Monthly Archives: January 2015

Nick Licata: An Appreciation

Seattle City Councilman and former council president Nick Licata made official today what many people expected: he will not run for re-election in 2015, retiring after 18 eventful years on city council:

“I’ve been lucky to have an exciting life filled with challenges taken on voluntarily, not out of hardship.

“Perhaps the greatest challenge we all face is the need to improve the lives of Americans who are seeing their future increasingly impeded by the outrageous growing concentration of wealth, and I would add power, in this nation.

“No one city can resolve this problem. But Seattle has done much in attempting to do so. I would like to play more of an active role in that effort. And see what I can do to have Seattle’s accomplishments duplicated elsewhere.

“I hope after my current term ends this year that I may have that opportunity in some capacity. So, I will not seek re-election.”

Local politicos immediately pivoted to speculation on this year’s council races. Licata and sometimes-ally Mike O’Brien both live in the same district, so Licata’s retirement allows O’Brien to run for his district seat and for both to avoid running against a fellow incumbent (Sally Clark or Tim Burgess, neither of whom face serious opposition as yet) for an at-large seat. But before immersing themselves in this year’s horse race speculation, the city’s political class would do well to stop and pay homage to one of the most significant and effective council members in modern Seattle history.

First, the disclaimer: Nick has been an acquaintance, casual friend, and political ally of mine for nearly a quarter century. I first met him in the early ’90s, when he and a mutual friend both lived in an urban land trust on Capitol Hill called PRAG House. I worked with him in 1995-96 in the futile effort to block public funding of not one but two sports stadiums, opposed by the public but built anyway. The visibility from those campaigns helped fuel his successful run for city council in 1997, the last unabashed progressive to be elected to council until Kshama Sawant 16 long years later.

In that race, Licata narrowly defeated Aaron Ostrom, who insisted – with the backing of much of the city’s political elite – that he was the true progressive in the race. Ostrom went on to found and still leads Washington FUSE, a “progressive” activist group that endorsed the execrable Richard Conlin over Sawant in 2013. That arc is pretty much a microcosm of what Licata has faced throughout his council career: a civic establishment that prides itself on its progressivism, so long as all the money goes to the Right People.

Over the years, I haven’t always agreed with Nick. But having been an activist for nearly 40 years (!), and a paid political journalist and commentator for nearly 20, I’m comfortable that I’m separating both my friendship and my politics out of the equation when I say the following:

Nick Licata is the best elected official I have ever known. At any level. Period.

Despite having been the most left-leaning council member for most of his tenure, Licata has more high-profile accomplishments than any of his colleagues. (Do you like that Seattle requires paid health leave for our city’s businesses? Thank Nick.) But most of what has separated Nick from any other elected official I’ve ever seen is the stuff behind the scenes.

Before his election to council, Nick worked writing insurance policies. As it turned out, that’s ideal training for serving on city council, especially in Seattle. Much of the job is dull, and much of the way our city’s economic elites feed at the public trough is buried in the details of legislation that doesn’t make the news: zoning changes, city budget line items, and other bills that are genuinely soporific bedtime reading. The devil, in Seattle politics, is almost always in the details, and Licata has been masterful at getting language changes that make decent proposals good and awful ones less awful. In the perennial political struggle between ideals and effectiveness, Nick does the best job I’ve ever seen of managing to serve both.

More than that, however, Licata is the exception to the Seattle political rule that coopts even the best new legislators. (Does anyone remember that pro-business stalwart Margaret Pageler was originally elected as a reform candidate? Or that Conlin, when he was also first elected in 1997, was affiliated with the Green Party?) Nick has kept his priorities – and his commitment to openness and to treating people decently – long after most politicians abandon such things. And he has had a remarkable ability to go into a room with his ideological opponents, find common ground, and hash out a compromise that still serves his priorities. Nick is both on the side of the angels and has remained singularly effective – an impossibly rare combination – even while serving for nearly two decades on a council dominated by business-friendly nonentities.

Three other friends of mine helped Nick in that original 1997 campaign. He hired each on his staff when he won, and eighteen years later, every single one of them – Lisa Herbold, Newell Aldrich, and Frank Video – remain on his staff, each beloved in their own right in local progressive circles. It’s a measure of how Nick treats people that after 18 years he has retained his entire original staff. That’s also unheard of.

As his statement today says, Nick will remain active in local politics. He’s played a significant behind-the-scenes role in mentoring both O’Brien and Sawant to become more effective council members, and has personally been hugely helpful – as one of the only council members willing to actually talk with and his constituents – to hundreds, if not thousands, of people over the years. That generosity of spirit surely won’t change in his well-earned retirement. And with district elections this fall, Seattle has an unusual opportunity to elect a whole new generation of progressive political leaders.

But I’ll miss Nick in office. I’ll miss the poetry readings, I’ll miss the openness and accessibility, and I’ll miss the sheer decency. Seattle City Council will be a lesser place without him, no matter who gets elected this fall.

For most of my life, I’ve agitated for and written and talked about politics. Most of the news, most of the time, isn’t especially good. It’s easy to get cynical. A lot of people within our political institutions are well-intentioned, but there are very few that I genuinely admire. One of them announced his retirement today.

Seattle’s civic elite likes to name things after its political champions, and Nick doesn’t qualify on that score, which is exactly why he should be honored. Hopefully we’ll name something after him – and it’ll be an institution that helps people. He deserves it.

Thought police

In the wake of Charlie Hebdo, an old friend from Portland and I have been writing each other discussing thought police, and the tendency of progressives and lefties in the US to display their own brand of rigidity and intolerance. And it’s true. (OK, go ahead with the Portland joke. Get it out of your system now…)

In all the years I’ve been doing public political opinion, the only death threats I’ve ever gotten have been from either 1) seriously mentally ill people (two of whom went to jail for stalking me and others); or 2) people on the left who were angry that I’d rejected one or another piece of dogma. (Right wingers can be verbally abusive, sometimes extremely so, but I’ve never had any urging or threatening my death.) That’s the extreme version of what seems to be a pretty widespread problem. People on the left just aren’t expected (or, in some cases, allowed) to disagree with one another.

“Black bloc” anarchists, those champions of rejecting authority, are in my personal experience the worst at trying to impose this sort of internal authority. Not all, but some. (I guess it goes with expressing one’s rebellion against conformity by wearing identical uniforms. “My tribe is better than your tribe.”) Sectarian Marxists of one or another stripe (again, some are worse than others) are almost as bad. But the problem extends to all sorts of people with whom I broadly agree on values and issues.

I suspect at least part of the problem is that progressives of all types in the US have gotten lazy about having to actually offer coherent justifications of their policy and value preferences – not because such arguments don’t exist, but because more conservative Democrats and especially Republicans are prone to offering up such lazy and/or transparently ludicrous arguments that the overall level of discourse is dismal; and because the questions of what policies actually get enacted, and which candidates elected, in this country have almost nothing to do with issues or ideas anyway. Political power here hinges mostly on money, marketing, personalities, and tribal identification. Whether someone is competent enough to wield power, or whether their ideas make any sense at all, rarely factors into it. (C.f. Congress.)

The “thought police” problem on the left is a function not just of tribalism, but also laziness and (ironically) insecurity. Charlie Hebdo is a good example of an issue that might divide people on the left – not the murder of journalists, of course, but the appropriateness of publishing depictions of the prophet Mohammed. It pits two progressive values against each other: the desire not to offend the deeply held cultural beliefs of a group (and, in this case, a persecuted religious minority to boot) and the right of publications to free speech and free thought, especially (as with the new CH cover) when the depiction has enormous news value and cultural import. There’s no truly “correct” progressive answer – depending on one’s priorities, either can be well argued.

But way too many of the discussions I’ve seen are more like ADD arguments: “Of COURSE people should have free speech!” “Don’t you know that’s OFFENSIVE?” And so on. So it goes for just about any issue where such discussions might arise, either within leftie circle or with other political (or apolitical) family members, friends, co-workers, fellow students, or bar patrons. Let’s set aside for a moment the problem that political arguments rarely change anyone’s mind, since it’s the non-substantive things (personality, tribal identification, money, etc.) that determine so much of American politics. Even if political arguments can change some minds, they’re not going to if we’re making crappy arguments. It’s even less likely if we can’t defend our ideas or tolerate dissension in our own ranks.

You, of course, may disagree. 🙂

Random thoughts on terrorism

France responds to a terrorist wave today with a two-million-person-strong show of unity in the streets. When the US and UK (as well as any number of other countries) experienced seminal attacks, their governments’ primary response instead was to triple down on the security state.

In the US, additionally, the overwhelming (but by no means universal) public response was to demand that “we” bomb someone, and torture the fuck out of any prisoners, even random ones – which the US government was only too happy to do. And, 14 years later, the bombing and torture continue.

The French government has its own atrocities to answer for, but at least in the immediate aftermath of the past week, I like the French response better.

Meanwhile, another Islamic terrorist group, Nigeria’s Boko Haram, apparently slaughtered upwards of two thousand people last weekend in the former town of Baga, on Lake Chad in the northeastern Nigerian state of Borno. And US media didn’t even notice, probably because it’s sub-Saharan Africa, and, you know, “they” are always doing that down there.

Media Follies 2014! – International

Local Media Follies 2014! is here.

National Media Follies 2014! is here.

2014’s Most Over-Hyped International Stories

ISIL Terrorists Gather At Rio Grande: The eager sales job on America’s newest war reached ridiculous heights.

Benghazi!!!!11! The fact that anyone talked about it for any reason at all in 2014 qualifies it as overhyped. For that matter, any story whose premise assumed that Congressional Republicans were reasonable and reality-bsaed qualified as overhyped.

2014’s Most Underreported International Stories:

Israel continues to quietly ensure the impossibility of Palestinian statehood: Palestine can’t have an independent state if it doesn’t have any land. This is why, while the Israeli military occupation of the West Bank, East Jerusalem, and (in all but name) Gaza is a legal and human rights atrocity, and Israel launched yet another military “cleansing” of Gaza in 2014 (itself all but ignored by American media), it’s the steady Israeli expansion of its civilian population onto these lands that is far more important long-term, because it guarantees the conflict will be intractable. These land thefts are obediently called “settlements” in American media, as if the land had never belonged to anyone before. Which is exactly what the Israeli government would like you to think – that the additional land it’s continuing to steal is uninhabited, and that Palestinians don’t exist. Palestinians are Asia’s 19th Century Native Americans.

Afghanistan is a total, but forgotten, clusterfuck: The national army of Afghanistan is the Taliban. Green on blue attacks are so frequent now that no one knows who’s a loyal member of the Afghan National Army and who’s a Taliban infiltrator. Meanwhile, aerial drone attacks have alienated most of the countryside, which never supported the corrupt, American-imposed puppet government in Kabul. That government is not likely to last long now that the American military is supposedly in a “non-combat” role.

ISIL Was Created and Armed By the US: This summer, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (alternately referred to as ISIS and the Islamic State) abruptly became America’s latest Designed Worstest Enemy Ever. And, in fact, the fanatically theocratic defacto state formed by ISIL truly is a human rights catastrophe. But somehow omitted from American media scaremongering (ISIL is horrific in its own land, but according to US intelligence there’s zero evidence it has terrorist designs on US territory) is that the US created ISIL – originally Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQII), which functionally didn’t exist until the CIA decided circa 2007 that the American public needed a fresh reason not to bail out on the US occupation of Iraq. Even then, it remained a fringe group until the US decided – covertly in 2012, overtly in 2013 – to arm the Syrian opposition in that country’s civil war. Not surprisingly – since “moderate” Syrian opponents had little support on the ground – many of those weapons fell into the hands of the Islamists who’d coalesced around the CIA-invented AQII, now renamed ISIL. Voila! A new Worstest Enemy Ever, founded and armed by US taxpayers.

The Fukushima nuclear plants are supposed to be subcritical and nearing a state of cold shutdown, but they’re still leaking tens of billions of becquerels of radioactive cesium into nearby rivers and ground water. And in 2014 TEPCO started simply dumping them into the Pacific Ocean, with zero American media attention.

Ebola continues to ravage West Africa: The pandemic got a frenzy of media attention in September and October – largely driven by fear of the pandemic’s spread to the US, Once thar fear subsided, so did media interest – even though death and societal collapse continues to accelerate in the areas that were affected in the first place.

Police States R Us: While the US and its media, with ample justification, demonized the authoritarian governments of Syria and North Korea, it paid almost no attention to the steadily more authoritarian governments of Egypt and South Korea – the bigger nearby regional powers, to which the US continues to give massive amounts of military assistance despite our pro-democratic rhetoric.

Cuba Normalizes Relationship With Country Notorious for Torture and State Surveillance: Sadly, any positive influence was lost by the following day, when that country’s Congress passed and its president signed into law new sanctions against Venezuela. Totalitarian states must always have fresh designed enemies, and ISIL had been out of the headlines (though hardly destroyed) for over two months.

And, on that cheerful note, get out and make your own news in 2015. If this compilation suggests anything, it’s that we can’t rely on corporate media to push for change, or even to tell us when change is desperately needed. We’ll have to do both ourselves.

Media Follies 2014! – National

Continuing with a look back at 2014’s most over-hyped and under-reported stories. A couple of days ago I posted the local stories. International is coming shortly!

2014’s Most Over-Hyped National Stories

The 2016 presidential race: Just….just stop. Please.

Be Very, Very, Very, Very Afraid: While speculation on 2016 candidates was endless, the 2014 midterms got remarkably little attention in the weeks leading up to November 4. Instead, voters were bombarded with scare stories about Ebola (US death toll: one, from a person who contracted the disease in West Africa) and ISIL (which, contrary to certain hyperventilating politicians, has at no point been massing terrorist sleeper cells at the Rio Grande). The predictable result was voters breaking strongly against the incumbent president’s party in the last two weeks before the election, when media coverage that focused on actual issues – like how radical some of the newly elected Republican legislators are – might well have had the opposite impact.

Donald Sterling Is A Racist, and Ray Rice Beat A Woman: The two biggest sports stories of the year weren’t on any playing field, and became huge mainstream news stories as well: NBA owner Donald Sterling being caught on tape making racist remarks, and NFL player Ray Rice being videotaped punching his then-fiance in a hotel elevator.

The thing is, neither story was new. Sterling’s racism (and, as a landlord, his abuse of non-white tenants in Southern California) has been known in basketball circles for decades. Nor was the notion of elite athletes being prone to domestic violence and sexual assault new – for years, male athletes have been accused of those types of crimes at a rate far outpacing other young men. Literally hundreds of pro and college athletes have been accused of crimes against women in the last decade – Rice’s crime was notable for being caught on video and for the NFL’s egregiously lenient initial punishment, but the larger issues that captivated the public attention should have been major stories 20 years ago.

2014’s Most Under-Reported National Stories:

Money In Midterms: Now that the US Supreme Court and lower courts are using Citizens United to strip away the last limits on political spending, the amount of money that went into the federal midterm elections was exponentially higher than in past elections. Yet national media’s coverage of the elections focused solely on horse race coverage (to the exclusion of issues) while still managing to completely ignore the impact of huge infusions of money on the races.

Democrats Win House, Again: Despite all that, Democrats once again in 2014 (as in 2012) received more overall votes for their House of Representative candidates than Republicans did. Why are Republicans controlling the House, then? Gerrymandering, in the two dozen states where the drawing of legislative districts after the 2010 Census was controlled by partisan Republicans – a systematic violation of voters’ rights that, as with Voter ID laws and the gutting of civil rights-era protections for communities of color, has been shamefully ratified by a conservative Supreme Court. The clearly defined impact on political control of the country has been a non-story in elite political media.

ObamaCare Is Working (Though Most Americans Don’t Know It): The numbers are unequivocal: after its first full year, the Affordable Care Act is insuring millions of previously uninsured Americans, and simultaneously driving health care costs down. But if you rely on mainstream media (let alone Fox News or the Republican media bubble), you’d think the ACA was a catastrophe.

Climate change keeps accelerating; Nero fiddles, his opponents deny anything’s on fire: Despite another year of record heat, more unprecedented extreme weather events, and endless scientific announcements that climate change is going to be worse than we thought and is proceeding at rates faster than our previous worst-case scenarios, the United States government is still doing close to nothing about it, internationally or at home. Incredibly, America’s biggest economic threat, biggest domestic policy threat, and biggest foreign policy threat was never mentioned at all in the midterm elections. What the United States government, which governs the world’s biggest greenhouse gas emitter, isn’t doing to respond to this crisis isn’t just a crime against humanity. It’s a crime against the entire biosphere, one of unprecedented scope and depravity. If our country in this era isn’t remembered with universal revulsion in the future, it will only be because humanity is extinct.

The Republican Party has lost touch with reality: The unprecedented use of bald-faced, easily refuted, and endlessly repeated lies by high-profile Republican leaders has become normal – and even on the rare occasions when mainstream media calls BS on the lies, nobody cares. The inmates are now running the asylum that is now the modern Republican Party. The party’s continued existence in its current form is quite literally a threat to sentient life on Earth, if not through the mass extinction event it’s helping to enable, then because of the risk of its driving the rest of us insane, too.

Banks and credit card companies are quietly getting back into subprime loans. Nobody’s stopping banks and credit card companies from doing all the horrible things that got us into our current financial mess in the first place. And since their CEOs and upper management made out like bandits during the financial crisis while lower class Americans took a knife in the back, why would they ever stop hawking subprime loans – or any of their other ongoing predatory practices?

Benghazi!!11! Debunked, But It Doesn’t Matter At All: Finally – and, conveniently, just after the midterm elections – the House Intelligence Committee, which has championed the notion that The Worst Crimes Ever happened in Banghazi in December 2011, quietly released a report that debunked even the semi-credible charges, let alone all the purely insane ones Republican leaders had been screaming about for three years. You’d think it’d go away, since flogging this rotting horse helped Republicans get what they wanted, success in the midterms. But then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton may well be the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, so House Speaker John Boehner immediately announced that he’d be convening a new special investigation with the new Congress in 2015. Surely at some point in America’s first 225 years, the death of a US Ambassador has been exploited in a more shameful way for nakedly partisan purposes. But it’s hard to imagine how.

Kansas Crashes and Burns, But That Doesn’t Matter, Either: Reactionary Republican governor Sam Brownback of Kansas has quietly been conducting a definitive experiment in the lunacy that is trickle-down economics, decimating his state’s tax revenue in the secure faith that the resulting economic boom would actually increase the state’s revenues. Guess what? Kansas is now in the most severe (and entirely predictable) economic crisis of any state government in the country; Brownback is responding by doubling down on his tax cuts; and other reactionary Republican governors are watching closely to assess how many Brownbackian tax cuts for their favorite corporate patrons they can get away with before the public outcry costs them their jobs. The fact that tax cut dogma has been completely disproven again matters not at all. It works just fine for the companies it’s intended to work for.

A Majority of States Now Recognize Gay Marriage: Even though a contrary district court ruling means the US Supreme Court will look at the constitutionality of gay marriage bans next year, a previous ruling has served as a precedent that has led to legalization of gay marriage in over 30 states, over half of which happened in 2014. It’s the most remarkable – and rapid – recognition of civil rights in modern US history, coming from a decade ago when gay marriage was illegal everywhere and a fringe issue. But now that life has pretty much gone on as usual in the first few states to legalize gay marriage, the media novelty wore off and it was almost a non-story this past year.

Protesters in Hundreds Of Cities Fail To Riot: For weeks, media wrung its collective hands about the inevitable violent riots Those People would perpetrate if a Missouri grand jury failed to recommend prosecution of the police officer who shot an unarmed black teenager in suburban St. Louis. The grand jury rendered its sadly predictable recommendation, and protests did, in fact, erupt in hundreds of US cities. Property damage was part of those protests in a handful (usually committed by a small fraction of the protesters in those cities), but media coverage not only failed to retract its previous hysteria, but focused on the minor property damage to justify it. Meanwhile, widespread law enforcement violence responding to the protests went unremarked, and when, in December, a mentally disturbed man with a long criminal history and no ties to the #Black Lives Matter movement shot and killed two New York cops, politicians and pundits alike lined up to blame the “anti-police” demonstrations.

Oddly, when two Tea Party activists who’d been camped out at Cliven Bundy’s ranch in Nevada shot and killed two Las Vegas policemen last spring, nobody blamed the Tea Party, or demanded it pledge its admiration for law enforcement. And a good thing, since in that case the Bundy demonstrators had actually been pointing loaded weapons at law enforcement officers for weeks. Nobody was ever charged, let alone shot and killed. This, chilluns, is called “white privilege.”

Studies: US Class Mobility Lowest of Democracies, Public Opinion Meaningless: Of all the political science studies that get published each year, this year these two should have gotten huge headlines. In particular, the Princeton study last spring that found the US to be an oligarchy, not a democracy, should have provoked national outrage. Instead, most people never heard about it.

The Princeton authors compiled data from roughly 1,800 different national policy initiatives from 1981-2002 (starting in the Reagan years, but not including the last decade or any post-Citizens United years). They then compared those policy changes with the expressed opinion of the United State public.

Comparing the preferences of the average American at the 50th percentile of income to what those Americans at the 90th percentile preferred, as well as the opinions of major lobbying or business groups, the researchers found that the federal government followed the directives set forth by the latter two groups much more often: “The preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The upshot: big corporations, the ultra-wealthy and special interests with a lot of money and power essentially make all of the decisions, and ordinary citizens wield little to no political power.

Those findings are consistent with what we see in any number of issues: background gun checks, greenhouse gas emissions, minimum wage increases, and military spending, just to name four. Local policies are much more malleable, but still susceptible to the same sort of legalized corruption – witness developers’ dominance of Seattle politics. Among other things, the Supreme Court’s justification for the legality of Citizens United – that money plays no part in skewing elected officials’ priorities – was explicitly disproved by the Princeton study. More publicity for its findings could generate a lot of needed concern about the state of American democracy. Which, one suspects, is exactly why national media elites ignored it.