial to allow us to continue with business as usual.* But the giant oil companies, automakers, and electric utilities cling to their established business plans, using tiny “climate-friendly” pilot projects to greenwash their public images while fighting tooth and nail to prevent any real change. Ironically, they need a push from governments to make them remember the capitalist ideals of risk-taking, innovation, and progress.

There are promising signs that the U.S. government may finally be ready to take some action along these lines, but Congress has rejected many initiatives aimed at cutting carbon dioxide emissions over the past fifteen years, and it’s easy to see why. Megacorporations make huge campaign contributions that sway lawmakers’ decisions, and the government is terrified of doing anything that might hurt the economy in the short run, despite the likely advantages of the alternative-energy boom that a carbon-cap policy would promote.

Cities, on the other hand, experience less political pressure and thus have more freedom to innovate. Particularly here in the dry Southwest, they also see the dangerous effects of higher temperatures firsthand. And most importantly, while it’s easy for representatives in Washington, D.C. to brush off the demands of their constituents 3000 miles away, our city leaders can hardly ignore us if we walk up to them and tell them what we want!

Where can I learn more?

• Check out the main USMCPA website at
• Contact me at if you have questions or want to help out.
• Sign up for our mailing list now, or look up the Redlands Democracy For America group at to join up and help us build a movement!

* Conservatives keep saying that we need to be certain about the causes of global warming before we take economically risky steps. And they're right that we can't be certain, but only in the sense that science is never certain about anything. That's what makes it so powerful, in fact: scientists are willing to consider that any fact, no matter how seemingly obvious, could turn out to be wrong. This allows them to accumulate evidence for ideas that seem crazy--like the idea that the Earth spins and orbits the Sun, or that many diseases are caused by living creatures a millionth of a meter long, or that humanity has a major impact on something as large as the global atmostphere.

March 2015

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