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 k / o
                                       politics + culture

Saturday, December 31, 2005

on a clear day

On clear fall and winter days in the East Bay you can hike up the hills and see the Farallon Islands rising like stone giants over the Golden Gate bridge. The Farrallones are 27 miles off the coast and are usually shrouded in thick fog and marine layer. It's a reward, hiking up the steep East Bay hills through eucalyptus groves...and shadowed by flitting jays and juncos...to arrive, at last, at a view of the entire Bay. And there, just on the horizon, rise the stone pyramids of the Farallones in the Pacific..matching in shape Mt. Tamalpais, the Twin Peaks of San Francisco, or the human-made towers of the Golden Gate Bridge and the TransAmerica Pyramid.

Site of the Egg War and shipwrecks and seal hunting, the Farallones, for as remote and pure as they seem, have only lately returned to their "quieter" natural state. They are home to pinnipeds, petrels, puffins, auklets and murres, not to mention a natural breeding grounds of the Great White Shark, and a waypoint for whales on their way around Point Reyes to the north.

I often take that steep hike, up, out of the backyards of Berkeley. And when it's clear, it's like a gift. The whole Bay, the whole of the cities of the East Bay spread out below....streets and places and cars and people...kind of like a hiking version of what you feel in New York, when you get to the top of the Empire State...hey, I've been there, and there, and there..and that corner too.

Today I realized that the Farallones are like our political ideals...out there...on the horizon. Just beyond where we live and work and play. Some days we can see them, other days we can't. Once in awhile we climb that hill and look out...taking in both the imperfect city, full of traffic and bustle, and the islands, their natural counterparts, full of the organic flux of cormorants flexing and fishing and the brashness of the society of seals.

Like the Farallones, which will remain, at least in the human time frame, just on the very horizon of San Francisco Bay...we never really "reach" our ideals...but once and awhile, when the weather is right...we can look out at them, we can consider their perfection...and then turn and return to our imperfect city, its people, its realities...its visceral humanity...with a renewed sense of purpose and direction. Our task, in the end, is not to take the city to the Farallones...but instead to take that 'golden vision' and burn it into our work and our days.

{Reposted because it's better than anything I could write today about that "end of the year vision thing"}

Enjoy, and have a happy and safe New Year!

kid o.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

back in Oakland

Ah, the blog machine is back running here in Oakland.

I was a "read only" Christmas blogger.

I'm back...and the machine is whirring again. But, like most bloggers.

I need my coffee.

peace, kid o.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

a christmas message

I've been reading some of the noxious media tripe about attempts all over, I guess, to put the "Christ" back in "Christmas"....

I'm sorry, but I'm still waiting for them to put the Christ back into Christianity.


Let me tell you something about the Jesus that I know.

He was a real man.  Born in a poor region to working poor parents.  He loved learning, he loved his mother and his father.

But he left them and spent his life with the poor, the outcast, the rejected, the defiled, the sick, the sinners, the bedraggled, the bereft, the self-hating, the lonely, the banished, the foul, the miserable, the desperate and finally, those sick with their own power.

He did this, not because of his ideology or his creed.  He did this not because of his doctrine.  He did this, quite simply, because he loved them.  He preferred them.

He preferred their company, their stories, their lives, their environs, their plight and their faith.

And they loved him.  Because he touched them.  He looked them in the eye and believed in them.  Because, at the end of the day, when they looked to him they saw that his commitment to them was a commitment unsullied by qualifier or clause. It was a commitment to love them, even upon pain of death.  They saw in him a love that promised to love them as they were and who they were...fully, without judgment or flinching glance, or hypocritical accomodation.

This man, Jesus, was surrounded by friends and disciples whom he mentored....not by carping or enforcing rules...but by example and teaching.  By the force of his actions. By his resolute commitment to the least, the smallest, the most in need.

The most potent aspect of the gospels is not the love of Jesus.  Which at times, as written by the evangelists, seems to be an inhuman love.  It is the love of those little people who in turn loved Jesus, who ran to him. It is the the hope they had in him.  What rose in them when they saw him: Hope for healing, for change, for acknowlegment, for a chance to be made whole, a chance to overcome their shame and claim personhood again. Whenever the gospels tell of Jesus healing someone...he tells them it is their faith that has healed them and set them free.  

And when the gospels tell of Jesus and his parables...the hidden story, that no one ever talks about...is that those parables...those words...would not live today without the work of the people who heard them..those little people who kept those words alive by absorbing them and remembering them and repeating them each to each.  Jesus, aside from writing with his finger in the sand, never wrote a thing.

At the end of the day...when folks want to put Christ back into Christmas...it is clear to me they mean a creche....or a plastic glow in the dark Jesus with a beard.  They want to be able to say "Merry Christmas" on TV.

The Jesus I know is bent over washing the feet of a prostitute.  He is visiting a widow.  He is feeding the hungry. He has laid his hands on a leper.  There are people today who, inspired by that man and those actions, will do such things this Christmas day.

At the end of the day...scholars tell us...the Jesus hidden inside the gospels...the real man...the enigma behind the man heralded as the "founder of Christianity"...is actually the source of those words and actions that most grass roots Christians cherish to this day: The Lord's prayer.  The beatitudes.  The parables.  A number of sayings about poverty and wealth and faith and trust...and numerous accounts of healings and encounters with the poor and the outcast.

That, at the end of the day, is all we know of the historical Jesus. That, and the fact that he was killed by the Roman authorities some time a little less than 2000 years ago.

When that man will return to the forefront of the religion that claims him...is something we are still waiting for.  In some ways, he has been there all along in the faith of all those forgotten people who love him to this day and cherish his words and life...but with so much that has been added and accumulated over the years, that it is hard to say what Jesus would make of the religion and churches built in his name.

When folks say they want to put Christ back into Christmas....I wonder what they really mean.  Do they mean Jesus?  Jesus from Nazareth?

{This post originally written in December of 2004.}

Monday, December 19, 2005

Starting with the Districts: a model for House Targeting

"It's not often that I find myself taking the moderate position," says Joshua Grossman,  SF Bay Area-based political demographer and founder of the congressional vote tracking website ProgressivePunch.org..."but  when it  comes  to House targeting , you can call me a raging moderate."

Grossman, a committed and pragmatic progressive, says this with a twinkle in his eye...and then launches into the heart of his analysis.  "The DCCC has traditionally done targeting in such a narrowly focused manner, targeting and fully funding so few races, that the Democrats would have to draw an inside straight to take back the House...pretty much taking every seat they contest.  On the other hand, and in part in response to this narrow point of view,  the netroots has tended to choose races as if resources and political capital were in endless supply.  Too often, there's been heartbreak at the end of the rainbow for the netroots...dollars, sweat and tears have run up against races where, truth be told, we didn't really have a chance.  There's a middle path."

Joshua's middle path comes out of his background as a political demographer  and consultant.  His website, Progressive Punch.org is a well-known online resource for evaluating congressional voting records using a progressive yardstick. At the core of Joshua's analysis is this precept: the first factor to look at when we consider the pool of races to consider for targeting is the districts themselves...


I'd like to do two things with the essay, which, be forewarned... is quite long.  (It's more of a paper, really.)

  • First, I'd like to examine the nuts and bolts of Joshua's analysis.

  • Second, I'd like to break down why that analysis is significant and how it relates to so many of the discussions we've had here in the netroots: about targeting vulnerable Republicans, about the development of local opposition blogs, and about the widely-shared netroots vision of taking our country back by fighting in every state.

I've logged some hard-core time talking to Joshua and examining his data and conclusions, the upshot of which is that I've seen how his list and his analysis dovetail with so much of what we've been saying here in the netroots (hat tip to superribbie)...but with a welcome pragmatic twist and, at times, a cold splash of demographic reality.  Joshua's analysis is a powerful tool that can help us find a "middle path."  It describes the pool of vulnerable districts in a common sense and grounded way, and it also, in the races it tells us NOT to target, affords a healthy reality check that bears consideration going in to 2006.  


The Task at Hand

Taking back Congress is the single most significant political task at hand.  Nothing impacts our everyday reality like the GOP having majority control of the US Congress: witness the state of our political lives since 1994. On a bedrock level, then, `job one' in 2006 is to develop a strategy to take back the House. We can all agree that we do that by running credible candidates with strong grass roots campaigns effectively supported by national dollars, brainpower and powerful themes.  We also do that by being pragmatic and smart.  That means running credible candidates with strong grassroots support in the districts where we have the best chance at victory, where the voters most lean our way.  Joshua's district-based analysis offers us a start point for that discussion.

Too often, we in the netroots have been like the figure in the famous analogy, looking for our keys under the streetlight "because it's brighter there."  We focus on races because we loathe the incumbent (Musgrave, DeLay, Blunt), because we love the challenger  (Barend, Hackett, Young) , or even because the race is located near where we live, or has come to our attention through blogs we read or being in the news.  Those are natural start points, but they can be self-defeating ones as well.  Joshua's analysis asks a simple question. What would happen if we started with a dispassionate look at the districts minus all those other factors?  What would happen if we started by looking at an analysis of the underlying voting patterns of the districts themselves?

There was  a moment in one of my discussions with Joshua where the value of this start point became crystal clear.  We were talking about one of the districts he proposes examining for targeting, VA11, currently held  by the very popular Representative Tom Davis (R.).  Joshua admitted that this race would be one of the more difficult on his list to win.  Tom Davis is "one beloved Virginian"; in fact, Davis is rumored to be eyeing Sen. John Warner's Senate seat if it opens up. "But," Joshua added, "if Tom Davis leaves his seat in VA-11,  there is an excellent chance that it will go to a Democrat.  Tim Kaine won that district. VA-11, the district held by Tom Davis, is a purple district that happens to have a Republican representative." Let's take a look at how Joshua draws that conclusion, and what he does with it.


The Method: Start with the Districts

Joshua's analysis begins at a familiar starting point.  Joshua crunched the Bush/Kerry `04 numbers as part of an analysis of all 435 congressional districts.  In doing this analysis he noticed something that cut across all of the geographic regions in the country and affects every congressional district.  When the percentages for Kerry or Bush in any given congressional district reach a certain percentage range specific to the district's region, that district will generally no longer elect congressional candidates from the other party.  

In fact, the percentage range for Bush or Kerry in a given district consistently predicts within each geographic region whether a district is "Safe" "Lean" or "Toss Up." Only 7 of the 308 of the "Safe Dem" or "Safe GOP" districts in Joshua's analysis are represented by a representative of the opposite party; that's an extraordinarily low figure. In a nutshell, the 2004 election, when looked at with this regional "twist," was an excellent indicator of the underlying political demographics of the US.  

(If you are interested in the raw Excel spread sheet of this analysis, you can find it here courtesy of Joshua's 527, Progressive Kick. I've written the essay, however,  so that you can skip that step if you'd like.  If you do click through and choose to download the file you'll need the Excel program on your computer.  Each tab at the bottom of the spreadsheet represents a region, and within regions: Green = Safe Dem, Blue = Lean Dem, Orange = Toss Up, Purple = Lean GOP and Red = Safe GOP.)

Now, using the Bush/Kerry returns to judge districts may seem to be simple common sense.  It is.  But there's a twist.  The percentage ranges that define "Safe", "Lean" and "Toss Up" are different in different regions:  

  • A safe GOP district in New York State is a district where George Bush won 55% or more of the vote.  

  • A safe GOP district in Texas is one where Bush won  61%.

  • In the Great Lakes Region that number is 57%

Now, that may seem counterintuitive.  It is.  Why would the numbers change, one asks, why would the yardstick move?  But when you look at the results, it makes sense.  

In each of the ten regions Joshua identifies, there's a point where people just stop electing Democrats or Republicans. Take the Great Lake Region: comprised of MN, WI, IA, IL, OH, MI and MO.  In Joshua's "lean GOP" range, where Bush got 53%-56% of the vote, there are three Democrats and sixteen Republicans.  In the final data point of that "lean GOP" range a lone Democrat, Melissa Bean in IL-08, won election in a district where Bush received 56% of the vote.   In districts where Bush won over 56% of the vote there was but one Democrat elected in the entire Great Lakes region. Now, this pattern holds with differing "breaking points" for every region in the country.  In region after region, Joshua's method is a very effective means of defining "Safe GOP" districts. It's an equally effective means of identifying potential targets for Democratic pick-ups.

In every region of this country there are districts where John Kerry did relatively well for the region but the district itself is represented by a Republican.  Joshua's analysis highlights those Republican-held districts by comparing their data with  other districts in or near "the same range" in that region. So, in looking at districts where Kerry did well in the context of his overall performance within a given region, Joshua finds Republican incumbents in districts that are, in theory, winnable by a Democrat. It is the combination of Kerry's relative strength in a district when  compared to all the other districts in the surrounding region that tells us the districts we should examine for targeting. The GOP vulnerabilities that this regional comparison highlights are the core of Joshua's analysis.

What that means in pragmatic terms is that any Republican who holds a seat in a Safe Dem, Lean Dem, Toss Up or Lean GOP district should be in our crosshairs.  Conversely, districts which Joshua classifies as "Safe GOP" should NOT be included in the pool for targeting because...as shown above...Democratic candidates, by and large, simply can't win in those districts.

Using regional demographics and election return analysis Joshua's model defeats the "streetlight effect" and yields a neutral start point that looks at voters in all 435 districts in a regional context.  This analysis builds a pool for strategic targeting by looking at those races squarely in the demographic middle, where Democrats can win, without reference to incumbents, or ideological or strategic preference.   In my view, this analysis has strong appeal whether  one takes a DCCC conservative  approach or that of a no-holds-barred "contest every district" net roots warrior.  

Let's take a look at Joshua's list so that we can understand what all this means when the rubber hits the road.


The List:

What you're about to read is a list of vulnerable GOP districts that follow a breakdown of the country into ten demographic regions.  Each of these regions reflects common voting patterns and characteristics.  Under each of these regions I am going to list the districts currently held by a Republican that Joshua advocates including in the pool for targeting,  followed by the name of the incumbent (or "Open Seat" if the seat is open) and whether  that district is classified as "Safe Dem", "Lean Dem", "Toss Up" or "Lean GOP".  Note: This is not a "handicapping" list, nor is it an evaluation of the candidates or of the "state of the race" ie. what our chances are in a given district. This list defines the pool of potentially vulnerable Republican districts.  It is a start point.
These are the 88 districts:
The Western US

  • CO-07, Open Seat,   district = Lean Dem

  • NM-01, Heather Wilson, district = Lean Dem

  • WA-08, David Reichert,  district = Lean Dem

  • NV-03, Jon Porter, district = Toss Up

  • AZ-08, Open Seat, district = Toss Up

  • AZ-01, Rick Renzi,  district = Lean GOP

  • AZ-05, J.D. Hayworth, district = Lean GOP

  • CA-11, Richard Pombo,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-26, David Dreier, district = Lean GOP

  • CA-50, Open Seat,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-24, Elton Gallegly,  district = Lean GOP

  • CA-45, Mary Bono,  district = Lean GOP

The Dakotas and Montana

  • MT At Large, Dennis Rehberg,  district = Toss Up

Nebraska and Kansas

  • KS-02, Jim Ryun,  district = Lean GOP


  • TX-32, Pete Sessions, district = Lean GOP

The Southern United States

  • NC-08, Robin Hayes, district = Lean Dem

  • VA-05, Virgil Goode, district = Toss Up

  • NC-11, Charles Taylor, district = Toss Up

  • VA-04, Randy Forbes, district = Toss Up

  • AL-03, Mike Rogers, district = Toss Up

  • VA-02, Thelma Drake, district = Toss Up

  • LA-04, Jim McCrery, district = Lean GOP

  • LA-06, Richard Baker,  district = Lean GOP

  • LA-07, Charles Boustany, district = Lean GOP

  • VA-10, Frank Wolf, district = Lean GOP


  • FL-22, Clay Shaw, district = Lean Dem

  • FL-10, CW "Bill" Young,  district = Toss Up

  • FL-16, Mark Foley, district = Lean GOP

  • FL-18, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-08, Ric Keller,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-24, Tom Feeney,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-13, Open Seat,  district = Lean GOP

  • FL-25, Mario Diaz-Balart, district = Lean GOP

Western PA / West Virginia

  • PA-03, Phil English, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-18, Tim Murphy,  district = Toss Up

  • PA-04, Melissa Hart, district = Toss Up

  • WV-02, Shelley Moore Capito,  district = Lean GOP

Indiana + Louisville, KY

  • KY-03, Anne Northup,  district = Lean Dem

  • IN-02, Chris Chocola,  district = Toss Up

  • IN-09, Mike Sodrel,  district = Lean GOP

  • IN-08, John Hostettler,  district = Lean GOP

Great Lakes

  • IA-02, Jim Leach,  district = Safe Dem

  • IA-01, Open Seat,  district = Lean Dem

  • IL-10, Mark Kirk, district = Lean Dem

  • OH-15, Deborah Pryce,  district = Toss Up

  • OH-01, Steve Chabot,   district = Toss Up

  • OH-12, Pat Tiberi,  district = Toss Up

  • MI-09, Joseph Knollenberg,  district = Toss Up

  • MN-01, Gil Gutknecht,  district = Toss Up

  • MN-03, Jim Ramstad,  district = Toss Up

  • IA-04, Tom Latham,  district = Lean GOP

  • OH-14, Steven LaTourette, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-06, Open Seat, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-06, Fred Upton, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-11, Thaddeus McCotter, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-11, Jerry Weller, district = Lean GOP

  • OH-16, Ralph Regula, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-07, John J.H. "Joe" Schwarz, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-08, Mike Rogers, district = Lean GOP

  • WI-01, Paul Ryan, district = Lean GOP

  • MN-02, John Kline, district = Lean GOP

  • OH-03, Michael Turner, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-13, Judy Biggert, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-16, Don Manzullo, district = Lean GOP

  • MI-04, Dave Camp, district = Lean GOP

  • WI-08, Open Seat, district = Lean GOP

  • IL-14, Denny Hastert, district = Lean GOP

Northeastern US

  • CT-02, Rob Simmons, district = Safe Dem

  • CT-04, Christopher Shays, district = Lean Dem

  • DE-At Large, Michael Castle, district = Lean Dem

  • NH-02, Charles Bass, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-07, Curt Weldon, district = Lean Dem

  • NY-25, Jim Walsh, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-06, Jim Gerlach, district = Lean Dem

  • PA-08, Michael Fitzpatrick, district = Lean Dem

  • CT-05, Nancy Johnson, district = Toss Up

  • NJ-02, Frank LoBiondo, district = Toss Up

  • PA-15, Charles Dent, district = Toss Up

  • VA-11, Tom Davis, district = Toss Up

  • NH-01, Jeb Bradley, district = Toss Up

  • NY-23, John McHugh, district = Toss Up

  • NJ-03, Jim Saxton, district = Toss Up

  • NY-03, Pete King, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-24, Sherwood Boehlert, district = Lean GOP

  • NJ-07, Michael Ferguson, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-19, Sue Kelly, district = Lean GOP

  • NY-20, John Sweeney, district = Lean GOP

  • NJ-04, Chris Smith, district = Lean GOP

That's 88 districts representing every region in the country. These are Republicans representing 2 Safe Dem, 16 Lean Dem, 25 Toss Up, and 45 Lean GOP districts. For those who've argued this point for years, this analysis clearly shows that there are vulnerable Republican districts in every region, and practically every state, in the nation.

Now, some of these 88 districts are so obvious that those who follow House races (among them superribbie, Nathaniel Ament Stone, Jonathan Singer and RBH...hat tip to all...)  have already labeled them "no-brainers" for targeting...consensus races all of us are looking at.  Other districts are counterintuitive, and, some may say, seemingly impossible long shots given the popularity of the incumbent and the 2004 vote totals.  What Johsua's model does, however, is highlight the pool of most vulnerable districts for us to consider mounting a coordinated, well-funded grassroots campaign around a credible candidate with strong local appeal.  (Many of these districts haven't had a credible, well-funded Democratic opponent in recent memory.)  If this analysis says nothing else, one would be hard put to explain the state of the Democratic party more succinctly than to point to the DCCC's lack of a strategic commitment in so many of these 88 districts.

At the end of the day, however,  as it is for any `reality-based' approach, the proof is in the pudding; so, let's take a closer look.  

The rest of this essay, included in the story below, will examine:  New York State,  Overlooked and Under-emphasized Districts,  and Opposition Blogs.

Starting with the Districts: Examples and Conclusion

Take NY

New York is an excellent test case for this analysis.  At great deal of netroots focus has been put on:

  •  NY-13, the Staten Island district of Vito Fossella (a district with a slight net registration gain by the GOP since 2004)

  • NY-26 the district of NRCC Chairman Tom Reynolds

  • and NY-29 the district of right wing Republican, Randy Kuhl

All those districts are districts that Joshua Grossman classifies as "safe GOP" and currently likely unwinnable.  According to Joshua's analysis the voters in these NY districts are likely to act like the voters in other "Safe GOP" districts like OH-02 (Jean  Schmidt) and CA-48 (John Campbell), ie. they are likely to vote Republican even  given excellent, well-funded Democratic candidates with netroots support and third candidate challenges.  That is the flip side of this district-based model; it tells us districts where our efforts, however  well-constructed, will likely fail.

In New York, Joshua's analysis instead points up:

  •  a "Lean Dem" district, NY-25, composed of Syracuse  and currently held by Jim Walsh

  • a "Toss Up" rural district in NY-23 held  by John McHugh.

The analysis also points up four NY "lean GOP" districts:

  • Sherwood Boehlert's NY-24,  

  • Pete King's Democratic-trending Long Island district NY-03 (a district which has gained 2000 Democrats on the voter rolls in the last year)

  • Sue Kelly's NY-19

  • and John Sweeney's NY-20.

In other words, here are six Republicans who are representing districts more open to a Democratic candidate than those in NY-13, NY-26 and NY-29.  If the question is where to allocate scarce time and resources, if the question is finding the most fertile ground for winning a seat with a majority of voters...Joshua's model argues for focusing on these districts. (Incidentally,  Steve Singiser recently made an analysis of the upstate districts that provides an interesting companion analysis to this point of view.)

In sum, Joshua's analysis offers an alternate start point for looking at New York.  Because it is based on voting patterns, the analysis itself doesn't have an ideological axe to grind in picking districts. In fact, because of his start points, Joshua encourages us to look at districts that are trending in our direction...and encourages casting a cold eye on districts that aren't.  If you ask Joshua...and, believe you me, I have... he will tell you that barring a major scandal affecting the incumbents, NY-13, NY-26 and NY-29 should NOT be included in the pool for targeting.  That's something to think about.  In fact, I'm writing this piece...knowing that some will strongly disagree...in part so that we might have that discussion about New York and elsewhere.


Overlooked and Under-emphasized Districts: the DCCC

One of the things that this analysis is very effective at is pointing up vulnerable Republican incumbents we might have either overlooked entirely, or neglected through a lack of emphasis (under-emphasis being one of the basic modes of the DCCC.)

In California there are two districts on everyone's list.  Richard Pombo, in CA-11, has attracted strong opposition in the Bay Area due, in part, to his atrocious environmental record...and the CA-50 district formerly represented by Duke Cunningham has been greatly in the news...scandal , of course, does that.  Joshua's model includes both of these districts.  Less in the news, and yet also in Joshua's pool of districts for evaluation are two California Republicans whose districts are also vulnerable.  David Dreier in CA-26 and Elton Gallegly in CA-24 are both in districts crying out for a coordinated Democratic challenge.  (Currently Russ Warner in CA-26, and Mary Pallant and Brett Wagner in CA-24, are set to enter the fray but with much less attention than those races might deserve. )

Even a cursory glance shows other districts that fit this bill.  In Florida, Ric Keller in FL-08, a district centered in the Orlando corridor that forms the fulcrum of Florida politics...is richly deserving a well-funded battle.  Frank LoBiondo, representing NJ-02, currently has no opponent listed with the DCCC, even though his district is ripe for a concerted Democratic effort. John Kline in MN-02 and Jerry Weller in IL-11 also pop off the list as representing districts that are vulnerable yet little emphasized. Finally, Deborah Pryce representing OH-15 voted with Tom DeLay a whopping 94% of the time though her district encompasses some hard core Democratic precincts in Columbus Ohio.  Despite this, her 2004 opponent, Mark Losey struggled with money  issues...that's not something we should let happen again.  Implicit in Joshua's analysis is a question for the DCCC, "Why not take these races seriously this time?"

Now, for many, these names will not be new.  I am not suggesting...nor is Joshua...that his model represents something unorthodox, or that these races should sound "fresh."  Just the opposite.  What's important here is that the focus is on avoiding spending money and energy on races we simply won't win when there are very similar and perhaps under-emphasized races where we can. Deborah Pryce, for example, is in many ways, a figure as easy to get riled up about as current House Whip Roy Blunt.  (Blunt, of course, is someone we here in the netroots worked mighty hard against in 2004...and represents the very "Safe GOP" MO-07). The point is, however, that Deborah Pryce represents a district where we've got a shot at winning and Roy Blunt doesn't.  Joshua's analysis points this out. In point of fact, we in the netroots find maximum leverage in exactly this kind of "neglected" race...a concerted early netroots effort against Pryce might bring a strong Democratic candidate out of the woodwork, draw mainstream Dems and DCCC funding into the battle, and, critically, afford the possiblity of delivering, as a return on our hard work and dollars, a victory in November '06.


Opposition Blogs and expanding the Playing Field

If we do nothing else in the netroots, we should make 2006 the year of the local opposition blog.  (Link to an widely influential article at Swing State Project by DavidNYC.)  Nascent efforts like leftyblogs, Districtblogs and the Soapblox family of regional blogs, like Calitics, are showing that local blogging is an incredibly powerful tool for information sharing and opposition research where it counts...in the districts themselves.

Even more powerful, however, is the opposition blog that focuses on one of these 88 districts.  Take the situation in New Jersey's 7th congressional district where there are two opposition blogs:  Nathan Rudy's Blue 7thand its sibling blog, Dump Mike.  Anyone who's followed politics realizes even with a quick look at these blogs that this is something new and powerful.  One dirty little secret of Senators and Representatives is that they control the news we read about them.  In general, we hear about our legislators only when they choose to do a press release or "make news."  No newspaper actually effectively covers votes. Given that, you can be quite sure that Mike Ferguson is an avid reader of these two blogs...blogs entirely devoted to reporting the truth about him and his voting record.

Now, you might ask what this has to do with the 88. It has everything to do with the 88.

Republicans in districts that have "Democratic tendencies" are under a hell of lot of pressure right now...and that is no coincidence.  Tom DeLay's unified Congress came with a price: these 82 representatives (minus the 6 open seats) are paying that price right now in the form of political heat.  Here's some examples:

  • Robin Hayes, in NC-08, was one of the vote switches  on CAFTA.

  • Mike Rogers, in AL-03, voted YES of CAFTA, but now has voted NO on a new free trade bill

  • Virgil Goode, a tough-to-beat incumbent in VA-05,  just returned $88,000 in Duke Cunningham-linked political contributions: "Goode led the list of those receiving MZM-linked donations, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan group that tracks campaign spending."

  • Even a savvy, hardball Congressperson like Anne Northup in KY-03 has to deal with the reality of demographics in her district, a district that encompasses Louisville.  Northup is much more conservative than her district despite the fact that Bush only won 49% of the vote in KY-03.  The pressure exists acutely in all 88 districts; it's up to us to apply it.

That list could go on and on (like this diary has...argh!!).  Each one of these GOP representatives, currently an incumbent in one of the 88 districts, deserves an opposition blog and a credible local opposition candidate. Many of them, if you google their names, have no negative stories written from the netroots. (How can we in the netroots complain about the DCCC if we haven't taken that first step?)

I've seen first hand how a local blog...even one done on the free blogspot template...can grow to have immediate impact.  A couple months ago blogger Matt Lockshin and I were discussing Chris Bowers very  influential post about blogging: I'm Not Going to Blogroll You mixed with some of the ideas expressed in Joshua's analysis. I could see the gears spinning for Matt.  Within a matter of days, he and a team of netroots activists had launched SayNotoPombo in opposition to CA-11's Richard Pombo...and within weeks of that launch they had impacted the race, drawing the attention of a campaign manager to the district and winning daily hits from Congressional offices in D.C.  Reading Matt's archives and seeing how he grew the site from small blogger to becoming a source of breaking news about the race is a case study in the power of the local opposition blog.  SayNotoPombo has raised over $2000 in opposition to Richard Pombo in two months.  Not bad for a weblog with 0.02% of the traffic of dKos. (For those interested in the race, there's also Pombowatch and VotePomboOUT, both worthy of attention.)

At the start of this election cycle, conventional analysis would not have predicted that Mike Ferguson or Richard Pombo would be having to slog through this kind of opposition in late 2005.  They are.  Not just that, but you can bet that the GOP is going to spend some money defending these "lean GOP" districts where in past years these two candidates would have coasted through.  These two efforts are already helping spread the playing field for 2006.  

That's not just an example of the power of the netroots.  It's also points up that these candidates really are vulnerable.  I can't think of a more powerful and "ready-to-boom" prospect than the combination of these 88 vulnerable districts and the potential of local opposition blogs.  



Power is about leverage.  It's about fulcrum points.  I think of Joshua's analysis that way.  Joshua is saying here's where the GOP is weakest, even when the veneer of an incumbent's popularity hides the fault line...like in Tom Davis's VA-11...that fault line is still there... still vulnerable...just waiting for the Democrats to seize the advantage.

Joshua Grossman has advanced an argument that is worth examining on the merits. It’s not an end point. It’s a start point. Its strength is its common sense moderation. If we had all the resources in the world and strong Democratic machines in every state we’d run hard in every single district. We don’t. In that context we need a rubric that lets us focus on the weak points in the GOP armor wherever we find them. Joshua Grossman makes a strong case that’s worthy of debate and further analysis. One need not agree with every example of his model to give credit to Joshua’s basic point.

These 88 districts represent something at the core of what we’ve been saying all along. It really is about fighting in every region and every state; this really is a national struggle for the nation’s soul. It’s also, as Joshua points out, about finding GOP weak points and…as fighting Dems…going for the jugular in 2006.


{Joshua Grossman can be reached at Joshua@ProgressiveKick.org. If you have inquiries or would like to contribute to his organization, which will be active in the 2006 elections, contact him there.}

Friday, December 16, 2005

stargate / sphinx

In the grand scheme of things, I don’t think there was a more purely happy and innocent moment in my life than, when traveling with my family on vacation through Iowa, I discovered a Stargate machine without any quarters up.

I was twelve.  It was summer.  There were high school kids groping each other in the parking lot next to the mini-golf course.  (That was big in 1981: getting “on base" in public through a pair of tight blue jeans.  People forget.) At any rate, I was a video game junkie. The sound of twenty quarters spitting out of a change machine, was, quite frankly, almost sexual.  Coins on metal.  Electronic sound effects hitting my ears.  And me laying out a five-dollar bill for an afternoon’s fun.  I’m sure I blushed…


Stargate was one of those Williams classics (Robotron 2084 and Stargate’s predecessor, Defender, come to mind) designed to strip quarters from kids faster than a bully’s grubby hand.  It was intimidating.  It had more fucking buttons than anyone might know what to do with.  But if you were a kid who grew up on Star Wars, Micronauts and Battlestar Galactica, that was the point.  The control scheme was complex because not just anybody could pilot a Stargate spacecraft.  You knew it.  The game’s designers knew it.  And everyone at the arcade knew it because a Stargate console going full tilt emitted more unique sound effects for its distinct alien enemies than any machine going.

The structure of the game was simple.  You flew around a horizontally scrolling screen in a TIE-fighter-esque spacecraft and shot everything in sight.  Well, except for the human figures being abducted by a steady stream of aliens.  You did not shoot the humans, you rescued them, and the more of them you could “save", holding them, at first dangling from the bottom of your spacecraft, and then, dropping them gently to the ground, the more the game rewarded you.  Basically, you could judge a Stargate player at a glance by how many humans he had clinging for dear life at any given point in time.  I say “he" because that was true of most video game enthusiasts; of course, if one ever encountered that rara avis a “girl gamer," especially one that was good, well, that would’ve been like you’d died and met Ally Sheedy

Caught up in this whirlwind of space rescue you might not notice that for every level you survived, the number of aliens, their speed and ferocity, seemed to increase exponentially.  By the fourth wave there were very few human beings OCD enough to actually defeat this game, much less survive more than ten frantic seconds.  As for me, a decidedly second-tier gamer, I knew, upon finding a clean machine, one without anyone playing, that I would probably do what I’d always done: get good enough to make the daily hi-scores board and then get bumped off by some speed freak, 91 lb., ‘sunglass-wearing-indoors’ arcade wizard who’d walk up to the machine and put up a single quarter. 

That lone quarter was about the surest sign of ego and self-confidence one could display at an arcade.  That one gesture said it all; this will be my machine now, punk.  It also epitomized something that has been at the heart of ‘hacker’ and ‘arcade’ culture from day one.  If the arcade owners and video game designers were “the Man"...then the arcade wizard, the kid who through skill and pluck found the holes in the code and could play all afternoon on a single quarter, leaving the machine with so many free lives that the management would have to unplug it and reboot...was a literal, original, digital anti-Hero, a hacker, like Neo or Trinity, who had broken through and seen the other side.

And that, at the end of the day, is what gaming is about, succeed or fail. For 99% of us, myself included, the reality is that the game plays us.  We’re never quite good enough to find out how to break through, but we consent to this dilemma because it’s fun to try to puzzle things out.  We search out answers to the enigmas hidden within the games we enjoy, but, more often than not, we fail to get their number. That’s not true of the best and most driven gamers, however.  Not in the least.  And I would argue that for the last twenty-five years a beautiful battle has been waged between those who write and design video games, and those burnout geniuses who “beat them" and get inside the algorithms. 

All video games are riddles.  Inside those riddles, woven in code, is the laughing face of the programmer taunting the gamer, like an ancient sphinx.  If you’ve ever totally beaten a game, flattened it, learned its language, discovered its hidden secrets and turned it inside out, you know this is true.  The further along in a game...the closer to solving it you get, the more you are engaged in a pure battle, one-on-one (or now, more often, one-against-many) with the game’s designer. In sum, the closer you get to beating a game, the more you begin to realize that you are having a conversation.

It’s not a two way conversation. (Though there is no reason that this can’t start to be true, if it isn’t already.) But it is a conversation nonetheless.  One thought-out and pre-planned, one that was embedded in the easter egg culture of gaming from the get go, and a conversation that has been at the heart of digital culture and computers all along: ie. when two people, alone, separated, meet each other someplace that isn’t real, someplace virtual, and communicate.  The best designers leave something of themselves in their games...a portion of how their brain works, of who they are...of how they see the world.  Game designers are always thinking of die-hard gamers, their ultimate audience.  And in this, gaming is like a new kind of reading or movie-going.  A new way to text.

Then again, I would guess that, implicity, at the back of your mind, you knew that this was the point I was getting at all along.  You see, for me, designing or playing a video game is an awful lot like what we’re doing right now: like writing and reading online, like blogging.  Of course, having grown up in that mental world, how would I know any different?

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

blog notes

This blog hasn't been at it's best of late. That's pretty clear to everyone involved. Including me.

There are...well...a TON of reasons for this. Not least of which is how busy I've been in my work and personal life.

Regardless of any of the particulars, I think it's time for some reinvention here, if not a reinvention of how I "blog" in general.

And...rrrg....I don't know exactly what that means or how to achieve that. (Though I've got some ideas cooking right now.)

Part of the issue is how this blog looks and reads. Part of it how it works. Part of it is the expecations I set for you...as readers and commentors...and part of it is expectations I set for myself.

All I can say is that I am making some changes...even doing some new projects...and that will involve a bit of awkward transition here or there.

I want you all to know, however, that I appreciate your readership....and that my goal with this is to make something sustainable that works for all of us, readers / bloggers alike.

I'll update you as we go. But I just wanted to let you know that this kind of stuff was what's been "going on."

kid o.

Monday, December 12, 2005


Lots of people will die tonight.

One of them will be Tookie Williams. He won't be alone in that. Not on this planet.

No one ever is. It just feels that way.

He may be a murderer. He may not be. But he was a gang leader. If he didn't pull a trigger...he'd still be complicit in killings. Everybody knows that. Including him.

But there's this odd thing about a 'Christian country' that executes people. You'd think it would be the other way around. Jesus said turn the other cheek, to forgive. Rome killed Jesus. Rome tortured his followers. And then Rome took over the religion...they put the cross on their shields.

The cross was an execution device. A means of enforcing a death penalty.

Americans love our guns. We shoot each other like its going out of style. But when we officially kill someone as punishment...we use a needle. Not a cruise missile, or a cluster bomb, or a round from a machine gun.

America is so proud that we are a "Christian" country. Our pride makes us blind. We don't really look much anymore at what we do. We've tuned out. We assume we've seen what we think is there. We don't even notice our contradictions anymore. A "Gang Leader" is executed by "the Terminator"....a man who played mass murderers in his films...a man every last American has probably seen kill someone on TV. I guess that message doesn't matter.

Arnold, whom we knew riding a motorcycle and carrying a shotgun...decided whether Tookie would live or die.

There are lots of kinds of "death penalties."

Kids die on the streets of this city every week. That's a death penalty too. Hunger and disease count. Neglect even more.

But I would guess that a society that endorses execution as an acceptable punishment...that embraces legal killing...isn't really interested in how we are complicit in these other death penalties.

Hell, the most powerful nation on earth sees itself as a victim. A victim of crime, of terror, of unfair judgment from the world. You can hear it from the interviews and in the media. This fantasy of American victimhood...a victimhood that necessitates our self-righteous use of force all over the world. A fantasy that obsesses about gruesome theoretical acts committed on hypothetical victims...acts that justify....murder...revenge...appeasement of something.

We stopped looking at Iraq or Afghanistan.....the bombs that fell on kids and moms and wedding parties. The gunfire that took out somebody's grandpa at a checkpoint. Accidental. But brutal nonetheless.

We've come to see Abu Ghraib as an unfair accusation against us. You can hear it in Condi's voice when she talks about torture.

How dare you accuse us of THAT. We don't do THAT. We're not responsible for THAT.


It's not like crime does not exist. It's not like the worst does not happen...because it does, it has, and it will. In small ways, and in large ways too.

But America is so out of touch that we don't realize...bunkered in our middle class fortress of a continent...the message we send to the rest of the world. Even that part of "the rest of the world" that lives here in the United States.

That message resounds loud and clear tonight.

We don't care what you think.

We're victims.

We have to do this.

That's the way it is.

Live with it.

Stanley Williams

The death penalty is always wrong.

It's barbaric, useless. It is a waste of time and money. It sends the wrong message. It is foul. That is true if the person sentenced to death has behaved well in prison or not. If they are guilty, or not. If they have attempted to redeem themselves, or not.

Today Gov. Schwarzenegger will decide whether a man should live or die. Think about that...what it says about our society....about where we are at in 2005.

And more than the life of Stanley Williams, the health and safety of many other people may hang in the balance. If there is rioting and unrest, if someone else loses their life from this event...will the interest of the common good have been served? Will the families of the victims have received justice? Of course not.

Stanley Williams maintains he is innocent. That may or may not be true. Regardless of that, he has spent his time in prison trying to teach a postive lesson to kids: don't get involved in gangs. Get an education, don't follow Stanley "Tookie" Williams path.

If we murder him, we will have sent a powerful message to those very same kids, that the State of California is more interested in killing Stanley Williams, with all the risks that entails, than the work Mr. Williams has done in jail.

That is some message.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

an american character

There are many aspects to Henry Ford that come clear in Steven Watts new biography The People's Tycoon: Henry Ford and the American Century not the least of which are Ford's anti-semitism, his isolationism, his pioneering adoption and perfection of the techniques of mass production, his anti-labor views and practices and, last but not least, Ford's wistful late-life fascination with Americana of the 19th-Century. This fascination was best expressed in a museum Ford built called Greenfield Village, a museum, ironically enough, representing the best collection of artifacts from pre-industrial American life...purchased and preserved, of course, with the profits from Ford's automobile factories. That is but one of the many contradictions to be found in the life of Henry Ford.

Steven Watts, whose previous work includes a biography of Walt Disney, skillfully navigates the history and personality of the "man and the myth" of Henry Ford. Already a living folk legend in his day, Ford cultivated his own reknown as a self-made man and plainspoken American as a means of generating free publicity for himself, his political views and his automobile company. Watts reminds us that much of the Henry Ford we know today was created as a public persona to help sell his cars. If fact, Ford's public image is inextricably linked, from the very beginning, with his corporate public relations:

Coming to prominence amid the collapse of Victorian tradition with its values of self-disclipline, thrift, and producerism, Ford popularized a new creed of consumer self-fulfillment. He was perhaps the first American businessman to realize that large-scale production depended on large-scale consumption. [snip]

In a new atmosphere of consumer abundance, Ford became a principal architect of a cultural order stressing standardized experiences, collective self-consciousness, and widely dispersed leisure amoung a popular audience. He first found fame in automobile racing, popularized camping, proselytized for positive thinking, and skillfully used the new media mechanisms of print and radio to enhance his personality in the public perception. As the Model T became the prototype of America's mass prosperity, Ford became the prototype of the mass-culture celebrity. [snip]

Henry Ford achieved a towering stature by drawing upon consumerism, mass culture, and populism to articulate an American way of life just beginning to take shape at the dawn of the modern era. But he became beloved, as well as influential, for another reason. Ford's striking innovations, rather than unsettling a mass audience, managed to assuage fears of the unknown. At the very moment he was transforming the world, he made new ideas a practices palatable by maintaining a conspicuous reverence toward the past.(Watts, xii)

That passage expresses something essential about American culture. Reading Watts's biography of Ford, one cannot help but realize that the persona that Ford built....pro-corporate, folksy, consumer-oriented, ruggedly individualistic, and, at heart, deeply ensconced in comfortable American myths...represents the precursor to the personality juggernauts of the Ronald Reagan and, now, George W. Bush eras. In fact, I would argue that in order to understand the popularity Reagan and Bush have had with the American public, it is essential to understand the contradiction that was Henry Ford.

Ford was a bad driver. He didn't like racing cars. And yet he realized early on that in order to popularize his name and brand that racing was essential. So race Ford did, at one point setting the Land Speed Record at 90 mph on a frozen lake. To sell his car, Ford sold an image of himself: a self-made man, an inventor, a daring driver. From the beginning, Henry Ford realized that myth, especially when it conformed to deep-seated ideas that Americans hold about themselves, was the most important marketing tool at his disposal.

That's not to say that the innovations that Ford made...and the vehicle that made his name...the Model 'T'...were not, in and of themselves, revolutionary. Henry Ford, with the collaboration of determined and brilliant partners, built the first massively successful, vertically integrated, large-scale factories that created a product which...because Ford paid his workers enough that they could afford the car themselves...seemed to create its own demand. The Model 'T', in many ways, made America what it is today. As Watts carefully lays out, our car culture, our association of 'freedom' with the mobility afforded to the vast majority of Americans by gas-powered vehicles...has defined, on some level, the American way of life.

As the Model 'T' triumphed, Henry Ford became deeply invested in his own myth. He established newspapers to promote his views, he promoted the values of 'physical fitness' and 'positive thinking' as if those characteristics were the reason his enterprise had succeeded. At every point, we learn, Ford associated himself...his character, his upbringing, and his outlook...with his own success. Watts notes that Ford applied those standards, selectively, on others:

The first thing I would consider is health. I would never choose a man who looked sickly, weak, or run down. A man who does not care enough about this own body to take proper care of it and keep it in a high state of efficiency is not likely to care enough about somebody else's business to give it efficient management. (Watts, 31)

(It was precisely this mindset that led Ford to badger and torment his own son, Edsel, who was both a smoker and a drinker...and nowhere as physically robust as his father...until Edsel's premature death at 49.)

As the years wore on, it became harder for Ford to tell where the 'mythic character' of Henry Ford ended...and the reality of having been a man with some brilliant ideas who was in the right place at the right time began. (That contradiction, at the end of the day, lies at the heart of the American identity.) Ford's anti-Semitism, his anti-labor views and the ever-increasing pace of his assembly lines put the lie to his folksy benficence. Edmund Wilson got to the core of the mature Ford's contradictions, as Watts writes:

Edmund Wilson, already establishing his reputation as a trenchant social critic, skillfully dissected the Ford psyche as well as the Ford Company. He offered the usual accolades, describing Ford as "A mechanical and industrial genius" who had created an inexpensive, indestructible car for ordinary Americans. But he also decried the fact that as the years went by Ford seemed to care less and less about his workers' welfare, had become increasingly addicted to self-advertising, and had surrounded himself with yes-men who feared to diagree with him. The discrepancy between declining wages and a speeded-up assembly line for employees on the one hand, and Ford's image as a benefactor of the working man on the other, constituted a fraud at the heart of his reputation...[snip]... Ford, Wilson concluded, had become "The Despot of Dearborn."(Watts, 349)

Despite the darker side of Ford apparent to contemporaries like Wilson, it is precisely the image of the ingenious, self-made man that led Americans to embrace Henry Ford as the first "hero" of the Industrial Age. Steven Watts biography explores this terrain well.

Reading Watt's version of Ford's life got me thinking about how that same myth-making was at work, both personally and politically, in the career of Ronald Reagan and the current presidency of George W. Bush. There are deep similarities in viewpoint and appeal, but, at the core of the comparison lies a comfortable conviction that American power stems from a moral uprightness rooted in our national character...that our power represents a shared destiny...that material success is a reward for our virtues. This point of view is so engrained in our national culture that we fail to see it though it swims before our very eyes. Reagan and Bush both used this point of view to their advantage.

We live today in Henry Ford's world as much as we live in Ronald Reagan's: Consumer-driven. Corporate-dominated. Firmly entrenched in a culture of American exceptionalism and moral uprightness. We are comfortable in the myths we tell ourselves. Scandals don't seem to disabuse us of the notion of our moral superiority. Like Henry Ford, we believe that our material success is an indicator of our virtue. In that context, of course, it is perhaps only material failure that would have the power to bring those myths crashing down.

Politicians like Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have been adept at playing into this mindset, in particular finding ways to connect with a pro-corporate, pro-consumption, patriotic populism very similar to Ford's own views. Steven Watts's biography of Henry Ford points out the insights to be gained in paying attention to where our national myths come from...both to understand those myths' hold upon the American public...and to understand the tacit assumptions and contradictions implicit in that oft-used phrase the American way of life.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

a new york education

When I was eighteen years old I met an older woman in Manhattan named Ellen.  Everyone who went to my university knew her.  She was a fixture.  Like Amir’s or Mama Joy’s deli or the Cosmo restaurant.  A small, quick-moving woman always carrying two or three heavily laden bags with a voice that was pure New York...distilled through years of cigarettes and bus exhaust.  Her voice was kind of a female equivalent to Lou Reed’s: smoky, knowing, world-weary.

Ellen was in her late forties.  Her politics were radical.  An advocate for the homeless.  A tireless debater.  An opponent of both Reagan and Bush and everything bourgeois.  She was an inveterate smoker.  Bipolar.  A mother of three.  A veteran of years of New York politics.  And, like tens of thousands of other New Yorkers in 1987, Ellen had no place to live.  She slept where she could.  She, too, was homeless.

I’m a city kid.  I grew up in the Reagan 80’s.  Things were tough all over.  I worked in soup kitchens as a teen in the midwest.  People I knew sometimes passed through the line.  In Manhattan things were magnified.  On my stretch of Broadway early one morning I once counted twenty-four people sleeping in the space of one block.  Where other people, I’m sure, would see Ellen as a “bag lady" and nothing more.  I didn’t.  It’s never that simple.  My friend Karl, a minister’s son coming from the city of Detroit, knew this too.  He befriended Ellen and helped her out with food and a place to stay a couple times. It was through Karl that I met Ellen.

What is there to say about the endless coversations that Ellen and I had in diners all over the city?  (Tom’s...College Inn...The Mill...Vaselka’s...The Kiev...Leshka’s...Chock Full o’ Nuts...) The only answer is, I don’t know.  Ellen was a complex person.  She was someone I’d always hoped would get it together enough to write her own story.  Hell, I lent her my first electric typewriter (never to be seen again) the summer she found a room in an apartment off 126th and Lexington.  She wrote some great letters to me.  I still have them somewhere.

But that was so long ago.  A year and a half friendship, when you’re eighteen...leaves a mark, but also becomes in some ways a part of your past.  To be honest, there is no way I can speak for Ellen.  There is no way I can do her justice.  Her sense of humor.  Her sense of outrage.  Her way of interacting with the city.  It’s all mixed up in how I see New York, and in some ways, in how I see myself…


I would get calls.  It’d be 9:30 at night, or 7 in the morning.  Ellen might be at a diner somewhere.  She might be in the lobby of my building.  She might be freaked out at a hospital emergency room.  I’m not rich, but I always had six bucks for a cheap meal and a pack of cigarettes.  And I always learned something new from Ellen.  About life.  About politics.  About New York City and the people I shared it with.  So I’d go.

I’d meet Ellen at homeless encampments in the subway.  Herald Square.  Grand Central Terminal.  Or at Tompkins Square Park or a nearby squat.  New York was different then.  Maybe for some the eighties in New York meant glitz and flash.  It was also a dirty, crack-smoke-filled decade riven with ruined lives.  At one point, the New York Times reported that one in nine New Yorkers used cocaine on a daily basis.  From where I stood, that was totally believable.

Ellen was different.  She was, let’s face it, mentally ill, but she was also an incredibly smart and fierce observer and reader of the politics of the day.  She’d grown up in a prosperous family on the Upper East Side.  She’d had two different families.  Her grown sons did their best to care for her at times.  But they didn’t share her world...and didn’t join it.  And Ellen in some ways chose to live the way she did, however desperate and difficult that made her life and those who cared for her.

There is too much that Ellen taught me to convey here.  But if I could communicate one essential point it would be this.  No one has made as clear for me the connection between poverty and privilege that Ellen did.  At her best, she was able to bring humanity, to bring a face and a story to the very real people who found themselves homeless on the streets of New York.  She was also able to explain clearly how racism, how economic injustice and pervasive discrimination boxed people in and kicked them to the curb, forced them into lives where they were treated like human trash, and often ended up living a literal reflection of that.

White, middle class kids like me saw the world as “cause and effect." That was so easy.  So simple.  You make mistakes, you end up on the street, you end up poor and destitute.  Ellen was able to show me how privileged I was.  How when I made mistakes....and I did...they were forgiven...solutions were found.  She showed me how I saw the world through a lens that made judging other people a very comfortable thing to do.  How easy all my assumptions were.  How those assumptions always justified...at the end of the day...a course of action that I was going to take anyway.  The easy way.

Ellen took it further than that.  Conversation by conversation, example by example...over endless cups of coffee....Ellen showed me how my privilege was actually linked to other people’s suffering, how in order for some to have plenty, plenty others had to have not much. It’s like the line to all the good things in life was six billion long, and I happened to be born (like Ellen herself) right up near the front…

I didn’t earn that.  No one does.  And there are times, asleep in my comfortable bed in California that I wake with a start.  I’m dreaming about a voice from my past.  A cigarette-fueled voice from New York City.  Someone with whom I’ve lost touch...someone I don’t know what happened to.  (I last spoke to Ellen in the early nineties when she was in the hospital for an operation.)

I’d call her my conscience, but that would be lying.  I’d call her a lost friend, and that would be closer to the truth.  But more and more I feel like there’s something specific to that voice that I can’t quite pin down.  On some level...it’s like New York City itself is speaking to me.  Telling me to open my eyes.  Telling me to wake up.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

road trip

You can tell a great deal sometimes from a simple list. 

a 1964 Dodge Dart,
a 1974 Plymouth Valiant,
a 1982 Ford Fairmont,
a 1988 Chrysler Reliant K.

These were the cars I grew up in, cars my dad and mom bought...“used" except for the Reliant...and the cars we drove around the center part of this continent for our family camping vacations.  Solid, reliable, affordable, if not exceptionally boring, American cars.  Cars, that nevertheless hold meaning to me: falling asleep with my sisters looking out at the stars from the back of the Dart, my dad listening to jazz on the radio of the Valiant, me learning to drive stick on the Fairmont in South Minneapolis, and, eventually, the sight of a 5-ton truck crashing through the driver’s-side window of the Reliant as I drove it on the last day of its existence (I walked away unscathed), but this is a different story…

In 1986 I was 17, it was May, and my legs weren’t working right.  I’d had a cold that never quite went away, and my fingers and legs just felt funny.  I’d been out at a Black Flag show at Minneapolis’s First Avenue and only moshed to one song, unusual for me.  Maybe I had mono.

My dad picked me up at a White Castle on Lake Street, where I was waiting for a bus transfer; truth was, I was just too tired to make it home.  The next day I went to the doctor...and though he’d never seen a case of it before, he took one look at the blood work...negative for mono...and told me I probably had a rare condition called Guillain-Barré Syndrome: in all likelihood I wasn’t going to die, and because I was young, I was pretty surely going to make a full recovery (I did), but for the next few weeks my nerves were going to stop working right...and if I was unlucky, my lungs might not work well enough to breathe.

I thought, “What a drag."

My mom and dad and sisters, of course, were absolutely crushed.  Being sick is one thing; being sick when you’re young enough to not really quite understand what’s happening to you is another.  Since that time I’ve worked in a number of children’s hospitals (I work as a photographer)...and it always strikes me how people view a young person who is ill with different eyes.  Truth is, when you’re young and have a disease, you don’t have an adult sense about what that really means.  It’s hard, but it’s also something that life has thrown at you.  However, you do know something is different.  Because folks don’t look at you the same; they look scared.

To be honest, having been there, having been viewed in that manner, having been viewed as “sick”...well, that experience is, in my opinion, one of the most frightening things you can experience as a human being.

My family is tough and close.  We simply went through it together.  There’s stuff I’m sure that I’ve never taken account of.  Like the fact that my dad slept just outside my bedroom door the first nights, close enough to make sure I was breathing...but far enough so that he wouldn’t scare me and stop me from sleeping.  Or the fact that my mom is a rehab RN and I’m sure knew about all the acute possibilities but somehow found ways to keep me hopeful and let me experience things my own way whatever happened.  But, yeah, I lost thirty pounds off an already skinny frame, I lost the ability to walk, I couldn’t hold a spoon without using both hands and bending, I fell over dressing myself and broke a leg off the bathroom sink.  My younger sisters would lift me from the couch, would walk behind me to prop me up the stairs so I could get to the bathroom; they literally had my bony back.  But, for me, the most important thing was the thing you absolutely need from those you love; no one in my family ever stopped looking me in the eye...stopped treating me like a full person, stopped being themselves.

I was lucky.  I plateaued three weeks in.  I spent July in a spindly state...and in early August, and perhaps with the help of bacon double cheeseburgers that I began to consume in super human quantities....strength began to come back into my body.  My nerves began to communicate with my muscles again.  I began to feel like doing new ambitious things.  My body felt whole and my neurologist, who’d worn a look of firm concern for most of my daily check ups...begain to smile and relax around me.  Since I was getting better extremely fast, something significant was called for, a symbolic feat that even had my physician’s approval.  At that point, my dad, my youngest sister and I planned a road trip together.  We’d drop my sister, then in 7th grade, off at my Uncle and Aunt’s in Indianapolis...and my dad and I would head to the Smoky Mountains of Eastern Tennessee.  We were going to use my new found strength on a big project...we were going to climb a “mountain" together.

We took the Ford Fairmont.  I remember that whole drive.  How Wisconsin’s hills open out into flat Illinois.  The Dan Ryan expressway and the streets of the South Side of Chicago, where we stopped to check out the University.  Listening to Janet Jackson on the Fairmont’s AM-only radio as we climbed the skyway bridge into Gary Indiana.  My dad and I stopping in the middle of a sea of corn on a back road south of Indianapolis.  And, among the winding back roads of Kentucky, the August peach cobbler at Bea’s Kitchen in Madison, someplace that, in 1986, still had a Walker Evans look to it.

My dad and I didn’t make it up that mountain.  (5600’ Mt. Camerer) A storm came and chased us back down the hill and into cover of our tent.  But we sure as hell made it up several thousand feet of elevation.  Not bad for a kid who’d been immobile and could only shuffle with a cane a couple months earlier.

At any rate, since my dad loves photography, he’d given me a used camera...an Exacta, an early 35mm...to document our trip in black and white.  I took a good number of photos from the passenger seat....looking at my dad’s profile driving the Fairmont with freeways and countryside behind him.  In each one he’s wearing a kind of summer version of the Holden Caulfield hat...a baseball cap with earflaps...the brim and his focus always pointed directly forwards.

Occasionally I’ll pull those prints out and look at them.  As you get older and get some distance, you see things you might not have seen before.  Yeah, boring things like my poor focus or how young my dad looks.  But also things that you take for granted until you get some adulthood in you.

You see, personally, there’s no more powerful expression of parental love and commitment, of real manhood, than what those pictures speak to me: my dad, Holden Caulfield-style, resolutely piloting our Ford Fairmont through Chicago on our way to climb a mountain. 

a PC festival

I was a student in Paris. It was 1989.

I went to the "activities coordinator" of my school and asked if she knew of anything relating to left politics.

She looked at me with a quizzical smile. "You might try SOS Racism in the 11th Arrondisment...or, if you like, you could try the festival this weekend held by the Parti Communiste." I couldn't tell from her bemused expression if that meant the festival would be full of cool people like her...or, um....not.

I went to both.

SOS Racisme was impressive. It was interesting to see how anti-racist politics was different in France than in New York. The two cities...and our two countries...are really worlds apart, with very different histories, activism and realities. Racism, of course, is concrete and real in both places...just with different flavors. As the link tells...SOS Racisme drew on France's Republican traditions...and its politics of human rights. At the time, opposition to Jean-Marie Le Pen was front and center...as was a debate about whether Muslim school girls should have the right to choose to wear the chadoor.

My time in France wasn't enough to learn the intricacies of it. But I found you could always catch up on the politics of the day by listening in on the discussions that would happen on the square in front of the Centre Pompidou. Circles of men, most from Africa, whether North or South, would form around two or three debaters. If the debate was hot and heavy, thirty to forty people could end up listening in in a tightly closed circle. Blogging, of course, is the internet update of this democratic tradition.

The communist festival was eye-opening. It was held in a park in the northern suburbs. The first thing I saw walking down the center corridor of booths was a huge red banner with five blonde women in skimpy clothing beneath it.

It was a booth for Marlboro cigarettes. Down other alleys were the everpresent ads for cognac and aperitifs. Not exactly a DSA meetup.

I didn't know it at the time...but that was probably one of the last communist festivals of its type..with booths from all over Eastern Europe..and from Communist Parties from all over the world. For an American kid who'd spent a couple years reading and learning from the New York left it was eye opening.

It had nothing to do with politics as I knew it. It was as if a time capsule, or an alternative reality capsule, had been transplanted into Paris. To be frank, I didn't know much about the ins and outs of left politics in France. Nothing at the festival helped me much in that regard, nor did anything much I learned in school.

Needless to say, the bemused smile from the activities coordinator had been meant to tip me off to the fact that no one like her was going to be there.

Of course, looming behind the festival were the vast HLMs of Paris's suburban ghettos.

Politics and history are everywhere. We choose what to look at.

Sunday, December 04, 2005


I lived in Paris once.

24 Rue du Four. Between the Rue des Ciseaux and the Rue des Canettes. (That's 24 Oven street between Scissors and Duckling streets to you.) My apartment was cheap. And my landlord, Mdme. Barrère, didn't try to sell the location, which was surprising, given the neighborhood.

The apartment was a chambre de bonne, a maid's room, on the sixth floor, accessed by means of what the French call an escalier en colimacon...a snailshell staircase, or so I'm told...which meant you felt like you were walking in an eternal circle to the top floor. It was a small room...12' by 8' ...and it adjoined the restroom...shared...which consisted of two metal footprints and a basin in the floor.

For amenities, I had a hot plate, a 2' by 2' shower, the world's smallest water heater...and a tiny electric radiator affixed to the wall. My window looked out over rooftops which led to...but did not afford a view of...St. Germain des Prés, the oldest church in Paris. Now, my window also abutted the above-mentioned restroom, and all the walls were unconscionably thin, but, all in all, one must admit the French do windows well. It was cold at night, and I soon learned the French custom of hanging my butter, eggs, cheese and yogurt from the iron grill outside my windowpane in a plastic sack.

The bells of St. Germain were rung the old fashioned way...along the hours...and the bellringer, whoever he or she was, sure knew bell-ringing right. Bells should have an urgency...a crescendo...a plosiveness...ding DONG....dong RONG...RONG RONG...RONG-RONG!...rong rong....rong rong. Or something like that.

I was not in heaven. Not knowing French, which was charming enough at first...watching the girls in the bakery giggle as I murdered the language...rapidly became a major drag. I was bitter and lonely. If that weren't enough, the American novelist and his extraordinarily...vociferous...French lover next door practiced their art with an alacrity determined to drive me to the streets.

Paris is pretty at night. If you get up early enough...or walk late enough...you are sure to find some poetry whatever the weather. You're also, of course, man or woman, likely to get hit on....the Pont des Arts at 3AM being a particularly likely endroite for just such an occurance.

As a wanderer one learns that, for the most part, Paris is an open tomb, a wax museum...a sarcophogous hiding a curious smile. The boulevards channel the tourists in and out, but the random side streets are where daily life is at...and the good stuff, like in most places, is hidden.

Paris takes care of its dead. You can walk at noon in the Cimitière Montparnasse and see fresh flowers on the tombs and grieving relatives down the aisles. (If you really want to be alone in Paris, you need to go to church...something I highly recommend.) For myself, I frequented the out-of-the-way Cimitière Montmartre, whose nooks and crannies are worthy of Edgar Allen Poe, complete with large black birds. It's a calm and quiet spot if there ever was one in a huge city.

Paris is home to other diversions as well. Moviegoing...that lost art...being one of them.

I used to do this experiment with the Pariscope...a guide to movies and events...I'd walk out my front door and go see the next movie I could walk to. In this way I saw Jean Cocteau's la Belle et la Bête...Elia Kazan's Quai des Brumes (On the Waterfront)...and an American movie based on a Czech novel with an unforgettable French title...l'Insoutenable Légerté de l'Etre...even if your French is atrocious, you should at least try to pronounce that...the French title of Philip Kaufmann's version of Milan Kundera's the Unbearable Lightness of Being.

For Paris movies I like Alphaville...les Quatre Cent Coups...Au Bout de Souffle...and that other one...Tirez sur le Pianiste...François Truffaut's "Shoot the Piano Player"...a pretty worthy movie to check out if you haven't already. But all this talk just makes me nostalgic for a city already drowning in nostalgia. Which is I guess why I wrote this piece. Writing being to nostalgia what an opium pipe is to a junkie.

Writing, of course, is that other great French pastime. Paris was home, at various points, not simply to its own literary heroes: Proust, Baudelaire, Balzac, Francois Villon...but those of so many other countries as well...Dante, Rilke, Walter Benjamin, Samuel Beckett and Gertrude Stein to name five. (I realized, belatedly, that I lived in Paris while Beckett was still alive...walked down his block even...and bought his last book at a bookstand...the old fashioned way.) How many books did I read, struggle through and eventually come to love in that shoebox of a room? Too many. When I left France, my backpack was loaded with paperbacks.

I guess it's the autumn nights that make me think of that apartment in Paris. Its tiny world. The steam on its windows. Its claustrophobic hold on its inhabitant. (Amazingly, I've since met someone who lived in that exact same room...but that's another story.)

Paris, France.

One can do worse.


open thread

What's on your mind today?

Today is a beautiful day in Oakland, hope you've got the same where you are.

Saturday, December 03, 2005


There's a moment driving the morning commute over the San Francisco Bay Bridge that exemplifies who we are and where we are at as a civilization.

Driving through the tunnel on Yerba Buena Island in five lanes of traffic (the bridge is crossed by 280,000 vehicles a day) one can see opening up along the entire length of the first part of the western span...in one gulp...a little over one mile of jam-packed traffic sitting 300 ft. above the surface of the Bay. Before one's eyes creeps a sea of steel and rubber riding on a suspension bridge of steel and concrete...powered, built, fabricated and maintained by the burning of fossil fuels. It's something to see. And something to think about.

I just finished reading Jared Diamond's book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. Here in the Bay Area commuters on the Bay Bridge have that word....collapse...both burned in our memories, and literally present to us in the ongoing $6 Billion construction of a new eastern span of the Bay Bridge which has resulted in a forest of cranes and towers running alongside the vulnerable, and due-to-be-replaced, old bridge. Of course, it is seismic realities that drive this new bridge, but viewing that daily sea of cars and trucks, one could just as easily think about sprawl, water use, smog, fossil fuel dependence, and the increasing atomization of our society into market-driven consumers who lack communal input into the long-term health and sustainability of our environment and economy.

You see, us morning commuters on the bridge are just getting to our jobs and making ends meet. However, as a society, we are driving into a future shaped by our current policies and assumptions. We are literally building our future out of the raw materials of our daily lives. Have we given that the thought it deserves? That's the core question that Diamond asks. In light of the fact that today, December 3rd, marks a world-wide day of action about Global Warming, I'd like to echo Diamond, and join the ongoing discussion of how we put long term thinking and sustainability on the political table.

Collapse is a solid and highly readable book that asks critical questions. Diamond asks himself why societies, past and present, have left themselves vulnerable to failure. Why did past cultures act in what now seem to be short-sighted or ignorant ways? Malcolm Gladwell, in an excellent review of Collapse in the New Yorker summarized Diamond's analysis of the failure of Greenland Norse society and the Polynesian settlement on Easter Island. You can get an in-depth flavor of the book in Gladwell's analysis, I highly recommend reading it. Diamond's book, however, covers a wide range of modern and ancient examples. His writing on strip-mining in Montana, resource-management in China, and the introduction of non-native species in Australia, while not telling anything entirely new, collectively paints a picture of the unthinking ways we have made long term impacts on our environment in the last two hundred years. Diamond's analysis of Rwanda, and his comparative study of Haiti and the Dominican Republic, while short on positive ideas, shine the light on very real and present ways in which societal failure has occured in the present day, and what little has been done about it. (For a discussion of quibbles and critiques of the book try here)

Of course, the effect of Hurrican Katrina on the city of New Orleans...a city left vulnerable to devastation by local and national leaders...has brought this concept home here in the United States. It goes without saying that the devastation and abandonment of an entire major U.S. city represents a powerful example of how we have failed to plan for long term eventualities, and are ill-prepared to deal with the inevitable consequences of that failure. The fact that there has been so little discussion of that failure in New Orleans is utterly breathtaking. (Even mentioning the possibility that global warming had a hand in Katrina was taboo...why was that?) Predictably, models for an Eco New Orleans have been waylaid for discussions of the latest political scandal or crisis.

Diamond's book, especially in light of Katrina, points up the ways in which we simply don't think about long term environmental consequences much in our political and economic lives. Anyone who has read Jerome á Paris remarkable series of environmental analyses, or Michael Klare's work on Znet understands how little of that kind of thinking gets reported in the mainstream press...if not how little of it gets addressed in the political discourse of the two main political parties in the United States. That must change.

We need to have a discussion of why our national political system has utterly failed our citizens in leading a discussion about the long term environmental consequences of our current practices. Our citizens get it. Our localities get it. But our government doesn't. In fact, our current corrupt, scandal-plagued GOP-led Congress, exemplified by Rep. Richard Pombo is based on selling our resources and our future to the highest bidder. Environmentalists spend a great deal of energy just combatting the GOP election cycle to election cycle. In that environment, there's not much of a chance for long term thinking to get discussed.

One of the critical points that Diamond makes is that societies that "fail" oftentimes were obessesed or distracted with other issues. They just didn't see the impending disaster until it was too late. Our political system is supposed to provide us with "small d" democratic venues where all of these issues are put on the table...where clear-thinking individuals and leaders are given a chance to break out of short term and "crisis mode" thinking and plan in a rational way. That isn't happening. Our system has been bought and sold. The situation now is worse than it was two decades ago.

Oftentimes, shifts away from from long term planning and sustainability happen gradually. As a student of Diamond's asked..."What was the person who cut down the last tree on Easter Island thinking?" Almost certainly, they weren't thinking much differently than the people who cut down the earlier trees; environmental devastation happened gradually. The consequences, however, were permanent.

One of the powerful realities expressed in the morning commute over the Bay Bridge is how easy it is to simply follow the vehicle in front of you wherever it is headed. That morning commute is a clear symbol of how our individual lives plug into a much larger reality. Yes, with the rise in gas prices, car pools and bus use have gone up. (You can see that every morning on the bridge..fwiw, I carpool and BART whenever possible.) But having seen that same commute during the dotcom boom I can say...nothing substantially is different. We are making change around the edges. We aren't facing facts.

Jared Diamond's book may be a bit of a "best seller"...but it is, nevertheless, essential reading. The picture he paints of Easter Island and Norse Greenland...societies cut off from the rest of the world, without a fallback...is exactly the situation we find ourselves in here on our planet Earth.

We're all living on Easter Island. Most of us just haven't realized that yet.


Thursday, December 01, 2005


Ah. Work.

Left home today at 6:15 AM, got home tonight at 7:00PM. My job isn't like most people's jobs...it varies. But in one respect, what I do is singular.

Many of you will see the results of one or the other of my day's work, or, since I'm most often a crew member, the part I played in it. It's weird to think how many of the images I've worked on that any individual reading this might have seen. (I've done photography long enough...that you're almost guaranteed to have seen something I've worked on...that sounds like an idle boast...but I've picked up issues of a major magazine, or driven down a freeway with billboards..and seen multiple images I've worked on....so, yes, you've seen something.)

Hell, in all likelihood you have seen images that I've worked on but haven't seen myself...images for which I loaded the film, or set the light, or scouted the ad, or shot the catalog. That's kind of weird, but par for the course in the photo business. Today was no different.

At any rate, I'm about to revamp my own work online. Here's a sample of the soon to be changed site.

Of course, if you hadn't already, now you've seen my work...laugh out loud.