Monday, April 14, 2014

Pushing the envelope: love story, with transman

Sunshine Mugrabi's memoir, When my Boyfriend was a Girl, is a love story. In many respects it's a conventional love story: two people meet, there's chemistry, each has reservations about wading in too deep or too fast. One gets over those reservations before the other, arguments ensue, tension escalates ... and maybe they make it, maybe they don't.

But this memoir has a twist. And that the title gives away the nature of that twist doesn't diminish the freshness, honesty, surprise, or emotional resonance of its story. Not a whit. Because the two things that matter most about When my Boyfriend was a Girl are:
  1. it's a conventional love story about people who most readers won't easily imagine in a conventional relationship: a bisexual woman, and an FTM transsexual; and,
  2. it richly illustrates why those categories -- bisexual woman, FTM transsexual -- are not the defining elements in a human love story.
The memoir, published just last month, is well written and tightly paced. As dramatic narrative, it zigged and zagged -- between obstacles Sunshine and Leor encountered and the ways they found to surmount them -- a little too predictably for my taste; but as I read I weighed the book's narrative structure against the truth that zigzag is how relationships unfold in the real world. More importantly, that very same dramatic 'ordinariness' goes to the heart of the book's core message: a relationship with a transsexual is, well, a relationship.

Consider how the author treats physical love. Here's a beautifully lyrical passage, one of my favorite in the memoir:
When I crawl back in beside him he is lying on his side, his breathing now heavier, coming out thick like a train engine. With my arm across his waist his warm hand takes hold of mine. I inch closer, pressing my body against his naked back. Dreams invade my brain, of dresses and high heels. I yawn and press myself closer to him. The curve of his waist is reassuring to me, a shape I've come to know and love. All we have is now, I tell myself. The darkness coils around us and I fall fast asleep.
Full disclosure: Sunshine is an old friend. We've known each other since the late 1980s, when we lived together for a couple of years in a communal house in Berkeley. More to the point of this post, Sunshine and I were both a part of the Oakland/Berkeley chapter of a 90s-era activist group called Queer Nation -- we called ourselves Queer Nation - East Bay. Queer Nation chapters sprang up all around the country around that time, modeled on the original founded in New York in response to violence -- physical and rhetorical -- against gay men and lesbians.

Queer Nation was all about pushing the envelope. Our core M.O. was to pick a public space that wasn't known for being friendly to displays of same-sex affection, show up without prior notice, and flamboyantly make out. Public transit stations, pubs, malls, bowling alleys... Sometimes we made a point of picking places where someone or a couple had been hassled or assaulted for Living While Queer.

Here's Sunshine -- neé Dewitt -- from a cover article about Queer Nation - East Bay published in the weekly East Bay Express on 15 Feb 1991. (The article, Loud and Queer by Linnea Due, is a great read, but too far back to be available in the paper's on-line archive.)
Sunshine Dewitt, her easy-to-read expressions radiating both her humor and her passionate commitment, describes the action at Raleigh's, a bar and café on Telegraph Avenue. "Raleigh's has these big picture windows facing the street, so that action was really successful just on the level of visibility. We were forcing people who claimed to be tolerant -- whatever that means -- to really see us. People are so clever at avoiding gay people in action, and this was one time we were in their faces, they had to see us, and it just upset people so much. It really did start a controversy. There was that article in the Daily Cal afterward, ranting that we were trying to imitate straight people by kissing in public. As we walked in there, I watched a straight couple kissing, and I thought, well, obviously kissing is allowed in here. It was just so powerful to see two men kissing after seeing the same boring image of a man and a woman, a man and a woman..."
The group of QNEB activists being interviewed (in my living room) goes on to explain how most of us took exception to UC Berkeley's student newspaper, the Daily Cal, characterizing our activity as imitating straight people. Then the article's author quoted yours truly:
Queer Nation goes out into places that are predominantly straight, where gay people don't normally congregate as queer people, but it's not so we can be like straight people. If we can pass as straight people, we can go anywhere. Everybody's known that as long as queer people have existed, you can go anywhere as long as you don't show who you are. The point of Queer Nation is to make it possible for us to go places and be ourselves ...
And a few paragraphs later, Sunshine again:
"We will never assimilate," Sunshine says. "That's the thing for me. We're not going to look the way straight people want us to look; we're not going to act they way they want us to act."
We were a couple of decades younger then, and more prone to making absolutist pronouncements than we might be today. And while it's true there are plenty of people and governments still arduously channeling the spirits of Anita Bryant and Jesse Helms, nowadays queer people and culture are a lot more visible in movies, television, music, and books ... and most of us feel safer -- if not necessarily safe -- when being ourselves in many major urban environments and in some smaller cities and towns in the U.S. In places where, in the 1990s, we couldn't comfortably or safely hold hands on the sidewalk or make out in a college bar, we can now choose to get married.

When my Boyfriend was a Girl acknowledges the conflicted feelings that many queer activists who came up and out in the '70s, '80s, and '90s hold about 'mainstream' goals like winning the right to marry or serve openly in the military. When Sunshine first broached the topic of marrying Leor (and Leor first shied away from marriage), that goal was still aspirational in the U.S for same-sex couples (which isn't a category Sunshine and Leor fit, by the way).

Here, from the memoir's seventh chapter:
In these dark days before gay marriage is legal in any state of the U.S., I know I have a bit of a tough case to make to Leor, who will no doubt play the solidarity with our gay and lesbian allies card. So I begin to amass a large and growing arsenal of good reasons why we should consider getting married. [...] Yet, I know in my heart that Leor and I would be breaking some major, unwritten rule if we were to take advantage of the fact that we could pass ourselves off as a straight couple in the eyes of the law.
Sunshine's focus on The Marriage Question was -- for me, during the hours I was immersed in reading When my Boyfriend was a Girl -- the least compelling aspect of her memoir. But unlike a large number of LBGTQ people, marriage was never important to me. My partner and I had been together for a month shy of fifteen years when the Supreme Court ruled last June for same-sex marriage in a pair of major victories for the gay-rights movement, as Adam Liptak of the NY Times put it. I'm not saying I was indifferent to the ruling -- far from it. I was and remain glad that same-sex couples who do wish to are now (and finally) able to marry. For myself, however, I never longed for a government-issued certificate to ratify my commitments.

For Sunshine and Leor, the question of marriage was a lot more complicated than it could ever be for two male or two female partners. Here, from near the end of the book:
"Leor, I don't know if I can go on," I say. "It's just too hard to be in this limbo. Everyone we know is tying the knot. Straight, gay, whatever else. If you don't want that..."

"We can't be what marriage is about," he says, cutting me off. "Can't you see that?"

A single tear slips down his cheek. The sight makes my heart lurch inside me [...]

Later, much later, I will recognize how difficult it was for him to say these words to me. To say out loud that he can't live up to the fantasy I have built of what and who I want him to be. That he fears the pressure on him to be the husband I expect. That as a differently gendered person, he would never be the man I thought I wanted.
If I were to wish for one thing more from this memoir, it would be just that: more. Especially, I'd wish for more of Leor's experience as his relationship with Sunshine evolves.

After finishing the the last page of her postscript, I gave a lot of thought to the author's decision to focus so tightly on the question whether she (bisexual woman) would marry her beloved (FTM transexual). Leaving my own ideas about marriage aside, I realized that this authorial decision makes shrewd emotional and rhetorical sense.

Here's the thing: for the overwhelming majority of people of all sexes and sexualities, marriage is a familiar and significant aspect of life and culture. Most people grow up expecting or hoping to marry, and (according to U.S. census data) most people do so. And, hey, I cry at weddings myself! Making a lifelong pledge is a big, deep deal ... even if married partners' promises don't always last as intended, when a couple makes them they are sincere and moving expressions of love, loyalty, and commitment to honor and care for another person.

Tying the freighted question of making and celebrating commitment to another human being to the trajectory of Sunshine and Leor's relationship makes their love accessible. That accessibility extends even to readers who have never knowingly met a transexual, and imagine that loving such a person is radically different from love as they conceive and experience it.

To paraphrase a famous literary lesbianWhen my Boyfriend was a Girl makes crystal clear that however unique the particulars of a relationship, a marriage is a marriage is a marriage.

And in making that case, Sunshine Mugrabi is still pushing the envelope.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Radical conservatism vs the radical left
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books
Five ways to look at a high school bully
Making a world where queer kids thrive

Friday, April 4, 2014

The fossil fuel industry and the free sump that is our atmosphere: Zing!

Sometimes a letter-to-the-editor hits its target, right smack in the bull's-eye. Not that Ray Welch is your average letter-to-the-editor writer: a quick look around the intertubes reveals that he's an energy consultant, a member of activist organization Sustainable San Rafael, a novelist, and a blogger (see

This morning, his letter to the editor of the SF Chronicle was outstanding. The most notable excerpt:
Without a carbon tax, no fossil fuel company can alter its carbon-based business model. That would violate their fiduciary responsibility to their shareholders, which virtually mandates them to take advantage of the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere. A carbon tax flips their fiduciary responsibility right-side up: They would be obliged to phase out rather than increase their fossil portfolio.
This: the free sump otherwise known as the atmosphere.


Paying what things cost is one of my own core political themes, and Welch sums it up with admirable concision.

What do you call industry's habit of 'externalizing' effects of their activity in order to take profit that humanity and our biosphere as a whole, now and in the future, subsidizes at great peril? Sleight of hand is too polite. Illegal dumping isn't sufficiently grave.

Whatever you call it, it's killing us. Thanks for the letter, Ray....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Weather? Climate? Change?
Paying what things cost
The radiation cloud is blowing in the wind

Thanks to Gary Miller and the EPA for the image of an illegal dumping site off the New Jersey Turnpike, circa 1973, via Wikimedia Commons.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Stepping back in time: resubscribing to a paper & ink newspaper

I subscribed to the SF Chronicle for years, maybe fifteen years at my current address alone. It's not the NY Times, but it's a paper that carries local Bay Area news and -- unlike the NYT -- you can read it over breakfast and stand a chance of making it to work on time. Compared to the SF Chron of my childhood, the paper is slimmed down so far you can practically read it over orange juice.

Anyway, price spikes, spotty delivery service, and a confluence of personal circumstances that left my partner and me ready to take a break from longstanding news-over-breakfast habits, led to cancellation of our subscription in late 2012. We ignored a number of 'please come back' offers since.

Then, earlier this month, the Chron sent an offer we couldn't refuse: seven-days-a-week delivery for a year for $99. Okay, not a year; fifty weeks. But still. We bit. Yesterday our delivery started.

First impressions: compared to the unbelievably slow-loading web site at, my ink and paper news is fantastically easy to skim! That's what I like most about news printed on paper, even compared to the fast, fat-pipe network connection I enjoy at work. Negligible 'load time'; for a fast reader and news-skimmer, the difference is huge.

I also took note of stories I would likely have missed over the last couple of days if I hadn't read the news in paper form -- things that wouldn't necessarily make the SFGate home page, assuming I had the patience to wait out the load time -- and I probably wouldn't have found by intertube-accident. Here are a few:
Will it be worth the $99 to get the SF Chronicle in print for the better part of a year? At that price, it'll pretty much be worth it if all I do with the delivered papers is train a puppy. (Note to landlord: not getting a puppy, stand down please.)

Will it be worth paying full price? ($99, said the mailer, is 84% off 'regular' price -- my calculator tells me that makes 'regular' price more than $600/year.) Nope. I kinda doubt I'll ever pay more than $50/month for the SF Chron.

But we'll cross that bridge when we get there in about a year.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:

Thanks to Another Believer by way of Wikimedia Commons for the image of the SF Chronicle's building at 5th and Mission Streets in San Francisco.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Embiggen and other go-figure puzzles in English

Click to embiggen
You see it all the time: a smallish image posted on a web page, and an instruction telling visitors how to view it at higher-resolution. Maybe: "Click to enlarge." Or: "Click for a larger image."

Ho hum.

But Tom Tomorrow (a.k.a. Dan Perkins) doesn't leave memos-to-readers that are as pedestrian as those. Nope. Not only is Tom Tomorrow's This Modern World consistently in my top tier of Best Progressive Political Comic Strips, but when his material appears on Daily Kos (which is where I look for his work nowadays), a visitor is instructed that to see a larger image of the comic, s/he should:
Click to embiggen.
This warms my heart.

I've met plenty of neologisms I loathe: to Facebook or to friend, for example. Or to calendar, as in "Let's calendar a meeting with the marketing people. Dick, can you PowerPoint the product positives by next week?"

OTOH, there are as many others that I've adopted whole hog, like zillions of other English speakers: to Google, for one. Or internet, for that matter. Or grok, my personal favorite among neologisms of the '60s (though "Bogart" was pretty good too, as in Don't Bogart that joint, my friend).

But embiggen? There's something about embiggen that feels so right I want to grin every time I see the word in action.

You may already be familiar with the origin of "embiggen" ... but I wasn't until I decided recently to suss out where Tom Tomorrow found it. There's nothing secret about the word: it came from The Simpsons. Not originally, exactly, but epidemiologically speaking. Sort of.

Here's how the word's origin is described on Wikipedia, in an entry about the episode of The Simpsons in which "embiggen" occurs:
"Lisa the Iconoclast" is the sixteenth episode of The Simpsons' seventh season. [...]

The episode features two neologisms: embiggen and cromulent. [...] The Springfield town motto is "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." Schoolteacher Edna Krabappel comments that she never heard the word embiggens until she moved to Springfield. Miss Hoover, another teacher, replies, "I don't know why; it’s a perfectly cromulent word." [...]

Embiggen—in the context it is used in the episode—is a verb that was coined by Dan Greaney in 1996. The verb previously occurred in an 1884 edition of the British journal Notes and Queries: A Medium of Intercommunication for Literary Men, General Readers, Etc. by C. A. Ward, in the sentence "but the people magnified them, to make great or embiggen, if we may invent an English parallel as ugly. After all, use is nearly everything." The literal meaning of embiggen is to make something larger. The word has made its way to common use [...]
Here's the relevant excerpt from the show itself:

So I was thinking about how much I lurve the word "embiggen" on my way to work the other day, and when I got there I found the usual daily e-mail from the Chronicle of Higher Education (I work for a university). In that e-missive I found a link to an article by a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh, Geoffrey Pullum. The article is titled Coming and Going and it appeared in the CHE on 19 Feb 2014. It's about how English doesn't behave. And how there's not a ding-dang thing to be done about it.

The article started me considering the probability that, for people who speak English as a second or third or fourth language, words like "embiggen" must be crazymaking. Not even a teensy-weensy bit heartwarming.

Excerpting from Pullum's piece:
I heard a Brazilian iron-ore magnate speaking on a BBC news program about how he had become so rich, and he said that at one point "the price of iron ore came from $10 a ton to $180 a ton." I realized that there was a subtle mistake in English usage here: Even if the price is still $180 now, we do not say that the price came from $10 to $180; we say the price went from $10 to $180. But why?

Come is standardly used for motion (including metaphorical motion) toward the notional location providing the utterer’s reference point: We talk about going away but coming back. It would be quite reasonable to imagine talking about a price starting at some remote point in past time and climbing up the metaphorical price curve, while proceeding along the time axis, toward its present point on the graph. Visualizing ourselves as located at the current price point, we could see the price as climbing up toward where we are now.

But we don’t. In fact we never seem to do anything like that. It is the future that comes; the past goes away.
The future comes and the past goes away? That's not what Creedence Clearwater Revival sang.

But more to the question of price movements, does the matter of iron ore prices going from $10 to $180/ton make more sense to me than coming from $10 to $180/ton because, having had my consciousness shaped in the United States, I understand that the coming and going of prices has nothing to do with my own superfluous presence at the location of a price point, but with movement that occurs from the price's own point of view. Here in 'Merica, corporations are people. Why shouldn't prices themselves have consciousness, and even agency? Perhaps even souls, by gum!


The word "embiggen" seems so cozy to me, so on the mark, so that's not a word, but boy is it cute! because ...
  • Embiggen is a little bit "enlarge" and a little bit "enlighten."
  • It's a monosyllabic Anglo-Saxon word bracketed by a Latinate prefix and an Old English suffix; so it's kind of awkward, but in a funkalicious way.
  • It's a word that you can easily imagine being spoken by a wide-eyed, ebullient four year old who just watched a blimp inflate.

And so on.

In an early post to One Finger Typing, I paraphrased my ninth-grade English teacher, Miss Barbara Ballou, who scolded the whelps in her charge if we dared claim a stylistic right to break the rules of grammar in essays on Billy Shakespeare, say, or Nate Hawthorne: You have no right to break the rules until you know what they are and how to apply them, she informed us.

I admired Miss Ballou a great deal. She was one of the best teachers I ever had, and I've had some doozies. But here's what Geoffrey Pullum has to say about rules, logic, common sense, and speaking English:
The important lesson, to me, is that it isn't logic or common sense that prevents us from saying that [the iron-ore price came from $10 to $180]. It just isn't how we use the language, that’s all.

Don’t ask me why. I genuinely don't know. What I do know is that English lexical semantics (and, I assume, the lexical semantics of any other language) is extraordinarily complex. It continues to astonish me that I learned the meanings of the words I know. Even simple words like come and go. 

[T]here is no guarantee that English will or ever could be logical. English is the way it is: Its rules, some of them quite strict, evolved the way they did over the past millennium without being under any constraint of a directly logical nature.

The user of the language is constrained only by the hundreds of millions of their fellow speakers, who unwittingly negotiate every day about how to set the conventions of usage that define them too as English speakers. Railing against the decision of a few tens of millions of our fellow speakers who have adopted or abandoned some expression is, to put it in terms of the old joke, like trying to teach a pig to sing: It not only wastes your time, it also annoys the pig.
Professor Pullum has a cromulent point.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Google Translate, AI, and Searle's Chinese Room
Linguistics, semantics, pragmatics: words, meaning, and wacky translations
Are computer languages really languages?
Raising a glass to Miss Ballou

Thanks to for the word cloud of Lewis Carroll's "Jaberwocky," from Through the Looking-glass.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Is data security worth it? Depends who's counting.

An article published by Reuters a couple weeks back caught my eye: Davos executives see data theft as too costly, too hard to beat. From the article, dated 24 January 2014:
Fighting online data fraudsters is almost impossible as their ability to hack into new technology often outpaces companies efforts to protect it, senior businessmen and bankers gathering for the World Economic Forum (WEF) said.

The mammoth data breach at U.S. No. 3 retailer Target (TGT.N) has made executives even more aware of the need to improve safety standards, but the cost is often prohibitive.


While losses on complex derivatives transactions could punch a big hole in a banks' balance sheet or even compromise its stability, the potential losses resulting from the theft of retail customers' data are often minimal.
Really? Minimal on whose balance sheet?

A study sponsored by security behemoth Symantec, and conducted by the Ponemon Institute measured costs of data breaches to business. From 2013 Cost of Data Breach Study: Global Analysis (PDF), published in May 2013 and reporting on cost per data breach victim in calendar year 2012:
As the findings reveal, the average per capita cost of data breach (compiled for nine countries and converted to US dollars) differs widely among the countries. Many of these cost differences can be attributed to the types of attacks and threats organizations face  as well as the data protection regulations and laws in their respective countries. In this year’s global study, the average consolidated data breach increased from $130 to $136. However, German and US organizations on average experienced much higher costs at $199 and $188, respectively.
Contrast that with an NBC article (on published the following month, Data breaches cost consumers billions of dollars:
A new report from Javelin Strategy and Research released on Wednesday concludes that a single massive data breach can result in “billions of dollars” in consumer fraud losses. [...]

Hackers were after Social Security numbers when they attacked the South Carolina Department of Revenue last year. They got 3.6 million of them. Javelin puts the total loss from this fraud at $5.2 billion dollars, making the breach one of the most costly ever.

The average fraud victim in this case will spend $776 out of pocket and take 20 hours to resolve their problems, the report estimated.
$188 is the cost to businesses per victim per data breach incident in the United States, from the Symantec sponsored study. NBC reports, from an incident in South Carolina, a cash cost to consumers of $776 plus whatever 20 of your hours are worth, applied to following up some company's compromise of your data by contacting banks, writing to credit agencies, trying to get the attention of law enforcement, and other such entertainments.

What are those 20 hours worth? The Social Security Administration calculated average U.S. wage data at $42,498.21 for 2012, or a little over $20/hr for a full 52-week year of 40-hour work weeks.

So let's peg the worth of those 20 hours at $400, for a total cost to data breach victims of $1,176 per incident.

Admittedly, this is arithmetic, not methodologically sound statistics I'm batting around here. But by my rough and sketchy comparisons, a data breach costs U.S. individuals over six times what such an incident costs a U.S. business for each affected person.

And yet: Davos executives see data theft as too costly, too hard to beat.

Uh huh.

In case it's not obvious yet that what "Davos executives see" is different from what you, an individual, are at risk of experiencing, let's go back to that Symantec sponsored study for a moment.

From the study's Executive Summary, bold emphasis added:
Factors that increase the cost. US companies realized the greatest increase in data breach costs if caused by a third party error or quick notification of data breach victims, regulators and other stakeholders. [...]
And from the Key Findings section of the report, bold emphasis added again:
In many countries, regulations dictate the notification of data breach victims. However, if organizations are too fast in contacting individuals it can actually result in higher costs. In this year’s study, in the US quick notification added as much as $37 per record , as shown in Figure 11c. It is understandable that this factor would have little impact on Brazil and India, because data breach notification regulations are non-existent.
No regulations, no need to notify data breach victims. No need to notify, lower cost to business. Hmmmm.... I believe what we're seeing here is what a certain category of spin-doctor might call, with respect to the United States, unfriendly business environments resulting from over-regulation, no?

The World Economic Forum's February 2013 report, Unlocking the Value of Personal Data: From Collection to Usage (PDF) contains an airbrushed sound-byte framing the old and insidious concept that what's good for the CEOs attending WEF meetings is good for the countries from which they extract wealth. From a chapter cozily titled "The World is Changing," here's the last point in a figure summarizing "New perspectives on the use of data":
Traditional approach: Policy framework focuses on minimizing risks to the individual

New perspective: Policy focuses on balancing protection with innovation and economic growth
Balance. We like balance, right?

Full disclosure: I am over-simplifying some long and complex analyses.

For example, just a couple of pages past the bit quoted just above from the WEF report, a series of figures asserts that health care outcomes for individuals is significantly improved by "personalised individual interventions based on health data" and "public disclosure of aggregated, anonymized patient outcome data."

Yes, there are not only costs, but benefits as well that accrue to individuals when vast data stores are aggregated and mined. It's complicated, and I acknowledge that.

The WEF report contains, for example, this reasonable and nuanced passage in Chapter 2:
This new approach also needs to carefully distinguish between using data for discovery to generate insight and the subsequent application of those insights to impact an individual. Often in the process of discovery, when combining data and looking for patterns and insights, possible applications are not always clear. Allowing data to be used for discovery more freely, but ensuring appropriate controls over the applications of that discovery to protect the individual, is one way of striking the balance between social and economic value creation and protection.

However, just as the discovery of new opportunities for growth is unknown, so are the possibilities for unleashing unintended consequences. Principled and flexible governance is required to assess the risk profile of actions taken in the use of data analytics.
But I would argue that this nuance is used as a self-interested prop to justify current and contemplated data collection and retention practices, on the grounds that, paraphrasing, we'll figure out how to protect people eventually.

I'm skeptical, okay? YMMV.

But here, setting aside reasonable nuance, figures and appendices, footnotes, and kumbaya use cases, let's consider this unsettling video, circa 2009, courtesy of the ACLU. What happens when you, an individual, call up a retailer to place the simplest order -- for takeout pizza -- and they know pretty much everything about your home, habits, relationships, work, and health. To wit:

It's a perspective worth balancing against the carefully groomed reports coming out of Davos.

I'll close with a report from just yesterday, 9 Feb 2014, Reuters again, titled Barclays launches investigation after customer data leak:
Barclays said it had launched an investigation after a newspaper reported that the personal details of 27,000 customers had been stolen and sold, raising the prospect of new fines for the bank. [...]

Barclays thanked the Mail on Sunday for bringing the data leak to its attention.

"Protecting our customers' data is a top priority and we take this issue extremely seriously," Barclays said in its statement.

"We would like to reassure all of our customers that we have taken every practical measure to ensure that personal and financial details remain as safe and secure as possible."

Yessiree, Bob. Every practical measure.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Six ways your electronica owns you
Pimped by our own devices: electronica, the cloud, and privacy piracy
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of the Davos Congress Centre, site of the World Economic Forum meetings since 1971; and also for the pile of cash image, contributed to WC by Moritz Wickendorf. And thanks to the ACLU, for all that organization's fine work and principled tenacity.

Friday, January 31, 2014

UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight

By the time I finished reading what current UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks had to say on the occasion of Nelson Mandela's death in early December, I was ... let's just say taken aback.

It turns out that dozens of fellow-activists in the Campaign Against Apartheid -- a student, staff, and community group that played a prominent role in Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s -- felt pretty much the same. Sixty-one of us signed an op-ed published today in the university's student newspaper, the Daily Californian; more signatures are still trickling in. I'll include the unedited text of the op-ed and the full set of signatures at the end of this post.

Doing the right thing

On the day Nelson Mandela died, 5 December 2013, there was nothing to be taken aback about in Chancellor Dirks' homage to a man whose long, honorable, and storied life spanned the roles of lawyer, non-violent activist, armed revolutionary, political prisoner, Nobel Peace Prize laureate, South Africa's first post-apartheid president, and modern archetype of principled resolution.

From Chancellor Dirks' statement, titled We are united in grief and reverence for Mandela:
Today, we are all part of a global community united in grief and reverence for a man whose clarity of moral purpose and extraordinary perseverance brought freedom to the oppressed, hope to the hopeless and light to all the dark places where human dignity struggled to survive. Today, we pause to not only mourn, but also to reflect, with gratitude, on the good fortune we had to witness in our times all that Nelson Mandela accomplished and exemplified.
True enough, and I was glad that the leader of my alma mater (and current employer) saw fit to honor Mandela on behalf of himself and of UC Berkeley as a whole.

Doing the wrong thing

But consider that during the mid-1980s anti-apartheid movement, the University of California administration stood in direct opposition to the students, staff, faculty, and community members demanding that UC divest its portfolio of multiple billions of dollars in investments tied to apartheid South Africa.

In fact, the university administration and governance board were the target of the anti-apartheid movement's divestment demands.

Hence my surprise when I read further into Chancellor Dirks' statement:
At Berkeley we also remember the special ties that will forever bind our campus to this man and his movement. As we know, the Bay Area was the epicenter of the American anti-apartheid activity due, in no small measure, to the passionate engagement of Berkeley students. In 1990, on a worldwide tour after serving 27 years in prison, Mandela spoke to a crowd of 60,000 at the Oakland Coliseum. During that speech South Africa's future president specifically cited our university’s "Campaign Against Apartheid" as having been particularly significant in hastening the end of white-minority rule in his country. That recognition highlights what is, in my opinion, one of Berkeley's proudest moments.
One of the university's proudest moments? That Berkeley's solidarity movement registered on Nelson Mandela's map of international struggle for justice in South Africa?

Yes, Chancellor Dirks got that right too.

But I felt a jarring dissonance to see the Chancellor of 2013 taking pride in, and institutional credit for, a movement that he now embraces -- but that his predecessor at Berkeley's helm, Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman, tried ruthlessly to destroy ... and that UC's then-President David Pierpont Gardner opposed on principle. Here, from a post-apartheid interview with Gardner, circa 1998:
I opposed divestment for reasons that I thought were sufficient. [...] After having studied the issue very carefully I concluded that the university, I'm not talking about individuals, the university acting collectively as a corporate entity ought not to divest. We didn't invest in South Africa because of apartheid; I thought we shouldn't divest because of it. And there were a lot of other arguments for remaining as against leaving.
The anti-apartheid movement of the mid-1980s -- including all the thousands of Berkeley students, staff, faculty, alums, and community members who participated in it -- was on the right side of history. The UC Berkeley and University of California administrations, and the UC Board of Regents, had to be shamed, badgered, and ultimately cornered into doing the right thing.

They didn't yield easily. The university's leaders used threats, intimidation, and police force in their attempts to derail our movement. From the Christian Science Monitor of 10 April 1986:
After last Thursday's melee, in which 91 protesters were arrested and 28 civilians or officers injured, Chancellor Ira Michael Heyman said, "The violence was about as bad as anything that happened in the '60s." [...]

Although antiapartheid protesters have been highly visible on campus for the past two years, this year's protests "have been provocative and illegal from the beginning," says university spokesman Ray Colvig. The university has responded, he says, with tough measures that have not been used since the Vietnam war protests -- the use of force by police, banning about 40 nonstudent activists from campus, and raising the possibility of suspension or academic probation for protesting students.
Our protests were provocative and illegal? Our protests in solidarity with those struggling for their lives against apartheid? Oh my!

Telling the truth

While Chancellor Dirks wasn't at Berkeley during the 1980s anti-apartheid movement, he was a professor on another university campus at that time (the California Institute of Technology, a.k.a. Cal Tech). He cannot have been unaware of anti-apartheid activism that swept hundreds of universities in that era. So I think it's reasonable to expect that the Chancellor -- an historian -- had sufficient context to reflect on the role played by leaders at the institution he now heads, rather than to blithely appropriate credit and pride for a movement his office opposed.

Institutions change. As an alum and a longtime member of the campus staff, I welcome the moral evolution of the University of California at Berkeley

But better to acknowledge history than to smother it in nostalgia.

It's particularly necessary to acknowledge history when the risk of repeating historical mistakes remains high. How high? Have a look at this recent video of UC Police beating a crowd of students and faculty (and, if you like, my analysis of what happened, and how the UC Berkeley administration so badly mishandled the campus Occupy Cal protest on 9 November 2011 that then-Chancellor Birgeneau had to walk his initial statement pretty much all the way back: When authorities equate disobedience with violence).

What's a good model for institutional evolution in relation to activism, in which the institution does frankly acknowledge history?

It's worth looking at UC Berkeley's relationship to the Free Speech Movement of 1964:

The Free Speech Movement pitted Berkeley students against a university administration intent on keeping a national struggle for civil rights off campus. In a very small nutshell, the administration lost that fight, and the university became a better institution for it.

Now, and since February 2000, the campus undergraduate library's entrance is flanked by the Free Speech Movement Café, privately funded decades after the fact ... but with the administration's permission and support. At the café, tables display flyers and newspaper articles under their clear acrylic surfaces that convey a history of the FSM through primary materials: students and other visitors can see and interpret for themselves. The space is used explicitly to generate critical discussion about contemporary social and political issues ... that is, for the very same, prohibited 'extra-curricular' activity that the FSM had to fight for in 1964. Yeah, you might detect a whiff of nostalgia beneath the heady perfume of espresso, but sentimentality is tempered by focus on actual issues, tensions, conflicts, resolutions ... and history.

In 1997, thirty-three years after FSM, the steps leading to Sproul Hall were named in honor of Mario Savio, arguably the FSM's most charismatic and articulate leader. The Sproul steps have served as a stage for countless demonstrations over the years. If you've never seen him in action, take a minute and a half to watch Savio inaugurate this iconic alter of campus activism a half-century ago this year:

The still-photo included at the top of this post shows Mario Savio addressing an anti-apartheid protest on Sproul Plaza during the spring of 1985, twenty years after the speech excerpted in the video. You can spot him if you look carefully for the balding fellow just a wee bit up and left of the center of the image, in a tan sport coat. Or if you'd rather, follow the red arrow in the cropped and marked image below. (Thanks to Laura A. Watt for permission to use her photograph.)

History doesn't end.

Setting the record straight

Since December, following a proposal made by UC Berkeley staff member and anti-apartheid movement participant Anne Stinson, there's been talk of renaming Lower Sproul Plaza for Nelson Mandela. The site is down another set of steps from the back of the crowd pictured in this post. (That plaza is currently under redevelopment.)

I think that renaming Lower Sproul would be more than fitting.

It would be a way to set a struggle for justice mounted in the 1980s into the very infrastructure of the campus, a struggle that pitted students, staff, faculty, and community against the poor judgment of Berkeley's administration (since corrected). Doing so might help to counter the facile, grating, but nonetheless persistent mainstream media narrative that student movements for social, political, and economic justice began and ended "in the sixties," a falsehood at Berkeley and elsewhere.

It would recognize that there are times when the view from the top of a great university is distorted, and that the way forward needs to be charted by its students, to whose generation our common future belongs. (I'm aware of at least one signatory to this morning's letter from the Campaign Against Apartheid whose son recently graduated from UC Berkeley. It would surprise me if there weren't others, sons and daughters alike, who are already or will someday be graduates themselves.)

You can support renaming Lower Sproul Plaza for Nelson Mandela on Facebook's CalMandelaPlaza page.

You're entitled to an opinion, because you're almost certainly affiliated with the Berkeley campus. Even if you're not a student, alum, or employee, you help fund the institution if you pay taxes in California and/or the United States: UC Berkeley is a state university, and received a third of a billion dollars in federal research funding in 2013 alone. Make your voice heard.

For the record, I'll end with the text of the Campaign Against Apartheid piece as submitted to the Daily Californian and published (with minor edits) today. I'm including the full set of signatories -- 61 as of this morning; the newspaper only published those of the six of us who drafted the op-ed and organized the collection of signatures. [UPDATE: late-arriving signatures added after the publication timestamp of this post.]
Last month, upon the death of Nelson Mandela, UC Berkeley Chancellor Nicholas Dirks released a statement asking us to “remember the special ties that will forever bind our campus to this man and his movement.” The chancellor called “the Bay Area the epicenter of the American anti-apartheid activity due, in no small measure, to the passionate engagement of Berkeley students.” The chancellor wrote that when Mandela spoke at the Oakland Coliseum after his release from prison in 1990, “South Africa’s future president specifically cited our university’s ‘Campaign Against Apartheid’ as having been particularly significant in hastening the end of white-minority rule in his country. That recognition highlights what is, in my opinion, one of Berkeley’s proudest moments.”

As members of the Campaign Against Apartheid, and participants in Berkeley’s diverse, multi-group, multi-racial anti-apartheid movement, we thank Chancellor Dirks for his recognition of what we accomplished almost thirty years ago.

While the current chancellor now celebrates that accomplishment and that commitment, it is important to recall that back then both the system-wide and Berkeley campus administrations were hostile to the movement. Why their hostility? Because since the 1970s, anti-apartheid activists at UC Berkeley (and at all the other UC campuses and at hundreds of colleges and universities nationwide) made our demand not of the Apartheid government but of our own institution. We called on the UC Regents to fully and immediately divest -- to sell off -- all UC investments in companies and banks that operated in or loaned to South Africa. That local focus as part of an international effort against racial oppression gave the movement great appeal and power.

The UC administration, however, (like campus administrations across the country) depicted foreign companies as a progressive force for change in South Africa, despite what Mandela, the ANC and every other anti-apartheid organization in the country had been saying for decades. Even black labor unions in South Africa -- with their own jobs to lose -- had called for corporate withdrawal from their country as part of a broad strategy to isolate and weaken the Apartheid regime. But the UC president and a majority of the Regents kept increasing their investments in those companies. By the 1980s, UC had by far the most South Africa-linked investments of any university – more than $3 billion.

University authorities did not oppose the divestment movement with words and ideas alone. The Berkeley administration endeavored to physically intimidate the movement, especially the group we were part of, the Campaign Against Apartheid. For 18 months, when persuasion and enticement didn’t work, the administration used campus police (and eventually a dozen other police forces) to confront and suppress demonstrations -- strong-arming, punching, kicking, clubbing and otherwise assaulting, injuring, arresting and jailing students, employees and community members as they gathered, chanting ‘Free Nelson Mandela’, on Biko (Sproul) Plaza and at Crossroads (California Hall) Shantytown. Police seized divestment leaflets, wrestled away our literature tables, confiscated sound equipment and ripped down anti-apartheid banners, symbols and signs. The administration bullied students with bannings, monetary fines, conduct code hearings, and threats of suspension and expulsion.

Galvanized by the administration’s repression of campus protest and by the greatest uprising in South African history, Berkeley students and employees and community members from around the Bay Area created in the mid-1980s what remains the largest and most sustained militant movement on a campus since the Sixties. We were also successful.

Not mentioning either the movement’s focus on changing university investment policy or the reaction of UC officials and the Berkeley campus administration obscures what happened at that time. So, while pleased that Chancellor Dirks has proposed an educational event about Mandela’s accomplishments, we would like to suggest a program that also examines Berkeley's divestment movement. More permanently, the suggested re-naming of Lower Sproul as Nelson Mandela Plaza could be augmented with a permanent installation or exhibit documenting the contribution of Berkeley students, staff, and community in supporting the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa.

Signed (updated as of 12 Apr 2014): Bradley Angel, Robert Arnold, Alice Bell, Patty Berne, David Blackman, Bill Bogert, David Böhner, Andy Brodie, Joanna Burroughs Manqueros, Dave Campbell, Andy Clardy, Marcel Côté, Alan Crowley, Brendan Cummings, Michael Delacour, Michael Donnelly, Henry (Hummer) Duke, Mickey Ellinger, Larry Engel, Leslie Firestone, Stuart Fisk, John Fox, Steve Gilbert, David Grumio, Monica Gyulai, Graham Hale, Ross Hammond, Rita Himes, Odile Hugonot Haber, John Hurley, Nancy Hurley, Jae Kimball, Jennifer Knight, Jeff Kravitz, Vicki Legion, Joe Liesner, Steve Masover, Mark McDonald, Al Miller, Jeff Miller, William Nessen, Osha Neumann, Holly Ober, Michael Pachovas, Andrea Pritchett, Heidi Rand, Patricia Seery, Alan 'Felix' Shafer, Victor Silverman, Amandeep Singh, Jim Squatter, Michael Stack, Heidi Starr, Michael Strange, Susan Stryker, Dean Tuckerman, Max Ventura, Rodney Ward, Jeremy Warren, Roy Werbel, Jonathan Winters, Stan Woods, Ken Yale, Eddie Yuen

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What Nelson Mandela actually said in Oakland on 30 June 1990
Remembering Richie Havens: down to earth
Nelson Mandela and the death of UC Berkeley's Eshleman Hall
When authorities equate disobedience with violence

Again, thanks to Laura A. Watt for permission to use her photograph of Mario Savio speaking at an anti-apartheid protest on Sproul Plaza in 1985.

Monday, January 20, 2014

What Martin Luther King actually did

A Daily Kos diary by HamdenRice dated 29 Aug 2011 crossed my radar this morning (Martin Luther King, Jr. Day in the United States), thanks to a FB friend with whom I worked briefly in a Bay Area activist group (he now lives elsewhere). I have nothing to add to the unadorned link, below, other than the hope that more people read it because of this link than might otherwise find this piece.

The diary: Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.

It's one of the most powerful accounts of how political activism transforms the world that I have ever read in the essay form.

Thanks to CJ for pointing me to HamdenRice's diary on Daily Kos; and to the Minnesota Historical Society and Wikimedia Commons for the image of Dr. King.