Wednesday, June 29, 2005

The IRS, ChoicePoint, and You

This week, the IRS confirmed that it had just awarded ChoicePoint Data Systems a 5 year, $20M contract to provide even more specialized data to the IRS for use in tax collections:

ChoicePoint, IRS’ New Global Partner in Tax Collections

But ….wait a minute: Is this the SAME ChoicePoint that was forced to admit the theft of personal data it maintained on more than 100,000 Californians, and ultimately hundreds of thousands more non-California, only because our demned librul Kerry-voting state passed a mandatory reporting law out here a couple of years back over fierce business opposition?

ChoicePoint, Caught with Its Pants Down

Hmm - I believe it is.

Isn’t this the same ChoicePoint that we found out last week had actually SOLD the personal data to a ring of identity thieves?

ChoicePoint: Preferred Supplier of ID Thieves Worldwide

Why I’ll be damned– it sure is.

And didn’t someone already discover earlier this year, much to our chagrin, that much of our personal tax return data is already less secure than we’d assumed, in large point because of a linkage between IRS data bases and ChoicePoint databases:

ChoicePoint, the IRS & You

ChoicePoint, the IRS & You Round II

Well, foo. I knew that name ChoicePoint sounded familiar.

If there is any universal rule of Big Business in America TM, it is this: incompetence truly is its own reward, particularly if you are a government contractor:

ChoicePoint Making Bank in 1Q, 2005

$20M Reward for Consistently High Quality – NOT - Services

Of course, ChoicePoint has managed over the years to get a dead lock on just about everything you could ever need to be evaluated for: your ability to rent an apartment, get auto insurance or even get a job:

ChoicePoint Knows All

If you want to know how wide ChoicePoint’s reach has become, take a gander at this person’s summary of what was in *his* ChoicePoint file:

Checking Out a ChoicePoint File

ChoicePoint might say that people like the gentleman who perused his file above writer above, and me, are being unfairly harsh and overly alarmist about what is clearly a “public good”. In ChoicePoint's own words:

"ChoicePoint helps businesses, government agencies and nonprofit organizations make better decisions through information and technology solutions. Each year, ChoicePoint helps more than seven million people get the jobs they deserve and more than 100 million people get fairly priced home and auto insurance. Small businesses can obtain affordable commercial insurance because of our products. Businesses grow revenue with our marketing services and cut costs through our authentication and anti-fraud tools. Government agencies use our data and technology to fulfill their missions in all parts of the world...” One thing is clear – ChoicePoint sees itself as the savior of all that is holy when it comes to saving business people from having to make their own, independent decisions."

In other words: “Smarter Products, Safer World”

I can’t speak for you, but when I think of “Big Brother”, a single entity with this much detailed information about our individual lives readily comes to mind. Well, now that single entity is getting even more intertwined with our government’s operations than it already was. Indeed, government embedding now appears to be a primary ChoicePoint business strategy. That is definitely Not Good. But I shouldn't be alarmed. Note the soothing language ChoicePoint uses to describe the results of its systematic data mining: seven million people getting “the jobs they deserved” and small business and individuals getting “fairly priced insurance” -- all thanks to ChoicePoint’s never ending vigilance in aggregating your personal data (whether the data is actually correct or not) about each and every one of us.

And that's why this tiny little IRS contract with the Feds (tiny compared to Halliburton, anyway) is nonetheless a Big Deal. Remember that ChoicePoint claims that it has managed to aggregate data for damned near every adult in the United States. Now, this might not be so bad, except that ChoicePoint is also embroiled in lots of litigation because it has a couple of teensy problems: (a) getting shit wrong when it comes to aggregating its data on individuals and (b) maintaining extremely sloppy security controls over its data.
ChoicePoint's Perfect Data I
ChoicePoint's Perfect Data II

The fully predictable result? Exponentially increasing numbers of people facing serious life problems because of a bogus ChoicePoint report being relied upon as gospel by its business and or governmental recipient (a reliance that is never attacked, especially when it's in connection with credit and banking, because as we know, the computers used by our banks, our lenders, our landlords and especially our government, are NEVER wrong). Even though the problems are now well known, we are still asked to believe that folks "getting the job they deserve" and receiving "fairly priced insurance" because of the private market's reliance on ChoicePoint data outweighs the risk of harms that logically can flow from ChoicePoint's fully-demonstrated incompetence in investigating, aggregating and reporting private personal data.

When you look at the impressive track record of data security failures and outright screw-ups that ChoicePoint has been responsible for over the years, its reassurances suddenly don't seem all that believable. And they shouldn't be - because today, ChoicePoint data is increasingly used for just about everything. It is not too hard to find evidence of this. Look closely, and you will find increasing reliance by employers on ChoicePoint data for all of the following:

To screen job candidates: ChoicePoint and HotJobs

To underwrite efforts to obtain insurance for claimless applicants: ChoicePoint and Your Insurance

or even

Deny apartment hunters a right to a roof over their heads: ChoicePoint and Your Apartment Search

The Feds have increasingly relied on ChoicePoint over the years. That reliance started with the FBI and now, as we can see, it has reached what is in my mind the most frightening federal agency of them all, in terms of its power to truly screw the financial survival of the average citizen with only a single mistake: the Internal Revenue Service.

It is bad enough that the IRS has always benefited from a little known, yet long-standing rule of law that most folks don’t even know about; specifically, if a government employee gives you advice, and that advice turns out to be wrong under the law, that advice is not binding on the government. But now, we are simultaneously increasing use by the government on aggregated data to “crack down” on “tax scofflaws” TM at the same time we are facing a soon to be decreased ability to sort tax problems on our own. This ChoicePoint announcement comes on the heels of the IRS’s new efforts to jettison its taxpayer assistance centers and cutting its public telephone hours – the most direct ways that individual taxpayers can try and cut through the IRS’s often insurmountable barriers to resolving tax problems, whether legitimate or completely bogus:

IRS Backing Away from The Public

(68 out of 400 centers to close; a 15% cut in offices; and closure of 3 primary call centers)

There have been many folks who have written about the question of personal privacy lately. Most seem to have focused on the easy-outrage things like government access to medical records relating to reproductive rights and the PATRIOT Act. Each is indeed a deeply troubling aspect of the privacy problem rapidly developing in our supposedly liberated, free country since 2000. IME, an equally troubling, quite dangerous invasion is represented by the quiet, yet systematically increasing, data aggregation and consolidation about individual at the federal and state level. It has been done so quietly, and sold to us so effectively as the way “efficiency” for us all, that nobody “political” seems to be all that fussed about it.

Most folks, even those who do not trust King GeorgeTM any farther than they can throw him, still tend to scoff when folks raise the spectre of the government’s ability to control our lives individually becoming increasingly consolidated. Yet the foundational pillars of just such a system are increasingly in place, and it is only looking at the quiet adoption of many laws and regulations that one can get a picture of the whole, and think about the possibilities. We have already all been reduced to numbers, rather than people, through the misuse in violation of statute, of the social security number as a personal identifier. That personal identifier became the backbone for implementation of personal profiling through scoring (whether it’s FICO scoring, insurance underwriting scoring, or even scoring when it comes to determining who will get access to life-changing higher education, and who will not). But previously, that scoring was largely driven by the private sector, whose primary concern is and remains money and financial risk. It therefore seemed far less threatening to the right of privacy. Now, however, it seems clear that the federal government itself is shifting to methods of interacting with us as citizens that are grounded in the concept that it is alright to use data about each one of us for whatever purpose the government sees fit, however inaccurate that data might be, with the burden firmly kept on the individual, rather than the state, to ensure the accuracy of that data or suffer the consequences if they don’t.

It’s not that much of a theoretical leap from where things stand today to far more insidious uses of personal data by the government itself – most notably, the use of data aggregation and profiling to determine who has access to privileges, or, more dangerously, who should be targeted individually for adverse consequences. Indeed, several books have as central themes the concept of a Big Brother government with so much access to and control over critical about individuals that a person can no longer undertake anything in day to day life without the federal government not only knowing about it, but having the power to stop or change it.

One of the most effective thematic considerations of this is in an environmental novel called Nature’s End written by James Kunetka and Whitley Strieber some 20 years ago. In that novel, a political madman hiding behind his role as a saintly religious leader a la Ghandi has persuaded most governments of the world, through their electorates, (including ours) that the only solution left to save humanity in the face of massive environmental collapse is a computer based random-selection suicide pact that will kill 1/3 of all those human beings still alive. This is an old book, which horrified me at the time for both the environmental and political issues – and I can’t say that it is necessarily the best writing I’ve ever read either, despite its compelling themes. But Nature’s End actually horrifies me MORE now than it did then, not just because of the increasingly-possible environmental collapses described, much like in Silent Spring. My current horror in reading and thinking about this novel, which I recommend despite its literary flaws, is in thinking about the deliberate access to and manipulation of human lives made possible only because of the limitless reach of computer based information about people and the intertwining of that information with the actual ability to do day to day live. For example, the novel’s hero – a journalist called a “convictor” because his job is to use computerized algorithms to parse and analyze human speech patterns in connection with available data to “get behind” and “expose” the hidden truth behind the public façade shown by public leaders, including in this book the publicly-saintly Gupta Singh who advocates mass suicide and systematically takes control of the convictor’s entire life to try to destroy him once he begins “convicting” Singh.. In the novel, his centralized life data is the hero’s only means to access everything from his money to the medical treatments he must have to stave off the aging process – and it is willfully used by his political enemy to create a situation where he cannot really run, he cannot really hide, and he cannot really survive so long as he pursues a political agenda against the genocide.

I will not even discuss in detail the central role that centralized computer access to individual data and lives played in another book discussed often today as we descend into a quasi-theocracy: The Handmaid’s Tale. Yet everyone who has read it is well aware of precisely how the theocratic state was able to take instantly and simultaneously disempower and take control of the lives of every woman in America (which promptly, after Congress was murdered, became known as the Republic of Gilead).

These types of things are what keep me up at night, sometimes, even as occasionally I bitch-slap myself and say that I’ve gone truly over into TinFoil Hat Land by such worries. But I’m not the only one who thinks about this type of thing:

When You Become the Commodity

There are actually federal government agencies with slightly more power over the individual than the Internal Revenue Service. However, I’d wager that only the IRS, in large part because of its nightmarish at the extreme but extraordinary day-to-day powers of immediate advance property and income seizure subject only to court-based adjudication that can take years to accomplish (if you can afford it, and most of us cannot) strikes terror in the hearts of most people, Democrats and Republicans alike. And I admit that the fact that Bush’s IRS is increasing its reliance on ChoicePoint – a proven winner when it comes to fucking people’s personal information up – for its collections activity scares the crap out of me, when I look at it in the larger picture of government consolidation of information about each one of us – a consolidation we appear powerless to stop at this point.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m just worrying for nothing.

If you think you can rely on the existing rubric of federal and state laws to protect you from errors and harm, I can say with certainty, as an attorney who sees pro bono at least 1 person every 2 weeks whose identity has now been stolen: you can’t. Take a good look at some of these rather frightening examples:

Read ‘Em and Weep Stories

What can you do? Well, for starters, take the time to know exactly what is out there about you, and make sure it is correct. It’s not just something to do “when you have time”. It’s something to do NOW, if you haven’t already. Then, remain vigilant. And talk about this problem, to your neighbors. We may all be Red Staters and Blue Staters, but IME the notion of government “knowing too much” about us is something that everyone but the most rabid wingnut views can get fired up about. This is a great organization whose page everyone should have in their "Favorites" catalogue:

Privacy Rights Clearinghouse

More Below!

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Graduation in Zion

One of my favorite reggae songs is called "Graduation in Zion", by Kiddus I. It is, essentially, a singing of the Lord's Prayer blended with other lyrical stylings. Rastafari encouragement to keep pressing forward, knowing that one day our work will pay off, and we will find yourself at the promised land, which in Rasta is known as Zion.

Last week, two graduation experiences in two days in our family showcased a dichotomy of worlds similar to that which John Edwards talks about when he speaks of Two Americas. That they are in fact real worlds in America is missed by most. That they are in fact equal paths to Zion may be missed by all.

The first graduation was my son's graduation from high school. My son, being my son, took his own path in life from early on despite being taught "all the right things", and decided that, in the end, he was simply not Into High School TM. After years of internecine warfare with his mama -- who admits to an educational elitism following 12 years of admittedly elitist education -- his mama lost. So, my son sat for his GED with no study after the functional equivalent of a year and a half in a high school classroom. He passed it with scores that prompted the comment from school administrators that he had "wasted a brilliant life" at the ripe old age of 18.

Because my son went to Continuation School, he was eligible for and (with some minor arm twisting) elected to participate in the school's formal graduation ceremony, joining 200 other children who had also taken alternate paths, many of them through jail, drug abuse, homelessness and teen parenthood. It is telling that this is so, yet all of them nonetheless still chose to go through one of the basic Rites of Passage in our culture - High School Graduation. (It is testament to the fact that even the rebel still has roots, somewhere, that call them to tradition even when they say they reject it.)

His graduation ceremony was most notable for its subrosa theme: The children who nobody really expects Will Make It. Yes, the traditional caps, gowns, balloons and flowers were all in abundance, the snapping cameras. They were brought by largely black and brown, and a few white, faces. But far less hoots, hollers and tears of pride than I am used to in commencement, even in the case of those children who were given the honor of speaking, and who told stories of their triumph that truly should have left us all saying "There but for the Grace of God Go I". The bilingual ceremony was largely the giving of scholarships - an hour and a half's worth of them - to kids who were going directly on to community college. They were modest: $250 here, $500 there. That the school gave away $37,000, largely to the same 10 children, was celebrated. Leslie Griffith of KTVU News spoke, having created a $5,000 scholarship fund for young mothers graduating from the school and going on with their lives. She told a story of her own adversity largely notable for the fact that she had not a clue what some of these kids were actually facing in Real Life (sorry, but a young mother who finds herself suddenly husbandless and having to work while still able to remain at and graduate from her good college is not exactly facing the same type of adversity as kids savings money to get their gang tattoos lasered off so that they can truly leave behind their past).

So little was actually said about the kids themselves, how far they had traveled to sit with their regalia - the same regalia worn with just as much pride across town at the four-year high schools. Graduation appeared to be, essentially, an hour and a half of watching pundits being introduced to give their scholarships to 10 of the 200 kids, and 5 minutes from the principal filling in as a commencement address for the other 195, punctuated by the Caltrain roaring by every 15 minutes across the railroad tracks next to which the modular building continuation school resides. The only glimmer of the love and pride that is supposed to accompany graduation was the was the Presentation of the Class, in which each child was introduced not only by name, but with three adjectives to describe him or her as they strolled across stage to shake the obligatory hands and collect their obligatory scrolls.

(In the case of my son, it was "smart, funny, and handsome." I deliberately ignored the feminine hoots of "Yeah he sure is!" I heard emanating from the sea of black caps and gowns at the "handsome part. I sleep better at night, attention from way too fast young women being my son's personal Waterloo at the moment. Yet with his kente cloth Class of 2005 drape, he was indeed one fine young brother..../sigh)

5 minutes of official well-wishes, for 195 children who had in most cases were graduating only because they'd beaten bad odds, drugs, teenage pregnancy, juvenile hall (or in some cases outright jail), homelessness, neglect, hunger or worse. But where was their "message about life?", the hallmark of every high school graduation? The speech that all of us remember resenting while we sat sweltering in our cap and gown but which we would never admit nonetheless called to us and inspired us towards our future? What does it say when that is largely absent? Does that mean they are not expected to have a future? That the graduates were instructed that they could not "be loud" or even to engage in the traditional frolic of tossing their caps in their air spoke volumes - even as now men and women, the larger society, the official society, still treated them not as men and women who had passed through one of life's stages, but as out-of-control problem children to always be controlled, else they Get Out of Control.TM.

Directly from this experience, because my son wanted to celebrate his graduation dinner as a family, we left there to begin our journey down I-5 to SoCal, where the Eldest Baby Girl was graduating the next afternoon from UCLA's Theatre, Film and Television School - one of only 30 undergraduates studying film in a program whose department head publicly admits to efforts to completely eliminate the undergraduate program on the grounds that it is worthless. (According to my daughter, the fact that an enormous percentage of the films receiving awards this year were made by undergraduates seems lost on the department at this time.) Sitting in the heart of Westwood, UCLA's TFT graduation stage was a vision of flowers, balloons, perfectly manicured lawns, ivy draped walls, and Hollywood fame in the person of Anthony Hopkins and Faye Kanin, both of who spoke at Commencement.

The graduates? The usual stock - except for the nosejobs that were the hallmark of each of the undergraduates leaving the "Theatre" arm of the TFT school. (I can see them on the silver screen already, doing revivals of the psuedo-Busby Berkeley song and dance numbers we were all "treated to" as part of graduation. Joy.) The Eldest Baby Girl, determined to have none of this sing and dance path despite a stunning physical beauty, is of the "F" arm of the TFT School - Film. Her successful experimental directorial path is already set in stone by a fierce artistic eye, a damned near Deans' List GPA, steadfast refusal to trade her sexuality for the right to express her intellect, and the fact that despite being 5'1 she can both belch like a sailor and is more than happy to cuss a 6'4 sailor blue to get done what she wants done when she wants it done.

Watching her graduate was an exercise in the familiar. Yes, the hoots, hollers, flowers and balloons were in also in abundance. The difference was that this time, everyone knew The Rules of Graduation. We were a well-oiled machine, operated seamlessly by those who all knew what to do, when to do it, including when to snap photos and when to stay behind the ropes dividing the processional path from the teeming Masses of Deliriously Happy (and Financially Relieved!) Parents. TM. And yes, as is their right the world over, the graduates who frolicked and misbehaved right on cue and ignored their parents and planned after parties at the extremely posh reception, with absolutely no regard for the fact that someone had just spent $80,000 plus on educating them.

Perhaps it is because, unlike the 195 I'd seen graduate the day before, these children -- like most graduates the world over -- knew with certainty that, in graduating, they had EARNED IT. Whether or not they actually had, since as the cream of the crop of an elite educational institution, many of these children had much of their way smoothed for them in advance, through just the right educational path, money, connections - all of the privileges those who are privileged, in one way or another, can offer their children. They felt entitled to party, entitled to celebrate, entitled to shout "Hell YEAH", as they embraced their right of passage, from their earliest adulthood into that largest phase in which they will go make their mark on the professional world.

Yet so had my son's class. In some ways, more so. There is no question that each and every young man and woman that graduated with him - whether with a full high school diploma or a GED, going directly to community college or instead simply taking a job - had WORKED. Worked HARD. Against the odds. And in some cases, alone and frightened, yet still determined. Against a system and sometimes even parents that truly did not expect them to survive, let alone graduate from high school and begin their own lives. Frankly, had these kids decided that they wanted to celebrate by stopping freeway traffic with a parade doing the Running ManTM or Cabbage PatchTM (or whatever it is young people dance, these days) that would have been their due - because the traditional graduation photos sitting on their parents' mantle are a testament of youthful will overcoming the odds. Of the boulder being pushed uphill, and successfully shoved over. They had truly earned the right to their tassels, running a far harder gamut than most who were sitting in the beauty of the UCLA graduation setting.

Which children have worked harder? No one can fairly say, of course, because one man's burden is another man's holiday. And the work we do at one life stage is not comparable to that which we do at others. And of course, we don't always know the backstory of a student's life, and perhaps sitting with my daughter was a man or woman who had also struggled to make it. Yet juxtaposing the two experiences of graduation in my single family, it is clear that we indeed live in what John Edwards refers to as Two Americas. One in which the feedback for hard work is adultation, reverence and privilege. In the other, sighs of relief and reminders that they are still "not quite the same" as those who follow the traditional path.

Yet both Americas are our future, when we are talking about our young adult men and women. No matter which America they come from, the work of the young to make their way is the greatest work they do, regardless of where they go to school, where they graduate from, or who gives them applause. They deserve our pride, our support, our love, and our never ending belief in them. Our hearts should sing for those like the 195 who may still have to struggle as much as for the 30 who will likely cruise to success, but who might leave their high school graduations feeling that it was all for naught in the eyes of that larger world who will judge them. But too often, they don't. And that is something we should all be ashamed of, and work to correct.

Regardless of what America your graduate may come from, however, it seems to me that Kiddus I has the same wise advice:

Keep the faith, my brothers and sisters,
It's the cross that you bear,
And Fear Not, sayeth Jah Lord,
Whatsoever man soweth,
They all will reap the fruits of their labors,
Yes they will,
In the end.

To all our Graduates in Zion (including my own two) know that out there, somewhere, someone is very very proud of you. And has your back, no matter which path you took to Zion.

More Below!

Monday, June 13, 2005

Emotional Rescue

Yesterday, we rescued a kitten.

Technically, it was not a "rescue" in the sense that the kitten has lived somewhere in our 1/3 acre back yard since shortly after its birth about 4 weeks ago. Its mother has been back there for nearly a year, feral as all get-all- and refusing to be caught along with other equally feral cats who seem to bask in the glory that is all that open space, much of it freshly rototilled for our annual vegetable garden. We've known about the kittens (5 of them) and have been plotting stealthy ways to get to them, but they were refusing to be gotten.

Until yesterday.

When we opened the back door to our porch, as usual mama cat and her babies, who tend to sleep on the deck chairs, scattered to the four winds faster than a bat out of hell. Except one. To say that this kitten is "no bigger than a New York minute" is an understatement. So we figured, today's the day. Upon closer inspection, it became clear why he had not, like his siblings and mom, hauled ass upon our arrival.

His eyes were completely gooed shut.

Picking him up was like picking up a handful of feathers. He weighed absolutely nothing. It was clear that he had been low-man on the nursing totem pole. Looking at the goo, and the fact that neither the kitten nor its mother put up any fight whatsoever, we realized that this was one pretty sick kitty.

So off we went to the vet, fearing blindness, fearing the worst.

In the car, the DAH, my daughter and I started jokingly asking the cat, wrapped in a hand towel, what its name was. I should have known that we were doomed, when that started. The original plan was to take the kittens in for adoption, since with our lifestyle pets don't get a fair shake. But by the time we got to the vet, we were already rationalizing why we couldn't leave him behind.

Eventually, he told us his name: Pharaoh.

An hour later, freshly de-wormed, weighed (0.5 pounds), fed, and antibiotic smeared/fed, Pharaoh came home with us. And sure enough, he is living up to his name. He is presently investigating the house, all 0.5 pounds of him. Since he's so small, and we do not have the same wide-open spaces inside that we do outside, it's going to be interesting finding The King when it's time to re-introduce him to the litter box, something he turned his nose up at last night.

Juxtapose that with our experience yesterday morning, heading out for a day of tile selection (yes, I lead an exciting life.) While we were filling up our car with gas, we met a homeless woman. After approaching the DAH (they never ask me - proving once again that race matters) she first asked for $3, then $5, to get something to eat. Since the specifics of the request (and its size) took me aback, I blurted out that she could always go to the local pantry or the church around the corner, since they always fed the homeless. Her response? "I don't like the food there." Being Old School, I said something to the effect of "My daddy told me Beggars can't be choosers." She said, "I know that - mine did too."

Yet here she was, choosing. Choosing to eat a meal on her own terms.

$5 later, and hours after the Rescue of Pharaoh (TM) I realized that these two completely unconnected experiences of rescue can be viewed as sending a unified message.

We think of ourselves as rescuers, and those in need of our help as the needy. We need to be heroic, I guess. Particularly when it comes to the homeless. We deny them any sphere of autonomy over their lives - survival, we demand, must be on our terms or none at all. We deign to bless them with a handful of pocket change and believe it makes us saints, while at the same time we rant and rail about them being "aggressive" when they ask us for what they want. We demand programs to sweep them out of the face of public life because we don't want reminders of human suffering when we're chilling at Starbucks with a frappy.

But I can't think of anyone who would turn their back on a kitten that asked for help.

Isn't it, in many ways, the same thing? Cats are a self-reliant species. Their relative disdain for human beings is pretty much proven. They tolerate us, at best, it seems to me. Yet we fawn all over them. All it took is two giant eyes (or two eyes welded shut by goo) in a ball of fluff for me to instantly shell out $150 in veterinary care for a cat that I'd believed for weeks I had no intention of keeping. Yet I gave another human being, surely equal to me, flack for hitting us up for $5?

There are many people who believe deep down that the poor and the hungry deserve their fate. Probably more people than would admit it, given how many of us are walking around calling ourselves Christian. We appear to need to believe, as a culture, that the poor or hungry are that way because of some failing in themselves, rather than a failure in the system that keeps the working class and poor just on the edge of the abyss, increasingly so post-Dubbya. And when they fall off, we insist that they live the narrative we demand for them - clean, sober, supplicant -- as a condition of our help. We expect barter of their very dignity and autonomy as a condition of our caring. We expect begging, we expect gratitude, we expect them to expect on our terms. Yet we do not even think of demanding such a thing from the animals we rescue, even if they show us the back of their hand afterward.

It's food for thought, that difference. Perhaps we need to change our own personal narrative about what it means to be homeless, what it means to need help from other people to survive. And what we have a right to demand -- the surrender of the right to choose even the smallest elements of how one lives one's life -- as a condition of our caring.

After all, everyone knows that we could never demand such a thing from a Pharaoh.

More Below!

Does Howard Dean Speak for Me?

Originally posted at Ma'at's Feather 6/11/05

Good question. It depends on how you define the word "Me".

If I am looking at myself as a politically active Democrat, then the answer is obvious - of course he does. He is the chosen, and rightfully so, Chairman of the Democratic Party. Chosen by the grassroots. He therefore possesses far more legitimacy with me as a Democratic voter than Terry McAuliffe and other handpicked members of the DLC ever had.

On the other hand, if you define "Me" in broader terms, I'm not so sure he always does. Some of the views I hold line up perfectly with his. Others do not. The two that definitely do not are the view that no Republicans have ever really worked for a living (last week's tempest in a teapot), or this week's current fervor -- Howard Dean's statement earlier this week that "the GOP is a White, Christian, Party". Chairman Dean sticks by his story that his criticism, as originally expressed, is valid:

Dean Defending Dean

On the leftists side of the debate over these words, folks are in a frenzy about members of the Democratic Party leadership who publicly distanced themselves from this statement (as well as the earlier one, to the effect that Republicans are folk who don't work for a living). Depending on whose words you listen to, each and every one of them is a "traitor" "sell-out" or even "the enemy". It's gotten to the point where there is now a petition drive called "Howard Dean Speaks for Me":

Dean Speaks for Me Campaign

I have to wonder when folks believe that a petition somehow is a valid indicia of the validity of any particular sentiment within any political party....(although the DKos poster Glynis deserves serious props for doing what so few are willing to do - take their viewpoint, and invest their own time and energy to run with it politically. I have nothing but respect for that.)

Indeed, the actual policy positions taken at critical junctures by some of this week's Dean critics (Biden and Feinstein and Lieberman come most to mind) could indeed justify these labels. But Barack Obama? John Edwards? These folks have demonstrated that they too can get down and dirty in the grassroots when they had to. Given this, watching their progressive "credentials" rhetoric-buried out of existence merely because they aren't 100% on board with Howard Dean's divisive remarks is a depressing sight.

On the other side? Well those in the GOP leadership who are not gleeful over Chairman Dean's remarks feel very hurt because what he said was "mean" or "unfair." When it comes to the leadership of the GOP, Howard Dean was right beyond right, all tokens notwithstanding. That being said, I personally could care less about whether Howard Dean said something "mean" about Republicans. Mean doesn't bother me, since I say some pretty mean things about Republicans myself from time to time - when some policy or position taken by their party leadership is deserving of it (and far too many positions are). Republicans who do not distance themselves from those policies cannot complain of getting that which is rightfully coming to them.

However, neither party discipline or meanness is the issue here. The issue is accuracy, truth, and viewing our two-party system in non-simplistic terms. Simplistic terms that you get to only if you're not willing to actually look beyond the faces at political conventions and actually look at the grassroots. The truth is that there are huge percentages of nonwhite, non-Christian folks who are registered Republicans, no matter how they actually vote come election time. This is nothing new - it has been true for a very long time. If the Democratic Party hopes to bring them into the Big Tent, our party leadership, starting with Howard Dean, needs to stop following the exact same playbook followed by the Republican Party where it comes to these crucial voters: Stop acting like they don't exist unless you can score political points from, identifying, and using them, only when it gains you some tactical or rhetorical advantage.

Finally, in defense of Howard Dean, I think he has been and continues to be an excellent choice for Chairman of the Party if he can just get a bit more used to hearing himself talk before he actually opens his mouth. His heart is in the right place, and he is 100% right when he says that now is not the time to speak softly when it comes to what's going on in our country. Dean just needs some "seasoning" speaking to audiences just a wee bit more diverse than those he found in Vermont and in the caucuses before he pulled out last year. Some common sense about how to fire his base up -- by more than just primal screaming, itself a useful tool for which he took way too much unfair heat -- without simultaneously showing the back of his hand to folks who are registered the way they are for reasons having nothing to do with being white, being Christian or being wealthy. Folks who with time and guidance could be shown that they really need to be on board with the Democratic Party when it really counts - at election time. It tells you something when Barack Obama and John Edwards -- not exactly DLCers -- are themselves given pause by what Dean said this week. These are not the "Old Guard" of the party, folks who are largely bought and paid for by corporate interests, but its future.

I have a lot of hope for Howard Dean, going forward. But one can support him, believe in him, and still refuse to get on board or tolerate silently his myopia when it comes to the question: "Who is a Democrat and Who is a Republican?".

So does Howard Dean speak for me? It depends. When it comes to taking political positions and holding the GOP to task for its relentless attack on American values and American rights, yes, he does. When it comes to claims that the Republican Party is a white Christian party, no, I'm afraid that he doesn't.

More Below!

Yesterday Rwanda, Today Darfur

Originally posted 6/11/05 at Ma'at's Feather

The First World(TM) murmur over the ongoing genocide in Darfur stuns me. I know there is a lot going on in the world, but at what point does systematic extermination of a people begin to demand some SERIOUS hollering from us so-called generous caring Americans? The roots of the current genocide go back to at least 2000, yet here we are in 2005 and it's getting no better. The extermination of Black Africans in Darfur and Southen Sudan continues to be a blip on our national consciousness. Our collective discussion about it? An intermittent whisper, and not a roar.

The racial cynicist in me understands it intellectually: Black folk. Dead Black folk. Murdered Black folk. This narrative doesn't get much media play here in the US when it happens here every day (unless it both evokes and reinforces neat, racist stereotypes of Black dysfunction). So there is no rational reason to expect any different apathy when we're talking about Black folks more than 10,000 miles away, who most Black Americans don't appear to feel any meaningful solidarity with.

I'm not sure which troubles me more - the willful lack of caring of the political right, who I truly don't expect to give a damn about human suffering no matter how much they claim to be Christian Soldiers fighting for Life (TM) or the equally bad shrug of silence from most of the political left. Whatever the case, both approaches result in more people dying.

So, perhaps the eloquence of living and dying history, written today in the LA Times by a journalist who spent a week in 1994's Rwandan hell, will shake enough people awake to *do* something meaningful -- and I'm not talking about sending in "peacekeeping forces" with no ability to actually do anything but watch -- before Darfur makes the genocide of nearly a million people in Rwanda look like just a trial run:

There is Evil

No similar, human, stories have yet come out of Darfur - but if the experience described in today's LA Times shares any parallels, we can only imagine what it must be like. Maybe if George Romero made a film about it we'd get the picture.

I'm not a big believer in slogans when people are dying, but here's one we should all be able to get behind:

Darfur: A Genocide We Can Stop.

Open your hearts. Open your wallets. Save lives. No Blood for Oil, or whatever else political activists need to chant to get truly fired up. For those who are truly not in-the-know, there is reportedly a lot of oil in southern Sudan. Folks like Amnesty International have made a pretty compelling case that this is the major reason why nobody with the power to put a rapid end to the human suffering seems to really mind what is happening in the Southern Sudan:

Sudan: The Human Price for Oil

Whatever the reasons, the Powers that Be(TM) starting with the Sudanese government itself and ending up in the First World (TM) fiddle away while the Janjaweed - Arab mercenaries - systematically exterminate and displace the entirety of the native Black African tribes, most of whom are agrarian and live a way that hard-core oil exploration simply finds inconvenient for its robustness.

The LA Times article linked above has a quote from Elie Wiesel that resonates with me, so it's today's money quote:

...[T]he role of the journalist is to speak for those who have no voice.

I'm no journalist, but I'm speaking anyway.

(Finally, because I believe in props for doing the right thing, a sincere thanks to my alma mater for this week divesting itself of its direct investments in the companies involved in Sudanese oil production: Stanford's Sudan Divestment.)

More Below!

Terrorist Today, Gone Tomorrow

Originally posted 6/10/05 at Ma'at's Feather

I love law. I usually love lawyers. Well, OK, except for the ones currently working on the criminal side of Dubbya's "war on terrorism".

It tells you what kind of world we live in post 9/11, and definitely post-Bush Administration. Today, we have attorneys admitting, with a straight face, that the highly-damning, detail-loaded "affidavit" regarding the "Lodi Terrorists" (TM) they trumpeted all over the media as the smoking gun of Terrorists in Our Midst (TM) could not be submitted to a judge so that he or she could actually test its factual merit in a way that the media and most of the public are totally unqualified to do:

"Lodi Affidavit" Bait and Switch

For those who missed it (and you shouldn't have), five Muslims were arrested yesterday in Lodi, California in what was described as a roundup of terrorists in California's beautiful San Joaquin Valley. Two of them, father and son, allegedly confessed to having sent the son to an al Qaida training camp in Pakistan so that the son could be "trained to kill Americans." (Of course, we could spend hours talking about why American citizens needed to undertake expensive travel to someone else's country to do what they could learn to do right here at home from the same organization that taught Timothy McVeigh the tricks of the trade, but that's another discussion for another day). And kill us in some of the most vulnerable locations - hospitals and large grocery stores. When the few media skeptics demanded to know what proof they had to support this extraordinary story, DOJ press representatives insisted that there was a confession from the son, and disseminated to the media an affidavit which allegedly set forth the factual basis for their arrest of father and son.

That affidavit was nowhere to be found, however, when it was time to actually file it with the Court to support a finding of probable cause for these men to stand trial for something. The stated reason that different versions of this key document were being used in different contexts? It was ""An unfortunate oversight due to miscommunication".

Miscommunication about WHAT exactly? I can't speak for you, but it seems to me that it is pretty hard to "miscommunicate" about someone having a terrorist plot to target hospitals and supermarkets and Kill Americans.

I don't know - maybe it's just me.

Here's the money quote:

Sacramento FBI spokesman John Cauthen said the deletions in the document were made because the original details were "not relevant or not accurate in context" for the purpose of proving a probable cause to arrest Hamid Hayat and his father.

I have to ask: Is this man saying with a straight face that these alleged details are more accurate when they were used yesterday morning to incite folks in the San Joaquin Valley into fear-induced incontinence over the thought of being victimized by a terrorist attack while they were visiting a sick relative in the hospital or picking up their evening dinner than they were when it was time to present those details to a detached neutral?

Why, yes, I believe he is.

Who are these folks trying to kid? Dumb question, because I already know the answer - the vast majority of Americans who do not practice criminal law and/or have a law degree, and therefore do not know the difference between an affidavit showing probable cause (sworn under oath) and a press statement/release (say whatever you want). Even if one concedes the "irrelevant" part to the government, since after all no lawyer includes all of her/his factual detail in pleadings, how in the hell can anyone defend disseminating facts (and I use the term loosely) which had to be left out of a legal pleading because they were inaccurate?

The government has told so many lies and 1/2 truths at this point about imminent terrorist threats right here on American soil I can't even keep them straight anymore. Of course, a careful observer cannot help but note that they are almost always carefully timed to coincide with the release and/or increased dissemination of the real news occurring at the same time. Yesterday's "real news" was the five brave Marines blown to bits during the military and moral nightmare that is Iraq post-US invasion; DOJ's belated release of its own scathing report confirming that our government blew at least five chances to catch up to some of the 9/11 terrorists in the months immediately preceding 9/11; and of course the increasing drumbeat for accountability that is finally beating in earnest about the Downing Street Memo.

Of course, we all know that the best way to keep a questioning, thinking public from questioning and thinking about what their government is up to is to keep them scared to death. Even if you have to lie.

More Below!

What in the Hell Am I Doing????

Originally posted 6/10/05 at Ma'at's Feather

Well, I finally took the plunge into the moving surf that my toe has been dipping in for over a year. I started a "blog."

What on earth does that mean? I guess it means that I have come -- or am trying to come -- full circle. To reintroduce, without fear, the little Brooklyn Black 6 year old womanchild who once readily put forth the maelstrom of her thoughts about everything to the womanist that has emerged following the next 38 years of being friend, lover, wife, mother, activist, scribe, lawyer and political blog participant.

It's a scary process, coming "home" in that sense.

What prompted this? Well, it's either a sense of impending mortality I never possessed before, a frustration that I have a lot to say but precious few to say it to in more than passing snippets, or, perhaps most fundamentally, a sense that I was writing my thoughts, my opinions, my political self, to expand everyone's thought process but my own. On other blogs. Chiming in as a voice, whether seen as harmonious or discordant, instead of singing my own lead based on my own experience. I'd speculate that the reason why this has been the case, even though thoughts are constant for me, is the fear of being judged unworthy to write, unworthy to be heard.

We'll find out, I guess.

More Below!

Let's Try this Again

Now that I have a blog name that I'm pretty sure is *not* already in existence, I'll be porting everything from Ma'at's Feather over here. Trying to sort the HTML reminds me why I chose law, and not computers, when I had the chance!

More Below!