Monday, May 22, 2017

So much ferment, but stability wins

Rachel Aspden, a newly minted 23 year old aspiring British journalist, wanted to "discover some of the truth," so she arranged to drop herself into Cairo in 2003. She would study Arabic, pick up a low-paid writing job for an English-language news magazine -- and try to figure out what this strange city and country were about. Over the next 12 years, on and off, she achieved something fascinating, becoming simply friends with a diverse group of young Egyptians. This book follows these people through the suffocating stasis coupled with glimpses of consumer modernity that was the Mubarak era, through the exhilarating uprising in Tahrir Square that overthrew that dictator in 2011, and then through the political and religious morass that buried democracy and left Egypt under the thumb of its current military tyrant, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, friend of our Orange Cheato. Somehow everything changed -- and nothing changed.

All of Aspden's (authentic, even if necessarily disguised) cast of characters survive, though it was a near thing for several Islamist teenage women who took to the barricades in support of the one freely elected leader, the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohammed Morsi. Others among them organized to depose Morsi and cheered their new army boss. Most just tried to keep their heads down and get on with life. This is not about heroics; the best of it is simply about everyday life.

The Cairo that Aspden found herself in, a city of 15 million people, was a place where "the idea of 'privacy' barely existed, while social bonds and social judgments were everything." And, though a foreigner and carrying the stigma combined with privilege of former colonizers, she was a woman.

Because I happened to be female, I was now surrounded by people who wanted to dictate what I could do, say and wear; where I could go, who I could go with and when I could go there; where I could sit in public; how I could travel; what time I could enter and leave my house [a shared apartment] and who I could invite there -- and the finely gauged range of disapproval, harassment and intimidation they could mete out if I crossed these boundaries.

Most of these strictures had little to do with formal Islamic teaching. ... I found that many men assumed that a woman with no male "protection" was an easy source of sex for those with the initiative to take it. ...It was the state that had laid the ground for these sex-crazed citizens -- like their puritanical mirror images ...Sexual harassment and assault were not criminalized, the police dismissed reports of domestic violence and rape -- and were themselves responsible for beating, sexually humiliating and raping detained men and women ...

She did meet a woman -- she calls her Amal -- who had escaped, literally, a strict upbringing in a Nile village, made her way as a teacher and lived on her own in the city, owning her own car. Other Egyptian women were not inspired by Amal's story.

"Why would I want to live apart from my parents, when I love them? Or pay for everything myself? ... Unfortunately, no man will ever agree to marry her," they said.

By the end of the book, Amal has indeed married -- to an Irishman and they are emigrating.

The demands of a patriarchal society also weighed heavily on the young men, with paradoxical results. Aspen describes Abdel Rahman, who entered college with romantic dreams of choosing a perfect mate among the brilliant Egyptian girls he studied alongside. Those dreams were dashed because the father of the object of his hopes pointed out he was still penniless.

Like his friends, he had grown up watching Western porn, first at illicit video parties, then online and he realized the whole world wasn't like Egypt. After he graduated and got a job at a newspaper, he met a string of European girls who smuggled him past suspicious bawabs [doormen] to drink, smoke hash and have sex. ... For a few years, it was fun. But as he neared thirty, it stated to feel empty. He felt guilty and stressed when he thought about the drugs, parties and one-night stands. ...

He realized he had to change. ... Now he began to listen to Quartic recitation as he stop-started through the choking Cairo traffic to and from work every day. It made him feel calm ... He started to pray ... He went to the mosque on Fridays ...

[Soon he explained to Aspden what he wanted in a wife.] "She must be one, beautiful, ... two, religious, three, respectable. ... Men like me, who have done this stuff, think like this more than anyone else ... We know what girls are really like, what they get up to in secret. ... After all my experiences, I've realized that the personality of the Egyptian man tends to stability. Religion is important, marriage is important, who you marry is important ..."

Abdel Rahman turned to his parents to arrange a marriage but the process disgusted him.

"It's like the Camp David negotiations, haggling between the families about money. I'm not a bridegroom, I'm just a walking back account. ... All the burden falls on men. ..."

Abdel Rahman wanted social approval, to make choices that would be endorsed by family and the state. Being a man, that option remained to him. At the book's close, he was still a respectable man about town in Cairo media circles.

Aspden's explorations of her friends' political participation in the Tahrir Square insurrection and in the subsequent flailing and failed democratic project seems less perceptive than her social observations. She came to realize that some friends brought to these events (or learned from them) what she found an unfamiliar source of stability.

[Mazen and Ayman] both hated the old regime and thought of themselves as revolutionaries ...They both had a passionate desire for freedom. But for them, religion was far from a restriction or a burden -- it was a means of liberation.

... Ayman and Mazen's lives were a whirl of instability. Their parents' values could no longer guide them, their country was in upheaval, and their future was uncertain. Islam was their rock in the middle of chaos.

Ayman adopted ultraconservative Salafi Islam for awhile, then turned toward studying comparative religions and writing a novel about how different religions treat women. Mazen landed as a cog in his family's business, cynical and disappointed about all enthusiasms, but conventionally Egyptian in believing that ISIS is a creation of Israel and the US meant as cover for a Western imperial plot to seize oil.

Most of Aspden's people end up disillusioned and frustrated or bent on emigration. Insofar as Aspden's story in Generation Revolution tries to draw any conclusion, it is that for diverse reasons, most Egyptians she knew between 2003 and 2015 came to crave stability above all. Before judging them, I think we need to ask ourselves whether our deepest wishes are any different.

I came away from this intriguing little book unsure whether I'd been exposed to any truthful insight into Egyptian society and events. There are so many social filters between how I understand the world and how Aspden's people do. And she sits in the middle, not always helping much. There are limits to the explanatory power of this kind of participant observation of an unfamiliar society. But this is an interesting attempt to share the realities of people she obviously cares about. It was worth reading, though not for me deeply illuminating. Someone with a less instrumental intelligence might feel differently.

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Cheato takes to the road

Unlike me, Erudite Partner puts herself through watching video of the Orange Cheato prancing around the world. She caught this unlikely image from the Muslim speech to kings, princes and prime ministers in Saudi Arabia:
Apparently we've just recognized a "State of Palestine." Would that it were so and that we had a president who knew what that meant.

Oh, and that state is properly considered yet another Muslim country? Palestinian Christians might feel threatened by being erased, though it is true that Israeli occupation has pushed out a disproportionate exodus of Christian Palestinians. "The West" has been more hospitable to Christians than Muslims, 'natch.

Formerly "protected" Haitians threatened with deportation

Amidst the flood of Trump scandal news last week, it would be easy to miss the growing tally of human casualties. Even if institutional checks partially neuter this authoritarian crew, a lot of people are going to get hurt. The administration's anti-immigrant agenda is hitting home.

Immigration arrests are up 37.6 percent over the first 100 days of 2016. Although Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly says the raids focus on "criminals," pickups of people without records of criminal offenses are up 150 percent.

The better news is that the deportation forces are clogging their own arteries. The backlog of immigration cases that need to go before a judge before someone can be deported are up from about half a million at the beginning of the year, to 585,930 cases as of the end of April. Until GOPers in Congress manage to put together a budget and then hundreds more immigration judges can be hired, the backlog just grows. If immigration advocates continue to be able to help with legal aid in many cases, it is going to continue to be difficult for authorities to follow through. The Republican Congress could make legal tweaks which would ease deportations, so Democrats in Congress have a role to play in obstructing cruel legal moves -- and resisters will have a role in keeping their Congresscritters' feet to the fire.

Meanwhile, people who did nothing wrong live in fear -- fear for themselves, fear for their relatives, fear for their children.

We instinctively think of the migrants at risk from the current immigration panic as Latinx, as coming from Mexico or perhaps Central America. And these are the bulk of the people Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is chasing down. But there are many others we should be aware of.

The Trump administration is apparently preparing this week to end the "Temporary Protected Status" (TPS) which has allowed some 50,000 Haitians to stay in the U.S. since the 2010 earthquake which killed something like a quarter million people and left the nation's capital smashed to rubble. U.N. troops sent in to aid the country then brought a cholera epidemic as well as corruption.

The Haitians after all are black -- and citizens of the only nation ever to end slavery via black slave revolt. This Caribbean country has long made the US uncomfortable, and suffered in consequence. According to Alicia Caldwell/Associated Press, now the administration is trying to scare up evidence that the TPS Haitian population are criminals.

The Trump administration is taking the unusual step of hunting for evidence of crimes committed by Haitian immigrants as it decides whether to allow them to continue participating in a humanitarian program that has shielded tens of thousands from deportation since an earthquake destroyed much of their country.

The inquiries into the community's criminal history were made in internal U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services emails obtained by The Associated Press. They show the agency's newly appointed policy chief also wanted to know how many of the roughly 50,000 Haitians enrolled in the Temporary Protected Status program were taking advantage of public benefits, which they are not eligible to receive.

The emails don't make clear if Haitian misdeeds will be used to determine whether they can remain in the United States. The program is intended to help people from places beset by war or disasters and, normally, the decision to extend it depends on whether conditions in the immigrants' home country have improved enough for them to return. But emails suggest Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly, who will make the decision, is looking at other criteria.

It doesn't seem crazy to assume that this is a particularly vulnerable group, stigmatized by race, who the nativists can come after without much legal process -- the project of Making America White Again, one vicious act at a time, continues.

Trump's own medicine

The New York Times has done something unexpectedly smart in its coverage of the Orange Cheato. Instead of turning to the prestigious (and pretentious) big guns of Washington journalism, they gave the White House job to reporters seasoned by covering local New York City politics and scandal. The fit is a good one.

Glenn Thrush came up from public high school and college in Brooklyn via covering New York mayors for Newsday. He finds insight and the right tone in stories like this.

WASHINGTON — President Trump was determined to leave his mark on Washington quickly. Now the city is leaving its bruising mark on him, with the same astonishing swiftness that has been a hallmark of his lightning-strike political career.

Mr. Trump has worn out opponents, journalists, members of Congress, foreign leaders, his staff — and now himself — with a breakneck barrage of executive actions, policy proposals and reversals, taunts, boasts and drowsy-hour Twitter assaults, all meant to disrupt American politics as usual.

... Ten days of shocks, kicking off with Mr. Trump’s surprise ouster of James B. Comey on May 9 and continuing through the revelation on Friday that the president had called the F.B.I. chief a “nut job” in front of Russian officials, have left the West Wing reeling.

... What unnerves Mr. Trump and his staff the most is the eerily familiar tempo of these disclosures. It is as if some unseen adversary has copied Mr. Trump’s own velocity and ferocity in an attempt to destroy him, several people close to the president said. Sources are shuttling all kinds of information about Mr. Trump to reporters at a pace the White House cannot match.

... So far, Mr. Trump, who lives by a hammerhead shark’s swim-or-die credo, has shown no signs of slowing down.

I like the image of Washington combining without conscious conspiracy to burn the guy out. Can the various elements of the regular order keep throwing stuff at Trump from all directions? We small fry out in the boonies can certainly keep up our good work of resistance. Let's create more friction.

Saturday, May 20, 2017

Saturday scenes: Mission critters

In the last few weeks, the sidewalks in the Mission have sprouted images of skeletal animals.

I have no idea of either their source or their meaning.

The bear seems a lover-bruin.

The cat is cheerful.

The owl seems a bit threatening, but that may just be how such a bird of prey looks to a human eye.

Friday, May 19, 2017

Friday cat blogging

We call this posture the "full Morty." Most mornings, he assumes it and plays with his catnip filled carrot and banana.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Resistance is not a spectator sport

It's still time to resist and protect much.

All this week, as I've kept up with the thrill-a-minute scandal dumps from Washington, a nagging concern has been building in the back of my mind: yes, the system, our quasi-democratic system of government, seems to be trying to spit out the immature poison pill momentarily lodged in the White House. Though we're just seeing the end of the beginning, we can begin to hope we are seeing the beginning of the end of the Trump presidency.

But that doesn't mean citizen resistance can turn away from the ongoing clusterfuck. This isn't just about the Orange Cheato. This is also about an empowered Republican party which, no less than its figurehead, wants to make America white again for the benefit of the one percent.
  • Attorney General Jeff Sessions just ordered federal district attorneys to throw the book at all drug offenders, guaranteed to fill up prisons with more black and brown people.
  • All the GOPers seem down with enhanced deportations of undocumented people -- and with wider restrictions on the number of immigrants and refugees allowed in through the regular process.
  • There's nothing these human turds won't do to befoul the only planet we've got so as to support coal, oil and gas company profits.
  • So-called "health reform" is a scam to throw 14 million or so people in need of help off of insurance so as to make sure billionaires don't have to pay inheritance taxes.
  • Oh, and just for shits and giggles, these guys want to "defund" Planned Parenthood, ensuring the millions of women lose access to appropriate, affordable health care.
People who have been resisting the Trump-led shitshow are moved by a different vision for the country: instead of the Trump/Republican nightmare, in our various ways we want to work toward a national and global turn toward multi-racial, economically egalitarian, gender non-constricting, woman affirming, and peace choosing democracy that preserves the habitability of earth for all.

As Washington ties itself in knots, citizen resistance can't ease up. Citizen resistance gums up the machine and stiffens spines. When Congress gets around to continuing its attack on our paltry social welfare state -- on Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security -- we have to be screaming bloody murder. We need to do all we can to protect Black, brown and Muslim communities under siege. We need to fight voter suppression with voter registration. Eventually we'll have to put Democrats in power -- and then keep beating up on them to keep them accountable. There's much still to do. Lets' do it.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

What are you listening to now?

Since I'm training for an ultramarathon these days, I'm getting as much of my news by ear (podcasts) as by eye (reading). As I lumber along, sometimes I'll listen to escapist fare -- but often I'll want a dose of new White House outrages.

To this end, I've added some new podcasts to my repertoire:

These four come from an outfit that calls itself Crooked Media. Whenever there is a change of administration, there are staffers cut loose from important, often satisfying, sometimes powerful, jobs. When the incoming administration is a wrecking crew of doubtful rectitude, what better for such people to do than take their communication skills, their knowledge of how systems actually work, and their commitment to progressive policy goals -- and create a small political podcast empire?

Jon Favreau (former Obama speech writer), Jon Lovett (speech writer to both H. Clinton and Obama), Dan Pfeiffer (Obama communications strategist) and Tommy Vietor (former national security spokesman) discuss all things political on Pod Save America. Their background gives them access to major political figures like Senator Mark Warner of the Senate Intelligence Committee, while their relative youth and new outsider status keeps things fresh.

On Pod Save the World, Vietor uses his foreign policy experience to talk about ... well, the world. His previous job gives him access to actual experts on places like Syria and China. Would that the Trump administration seemed to have a clue about any of this.

Pod Save the People is activist Deray McKesson's showcase for everything from the fight for voting rights to an interview with Edward Snowden in which the fugitive gives his slant on Trump firing FBI director Comey.

With Friends Like These is Ana Marie Cox's attempt to prove that people can talk with each other, often across wide differences. Cox founded Wonkette, a great site for raw news.

Two other podcasts I find informative these days:
There was a time when discussions among national security legal eagles would have repelled me. I don't trust that their point of view leads anywhere but justification for overreach by the powers-that-be. But Trump's shenanigans have brought me to this source and so I find myself appreciating Lawfare. Somebody still thinks law matters, even if it isn't the President and his enablers.

On the Media is a long time favorite, now more vital than ever. Brooke Gladstone and Bob Edwards are journalists who can pick up the scent of bullshit -- most notably when it emanates from people whose sympathies they might well share. We need this talent these days.

What are you listening to?

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

"A hood ornament on the Trumpmobile"

The closest Republican Congressman to San Francisco who deserves early retirement in 2018 is Jeff Denham in CA-10, a district centered in Modesto in the San Joaquin Valley. Along with friends, I'm researching the district's concerns, wanting to be more a help than an intruder as his constituents work to elect a replacement. The guy voted to yank access to health care from thousands of his constituents; the district is poor and heavily dependent on Medicaid (we call it Medical in this state). Otherwise he's a standard issue "deregulating" GOPer, all in for letting coal companies dump their garbage in streams, allowing offshore oil drilling, and closing down Planned Parenthood's services to women.

Folks in Turlock seemed to be doing an energetic job of getting on his case on May 9.

There will be more ...


In the style of the discourse from the Orange Cheato, "many people say" this photo is authentic. I'm too busy to try to verify. But it seems deliciously true.

Monday, May 15, 2017

What you aren't able to see can hurt you

The Washington Post has created an easily understood video explainer on the Trump administration's spreading practice of hiding or trashing government data that once was available for all to see.

Across the vast breadth of the government, agencies have traditionally provided the public with massive data sets, which can be of great value to companies, researchers and advocacy groups, among others. Three months ago, there were 195,245 public data sets available on, according to Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law, who studies the handling of public data. This week it stood at just under 156,000.

Data experts say the decrease, at least in part, may reflect the consolidation of data sets or the culling of outdated ones, rather than a strategic move to keep information from the public. But the reduction was clearly a conscious decision.

[Nathan Cortez, the associate dean of research at Southern Methodist University’s Dedman School of Law] said the Obama administration increased the amount of government data offered to the public, although the information was at times incomplete or inaccurate and sometimes used as a “regulatory cudgel.” Under Trump, the government is taking transparency “in the opposite direction.”

The outrageous actions of our aspiring autocrat are often easier to track than what his minions are simply disappearing.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

My mother

My mother has been dead nearly two decades. I frequently wonder what she would have made of our contemporary USofA. There's been a lot of water under the bridge -- especially 9/11, meaningless forever wars, torture at Abu Ghraib -- that I am glad she missed.

She was a politically engaged person. Although more to the right than the left, during the 1930s, she was well aware that something evil was brewing in Germany, something that decent people and countries would have to fight. The spectacle of Nazi atrocities led her to reject bigotry when she recognized it, though she carried vast reservoirs of WASP supremacist assumptions about which she was oblivious. Having listened breathlessly to the European war on shortwave radio, she feared and hated war itself. Though a lifelong Republican, she could not bring herself to vote for Barry Goldwater; his bellicose conservatism was not hers.

Her Republican allegiance was not mean or angry in the current style. She raised me to do grassroots election work, keeping a card file of registered voters in the neighborhood and chivvying them to turn out. But she expected to lose those elections. Buffalo was a working class Democratic city; for better (and often worse), her kind were not the local government.

I don't recall how she responded to Watergate; we were politically distant in those years. She was not a particular fan of Ronald Reagan, though his marriage to a graduate of Smith College where she had spent four exciting, independent years atoned for his Californian swagger. George H.W. Bush was more her sort; I think she saw him as more New England than Texas.

She lived just long enough to endure the revelation of Bill Clinton's dalliance with a White House intern. She was not amused. In fact, I think revulsion from his boorish behavior probably would have delayed a political trajectory that would have made her a Democrat by now. She believed in women's rights, in reproductive choice, and in general decency. She would have liked Obama -- I can hear her saying "such a nice family."

I think Donald Trump would have disgusted and frightened her, as he disgusts and frightens me.

The photo is from about 1950.

Saturday, May 13, 2017

What do all those egg labels mean?

I'm suspicious about food labels. And these Costco eggs sure seem to carry a lot of claims. Consumer Reports offers a site call Greener Choices/labels which tries to provide some idea which are meaningful.

Let's start with the bold text claim "Organic", reinforced by the round green and white USDA Organic seal. Greener Choices is currently a little dubious about this one, as applied to meat, dairy, eggs and processed foods.

The standards are meaningful for promoting sustainable agricultural practices and eliminating toxic synthetic pesticides, fertilizers and other synthetic inputs. ... [But] Inconsistencies in the organic standards and oversight include:
- outdoor access for organic chickens
- the allowance of antibiotic use in organic chicken hatcheries,
- the use of certain unapproved synthetic nutrients in organic processed foods, including infant formula, and
- the continued approval of non-organic ingredients that raise human health concerns, such as carrageenan.

If you are a purist, (I'm not) you wouldn't put much stock in this one.

"Pasture raised" turns out to be even more dubious.

A “pasture raised” claim suggests that the animals were raised on or with access to a pasture. However, government agencies that oversee food labeling do not have a common standard for a “pasture raised” claim and do not require third-party verification or on-farm inspection.

Oops. Not much to go on here.

"No hormones or antibiotics" doesn't live up to its promise either.

Choosing animal products from animals raised without antibiotics is an important step consumers can take to help address the public health crisis of antibiotic resistance. ... [But] For dairy product and egg labels, which are regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), label approval is not required. The FDA has no regulatory definition for “raised without antibiotics” labels.

The small circular label in the upper right corner next to USDA/Organic turns out to receive strong approval.

The Northeast Organic Farming Association-NY Certified 100% Grass Fed label is highly meaningful and verified. It means that the animals used to produce meat and dairy were raised on certified organic farms ... Animals have to be managed in accordance to the USDA organic standards, which means the animals cannot be treated with antibiotics or artificial hormones to promote growth. Organic standards also prohibit the use of synthetic herbicides and pesticides on pasture and crops. Genetically engineered crops, such as genetically engineered alfalfa (hay), are also prohibited.

This certification doesn't seem to say anything about the living conditions of laying hens.

Nor, according to Greener Choices, does the round yellow, blue, and red circular label in the far upper right from "American Humane Certified" mean much.

The American Humane Certified label is somewhat meaningful and verified. While the American Humane Association says its standards aim to ensure the humane treatment and improve the welfare of farm animals, the requirements fall short in meeting consumer expectations for a “humane” label in many ways. Most Americans think that a “humane” label should mean that the animals had adequate living space (86%), went outdoors (78%) and were raised without cages (66%).

The American Humane Certified standards do not always assure consumers that these basic requirements were met. For example, minimum space requirements are sometimes greater than the industry norm, but do not always allow for freedom of movement. Animals such as chickens, pigs and turkeys can be continually confined indoors .... The indoor space requirements for laying hens vary depending on the type of housing that is used, and the American Humane Certified standards require slightly more space than the industry norm (which is roughly 9 inches by 7.5 inches in a cage). The minimum space requirement for a hen in an enriched colony house is at least 10 inches by 11.6 inches. ...

I'm glad I'm not a chicken.

Interestingly, these particular Costco eggs get high marks from "Certified Humane Raised and Handled" which itself is a label Greener Choices considers "meaningful and verified."

Obviously, the people selling us eggs think we care about this stuff. But it looks as if even somewhat conscientious farmers and vendors have a long way to go to be marketing to us products which accord with what we expect from their claims. On the other hand, pretty good food is abundant and often quite cheap. I'm glad I have it.
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