Thursday, April 27, 2017

Itching for an excuse to be violent

There are two articles of interest from the May 1 edition of The Washington Spectator.

The first is Guns, Extremism, and the Threats of Escalation by Rick Perlstein. He talks about the recent Battle in Berkeley where those for the nasty guy clashed with those against. The demonstrations started peacefully, then turned violent. Some try to claim it was hard to tell who threw the first punch. Others say it was clearly someone in the Alt-Right movement.
https://washingtonspectator.org/trump-guns-extremism-perlstein/

Perlstein’s larger point is there are those in the Alt-Right (euphemism for militantly conservative) movement itching for an excuse to be violent, to take out those who oppose them their Dear Leader. As part of their excuse is the belief they are merely fighting back in self defense – though more accurately in defense of their rank in society. Along the way Perlstein wrote:
Students of fascism will recognize the fantastical confusion of tropes: the enemy as a terrifying horde, raising the stakes ruthlessly beyond all civil bounds; but also the enemy as pitiful (“glass jawed”) weaklings—sometimes both within the same utterance. Such language is how students of fascism know that they are in its presence.

The second article is Letter from Mexico by Belén Fernández (not online yet). She explains why the immigration policy is the way it is (at least prior to the nasty guy) and has been that way since the last reform 30 years ago. Her summary is short:
The point of a punitive immigration policy has never been to put a stop to undocumented immigration in the first place, but rather to perpetuate its lucrative exploitability.
It worked like this:

* NAFTA eliminated the livelihoods of millions of Mexican farmers when subsidized American farm products flooded the Mexican market. The workers fled north.

* Because they are seen as inferior humans they are paid less. They produce wealth for the employers but keep less of it for themselves. That wage difference is a subsidy for the employers.

* These employers take no responsibility, pay none of the social costs, for the communities the workers came from or live in.

* Branding the workers as “illegal” means they are always deportable. That keeps the workers from demanding too many rights or a decent wage. Americans in the area are also kept in submission by the presence of folks willing to work for less.

* The migrant worker provides a convenient scapegoat for gov’t misdeed and general societal discontent.

The nasty guy is trying to upend this logic, but doing so only through white supremacy, not business. That implies he probably won’t succeed, but those who aren’t deported are in a more precarious position and thus more exploitable.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Lesbian bishop challenged

The United Methodist Church is awaiting a decision from its Judicial Council on whether a lesbian bishop should be removed from office. I have a summary of the story on my brother blog.

Trumpty Dumpty promised a wall

The title to this post is a great phrase! I got it from Melissa McEwan of Shakesville. Other sites have also been using it.

All through the campaign we heard how the nasty guy was going to build a wall along the US-Mexico border, even getting his supporters to chant, “Build the wall!” To fulfill that promise on Monday morning the nasty guy demanded funding for at least part of the wall be put into the spending bill that must be passed by Friday to avoid a government shutdown. The threat seemed to be: fund my wall or I shut down the gov’t. I also heard of a threat that if the wall wasn’t funded then the various pieces of the Affordable Care Act would also not be funded.

But Democrats displayed fierce opposition and by Monday afternoon the nasty guy had caved, afraid of another legislative failure.

A couple GOP senators, perhaps acting as nasty guy surrogates, responded by saying that “tall beautiful wall” is only a metaphor for better border security.

Just as well. Mexico environmental officials are preparing to fight the wall because it would make flooding on the Rio Grande worse.

But don’t gloat too much. McEwan reminds us:
Powerful cowards are very dangerous. Especially powerful cowards who have only earned praise for dropping bombs.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Victims of patriarchal culture

The nasty guy held an interview with Associated Press in which he essentially admitted he knew very little about what the job of president entailed. Melissa McEwan of Shakesville notes three examples from the interview.

* He admitted he didn’t know much about NATO (and proved it). Does he know enough now?

* He said business is better off without heart (though your suppliers, employees, and customers might disagree) but he seemed surprised that everything government does involves heart, that it affects people.

* He said he didn’t understand how big the job is and how great the responsibility is – people could have been killed in the missile strike in Syria (dude, people did die). And he hasn’t yet grasped that many of his decisions could kill (such as withdrawing health care, weakening safety regulations, or neglecting infrastructure).

McEwan also notes the role of the media during the campaign – the depth of the nasty guy’s unpreparedness was masked and Hillary Clinton was criticized for being over-prepared. And here we are.

Don’t expect the media to apologize any time soon. They don’t want to talk about their irresponsible treatment of both candidates because they don’t want us to reject their judgment in the next election (too late for that!).

In another post McEwan discusses what happens to smart woman (Clinton is a beautiful example of this). The smarter they are the more they are oppressed. White men refuse to deal with them, refuse to feel inferior, insist their privilege must remain intact.

McEwan says that because Clinton was a smart woman she was punished for it – leaving us a profoundly stupid and ignorant man to run the country.

McEwan explains the situation well and provides a pretty good solution to ranking:
The men who resent that the bar has been raised, their unearned privilege undermined and replaced with an expectation to achieve to the same level as women who hadn't their head start, can now do naught but whine about victimhood. They haven't yet realized that they are not victims of women, who only want the equality that's been denied them, but victims of a patriarchal culture that has spoiled men with the promise of success without effort, and robbed them of the will to expect more of themselves.
See above for an example of a spoiled man who expects success without effort and has no will to expect more of himself. A dangerous victim of patriarchal culture.

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Thank a scientist

Yesterday, there was a March for Science in 600 cities across the country and around the world, including Neumayer Station, Antarctica. They protested the general GOP attitude of science and, in particular, cuts to such gov’t agencies as the Environmental Protection Agency and the National Institutes of Health. I didn’t get to the one in Detroit. Leave it to scientists to come up with cool and nerdy chants and signs. If these don’t make sense, you need to brush up on your science.

I heard this chant on the radio this morning:
“What do we want?”
“Science based policy!”
“When do we want it?”
“After peer review!”

Some of the other posters I saw here, here, here, and here.

“Think like a proton and stay positive.”

“Mr. President, I know bacteria more cultured.”

Over a picture of the Capitol Dome using a line from the movie *The Martian*: “We need to Science the Sh* out of this.”

“Alternative facts = square root of -1.”

Schrödinger’s cat grabs back.”

Tungsten, Thorium, Fluorine – “W Th F, the element of outraged disbelief.”

Beside a drawing of the earth as seen from space: “I’m with her.”

“S.T.E.M. the lies!”

“In Peer Review We Trust.”

“Hey Trump – Think you can stifle science? Ask Galileo how that worked out!”

“Make earth cool again.”

“Alternative facts are not statistically significant.”

“Got plague? Yeah, me neither. Thank a scientist.”

A child in a stroller: “Remember polio? Neither do I. Thanks, Science.”

“So bad, even introverts are here.”

“I can’t believe I’m protesting for reality.”

Below an image of Einstein: “Science cuts make me relatively angry!”

“Grab ’em by the Data.”

And I’ll close with a wordy one:
First they came for the scientists and the National Park Service said, “lol, no” and went rogue and we were all like, “I was not expecting the park rangers to lead the resistance. None of the dystopian novels I’ve read prepared me for this.”

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Deafening silence

All through the campaign the nasty guy talked a lot about bringing manufacturing jobs back from overseas. He also talked about bringing back coal mining jobs.

Since October 89,000 retail workers have been laid off. Their jobs are disappearing from physical stores due to competition from internet stores. This 89,000 is more people than employed in the coal industry. Why didn’t the nasty guy campaign to save their jobs?

Jamelle Bouie, chief political correspondent for Slate, offers insight through a question: Who does retail work and who does manufacturing work?

Well, yeah, says Bouie, coal jobs are concentrated in particular places, which also happen to include swing states such as Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Michigan (we have coal? I didn’t think so. There used to many coal mines in Saginaw County, but the last closed in the 1950s). Retail jobs are spread out, though mostly in cities and suburbs and affected by gerrymandering.

On to the answer to Bouie’s question. White men tend to hold the manufacturing jobs. Women and women of color tend to hold the retail jobs. We’ve tied the worth of a job to who tends to do it. In the nasty guy’s world white men matter. Women of color don’t.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville adds a bit more. As the statistic above shows, retail jobs are being lost to automation. And those jobs are not coming back.

McEwan uses the example of the humans that used to answer the corporate phone, listen to your reason for calling, and connect you to the proper person. That person has been replaced by the phone tree, the recorded message that guides you through its maze of options. Customers hate them, but the cost savings has kept corporations from rehiring humans.

“Beautiful trade deals” won’t save jobs that are automated. And what is the nasty guy and his GOP cronies going to do about it?

The silence is deafening.



There is another deafening silence, this one coming from the Democratic Party. The silence is in response to this question: Why isn’t the party trumpeting the successes of President Obama, especially in comparison to the nasty guy’s disaster in that same office?

Related questions: Why is Bernie Sanders touring the country with DNC chair Tom Perez? Bernie was a Democrat in name only during last year’s primaries and has recently proclaimed that he isn’t won’t be a party member. Why is Sanders on that tour and Obama isn’t? And Hillary Clinton isn’t?

McEwan has a few thoughts. She says it is because Clinton, in spite of her solid win over the nasty guy in the popular vote, is seen as radioactive. And Obama is inconvenient. It is well known that Clinton was going to continue Obama’s policies. So if they praise Obama while pushing Clinton aside they show that the problem wasn’t Clinton’s policies.
They're effectively disowning the nation's first Black president in order to conceal their misogyny toward the party's first woman nominee.
Why do some of us keep poking sticks into the coals of the last election? Because if we don’t honestly face what went wrong we won’t fix it and we’ll lose again. And some of us see the Democratic Party as unwilling unwilling to face it honestly.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Seventeen Solutions – organize congressional watchdog groups

I am discovering several ways to resist the mess coming out of Washington. One is to make sure my senators and representative know my positions. Another is to join protest marches (though I haven’t done much of that lately). I can make sure a (slightly) larger audience knows the nasty things the nasty guy is doing by writing about them in this blog. I can discuss the ideas that build community – the opposite of ideas promoted in Washington. I can also resist by continuing my overview of Ralph Nader's book, The Seventeen Solutions. Click here to get the rest of the series. Alas, it has been two months since I last featured a chapter.

14. Organize Congressional Watchdog Groups

About 1500 corporations – ExxonMobil, Goldman Sachs, Walmart, General Electric, and the rest – are able to get Congress to do their bidding.
But only we have the votes that send these 535 men and women to Congress.

So if we hold the reins, then, why is it that the corporations control the horses? Because they know what the horses like to eat. Because they are there day after day, plying the corridors of Capitol Hill. Because they fund, socialize, play, drink, and vacation with these lawmakers. Because they have nice, cushy, high-paying jobs waiting for these legislators (as well as their assistants and their relatives) when they retire from their seats. Because they can apply a lot of pressure when these carrots don’t work. Because if a legislator doesn’t serve their interests, they can run someone more accommodating against him or her. Because they can make these legislators look bad – or undeservedly good – through deceptive advertisements and other seedy slanders or puffery.

Still, they don’t have a single vote. And you do.

Only We the People have the vote.
But too often too many of us don’t vote or vote for the same party no matter the current conditions or are too disengaged to make a meaningful choice.

And both major political parties (though GOP far more than Dem) are good at exploiting the disengagement or otherwise twisting the vote. I’ve documented many through the years. These tactics include gerrymandering, strict voter ID laws, and laws that obstruct smaller parties from getting on the ballot.

Safe seats mean lawmakers pay less attention to voters. That makes the voters cynical and tends to make them withdraw from the process – why bother? Which is exactly what the corporations want.

But that cynicism is sparking a renewed discussion of fairness (the book was published in 2012 when the Occupy movement was in the news, though examples from this year abound). And that is prompting a resurgence.

One way that resurgence can channel its efforts is through Congressional WatchDog groups. A CWD would form in a congressional district with a thousand people signing a pledge to work for the people’s agenda (all those policies that are favored by 65% of the voters, but which Washington is working hard to ignore). These thousand would also raise or donate $200 and volunteer 200 hours a year. The money would be used to set up an office and pay for full-time advocates, whose main jobs would be to (1) lobby Congress, (2) coordinate with CWDs in other districts, and (3) make sure the citizens know what the advocates are doing and how to help. The volunteer time would be to be that help and to recruit more members. Most citizen efforts are amateurish. We need professionals, but ones responsible to us, not corporations.

Lawmakers and their corporate masters are good at the long game, good at sensing their opponents show signs of flagging interest. An important part of the work of a CWD lobbyist is to stress this is for the duration. Once the advocates begin to show their representatives are listening, more citizens will join the process. The agenda of a CWD needs to be concrete and specific to withstand corporate backlash.
In a presumed democratic republic like the United States, the ultimate governmental power is supposed to reside in the people. In the interest of practicality and expertise, the people delegate much of the daily exercise of this power to elected legislatures, which on the national level means Congress. But this delegation of authority shouldn’t mean disengagement from the responsibilities of citizenship. Our system can only work if our citizens are organized and vigilant in monitoring the ways of our 535 representatives, who each year speak for larger and larger populations, are using the power we grant them. Otherwise delegation will become abdication – first by the people, and then inevitably by Congress, until it falls conclusively into the hands of the corporate supremacists.

I like this idea. It seems sensible and practical. I could put some money behind it. I’d even volunteer. Many of the ideas in previous chapters, such as getting corporations off welfare, depend on Congress to implement. Under the current Congress, these ideas ain’t gonna happen. However, this chapter shows a way to make Congress listen (though it would still be a long slog, emphasis on being in it for the duration).

But Nader leaves out an important part. Who should get it going and how does the effort start?

Personally, I’m not one to go out and find a thousand people to pay for and volunteer for a CWD. So… who?

How about you Mr. Nader? With your position and influence have you worked to get a CWD going, perhaps proclaiming it as an example and template? Since you don’t mention it in this chapter I suspect you didn’t put any skin in the game. All talk and no action? How do you expect others to run with your idea?

Friday, April 14, 2017

Empathy is the highest form of critical thinking

I’ve probably mentioned that while cleaning out the old magazines from Dad’s house I took a few home with me. I’ve slowly been reading them in amongst the few magazines I get. One that I took from Dad’s house in the Smithsonian Magazine from December 2013.

The feature articles of this issue are about innovative people. The one that caught my attention is the article about Dave Eggars and Mimi Lok and their line of books.

One of the complaints about what we record as history is that so much of it is about the “Great Men.” These are the guys who controlled and directed events. They’re usually of high rank and many times what they do is to protect that ranking.

Eggars created the project Voices of Witness to tell the stories of those who lived through catastrophes (many caused by the Great Men). Lok is the organization’s executive director. A member of his team will go to a survivor and essentially just listen, allowing the survivor to tell his or her own story. These storytellers have found the process to be healing – someone cares enough to hear me. I can face the trauma with a friend beside me. I have a voice and can use it.

Some of the books of the series:

Underground America, stories of undocumented immigrants.

Voices from the Storm, the people of New Orleans on what happened to them during and after Hurricane Katrina.

Surviving Justice, the people wrongfully convicted and then exonerated. But the time between the two is usually traumatic.

Refugee Hotel, documenting the people who come to the United States as refugees.

High Rise Stories, stories from Chicago Public Housing (a fitting companion to the documentary about Jane Jacobs).

Invisible Hands, about the workers who are doing many of the jobs outsourced from America and are dealing with low wages, a devastated and toxic environment, and repressive governments.

Patriot Acts, about the Muslim people who faced injustices as part of the 9/11 backlash. This one is critical for today’s political climate.

There are also books on migrant agricultural workers in California, inmates at a women’s prison, residents of Palestine under Israeli control, residents of Haiti still struggling after the 2010 earthquake, people in Colombia who become migrants because of the violence there, survivors of Burma’s repressive military, and the abducted and displaced of Sudan.

The whole Voice of Witness program is more than the books. They offer training to become an effective interviewer, with lots of emphasis on listening. They offer study guides so their books can be used in class. They hold in-class workshops so students learn how to capture the oral history of those around them.

Students who read the books discover more than statistics about such things as incarceration rates. The storytellers aren’t ghosts of some far off place. They are people the students can identify with and root for and love.

Through the workshops and the gathering of stories the students learn empathy, to understand another person and the crisis they lived through. A mantra at the Voices of Witness office is: Empathy is the highest form of critical thinking.

I’m delighted these books are out there. Because of the trauma contained within I’m not sure I want to read them.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

From the courts

Highly conservative Neil Gorsuch now sits on the Supreme Court. There are over 100 vacant seats on federal courts because the GOP refused to consider Obama’s nominees. And we know whose nominees will be swiftly approved. For now, though, several courts are still with us.

A month ago I had reported that the city council in Jackson, MI had passed a non-discrimination ordinance to protect LGBT people. Our opponents took three weeks to collect double (now reported as nearly triple) the 342 needed signatures to block the ordinance, not telling the truth as they did so.

Jackson Together, the pro-LGBT group behind the ordinance, filed suit against the petitions. They cited two errors:

* After the petitions were submitted changes were made to 19 names. That act invalidates all petitions.

* The petitions did not include signed affidavits, though City Clerk Randy Wrozek says state law doesn’t require it.

There was another little skirmish – Wrozak tried to have a strongly anti-LGBT lawyer represent him in the proceedings. The judge denied it saying the clerk isn’t an independent agent, he’s to follow what the Council directs him to do.

That skirmish dealt with, the judge directed Wrozak to invalidate the petitions. Between the statements from the judge and the deadline for filing fresh petitions already passed, the challenge is over. The non-discrimination ordinance is in effect!

Here are the Michigan cities (prior to Jackson) with non-discrimination ordinances, necessary because the state legislature refuses to act on the issue. Alas, my city isn’t in the list.




The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that anti-LGBT bias is unlawful. They used Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as their reasoning. This part of the law bans discrimination on the basis of sex. This ruling says that discrimination based on sex includes discrimination based on sexual orientation and based on gender identity. The ruling drew heavily from the 1967 Loving v. Virginia case that struck down bans on interracial marriage.

The suit was brought by Kimberly Hively against Ivy Tech Community College because she said she was denied full-time employment and promotions because she is a lesbian.

The 2nd Circuit and 11th Circuit Courts had previously rejected this interpretation of Title VII.

The 7th Circuit is Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin. Both Illinois and Wisconsin have statewide LGBT protections. Indiana does not. So this ruling will have a big effect there.

Since different Circuit Courts have now reached different conclusions on whether Title VII protects LGBT people the issue is likely to go to the Supremes. But not through this particular case – Ivy Tech has declined to appeal.



The reasoning that discrimination based on sex include discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity was part of another recent case, this time based on the ban on sex discrimination in the Fair Housing Act. Tonya and Rachel Smith say they were turned away from a rental property in Boulder County, Colorado because Rachel is transgender and they are a same-sex couple. US District Judge Raymond Moore ruled in their favor.

A Mars / Venus thing

Still convinced misogyny and general ranking had nothing to do with last November’s election? Think about these two statistics side by side.

Nearly 80% of the more than 27 million people who follow the nasty guy on Twitter are men.

Of those calling Congress to resist the nasty guy’s agenda 86% are women.

The first sentence is from Polly Mosendz of Bloomberg Businessweek who got the data from content-analysis software. In addition, she found of the 10 most-engaged Twitter followers five are confirmed and three appear to be bots, programs that automatically generate Twitter support for the nasty guy.

The second sentence: Laura Moser founded Daily Action, a system based on text-messaging to suggest a daily civic action, such as calling a legislator to state opposition to a nasty guy policy or nominee. The subscribers make an average of 10,000 calls a day. Lake Research Partners polled these subscribers to get that percentage.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

I am because we are

I just finished reading the book Sundowner Ubuntu by Anthony Bidulka, published in 2007. This is part of his series of books featuring private investigator Russell Quant of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan. I tend not to read mysteries, mostly because the stories are usually about murder. But I started this series because Quant is gay and many of the people in the book, both his friends and the people he investigates, are also lesbian or gay. The plot frequently is about some aspect of the gay experience.

Thankfully, this story is not about a murder. Quant is hired by a mother looking for the son she hasn’t seen in 20 years since the lad was hauled off to reform school. The plot takes many twists and turns and I couldn’t even try to guess the ending. Like many mysteries there is a great deal of violence. This one also contains many tender scenes. I enjoyed the book.

As the title suggests Quant follows the trail of clues to South Africa and a couple safari resorts in Botswana. It is there he encounters ubuntu, an African term that directly translates as “humanity.” Quant, a friend who is into photography, and Joseph, their driver, venture into one of the townships for information. A case of camera lenses is stolen. Joseph disappears for a moment. When he comes back he announces they will go to dinner nearby. But what about the lenses? During the meal Joseph again disappears and moments later sets down the case of lenses. He explains that ubuntu brought the lenses back.
“For the same reason these people in the townships live so harmoniously together, for the same reason the children were not scared of us today, for the same reason everyone waved at you as we passed by,” Joseph told me. “They know that without the community, without the care and watchfulness and help of their neighbors, they are nothing. If a man takes a thing that is not his, such as the young foolish boy did today, he cannot get away with it. The community cannot let him get away with it. To let him keep it is to say it is okay for this boy to steal from others, and if you steal from others you can also steal from me and my brother and my cousin, because we are all the same.” He looked at me hard. “Even the two of you.”

“But we’re not part of this community,” I countered.

“But you are. You were there today. Do you realize what most visitors to our country never visit a township? They are afraid. They don’t understand. You will be surprised to learn that many city people, people who live right next to us as neighbors, many Afrikaners, have never come to our townships to see what it is to live here.” He downed some beer, then continued. “The people in the community know that if they see you with me, they know are paying me to bring you, and they know the money you pay me is returned to the township and the community.

“So today when that boy stole the case, many others saw this thing happen, there are always others who see, and there are always those who know who did this thing, so I simply told these men where we would be having dinner tonight and I knew if they could find this boy, and the thing he took, it would be returned to us, just as they would want us to do for them in return.” He smiled. “Ubuntu.”
The concept of ubuntu shows up several times during the story in a variety of ways.

Recently, I’ve been writing a lot about ranking, the widespread belief that some humans are supposed to be ranked higher than others. I had heard of an ancient society on the island of Crete without ranking, described in the book The Chalice and the Blade.

And ubuntu in South Africa is a modern example.

I’ve noticed that people who are obsessed with ranking are usually those at the top (or believe they are supposed be at the top). In contrast, many of those who are ranked lower, especially those at the bottom of the ranking systems, don’t worry about ranking. They highly value community instead. When they challenge those of higher rank it isn’t to invert the ranking so they come out on top. Instead, it is to banish ranking. Martin Luther King promoted the latter and was accused of the former.

The Wikipedia page on ubuntu includes a description of the concept. It is part of a ruling by South African Judge Colin Lamont in the hate speech trial of Julius Malema. Some of Lamont’s concepts:

* Ubuntu is to be contrasted with vengeance.

* It places a high premium on dignity, compassion, humaneness and respect for humanity of another.

* It demands a shift from confrontation to mediation and conciliation.

* It favors re-establishment of harmony, to restore the dignity of the plaintiff without ruining the defendant.

* It favors restorative rather than retributive justice.

* It favors reconciliation rather than estrangement, of changing conduct rather than merely punishing.

* It favors face-to-face encounters leading to resolution rather than conflict and victory.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu explained:
Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can't exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can't be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.
More from Tutu, Ubuntu is not…
I think therefore I am. Rather, I am a human because I belong. I participate. I share.
To sum it up: I am because we are.

In sharp contrast to what is going on in Washington these days where leaders obsess about ranking, back in 2009 under Secretary of State Clinton, Elizabeth Frawley Gagley was sworn in as the Special Representative for Global Partnerships. She spoke of the need for the United States to conduct Ubuntu Diplomacy.

Let’s do away with ranking. Let’s practice ubuntu. Dignity, compassion, respect, reconciliation, restoration, resolution, belonging, an emphasis on we.

Spreading kindness and love

Four funerals in 18 months. Three of them were for family members most would consider had died too young. We cry out this is enough. Yet, on the horizon I see funerals for Mom, Dad’s sister, brother, and sister-in-law, and Mom’s two sisters and two brothers-in-law. All are in their 80s. Mom has Alzheimer’s. Her sister has Parkinson’s. The rest seem to be holding their own, though showing decline. We’re not done with funerals yet, though hopefully not so many crammed into such a short time. And, hopefully, no more of those who die too young.

I drove to a little town in western Ohio on Friday and returned Saturday. Sara had died of a cancerous brain tumor. Time from first symptoms to death was four weeks. Sara was wife to Joe and he is a first cousin to Dad – their mothers were sisters. Joe was born when Dad was in high school and Joe’s younger sister is just a couple months older than my older brothers, so Joe and his sisters seem more like my cousins than Dad’s. Even so, I didn’t know Sara well.

I attended visiting time at the funeral home on Friday evening. There were lots of people from the community in addition to the relatives. The receiving line stayed long. I was able to talk to descendants of Joe’s mother, which included several second cousins, many of whom I hadn’t seen in several years. I also got to meet many of his mother’s great-grandchidren. There are now 13 in that generation. The oldest is 14 and the youngest is 5 months. I found it useful to review the definitions of the types of cousins.

The funeral was Saturday morning. A few more relatives were able to come, such as Dad’s brother and his wife and daughters. There was also a daughter of Grandma’s other sister. In the service Sara was described as spreading kindness and love through all she did. Her younger son gave a fine eulogy, stressing he had been taught to also spread kindness and love. Memorial money is going to an organization that works to repair families of troubled boys.

The pastor invited us to stay in the church as long as we wanted after the luncheon. But after everyone had eaten Joe invited us all over to his house. He wanted to get out of his church clothes. Though we had just eaten snack foods were laid out. By early afternoon roasters of meat had arrived. When I left at 5:00 to return to Michigan the party was still going strong. A house full of family and friends enjoying each other’s company with a well stocked kitchen. Sara’s kind of party.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The people know what’s best for the people

This weekend is the fourth Freep Film Festival. Freep is the local nickname for the Detroit Free Press – the paper uses it for its web domain. This festival is over five days and features two dozen feature length films and four programs of short films. All are documentaries, most having some sort of connection to Detroit or Michigan.

I saw two of the films and had hoped to see a third, though it had sold out. The one that sold out is about the 1967 riots in Detroit. We’re coming up on the 50th anniversary so there are lots of commemorations around the city in the next few months, many saying we have to understand our past to guide our future. Since this film sold out one of the local art theaters will likely pick it up.

First up: Last Men Standing was a project of the San Francisco Chronicle. It tells the stories of eight gay men who became HIV-positive in the 1980s before effective treatment was available and who did not die. What is life like when you are told for several years you’re going to die in a couple years – you even see your friends die – and now it is 30 years later? There is loneliness because partners and friends are gone. There are financial difficulties. One went on disability, which is now running out. One struggles to fill his days because the terms of his disability is that he not work. One lost his home of 30 years. What do old gay guys do in a culture that celebrates youth?

There are a few bright spots. One continues to march in the Pride Parade. Another is a part of a support group of similar men. Two of the men are surprised by love.

That film was shown in Cinema Detroit in the Midtown area of Detroit. After the film was a session with the filmmakers, alas over quickly. After that I had over three hours until the next film.

So I enjoyed the sunshine and walked around Midtown for a while. I started with the block of Canfield between Second and Third. It is a historical district with sixteen houses built between 1870 and 1890. I’ve driven down the street a few times, but in a car I’m going to fast to get a good look. On foot I could linger. They’re all made of brick and several have Victorian or similar decorations.

I walked up and down various other streets in the area. Most are lined with renovated apartment buildings from small to large. This is one of the hot areas of Detroit. Many of these residents attend Wayne State University a few blocks to the north. These buildings are likely from before 1930, so their architecture has character.

Supper was at the Traffic Jam and Snug on Canfield. The block it is on now has several upscale stores.

The second film was in the lecture hall of the Detroit Institute of Arts, a place that might hold 500 people (in contrast to the 1500 or more of the Film Theater auditorium). The film was Citizen Jane: Battle for the City. The Jane in the title is Jane Jacobs and she battled Robert Moses over redevelopment in New York City in the years after the Great Depression and WWII.

In the early part of the 20th Century and into the Great Depression the living conditions of most poor people in New York were pretty bad. The need to do something was real.

Robert Moses was a city planner (an unelected job) and was charge of public housing. Through this position he wielded a great deal of power. He and his team would designate an area of a few blocks to be blighted. The crews would tear everything down and build high-rise apartments in a park-like setting. Beautiful, yes?

No. They were a disaster, becoming profoundly unsafe and eyesores within a decade. The poor people who lived in them were ripped out of their community and isolated from other classes of people.

The buildings were inexpensive to build. And a lot of them were built, making a lot of money for the building companies, and they were good at making sure Moses stayed in his job.

Jane Jacobs, a writer and journalist, was a keen observer of life in a city. She began to take on Moses and hone her activist skills. In 1961 she published the book The Death and Life of Great American Cities, calling into question every premise that Moses espoused. I’ve seen a copy of this book at my friend and debate partner’s home. I didn’t borrow it to read it.

Moses had said the streets are unsafe, let’s replace them with a park. Jacobs responded the streets, though they are chaotic, are where life happens. And the more people on the street the safer they are.

Moses essentially said I know what is best for people. If they don’t use the buildings and parks the way I intended it’s because they are stupid. Jacobs responded, no, the people know what’s best for the people, they know what makes up their community, their interconnectedness, their values, the things that are important to them.

Moses said we must embrace the car and provide ways for it to get around quickly. He built the Cross Bronx Expressway, which ripped up neighborhoods and separated northern Bronx from southern Bronx. The Bronx still hasn’t recovered.

Jacobs responded there are things of higher priority than the car.

Tying this to my recent theme, Moses was very much into ranking. Though the reason for his efforts is sound – the plight of the poor really was wretched – it was his solution, not theirs. He had no regard for their community. His solution made their plight worse.

Jacobs was very much into resisting ranking. She recognized bad solutions but insisted the community, not herself, held the good solutions.

Moses and Jacobs tangled on three projects. Jacobs won all three.

The first was Washington Square Park. Moses pushed to have 5th Avenue continue through the park. One reason was so that a street south of the park could be named 5th Avenue, expanding the addresses for pricey homes and businesses.

Jacobs said that Washington Square Park was fully used by the neighborhood. It was an integral part of the community. Running a street through it would destroy its usefulness to the community. The community aspects should be much more important than the traffic up and down 5th Avenue.

A few years later several blocks in the area around Greenwich Village and West Village were designated as blighted and to be torn down and replaced. These few blocks included the building where Jacobs lived. The film did not say or imply that Moses chose those blocks because included her home. He decided they were blighted and he and his pals were ready to make money from them.

This time Jacobs knew what had happened to previous urban renewal projects. She would not let that happen to her own neighborhood. She organized and resisted.

The third project was the Lower Manhattan Expressway, something similar to the Cross Bronx Expressway, though this time it looked like the highway would be somewhat enclosed within buildings for residences and offices.

Jacobs attacked it based on how it would divide neighborhoods and disrupt community. She got citizens before city council and urban planning meetings. She showed how you can fight city hall.

After this battle Jacobs moved to Toronto – where she led a fight to halt a freeway.

Moses was not doing too well politically at this point. He tried a frequent tactic on newly elected Governor Nelson Rockefeller. Moses said if I don’t get what I want I’ll quit. Rockefeller called his bluff and said, go ahead and quit.

Many other cities in America and around the world tried the highrise in the park model for housing. There were the Brewster-Douglas projects in Detroit and Cabrini-Green in Chicago, among others in many cities. The idea didn’t fare any better across the country and world than it did in New York. The Brewster-Douglas complex was demolished between 2003 and 2014. The land remains vacant.

Cabrini-Green was demolished between 1995 and 2011. Wikipedia has a bit more about what happened to this one. A big reason for its decline was the city trying to save maintenance costs on cheaply made buildings. Instead of renovating an apartment after a fire it was boarded up. Lawns were paved over. Trash chutes became clogged and not cleared. Balconies were covered in mesh to keep residents from throwing trash from them. The residents felt like they were in prison.

So the Moses model of government housing lost out to the Jacobs vision of the city. Urban planners study her book, which has been translated into several languages. Except the battle still rages.

The film expanded its view to international concerns. It said about a million people a week move to cities around the world. That’s like a new Los Angeles metropolitan area every three months. If we’re going to get cities right, we have to do it now.

But… Beijing, with its authoritarian government, is following the Moses model of large highrise apartment buildings. India is also following that model in its big cities. Will these be the slums of this century?

After the film John Gallagher of the Free Press led a panel discussion of three neighborhood planners of the area. They took many questions from the audience and the whole discussion lasted 45 minutes. In Detroit city hall has incorporated many of the ideas of Jacobs – walkable and busy city streets being one I hear about. These ideas seem to be taking root in Downtown and Midtown.

But in the neighborhoods there is still a battle – do decisions come from city hall or from residents? These community planners are trying to make sure the discussions happen, though they say they’ve had limited and mixed results. Sometimes discussions with residents happen. Sometimes they don’t. Even so, there are hopeful signs: One audience member said she teaches architecture at Lawrence Tech University in the northern suburbs. Her big initiative is trying to teach her students how to meet, talk to, and listen to the people in the community.