Sunday, October 1, 2006

Surprise! Surprise!

Surprise! Surprise! The Times-Herald supports Wal-Mart in its effort to ram a 393,000 sq. ft. “supercenter” down Vallejo’s throat. Forgive me for choking…on my laughter.

Evidently, all it takes to buy the support of the Times-Herald are a few full-page ads, all “Paid for by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc..” Or was there more? How much did that “Multi-Media Slide Show” touting the “supercenter” on the T-H website cost? Or was it a freebie like the two front-page puff pieces September 21 and 23?

One doesn’t expect objective reporting from the Times-Herald when it comes to big bucks developers or small time good ole’ boys. And the editorials? Ever get the feeling that you’re reliving Groundhog Day? Playing “Whack-a-Mole” with a gang that never seems to run out of bad ideas? Didn’t like LNG? How about dumping dredge spoils in the backyards of $800 million homes? How about three football fields crammed onto a downtown corner at the edge of a lagoon we’re trying to rehabilitate?

As the paper’s October 1 editorial demonstrates, the T-H – and Wal-Mart – intend to reprise the LNG debate with the same ugly tactics employed by the T-H and Shell-Bechtel four years ago. Yes, “some of the same people [are] lined up” against this project. Yes, I and Council Member Gomes - “one of those people” - are among them. And, yes, we have no need to meet behind closed doors with Wal-Mart’s flacks, to conclude that outright rejection is what is called for. For what we are dealing with in Wal-Mart’s White Slough proposal is a clear-cut, pure-and-simple land use issue - whether the people and government of Vallejo will determine our General Plan and associated zoning or whether a claque of free-booty capitalists in Arkansas will.

Yes, Wal-Mart does own the White Slough site. And, when they bought it – eyes wide open – two years ago, they knew how it was zoned. If they want to come back with a proposal that meets the zoning and other requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan, then – and only then – should the Council consider whether or not to begin an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) and/or the Economic Impact Analysis (EIA) required by the Big Box Ordinance the Council passed last year.

If Wal-Mart’s proposal does not meet the requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan, the company must formally submit a request for a variance to staff, which amendment should be considered by the Planning Commission with public input prior to Council consideration. Any attempt to short circuit this process or to conflate it with an EIR or EIA would be tantamount to misfeasance.

And what is the proposal on the table– only fully revealed to the public the Friday before the Council hearing? It is a new iteration of Wal-Mart’s proposal last year for a 160,000 sq. ft. store at the same site. Even at that size, the planned big box was inconsistent with the zoning and design requirements of the White Slough Specific Plan which calls for multiple low density mixed use buildings with a maximum floor area ratio of 25 percent. Those buildings, moreover, are to be clustered around public spaces such as landscaped areas and pedestrian plazas that visually and physically open up to the water. This, it should be added, is not Council Member Cloutier’s “concept;” it is a Council-approved decade-old Plan. And Wal-Mart was told last year to come back with something more in keeping with that plan.

It has now come back with something more than twice as large as what was earlier proposed – larger than anything it has attempted anywhere else in California – a huge, ugly box of 393 sq. feet, a floor area ratio of 75 percent, and otherwise totally inconsistent with the White Slough Specific Plan.

In doing so, Wal-Mart has dissed Vallejo and, in effect poked a finger in our eye. It has said “We have done our research. Vallejo is a pushover for a fast buck. We couldn’t get away with this in Sausalito, Berkeley, or Walnut Creek. But Vallejo…no sweat!”

My question for the Council and the people of Vallejo is this: Have we no self-respect, no vision, no ambition? Are we not as good, as wise, as forward-looking as the people of Sausalito, Berkeley, or Walnut Creek…or Hercules, Turlock, or Inglewood?

The City Manager and Staff admit in their September 26 memo to the Council that it would be “difficult, if not impossible” for any big box to meet the standards of the White Slough Specific Plan. Vallejoans for Responsible Growth agrees and urges outright rejection of this proposal.

Why, then, did Staff recommend approval of a conflated resolution “to proceed with the processing of the White Slough Specific Plan Amendment, the Unit Plan, and Major Use application for a new Wal-Mart Superstore, including the required Environmental Impact Report and Economic Assessment” – that is, as Wal-Mart’s flack Kevin Loscotoff put it to the Council in a rare moment of candor, to give Wal-Mart a “Green Light?”

Let me repeat, any attempt to short circuit this process or to conflate it with an EIR or EIA would be tantamount to misfeasance.

Once again, the citizens of Vallejo, lacking an open process and a fair and balanced press, are being denied the opportunity to adequately debate an issue crucial to our future. It’s an old, old story we are no longer willing to accept.

When the Council takes this up again, “all eyes will be trained on” not only Mr. Davis, but also on other Council members who may wish to reconsider their pro-Wal-Mart votes after careful consideration of the facts. And to those who voted “No” – Stephanie Gomes, Tom Bartee, and Gary Cloutier – you have our respect and gratitude.

Friday, September 8, 2006

The Colors of Fear, The Sounds of Grief


It’s September 11 again – five years on – and, once again, electoral season. And my fear today is that politics – the politics of fear – will stain our sacred memory, our shared, close-held grief.

One thing I’ve learned - very personally - about grief is that, over time, it changes…but it never goes away. There is every day an unexpected moment when the memory returns, the pain sharpens once again, the tears form behind the eyes. Today, I expect, we will in our millions experience many such moments of freshened, very palpable grief…both personal and shared. We cannot escape it. Nor should we try. We should instead embrace it as an opportunity to reach back and recall the timbre of the stunned silence that embraced us all those first days and weeks, when we related – for an all-too-brief but shining moment – in honesty, humility, and compassion…as family…sharing our grief and our strength. United we did stand. And the world stood with us. It felt good and right and full of promise. In mid-October five years ago I tried to bottle the moment in a short poem:

A month's gone by.
We're not the same
and no different from all others.
We've found a certain comfort
in discovered vulnerability,
a sharing oneness in our grief,
compassion in the face of fear.

The little flags are everywhere.
But, now, they signal something new,
a loss of hubris,
and new found gravitas,
a sense that, after all these years,
we're finally growing up.

Today I grieve not only the dead but also the death of innocence and hope – hope that, in new-found maturity, we would search our souls and react in ways we’d recognize as worthy. But, even before I put my poetry to paper, another writer, a Time essayist had ridiculed any thought of introspection and angrily demanded that we lash out in “purple rage.”

Such rage, of course, is the childish opposite of maturity; it appeals to and draws strength from our basest instincts; and it is, in the end, self destructive. But, by the time I visited Ground Zero and my niece just blocks away in March 2002, that purple rage – and wounded pride - had over-powered reasoned thought. Fear was abroad in the land.

But, standing at that gaping hole one chill night, the grief cut through the fear, and, amidst a collage of lights and sounds, I struggled to make sense of my emotions. Next morning, St. Patrick’s Day, I attended morning Eucharist in Trinity Church, still standing, still an island of calm, “in the shadow of no towers.” The Old Testament reading was from Ezekiel 37 – “Come from the four winds, O breath, and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.” – the communion hymn a wordless “Danny Boy.” Breathing in, I felt a breath of life and recognition…a shiver…understanding…and incredible peace.

Outside, I walked the labyrinth, then sat on a stone bench among the tourists in the still sooty graveyard. I pulled a notebook from my purse and wrote again:

Two blue beams
amidst the white,
incessant din.
They pierce the black
and merge
with low gray clouds.

And, in those beams
of blue and white,
smaller clouds
of wispy dust
arise from
that awful gaping hole,
from sources yet unseen
and still unknown.

Amidst my wonder
and my pain,
and all the noise
of city life,
yea, death’s dark presence,
a floodlit, rusted cross
brings unexpected peace.

An ancient prophet
makes it clear
among the half-filled pews
a block away.
“I will put breath in you,
and you shall live….
I will open your graves
and bring you up.”

the dust still rises.
The lights?
They are no more.
They’ve faded
in the light of dawn.
But, now, I understand.

The understanding? The fragility of life. The nobility of a life well lived, worthily lived. The ignobilty, futility of fear. The peace that surpasses all understanding, overcomes all fear. The need to face our fears, not hide from them, and, facing them, to react not as frightened, vengeful children but as moral, ethical, and intelligent adults.

Since then, however, we have regressed into some debilitating national childhood, boogey men under every bed, seeking a blanket to hide under, a womb to return to, imploring others to save us, offering in payment our rights, responsibilities, and dignity as adults. We have allowed others to manipulate our grief and allowed that legitimate grief to be transmorgrified into something unworthy - fear and rage.

Purple rage rules the land and, in our childishness, we’ve even assigned colors to our fears – yellow, orange, red, or, someday, ultraviolet – divided into camps of red states and blue states, eyeing each other warily, drowning in a sea of yellow ribbons. How wistful our thoughts of blue, of confidence, normality, optimism. Remember those once-upon-a-time times, when all we had to fear was fear itself?

It’s not too late. Those times need not be gone forever. Can’t we try again – to grasp the opportunity we once had five years ago this morning and can have again…to grieve in peace, to arrive at honest understanding, to seek our hope, to build our future, to live well and worthily?

And to our politicians – all our politicians – shut up! For once and at last, shut up! This is a sacred moment. It is no time for swiftboating the truth, for manipulating our traumatized emotions, for toying with our sacred memory. Please, please, let us sit with our grief in peace. Let the silence speak in the autumn winds.

“Come from the four winds, O breath,
and breathe upon these slain, that they may live.”

Saturday, August 26, 2006

The Militarization of the American Language

Once was a time when we used to joke that military justice is to justice as military music is to music. You musicians get the point. Trouble is, military justice is no longer a joking matter. And we have moved a pace in other regards. Now we must add: military language is to language as…well…Orwellian “newspeak” is to reality. And unfortunately for those in the “reality-based community,” military newspeak has replaced standard American English as the lingua franca of the United States thanks to the spinmeisters in the White House and a pusillanimous press corps eager to lap up whatever Karl Rove, Tony Snow, and Ken Mehlman feed them.

What is military newspeak? It is a mumbling, numbing speech by an Al Haig or a George W. Bush. More subtly, it is a TV ad by Boeing – soft music and soothing voices over images of bombers gliding noiselessly through the clouds. Their mission? To defend our freedoms. How? We don’t need to ask. We know. They will soon be dropping bunker busters on un-shown apartment blocks, producing…well…“collateral damage” – all off screen of course. Military newspeak is, in short, a mélange of obfuscating euphemisms designed to hide the truth, desensitize our sense of morality, and re-image reality. Like that Boeing ad, it can manifest itself in non-verbal, sometimes subliminal, forms such as that little American flag that keeps flapping in the upper left hand corner of the Fox News screen or the steady drum beat (literally) that opens each CNN newscast, virtually shouting “War, War, War! Terror, Terror, Terror! Fear! Fear! Fear!” It’s all designed to jangle your nerves, disorient you, instill fear…and conflate fear with patriotism.

One danger of military newspeak is that it conditions the mental muscles in much the same way that video games do – to react instinctively, violently to perceived threats. Enemies are not to be understood or reasoned with. They are to be bombed – killed – as quickly as possible. No questions, no regrets. The worst danger of all, however, is how it creates obstacles to clear thinking. For clear thinking – critical thinking – is necessary to a well-functioning democracy. And, in the current circumstance, our democracy is crumbling under the weight of military newspeak just as surely as Lebanese democracy has been battered by American-made bombs. Our capacity to resist has been dangerously eroded by the rapidity and thoroughness with which the militarization of the American language has proceeded and there is no Edward R. Morrow or Walter Cronkite out there to shout “Wake up, America! Before, it’s too late, wake up!”

None of this is to say that, to one degree or another, we haven’t experienced such things in the past. Remember that Strangelovian Cold War doctrine Mutual Assured Destruction or MAD? Funny thing, it was so mad, it was sane, allowing us to traverse a nearly half-century long nuclear standoff. Closest we came to losing it was Cuba 1962, when we called a blockade – an act of war - a quarantine and, doing so, averted war. Then there was Vietnam where we used to throw about terms like “vertical envelopment,” “pacification,” and “free fire zone,” the latter being an enemy-controlled area where anything was a “legitimate” target. You could kill anything that moved – a water buffalo, the farmer directing a plow behind it, or a child playing in the nearby village. It was a misuse of language that clouded our thinking and numbed our morals to the point of producing a My Lai…and countless other My Lai’s from the air.

In the current circumstance, however, the abuse of the American language has reached pandemic proportions. If we are to resist, we must recover some sense of what’s happening. Let me give just a few examples to encourage you to look more closely at – and behind – the now steady diet of obfuscating euphemisms we are being fed. It’s called the hermeneutic of suspicion.

Where to start? How about a simple word like “war?” We used to know in our bones what that meant. You know opposing armies – in uniform, carrying flags, representing countries, taking territory, attacks and retreats marked by shifting lines on a map. To be sure, there were always fuzzy exceptions to the rule. There were, for example, civil wars, brother fighting brother to be king of the hill within a country. And there were always guerrilla wars – literally little or demi-wars – in which oppressed local inhabitants – often lacking uniforms – fought more powerful outside armies. In many ways, the American Revolution was a guerrilla war. Much later, after a conventional war with Spain, we became the powerful outside army pitted against Filipino guerrillas fighting for their independence. And, throughout the Cold War, there were any number of limited wars – as opposed to total, hot, or world war – and, lest we forget, a “police action” in Korea.

In many ways, the Cold War over-lapped and merged with the anti-colonial wars of the fifties and sixties – usually against our British and French allies. Vietnam was one such war. There were others – in China, Malaya, Algeria, Kenya, the Philippines, Indonesia, Angola, the Congo, to name a few. As a class, they became known as wars of national liberation. The Cold War being what it was, we normally sided with our colonial allies in seeking to thwart these local struggles for self-determination, while the Soviets usually provided support to the home-grown “freedom fighters.”

Lacking the resources of the occupying colonial armies, many of the “freedom fighters” adopted terror – the “poor man’s bomb” - as a weapon and a tactic in increasingly unconventional, always “asymmetrical” wars. Thus, in the eyes of the “civilized world” – i.e., the colonial metropoles of Europe – “freedom fighters” became “terrorists.” But, as we saw in Algeria and Central America, the colonial armies learned well how to be terrorists themselves – witness, the “Contras” in both Nicaragua and Algeria and the death squads in Guatemala and El Salvador. And it was in Algeria that the French elevated the use of terror and torture to an art form, transforming their vaunted “civilizing mission” into a grotesque caricature. In this regard, I highly recommend General Paul Aussaresses’ memoir, The Battle of the Casbah. And, too bad our leaders watched “Patton” rather than Pontecorvo’s masterful “Battle of Algers” before invading Iraq. Had they learned their French lessons, they might have learned how much such warfare can corrupt the would-be overlords…and we would not have to learn how to pronounce such words as Abu Ghraib and Haditha.

So what is the nature of this new “asymmetrical war” we’re involved in. No, I don’t mean Iraq, which began as a conventional limited war and has now deteriorated into an equally conventional guerrilla or civil war. No, Iraq is an unfortunate sideshow to what the President and his Secretary of Defense (Hard to believe Rumsfeld’s still there!) insist is a “Global War on Terrorism” or GWOT. Oh, it’s real enough. Too many people have died already. But, in the minds and mouths of our leaders, it takes on an other-worldly air of fantasy. As we try to wrap our minds around the concept, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of newspeak, on shifting ground, increasingly unsure of what is real and what is unreal, our fear approaching panic. And our leaders are no help, as they rush to feed the fantasy and the fear.

How is it a war? Where is “terrorism?” What is its capital? How is it “global?” Have disparate, unrelated grievances merged into what the Newt Gingrich’s of the world see as “World War Three,” into a cataclysmic “clash of civilizations,” or into some millennialist Armageddon. To be sure, there are some on the religious right who pray for Armageddon and are cheered by each new manifestation of death and destruction. Others, on the secular right, have their own Bible - Samuel P. Huntington’s The Clash of Civilizations and the Remaking of the World Order.

Huntington’s is a truly dangerous book, a sort of Mein Kampf for the GWOT. Written in the mid-nineties, when the military-industrial complex was searching for a new “enemy” to replace the collapsed Soviet Union, it depicts the by-definition culturally superior West in a “civilizational war” with Islam and, to a lesser degree, China. All is black and white, life and death, kill or be killed…good and evil. No need for nuance. No need for understanding beyond “they” are bad, we are good. Simple minds latched on to such simplicity as an explanation for all the bad happenings in the world, missing even Huntington’s recognition of the causative tension between modernization and fundamentalism.

In the hands of our leaders, Huntington’s thesis was fashioned into a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the wake of September 11 – the work of a fanatic spawned by the fundamentalism of Saudi Arabia – we faced, we were told, an “axis of evil” comprised of Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, none of whom (save perhaps Iran) had anything to with the attack on the World Trade Center. A nice pre-election catch phrase, it bore, however, no relationship to the real nature of the threat we faced from the Middle East. Arabs – and Iranians – don’t “hate our freedom” or our “way of life” (save perhaps the coarseness of our materialism). They hate a century of deception, colonialism, occupation, exploitation, and humiliation visited upon them by the West.

In the immediate aftermath of September 11, we properly attacked Afghanistan to root out al Qaeda (which had attacked the World Trade Center and other American targets around the world such as the USS Cole and the American Embassy in Nairobi) and to take down the Taliban who harbored al Qaeda. An irony – lost on the American public – was that the Taliban had - a bare two decades ago - comprised the mujaheddin or “freedom fighters” that we had armed and trained to resist the Soviet invaders of the time. Fighting us, they became terrorists.

Unfortunately, we quickly lost interest in Afghanistan, never deploying enough boots on the ground, allowing Osama bin Laden and the al Qaeda leadership to slip through our fingers at Tora Bora, and allowing the Taliban to reconstitute itself as a credible fighting force in what has become a forgotten war and a side show in the GWOT. Equally unfortunately, the deaths of American soldiers there continue – four last week, three the week before…forgotten – worse yet – never noticed – except by their families.

For still unfathomable reasons, our Commander-in-Chief and self-styled Decider (formerly known as the President), who, he allows, doesn’t think much about Osama bin Laden, decided it was time to move on. It was time for a “war of choice.” So he decided to invade Iraq. We opened this pre-emptive war (formerly known - in places like Nuremberg - as aggressive war) with an aerial campaign of “shock and awe.” Despite our best use of smart bombs, this surgical strike produced extensive collateral damage in the form of thousands of civilian dead in a burning city. Stuff happens!

Within two months, however, the Commander-in-Chief could declare the “end of major fighting.” Mission Accomplished! And, over the next three years, we succeeded in transforming Iraq into the Central Front in the Global War on Terror - another singular accomplishment requiring the recruitment and importation of thousands of foreign fighters to bolster the Saddamist dead-enders who have been in the last throes for the last year or so…ever since the Decider issued his “Bring ‘em on!” challenge and pinned those Medals of Freedom on the architects of success – George Tenant, Tommy Franks, and Jerry Bremer. For nearly that same time we have been “on the verge of civil war.” Freedom is on the march! The progress is palapable. Only last month, for example, we posted a new monthly record for Iraqi civilian dead – 3,438! And the total of young American soldiers killed in Iraq now approaches the number of deaths on September 11. All we need do now is stay the course. Now, there’s a winning strategy!

So steady has been our progress into sectarian violence (aka civil war) that, by early summer, a clear majority of Americans had lost interest in the project, many entertaining “cut and run” as an antidote to their boredom. We no longer wanted to hear about IEDs and car bombs and even the diversions of Paris Hilton, Baby Suri, airborne pedophiles, and assorted serial killers proved to be insufficient distractions. Even such Republican patriots as William Buckley, George Will, Pat Buchanan, Chuck Hagel, John Warner, and John McCain started to yearn for something more than “stay the course.” And, despite the stalwart “Democrat Party” support from Joe Lieberman, Hillary Clinton, Dianne Feinstein, and others, the need to change the subject became clear to Karl Rove and Ken Mehlman and, through them, the Commander-in-Chief.

Enter a welcome Deus ex Machina in the form of Hamas, Hezbollah, and a neophyte government in Israel intent on proving its collective manhood. Down in Gaza, some Hamas hotheads took hostage a hapless Israeli soldier, while up north Hezbollah kidnapped two other members of the Israeli Defense Force or IDF and started lobbing World War II-era Katyusha rockets into the Galillee. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and his Defense Minister Amir Peretz, who was still in the midst of his on-the-job training, were faced with several choices: launch commando raids to rescue the captured soldiers, negotiate for their release (as had been done on several occasions in the past), unleash some limited proportionate response such as destroying the offending rocket launchers…or do what they had apparently been itching to do for some time (even, according to Sy Hersh, going so far as to tout their plans at the Pentagon) – impress the world, especially the Arab/Muslim world with the crushing power of “asymmetrical deterrence,” the Israeli version of shock and awe. A strategy designed by Ariel Sharon, asymmetrical deterrence demands a wildly disproportionate response to impress upon an aggressor and future aggressors the ability of the IDF to inflict unacceptable pain at will. As the Israeli Defense Minister put it, he would insure that the Lebanese “will remember the name of Amir Peretz.”

Despite the fact that such disproportionate response is generally viewed as immoral and illegal (cf. Just War theory and the rules of war), the temptation proved too great. Thus, with not only another green light but active support from Washington, the Israeli Air Force was unleashed by IDF Chief of Staff Gen. Dan Halutz on the whole of Lebanon and a hapless Gaza. In Lebanon, within days, whole neighborhoods and towns were turned into rubble, the country’s infrastructure destroyed, more than a thousand civilians killed, and the “Cedar Revolution” left reeling – the “birth pangs of a new Middle East.” In Gaza, the entire population was thrown into darkness in the middle of the sweltering summer with the destruction of the main, American-financed power plant and some twenty members of the democratically-elected Palestinian government were arrested to join the 10,000 or so other Palestinian and Lebanese prisoners already in Israeli jails. (Allow me here an aside on the power of words as illustrated by treatment of these captives in the American media. Good guys are “kidnapped” or “taken hostage.” Bad guys are “captured” or “arrested.”)

As the destruction proceeded, the American left went mute, the media, by and large, became cheerleaders for the IDF, and neo-cons like Bill Kristol declared this “our war.” And George W. Bush made it “our war” by air-lifting to Israel re-supplies of bunker busters and the cluster bombs, thousands of which remain scattered around southern Lebanon in what a UN mine removal expert called “an angry and very volatile state. More importantly, he ordered Secretary of State Condi Rice and our interim-appointment UN Ambassador John Bolton to thwart efforts to secure a cease-fire…even a humanitarian 48-hour cease fire to remove refugees and provide medical assistance. The Decider had decided that it was the role of the United States to provide Israel time to “finish the job,” to destroy Hezbollah once and for all.

This time, however, the IDF was not up to the job. In the twenty-four years since its last real war, an ill-trained, poorly equipped, ineptly led IDF – seventy percent of which is composed of reservists – was not up to the job. Occupation duty does not translate easily into combat competence. This came as a surprise to the Israelis and to us. Even now, we are scrambling to cobble together a face-saving cease-fire and wondering aloud who “won” – Hezbollah? Iran? Syria?

More important questions are “Who lost?” and “What did we lose?” The Lebanese lost – not only in their deaths, but in the destruction of their infrastructure and the damage to their “Cedar Revolution.” The Israelis lost – not only in their deaths, but also in the damage done to the IDF’s aura of invincibility. Above the United States has lost. We have lost our preciously guarded role as an “honest broker,” leaving the “peace process” and the “road map” in shambles. We have deepened the hatred – throughout the Middle East – of the United States and increased the numbers of young men willing to act on that hatred. And, by allowing the strengthening of Hezbollah, Syria, and, above all, Iran, we have weakened our ability to defend our interests in the area and to prosecute our vaunted Global War on Terror.

Five years after September 11 – five years full of babble about “Homeland” Security, yellow and orange shades of fear, and the “ideology of terror” – we are far less secure than we were then. Our military is hollowed out, demoralized, just plain broken. It is no longer capable pursuing our most basic – and most worthy – interests much less the grandiose dreams spun of the White House’s overblown rhetoric. And no amount of words – newspeak or otherwise – is going to change that reality.

Words, however, retain meaning, because they reveal a culture’s understanding of the world, attitudes toward it, and sometimes serve as predicates to action. For these reasons we should study how others use them. And we should be far more careful about how we use words, for they are being studied by those “others.” And subtly and over time they work their effect on us. They can incite, in their heat, unwise actions or, in their subversive softening where clarity is needed, can benumb us and weaken our resistance to the same unwise actions.

Take a word like torture that must – for the sake of our souls - remain clear in its meaning. It finds meaning not so much in the eye of the beholder – eyes do not easily lie – as in the mind of the beholder, for the mind always entertains the possibility of rationalization. John McCain knows what torture means. Unfortunately, Alfonso Gonzales and Donald Rumsfeld do not, or will not. They stretch the limits of grammatical parsing, declare “quaint” settled standards of morality, and allow the President to append an unworthy signing statement to his signature on the tough anti-torture legislation sponsored by Senator McCain. No wonder we’ve become inured to Rush Limbaugh’s and Bill O’Reilly’s high school humor about “Club Gitmo.” No wonder we fail to protest when General Geoffrey Miller – Miller of Guantanomo and Abu Ghraib - retires “honorably” with a Meritorious Service Medal on his chest.

And take our easy acceptance as “robust” such phrases as regime change and pre-emptive war – un-American phrases that have found their way into the pages of the National Strategy Strategy of the United States of America. Take also the President’s embrace of so offensive a term as Islamo-Fascist, a term popularized by a hate-mongering talk show host and softened only to Islamist-Fascist in the President’s mouth. Does he know how that sounds in the Middle East? Does he care? I doubt it. For in the closed mind of our Decider, there is no need to understand or talk with our growing number of real and potential enemies in the Middle East. Iran? Syria? No need to talk with them. “They know what they have to do.” We’ve told them.

And, if they don’t do what we’ve told them? In our militarized lexicon, they’ll “suffer the consequences.” We’ll bomb them. We’ll kill them. We know how to do that. That’s all we know any more. Trouble is, we can no longer follow through on our threats. It’s time to stow the “newspeak” and to start speaking truth to our friends, our enemies, and, above all, to ourselves.

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Vallejoans for Responsible Growth and Wal-Mart

Vallejoans for Responsible Growth is a grass root citizens’ group that seeks to keep our fair city “supercenter”-free.

What do we have against Wal-Mart and its “supercenters?” Oh, you know, all the usual reasons – low wages, insufficient health benefits, export of American jobs, discrimination against women, exploitation of immigrant labor, union-busting, cheap foreign goods, deceptive “come on” advertising, saturation marketing, etc., etc., etc.

But there are local, Vallejo-specific reasons for our opposition. Let’s begin with saturation marketing. The “supercenter” Wal-Mart wants to put in Vallejo is just one of several it plans to cluster in close proximity to each other in Solano, Contra Costa, and Napa counties. Indeed, as I wrote here last year, if it gets its way, we might as well change the name of Solano County to “Wal-Mart County.” The “supercenter” it intends for the old K-Mart site at Redwood Street and Sonoma Boulevard would be 3.5 miles from the one it’s building in American Canyon and, I hear rumored, the one to come in Benicia; about seven miles from one it plans for Suisun City; nine from another in Fairfield; ten from the one Hercules is fending off; maybe a dozen from another in Richmond’s Hilltop Mall; and only slightly further down the road from other stores in Antioch, Concord, Dixon, and West Sacramento. Get the picture?

It is a business plan Wal-Mart has put into action around the country…with disastrous effects for local communities. Wal-Mart having saturated an area with cheap goods and predatory-priced produce, competing stores and markets, that offer employees decent wages and benefits move away, leaving the field to Wal-Mart which then proceeds to close several of the newly-opened “supercenters.” Local communities are then saddled with derelict blighted properties, low-paying jobs, long commutes to shop, reduced choice, and higher prices than originally promised.

Think of the businesses and jobs that would be threatened by a Wal-Mart “supercenter” at Redwood and Sonoma – Mervyn’s, Raley’s, Albertson’s, the Seafood City we welcomed with justified fanfare just a few years ago. Concerning Seafood City, just across the street from the proposed Wal-Mart store, good friends have said to me “Don’t worry, Wal-Mart wouldn’t sell fish or Filipino specialties.” But that’s precisely what they would sell…and at predatory prices designed to undercut Seafood City.

And, then, there’s the nature of the site itself – an environmentally sensitive property on the shores of the White Slough we are attempting to rehabilitate. It is a site that is protected in the White Slough Redevelopment Plan which restricts development to residential/small scale commercial mixed use – the sort of development that, in business terms, also jibes with the city’s plans for the commercial renaissance of Sonoma Boulevard.

But VFRG is opposed to a Wal-Mart “supercenter” anywhere in Vallejo. Why? Because Vallejo is a city that is on the cusp of commercial developments that portend a marked upswing in the economic well-being and quality of life for all its citizens. I have in mind the development of our downtown, our waterfront, and Mare Island. Indeed, Triad’s plans for downtown and Lennar’s plans for housing, tourism, and light industry on Mare Island have drawn front-page attention in recent editions of the San Francisco Chronicle’s real estate section. These are developments which will, at last, make Vallejo a quality place to live and tourist destination worthy of its people and location. Accepting a Wal-Mart “supercenter” in our midst, however, would earn us the sobriquet “Cheap Town” and set us back a decade or more. Can you imagine Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods, Nugget, or Barnes and Noble wanting to invest in a downtown only a mile or so from a “superstore?” Accepting a “supercenter” would be the kiss of death for our downtown development. Were we to do so, we would kill that Golden Goose or at least the golden egg we’re incubating.

Hopefully, however, our City Council will have at least the same vision and gumption shown by those in Hercules and Turlock. As in Hercules and Turlock, Wal-Mart’s blue-suited bullies have barged into town and arrogantly claimed that they know better than we do what’s good for our city. Will we plan our city or will they? Will our City Council members stand up as their colleagues did in those other towns? They will if you get involved and tell them what you want. The message? “We live here. We know what’s best for Vallejo and what we want and don’t want. And we don’t want Wal-Mart!”

How can you get involved?

* Come to Planning Commission and City Council meetings and let the members of the Council know that you don’t want a Wal-Mart “supercenter” in Vallejo.

* Send your tax deductible donations to: Vallejoans for Responsible Growth, PO Box 4570, Vallejo, CA 94590.

* Help us circulate our petitions at the Saturday Farmers’ Market and elsewhere.

To be sure, we will never have anywhere near the money that Wal-Mart will pour into this fight, but we have people power. Remember, it only takes a little over 6,000 votes to get elected to the Vallejo City Council. When, as in the LNG struggle, we presented them will more than 10,000 signatures in opposition, they got the message. Let’s send them another message. We can do it!

Thursday, July 6, 2006

The Fifth of July

How was yours? The Fourth, that is. Mine was pretty good – sleeping late, a walk with the dog, some TV time with a shuttle launch and the World Cup, some gardening, and, of course, the obligatory barbecue and a backdoor seat at Vallejo’s fireworks show at the end of the day.

And – through it all – my flag flapped proudly out front… as usual and unfortunately, one of the few in my neighborhood. But, as the Chronicle’s editorial on the Fourth (“Patriots, awaken”) put it, “The health of American democracy…is not measured by how much red, white, and blue is displayed on any given day. It is the sum of all who stand up to be counted when the defining freedoms of this republic are under assault.”

And, since they are, I’m back – after eight months of weary silence – to stand up and speak out for those freedoms and for all that is good and just and under assault in this dear country. As Alfred Camus once said about his country in a time of trial, “I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice.” For my part, I refuse to let anyone force me to choose between the two.

I fear, however, that the “liberty and justice for all” that we proclaim in the Pledge of Allegiance – too often unthinkingly and in smug self-satisfaction – is being eroded daily. As we profess to fight for freedom abroad, the ground, it seems, is being cut out from under it here at home. You know what I mean. It’s hard not to feel uneasy in the face of a now seemingly endless string of what the Chronicle correctly calls “intrusions on civil liberties and usurpations of power by the White House;” to wit:

* Launching an aggressive war without just cause;

* Lying to the Congress and the public to build support for that war;

* Conducting warrantless domestic wiretaps and searches on unsuspecting Americans;

* Compiling a vast data bank of our phone, e-mail, and financial records and sifting through it in an apparently resurrected version of John Poindexter’s illegal “Total Information Awareness” program;

* “Disappearing” suspected “terrorists” into an American-run gulag stretching from Bhagram to Guantanamo;

* Disregarding, in the case of American citizen suspects, the requirements of habeas corpus, the right to speedy trial, and the right to face one’s accusers;

* “Rendering” others to unknown locations in Eastern Europe and to countries known to torture prisoners as a matter of course;

* Exempting ourselves from the requirements of the Geneva Conventions, international treaties ratified by Congress and, therefore, having the power and weight of law in the United States;

* Engaging in the torture of captives in our hands;

* Evading the President’s constitutional obligation to “faithfully execute the laws of the United States” through the vehicle of more than 700 “signing statements” in which the President arrogates to himself the “right” to decide what portions of the laws Congress has passed and he has signed he will actually execute;

* Propagandizing the American people by paying “independent columnists” to parrot the administration line, peddling faux news stories, and seeding faux reporters in the White House press pool;

* Leaking classified information about critics within the government;

* Undercutting the First Amendment, most notably, freedom of the press by attacking and intimidating journalists who would seek to investigate or simply question such erosions of our freedoms; and

* Spreading debilitating fear throughout the land for narrow political gain, trivializing and postponing the addressing of the profound issues facing this nation, and labeling “unpatriotic” those who disagree.

Where is the outrage? Where are the real patriots this first day after our 230th Fourth of July? Where are the true conservatives who would defend the Constitution and that Declaration of Independence, the signing of which we just celebrated, against the radicals in the White House who would so cavalierly ignore or trash them? Let me repeat what that Chronicle editorial had to say by way of closing:

The men who signed the Declaration of Independence were not doing so to commission an annual party. They were making a covenant with history that requires day-to-day- vigilance to defend the liberties it asserted. Honor them by speaking out.

I undertake to do just that. I have been silent for too long. I can no longer do so, lest - again to paraphrase the words of the Chronicle - the absence of outrage on my part be taken as a nod of assent.

I hope, as we proceed in the months ahead, you will share my outrage and speak out yourself on the local, national, and international issues that will be addressed on these pages. You might begin by sharing your comments below.

I hope, too, you will share my abiding and profound love for our country and for justice. They are indivisible and worth fighting for.