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February 1 - 5, 1999

Tuesday, February 2, 1999

People will talk

It must be a joke, I thought, a poor parody of PC pigheadedness. "Resignation for Alleged Slur --- Official Used Word 'Niggardly,'" a headline in the Chronicle said last Thursday. David Howard, a white aide to Washington's new black mayor, Anthony A. Williams, had stepped down from his post as director of constituent services after colleagues complained about his alleged racist language. The news service story closed with a paragraph that turned out to be part of a week-long, nationwide vocabulary lesson, noting the offending word's "Scandinavian derivation" and defining it as "grudgingly mean about spending or granting."

The ensuing brouhaha revived memories of a bit of effective political lunacy that occurred during the 1950 Democratic primary in Florida, when conservative George Smathers took on Claude Pepper for the senatorial nomination. The poor liberal incumbent didn't have a chance after Smathers toured the state, characterizing him as a "shameless extrovert" with a "thespian" sister living in New York. Fifty years later, it seems, mysterious unknown words still have the power to puncture rising careers.

After the confrontation in Washington, logophiles across the country leaped enthusiastically into the fray. In the San Francisco Examiner, Rob Morse spun out a thesaural thread of words and phrases that maybe possibly might have derogatory overtones: "Do you get the heebie-jeebies, or feel waspish, when a niggardly opponent in straight pool welshes on a bet?" Richard Dooling chimed in, worrying on the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal, "What about 'whopper' or 'spick-and-span' or 'a finger in the dike'?" And in the Washington Times, editor-in-chief Wesley Pruden grumbled, "Should we behead mothers overheard offering their babies a 'cracker'?"

My own irreverent brain began to envision other "sounds like" situations that could upset overly sensitive listeners. Should my parents' bridge club take to bidding "two shovels" in order to prevent the discomfort of the African-American members, or better yet, should they remove the entire suit --- or both black ones --- from each deck of cards? (By the same token, I wondered whether, during the McCarthy period, they should have considered playing without any red cards to forestall suggestions of guilt by association.) I even imagined an impassioned picket line of sex workers marching toward the North Pole, determined to dissuade Santa Claus from his deleterious habit of shouting "Ho ho ho!" as he delivered Christmas presents.

When details of the situation emerged, it became clear that a lot more was involved than mere lexicography. There always is. Harvard-educated Mayor Williams was battling image problems in a city where the topic of race often throbs like a open sore. In mid-January an article in the Washington Post had hinted that, unless Williams adopted the arrogance of his predecessor Marion Barry, residents would doubt that he was "truly black." At the same time, the Washington Times, no lover of Washington's freewheeling urban politics, posited that Howard's accuser "wanted his job." And sexual politics inflicted another painful wound. Because Howard is a homosexual, gay activists charged that his firing "sent a poisonous message" by failing to "distinguish between decent people and bigoted people."

Nevertheless, sitting right smack in the middle of the ruckus, like a fat little frog on a bright green lily pad, is the fact that this is a squabble about a word. Words, as psycholinguists have told us for years, are never neutral. Every time they are used, they become part of a social event and acquire overtones from it.

NAACP chairman Julian Bond can try to defuse the hostilities by saying, "You hate to think you have to censor your language to meet other people's lack of understanding." The Washington Times can fulminate that "we've become the stupid people, defining dumb down." And indeed, it's impossible to deny the illogic of a resentment based on an un-understood word that has no similarity to anything that exists in the English language --- what on earth did Howard's listeners think he was saying?


"But," says Courtland Milloy, veteran African-American columnist at the Washington Post, "the fact remains that, in the back of my mind, I still question any white person who says 'niggardly' to me when they could have said 'miserly.'" And any white person who walks past a young black man with a boom box blasting the carefully crafted lyrics of 2Pac or Def Squad will still question his peaceful intentions. In this era of newly discovered diversity, we all have what Julian Bond calls "a hair-trigger sensibility....Both real and imagined slights are catapulted to the front burner."

At long last, Americans are beginning to realize that not everyone speaks the same language. For some, it's frightening or infuriating. History professor Alan Kors protests, "We're living in an astonishing state of terror under political correctness. People now must be responsible for the [inferred] meanings of their words." The problem, however, lies not in the people but in the words. Nobody --- no class, race or gender --- owns them. We can try, like Lewis Carroll's Humpty Dumpty, to make them answer only to us. But in fact, the rambunctious little rascals like nothing better than to escape from the grasp of their putative masters and assume a life of their own.

Thank heaven, they do. How boring to be forced to communicate within a structure of monochromatic meanings. How healthy to be able to partake of the wonderful nuances that words acquire when they've been used by many different people.

I share the purists' horror at verbal sloth. Ignorance is crippling. But the present mode of approaching language, with antennae extended, will ultimately enrich it and make it more precise. Remember when you neared puberty and discovered that every word contained sexual innuendoes? Common phrases --- prick up your ears; life is just a bowl of cherries --- became subjects of hilarity. Eventually, the mania subsided, but the additional layer of meaning remained, forever bringing new color to old usages.

And so it will be with the new stage we've entered. Mark my words.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, February 3, 1999

Ticket to ride

I've always felt that one of the city's most subtly incandescent political moments occurred when Mayor Art Agnos hurried to the Marina to confront the unannounced visit of Vice President Dan Quayle in the immediate aftermath of the Loma Prieta earthquake.

In the perennial campaign which typified George Bush's term, California was never out of mind as a sine qua non political plum, and Quayle's arrival was correctly viewed as an attempt to utilize the crisis situation in this traditional Democratic stronghold for a quick and nasty usurpation of local leadership's caretaker role. It was a blatant parry by the Republicans, and provoked a swaggering in-your-face response from Agnos. I'd always imagined that the simultaneous utterance from both men upon meeting must have sounded suspiciously like, "Surprise, motherfucker!"

In protecting his turf, Agnos was witting of another nugget of political reality: The Democratic Party's regular scan of the mayorships of San Francisco for potential vice-presidential fodder. Along the lines of baseball clubs seeking shortstops in the Dominican, this has become an inbred first-instinct within the party's hierarchy. Agnos' predecessors Joe Alioto and Dianne Feinstein were both considered seriously in that process during the '68 and '84 presidential campaigns. Similarly, in the other camp, Eisenhower had thought highly of former mayor George Christopher as a potential running mate in 1956.

And so it was not surprising that Al Gore evinced a conspiratorial grin recently when a reporter quipped about how he felt having a choice of two San Franciscans as possible vice presidential candidates. This is Feinstein's second time around with this, and one must suspect that her sense of perspective might have her forego a wait of eight years in veep Siberia before getting a shot at the top job. This is a woman very astute about the particular confines of the limelight, whose ambitiousness has tended toward immediate gratification. Add the consideration of her age to the equation, and the long-standing perception of her singular "centrism" as incipiently Thatcherist, and even an odds-on attainment of the grail as the first-woman-ever may seem much less enticing.

And then, of course, there's Willie.

One could not imagine a more dampening impact upon the fortunes of this city than to have Brown conceiving of himself as a possible addition to a presidential ticket. In a city which has increasingly become unable to deal with its problems, and in which Brown's imperial heavy-handedness is seen as the chief obstacle to solutions, San Francisco's notional and sustaining progressivism now receives an added overlay of nation-state neoliberalism to bolster our local pitchman's corporate shilling.

Unlike Dianne, Willie will not hesitate to accept an offer. Brown's patented ceremonial orientation, his legislative-body cloakroom renown and his love of travel certainly stand him in good stead for the vice presidency. I'm reminded of a description of George Moscone by a friend who once worked for him: "He was a guy who never looked beyond the possibility that some day he might own an Alfa Romeo." The remark --- made in the spirit of true devotion, I can assure you --- packed volumes into its interstices. But it's the differences between Moscone and Brown which are more truly revelatory, and readily apparent in their respective grounding and approach. One remained true to shared mentor Phil Burton's municipal vision; the other splintered off to catwalk vogue-ing for the benefit of CEOs, and to the ministrations of a private haberdasher and the clink of fine crystal, convinced that they are, in fact, policy itself.

There is, of course, a set piece surrounding a possible Brown vice-presidential run, and it's ominous beyond belief. As the Republicans hint at the choice of Rudolph Giuliani for the second spot, the inclination of the Democrats to counter with their own brand of urban wizardry thus becomes a paramount consideration. And, indeed, for some years now, Brown has sensed Rudy's looming shadow. During that span, globalization's sweep has dismembered the familiar fabric of city life across the country, leaving New York with a million people on the welfare rolls, and San Francisco with a host of intractable problems. Giuliani's subsequent crackdown reminds us of that old bit of inherited wisdom which holds that, all in all, the privileged rather enjoy fascist rule. Brown, in more problematic fashion, has a left-liberal legacy he is loath to admit he has disowned and, in the interests of skewed ambition and derring-do image-maintenance, goes about constructing an obstinately shrill and patently absurd synthesis of the already-unitary agenda of New Democrats and right-wing Republicans.

At present, at least on paper, Brown is treading water well. The city has a substantial financial surplus, and he has as yet no announced opponent for the next mayoral election. His having packed the Board of Supervisors should ensure some months of continuing legislative victories, and the election of Gray Davis may well be of some benefit to him. More pertinently, his use of Amos Brown to scourge the homeless provides him a sufficient buffer against accusations of outright callousness.

As he certainly must be envisaging, by November 2000 --- when district elections are held and he stands to lose his hold over the Board --- the mayor's presence on the national ticket will mean he has escaped the crucible. In the meantime, Brown must stifle the possibility of three swing votes consistently emerging on the Board. He must hope that Gavin Newsom doesn't emerge from the stern glare of "Mommie Dearest," Barbara Kaufman; that his new appointee, Alicia Becerril, isn't independent-minded; and that a third vote isn't swayed by momentum. Because there is so much general enmity toward him, a few 6-5 losses and Brown is indisputably cooked politically. He won't like it, but he shouldn't be surprised.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, February 5, 1999

Flash! There's actual news out there!

Last September, Global Exchange, the San Francisco activist organization which has organized educational tours to the developing world for the past ten years, was served a "cease and desist" order from the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. OFAC demanded that Global Exchange stop organizing travel to Cuba for U.S. citizens and provide the names of all participants on such trips since March 1996. Global Exchange is the largest U.S. provider of travel services to Cuba, and has taken more than 5,000 people there during the last decade.

For four years, the organization has submitted numerous travel providers license applications to the Treasury Department, to no avail, and has recently requested a formal meeting with department officials. Global Exchange's Cuban tours, its directors point out, focus on the cultural, religious, economic, environmental and public health aspects of Cuban society, and are plainly within the "clearly defined educational purpose" category of licensable travel as stipulated by OFAC's own regulations.

Pam Montanaro is GE's Cuba Program Coordinator. (

* * *

More than one million Venezuelans cheered Cuban President Fidel Castro Tuesday during and following a speech by new Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez at his swearing-in ceremony. Chavez, a charismatic populist who campaigned on a platform of freezing debt payments and taking a hard look at "savage capitalism," was repeatedly interrupted as the crowd hailed the visit from the Cuban leader, who last month hosted a 22-nation Havana conference on globalization and the problems of development.

As Castro met with several hundred business executives in an event sponsored by the Caracas Chamber of Commerce, Venezuelan Foreign Minister Jose Vincente Rangel called the U.S. embargo against the island "an ominous threat by a huge power against a fraternal people." Rangel announced that President Chavez intends to broaden relations with Havana, and added that many investors in his country are interested in doing business with Cuba.

Also traveling was Cuban Vice President Carlos Lage, who signed an accord the same day with Spain, aimed at eliminating double taxation on exports between the two countries. This is the first such agreement Cuba has signed with another country, and is intended to enhance the booming bilateral trade with Spain, its leading commercial partner. Madrid also announced that it will help ameliorate one of Castro's long-standing concerns and convert Cuba's debt arrears with Spain into foreign investment programs. (NY Transfer News Collective

* * *

The historic strike of Mexican mineworkers in 1906 in Cananea, Sonora, which was brutally repressed by the dictatorship of Porfirio Diaz, heralded the outburst of the Mexican Revolution of 1910. It resulted in the nationalization of the Cananea copper mines --- the largest in Mexico and third largest in the world.

In 1989, Cananea was invaded by the Mexican Army. Five thousand soldiers occupied the town to prevent any resistance from the mineworkers to the impending closure of the mines, based on the fraudulent claim of bankruptcy. The mines are vital to the community; 90 percent of the local populace depend on them for their livelihood. It took the protracted fight of the mineworkers and the Women's Front of Cananea to force the authorities to reopen the pits.

In 1990, the Mexican government privatized the mines, selling them for $450 million to Jorge Larrea, one of the wealthiest men in Mexico. The real value of the mines was estimated at $3 billion. Within months, close to 40 percent of the workforce was laid off. Today only 2,070 workers are left, and the threats of more job losses continue.

Larrea, a close friend of former President Carlos Salinas de Gortari, now in exile in Ireland, is the principal shareholder of the recently privatized Sonora railway system. Soon after he bought the company, Larrea laid off 700 workers in Empalme and a similar number in Benjamin Hill, both of which are ghost towns today. Larrea is presently seeking to buy the port of Guaymas.

In recent months, the company escalated its assault upon the mineworkers and the community. It began by openly violating fundamental aspects of the collective bargaining agreement in the name of cost-cutting. The company then closed down the treatment plant, where industrial waste from the processing plant was treated before flowing into the local river. Also closed were the smelting and storage plants, and it was announced that 800 more workers (out of the remaining 2,070) would be laid off.

As a consequence, the mineworkers' union (Section 65 of the National Mineworkers Union of the Mexican Republic) went out on strike on November 18, 1998. Arrest warrants have been issued against leaders of the union, and authorities have harassed strikers who have attempted to elicit support from workers in neighboring communities. Gemma Lopez Limon, who heads a human rights committee in Mexicali, will forward your statements to Mexican authorities. (

* * *

The Oregon farmworker union PCUN (Northwest Treeplanters and Farmworkers United) is fighting four bills recently introduced in the state legislature: HB 2401 exempts agricultural employers with 10 or fewer employees from requirements to have a workplace safety committee; HB 2402 exempts corporate farm officers and members from occupational safety and health requirements; HB 2403 excludes seasonal farmworkers when determining the need for workplace safety committees; HB 2405 prohibits Oregon-OSHA from issuing citations and notice of civil penalty for non-serious violations discovered during first inspection or investigation during a calendar year. (503-982-0243;

* * *

Professor Ken Noe, State University of West Georgia, writes: "The January 18 issue of the Lexington (Ky.) Herald-Leader reported that the site of the 1862 Battle of Richmond, the most decided Confederate victory in the Civil War, will be transformed into subdivisions and a golf course. The developer will place markers on the course, name streets at Battlefield Estates and Battlefield Place for generals involved in the battle, and preserve a house used as a hospital by turning it into a pro shop/museum. The golf club's logo will depict a cannon firing golf balls at a golfer. The Madison County Historical Society has approved of the developer's plans, noting that much of the field already was lost to earlier development and that a little preservation is preferable to none. The current minister of Mount Zion Church, which also figured prominently in the battle, expressed hopes that the development will increase his church's membership." (Parallel Universe News Service)

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

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