Tuesday, June 30, 2009

LGBT Leaders Visit the President

Barack Obama won the gay vote on a campaign of inclusiveness and fairness, but the administration has been very slow to make any actual policy decisions that benefit gay, lesbian, and transgender citizens. A recent brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act in the strongest way outraged almost every leader in the gay community, and some have turned against the entire administration as being hypocritical. Well, there is a kind of trend in following some of the more alarming policies of the Bush administration. A lot of people are worried.

Yesterday Obama invited a group of gay leaders to the White House. Here's The Post, page A1:
President Obama opened the doors of the White House to hundreds of gay and lesbian leaders yesterday, continuing his cautious outreach to a constituency that has loudly criticized his efforts on its behalf.

In an event in the East Room marking the 40th anniversary of the riots surrounding New York's Stonewall Inn, where gay patrons rose up against a police raid in Greenwich Village, Obama sought to reassure guests that he had not abandoned the issues important to them. He also drew a parallel between the progress gays and lesbians have made in recent decades and the struggles of black Americans to win equality.

"The truth is, when these folks protested at Stonewall 40 years ago, no one could have imagined that you or, for that matter, I would be standing here today," Obama said, promising to continue to push to overturn several laws that are anathema to gay activists.

His comments were received enthusiastically by some attendees. "This is so incredibly historic and symbolic," Mitchell Gold, a gay rights activist from North Carolina, said after leaving the White House. "I don't think for a minute that we can forget that under the Bush administration we didn't see that."

Steve Elmendorf, a Democratic lobbyist, said Obama gave "people confidence that he understood their movement, understood their struggle, and had a plan to do something about it." At White House, Obama Aims to Reassure Gays

It's true, you would not have seen such a gathering under the Bush administration. The issue, of course, is that so far Obama's gestures to the gay community have been symbolic. Gays are still being kicked out of the military, a marriage that is conducted in one state may not be recognized in another, there need to be equal rights in employment for LGBT people, there are lots of things that need to be done -- or undone -- and this administration has moved backwards, if anything, when it comes to real policy. The usual comment is that they need legislation, but the executive branch can do a lot to make that happen.

So -- you can expect that last sentence to be followed by the word "but."
But the excitement among many of the several hundred guests invited to the White House was tempered by frustration among some who say they think the president has moved too slowly to make good on his campaign promises.

That frustration has centered on Obama not taking quick, unilateral action to end discrimination against gays in the military and on his administration's support for a legal challenge to the Defense of Marriage Act.

"Cocktail parties are fun, but if we are impatient, there's a reason," said Alan Van Capelle, executive director of the Empire State Pride Agenda, who said he was not invited to the White House event. "There are a lot of us who believe in change but do not believe it is a passive word. It is an active word. There is a level of disappointment that exists."

He compared the Obama event to an unsatisfying meal, calling it "nouveau cuisine" and adding: "It costs a whole lot to get into the White House, but somehow, the meal feels unfulfilling."

Even Gold, who called the president "courageous" for holding the event, conceded that it did little to soothe the concerns of a community of people who expected Obama to change their world.

"It doesn't take away the pain that the Justice Department issued a brief equating gays to pedophiles and incest," he said. "It doesn't take the pain away that 'don't ask, don't tell' hasn't been sent to Congress to be repealed."

Obama confronted that criticism yesterday, renewing his campaign promises to overturn the military policy on gays, repeal the marriage act and pass a federal hate-crimes bill named for Matthew Shepard, a gay college student who was slain in Wyoming in 1998.

"I expect and hope to be judged not by words, not by promises I've made, but by the promises that my administration keeps," the president said to sustained applause. "We've been in office six months now. I suspect that by the time this administration is over, I think you guys will have pretty good feelings about the Obama administration."

I hear people say, he can't do everything all at once. And you know that civil rights issues are easy to push to the back burner. Like, c'mon, the guy's got unjustified war and a collapsing economy to worry about, never mind all these celebrities dying! I think the wise thing to do right now is to continue to put the pressure on, in a way that motivates policy-makers without alienating the straight public, but don't give up hope quite yet. There is a lot of time for good things to happen. The new guy said he was going to fix a few things, maybe he still intends to.

The fact that he met with this group tells you he's at least not trying to keep the whole issue hidden away. Let's see where this goes.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Metro Fail

It took me an hour and a half to get to work this morning, twice as long as it should. I can't tell if Metro thinks they are going to get more funding by providing pitiful service, if they think that they need to pretend to be "more careful" to inspire confidence in their customers, or if they actually think they are making things better.

Okay, they had a wreck, people were killed, it was horrible. In the aftermath we found out that Metro had screwed up in every way, their collision-avoidance system wasn't working, the brakes on the train were months overdue for maintenance, the train itself was old and the government had told them years ago to stop using it, and so on. We pay top dollar for public transportation here, I spend nine bucks a day not including parking, and what do we get? Junk. Dangerous junk.

Now we have a new routine on the Red Line. Well, first of all, every other train is supposed to turn around at Grosvenor. All locals who live out beyond that know you can get off a train at Grosvenor and wait a few minutes and an empty train will come out of the tunnel. You can get a seat. Apparently Metro has stopped doing that. They don't announce it or anything, they just stopped it. Today there was a "No Passengers" train scheduled to come into that station, which means that it is not picking up passengers going outbound but will turn around, so a lot of people waited while a full train stopped, headed downtown. A train came into the station with signs saying "No Passengers," and then changed them to "Shady Grove" and kept going. So we all missed a train for nothing, hundreds of us.

The new routine is this. You wait forever on a crowded platform, until finally a crowded train pulls into the station. The doors open and more people jam into the cars. After several stations, the crowding is so bad that the doors can't close. The operator's announcements get crankier and crankier, until finally they "offload" the train, which is their way of saying they kick everybody off. The platform is already crowded, but another thousand or so passengers pour out of the "disabled" train to join them. Everybody waits until another already-crowded train pulls into the station. Repeat.

What, they can't tell which door is stuck? They can't send somebody to walk to that car, tell people to get out of the way and let the door shut? If it's a bad car, they can't offload one car, they have to do the whole train? (I know they can, I've seen it.)

This happened to me Thursday and it happened today, that is, it happened to the trains I was on, we got offloaded because the doors wouldn't close. During the course of the morning it must happen a lot of times.

Metro is clearly running fewer trains than they need, I don't know what the rationale is.

I took the Metro shortly after the June 22nd accident. Most people did not yet know that the accident had occurred. I went into Union Station at about 6:15 (the wreck was at about 5:00) and the platform was not crowded. Trains came on a regular schedule, true they could not go all the way out, but they went to Rhode Island Avenue and turned around without problems. In other words, even with an obstruction at Fort Totten, it is entirely possible for most of the Red Line to run smoothly.

There is apparently a 35 mph speed limit in effect on the stretch of track where the accident happened, and Metro blames this for delays everywhere else. What is the point of going slow there? The sensor that prevents collisions was not working two weeks ago, but I honestly hope they have fixed it by now! Are they slowing down so people can look out the window and see what's left of the debris? Or is Metro trying to make people think it is safer somehow to go slower there? It doesn't make any sense to me unless there are people working on the track and the investigation, but I don't think there are. The mess has been cleared up, there's nothing to see at this point, now they're working at their desks.

Every day after the accident, Metro service got worse. It is now intolerable. People need to get to work on time, and Metro is not meeting that need.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Ancient Flute Found

This is totally unrelated to anything we talk about here, but it is cool.
BERLIN (AP) — A bird-bone flute unearthed in a German cave was carved some 35,000 years ago and is the oldest handcrafted musical instrument yet discovered, archaeologists say, offering the latest evidence that early modern humans in Europe had established a complex and creative culture.

A team led by University of Tuebingen archaeologist Nicholas Conard assembled the flute from 12 pieces of griffon vulture bone scattered in a small plot of the Hohle Fels cave in southern Germany.

Together, the pieces comprise a 8.6-inch (22-centimeter) instrument with five holes and a notched end. Conard said the flute was 35,000 years old.

"It's unambiguously the oldest instrument in the world," Conard told The Associated Press this week. His findings were published online Wednesday by the journal Nature.

The reassembled instrument was too fragile to be played, but Conard worked with another academic to make a copy of it from the same type of bone and to play it and produce recordings of songs such as "The Star-Spangled Banner." Prehistoric flute in Germany is oldest known

Just think of people thirty-five thousand years ago, this is nearly thirty thousand years before agriculture, there were still Neanderthals running around. Emerging culturally from the animal kingdom, struggling with the elements, our earliest ancestors found the time to make music.

First somebody had to notice the pretty sound you get when you blow across an opening. Like a kid with a soda bottle, except there weren't soda bottles, somehow somebody noticed the effect of wind over a rock or tree branch and then generalized it, they figured out it wasn't magic but a principle of air against an opening. Then they applied that generalization to human breath blown over a man-made opening in a resonating chamber -- this is scientific thinking at its best, thirty-five thousand years ago, a beautiful pure example of creativity supported by abstract knowledge.

Then the second step. You can make a pretty sound blowing across an opening, but this is a bird-bone flute that plays different notes. The maker of this instrument drilled five holes in the cylinder at regular points, you cover those holes with your fingers and uncover them to change the pitch of the pretty sound. The principle here is complex, having to do with the wavelength of sounds, and I doubt these cave-men understood the Pythagorean principles involved, but somehow they had figured out, back in dim antiquity, how to vary the pitch of a woodwind instrument so that melodies could be played. This instrument does not seem significantly different from the flutes we have today, in principle.

The article mentions that the scientists intend to make a replica of the flute "and produce recordings of songs such as 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'" The melody of the Star Spangled Banner is mostly arpeggios with few passing tones, which may make it a good candidate for such a project, I'm sure that there are harder and easier tunes to play on a flute with five holes, maybe this is an easier one. At any rate, the comment suggests that the holes are placed in such a way that a performer can play the notes of diatonic Western music, and that in itself would imply that these Palaeolithic rockers were not just making pretty sounds, but might have actually had melodies, they might have had real songs that they played.

I have long thought that it would be interesting to develop a theory of psychology based on music, where an individual life is like a melody playing out over time, its fitness determined by the dynamic harmonic context that defines a note (or behavior) as sonorous or dissonant. The harmonic context, in turn, is provided by other melodies, and it all fits together, hopefully, at least the improvising musicians try to make it fit.

At any rate, if you think about the calculations that have to be done to recognize a melody you realize it is a very complicated problem. Imagine there was a database full of music files, and you wanted to find a particular one. The ideal interface would be one where you hum the melody you want into a microphone and the computer finds the file that matches it. The fact is, there is no computer program that can do that, the computation is simply too hard. But your brain can do it, even a little kid can instantly recognize a familiar melody and name it, even if it's played in a different key and on a different instrument from where it was learned. The human brain is able to analyze the waveforms, and in particular is able to identify the ratios of the frequencies of notes in relation to one another, and instantly recognize melodies -- this is an amazing thing to be able to do, and if you think about it there does not seem to be much evolutionary payoff for such an adaptation. But in the discovery of this flute and other very ancient musical instruments we see that the aptitude for music has always been part of being human.

There is something pleasing to me in considering our descent from primitive origins. It is pleasing to think of people living in small bands, cooperating to overcome the harshness of nature -- people with exactly the brains, exactly the intelligence, we have today. What did they think about all day? Were they able to speak? We can't know some things. But now we know they played music.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Nebraska Psychologists Reject Discriminatory Wording

We were talking about this the other day, and now the decision is in. A Catholic group in Nebraska wanted psychotherapists to be able to reject gay patients and not have to refer them. They were trying to get that written into the licensing law. It didn't work:
Wording that would let psychologists not treat or not refer patients because of a moral conflict -- opposing homosexuality, for example -- met with skepticism Wednesday from the state board of psychology.

After 90 minutes of debate, the board chose not to endorse a proposal put forth earlier by Jim Cunningham, director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference.

While Wednesday’s inaction may not be the final word on the issue, board member objections left little room for compromise.

Catholics did not propose the change in regulations in order to ignore patients’ needs, said the Rev. Christopher Kubat, director of Catholic Social Services for the Lincoln diocese. He added the proposal had been widely misconstrued.

If, for example, a homosexual client went to a Catholic therapist for help, Kubat told the board, it still would be improper for the therapist to deny treatment for depression or suicidal tendencies.

What the church seeks, Cunningham said, is to protect providers from complaints of discrimination should a psychologist refuse a request to, for example, make a person a more giving homosexual partner. Psychologists reject wording that would limit treatment, referrals

Well, it is discrimination, and somebody might complain. That's just the price you pay, seems fair enough to me. And anyway, do you think this ever happens, that somebody files a complaint because their shrink won't help them become a "more giving homosexual partner?"

Supreme Court Rules Against School in Strip-Search of Girl

I'm glad to see this one. From Reuters:
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A public school violated the privacy rights of a teenage girl who had to disrobe on suspicion she had ibuprofen pills, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled on Thursday in its first decision on student strip searches.

By an 8-1 vote, the justices upheld a ruling that the school and its officials violated the U.S. constitutional right that protects against unreasonable search and seizure.

The ruling by the nation's high court was a major defeat for school officials who had defended the strip search as necessary for student safety, school order and combating a growing drug problem.

School officials in Safford, Arizona, had ordered the strip search in 2003 of Savana Redding, who was 13 and in the eighth grade. It did not turn up any ibuprofen -- an over-the-counter anti-inflammatory medication used to treat fever, headaches and pain -- or any other drugs.

"Because there were no reasons to suspect the drugs presented a danger or were concealed in her underwear, we hold that the search did violate the Constitution," Justice David Souter wrote for the court majority. Supreme Court rejects school strip search

It's got to be tough to run a school, I'm sure, teenagers are hard to manage when you've got one or two at home, I can just imagine trying to maintain order at a middle school. So I understand at some level that when another girl tattled and said this girl had drugs, they may have felt they had to follow up. But, first, c'mon, it was Motrin, fer cryin' out loud. Maybe she's not supposed to have it, but sheesh. And then you have to weigh the seriousness of violating a thirteen-year-old girl's sense of modesty. If it was a machine gun, okay, you do everything you can to find it. A bottle of Motrin, I'm sorry, this is beyond what a school should be doing.

Clarence Thomas disagreed:
Only Justice Clarence Thomas dissented from the part of the ruling that Redding's privacy rights had been violated.

Thomas said the ruling "grants judges sweeping authority to second-guess the measures that these officials take to maintain discipline in their schools and ensure the health and safety of the students in their charge."

Yes, I suppose it does put some limits on what school authorities can do to students. Good.

Falling From the Throne

A married guy has a girlfriend, that's not a news story. A governor disappears for nearly a week to rendezvous with his mysterious lover in South America without telling anyone, there's a story. How about this: man runs for office, telling everyone he believes in family values and will uphold the dignity of marriage, and then after he's elected he runs off to South America to see his girlfriend. Yeah, that's a story.

When I saw Keith Olbermann reading those sappy emails last night, with that sappy music in the background, I almost felt sorry for Mark Sanford. I had a little dog once that could jump a six-foot fence when a certain smell was in the air, and if he could have written emails to the female in heat on the next block they would sound just like these that Sanford wrote to "Maria."

Don't get me wrong, I do not feel sorry for Mark Sanford. He thought he was better than everybody else, he thinks everybody will forgive him, everybody will understand that because he wrote goo-goo letters to "Maria" he is somehow a martyr for love. Naw, he's just another dog, just like everybody else. His story is no different from anybody else's, he's just got more money.

It was cute when my dog used to jump over the fence. It's not cute when an elected offical abandons his post and lies to his family and his constituents to jump over the fence and run down the block.

Republicans and Democrats are equally susceptible to the temptations of the flesh, straight people and gay, white and black, Christian, Jew, Arab, and atheist. This isn't about sex, it's about dereliction of duty and it's about thinking you're better than other people. It should be -- I'm not saying it will be -- a wake-up call to Republicans to back off the holier-than-thou angle in campaigning, maybe they should run on the basis of policies and not make statements about family and marriage that they can't live up to.

There. I got through it without using the word "hypocrisy." Alvin McEwen has a good summary of events at his site, Holy Bullies and Headless Monsters. He lives in South Carolina, has lots of links here, I think he's captured the essence of it from the local point of view.

Oh, and one more thing. How come we aren't seeing any photographs of the lovely temptress who brought down this King of the Old South? Somebody knows who she is, I want to have a look at this one.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

This I Why They Call It Hate

We tend to think the "God Hates Fags" people are out there in a world of their own, protesting at the funerals of the fallen, hating people they don't know, you never think there are people like that in our own community. But we have people whose hatred is so intense that they intentionally inflict the greatest pain they can on those whose suffering is already unimaginable.
HYATTSVILLE, Md. - As people's hearts continue to go out to the family of victims killed in Monday's tragic Metro crash, some grieving family members say they're being harassed.

Forty-year-old Ana Fernandez, an immigrant from El Salvador, was on her way to her cleaning job when she was killed in Monday's Metro collision. On Wednesday, her family and friends gathered outside their home where her daughter said they need help but are upset with prank phone calls they have received.

"And I'm serious if you're going to call and leave messages like that, don't call at all," Evelyn Fernandez, the victim's daughter.

"That we're using this to make my cousin legally here… no she was a resident -- all her kids are citizens here, they were all born here," said Thelma Bautista, the victim's cousin.

Metro has set up a $250,000 emergency hardship fund for families of those who lost their lives to provide medical, funeral and other immediate expenses.

"[It's set up to] provide immediate assistance for families that obviously weren't planning for something like this to happen," said Angela Gates of Metro.

"People that are really willing to help us thank you very much and if not don't cause we'll get through this. I have family who cares -- I have people [who] care for my mom. My mom has friends and we're good with that," said Evelyn Fernandez.

Fernandez's six children who were left motherless do qualify but right now, the phone calls have them upset. "OK, that's not nice, they don't respect our pain. They [have to] stop," added Bautista.

Metro says they're in the process of notifying the families about the fund. It is limited, sources say, to families who lost loved ones -- not to people who may have been injured in the crash. Crash Victim's Family Harassed Over Mother's Immigration Status

I said recently that if there is evil it exists in the dehumanization of people, evil is the force that reduces human beings to objects. This is what I was talking about. A family is in such pain and evil people want to hurt them more to make a political point. I hope the callers are identified and punished.

SC Governor Reappears With New Story

Okay, this is the least important thing in the world, but it is really weird. The governor of South Carolina, Mark Sanford, disappeared and has re-appeared. First he was just gone. His wife, the Lieutenant Governor, his PR people, nobody knew where he was. Then his office said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail, interestingly during Nude Hiking Day. Then somebody said they'd seen him getting on a plane in Atlanta, with clothes on.

Now he says he took a trip to Argentina.
ATLANTA (Reuters) - South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford returned to the United States on Wednesday from a secret private trip to Argentina, ending days of speculation over his whereabouts and raising questions about his judgment.

Sanford is the chairman of the Republican Governors' Association and a prominent fiscal conservative who has been talked about as a potential Republican candidate for the 2012 U.S. presidential election.

Analysts said his mystery retreat to South America could damage his political career if he has presidential aspirations.

When media reported Sanford's whereabouts were unknown since last Thursday and that even his wife did not know where he was, his aides said he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail in the eastern United States to get away for a break after a tough state legislative session. "Missing" U.S. governor was on private Argentina trip

I guess they think this guy might run for President in 2012. He's a Republican, some scandal isn't going to hurt him any, but ... don't you wonder what in the world is going on here?

This article says, a little farther down:
Sanford flew to Atlanta early on Wednesday and told reporters for The State, South Carolina's biggest newspaper, he had decided at the last minute to go to Argentina and drive along its coastline.

"I wanted to do something exotic ... to get out of the bubble I am in," he told the paper, adding he had traveled alone.

Yeah, sure.

[Note: Of course I have to update this one. Here's the headline and summary from the LA Times: South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford admits to extramarital affair: Sanford admits to a love affair with an Argentine woman. 'The bottom line is this: I've been unfaithful to my wife.' He apologizes to his family and the people of South Carolina.]

[I am shocked, I tell you.]

Complaining About Metro

It has not been widely noted that the Red Line was already a mess when the accident happened Monday. Trains were being single-tracked around a malfunctioning train in one of the stations on the other end of the horseshoe from the wreck, perhaps Tenleytown, and the whole Red Line was backed up. Trains were moving a few hundred yards and stopping, moving a little more, stopping, waiting. This makes the crash even more mysterious, operators should have been watching carefully, trains were holding all up and down the Red line. Nobody was going fast. I talked to somebody who said that at four-thirty it took fifteen minutes to get from Takoma to Fort Totten, which is the next stop, and the accident happened in that stretch of track. It will be interesting to find out what was wrong with the train, maybe the throttle stuck and the brakes failed at the same time, but it doesn't make any sense, on the face of it, for a train to be going that fast in that spot at that time.

I have been thinking about writing about the Metro for a while. You hate to complain, and I understand that it's a big job moving all of the Washington Metro population to work and back, to Nats' games and concerts, taking tourists to the museums and monuments. But there are some things that make you question the whole operation.

Escalators. Have you ever had to walk up a broken escalator at a mall? You have not, because the mall wants your business, they want their customers to be happy. Metro doesn't care. The escalator at Union Station is a stairway most of the time, and lots of others, too. It's not that anybody is working on them, they're just turned off. I was on one a couple of weeks ago that was moving and suddenly, with about fifty people on it, it stopped with a jolt. Everybody just about fell over. There was no complaining, no muttering, people just started walking. I didn't see anyone near the panic button, no Metro staff looking at the escalator, it just turned off. How can an escalator be broken for weeks at a time? It doesn't happen anywhere else, only at the Metro, and it happens a lot at the Metro.

I am as concerned about the security effect as anything. I don't know the actual numbers, but with trains coming from both directions, I'll bet the downtown stations have a thousand people at a time going from the platform to the street on a weekday morning. I hate to think it, but what if something happened? What is there was a gun or a bomb on the platform, and they had to evacuate people? I guarantee people would be trampled on one of those stationary escalators.

And then when you get to the top of the escalator in some of the stations they have stupidly engineered the pedestrian pattern so that the stream of people leaving the building crosses the stream of people going into the system. You have to dodge moving bodies, and it is not always graceful or successful.

The same thing has happened at the Twinbrook parking lot, only with cars. They re-did the whole parking lot last year. To exit the parking lot now, you have to come out to your right and make a U-turn to get into the line of traffic moving to your left. It is just bad planning. People don't complain, there's nothing you can do, they put the exit to the parking lot too close to an intersection, traffic backs up past the exit and you simply cannot get out into the flow.

The Metro has a web site that supposedly tells you when there are delays. You can see it HERE if you're curious, I wouldn't bother to bookmark it if I were you. On Monday, when the wreck happened at five o'clock, Metro announced delays at six twenty-two, an hour and a half later. You're leaving work, you're probably going to head for the Metro between five and six twenty, that notice of a delay was too late for you -- and there was no notice at all for the earlier delay that same afternoon, which had rides taking up to an hour longer than usual.

At 6:22 the notice said, "Disruption system-wide. Customers traveling or connecting to the Red Line, due to significant Red Line delays, customers are encouraged to add an additional 30 minutes to their travel times." Listen, if you commute, you've been on a train where you can hear the operator's announcements get crankier and crankier, telling people not to lean on the doors, until they finally kick everybody off the train. Now they're going to put a whole trainload of passengers onto the next train, which is also already full. If you get information from Metro, you want to know the difference between a collision with multiple fatalities that will clog the line for days and an operator at the end of their shift who has had it up to here with tourists leaning on the doors. Metro can say, "There was a collision at Fort Totten," and we'll know, this will take a while. They don't tell you that.

It was lucky, if you can call it that, that the accident happened on the incoming train during outgoing rush hour. I saw an interview with somebody who said there were about eight people on his car when they hit. It could have been much worse.

An hour after the accident I took the Red Line from Union Station back into Rockville, and there was no problem. The platform was not crowded, trains were on time -- they were only coming from Rhode Island Avenue, not the whole length of the line, but that didn't affect my trip any, I was going the other way. You wouldn't have known anything was wrong. But then, day after day, it has gotten worse. This morning I waited at Grosvenor for an empty train -- normally every other one turns around there and starts fresh -- but apparently there are no Grosvenor trains since the wreck, so I boarded a train that was already full. We were like sardines, and then they offloaded a train in the city, the platforms were packed and our overcrowded train got even more overcrowded. I talked to one guy who said his ride from Rockville took forty minutes longer than usual. It appears that in the aftermath of this tragic accident Metro service is going to deteriorate in a frenzy of CYA.

My kid got stuck in the parking lot the other day, he didn't know you need to have a cleverly-named SmarTrip card to get out of the Metro parking lot. Do you remember why that is? They used to take cash at the booth, but the people they hired were robbing them blind. They'd take your money and put it in their own pockets. I don't recall reading the news that any of them were fired, instead Metro made it more inconvenient for the customer, they forced everybody who drives to the station to buy a computerized card.

There are pluses to Metro. A lot of the cars leak when it rains, water drips on the seats and on your head, and a lot of cars smell moldy, but in general the system is cleaner than a lot of cities have. You occasionally hear about a crime committed on, at, or near the Metro, but it's not a big concern, riders are very safe throughout the system.

Oh, hey, here's something -- have you ever dealt with Metro's lost and found? Here's some advice for you. If you find somebody's stuff on the train, don't turn it in, take it home. See if you can figure out who it belongs to. Call them. If it gets sucked into the Metro's lost and found system it'll never come out again.

We're reading now that the "striking" train (don't you wonder where that terminology comes from?) was old, was running in an unusual configuration, that the brakes were two months overdue for maintenance, and that the National Transportation Safety Board had told Metro three years ago to replace it. The computerized anticollision system was supposed to stop a train that gets too close to another train, the operator apparently pushed the emergency brake but nobody felt the train slow down before the accident -- how did this many things go wrong simultaneously?

This blog deals mainly with issues in Montgomery County, Maryland, which is a collection of suburban towns outside Washington, DC. Many readers here work in the city or in Virginia, and take the Metro to work. It's one of the good things about living here, Metro is generally safe and reliable. But there are a lot of problems flowing from the bureaucracy that runs the system. More than seventy people were injured in Monday's wreck, nine dead, and it was not an "accident" in the sense that falling down the stairs is an accident. A lot of things had to go wrong for those two trains to collide, there was a lot of negligence involved. They've asked if the poor driver of the striking train might have been texting or talking on the phone, and I hope Metro will be careful not to let her take the blame. This collision was caused by neglect and incompetence throughout the Metro organization. You hope it will be a wake-up call, but I'm not holding my breath.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Rush Hour Metro Wreck

Man, this is terrible. I hope all our readers are safe.
Two Red Line Metrorail trains collided this evening between the Fort Totten and Takoma stations, striking with such force that part of one train was left resting on top of the other, and killing at least two people, authorities said. Red Line Collision Kills at Least 2

The headline at The Post's main page says Metro Red Line Trains Crash, Killing Four, not two, so I am guessing this story will be updated. [Note: 7:39PM, the headline and story have been updated to four killed.] [Note: 8:15PM now it says "at least four" killed. There may be more.] [Note: 9:00PM now the Post headline says "At least Six" killed -- please follow the link for the most up-to-date report.] [Note: 11PM -- Channel 9 just said at least nine killed.]
According to Metro spokewoman Lisa Farbstein, the two trains were both headed in the same direction. One rear-ended the other. The female operator of the trailing train died, she said.

"Obviously something went terribly wrong for two trains to be on the same track," she said.

It is unclear how many were injured in the collision, which occurred in Northeast Washington. A D.C. Fire and Emergency Medical Services department spokesman said that rescuers were still working to evacuate the trains.

"We're using heavy rescue equipment to cut open the cars to get whoever's trapped in there out," spokesman Alan Etter said.

The crash has shut a section of the Red Line, Metro's busiest. Trains are operating between Glenmont and Silver Spring and between Shady Grove and Rhode Island Avenue. In the middle, Metro is offering a shuttle bus service, but cautioned that it would likely be overwhelmed.

Yes, the so-called "shuttle bus service" is typically ... nothing. There might be a bus, maybe.

I just wanted to get this out there in case you've been stuck on the train somewhere or are waiting for somebody. Metro typically has no plan for moving passengers when something like this happens, and anybody going out to the Silver Spring end of the Red Line horseshoe -- which does include a lot of Vigilance blog readers -- is going to get home very late. Again, I hope everyone who reads this blog is all right, and our hearts go out to those whose lives are touched by tragedy today.

NYC Synagogue Double-Curse Is Opportunity for Fundraising

Here's a story that will warm your heart. From Haaretz:
When a predominantly gay synagogue in Manahattan learned that a group of ultra-Evangelical Christians were planning a protest outside their building, the congregation decided to turn the hate rally into a fundraising event.

Parishoners from the Westboro Baptist Church, a Kansas-based institution, gathered on Sunday outside Congregation Beth Simchat Torah with signs reading "God hates fags" and "Jews stole the land."

The synagogue heard several days in advance of the church's planned demonstration and decided to counter the protesters' publicity drive with one of their own, rather than pursuing legal action.

The congregation encouraged its supporters to donate at least $1 for every six minutes that the demonstration lasted.

Following the 51-minute protest, the synagogue was able to raise more than $10,000 in donations. The congregation, which has been renting the West Village space, hopes to eventually buy a building of its own.

Some 150 people - including members other nearby synagogues and churches - held a counter-demonstration during the fundraising event, where they sang Jewish songs and prayers.

The Westboro Baptist Church is run by Fred Phelps, an outspoken evangelist who claims natural disasters and terrorist attacks are the result of America's "tolerance" of homosexuals. Phelps targeted Congregation Beth Simchat Torah because it works primarily with the Jewish gay and lesbian community. Gay-lesbian synagogue turns hate rally into fundraising event

The Westboro Church group, known for their "God Hates Fags" web site and picketing of ridiculous events such as veterans' funerals, came to our county a few months ago because we have a high school named after a poet who might have been gay. They also made stops in Baltimore and Fairfax, as I recall.

Last week the Southern Poverty Law Center put out a notice titled Rabidly Anti-Gay Westboro Baptist Church Now Targeting Jews, noting that:
Now WBC has turned its ire on the Jewish community, targeting synagogues and Jewish community centers with a new hate-filled taunt, “God Hates Jews.”

The Topeka, Kan., based church began picketing Jewish religious and cultural institutions in April of this year when they issued a press release that read, “Yes, the Jews killed the Lord Jesus…Now they’re carrying water for the fags; that’s what they do best: sin in God’s face every day, with unprecedented and disproportionate amounts of sodomy, fornication, adultery, abortion and idolatry!”

So hey, if God hates fags and God hates Jews, I suppose this NYC gay synagogue figured it was only a matter of time till they got on the schedule. It sounds like it worked out pretty well for them. Ten thousand bucks, pretty good.

British Police Keep the Statistics Balanced

From The Guardian, over in jolly old England:
Thousands of people are being stopped and searched by the police under their counter-­terrorism powers – simply to provide a racial balance in official statistics, the government's official anti-terror law watchdog has revealed.

Lord Carlile said in his annual report that he had "ample anecdotal evidence" of it happening, adding that such a practice was "totally wrong" and constituted an invasion of civil liberties.

"I can well understand the concerns of the police that they should be free from allegations of prejudice," he said. "But it is not a good use of precious resources if they waste them on self-evidently unmerited searches."

He said there was little or no evidence that the use of section 44 stop and search powers by the police could prevent an act of terrorism.

"While arrests for other crime have followed searches under the section, none of the many thousands of searches has ever resulted in a conviction for a terrorism offence. Its utility has been questioned publicly and privately by senior Metropolitan police staff with wide experience of terrorism policing," said Carlile. He added that such searches were stopping between 8,000-10,000 people a month.

Under the Terrorism Act 2000, the ­"section 44 stops" allow the police to search anyone in a designated area without suspicion that an offence has occurred. Terror law used to stop thousands 'just to balance racial statistics'

I just thought you might appreciate the fact that we're not the only place where these kinds of things happen ...

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Sunday Rumination: Twitter, #iranelection, The Post

This morning I picked up the paper out of the driveway. The top story on page A1 is "Police Unleash Force on Rally in Tehran." Here's how it kicks off:
TEHRAN, June 20 -- Fiery chaos broke out in downtown Tehran on Saturday as security forces blocked streets and used tear gas, water cannons and batons to break up a demonstration against the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Security forces were seen firing warning shots into the air, but there were also unconfirmed reports that several people were hit by gunfire. Police Unleash Force On Rally in Tehran

Listen, people, the world has changed. We don't have to accept this kind of "coverage" any more.

Yesterday I spent a good part of the afternoon reading Twitter. The revolution in Iran is completely unprecedented in world history, the people on the street are reporting what is happening in real time, and anyone in the world can read about it and see it.

I'll back up. Twitter is a "microblogger" application. You can set up an account at twitter.com and it asks you at the top of the screen, "What are you doing?" You have 140 characters to say something, you can say, I'm nearly out of gas, or my foot itches, or I wish I was outside ... anything. You can tweet from your computer or from your cell phone, which is a big thing, people can post information from the street, literally. It is not a medium for profound monologues, you can get in one or two sentences and you're finished. Most of Twitter is absolutely uninteresting. People actually do tell you they're nearly out of gas, and their feet itch. But sometimes they have something to say. In some recent catastrophes it turned out you got immediate news -- "I see a big wave coming!" long before the commercial media picked it up. Of course you don't know what's accurate and what's not, but those things have a way of working themselves out.

So yesterday (and today, of course) you could read Twitter posts coming from the streets of Tehran. During the time I was following it closely, I'd say there were approximately 500 messages per minute, about half of them coming from the people of Iran. Try it, go to SEARCH TWITTER to read tweets about the trouble in Iran. This is a search engine that shows all the tweets with the keyword "iranelection."

So, The Post says the security forces blocked the streets and used tear gas. Well, you can see video from the streets on the Internet, you can see that the people are roaming the streets, rioting, throwing rocks and confronting the basij where they find them. On Twitter you can read accounts about, for instance, how the people chased government security goons into a building and then set fire to it. You can watch video, horrible video, of a woman named Neda dying after being shot in the heart by a government sniper while she stood on the street and watched what was going on, you can see her eyes roll back in her head, see the blood leak out of the corner of her mouth, see her family holding her, crying. It's not an "unconfirmed report," as The Post tells us, you can see the video, and further, on Twitter you can read accounts by doctors who have reviewed the video and confirm that is almost surely not faked.

Yesterday you read tweet after tweet describing the fact that the government in Tehran was dumping acid on crowds from helicopters. It's one thing if one crazy rioter says it, but when you read one account after the other, when you read instructions about what to do if acid is poured on you, explanations of what to do to cover up, links to maps showing where to go for help -- the hospitals are closed, but certain embassies provide medical assistance -- you end up knowing that this really happened, the Iranian government really is dumping acid on people in the streets. The Post doesn't mention it. A government dropping acid on crowds of its own citizens, not worthy of mention in the mighty Washington Post.

I saw a TV news guy the other day who appeared to be sitting in front of a window looking out on Tehran, and he explained that they were not allowed to show the city itself, it was just a picture of Tehran. They are simply not allowed to report the news -- this is unbelievable, really, to see that our castrated information sources going along with the wishes of the oppressive regime, reporting whatever the tyrannical Iranian leadership tells them to report.

But it doesn't matter, the Internet is growing up and information cannot be contained. The Iranian government turns off the cell-phone infrastructure and people still find a way to get calls out -- people are having their phones taken away from them and if they catch you filming a scene they might arrest you, beat you, or shoot you. YouTube has thousands of videos from the streets of Iran -- tens of thousands of them -- and our big corporate news media are afraid to let the camera point out the window at the lights of the city.

Do you think The Post mentions that helicopters are dropping acid on the citizens? No, I do not see that here. Let's say it's an unconfirmed rumor. That does not seem to make it any less of a news story, the newspaper can say "There were unconfirmed rumors that the government was dropping acid on people," but for some reason a newspaper like The Post can't say that unless they can get the government of Iran to confirm it.

I heard somebody recently use the phrase "the establishment," saying how we baby boomers were against "the establishment" when we were young, and to tell you the truth, I don't remember ever using that phrase back in the day. It was a term coined by ... the establishment ... to describe young people's perception of that good ol' boy network that is sometimes confused with reality. The establishment marketed anti-establishment attitudes and made a good living off it. Most of us just didn't care about it, which to their mind was the same as being against it. I suppose it was.

What is happening here actually truly undermines the establishment. Anybody can go into Twitter and say "The government is dumping acid on the people," and if it's not true somebody else will say "Disregard that statement, that person is not credible," and the statement will fade. I am seeing that today, there are rumors that Mousavi has been arrested, and people are tweeting "That is not correct, don't believe those rumors." (Note: it may be true that he was arrested today.) Overall the facts come out in this self-organizing system of the free evolution of knowledge.

The monolithic media like The Post give some sanitized version of events, they report on life as if it were being written in a future history book with all the blood drained out of it, they pick the good guys and tell you the story so that it will look good for them in the long run when the winners they pick have won the battle.

History in fact runs on two rails. On one hand there are the stories of the leaders, royalty and leaders and elected officials who make big decisions and then the world watches those decisions play out, maybe there is a war or a change of policy that affects the way people live. But the other rail is the people, the man on the street, who is always left out of the history books. You can say "The United States under George Bush invaded Iraq," and there will be a history-book chapter about the war and how it affected relations among Middle Eastern nations, but there is also the street-level version of the story, the people whose homes were invaded by foreign soldiers, the women and children who were raped, the people killed by capricious bullets, the pointless torture, homes without water or electricity, as well as the stories of Western families who sent their sons and daughters into battle to fight an unwinnable war against an unnamed enemy with no goal or way to measure victory.

To me, that's what matters, the lives of the people. I don't like to think in terms of a broad concept like "evil," but if there is evil it exists in the dehumanization of people, evil is the force that reduces human beings to objects. Its opposite and antidote is love. It is a constant presence in our lives, you might be jockeying for position at a grocery store cash register, you might read a news item about someone doing something incomprehensibly brutal, you might even view friends and lovers in a less-than-fully human light at times, we all do it. When you read statistics about the number of people affected by something it sucks the life out of every single case -- one close friend killed or maimed in a traffic accident is one thing, tens of thousands of people killed or maimed and you just turn the page, looking for the funnies.

The Internet has been evolving as a medium for the people as individuals. You may not appreciate blogs but the fact is that any person can create their own web page for free and put any information there that they want. If nobody reads it, well, there you go. Most blogs, I think, are not read by anybody, but there are subcultures in the blogosphere, clusters of bloggers who interact and feed off one another. There are commercial bloggers, in fact there are some big-budget blogs out there, but really anybody can do it -- Drudge was just a guy, posting news stories that caught his eye.

In Iran now we are seeing the Internet being put to work for the common person on a scale that we have never seen before. The government is doing all it can to shut it down, but it's too big and too widely distributed, they can't stop people from getting the word out. There are videos, sound recordings, Twitter notes, blog posts, emails, and the whole world is watching the Iranian government's brutal oppression of the citizenry.

Our commercial media are put to shame. The "official" reporting is pathetic. It misses the point, professional reporters are afraid to leave their hotel rooms, and when they do they are searched, arrested, deported. They have an arrangement with officialdom, with "the establishment," that they will publish stories that are acceptable to authorities with the agreement that they will be guaranteed access to the official version of stories as they emerge. These kinds of news reporters are just groupies with notepads. We think they are reporting for us, but they are reporting, first of all, for paying advertisers, and second, for the favor of those prominent people who are featured in the stories. If any information flows out to us, the reading public, it's a miracle, an anomaly, the system is not set up to allow that to happen but sometimes you can fit the pieces together and come up with some idea of what has happened.

Twitter can't be stopped. Of course most Twitter content is vacuous, but if you weed through it, for instance with a focused keyword search, you can get a very good idea about what is really going on in a situation.

The problem for you and me, of course, is that we can't read five hundred posts a minute, even when they are as dramatic as the word out of Iran has been. We need a distiller, and there you are putting yourself at the mercy of someone's judgment. So, for instance, the Huffington Post is carrying an archive of video and information from Iran, updating several times an hour, pointing out the big questions that are coming up and showing readers the more important events. Some of the video, especially, is very disturbing, lots of fire and blood and violence and weeping. But you end up with a very good feel for what's going on in the streets of that country, up to the minute. And if that site started posting a biased sample, you can be sure somebody else will be summarizing just as well or better, and the audiences will swarm there instead. The financial markets might not regulate themselves well, but the Internet is excellent at it There is a famous saying from the earliest days of the Internet: "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it." We are seeing the truth of that statement today. (One fascinating phenomenon, Iranian agents are on Twitter, too, posting misinformation, and other users are tweeting their names and telling people to block them.)

The corporate media do not route around censorship, they call it "editing" and it is a feature, not a bug, in the commercial news presentation app. To get back to the Washington Post, they have fired their best guy because he was critical of the way they covered the news. The kid in the bleachers might shout out that the emperor has no clothes, but he is not likely to land a job in the royal court making announcements, you might say. The Post wants to lick the hand that feeds it, they want to become an official mouthpiece for authorities, okay, they can do that. In a world where newspapers are going out of business left and right, you can see where this leads. Who's going to read The Post? In the end, only the people who the stories are about. The rest of us are going to get our information from the street, unfiltered.

Oh, and hey, Happy Father's Day.

Friday, June 19, 2009

A Little Debate Over Ignorance and Transphobia

I came across this interesting debate at the Questioning Transphobia (motto: "My gender is rage") blog this week. The issue in this case is transphobia, but the same arguments apply as easily to homophobia or racism. The question has to do with ignorance versus outright prejudice. I have tended to distinguish between people who just don't know anything about something, for instance transgender people, and people who know something and actively promote an agenda of discrimination. I tend to call one "ignorance" and the other "hatred." There is a little more to it than that, though.

It started with a post on another blog called sexgenderbody (motto: "There is no 'should'"):
Most people in our culture view transsexual and other gender expressions as "freaks", "weird", "ill", whathaveyou. Television has far too frequently portrayed us as such, and let's face it--some of us have not been Our Own Best Representatives. And how many people that do not participate in Queer Community can actually say, "I have a friend who is trans"?

So how are they to understand? How easy is it to assume that the Television is true? How easy to be misinformed? Though biologists have known for years it's not true, we still teach kids that penis = male and vulva = female. If my position is unclear, let me say directly:


It's a pretty readable and interesting monologue. Skipping down, the writer, LanceWorth, says:
The assumption that despite my statements, I am female because that's what they always thought; and that therefore, I should feel the same toward my body as they do about theirs. Consider the ratio of folks whose sex and gender do/not match and it's a reasonable assumption, just incorrect.

It's possible that as we get to know each other (provided I manage not to act like some self-entitled, whiny moron), her discomfort may cease. It may not, but it's certainly not worth fighting over.

Lanceworth's point is that a lot of people haven't really thought about gender and what it would be like for somebody to have a different experience from themselves, and it's not really worth it to get upset with them. They just don't know better.

At Questioning Transphobia, queenemily responds this way (note: I am leaving in some language that I would not allow myself to use in a post and would most likely delete if a commenter used it):
Seriously? I understand the distinction being made there between outright wishing us violence and ignorance, but it’s not one that’s ultimately sustainable. Why? Violence against trans bodies is maintained by ignorance.

Ignorance is what fuels the vast majority of transphobia, not necessarily outright hatred. It’s what makes it hard for us to get work, what leaves us with few options to get by. Combined with fear, it fuels the bathroom panic.

Ignorance is what makes it hard to get decent medical care. When a doctor doesn’t know how to treat you, I’m sorry that’s a fucking problem. When a housing shelter doesn’t have a policy for people like you so you “just happen” to get put into your assigned sex to be put at risk of violence and rape, that’s a problem. Indeed, it’s not overstating the case to say that ignorance directly contributes to our deaths.

Ignorance is what tires us out, what saps our energy by making us answer the same question with every new person, every new institution. What makes us fight the same battles, over and over so we don’t have the energy to take care of ourselves.

The one thing ignorance is not is innocent, it is about having the power not to know and not to care.. and we simply can’t afford to be naive enough to think otherwise. Actually, ignorance *is* transphobia

I think the resolution comes by considering that there are two aspects to ignorance. First of all, ignorance is just a lack of knowledge. Any of us could make a bad decision or express something really stupid about a topic we don't know anything about, and you can't blame somebody for that. In particular, very few people have given much thought to gender identity as a subject, or have learned anything about it. There are not very many transgender people, and as LanceWorth noted, most people do not have a transgender friend. You have to forgive people for not knowing what it's like for someone to have a gender identity that's different from their own.

On the other hand, there is an attitude we call "an open mind," where we accept that there are things we don't know about and assume the best about them. The problem occurs when someone hears about something they have not thought about, for instance they hear about someone transitioning from one sex to the other, and assume that that person has bad reasons for doing so. It's as simple as that. If somebody does something I would never dream of doing, I can either think there is something evil or something wrong with them, or I can think there are valid things that people do that I don't understand.

You can't blame people for not knowing about something that they might never have encountered. You can blame them for judging without understanding.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Nebraska Catholics Want Right to Deny Psychotherapy to Gays

The Nebraska Roman Catholic Conference is pushing a proposal that would let psychologists refuse to treat gay patients on religious grounds. The website 365Gay has the story:
Nebraska’s rules for licensed psychologists could change because of concerns about potential conflicts between religious convictions and sexual orientation.

Jim Cunningham of the Nebraska Roman Catholic Conference says psychologists and other licensed therapists should be able to refuse to treat or refer clients because of the counselors’ religious or moral convictions.

But psychologist James Cole told regulators that such a rule could open the door for discrimination as long as a therapist claimed a religious conflict. Cole represented the Nebraska Psychology Association at a recent hearing on the proposal. Neb. Catholics ask for OK for psychologists to not treat gays

First of all, this is just plain not nice. Gay people have problems too, they need somebody to talk to sometimes, to try to deny them that is low. There is no lofty motive here, the Catholic group simply wants to hurt gay people.

The Lincoln Journal Star has more details -- I'll skip through their story:
Psychologists should be able to refuse to treat -- and refuse to refer clients -- because of religious or moral convictions, Jim Cunningham, executive director of the Nebraska Catholic Conference, said during a licensing rules hearing Thursday.

The conference also supports a similar “convictions of conscience” rule for licensed counselors, social workers and marriage and family therapists.

Without any conscience clause, Catholic Charities in Omaha and Catholic Social Services in Lincoln might have to stop hiring licensed counselors and psychologists, Cunningham said.

The Lincoln agency provides about $100,000 in free mental health services, he said Thursday.

While most ethics codes for professional counselors and psychologists allow professionals to refuse to offer services based on ethical or moral convictions, the codes generally require the professional to refer the client.

But even referring clients could be a violation of conscience when the service violates moral or religious convictions, Cunningham said.

Without a moral exemption, a psychologist who believes homosexual relationships are immoral might be required to counsel homosexual couples on building a better relationship, said Edward Stringham, a Lincoln psychologist. Groups push for 'conscience clause' for psychologists

Now here's the thing. You go to a psychologist and talk about things you think and feel, and a lot of them are not pretty things. You talk about conflicts, guilt, you confess your secrets -- and the reason they're secrets is because your conscience can't handle them. That's just why you go to a psychologist, so you can say those things you can't tell your mother.

Can you imagine if a psychologist all of a sudden jumped up in the middle of a session and said, "You what? You fantasized about doing what? With who? Get out of my office right this instant, you offensive perverted monster, you!"

Besides the pill-pushers, there are two main approaches to psychotherapy these days. The cognitive approach helps a client reason about his or her problems, you bring out details including their feelings, work out a logical solution, and figure out how to implement the solution. The other approach is the "client-centered" approach, where the therapist provides empathic acceptance for anything the client says, encouraging them to express themselves in an atmosphere of unconditional positive regard. Both of these approaches can help people get over their anxieties and confusion.

There is no approach in psychotherapy where the therapist judges the morality of the client's thoughts and feelings and treats them on the basis of their ethical worthiness. You know the person has dark secrets the minute they walk in the door, you try to get those out in the open and figure out how to deal with them. Some of those dark secrets might even -- gasp! -- involve sexual feelings, and some of those feelings may not fit into the individual's view of themselves and their place in the world. I'm not telling you something you didn't know already, it's a cliche, Woody Allen made a career out of this fact.

The Star Journal interviews a shrink.
“I have provided psychological services to individuals convicted of murder, and I have never had to compromise my moral belief that killing is wrong,” said Cole, a forensic psychologist.

“I have seen sexual offenders including individuals who are sexually attracted to children and who have abused children without ever having to compromise my moral belief that this behavior is wrong,” he said.

The convictions of conscience clause is already a part of proposed rule changes for counselors.

It is compromise language worked out between the Board of Mental Health Practice and the Nebraska Catholic Conference this winter.

The proposed rule changes for psychologists does not include the convictions of conscience clause. There likely would be a second hearing if the licensing board decided to add it, according to the hearing officer.

Note that the Catholic guys think that not only should psychologists not treat gay people, they shouldn't refer them. Can you imagine? All the horrible things in the world -- this guy mentioned treating killers, for crying out loud, child molesters, psychologists deal with mother rapers, father stabbers, and all kinds of mean and nasty and ugly and horrible crime-type guys, and the Nebraska Catholic Conference wants them to freeze out gay people. Their sense of proportion is despicable.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bright Idea Backfires

We've been documenting the deterioration of the Obama administration's relationship with the gay community, as one promise after another has been watered down or allowed to fade into the background. There is a major $1,000-a-plate Democratic fundraiser planned for gay leaders later this month, and one by one they are sending in their decisions not to attend. As far as I can tell, every single gay activist is fed up with the administration, with the DOMA brief being the last straw. You never see a group this unanimous in anything.

So Obama planned a special announcement for today, and the White House let it leak out that they would grant benefits to gay federal employees. Everybody saw it as a weak concession, but I at least hoped maybe there would be a speech or a statement that would indicate a desire to close the rift.

Here's the NYT:
President Obama will sign a presidential memorandum on Wednesday to extend benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees, administration officials said Tuesday evening, but he will stop short of pledging full health insurance coverage. U.S. to Extend Its Job Benefits to Gay Partners

Are you kidding me? Benefits except health insurance? But -- that's the most important one!

Dan Savage said what everybody was thinking:
Could the Obama administration possibly be ANY MORE incompetent when it comes to gay issues? Let it leak that you're going "extend federal benefits" to the partners of gay federal employees, hope that this move mollifies furious gay rights organizations and activists still reeling from your DOMA betrayal, and THEN announce that—sorry!—the package of benefits doesn't include the single most important work-related benefit: health insurance.

I'm speechless. Obama: Some Federal Employees Are More Equal Than Others

Yeah, sorry, this one is backfiring on the new guy. I don't think anybody's going to show up at that fundraiser. A thousand bucks for dinner, and that's the cheap seats.

Pam at Pam's House Blend has a way with words:
This administration, the Congress and the DNC need to see the LGBT ATM shut down. NOW. That June 26 LGBT DNC fundraiser is toast. No one is buying a partner benefit plan that doesn't include health insurance, for god's sake. Will he announce an effort to send Congress something to act on? Uh, keep dreaming - his DOJ just wrote up a brief that uses defenses against incest and underage marriage to claim our relationships are unworthy of equal treatment under the law. They can't unring that bell. NYT: Obama admin's (lame) fed partner benefits plan designed to stop DNC fundraiser disaster

Clearly the President thought he could throw the gay doggies a bone and they would go off into the corner and chew on it, and clearly they didn't fall for it. There have been rumblings over the past week as people expected some kind of weak concession, but nobody anticipated that it would be this weak.

Pam also points out that this "benefits" thing is just a Presidential directive, which expires when he leaves office; a Presidential order would have been permanent.

Ironically, the reason the President stopped short of providing health benefits to federal employees is DOMA, the Defense of Marriage Amendment, according to John at AmericaBlog, quoting The Advocate. The administration has taken a strong anti-gay position in defending DOMA in court, which is what set off this firestorm in the first place. Well, the tinder was already dry.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Right Wing Violence: Add Arizona Killings to the List

In April Richard Poplawski fatally shot three policemen in Pittsburgh. He was afraid President Obama was going to take his guns away, he posted at a Nazi web site. His mother was trying to kick him out of the house when his dog peed on the floor, she called the police, he killed them.

Then this past month we had Scott Roeders killing a clinic doctor and James Von Brunn killing guards at the Holocaust Museum.

This story hasn't been getting much newstime, but if you're looking for a pattern you might want to be aware of it. From CBS News:
PHOENIX (CBS/AP) Anti-illegal immigration "extremists" murdered a Hispanic father and his 9-year-old daughter and gravely injured the man's wife in order to raise money for their cause, say Arizona police.

Jason Eugene Bush, 34, Shawna Forde, 41, and Albert Robert Gaxiola, 42, have been charged with two counts each of first-degree murder and other charges, said Sheriff Clarence Dupnik of Pima County, Arizona.

The trio is alleged to have disguised themselves as law enforcement officers, forced their way into a home in rural Arivaca on May 30, and shot and killed Raul Junior Flores, 29, and his daughter Brisenia Flores, 9. Raul Flores' wife obtained a gun and fired back, hitting Bush. The wife was also wounded, according to police. Her name is not being released at this time.

Their motive was financial, police say. They sought a large sum of money to fuel their anti-illegal immigration operations.

“The husband who was murdered has a history of being involved in narcotics and there was an anticipation that there would be a considerable amount of cash at this location as well as the possibility of drugs,” Dupnik said.

Forde is the leader of Minutemen American Defense, a small border watch group, and Bush goes by the nickname “Gunny” and is its operations director, according to the group's Web site. She was once associated with the better known and larger Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. Anti-Illegal Immigration "Extremists" Murder Girl And Father, Say Police

The extreme right is feeling a lot of pressure now, they are feeling that their dream is getting away from them. Provocateurs like Glenn Beck are lighting a fire under them, implying that America is going down the tubes if good people don't act, and now the really nutty ones are started to pop out over the top. There isn't much you can do about it, people have the right to their beliefs, you hope law enforcement is keeping an eye on the most extreme folks out there but even if they are, who knows when the pressure is going to be too much?

Each of these people -- Poplawski, Roeders, von Brunn, Forde -- was identified long ago as potentially violent. As the Department of Homeland Security report noted:
Many rightwing extremists are antagonistic toward the new presidential administration and its perceived stance on a range of issues, including immigration and citizenship, the expansion of social programs to minorities, and restrictions on firearms ownership and use. Rightwing extremists are increasingly galvanized by these concerns and leverage them as drivers for recruitment. From the 2008 election timeframe to the present, rightwing extremists have capitalized on related racial and political prejudices in expanded propaganda campaigns, thereby reaching out to a wider audience of potential sympathizers.

The report also noted:
The possible passage of new restrictions on firearms and the return of military veterans facing significant challenges reintegrating into their communities could lead to the potential emergence of terrorist groups or lone wolf extremists capable of carrying out violent attacks.

We are seeing that. I suggest you look over that report -- it's short, easy reading, and gets right to the point. I have no doubt that we will be following more news stories along these lines in the months ahead.

Gay Anger at Obama is Boiling Over

We were talking about this last week, but the story is not going away. The mainstream media have been picking it up, it's all over the talk shows. The Obama administration seems to have abandoned its campaign promises to gay and lesbian Americans -- worse than that, the administration appears to have turned on them.

From CBS News:
The anger from gay rights advocates toward President Obama is starting to boil over.

On Monday, Joe Solmonese, the president of the establishment gay rights group The Human Rights Campaign, sent an angry letter to the president objecting to the decision by the Obama Justice Department to file a brief defending the Defense of Marriage Act.

"I realized that although I and other LGBT leaders have introduced ourselves to you as policy makers, we clearly have not been heard, and seen, as what we also are: human beings whose lives, loves, and families are equal to yours," Solmonese wrote. "I know this because this brief would not have seen the light of day if someone in your administration who truly recognized our humanity and equality had weighed in with you."

The Clinton-era Defense of Marriage Act, or DOMA, mandates (1) that the federal government not recognize same-sex marriages and (2) that states not be forced to recognize same-sex marriages from other states.

Mr. Obama vowed to repeal DOMA as a presidential candidate but he has not taken any action to do so since becoming president. The Justice Department brief calls the legislation a "valid exercise of Congress' power" and says it is "reasonable and rational for Congress to maintain its longstanding policy of fostering this traditional and universally-recognized form of marriage." Obama Faces Gay Groups' Growing Anger

I saw Howard Dean on the Maddow show last night talking about this Justice Department brief. I can't quote his exact words, and I don't think the transcript is up yet, but he seemed to be saying that this approach was a mistake. He was trying to make it sound like Obama himself probably didn't know anything about this, that the problem is caused by Bush-era staff in the Justice Department (as I recall, it was late and I was tired). Whatever, the new guy is blowing it left and right here. He campaigned on a set of promises and the gay community jumped behind him and supported him. There was some complaining when he invited Rick Warren to the inauguration, you might say it set off a few alarms, but I think people expected him to follow through with his promises, or at least create the appearance of trying. I for one took the Rick Warren incident as a sign that the administration was going to try to be bipartisan, to heal the divisiveness that tore the country apart for the previous eight years.
He goes onto single out a portion of the brief referencing a case involving "marriage of uncle to niece" to support the Justice position.

"I cannot overstate the pain that we feel as human beings and as families when we read an argument, presented in federal court, implying that our own marriages have no more constitutional standing than incestuous ones," he writes.

After the brief was filed, Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that while the president has said he is committed to repealing DOMA, "until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."

But the president, who is wary of opening up a fight over social issues that could endanger his ambitious agenda on health care and other issues, has not asked Congress to do so. And as blogger and gay rights advocate John Aravosis points out, Justice has chosen not to defend laws in the past, undercutting the implication that the department had no choice but to do so.

This Justice Department argument is bad enough, but that's not all the story.
As CBSNews.com reported earlier this month, the president has also declined to take action on the "don't ask, don't tell" policy that prohibits gays from serving openly in the military, despite campaign promises to do so. While the administration has suggested it is working with the military to repeal the policy responsibly, the Pentagon says there have not been any serious discussions along those lines.

Many of the staffers in the Obama White House also served under President Bill Clinton, and they remember well how much political capital taking on gay rights cost Clinton early in his administration. But while gay rights advocates signaled sympathy to those concerns early in the Obama administration, their patience appears to be running out. (The picture above comes from a gay rights rally late last month.)

It should be noted that there do appear to be efforts on behalf of gay Americans in the works: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Monday he is looking to pass hate crimes legislation before the August recess, and the extension of benefits to same-sex partners of federal employees is said to be on the way. But these are widely viewed as significant but relatively minor potential victories, and are not likely to quiet the growing anger among gay advocates if they do go through.

When you talk to the people who aren't complaining, they say that maybe Obama plans to implement some of the policies he promised, maybe he has too much to do right now, maybe gay rights are on the back burner. But in the meantime the administration is taking an aggressive anti-gay position, kicking gays out of the military as fast as they can find them, arguing the far right's points on marriage. Hope is feeling, to a lot of people, like foolishness.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Miss California, Against Marriage Equality

I am finding the Miss California situation amusing for some reason. I was flipping channels the other day and the "old" Miss California, Carrie Prejean, who was given a second chance but ended up losing her title anyway, was whining to Larry King about how everybody's against her because she is so virtuous and Christian.

It would be good for her if she could claim that they took the title of Miss California away from her because she opposes same-sex marriage. Unfortunately for her, the new Miss California also opposes it.
LOS ANGELES — Miss California USA's executive director says the pageant would never try to silence new titleholder Tami Farrell's stance against gay marriage.

Keith Lewis told The Associated Press on Friday that he wants all of the beauty contestants he deals with to be able to voice their opinions as long as they don't violate their contracts.

Former Miss California USA Carrie Prejean, who was given a second chance earlier, lost her title Wednesday after Lewis said she skipped pageant events while speaking out against gay marriage during unsanctioned appearances.

In a television interview Thursday, Farrell said she believed marriage should be between a man and a woman. But she added: "I don't think I have the right or anybody has the right to tell somebody who they can or can't love."

Prejean says she was dethroned because during the Miss USA pageant she said gays shouldn't be allowed to marry. New Miss California also against gay marriage

Heh, it's kind of hard to claim they took your title away for having X, when they give it to someone who also has X. But, really, who cares about Miss California? What is she, a role model for women? I don't think so.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Sunday Rumination: Music and Stuff

If you are looking for political commentary or information about the culture wars in Montgomery County, you can stop reading now. Today I am just relaxing, kicking back, talking about my week, call it self-indulgence.

We went out and saw Eric Clapton and Stevie Winwood last night. Yes, people, that makes me a baby-boomer. Both those guys are a couple years older than me, but not much. They were at the Verizon Center, we sat up sort of behind the stage. We were behind the Jumbotron, which was projected on a sheet of fabric, it appeared, so we could see it but from behind -- Clapton was playing left-handed on a backwards guitar. A reviewer might say "they ran through their hits," and dismiss it at that, but the way they ran through their hits, that's why people pay that kind of money to watch a couple of old guys jam on some songs.

I'm a guitar player, you know, and oddly I have not seen Clapton since he and Winwood last played together, probably 1969. Clapton is, and has always been, at the top of the heap of guitar players, and it was fascinating to watch him play. He had two black Strats, blowing through a couple of Fender tweed Twins, it looked like, a classic setup. Two stomp-boxes, one was a wah-wah pedal, the other one I don't know, he stepped on it one time, otherwise he played straight into those tubes to get that clean Strat sustain.

Washington is a Telecaster town, it's strange but everybody here plays Tele's, nobody plays Strats. If you don't play, these are two types of guitars made my the same company, Fender. The Tele is usually associated with country music, but a lot of guys use it -- Springsteen, Muddy Waters, Pete Townsend, and everybody in DC -- Danny Gatton, Roy Buchanan, Bill Kirchen, Dave Chappell, Tom Principato, all the local guys. The Strat was played by Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, this instrument has a little different sound, it's a matter of personal taste but there is also a political aspect to it, the Tele is a working-class instrument for some reason. You make a statement when you play the Tele, you're a blue-collar guy, when you play a Strat I think the statement is that you are a tasteful roquero. I come from California, I am not natively committed to the Telecaster. I play a Stratocaster. And so does Clapton.

Actually, in California I used to know the guy who sets up that black Stratocaster for him. I lived in the Central Coast region, where the Ernie Ball factory was, and that's where Eric Clapton would send his guitar to have the the action worked on. A bass player I knew named Gary had that job, he talked about it sometimes, that Strat would come carefully packaged and they would give it special treatment. Watching Clapton last night I can see how that works. I was watching him play up at the fifteenth fret and beyond, and he has the same sustain and tone he gets further down the neck, every string rings true even on the highest notes. My Strat doesn't do that, my strings bottom out on the next fret when I try to sustain a note that high. My solution is just to avoid playing up there, but maybe I'll send my axe in for some work, what do you think? You think I should take it to those guys at Chuck's? They did a good job with my Weissenborn.

My wife made a comment about how nice Clapton's guitar looks, compared to mine. His neck has all the varnish on it, the wood looks pristine and new, mine looks like somebody drove a truck back and forth over it. Well, it's true somebody has spilled a couple of beers on it, you might say, and it has been played hard. And I can't afford to send it to California so a guy can adjust everything to within a micrometer of perfection. Actually, I wouldn't, I like my axe just the way it is.

Guitar playing is gunslinging. When you're playing guitar and another guitar player comes into the room, you know it, even if you don't recognize the guy. I recently sat and watched Bill Kirchen play a gig down in Rockville town center, and I know he clocked me as a player. At one point he looked over at me and put his pick between his teeth and played some finger-style stuff, and I know it was just gun-slinging, he was showing me something I can't do. I did it to a guy last week, I was playing and I saw a guy sitting at the bar and there's just something, I knew he was a guitar player (I turned out to be right) and so I smoked him a little bit, played some stuff to singe his eyebrows, that's just how it is. You play guitar because you're competitive. I studied with a flamenco master from Spain and he was the same way, he'd look at you and do things on the guitar that you couldn't do, just to burn you. I don't think any other instrument is like that, and I don't know why it is.

We took the Metro there and back, and it was a little funny, the concert got out at the same time as the pride parade in Dupont Circle, so the trains were packed. We chatted with a guy who was coming from that, he grew up in the city and was talking about how to carry yourself so you don't get in trouble. Looking up and down the subway car you saw people with Mardi Gras beads from the parade, normally gay people are not so easy to identify, and you might be surprised. Actually, lately I have noticed more gay couples than usual showing affection in public, on the Metro. I wonder if it's a trend, if they are feeling they can act like the rest of us. I saw two guys holding hands and talking, it was nice somehow, they shouldn't have to worry about that, it wasn't cramming anything down anybody's throat (and of course I just love it when anti-gay bigots say that!), it was just two people who cared about each other. Two women at the end of the subway car, talking and caressing one another, well straight couples do that all the time, it isn't any big deal. I hope the world is changing so that people don't have to be afraid to show someone they love them.

We don't usually get out to hear this much music, but earlier in the week we saw Elvis Costello at Wolf Trap. He seemed to think that was hilarious, to be playing at a place called "Wolf Trap." Well when you think about it, it is a pretty funny name for a place, it sounds like you're out in the boonies somewhere. I first saw Elvis Costello when he came out with "My Aim is True," his first album. That show was so intense and so on-target, I actually couldn't speak for several days, I remember him singing "Lipstick Vogue," saying "You wanna throw me away but I'm not broken," he spoke so perfectly I couldn't believe it. Then I saw him in the early 80s and he was fat and bored, it was tragic. But now he's come through all that, Elvis Costello has risen to a certain level in the music business where he can do whatever he wants. This week he had an all acoustic band, Dobro, fiddle, mandolin, accordion, stand-up bass, acoustic guitars, and he did some great classic country songs, Haggard and Jones, besides his own stuff, and other songs too. Unfortunately, the sound at Wolf Trap was not perfect, it was hard to make out the lyrics sometimes, and when he was doing novel material you wanted to hear the words. When he sang "What's So Funny About Peace, Love, and Understanding" you realized that he really is a visionary, he nailed something down that was slipping away, people were embarrassed to be reasonable. Making sense, thinking clearly, had become a joke. I'm glad it's back in style.

The band I'm in is doing pretty well. We started out to play rockabilly but our repertoire extends a little beyond that on both sides, the blues side and the country side. Seems like every time we play people like us and we get more bookings. I have been learning a whole new right-hand technique on the guitar, and in fact Clapton was doing some stuff last night that I want to try. He was also doing an unusual vibrato with his index finger, I want to look into that. Our band is three old guys playing old songs, but we are not really an oldies band, I think of it as going back to the roots of rock and roll. We play songs that come from the period starting when white guys, country musicians, began recording music by black artists in a style emulating R&B, and going until about when the Beatles came and the music industry realized there was a lot of money to be made from this teenage music. I like to capture the energy of that time, when Gene Vincent and the Blue Caps and Johnny Burnette and Jerry Lee Lewis were going crazy in a controlled way, eliciting emotions and expressing a way that people felt and still feel today, though music now has become a corporate mass-produced product. We'll be at the Quarry House in Silver Spring in two weeks and are looking forward to that. It's a cool little place, down underground under an Indian restaurant, I have heard that it has been open continuously since Prohibition was repealed. If you go there, you have to have their tater-tots. It's not that there's anything special about them, but you've got to have them. There is just something perfect about sitting down there in that shotgun cavern drinking a beer and eating tater-tots.

Well, I'm sitting here at the kitchen table looking out at a beautiful, hot summer day, where the grass in my front yard is, well, let's say, it's up to your ankles. I have a shaggy lawn. I see the Peruvians streaming to the schoolyard for their soccer and picnics and folk-dancing, and there are a couple of yard-sale signs nailed to the telephone pole. I know what I have to do, I have to get up from this computer and go out there and knock the grass back. Come on, can't you think of a reason for me to put that off? Oh, okay, here I go.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

Gay Groups Turning on Obama Over DOMA Defense

The gay groups are seething, and I can't blame them.
President Obama’s Justice Department filed legal papers late Thursday to dismiss the first same sex marriage case filed in federal court.

The Justice Department defended the Defense Of Marriage Act, or DOMA, which as a candidate then-Sen. Obama opposed, saying that the plaintiffs Arthur Smelt and Christopher Hammer are seeking a ruling on "whether by virtue of their marital status they are constitutionally entitled to acknowledgment of their union by states that do not recognize same-sex marriage, and whether they are similarly entitled to certain federal benefits. Under the law binding on this Court, the answer to these questions must be no.” Obama Justice Department Defends Defense Of Marriage Act – That Candidate Obama Opposed

There is bound to be some lag, I suppose, as one administration takes over the other's agencies, projects that were started earlier tend to move forward. Maybe this was something the Bush administration started that the Obama guys didn't notice.
Justice spokeswoman Tracy Schmaler said that President Obama “has said he wants to see a legislative repeal of the Defense of Marriage Act because it prevents LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) couples from being granted equal rights and benefits," she said. "However, until Congress passes legislation repealing the law, the administration will continue to defend the statute when it is challenged in the justice system."

That is whitewash, sorry. One way the executive branch executes is by deciding what cases to pursue and what ones to drop. They decided to pursue this one. As CBS News put it:
It's true that the Justice Department is generally tasked with defending acts of Congress. Then again, Bill Clinton's DOJ refused to defend the abortion speech-related provisions of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, and a law mandating criminal penalties for giving paid Medicaid planning advice. Gay activist and Washington lawyer John Aravosis notes other examples of DOJ declining-to-defend.

If Mr. Obama felt strongly enough, or Attorney General Eric Holder believed DOMA was execrable enough, the DOJ could have taken a similar position in court here. At least the president could have coupled his administration's brief of DOMA with a speech calling on Congress to repeal it. Gay Rights Groups Irate After Obama Administration Lauds Defense Of Marriage Act

Aravosis' blog, linked in the CBS post, is worth following up on. AmericaBlog has been following this and linking to other blogs. The consensus is that Obama has abandoned the gay community with this action. The administration's arguments in this case undermined the gay community's positions vehemently, it is not simply a legal defense, it is a counterattack on those who believe marriage should be an option for loving couples regardless of their sex.

Here is the press release that was released yesterday by a lot of groups joined together:

We are very surprised and deeply disappointed in the manner in which the Obama administration has defended the so-called Defense of Marriage Act against Smelt v. United States, a lawsuit brought in federal court in California by a married same-sex couple asking the federal government to treat them equally with respect to federal protections and benefits. The administration is using many of the same flawed legal arguments that the Bush administration used. These arguments rightly have been rejected by several state supreme courts as legally unsound and obviously discriminatory.

We disagree with many of the administration’s arguments, for example that DOMA is a valid exercise of Congress’s power, is consistent with Equal Protection or Due Process principles, and does not impinge upon rights that are recognized as fundamental.

We are also extremely disturbed by a new and nonsensical argument the administration has advanced suggesting that the federal government needs to be “neutral” with regard to its treatment of married same-sex couples in order to ensure that federal tax money collected from across the country not be used to assist same-sex couples duly married by their home states. There is nothing “neutral” about the federal government’s discriminatory denial of fair treatment to married same-sex couples: DOMA wrongly bars the federal government from providing any of the over one thousand federal protections to the many thousands of couples who marry in six states. This notion of “neutrality” ignores the fact that while married same-sex couples pay their full share of income and social security taxes, they are prevented by DOMA from receiving the corresponding same benefits that married heterosexual taxpayers receive. It is the married same-sex couples, not heterosexuals in other parts of the country, who are financially and personally damaged in significant ways by DOMA. For the Obama administration to suggest otherwise simply departs from both mathematical and legal reality.

When President Obama was courting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender voters, he said that he believed that DOMA should be repealed. We ask him to live up to his emphatic campaign promises, to stop making false and damaging legal arguments, and immediately to introduce a bill to repeal DOMA and ensure that every married couple in America has the same access to federal protections. LGBT Legal And Advocacy Groups Decry Obama Administration's Defense of DOMA

The statement was signed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Gay and Lesbian Advocates and Defenders (GLAD), Lambda Legal, the National Center for Lesbian Rights, Human Rights Campaign, and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force -- groups across the full spectrum of gay-rights-supporting organizations.

Obama campaigned on a message of hope and fairness for all people. Progressive voters supported him a hundred fifty percent, and breathed a gigantic sigh of relief as soon as he was sworn in -- until a few minutes later when evangelist preacher Rick Warren gave the benediction. Where Obama had promised to throw out the don't ask, don't tell policy for the military, after he was in office he revised his views and now it appears the administration is going "study" the idea, e.g., do nothing. The Defense of Marriage Act is a major impediment to getting full rights for gay couples across the country. It was not necessary to oppose it vigorously if the President was afraid of losing the nuttier voters, all he had to do was enforce it weakly, let cases drop -- the passive approach is always politically wiser, as it leaves less room for blame. Instead Obama has chosen to defend DOMA vehemently in court.

Maybe the Democratic Party doesn't need the progressive voters. Maybe now that they're the status quo they can appeal to the middle and ignore those who want equality for all. I don't know what they're thinking.