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Putting Kashoggi into perspective



To some extent I sympathize with Trump in this MBS-Kashoggi incident. His attitude—portrayed as loathsome by critics including some Republicans—is that America shouldn’t let “mere” moral considerations interfere with our global, strategic interests. Saudi Arabia wants to invest hundreds of millions of dollars here, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. The Saudis also side with us (and we with them) in their proxy war with Iran; we need them (or so it’s said) in the fight against terrorism. Why let a messy extra-judicial killing screw up a beautiful friendship?

This country always has made truck with nasty foreign leaders. The list of countries we protected and supported—countries that harassed, or imprisoned, or murdered their internal opponents—is vast, stretching from the Iran of the Shah to the dictators of Central and South America we shielded and did business with for decades during the Cold War. Always, we did so (and so justified it to ourselves) because it was “good for America.” And maybe it was.

I suppose, if you’re a president of the United States, you have to do some pretty squeamish things. Trump once told a reporter (I can’t find the precise quote but you probably remember) “What, you don’t think we kill people too?” He didn’t go into specifics but he confirmed what, I think, all of us know: occasionally a U.S. president gives a kill order against a specific individual. Osama bin Laden is the textbook example, but there have been many others: commanders from al Qaeda, al-Shabaab, ISIS, you name it, or, in the old days, various Nazis and Communists. It goes with the territory.

So, from that point of view, there’s nothing especially shocking about another country doing it. In this case, MBS rightly or wrongly determined that Kashoggi was an enemy of the Saudi state, and had to be eliminated. Is that any different from Obama or Trump ordering a drone strike against Islamic militants in Nangarhar district? It isn’t really, if you think about it. The Saudi torture and beheading of Kashoggi, in their own embassy in Istanbul, obviously is more shockingly dramatic and gruesome, but the end result is the same: somebody’s husband, son, father is killed violently, on the order of a national leader, who did it for reasons of national security.

This incident, though, does raise larger questions. What is the moral price we pay as a people to achieve economic security? We all want cheap gasoline, we all want our workers to have good jobs. Is the death of one man too high a price to pay for those worthy ends? Put another way, would you give up your job if you were assured it would save the life of a person halfway around the world whom you never knew and never will? You probably would not. Would you do it to save, say, a thousand lives? You might have to think about it a little harder. Maybe you would, because (you tell yourself) you can always get another job.

What if you knew you couldn’t get another job? Your savings would soon run out. Your family would be hungry; you couldn’t pay your rent or mortgage. Those are important things. A thousand lives also are important things. You put one on one side of the scale, another on the other side, and weigh the balance. It’s very difficult.

Citizens routinely shut their—our–eyes to certain things that governments do, and the bigger and more powerful the country, the tighter we all have to close those eyelids. I think most of us can live with the thought that some foul deeds are committed in our names by our leaders, Democratic or Republican. This emphatically doesn’t mean we, the American people, should do nothing. We make ourselves feel better protesting, tweeting, writing letters to the editor, all to cloak ourselves in moral outrage. But in the end, what good does it do?

The governments that kill their political enemies always hope, of course, that these murders don’t come to public light. Kashoggi’s did. That forces everybody to go into CYA-mode. Trump, who probably knew about the murder in advance (and signed off on it), now has to pretend to be “concerned” and perhaps even considering “severe” punishment for the Saudis. He has to make suitable noises about punishing them. But he knows this incident will subside, to be replaced by the next incident, and the one after that, and it will be business as usual, only with this difference: leaders will instruct their henchmen—the ones who actually carry out the killings—to be more discrete, less sloppy about them. “We don’t want another Kashoggi!” they’ll instruct their intelligence chiefs. The word “to Kashoggi” will go down alongside “to Bork” as a surname-become-verb, in this case, to murder a political opponent and have it be discovered through the incompetence of the killers. The word already has gone out from Trump’s Oval Office: “I don’t want any Kashoggis.” Extra veils of secrecy will now mask America’s political assassinations. You, and I, will be happier for not knowing what our government does in our name.

Have a lovely weekend!


San Francisco and Oakland: cities in change–and crisis?



Spent the day yesterday with my family in San Francisco (only three BART stops from my house). We started with something that’s now become a bit of a tradition: dollar oysters with drinks at Waterbar at noon. I had mine with a glass of “J” brut, such a good drink with oysters.

Waterbar is an absolute joy to go to, with its expansive views of the Bay, the Bridge and the East Bay, which the Spanish Californios called “Contra Costa”: the opposite coast.

Normally, on a day as cloudless and sunny as yesterday, you’d be able to see Mount Diablo, the second-tallest peak in the Bay Area (3,849 feet). But the mountain was totally obscured by smoke hazing up the sky, drifted down from the wildfires up north that continue to ravage the state. My heart goes out to the people around Redding, who have suffered relentlessly from this scourge.

As a kid I wouldn’t have eaten an oyster if you’d paid me, but now, you can’t hold me back. They whet rather than satiate the appetite, even with bread and butter. Hemingway praised oysters “with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away.” Afterwards, we sought lunch. Maxine wanted to check out the rooftop garden in the just-opened Salesforce Transit Center. I hadn’t been there yet, so we walked the few blocks and took the longest escalator I’ve ever seen up to the gardens. (They’re also going to open an aerial tram.) All I can say is, visit this place if you haven’t already. It’s an instant classic. The terminal itself is an architectural marvel (it’s probably the most earthquake-proofed structure in the world), but most marvelous is the rooftop garden. It must be a quarter-mile long, with twisting trails and little nooks where you can rest and eat. The entire site is surrounded by a wall of skyscrapers, including Salesforce Tower, the tallest building west of Chicago.

This is really a spectacular achievement for San Francisco, a futuristic marvel; I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else in the center of a big city. It’s part of a chain of stunning development that stretches from the Embarcadero, on the Bay, west to Moscone Center. Absolutely stunning.

This elicited lots of political talk between us about gentrification and people losing their places to live. It’s stunning to see the brilliance of imperial San Francisco at this, its greatest, richest moment. But it’s sobering to think of all the people forced out of their apartments, many of whom, presumably, are now living on the streets, in BART corridors and God knows where else. I actually wondered how long it would be before there are tent encampments in the Transit Center garden, which is free to access. I doubt that the authorities would permit that, but still…things are tough in the Bay Area if you don’t have money.

The same thing is happening in Oakland albeit at a lesser pace. In my neighborhood alone an entire city-within-a-city is going up, all in the space of the last year or so. I’m glad I got rid of my car (I’m now carless) because traffic here is going to be horrible once all the new residents move in. Being carless (it’s been a month now) has been hassle-free. In fact, I’m enjoying it. I gather that carlessness is more or less a trend among Millennials, what with all the options (Uber, Lyft and so on), which makes me think that all of my life I’ve done things I thought were the products of my rational choices but which, as it turned out, tens of millions of others were simultaneously doing, which made them trends. What does this say about free will?

Anyhow, I personally welcome this new development but I know lots of people adamantly oppose it, for all the reasons I cited above. I think you can’t stop progress. You can manage it intelligently, but you can’t build a wall around a city like San Francisco or Oakland and say, “No more people allowed” when so many people want to live here. And yet the homelessness is extremely troubling. With it comes an increase in filth, litter, crime, human excrement in the streets, and vandalism, and at night, when I’m out and about downtown, the streets are scary, something out of Night of the Living Dead: zombies roaming around, muttering to themselves, gesticulating crazily. I’m an old man now: it’s discomfiting.

And yet I have no more answers than anyone else. The extreme liberals in Oakland insist that the city pay for housing, food and healthcare for the estimated 4,000 homeless people who live here. They even go so far as to say that the Police Department should be defunded, with the money going to homeless services. That’s insane, and is not going to happen. But it is, I fear, the sort of talk that Trump and his followers use as wedge issues to appeal to their white followers, who want simplistic solutions to enormously complicated problems.



Are tent Cities for Latino Children “Biblical”?



CAUTION! I need to vent today, so please bear with the occasional swear word.

I am stunned beyond belief at these tent cities the Trump regime is erecting to jail children stolen from their parents at the U.S.-Mexican border.

I usually try to be polite on this blog when it comes to my differences with the regime. But you’ll have to forgive me for today’s lapse; the following is NSFW!

To begin with, What the hell are Trump and Sessions thinking? Locking kids up after they’ve been forcibly taken from their parents? In some cases these kids are just infants—one report quotes a Honduran woman accusing American border agents of ripping her infant daughter away from her as she was breastfeeding her.” I guarantee you, History is not going to take this lying down. How is this different from when Hitler’s Nazis seized children from occupied countries and then forcibly resettled them in German homes, in the so-called Lebensborn program?

It’s not any different. This is an absolute perversion, not only of international law, but of human rights and moral law as well. And once again the Republican Party is standing by their man, supporting this awful, disgusting and cruel practice.

Do you know who the worst perverts are?

Christians. Lying, hypocritical Christians.

The avowed Christian, Attorney-General Jefferson Sessions, “cited the Bible” in defending the seizure and imprisonment of children. “I would cite you to the Apostle Paul and his clear and wise command in Romans 13 to obey the laws of the government because God has ordained them for the purpose of order,” he said yesterday.

Then, in lockstep, Trump’s press secretary, the admitted evangelical Christian, Sarah Sanders, bragged about the forced separations, claiming, “I can say that it is very biblical to enforce the law. That is actually repeated a number of times throughout the Bible.”

Sarah, did you know it’s “very biblical” to stone adulterers like your boss to death? Look at Leviticus 20:10. “If a man commits adultery with another man’s wife–with the wife of his neighbor–both the adulterer and the adulteress are to be put to death. Want to join us when we stone Trump in Lafayette Park? Will you throw the first?

Look, this “Christian” crap has gone far enough. America is a nation where the First Amendment explicitly says, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion…”. And yet these damned Christian fascists are totally ignoring that fundament of our republic and instead foisting their so-called Christian law upon us. In this, they are supported by an increasingly large number of radical Christians in the Congress and by a Roman Catholic majority on the Supreme Court, which usually sides with evangelicals on social issues. Together they constitute a Christian Conservative majority on the Court.

How is this different from a supreme court in Iran that always sides with the Shiite regime?

Sarah Huckabee Sanders, you can be whatever damned religion you want, but you are stirring up some very dangerous cross-currents in your attack on the Constitution and in your attempts to Christianize America. I’m sure you inherited that nonsense from your father, the Very Reverend Mike Huckabee, champion of women’s and gay rights. I suppose you believe it, and I guess you think that God and Jesus are proud of you (and of your boss, Trump) for Christianizing America.

Do you not know that Trump, a recovering atheist, discovered evangelicals a few years ago, when he was looking to form a base? Prior to that, he thought evangelicals like you were were morons. He still does. But he pretends to be one of you because he needs you.

Problem is, America is not a Christian country! It’s a secular country. Our Constitution guarantees it! The Founding Fathers wanted it that way! If you want to live in a fucking Christian theocracy, then find some other country to move to!

Do these extremist Christians really think the rest of us are just going to sit back and let them run amok? Do they believe that we won’t rise up in righteous indignation and resist with everything we’ve got? Maybe they’re so mentally blighted by their superstitions that they think they can get away with this with no repercussions. Well, it ain’t gonna happen. Oh, they’ll cause some damage—they’re already wrecking the lives of those poor Latino families they’ve declared war upon. But this is just a temporary aberration. We will get rid of Trump and his storm troopers. We will get rid of Jefferson Sessions and the white supremacist movement he longs to lead into battle. We will restore freedom and democracy to America, and it will begin with the next Congress, which will be controlled by Democrats.

Finally, here’s what I really think of evangelicals: You people are pathetic. You’re insane. You’re dangerous fools. You pretend to be holy, even as you sin like animals every chance you get when you think nobody’s looking. You  give a pass to the most irreligious, immoral president in American history, and therefore collude with him. Look in the mirror and see the face of evil.

You will never succeed in your nefarious goal of establishing a Christian America. Go back to your trailer parks, your storefront churches, your pedophile priests, your adultery, your obese, drug-addled backwaters, and leave us alone!

My former Senator, Barbara Boxer, today called what Trump is doing “a sin against God.” That it indeed is. Trump is a sin against God. The Republican Party is a sin against God. The prophets are mobilizing. All Christians and indeed all good people everywhere who do not stand up and speak out against this atrocity against children are sinning against God. There will be consequences.

On the Death of an Archbishop



I take no pleasure in George Niederauer’s death on Tuesday. But I am glad that we’ll never again have to hear his voice: negative, hateful, homophobic. Such is death’s blessing and curse, that it silences all of us, the just and unjust alike.

Niederauer was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of San Francisco back in 2008, when he led the Proposition 8 campaign to outlaw same-sex marriage in California. He was already an old man who looked as though he had been weaned on lemons and had not enjoyed intimacy with any human being for decades, if ever–an angry, embittered shrew. Not only did he lead the fight for Prop 8, he’s the one who got the Mormons involved—a lovely cult, who gave America polygamy, and many of whose followers to this day are fighting a rearguard action against gay rights.

These so-called “Christian” homophobes always haul out a few sentences from Leviticus and the man, Saul of Tarsus, whom they call Saint Paul, to justify their condemnation of the love that same-gender humans may have for each other. I always wished I could have confronted one of them and asked a simple question: Why do you choose to fasten on a single “abomination” from the Bible and ignore the dozens of others, defined in the Bible as abominations, many of them punishable by death?

Now, before you accuse me of Christian-bashing, I’ll tell you a story about my former friend, the ultra-orthodox Hasidic (Lubavitch) Jewish rabbi of the East Bay, who took a similar stance. In that case, because we were friends, I was able to sit him down and go through every death penalty in the Old Testament. “Rabbi, are you saying it’s okay for parents to kill a child if the child shall strike its parent? Are you really saying it’s okay to kill your wife if she cheats on you?” And so on. Rabbi chuckled each of those away, as well he should have. “No, of course not,” he told me. “God didn’t mean for us to take those literally. They’re metaphors.” But then we came to the infamous passage from Leviticus (18:22). “Rabbi, do you really think it’s okay to kill a man for having sex with another man?” “Oh, yes, certainly,” he said. “That is God’s law.”

I don’t remember if I even pointed out the obtuseness of Rabbi’s remark. But it was the last time I ever saw him, for how could I, in good conscience, be friends with a man—of influence and power—who would happily kill me, and millions like me, were he given the keys to life-and-death?

But back to Niederauer. I don’t know if he, himself, ever messed around with another boy or man, although my gaydar told me he sure looked gay. Let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. But I do know that an extraordinary number of Catholic priests not only messed around with boys and men, but engaged in child sexual abuse. Niederauer’s own San Francisco diocese itself settled at least 101 abuse cases, and while there’s no evidence he knew about it, it seems logical that he did. This is the man, the fiend, who tormented gay people with his pious denunciations, whose accusation that gay people are “intrinsically disordered” caused so much suffering and pain. He engaged in a years-long witch hunt against many of his own parishoners, even as his church allowed the perverts who also donned the black cloth to continue their heinous sexual activity. So, as I said, I take no pleasure in Niederauer’s death. But I am glad that such a stupid, irresponsible voice will never again be heard, at least coming from his body. Unfortunately, for every Niederauer, there are tens of thousands more in this country who say similarly odious things about innocent Americans; and I will venture to say that almost all of them are Christians, Republicans, and Trump supporters.

I don’t know if Niederauer, or anyone else, will survive death. I don’t know if he, or any of us, had or has an immortal soul. If he did, I don’t know if it’s going to heaven, or hell, or purgatory, or someplace else. But, if you will allow me to engage in a little retrospective emotion, if Niederauer does have a soul that survives death, I hope it goes someplace that will be very uncomfortable for him, a place where he will be tormented, at least for a period of time, until he realizes the awfulness of his sin.

Hey you evangelicals, you’re about as Christian as my dog

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Many years ago, in the early 1980s to be exact, I was driving home early on a Sunday morning from L.A. to San Francisco, idly switching between radio stations, when I came across a broadcast. It seemed to be, near as I could tell, a church meeting, and a big one at that to judge from the roar of the multitudes, who were presided over by a fire-and-brimstone preacher, of some evangelical or born-again stripe. As I have always found this sort of thing interesting—in a Margaret Mead-amongst-the-Samoans anthropological way—I listened. The preacher brought his audience to greater and greater heights of frenzy. The roaring and “amens” increased in crescendo. The mists of time have erased from my memory most of the particulars of what the preacher said, but there was one part that so seared itself into my brain that, even all these decades later, I recall it word for word.

He was talking about people who resisted the Christian message of Jesus being Lord and all that. He said they (the Christians) would try their best to convert non-believers, but that, in the end, if the non-believers refused to obey, “We will drag them, kicking and screaming, into the tent.”

Yes, those were his exact words. “He’s talking about me!” I thought. I found this so striking that I pulled over to the side of the road, to mull over what I had heard. To “drag someone kicking and screaming” is an old term whose derivation I do not know but whose meaning is clear: to make someone do something they do not want to do, by the use of force. I remember clearly the distinct image, repeated often over the years, those words formed in my mind: I saw a tent—a huge canvas structure, set up in some Bible Belt pasture or field, in which a Pentecostal audience was arrayed, like Romans in the Coliseum, egged on by a fiery Protestant orator. I saw a group of four or five burly white men engaged in the act of seizing hold of the arms and legs of a smaller white man who was struggling to escape from their grip. That smaller white man was me. As I screamed and flailed, the burly men carried me through the tent flaps, to the rabid, ecstatic howls of the mob. And there the scenario always mercifully ends.

Thirty-five years ago, these Christian evangelizers were eagerly courted by the nascent Reagan administration. Reagan himself was not particularly religious—nothing that we know about him suggests otherwise—but his political advisors, particularly a fellow by the name of Robert Billings, who was the executive director, under Jerry Falwell, of the Moral Majority, were given a seat at the table because the evangelicals were viewed by Republican strategists as the new equivalent of the “Southern strategy” that had got Nixon elected. And so the evangelicals had the ear of the President of the United States. Now we come to the year 2017, and the evangelicals have not only the President’s ear, but his mind, heart and bully pulpit. They have swarmed into the White House and Cabinet, long ago having seized control of the House of Representatives, and have made major inroads in the Senate and in the United States Supreme Court.

I have a few words for them–for you, if you’re one of them.

When I said you’re about as Christian as my dog, I immediately realized how unfair that is to Gus, as gentle and loving a soul as ever existed. You evangelicals speak the words of your God but you practice the actions of the Devil. You say you care for the poor, yet you would do away with public schools where they obtain free education, with Planned Parenthood where so many poor women obtain health services, with the Affordable Care Act: you would actually take healthcare away from 20 million of the neediest Americans. You would defund Public Defenders’ offices throughout the land, ensuring that only people of means can afford lawyers. You would gut if not eliminate environmental agencies, such as the E.P.A., whose “crime” in your eyes is to protect God’s air, water, creatures and lands. You would toss Muslims out of America and forbid others from coming in, to protect your so-called “Christian” nation, thus violating Jesus’s main instruction: to treat others as you would have them treat you. You have allowed your churches and pulpits to be fouled by politicians who cynically use you, you have allowed mockers like Donald Trump to achieve high office despite the fact—which you know in your heart—that he thinks you are fools. You have watched this President squander the essence of what America has meant to the world for 250 years: a shining city on a hill, of compassion, fairness and hope for all. You have elected a three-times-married adulterer, a self-admitted sexual abuser of women who tells a relative stranger he would “like to fuck” another man’s wife, even while he, himself, is married. Is this how you treasure the sanctity of marriage?

But that is not all! You throw your support behind a man whose mockery of the disabled ought to make you cringe, especially those of you—and they are many—whose own children or siblings are disabled. You think this man, who repeatedly insults anyone who disagrees with him, and who lies with pathological abandon, is a paragon of virtue. You cheer on a man who insults the entire country of Mexico, calling our southern neighbors “rapists and criminals”—and you say nothing to challenge such slurs even though you know they’re false. You see him fritter away our friendships with Australia, Iceland, France, Great Britain—friends who fought beside us in multiple wars and have stood by us through every troubled time. You—who for decade after decade hated the Soviet Union for its atheism—now suddenly discover what a wonderful country Russia is. You, who fulminated against the evils of Big Banks and Wall Street, of Mammon, now have a Cabinet stuffed with the leaders of Goldman Sachs, led by a billionaire who will not reveal his taxes or his business interests–and you do not care. You say you believe him when he says we need to deregulate these monstrous banks–whose CEOs are his friends–and yet you conveniently forget that the greedheads that run them caused the Great Recession that made your neighbors, maybe even your family, maybe even you, lose your jobs and homes. In short, you render unto Caesar what should be rendered unto God, and unto God, you render nothing but pious platitudes.

You have hated on and discriminated against huge swaths of the American republic in your religiously-based bigotry against gay people–a bigotry every Republican administration, including Trump’s, has exploited, and which, in your heart of hearts, you know is wrong. And now–the frosting on the cake–you urge Trump on as he seems hell-bent on unleashing more foreign wars—wars that will kill your sons and daughters or, if they are not killed, will leave them legless, armless, blind, and ravaged by PTSD. You–who talk about love!–loathed Obama, whom your Jesus would have blessed as a peacemaker. Now you are stuck with a warmonger, the father of sons who kill God’s noblest animals on the plains of Africa, not for meat for their well-laden tables, but for their own privileged, twisted pleasure.

What would Jesus have said about that?

I have no respect for you, evangelicals. You worship false gods and you speak with forked tongues. Your movement is spiraling downward, as ever more and more Americans, including Christians and elected Republicans, see through your hypocrisy. You have brought a godless, unstable person to the highest office in the land; through your stiff-necked, spiteful, reckless anger, you have wrought, upon this nation and the world, Havoc. Heed the lesson from 1 Samuel:                        

“So Saul died, and his three sons, and his amourbearer, and all his men, that same day together.”


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