Saturday, January 26, 2008

Crafting a Candidate

At this point in the presidential campaigns, I can easily predict that one of six or seven individuals will be President of the United States this time next year. In a few days, it may be down to one of four. Hardly a risky prediction, to say the least, but it does clarify for me what this nation will have by way of executive leadership in the next few years. It’s also good to remember that CheneyBush has less than a year left, even if future prospects are uncertain. Once he’s out of office, he may be liable for legal action for violating the Geneva Conventions. One can only hope.

In the here and now three Democrats–Clinton, Edwards and Obama–and three Republicans–Huckabee, McCain and Romney–are the field. Maybe Giuliani. The Unity 08 movement is offering itself as an alternative to the partisan sniping that passes for political discourse in America but an ad hoc coalition is not likely to break the established financial and political monopoly of the major parties in the ten months remaining before November.

That said, do any candidates offer me a real choice for policies that promote social and economic justice? None of the Republicans do, that’s for sure. Huckabee speaks some of the language, which may even be a sincere expression of his faith, but his insistence on the word of his God as public policy belies any limited sense of equity that may appear in his economic and domestic platforms, which are, after all, Republican platforms. The remaining two (or three) Republicans don’t even consider justice and equity to be important; McCain, Romney and Giuliani are all no-tax, limited government (except in support of the rich) American Exceptionalists still living the 20th century era of US economic and military hegemony. Except for a necessary bit of “greenwash” to assuage contemporary sensibilities, their economic and military policies are very much 19th century colonialism and wealth extraction. None of these men will be any better than the CheneyBush. Perhaps not as irritating but certainly no better.

My expectations for the Democrats are hardly better. None of the three candidates really champion policies to promote justice and equity throughout American life. They all talk parts of that dream and all have supported various programs but nothing I know about them suggests they would change the military-industrial corporate economy in ways that would strengthen the middle class and create opportunities for more Americans to become part of that middle class. Edwards is the only one of the three that speaks eloquently on this issue but his proposals are still just tinkering at the margins. Obama and Clinton’s proposals are even more cautious. None of the three will promise not to pursuse unilateral American military operations. How they differ from the Republicans is in their acknowledgment that other nations have legitimate interests and that the US should work with other nations to address mutual concerns and resolve conflicts before launching military action. But always the military option remains.

All of the Democrats say things I like. Obama envisions a nuclear free world. Edwards speaks movingly of “other Americans” who don’t participate in this nation’s prosperity. Clinton...well, I can’t think of anything comparable that she’s said but I’m sure that’s just me being ill-informed. I think all three are open to progressive ideas. My biggest question is whether they would advocate and promote those ideas in policy in the face of resistance by entrenched corporate interests. Think Harry and Louise. Would any of these three be likely to fight back against the lies and distortions?

Most of all, I want a Democrat who will fight for equity and justice. And that means clearly differentiating from Republican and neo-liberal faith in free markets dominated by a corporate elite. I want a Democrat who will make sure the system works for all Americans not the few, for individuals and small businesses. I want a Democrat who will insist that our public institutions offer a counterbalance to unfettered private interest, just as the Framers intended. If Obama wants to look to a Republican for ideas, he should look to Theodore Roosevelt who recognized the danger of monopoly control to America’s economy and vigorously pursued anti-trust cases. All three Democrats should look to Franklin Roosevelt for inspiration about ways to broaden economic democracy. Neither of these presidents was reluctant to expose himself to the opposition and vituperation occasioned by challenging the status quo; each delighted in the challenge. That’s the Democratic president I want to see. A fighter.

Bottom line: I’ll be voting Democratic in November. Unless, of course, a better alternative arises. So far, that alternative–a strong advocate for justice and equity backed by a broad coalition of Americans determined to create a New Deal–seems unlikely. I think any of the Democrats offers about an equal chance for some improvement. Maybe one will even fight for something. I know the Republicans will fight but all they offer is more of the same tired no-tax-no-government-no-surrender-no-quarter, fear-fear-fear, God-God-God rhetoric to hypnotize Americans into believing that their interests lie in corporate wealth, economic polarization and militarization.

I can’t even say that one Democrat appeals to me more than another. None of them make me want to be part of their campaign, to convince others of a candidate’s worth, to say this person represents me. I worked for John Kerry in 2004, partly out of respect for him as a veteran and partly because I could not sit by and not actively oppose CheneyBush. But I’ve not felt truly enthusiastic about a candidate since George McGovern, who I am proud to say received my first ever presidential vote. I knew when I voted in November 1972 that Nixon would win but the experience was still pristine, the signal act in what had been a most amazing year of change. McGovern lost the election but the broad movement of which he was part did, in fact, force Nixon to draw down the American presence in Vietnam.

Those were crusading times. In the three years preceding, Virginia politics were shaken by the collapse of the Byrd Organization, which had controlled the state since the 1920's and was itself a successor to an economic elite that had dominated Virginia since Reconstruction. My first ever ballot was in the 1969 governor’s race. My candidate then was Henry Howell, a fiery populist who opened up Virginia politics and government even though he lost both campaigns for governor. Over the course of about five years, Howell mobilized a progressive coalition in three elections that appealed to common sense and fairness. The sweetheart deals, secrecy and good old boy networking of Virginia’s corporate and political elites became glaringly apparent to the point of embarrassment, leading to reform and openness in government. It was hardly a complete revolution or vindication of our ideals but the change was dramatic and noticeable.

This contrasts with my 2006 experience where I campaigned very hard for a Democratic congressional candidate against one of the most odious Republicans in the House. Harry Mitchell was a well-respected former mayor, state senator and secondary school government teacher. His opponent was J.D. Hayworth (less), a five term Representative swept into office with the Republican Revolution Class of 94, a blowhard ex-sportcaster and BushBot vote. Defeating him was sweet for many reasons but our new congressman voted to support continued war funding. He’s been good in other respects, especially in not being his odious predecessor, but his unwillingness to challenge CheneyBush on the whole range of national security issues is disappointing. Maybe it’s too much to expect a freshman congressman from a swing district to stick his neck out but the result is disappointing.

The moral of this tale: Elections are only one part of the public discourse: community forums, public hearings, referenda, letters to the editor are the ongoing discourse between elections. What’s important to me is holding that discourse and creating a society were all prosper. I learned long ago that victory or defeat in an election is merely an event. What counts is how those events shape our lives and society. I look back at Henry Howell and George McGovern and I see positive results. I look at the current candidates for national office and see a few sparks and wonder if any will actually ignite.

I hope so. My country needs a conflagration of ideas and energy.


Even though Kucinich has dropped out of the presidential race, I'll attend the February caucus as a Kucinich supporter and see what happens. I can easily see myself becoming an uncommitted delegate. It should be easier than skiing.


Thursday, January 24, 2008


The Virginia I remember:

"Sometimes I feel in Virginia we're still working off a prohibition mentality...The rigid construct of state laws is not reflective of modern times."


Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Bombs Away!

They’re at it again. They being the cult of Air Power as the ultimate weapon. Even as counter-insurgency is the goal of military operations in Iraq, Air Power will not be left out. Air Power is rarely excluded from American military operations. Air Power claims to have won WWII. Complete dominance of the air space over Vietnam combined with sophisticated American technology was supposed to easily subdue a local insurgency. Air Power is not new to the mideast; Winston Churchill hoped Air Power would be an inexpensive substitute for direct rule when he created Iraq after WWI. We all know how well that worked out.

Still, the myth dies hard, if at all. Last week, the Washington Post carried a paean to Air Power worthy of any of its early high priests.
"Part of this is announcing our presence to the adversary," said Kahl, who recently returned from a trip to the air operations center. "Across this calendar year you will see a reduction in U.S. forces, so there will be fewer troops to support Iraqi forces. One would expect a continued level of airstrikes because of offensive operations, and as U.S. forces begin to draw down you may see even more airstrikes."

Nowhere in this scenario is the option for fewer airstrikes, only the same or more.. Pretty slick. The Air Force and Navy (I guess) keep flying no matter what, always a good strategy for demonstrating indispensability. And here in the Washington Post, readers learn how precise and thoughtful Air Power can be, how it always works and is not used carelessly. The story is almost a bloodless (for Americans, mostly) one. Accurate. Necessary.

I don’t buy it. War is always messy, technology sometimes unreliable and everything s subject to human error. If you accept that American military operations in Iraq are legitimate, air operations are a logical part of that effort. Even granting, for the sake of discussion, that the American occupation is legitimate, I don’t trust in the infallibility of Air Power.

The Washington Post sure does. Filled with whiz-bang language and technical jargon, the article describes ”... a very deliberate process honed by intelligence, targeted and aligned to get the desired effect in a particular area.” An AGM-114P Hellfire missile kills three extremists. The 250-pound GBU-39 small-diameter bombs makes “...blasts safer for civilians.” A show of force clears the area of civilians before engaging a house and fighters with a 500 pound bomb. Everything works.

The United States has, without doubt, the most sophisticated, technologically advanced aircraft and weapons in the world; American arms can blow just about anything up, including large portions of the Earth at a moment’s notice. Whether all this comes to anything like a meaningful policy for engaging with other nations and peoples is another matter all together. And that’s where stories like this one ring hollow to me. Sure we can do all this. And, yeah, it’s good that it protects our troops–tactical close air support is always welcome when you’re on the ground against an adversary. Even that limited, focused action can wreak significant harm to civilians. Quintuple those operations, with greater tonnage and the cost to civilians, property and infrastructure escalate dramatically? We may win the engagement but lose the trust of the people who are destroyed and dispossessed.

Maybe it’s just the Army grunt in me that resents Air Power ideology. After all, pilots kill without seeing their adversary; they aim at targets in what seems to me to be a real separation between killer and killed. The risk is usually far less for the pilot than the infantryman; few targets of America’s recent wars offered significant anti-aircraft defense. The pilot sleeps in a bed at night unless he’s one of the unfortunate few taken prisoner. Then it really sucks. And, in the end, Air Power cannot secure an objective. Air Power can reduce an objective to rubble or shape the battlefield but someone else must fight that battle and hold that position. That some one is the infantryman.

What amazes me most about the story is the amazing willingness to buy the idea that America can win a war from the air, that such a “war” is somehow less costly and bloody. The language and precision quoted in the Washington Post are today’s versions of the “surgical strikes” in Vietnam that only killed bad guys.

Air Power separates us from the human beings who are our targets. We don’t need to think about them when they are blips on a screen.


My thoughts about Air Power do not include helicopters. Unlike the Air Force and Navy, Army aviation is relatively close to the ground and far more vulnerable. These guys are are the ones who provide virtually all close air support for troops on the ground. In many respects, they are grunts who operate flying gun platforms. And my Air Force nephew, trained to parachute out of helicopters and rescue downed pilots, is stationed in Iraq. I suspect he gets more calls from the Army than the Air Force. None of this is part of the Air Power cult. We're still talking close combat here.


Tuesday, January 22, 2008

32 Hours in Snow

Spent the past day weekend at Meany Lodge with the Mountaineers, a regional outdoor travel and adventure group here in the Northwest. The lodge is one of several operated and maintained by the group, which was founded in 1906. On this Saturday and Sunday of a long weekend, Meany is packed with people of all ages. I’m here with a group of Olympia Mountaineers. Others are from Seattle, mostly, and other Pugetopolis locales. Lots of kids—infant to adolescents—all over the place, largely under some form of control or involved in one of the many available board games, cards and books. Lots of adults are here, too, including a crew to manage the operation and enough volunteers to do all the work. The Saturday night head count is 104

This trip began with a notice for a winter travel course here in Olympia. The course was four three-hour classes covering backcountry survival (the 10 Essentials), outdoor etiquette (shitting in the snow), skis, snowshoes and avalanche awareness. The last topic was particularly sobering. The snowpack in the Cascades this year is especially heavy. Three people are dead from avalanches in Washington this year already; nine dead for the season. The classes reminded me that I could easily die in winter conditions. I know from experience how indifferent conditions are to my lack of skill and preparations, winter would be no different, just colder and harsh. The instruction was brief but thorough and knowledgeable. Our instructors, Judson and Tom, invited local guest experts to discuss the various topics and demonstrate gear for about 40 people. They allowed lots of time for questions and arranged for a weekend field trip.

The field trip started for me at 3:35 am Saturday when I rolled out of bed, ate, loaded the truck, picked up friend Mel to meet Mike and Mary who drove the four of us to the Crystal Springs Sno-park just east of Snoqualmie Pass on I-90. We arrived at the parking area at 7:00 am just as first light was breaking in the east. The rest of our party arrived within the hour, about 15 in all. Many others are gathered in this large, open lot in the deep snow, the deepest I’ve ever seen. Snowmobiles scream by, leaving their trail of noxious fumes. We learn that the snow cat that was to haul us and gear up three miles to the lodge had lost its drive train and clutch the night before. Repairs were under way as we waited. Judson and Tom were frustrated at the delay, especially since they had made a point of Mountaineer punctuality and organization. Fortunately, everyone understood the situation. The wait was chilly and uncertain but was resolved soon enough. We were all were pleased when the snow cat rumbled into view.

The ride up was the first adventure. The snow cat was packed with people, going up hill with its clutch still out. The driver could somehow shift gears by losing momentum and grinding the transmission into place. We had to disembark at one point because the engine died and could not be jump started with a full load. Even so, the driver was able to stop on down grades and pick up walkers along the way. We all had to bail out just below Railroad Crossing on a very steep grade. At that point we walked the last few hundred yards crossing the BNSF tracks where two Diesel locomotives and a railroad plow were idling in the snow. Most of us reached the lodge easily. Friend Mel wandered about a mile down the railroad tracks until he came to the tunnel where he wisely turned around. Another member of our group wandered even further was located by snowmobilers in a few hours. Like I said, it is not hard at all to die out here.

At the Lodge, all readily apparent bunk space was taken, a bit of concern to those of us with no place to put our gear that was easily distinguishable from the huge mass of gear hanging from racks arranged all around the massive wood furnace in the basement. Since our immediate intent was to ski, a bed was not absolutely necessary. We quickly assembled for some ski fundamentals in the limited time before lunch. Judson showed us how to move about on skis and we skied a small circuit nearby. I found it all quite difficult, getting up the one small rise and even more so heading down the short grade on the other side. I had little sense of balance or control in all but the most benign terrain. I fell a lot.

Lunch revealed just how large was the day’s company. A battery of cooks prepared food in a well organized kitchen. Volunteers helped with food prep, set up and serving. Service was chow line style. The food queue quickly stretched the across the main hall and took a few minutes to reach actual food. During the wait, I met many others, chatted idly about the lodge and other topics. Lunch was grilled cheese sandwiches and a ham bean soup. Everyone washed their own dishes in a series of sinks, much like an Army field kitchen.

The afternoon was even more challenging. Snow has been falling since we arrived and is steady. Not thick or heavy but definitely steady, a colder version of what I saw in August. We went out a very short trail with even steeper slopes than earlier. I was very unsteady on skies. I got over and down a slope but only in the most tentative manner. Above us on a maybe 38 percent grade, skiers and snow boarders shot down the slope, executing a level of control and fearlessness that was well beyond anything I could dream of on this difficult day. One of these accomplished skiers was Judson’s 15 year-old son. Tom and Judson demonstrated how to assess snow pack avalanche danger awareness techniques. We measured snow depth over seven feet, isolated a snow column to test for stability. The results showed two possible avalanche dangers: a top layer about a foot thick broke off under testing and a second block, maybe 30 inches long broke off with further testing. We passed the second block around to understand how snow could bury and crush a body. Then we made our way back to the lodge. By this time I am getting pretty good at getting back upright after a fall and at side stepping my way down steep slopes. I make one halfway decent down hill run before I fall trying to avoid another skier. Judson says I chickened out. I probably did. I know I didn’t have the confidence to avoid a collision any other way. Besides, I am proficient now at climbing back on my skis. I am also very, very tired, sore and happy to get off my skis and head into the lodge at the end of the day.

Inside is all activity. The kitchen crew is cranking away on dinner. Everybody is everywhere, sitting at the many tables filling up the main room on the second floor. Others are in the dormitories on the third floor or the family rooms in the attic. The basement is the mud-room, filled with boots, jackets and other gear drying around the furnace. The basement also has most of the plumbing—restrooms and showers as well as a ping-pong room and a small instruction room with TV monitor and freezer. In the absence of a definitive bunk assignment, I claim one of two mattresses I find there. It’s right under the kitchen but I don’t care. It’ll do and means I don’t have to clamber down narrow stairs to use the toilet during the night.

The evening is a welcome rest after a hard day. The lodge has plentiful hot liquids—coffee, chocolate and cider—available, also chips and salsa while we wait for dinner. Dinner is enchiladas, rice and beans. Meals are usually accompanied by announcements, announced by the clanging of a cowbell and shouted over a background of conversations. At lunch, Chuck, who seems to be the most in-charge person around, warned us about the tracks, pointing out that freight trains are in full downhill coast as they approach the crossing from the west. “You wouldn’t believe that a 40 mile per hour freight train would be so quiet, so you need to really look.” In the evening, we talk more, eat dessert and watch ski videos made by members. I’m horizontal by 9:00 pm. The lights are still on so the three others sharing this room with me can find their way in. The floor above is noisy. The light and noise just become featureless background as I fade away, horizontal and inert at last.

Morning activity wakens me around 7:00. I wander up to the second floor for coffee. Breakfast prep is in full swing. I help set up tables and hang out with fellow skiers to plan my day. Most of the Olympia crew will snowshoe today. I had planned on skiing some but after yesterday’s difficulties, I am not looking forward to it. Still I resolve to go back out to the little training circuit for a while. Breakfast is French toast and fruit. My plans change when we learn that only those not capable of skiing or snowshoeing back to the parking area--the very young, their parents and the infirm—will find space in the snow cat back to the parking area. Tom and Judson decide that the walk out will substitute for the afternoon snowshoe trek. I plan to walk down the steepest grades and ski from there. The area has about six to eight inches of new snow from yesterday and is a gloriously chilly scene of deepest winter. The sun is poking through the clouds occasionally. Rather than tiring myself out skiing in a circle, I choose to hang out until our departure.

So we get extra sit around the lodge time, which is perfectly fine with me. I pack gear, read, talk and help set up for lunch which is a macaroni-cheese-tomato casserole with cornbread and salad. When it’s time to leave, I put my gear on the snow-cat, strap skis to may pack and head out with my group. A couple skiers do very well controlling their descent on the initial, steep grades. . The snowshoers have no trouble at all. Walking is not a problem for me in my ski boots. After about a mile, Tom tells me the grade is about as flat as it gets. The grade is distinctly downhill, not really any better than yesterday but today I am a little less tentative and manage to handle the grade and the snow. I concentrate on technique and movement, not traveling very fast but keeping up with the group. I get some good kick and glide at times and make a couple steady runs, I fall twice toward the end but recover quickly. Guess I learned something yesterday, after all.

At the parking lot, we wait for the snow-cat to arrive with gear and the transported. The day is cold, although I worked up a decent sweat coming down. The smaller snow cat arrives with gear only about five minutes ahead of the transit cat which has towed about 20 skiers behind it. Reunited with our gear, we head west and south to Olympia. I’m sore but pleased with the weekend; the company and experience were enjoyable despite the difficulty on skis or the early uncertainty of our arrangments. I'm glad I did this.

A day later, the balls of my feet are sore, left foot more so. I felt the pressure yesterday. The skis felt like hard planks under the my feet which flexed right on the hard surface. Otherwise I’m just stiff with sore muscles. No serious injury. Always good.


Monday, January 21, 2008

Things Your Government Buys

Religious Music Director.