Friday, February 27, 2009

The Dying Roars of a Wounded Beast

Lots of apparently contradictory news this week from the extreme right, but all actually pointing to a similar conclusion. The culture wars are over, the ideological purists are outraged that people accept gay lifestyles and religions other than Christianity, and the wounded beasts are roaring in their death throes, certain the world is going to hell.

The news that James Dobson would step down as head of Focus on the Family crossed the wires around noon on Feb. 26. It had been half-expected for quite a while, as the public's growing annoyance with the Mad Doctor was one factor that led to reduced Focus contributions. The obvious question is, can a Dobsonless Focus, like a New Life Church without Ted Haggard, retain any sense of identity? In the case of New Life, the answer was a qualified "yes," and the church was less hostile to others, even as it retained its sense of evangelism. With Focus, the board will likely aim for a kinder, gentler family-values institution, but I'm not so sure the PR shtick will work.

Meanwhile, the Colorado legislature saw two types of craziness at the end of February. Sen. Scott Renfroe of Greeley, during debate on a domestic partners act, equated the sin of homosexuality with murder. Just as the Colorado Republican Party was trying to recover from the horror, the always-irrepressible Sen. Dave Schultheis from Colorado Springs became the sole member of the state legislature to vote against a bill to mandate AIDS testing for pregnant women. Schultheis, normally a virulent anti-abortion activist, actually said he wanted babies to get AIDS to teach their moms responsibility. Thankfully, ProgressNow Colorado has started an online petition drive to get him censured. I'd prefer to see him run out of the state or run over by a truck.

The Southern Poverty Law Center says we should expect this kind of revitalization of the extreme right, as wacko groups have to cope with an African-American president and a society that has largely accepted new cultural norms. There's always a danger that one or two such groups would attempt an Oklahoma City re-run. But most will just scream louder and louder in their irrelevance. Be sure to turn off the lights and shut the doors on your way out, gang.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

No Child Left Red-Lined: From District 11 to Your Neighborhood School

School District 11 in mid-city, Colorado Springs, is facing the same kind of pressures as most school districts across the U.S. in 2009: Declining enrollment and aging buildings means more consolidation. Desire for science-centric magnet schools leads to deals with the devil for corporate aerospace companies to run the schools, using district money. Parents are the last to know the ultimate plans of the board.

In late February, parents learned that many of the schools slated for closure in District 11 were in lower-income neighborhoods. Isn't it funny how even kids get red-lined? Even though parents were kept in the dark until the last moment, they have been quick to organize. This is a video of them gathering outside a closed, executive-session meeting of the board on Feb. 25, 2009.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Scott Moss Riffs on Barack Obama and the Supremes

Scott Moss, who teaches constitutional law at CU, was the guest speaker at the Colorado state ACLU annual meeting Feb. 21. I captured most of his speech in three segments: the one above, followed by Part 2 and Part 3. I ran out of memory for the last couple minutes of his speech, where he adds the final two elements of his Top Five Rights Issues:

4. Civil Rights Enforcement: will be aggressive, but could be severely limited by budget constraints.

5. Legislation on issues such as gay rights, union rights (Employee Free Choice Act) and the Ledbetter Fair Pay Act may be supported, but a lower priority due to the crisis in the economy.

Moss ended with a discussion of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full on state secrets. Obama's poor position on the fight with the British High Court over Binyam Mohamed has been followed up by disturbing signs on extraordinary rendition, secret bombing in Pakistan, and restrictions on National Security Agency information.

"When the information relates directly to a war being waged, secrets will be kept, though Obama will not adopt the kind of broad definitions we saw on the War On Terror," Moss said. "Remember, Obama was never part of the pacifist wing of the party. There will be interceptions, there will be detentions, but there will be limits on what is considered state secrets during time of war."

The ACLU meeting also heard from State Board Chairman Lino Lipinsky, who reminded attendees that without ACLU cases, the Denver police would have continued their common trend in 2005-2008 of locking up the wrong people in outstanding warrants (occasionally even mixing up race and legal status in the mistaken identity), and leaving innocent people in jail for days or weeks.

Cathy Hazouri, executive director of the state office, said that some members may have not liked the actions the ACLU took to defend demonstrators during the Democratic National Convention, but that the ACLU needs to be inherently contrarian with everyone, even its loyal members.

"We are the permanent loyal opposition," she said. "Sometimes, even we don't agree with what we do."

Saturday, February 21, 2009


Normally, I might have cheered Andrew Cuomo's subpoena of Ken Lewis, CEO of Bank of America, for the billions in bonuses issued to at the end of 2008 to executives of Merrill Lynch before the merger. But I was in the middle of the lead article of Foreign Affairs, where Roger Altman tried to explain why bankers behaved the way they did, competing to create the dumbest and most unstable instruments possible.

Sure, Altman is going to make a partial defense of bankers, but his explanation makes sense. He sees housing as merely the market of random exploitation, and subprime mortgages as the easiest instrument to exploit. To him, the crisis began with excess global liquidity, and a clamoring among institutional investors and foreign investors for the highest risk possible among instruments (since yield is proportional to risk). If this liquidity had been there during the Internet-infrastructure/dot-com boom of 1999, the meltdown might have happened then. Suddenly, bankers were scrambling to approve as many subprimes as possible, and bundle them into futures contracts. (Yes, I know you're thinking of a prosecutor rolling his eyes as all the drug dealers in town claim, "We had to cut the heroin with Comet cleanser, everyone was doing it.")

I've already made the argument for mandating a cap on rates of return on investment (12, 15 percent?), which may be more important than capping executive salaries. Free-market wankers may whine that the Nanny State is once again trying to dictate the level of risk which can be assumed. But if you run a sky-diving or hang-gliding school and have a couple students who always insist on launching from the most dangerous spot to increase their thrill over the risk involved, in a drive for monoamine oxidase overdose, don't you have a responsibility to say something, at least because of your liabilities? If you run a gun shop and a customer boasts of going home to play Russian roulette, isn't there a cautionary tale? Remember, cops can treat a suicide attempt as a crime, if they wish, because the damage is not limited to the individual, it affects the society at large. And if you become addicted to increasing levels of risk, you will eventually die, run the numbers.

None of this is meant to take the heat off bankers, mortgage brokers, hedge-fund managers, or any of the other links in the chain that led to the meltdown. But the next time some conservative blathers on about Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, and the Democrats being the sole cause of our problems, or Rick Santelli launches into another mindless rant about how poorer people caught in subprimes were the cause of our miseries, remember the Altman article. A few friends last week mentioned the long-rumored and long-forgotten anonymous conspiracy-theory newsletter, One Great Big Conspiracy. As I watched Cuomo defend his subpoenas, I thought about the apocryphal final issue of OGBC, never finished and never distributed, with a mirror on the cover and the bold declaration, "The problem is YOU." (And me.) Let this be our mantra as we climb out of this mess.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Rev. Lucius Walker of Pastors for Peace

Rev. Lucius Walker, executive director of Pastors for Peace, was in Colorado Springs Feb. 17-18 for a gumbo fund-raising party and a series of talks to promote the work of his organization, which arranges peace caravans to Cuba. He was kind enough to sit down with me for a brief chat at First Congregational Church about the work of Pastors for Peace. To contact the organization for donations of money or goods, write, or call 212-926-5757.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009


Wake up, media! While we obsess over Obama's visit to Denver and Khmer Rouge trials and GM/Chrysler revamps, only the venerable New York Times noticed - and placed on its front page -- the fact that Pakistan had reached a wide-ranging peace agreement with the Taliban, allowing the organization self-rule in Swat province.

I worry that this may be the spark that leads Obama to fulfill his campaign warning that he might directly invade Pakistan. I certainly do not favor military intervention, but I also do not adhere to the international diplomacy view that "all deserve a voice at the table." Ideological catastrophists whose philosophies require the murder of dozens, thousands or millions, be they Khmer Rouge, Sendero Luminoso, or Wahhabists, deserve no place at anyone's table. Thanks to the wisdom of the Pakistan government, Swat residents who own DVD players or satellite dishes will be beheaded, just like the wife of that TV station owner in upstate New York who urged understanding of Islamic traditions. Isn't Medieval life fun?

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Limbic or Cortical?

As someone who never succumbed to the audacity of hope, I have a hard time deciding how to respond to the anti-Obama alarmism of the post-stimulus week. Since Obama caved on FISA back in July, I was not that surprised to see his administration similarly cave on the secrecy issues raised by the British High Court a week ago, and I am glad to see The New York Times waste no words to tell him this was not acceptable. Similarly, I thought Tim Geithner's bailout plan was almost as lame as Paulson's. Sources inside the White House say he didn't want to over-upset the banking executives, yet as Congress learned Feb. 11, there's simply no nice way to tell someone they need to have their asshole reamed. Punishment implies cruelty.

And yet, it's hard to start taking apart the stimulus package without running into the tin-foil types who seriously believe that Obama is ushering in a socialist dynasty of scary proportions. I consistently set up a rule for those with whom I would engage on debating points: use your cortex, not your limbic system. Apparently, for many people this is hard. Hard for arch-conservatives, of course, but hard for some Obamaniacs as well. Most people do not respond to facts assembled in a linear and logical way, but to emotional appeals to myth. Often, this myth is supporting and covering up a set of deeply racist fears. But even among those who have no subconscious racial blocks in dealing with the new president, there is this narrative from the Hannity-O'Reilly-Limbaugh camp that assumes all financial planning is socialism. At least Mitch McConnell was intelligent enough to say that Obama's stimulus plan could take us further toward a European Union-style economy. Flash news for frantic anti-Obama-ites: There are no socialist nations in Western Europe. McConnell may be right or wrong, but at least he doesn't uphold myths.

There are dangerous potholes ahead as we talk about financial recovery, the U.S. place in a new multipolar world, and even simple things like the 200th anniversary of Darwin. We can't remove the influence of our limbic system, but we can choose to relegate our emotions to a second order, beneath the cortex. The more the emotions or the hormones speak first regarding complex topics like economics, the more we sound like primates - and ones not very highly evolved.

Friday, February 6, 2009


Some of you jaded turkeys may be convinced that I'm so obsessed with Eva Saelens that if she were to belch in the studio for 40 minutes, I'd call it a work of genius (hmm...maybe so). But in this case, her work on the Post-Alarmist project is worth checking out. Eva, aka Inca Ore, was in a Portland, Ore. collective called Alarmist, along with Argumentix (James Squeaky), Ghost to Falco (Eric Crespo), and Tunnels (Nick Binderman). On this compilation, the four of them get together to offer spoken-word poetry, tenor saxophone squonkings, and random noises and hip-hop profundities that rank in the best of Inca's work. Yep, 2009 is off to a good start in music, and this is the type of project that should be emulated by others.

(P.S. I didn't take along the video camera, but got to see banjo virtuoso Bela Fleck play with Abigail Washburn and Sparrow Quartet Thursday night. Abigail is a Colorado College graduate who has mixed Mandarin-language folk songs with bluegrass and chamber music. Her collaborators on cello and violin (Ben Sollee and Casey Driessen) are chamber-trained musicians who play modernist classical with a bluegrass sensibility. There is a connection here with Post-Alarmist - quartets from another dimension.)

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Wha' Democracy? You See Any Democracy?

Kudos to British High Court Judges John Thomas and David Lloyd Jones for raking the U.S. government over the coals Feb. 4. The judges said they could not release a U.S. document about the treatment of Binyam Mohamed at Guantanamo, because if it was released, the U.S. would revoke an intelligence-sharing agreement, perhaps the bulk of the 1947 UKUSA Treaty. The judges went a little far, though in wondering why "a democracy governed by the rule of law would expect a court in another democracy to suppress a summary of the evidence.." Umm, what democracy? Poor Barack Obama is trying to return the U.S. to a semblance of rudimentary proto-democracy, but we've been an authoritarian dictatorship for at least a decade - maybe since the end of World War II. If we're going to live up to the slamming the British court gave us, we've got a long way to go.

"Que es Mas Macho?"

The header for this post is from an oft-repeated line from Laurie Anderson's wonderful 1986 movie, Home of the Brave. In this case, the source is as relevant as the tagline.

After Sarah Palin energized a certain subset of the arch-conservative base, it became popular to wonder if an Obama victory would bring the kind of vermin from the walls that Bill Clinton spurred with groups like the Michigan Militia. So far, the racism angle has remained in the background, and Obama's centrist slant has made it hard for the conspiratorial right to assemble complaints about the UN, socialism, New World Order, or the war in Afghanistan. Heck, a Pakistan invasion might be more likely under Obama than McCain!

Instead, wackos have been gathering at the center of the Venn diagram where cars, nationalism, the environment, and machismo converge. And the results might not be pretty.

Let's begin with the UAW campaign of late January to "Buy American." We all know that this was attempted in the late 1980s, when union organizers took sledgehammers to Datsuns in parking lots. It was stupid and jingoist then, and remains so today (check out response 220 in this link - the commenter has the audacity to invoke John Lennon). But when the UAW members opened the Pandora's box of working-class resentment, they found that many at the Detroit auto show said they wouldn't even buy a Volt (currently in deep trouble due to the financial meltdown), because electric cars and hybrids were for gays. Real men were proud of their large carbon footprint. In fact, some argued that industrial working-class jobs were inherently more manly than service or professional jobs. UAW leadership realized that this view could short-circuit the effort to canonize the line worker, and to depict the financial and corporate "Masters of the Universe" as the powerful men behind the scenes. Worse still, it reinforced the unfair image of industrial worker as a Neanderthal lout swinging a lug wrench around.

A recent article about a Colorado Prius owner who went on a road-rage rampage against pickup trucks spurred page after page of online responses, as readers reiterated the Michigan mantra that Priuses were for wussies. After all, readers said, caring about conservation and watching one's carbon footprint was such an effeminate activity. Real men loved to overconsume, to super-size everything, to drive their SUVs to their 5000-square-foot mansions, and all this talk of recession-inspired downsizing was just so much emasculation.

This kind of thinking is wrong on so many levels, it circles back on itself and becomes right in its own perverse self-referential domain. Testosterone to a certain extent is indeed responsible for wars, imperialism, and "livin' large." To wilfully engage in self-denial might be seen as a form of castration. But whether you are one of the wacko global-warming deniers or not, to try to make an argument against cutting the waste and carbon production in your own life is lunacy of a new order we have yet to experience. To say that caring about the environment turns you into an "emasculated metrosexual" is an observation so addle-brained, it represents a new breed of Know-Nothing Party. To reject the notion of sustainability is as foolish as rejecting the scientific method (and there are a growing number of people, particularly conservative Christians, that see the scientific method and rational discourse as satanic).

Should we care about a new reactionary underground that overtly rejects sustainability, right-sizing, and green transportation as a threat to masculinity? It's tempting to say that NASCAR fans can keep spending extra money on their big vehicles and off-road ATV fun, and drive themselves into extinction. Just remember, we once thought that we could keep the militias in their paintball-war compounds, but some, like Timothy McVeigh, decided to walk off the farm.