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January 4 - 8, 1999

Tuesday, January 5, 1999

O brave new year

The first few days of 1999 are venturing down the road laden with enough significance to make the strongest beast of burden stagger. Millennium madness has truly set in --- if nothing else, this turn of the century may teach us that the word has two m's, two i's, two l's and, yes, two n's --- and millions of eyes and camcorders have turned inward, fixed firmly on the nearest navel in anticipation of midnight, December 31, 1999. Acronyms announce our anxieties. In the United States Y2K has become a signifier-for-all occasions, suggesting the end of the world, bureaucratic chaos, the triumph of technology or all three. In the EU, the euro has arrived, with as yet unfathomable but assuredly revolutionary consequences. All over the world, the UN, the IMF, and the WTO are scurrying to hot spots, frantically dampening sparks only to discover new ones nearby.

Disruptive remnants of the fading but still ferocious Year of the Tiger have spilled over into the first days of January. They assume a variety of forms: local hooligans in an ugly game of charades, trashing cars and newsracks under a full moon to act out the word "lunatic"; national rowdies playing senatorial capture-the-flag, hastily conspiring in icy Washington to wreak Republican retribution on the Clinton administration. But into their midst, marching bravely and determinedly like the Energizer bunny, comes the Year of the Rabbit, congenial, conciliatory, and compassionate.

Its signs are everywhere, little possibilities of hope that come hopping right into the den of habitual cynicism. Nothing flashy like the striped feline that prowled last year's precincts. Nothing grandiose like the powerful dragon that will usher in the year 2000. Just a few warm fuzzy reminders that life is not all bad on this blue-and-green ball spinning through space.

How else to explain the euphoria that swept San Francisco Sunday? One split second was all it took to muffle Eddie DeBartolo's babblings (as well as public rumblings  over giant Coke bottles and stadium commercialization) and to make room for a moment of pure athletic joy. "He caught it! He caught it! He hasn't caught onto anything --- including his finger --- all day, and he caught it," Joe Starkey screamed. Sure, it was an awkward game, filled with fumbles. Sure, Steve Young moved inelegantly, almost tripping over his own feet as he threw the final pass. But one bone-jarring catch by a wide receiver preempted all these imperfections. As Terrell Owens clutched the football to his chest, he redeemed not only his own earlier blunders but also his supporters' faltering faith.

Hyperbolic metaphors and raw emotions are the stuff of sports reporting, but the friendly little rabbit has climbed over the fence and stolen into the customarily cautious vegetable garden of politics-as-usual, as well. How else to account for the astonishingly direct tone of the simultaneous inaugurations that turned attention toward Northern California yesterday? Particularly in light of the grandiloquent cant that has recently characterized national politics, the installations of Mayor Brown and Governor Davis were almost frightening in their avoidance of pontificating piffle.

It wasn't that the old rules had been discarded, but more that they'd been redefined. Some of the day's novelty sprang from the topsy-turvy nature of its elements. Here was a former governor being sworn in as mayor of his state's seventh largest city, while his former aide was being sworn in as governor. A former seminarian in love with the play of earthly power exulted, "Politics is real in this town." A Vietnam veteran vowed an unremitting war against the NRA; a practicing Catholic promised no infringement of abortion rights "on my watch."  Two white males stood determined to foster a truly diverse democratic society.

Neither man had seemed half so human during his campaign as he did at the moment of assuming office. Jerry Brown, who sat somber as a Sicilian don through most of the proceedings, smiled with apparent pleasure as he took his oath, saying "I will" in a fluty tenor. Gray Davis, usually as wooden a speechifier as Richard Nixon, appeared relaxed and gracious, his Bronx nasalities softening as he proudly recited the oath of office. Each adopted a Biblical theme: Brown, the charity of Corinthians; Davis, the knowledge of Isaiah. And each indulged in symbolic rituals: Brown distributing a thousand acorns to stand for the seeds of change; Davis performing a smart salute to honor past military service.

But it was content, not style, that made these ceremonies remarkable. Both men invoked the kind of old-fashioned patriotism that Republicans of late have tended to coopt and corrupt. The auditoriums in Oakland and Sacramento rang with references to historical greatness --- with a twist. These were no ideological pieties in support of the status quo but rather pragmatic expressions of faith in the power of past lessons to solve present problems. Brown, in a moonbean riff, linked the green of technology and the green of nature in a renaissance of "what it means to be in a democratic society." Davis put it more succinctly: Lasting values, new directions.  Brown exhorted, "Make this city what it should be." Davis sought an era of higher expectations.  Each in his own way, and just as dramatically as Terrell Owens, preached redemption.

The fervor of today's convocations will fade and I, at least, will undoubtedly go back to my suspicious take on the maneuverings of politicians. The problems that these new administrations are tackling will turn out to be more formidable than expected, and compromises will undoubtedly spawn disappointment once again. But for once, it was a blessing to remember that human beings are not simply base creatures, motivated by self-interest. That with the proper encouragement, they can aspire to moral decisions and altruistic actions.

In the early days of television, Walter Cronkite hosted a program dramatizing important historical events. He always closed with these words: What kind of day was it? A day like all days, filled with events that alter and illuminate our times. And you were there.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

Wednesday, January 6, 1999

All the news that fits

The following selections from a Robert Fisk column appeared in the British daily The Independent. Ask yourselves if a staff member of a mainstream American paper could get something like this into print:

We are now in the endgame, the final bankruptcy of Western policy towards Iraq, the very last throw of the dice. We fire 200 cruise missiles into Iraq and what do we expect? Is a chastened Saddam Hussein going to emerge from his bunker to explain to us how sorry he is? Will he tell us how much he wants those nice UN inspectors to return to Baghdad to find his "weapons of mass destruction"? Is that what we think? Is that what the Anglo-American bombardment is all about? And if so, what happens afterwards?...In so infantile a manner did we go to war. No policies. No perspective. Not the slightest hint as to what happens after the bombardment ends. With no UN inspectors back in Iraq, what are we going to do? Declare eternal war against Iraq?...The UN weapons inspectors --- led for most of the time by Scott Ritter (the man who has admitted he kept flying to Israel to liaise with Israeli military intelligence), could not find out where Saddam's nuclear, biological and chemical weapons were hidden. They had been harassed by Iraq's intelligence thugs, and prevented from doing their work. Now we are bombing the weapons facilities which the inspectors could not find. Or are we? For there is a very serious question that is not being asked: If the inspectors couldn't find the weapons, how come we know where to fire the cruise missiles?...Now we are bombing the people who are suffering under our sanctions. Not to mention the small matter of the explosion of child cancer in southern Iraq, most probably as a result of the Allied use of depleted uranium shells during the 1991 war. Gulf war veterans may be afflicted with the same sickness, although the British Government refuses to contemplate the possibility. And what, in this latest strike, are some of our warheads made of? Depleted uranium, of course....We are supposed to believe, it seems, that Washington and London are terribly keen to favour the Iraqi people with a fully fledged democracy. In reality, what we want in Iraq is another bullying dictator --- but one who will do as he is told, invade the countries we wish to see invaded (Iran), and respect the integrity of those countries we do not wish to see invaded (Kuwait)....Yet no questions are being asked, no lies uncovered. Ritter, the Marine Corps inspector who worked with Israeli intelligence, claimed that Richard Butler --- the man whose report triggered this week's new war --- was aware of his visits to Israel. Is that true? Has anyone asked Mr. Butler? He may well have avoided such contacts --- but it would be nice to have an answer....So what to do with Saddam? Well, first, we could abandon the wicked sanctions regime against Iraq. We have taken enough innocent lives. We have killed enough children. Then we could back the real supporters of democracy in Iraq- not the ghouls and spooks who make up the so-called Iraqi National Congress, but the genuine dissidents who gathered in Beirut in 1991 to demand freedom for their country, but were swiftly ignored by the Americans once it became clear that they didn't want a pro-Western strongman to lead them....Two Christian armies --- America's and Britain's --- went to war with a Muslim nation, Iraq. With no goals, but with an army of platitudes, they have abandoned the UN's weapons control system, closed the door on arms inspections, and opened the door to an unlimited military offensive against Iraq. And nobody has asked the obvious question: What happens next?

* * *

And then we have the obverse: plausibly left/progressive journalists whose recent offerings, emitted from behind the protective ramparts of large publishing institutions, smack of their hosts' careerist prudence. To wit, two prominent locals: Peter Byrne, until recently a self-publishing gadfly of some distinction, and now a staffer for the lamentable SF Weekly, lately decomposing into shabby apolitical contrarianism. And Pia Hinckle, lefty scion, whose attic days were spent in alternative foment at the Bay Guardian and who is now Business Editor of the Examiner. Byrne is now able to pay the rent, courtesy of his disingenuous and calibrated rant last month against Muni and its workers. Hinckle's business page Monday fronted one of the more ghastly corporate-shill pieces I've seen in some time, taken off the wire from Bloomberg News, lauding the beneficence of NAFTA upon Mexico and the U.S.

* * *

During the November demonstrations calling for closure of the U.S. Army School of the Americas at Fort Benning, an overlooked portion of the school's notorious manual on torture and execution served as a rhetorical highlight of the demonstrators. The manual advocated targeting those who: do "union organizing or recruiting"; pass out "propaganda in favor of the interests of workers"; "sympathize with demonstrations or strikes"; and "make accusations that government has failed to meet the basic needs of the people."

Hours after NAFTA went into effect, the Mexican military and its cadre of SOA-trained officers moved in with helicopters and artillery to halt worker opposition. Mexico now sends more soldiers to the SOA than any other country.

* * *

You'll recall how American press magnates closed ranks in assent around the denunciation of the Cincinnati Enquirer's reportorial methods in exposing questionable Chiquita Brands business practices in Central America. None of those cited practices have ever been disproved, of course, and one can only conclude that the press' professional embarrassment has kept it from covering U.S. banana production companies' dealings with their Central American workforces in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. Along with Dole and Del Monte, Chiquita is attempting to use the devastation of Honduran, Nicaraguan and Guatemalan groves to reconfigure their medium- and long-term plans for the region. The companies have availed themselves of Mitch's havoc to negotiate wage concessions and cutbacks in health care, and have closed some plantations.

The larger context of this issue --- as with so many other interlinked facets of globalization --- naturally isn't much in evidence in pages like Hinckle's. The notion of class concerns as old hat typifies financially-beleaguered media institutions; their identification with U.S. global economic penetration rather soothes advertisers. In this instance, that becomes clear in the realization that the backdrop of the conflict between hemispheric banana companies and their workers is the imminent tariff war between the U.S. and the European Union over the latter's closed banana market. More precisely, it is the European insistence on protecting its long traditions of local producers, trade unions and the fabric of its social safety net.

--- Copyright John Hutchison 1999

Friday, January 8, 1999

These, the homeless, tempest-toss'd

Quite a tempest has been spinning recently in the little teapot known as San Francisco, all because some of the city's people have the impertinence to live on the city's streets and some of the others don't like it. A noisy hubbub has erupted, with a lot of speakers saying a lot of contradictory things.

The storm has been raging for some time, but a couple of outsider voices have just upped the ante. One, in the form of a report --- actually, an update of a previous, similar report called "Mean Sweeps" --- issued by the National Law Center on Homelessness and Poverty (http://www.nlchp.org) classes San Francisco among the five worst U.S. cities in its treatment of homeless people. While these municipal meanies are busy criminalizing the denizens of their streets, the report charges, "resources to shelter homeless people or to help them to become self-sufficient are sorely lacking." According to Our Mayor, the Washington-based advocacy organization is "probably...some group that doesn't want us to do the right thing"; according to the Law Center's mission statement, it wants us to address the problem of homelessness by fixing our shortage of affordable housing, raising insufficient income levels and providing adequate social services. If this is the wrong thing, I'll leave you to figure out what Our Mayor sees as right, although the other outsider voice offers a clue.

The other voice surfaced in an Examiner op-ed piece titled "Out-of-control homeless problem harms S.F." Brian C. Anderson, senior editor of the Manhattan Institute's City Journal, where the article first appeared, and Investor's Business Daily writer Matt Robinson contrast the approaches to homelessness of San Francisco and New York (another of the Law Center's municipal meanies) "with predictable results....Under the pressure of homelessness, the collapse of public order has grown intolerable" during Willie Brown's tenure as mayor. Collapse of public order? These New Yorkers seem to be afflicted with the East Coast's customary discomfort at our free-and-easy streetside manners. Even Carolyn Diamond of the Market Street Association, who sees homelessness as a giant house-cleaning problem, would have trouble swallowing the image of the city as a scary acid flashback. But these outsiders do offer an answer to the Spike Lee question of the previous paragraph: In their eyes, it's what Operation Matrix did, not only making San Francisco a friendlier place but also drawing $4 billion in tourism to the Bay Area.

Caught in the middle is Our Mayor, who just wants to enjoy the view from his shiny new gilded cage. It's an idyllic vision. "There will be," he says, "little kids playing and dogs walking. The homeless are not going to sleep in the parks or occupy the parks." If not there, then where? Now that the city government has moved out of the Veterans' Building, maybe there's room for a few sleeping bags in the old supervisors' chambers.

* * *

But let's let the outsiders fight it out among themselves first.

Anderson and Robinson say, Because of San Francisco's misguidedly generous benefits policies in the past, "hordes of homeless people, many addicted or addled, descended on The City, transforming Civic Center Plaza...into what was aptly dubbed the 'Mecca of America's unwashed.'"

The Law Center says, "Studies have shown that homeless people do not migrate for services. To the extent that they do move to new areas, it is because they are searching for work, have family in the area, or [for] other reasons not related to services."

Anderson and Robinson say, Operation Matrix turned things around. Because the program punished crimes like urinating in the street, "serious crime dropped 25 percent, and public feelings of safety grew."

The Law Center says, "Homeless people actually commit less violent crimes than housed people...: although homeless people were more likely to commit non-violent and non-destructive crimes, they were actually less likely to commit crimes against person or property."

Anderson and Robinson praise the "crime-fighting strategy that has since worked wonders in New York City," which enforces "long-unused ordinances that forbade public drunkenness, sleeping in public, obstructing sidewalks and a host of other quality-of-life offenses."

The Law Center says, Watch out! "Governments may violate the Constitution if they single out homeless people for punishment, limit free speech, punish involuntary behavior or unreasonably seize or destroy property." The danger signals:

* * *

Do you have the feeling we've heard this argument before? And yet, in spite of all the words, the problem persists. It's bad enough for a city of 7.5 million like New York to have a homeless population of 25,000. But for a city of 750,000 to include 15,000 people with no permanent residence? That's a schanda, as my Uncle Irving used to say. Now is the time, I say, to stop all the palaver and recognize that homelessness is not another word for lawlessness. It's a symptom of a life-threatening social illness that demands immediate treatment. Would it be so difficult to declare a state of emergency and begin to institute some desperately needed changes? The quality of thousands of lives is at stake.

And in the meantime, you guys hanging out in U.N. Plaza, would you do something that will make Our Mayor happy? Get a dog.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1999

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