Berkeley Daily Planet

Listen To Your Granny

One of the reasons our house is somewhat crowded is that we are reluctant to throw away perfectly good magazines which are just a bit old. The New Yorker in particular is a living reproach, because it comes every week and is full of good stuff which we can't necessarily consume on a timely basis.

All of this is a prelude to explain why I happened this weekend to be reading a September 2004 "Talk of the Town" piece by George Packer about what was going badly wrong in Iraq. He'd originally been a reluctant supporter of the invasion, but as the war progressed and he reported on it for the New Yorker he changed his mind. This piece was his last-minute advice to John Kerry to get tough on Bush's war, something the candidate never managed to do. Packer wrote that "the senator has allowed the public to think that the president, against all the evidence of his record, will fight the war in Iraq and the larger war against radical Islam with more success. If Kerry loses the election, this will be the reason."

And Kerry did lose the election, and that's why. Packer later released a book, "The Assassins' Gate," in which he detailed exactly what went wrong in Iraq.

On Sunday I missed attending my first meeting of Grandmothers Against the War because of a previous commitment. They sent me an instant email update about their plans, for some kind of direct action on Valentine's Day at a recruiting office somewhere as yet to be decided, which I forwarded to my oldest friends, now most of them grandmothers scattered around the country. Now that the grandmothers are getting organized, there might be some hope for taking back the Congress in the 2006 election and stopping the crazy war in Iraq.

Sometime in the last couple of years a woman with a Middle-European accent, someone we'd previously encountered as, I think, a supporter of some union organizing effort, brought the Daily Planet newsroom some banana bread because she liked an article in our paper.

"I always send my grandson some banana bread when he writes a good article," she said.

"Who's your grandson?" we asked. "Where does he write these good articles?"

Now I remember that she said her grandson was George Packer, and that he was a staff writer for the New Yorker. At that time I hadn't noticed his byline there, but I was impressed nevertheless. And we enjoyed the banana bread.

I don't know this for sure, but I just bet George Packer's grandmother knew from the start that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, long before he figured it out for himself. She seemed like that kind of woman. Young men, unfortunately, tend to have more optimism about the success of military ventures than do their grandmothers, who have seen wars before and know the outcome.

The popular press, left division, is full of pieces these days on the general theme of "us good guys need to get organized for the next election," which is now almost upon us. One smug young man who'd worked the 2004 election in Ohio for a national organization opined in The Nation that the problem was that too many amateurs tried to get into the act. He said he'd taken a call from someone who wanted his attention because she represented "GAG." What was GAG? Grandmothers Against George -- and he was supposed to waste his valuable time and money on people like that? Well, yes.

One big problem in 2004 was too much money thrown at too many self-important semi-pros who didn't really understand what was happening on the ground. Organizations like his relied entirely too much on bank calls from yuppies in California with cell phones and too little on savvy homefolks.

Eve Pell, a card-carrying grandmother and seasoned political writer, told me that she showed up in Philadelphia in 2004 to help get out the vote, having been recruited by one of these national groups. She discovered that the precinct to which she'd been assigned was already under control -- the African-American grandmothers who'd been working there for years had covered all the bases, and the turnout was terrific. The national guys hadn't understood or appreciated their work.

There are those who think that John Kerry really won Ohio, and thus the election -- that the thugs stole the vote there. It's possible that they're right. If the smug young man in Ohio had been more respectful of the Grandmothers Against George, they might have been able to help him figure out that the local Republicans had their hands in the cookie jar. Now that the Grandmothers Against the War are getting their act together, they might even be able to figure out a way to bring America's grandchildren who are in Iraq home again.

In the fall of 2002 I was able to snatch a young man of my acquaintance out of the very clutches of a dishonest recruiter, who had persuaded the boy to enlist because he was out of work, restless, and didn't follow politics enough to know that war in Iraq was looming. I was standing in then for his own grandmother, my good friend who died much too young of breast cancer, and who was a vigorous opponent of every war she ever saw. At the very least, if the Grandmothers are present at the recruiting offices, they might be able to make sure that no more young people sign up as he did without understanding the consequences.

From Hurricane To Homelessness

New Orleans native Victor Lewis sat in a hotel lobby Sunday afternoon wondering when he would finally catch a break. His post-Hurricane Katrina westward migration began with five grim nights in the New Orleans Superdome, followed by 20 days shelter in Dallas' Reunion Arena, four nights sleeping on Dallas streets, and finally a bus ride to Oakland, Calif. and a Red Cross-subsidized hotel room. In less than two weeks, he may be forced to move his few belongings again.

"Man, I'm so tired," he said, clutching a container of donated pastries. "I've been sawing plenty of wood, but the blade has gotten dull."

The clock is ticking for evacuees of Hurricane Katrina, with a Dec. 1 FEMA deadline approaching that will end the direct payment program subsidizing their transitional accommodations. FEMA officials have said they are working closely with state and local officials to avoid a shelter crisis for the 150,000 evacuees who still live in hotel rooms nationwide, but local health and human service workers are bracing for a crunch of homelessness.

Lewis, who taught black history and coached football at New Orleans high schools, says he might move to a nearby freeway underpass if he cannot find an affordable apartment by the end of the month. "Looks like I'm back behind the eight ball," he said.

Local social workers and charity organizations are scrambling to place evacuees, following the sudden announcement of the deadline. David Wee, head of Crisis and Specialized Services for the city of Berkeley, Calif. said 110 evacuees have sought housing assistance in Berkeley, and about a third are currently living in local hotels. The FEMA statement, issued Nov. 15, announcing the coming deadline surprised Wee who thought the city had until later in December to help evacuees secure more permanent housing. "We really do not have much time until these people will have to pay their own hotel bills or face homelessness during the holidays," said Wee. "I hope that FEMA reconsiders and extends this deadline."

Jean Baker, spokesperson for the California FEMA regional office, said the decision serves the goal of helping evacuees become self-reliant and regain normalcy in their lives.

"This is part of an ongoing process of moving people from interim to long-term housing and helping them get back on their feet," she said. "We are making every effort to get all the evacuees in long-term housing by Dec. 1."

But local housing advocates in Bay Area communities caution that in this tight rental market, the proposed FEMA package of $2,350 to cover the first three months of rent is insufficient.

Eden Information and Referral, a non-profit clearinghouse for emergency and low-cost housing for Alameda County, has identified 135 rental units with landlords willing to lower rents for evacuees. But while a landlord might lower the rent of an apartment from $1,500 to $900, said Eden spokesperson Ollie Arnold, that is still too expensive given the resources made available through FEMA.

The Red Cross, which still has 691 open Katrina cases in Alameda County, is gearing up for an influx of housing seekers.

"We are very concerned about all the people that might fall through the cracks," said Greg Smith, of the Bay Area Chapter. FEMA is partnering with the Red Cross and community-based housing resource centers in a massive outreach campaign, said Baker. She urged evacuees to call FEMA's assistance line, 1-800-762-8740.

But the staff of Berkeley's Hurricane Katrina Resource Center, which opened Sept. 16 to provide case management to families and individuals fleeing the Gulf Coast, has reported tremendous difficulty getting through to FEMA. "The last two or three weeks, it's been virtually impossible to talk to a live person at FEMA," said Spence Casey, of the Berkeley Hurricane Resource Center.

Several evacuees who have still not received their "bridge fund," the $2,000 immediate relief amount, as well as coordinate health services, employment, and referrals to permanent housing. Berkeley is tapped out of affordable housing and placing all his cases in the next two weeks will be impossible, Casey said.

"This crisis has been so unpredictable, but with this deadline, the results are very predictable," he said. "This could be another man-made disaster that follows the natural one, but it can be mitigated by an extension of this deadline."

"We are already stretched to the limits by the issue of homelessness in the region," said Julie Sinai, senior aide to Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates. "There is no concrete plan on the table to solve this problem with the Katrina evacuees, but it should not be left to local responsibility. The feds really need to come through with the proper resources and timeline."

Rep. Barbara Lee's office confirmed that she is heading up a California delegation that will issue a plea this week to President Bush to postpone the FEMA hotel compensation deadline.

"I've practically given up, but I think that's what they're banking on," said Victor Lewis in his hotel. "It's simply amazing to me that they would put us back out in the street."

Rosa Parks Was Not the Beginning

If things continue upon their present course--which "things" have that interesting habit of not always doing--somewhere in an elementary school 50 years from now, a teacher will stand before a class and tell her students the story of the day in 2003 when a courageous black woman, grown weary of the lies of the Bush administration, stood up by herself in the United States Congress and cast the single vote against the Iraq War Authorization, thus sparking a national movement that eventually led to both the collapse of neoconism as well as the end of the stranglehold of the radical religious right on the government of the country.

Fifty years from now some of you will almost certainly be around, and you will remember these days, and you will say patiently (but a little wearily, because you've grown tired of correcting this particular mistake) that yes, what Barbara Lee did was absolutely courageous and no, you don't want to minimize its historical importance or how much it inspired people at the time, but she was, after all, only part of a greater thing going on in opposition to Bush and the neocons and the war, and it is that thing going on of people and opinions and actions and accomplishments which must be studied and talked about if one is to understand the history of those (these) times.

But history loves the simple tale, if for nothing else in that it is so simple to tell.

And so, this week, upon the death of the dear Ms. Rosa Parks, we must suffer through the recitation of the story--once more--about the courageous little Alabama black woman who got tired one day coming from work and refused to give up her seat on the bus to a white man, thus on-and-on, you know the rest of the tale.

And at the risk of being accused of kicking dirt on the freshly dug grave of a beloved national and civil rights movement icon, we are forced to say, once again, that no, that's not exactly how it happened, and that it doesn't take away anything from Rosa Parks to tell it right.

At the time of Ms. Parks' historic act in the mid-1950s, there were a number of African-American organizations in Montgomery--some of them based in the black church, some of them with ties to the union movement, some of them based in the black business or educational establishments--that had long been working to end racial segregation in public accommodations in that city. Rosa Parks herself was secretary of the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which had membership from all of those factions.

As the story is told by those who were there at the time, in refusing to give up her seat, Ms. Parks actually repeated an action that had been taken several weeks before by another young black woman.

Black Montgomery leaders briefly considered making that earlier action a test case, but decided against it when they learned that the young woman had a child out of wedlock. Afraid that Montgomery's white segregationist establishment would pound on that single fact--"niggers dropping babies without fathers"--to turn local and national attention away from the issue of segregation, the black leaders searched around for someone who could not be attacked on such "moral" grounds.

Rosa Parks was chosen, and the refuse-to-give-up-her-seat-on-the-bus incident was restaged so that she could be arrested, and the black bus boycott instituted as a "spontaneous" response of outrage.

Personally, I think that either action--the spontaneous one of the earlier black woman as well as Ms. Parks' planned demonstration--took equal courage in Montgomery in the mid-1950s, but that's just me.

And it is also interesting to see how little things have changed in human nature in the past 50 years. In the mid-1950s, just as it is today in 2005, it was easy to get people distracted from issues, muddying the waters with one moral issue--having a child out of wedlock--in order to cover up another one--oppressing a group of people because of their race.

In any event, Rosa Parks herself tended to both resist her own deification and to try to tell the truth about what really happened in the months leading up to the Montgomery bus boycott. I got the chance to interview her by telephone some years ago, and she confessed that months before she refused to give up her seat, she was "very nervous, very troubled in my mind about the events that were occurring in Montgomery."

At that time, the summer of 1955, she was attending civil rights training workshops at a long-time labor and radical movement center called Highlander in Tennessee. One of her trainers was a woman named Septima Clark of Charleston, a giant in the civil rights movement, but someone you've probably heard little or nothing about.

"I had the chance to work with Septima," at Highlander, Ms. Parks told me. "She was such a calm and dedicated person in the midst of all that danger. I thought, 'If I could only catch some of her spirit.' I wanted to have the courage to accomplish the kinds of things that she had been doing for years."

Septima Clark was certainly someone to look up to. She had joined the NAACP in 1919--only a few months after it was formed--and worked in its initial campaign to end lynchings in the Deep South. As frightening as Montgomery in 1955 seems to us now--with its white terrorist bombings and racial murders and police attack dogs--South Carolina in the 1920s was a hundred times more dangerous for civil rights and black freedom advocates.

But just like Ms. Parks, Septima Clark always minimized her own accomplishments, giving credit to the people who had come before her in even more dangerous times. The black Reconstruction-era officeholders, for example, who faced assassination in the reign of terror that came after union troops were pulled out of the South in the 1870s, the time of the original formation of the Ku Klux Klan by former Confederate officers and soldiers.

Or, earlier than that, the Charleston Sea Island black folk--the people known as the Gullah--who had seized plantation lands from slavemasters in the midst of the Civil War, received General William Sherman's promise that they could keep it (the famous "40 acres and two mules Special Field Order"), and later refused to give it up even after the United States Congress said that the former Confederates should have their land back. These were the people Septima Clark looked to for stories of courage and inspiration.

Looking at Rosa Parks, therefore, we don't see as much a "beginning"--a single spark lighting a prairie fire, to use Mao tse Tung's famous phrase often-quoted by '60s-era radicals--as we do a "continuation," a string of history running backwards and forwards through the momentous events of Montgomery 1955, with courageous people rising to meet the challenges at different points, some of them well-known, some of them anonymous and lost to the history books.

With Rosa Parks' passing week, therefore, we don't see the end of the story. It's only the turning of a page, and the moving on to another chapter. Fifty years from now, I hope that's the story that gets told.

Measure R Loses Recount

The recount of Berkeley's Measure R has left the medical marijuana initiative 166 votes short of victory, and supporters still dissatisfied with the count hoping that legal action would overturn the outcome.

Measure R spokesperson Debbie Goldsberry said that the recount uncovered hundreds of Berkeley voters whose votes were not counted because of improperly filled-out provisional ballot forms, and a thousand UC Berkeley students whose votes were not counted because their names could not be found in the Alameda County Registrar of Voters registration database.

The measure sought to end limits on the number of plants allowed to medical marijuana users and would have allowed Berkeley's three medical marijuana institutions to move anywhere within the city's commercial zone.

"I'm convinced that if we had properly counted all of the actual votes in Berkeley, Measure R would have won," Goldsberry said. "But the decision of the registrar's office is final."

Alameda County Assistant Registrar of Voters Elaine Ginnold said that while there were small discrepancies in the Measure R count "they had no material impact on the results of the election."

Ginnold said that one of those discrepancies was 20 fewer ballots than the number of voters who signed in on election day at the Side B precinct station at the Northbrae Community Church on The Alameda in Berkeley. Despite a search by registrar's office workers during the recounts, those ballots were never recovered. In addition, the voter count and actual ballots were off "by one or two votes" in a number of other Berkeley precincts. "But there will always be that type of discrepancy in any election," Ginnold said.

The vote count discrepancies Ginnold referred to were a different issue from the uncounted votes referenced by Goldsberry.

Goldsberry said that in the case of 1,000 UC Berkeley student voters not found in the database, "the students' names may have been there, but the workers just may not have been able to find them because of the way in which they were listed and the way the workers were searching." Goldsberry said the uncounted votes involved students who lived in UC dormitories.

She said that the largest number of improperly filled-out provisional ballot envelopes came from two Berkeley precincts. "We suspect that workers in those precincts were not giving proper instruction as to how to fill out the envelopes," Goldsberry said. "That's something which is just going to have to be looked out for and corrected in future elections."

The battleground for Measure R now shifts from the counting room to the courts, where Berkeley-based Americans For Safe Access has filed a state lawsuit contesting the election. That lawsuit involves ballots cast by computer in the Nov. 2 election.

Goldsberry said that many of the uncounted paper ballot votes were discovered after the filing of the lawsuit early last week, and so will not be at issue in the legal proceedings. "We're just going to have to suck that up."

Can Kerry Just Be Himself?

As the presidential campaign settles down into that crucial back-stretch period, progressive commentators continue to argue that Sen. John Kerry needs to explicitly articulate an Iraq exit strategy.

The latest to take up this position is Los Angeles Times columnist Robert Scheer, whom I greatly respect for past and present work.

"At Bush's prompting," Mr. Scheer writes in a recent column, "reporters asked Kerry if he, knowing what we all know now about Iraq's lack of weapons of mass destruction, would still have voted, as he did in October 2002, to authorize the president to use force against Iraq. Instead of smacking that hanging curveball out of the park by denouncing the Bush administration for deceiving Congress and the nation into a war, Kerry inexplicably said yes.... Unfortunately, then and now, it is the wrong answer to the wrong question.... Half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out. The American people want to know how we got into this mess, how we can get out and how we will avoid making such stupid mistakes in the future. To win the debates and the election, Kerry needs to establish himself as the clear alternative to a president who has lied us into a quagmire."

Respectfully, I disagree. This is a case, I think, of progressives fighting the last anti-war.

The great anti-war protests of '67 and '68 helped fuel the insurgent, anti-war challenge of Sen. Eugene McCarthy to sitting President Lyndon Johnson in the 1968 presidential election. McCarthy came within a few percentage points of beating Johnson in the New Hampshire primary and that event – coupled with the entrance of Robert Kennedy into the Democratic race on a rising anti-war tide – forced Johnson to announce his decision not to run for re-election. Richard Nixon won the presidency over Vice President Hubert Humphrey later that fall, partly on a pledge that he had a "secret plan" to get the U.S. out of Vietnam.

But that was then. This is now.

There are two reasons why progressives should not look to the election of 2004 as a reprisal of '68. The first is that – unlike 1968 – there is not yet a broad consensus among anti-war Americans as to what should be done about Iraq. And second, John Kerry is not a formidable advocate of his positions, and would probably fumble the attempt to explain in detail an exit strategy. And fumble it badly.

In 1968 – with ever-growing numbers of U.S. military casualties – the belief solidified across a large section of America that U.S. forces should be unilaterally withdrawn from Vietnam. The smaller group of this coalition was made up of those who felt that Vietnam was an illegal, immoral, unjustified colonial war. But the larger – and eventually decisive – element was made up of a broad group of citizens who felt it was an unnecessary war, at least from the point of view of United States security. And later events, of course, proved that view to be correct.

Jump, now, to the present. There is no such unconditional withdrawal consensus concerning the war in Iraq, for one quite obvious reason: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While my friend, Mr. Scheer, is entirely correct in his statement that "half the country now thinks invading Iraq was a bad idea, and nobody can be comfortable with the way it has turned out," the "how" of the getting back out is another thing entirely. Many – and I count myself among that many – believe that it is the U.S. military presence in Iraq that is exacerbating the problem. We are developing two new terrorists for every one who U.S. soldiers manage to kill, and an immediate, unconditional U.S. withdrawal is the first, necessary step for healing the wounds and promoting homeland security. But many other Americans – thoughtful, reasonable friends and neighbors – while now believing that we never should have invaded, also believe that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal would make things infinitely worse, helping to advance the terrorist cause. These folks believe that it is our responsibility to clean up the mess we have caused.

These are two legitimate but opposing views holding – almost certainly – a majority of the Democratic Party between them. One would have hoped that the spring Democratic primaries could have been used to debate these positions, as the primaries were used to debate the pro-war and anti-war Democratic Party positions in 1968. But elections aren't run that way, these days. John Kerry became the Democratic Party nominee precisely because he fudged his positions on Iraqi withdrawal, straddling the great American divide: yes, we shouldn't have gone in, but how we should leave is a matter yet to be determined. Turning from that course in either direction would now tip the balance and lose Kerry one wing of the Democratic Party or the other, dumping all of us into the abyss.

There is another problem with pushing Kerry to clarify his exit strategies. We have heard John Kerry, and he is no Gene McCarthy or Bobby Kennedy. Under relentless attack from the Bush camp on the charge of "nuancing" and "flip-flopping," Senator Kerry and his advisors have so far flubbed the explanation of his two key Iraqi war votes – the war authorization vote and the $87 billion funding vote – in a way that has put Kerry on the defensive when he should not be.

The charge from the Bush camp? That Sen. Kerry voted for the war, but later voted against the money to fund it.

The perfectly reasonable and obvious explanation: Senator Kerry voted to authorize President George W. Bush to go to war in Iraq, believing that the president would use that authorization in the manner that recent presidents would almost certainly have done – presidents Reagan and Clinton and Mr. Bush's own father, for example – building a powerful international coalition and using threat of war to force concessions out of the Saddam Hussein regime, but only using war as a last resort.

Instead, President Bush screwed it up, going to war as a first resort and, in doing so, causing the mess in which we presently find ourselves. In other words, Bush misplayed a good hand. The United States Congress was thereafter presented with an $87 billion appropriation bill by the Bush administration, $67 billion of which was to go to fund U.S. troops, $20 billion which was supposed to go to some sort of "reconstruction aid" to Iraq. Sen. Kerry felt that there was no solid plan or safeguards for the spending of the $20 billion "reconstruction aid" money, and voted against the entire appropriation while asking that the troop money be brought back for separate consideration. In fact, Sen. Kerry was absolutely right on that issue. There is considerable controversy over that $20 billion, much of it apparently unspent, some of it possibly misspent, with the Coalition Authority going out of business before a full accounting. There should have been better safeguards and a detailed spending plan.

If Senator Kerry cannot handle explanations for these perfectly reasonable past positions, I don't have much confidence that he can make his way through the quagmire of Iraqi withdrawal – not while the election is going on. And entering that quagmire probably ensures his defeat.

Let Kerry be Kerry and keep vague on what he may or may not do, leaving the specifying and educating part in the capable hands of folks like Mr. Scheer. That's the only way Sen. Kerry is going to win, and the only way the nation will have a chance – within the next four years – of pulling itself out of this Middle East mess. If Mr. Bush wins, we go in deeper, without a doubt. If Mr. Kerry wins, we may not. It's not the best of choices. But it's the best choice we're going to get.

The America We Know

There is videotape of the beatings by the six guards, available on the Internet for download. Soft, grainy and shot from a distance, still, what is happening is unmistakable. Two prisoners are lying sprawled on the floor, face down, unresisting. An L.A. Times news article graphically describes the scene: "[One of the guards] sits astride [one of the prisoners and] begins punching him with alternating fists, landing a total of 28 blows. At one point, [the guard] can be seen lifting [the prisoner's] head by the hair in what looks like an effort to get a better angle for his punch. A few feet away, the tape shows [a second guard] slugging [the other prisoner] and using his right knee to pummel him in the neck area as the [prisoner] lies motionless. ... One [guard] is seen shooting the [prisoners] with a gun that fires balls of pepper spray, while another sprays their faces with mace."

The video also shows one of the guards giving a kick to the head of one of the prisoners with the toe of his boot.

No, the videotape is not of Iraqi prisoners at the Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. As far as I know, no such videos exist. The video of which I speak documents the beating of two United States citizens -- juvenile prisoners under the control of the State of California -- by guards of the California Youth Authority at the Chaderjian Youth Correctional Facility in Stockton, California. Chaderjian. Abu Ghraib. It is easy to get them confused, I suppose.

(Both the San Joaquin County District Attorney's office and the office of California Attorney General Bill Lockyer, by the way, have declined to bring charges against the guards in the incident, citing their contention that there was "no reasonable likelihood of conviction" of the guards in a California courtroom.)

This week, President George Bush went before representatives of various Arab-language television stations and stated-in reaction to the photos of prisoner abuse by U.S. soldiers coming out of Abu Ghraib-that "[this] does not represent the America that I know."

No, I suppose not. Mr. Bush has never been a black or Latino kid, locked up by the CYA.

What one finds most disturbing about the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuses is this national display of collective shock and surprise as television commentators pass serious comments about the meaning of it all -- the widened eyes, the caught breath, the hand over open mouth, the calling in of the multitude of expert commentators, the incredulity that Americans, of all people, could be the author of such acts. Has no one been paying attention?

"[This] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush.

The president must, one must guess, therefore never watch broadcast television. The physical abuse by United States guards of prisoners incarcerated in United States jails is so well known and widespread that it is a running, national joke. Watch any sitcom long enough, and sooner or later, someone will make a threat about someone going to prison and having to "do the laundry of a 300-pound cellmate named Bubba." It is a joke -- if one misses the point -- about people being raped in United States prisons, a condition that does not invoke calls for investigation, intervention and reform, but merely a David Letterman or Jerry Seinfeld smirk.

Yes. How very funny.

America shocked -- shocked! -- at the Abu Ghraib humiliations? Why should we be? The humiliation of individuals has become an American obsession; it is, in fact, the growing American pastime, surpassing football and baseball as our national sport. We used to hold contests in which people competed, and then judges awarded a prize to the person who they thought performed the best. It was the thrill of the victory in which we wanted to share. The camera focused on the joyous, beaming Star Search winners while the second- and third-placers, mercifully, were hustled offstage before their frozen smiles shattered and their tears flowed over the loss of just-missed dreams. Now, voyeurs of despair, it is the agony of the losers on which we dwell. Televised contest after contest -- from ESPN's new announcer to Donald Trump's "Fired!" to American Idol to Elimidate -- puts the spotlight not on just the losing, but the degradation of those who lose.

Our reveling wallow in the culture of suffering has become so widespread that now one national automobile manufacturer -- I cannot recall their name because having watched it once, I have to turn it quickly off because I do not want the sickening images in my head -- begins with a montage of horrific, swollen knots on people's heads, then moves to a young yuppie admiring a car and, turning, still distracted, busting his head on an overhanging fixture, knocking himself to the floor. My god. It is the equivalent of selling hamburgers by watching photos of the carnage resultant from highway accidents. "America's Funniest Home Videos" -- the once-backchannel program where we became comfortable in snickering at people's pain like a kid thumbing through porno locked in the bathroom -- has now come out of the closet and moved into the mainstream.

But "[this] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush.

Oh. Really?

"That the way the United States treated its prisoners in occupied Iraq would become a focal point of international scrutiny, and perhaps a critical element in winning the confidence of the Iraqi people, should not have been a surprise to anyone," the San Francisco Chronicle writes in an editorial. "From the top down, the message from U.S. commanders should have been crystal clear: Humane treatment of prisoners is essential to our mission."

No, actually, it's more fundamental than that. How we treat prisoners under our control is indicative of who we are. It is essential to our very humanity. It is how we are defined, both by ourselves, and by others who either observe or interact with us. Christian doctrine -- and the right insists, with pounded breast, that we are a Christian nation -- teaches in Matthew 25:40 that "the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me." That, again according to New Testament Christian doctrine, is how we are to be judged.

"[Abu Ghraib] does not represent the America that I know," says Mr. Bush, in all seriousness.

If so, he must not have been paying attention.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is managing editor of the Berkeley Daily Planet.

Family Values

Today, Feb. 17, my parents have been married for 65 years. They are still living in their home by themselves, at 89 and 91. Our family is very lucky to have them still with us, still in good spirits and relatively good health.

We appreciate all they've done for us, and for others, during their long life together.

One of the nice things about growing up with two parents like mine was that they introduced their offspring to many different ways of enjoying life.

From my father, I learned to love music. Most nights when my sister and I were little, after he came back from serving in the Navy in World War II, he sang us to sleep with the deep bass voice that had made him a valued member of his undergraduate glee club. The repertoire didn't vary much, though it was democratically mixed: popular ditties from the '20s and '30s, college fight songs, spirituals, operetta standards, and always Brahms' Lullaby as the finale.

From my mother, I learned to love words. She knew about all the best children's authors of the era: Milne, White, Travers. When I got older, she'd read aloud with me from favorite poets. I particularly enjoyed our dramatic reading of Robert Browning's poetic thriller,"My Last Duchess." A high point of the week for both of us was the day the mailman brought "The New Yorker." My mother went right for the short stories, while I started off with cartoons but eventually moved on to the hard stuff. She also knew the best places to get used books, so we read lovely illustrated editions of all the 19th and early 20th century classics: Alcott, Hawthorne, Cooper, Scott, Dickens…

My mother has always known the best places to get everything to enrich life. She follows, without doing it consciously, William Morris's dictum "have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful," but her ace in the hole is that she's very good at finding what she believes to be beautiful at bargain rates. My childhood trips with her to "Father Dempsey's" thrift emporium taught me that you can turn your living space into a personal art gallery on any budget. She still loves to go to a garage sale of a Sunday.

My father liked outdoor excursions too when my sister and I were growing up, but nature walks rather than garage sales. He showed us the interesting things you can see on any outdoor path at a child's level: the way acorns come apart, and what caterpillars are up to.

My parents set a good example for their children; both my sister and I have been happily married for more than 40 years. We can testify to the many joys of a stable family life. My parents still take care of one another every day, and often, still, of their children, their grandchildren, and now their great-grandchildren.

That's what marriage is all about, in the end, people taking care of other people. Love helps, and of course passion (which is not the same as love) gets things off to a rousing start. But what marriage really means is that adults have voluntarily accepted the duty of looking after one another and of bringing up children if they have them. Many religions, including the Christian church, have traditionally viewed marital promises as being made by the spouses to one another, sometimes blessed by the approval of a priest or a congregation, but valid with or without the participation of the state.

When people agree to take on additional responsibilities to one another by marrying, the community as a whole benefits. That's why governments have historically conferred special privileges on those who are willing to get married, providing them with stable rules for property ownership, inheritance and tax benefits. Many countries such as France have two ceremonies, one in church and the other at city hall, to recognize the dual nature of marriage.

Of course people sometimes take care of one another even without marriage. Families, whether or not they are state-sanctioned, take care of each other much of the time. Friends do look out for friends, whether or not they've promised to do so. But the distinctive thing about the marriage contract is that it's both voluntary (unlike families) and intended to be binding (unlike friendships).

Until recently, the most obvious benefit of conventional marriage to the rest of society was that two grown-ups signed up in advance to raise the kids of the next generation. Religious groups have been wary about trusting members of other religions to do this important job, so they've often put barriers in the way of "mixed marriages." When my parents were married in 1939, they couldn't be married in church, because my mother was a Catholic and my father was not, though a priest did agree to marry them in my grandparents' home.

By the time I got married 21 years later, Catholics had dropped the rule against church weddings, but there were still state-enforced prohibitions of racially "mixed marriages." Not until 1967 did the U.S. Supreme Court outlaw "statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of racial classifications."

Times change. Children in the upcoming generation of American families like ours have ancestors from Africa and Asia as well as from Europe. Their parents have gotten married in multi-religious or non-religious ceremonies. And 30 more years out, our descendants will be amazed to learn that it was once considered to be in the public interest to prevent consenting adults from promising to take care of one another, just because of what they do or don't do in their bedrooms. Statutory schemes to prevent marriages between persons solely on the basis of gender classifications will then seem as absurd as the unconstitutional laws against racially mixed marriages do now.

With the widespread availability of birth control, children are no longer considered an inevitable result of marriage, even when partners are of different genders. People who won't have children to take care of them in their old age need, even more, to make sure that someone has signed up for the job. It's not safe, in the age of Bush and Schwarzenegger, with managed care, attacks on Medicare, falling stock values, and looted pension funds in the news, to rely on government to provide a safety net.

But when children are part of the plan, it's even clearer that any kind of marriage prohibition is foolish. Those who want to conceive children can do so with or without marriage, but it's in the best interest of society to do everything possible to encourage those who want to become parents to find partners to help with the job. Religious groups, under our constitution, are allowed to have all kinds of silly rules about which marriages they bless, but we should expect more from the government. There is no good public policy reason for the state to dictate what the sexual relationship between parental partners needs to be.

My parents are different kinds of people, and that made them more creative and interesting parents, but the fact that one is a man and the other is a woman was not the most important difference between them. Every child deserves parents like mine. Many children have been successfully raised by single parents, but children are who come into the world, as I did, with two fine though different people already signed up to educate them about life and its pleasures, are very fortunate.

The new mayor of San Francisco has gotten a lot of praise for removing marriage barriers for same-sex couples, and he deserves it. There's no reason for officials all over the country not to do the same.

Becky O'Malley is executive editor of the Daily Planet.

The Affair of the Fifteen Women

At the risk of having all of my good Republican friends admonish me to get over it, I'm wondering if we are going to have any sort of resolution of Gov.-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger's Affair Of the Fifteen Women.

For those of you who missed that one (or held your hands over your ears and shouted, "I don't wanna hear it! I don't wanna hear it!" shortly before the recall election), the Los Angeles Times released a story saying it had found some 11 women who said that Mr. Schwarzenegger had physically assaulted them over the past several years. After the story was published, another four women came forward with similar charges.

I deliberately use the term "physically assaulted" rather than "groped" (the term that most newspapers used when reporting the incidents) for a reason. "Groped" has a sort of teenage-boy-snicker sound to it, a sort of "yeah, she squealed but she really liked it" feel. "Assault," on the other hand, is the legal term used when someone puts their hands on you without permission (its close cousin, "battery," is used when that assault leads to physical harm).

And that's what the 15 women accused Schwarzenegger of doing: Not of being boorish, of breaking the law.

Immediately after the charges against Schwarzenegger surfaced, my conservative friends accused my liberal friends of "hypocrisy" because -- according to the argument -- liberal Democrats were castigating Schwarzenegger for the same activity that they, the liberal Democrats, so recently excused in the former President Clinton.

This type of thinking must have been filed under the "It Happened To Women And It Had Something To Do With Sex, So It Must All Be The Same" category.

I can understand (while not agreeing with) why so many of my conservative friends chose not to listen to the charges about Schwarzenegger before the election. After all, if conservatives stood up and took the charges seriously and believed them, these conservatives would face a difficult choice. If they went ahead and voted for Schwarzenegger, they would have to admit -- to themselves in the privacy of the ballot booth, if not to the public -- that all this loud, chest-beating self-righteousness they have subjected the nation to on moral issues these past few years has been so much blown smoke.

On the other hand, if they followed their consciences and moral compasses and didn't vote for Schwarzenegger, conservatives risked leaving California in the hands of either Gray Davis or Cruz Bustamante. So just say that it's all a liberal plot or a Gray Davis dirty trick. But the election is now over, and we have no more excuses.

For Californians of all political persuasions, the questions now hang: Did our governor-elect assault 15 women and, if he did, do we think that's okay?

As the father of four daughters, I'm especially interested in the answer.

J. Douglas Allen-Taylor is a regular columnist for the Berkeley Daily Planet.

The Jayson Blair Witch-Hunt Project

One week ago The New York Times published an astonishing article. It was the story of Jayson Blair, a rogue reporter who repeatedly lied, plagiarized and conned his way onto the front page of the country's leading newspaper. The paper claimed that a breakdown in communication among its top editors caused them to miss a hailstorm of signals that Blair, a troubled young black reporter with a long trail of bad work, was not the right person to cover some of the year's most important stories. The Times placed the story of Blair's "Long Trail of Deception" on the front page above the fold and continued it inside for four full pages. That kind of space is usually reserved for superpower summits or tectonic shifts in national policies.

The journalism community is buzzing over the bizarre Blair scandal. And race and diversity are at the center of the finger-pointing. As a black journalist who spent several years as a Times reporter, I've watched with disbelief as this scandal has unfolded and been used by racist commentators as a broad indictment of blacks in journalism. Supposedly, black journalists are pulling down the high standards white journalists have built up. I don't know which is more absurd: The idea that America's newsrooms are under siege from unqualified minority journalists because the media company executives -- bamboozled by affirmative action -- are determined to elevate black employees; or the top editors of the Times claiming their management blunder was really just a failure to communicate with each other.

I spoke with several people at the Times this week to get a sense of the mood and the thinking in their newsroom. It isn't pretty. The mood was described as "nasty," "angry," "vindictive" and so forth. One reporter said, "This is not over. It's just beginning. Someone's going to pay for this."

The same reporter said many of his colleagues are betting that Gerald Boyd, the second in charge at the Times and the paper's first black managing editor, would pay the heaviest price. Apparently Boyd is seen as Blair's sponsor although Howell Raines, the executive editor, admitted giving his stamp of approval. Now that Raines has stumbled, Times reporters have been more open in their criticism of his autocratic management style, but Boyd is seen as the real heavy.

Who is really responsible for the Times' mess and how could it have happened? Few readers would have missed the flat-footed way the Times' editors used the blowout coverage to run from their own disastrous mistakes. It's clear that Raines, Boyd, and National Desk Editor Jim Roberts share the responsibility for what Times' Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, Jr. called "a huge black eye." But you would hardly have known it from reading the Times' account.

The top guys at the Times still don't seem to understand that they have failed on two different fronts: first, by not attracting more qualified non-white journalists to diversify the Times' newsroom and, second, by giving a young reporter with a dreadful track record bigger and bigger stories supposedly as a way of helping black journalists.

The Times article had the top editors dodging behind talk of not being fully briefed on Blair's track record or thinking that he had suddenly reformed enough to be put on the Washington sniper case. Sulzberger, whose family has controlled the paper for more than a century, summed up the editorial posture by warning against placing blame on Raines and his deputies. "The person who did this is Jayson Blair," Sulzberger said in the Times' own account. "Let's not begin to demonize our executives..."

That must have been the mantra when the editors brought the full weight of the most powerful paper in the country down on this 27-year-old cub reporter who, they imply, has a drinking problem. The Times went to great lengths to crush Blair by describing him as a "study in carelessness" whose sloppiness was on display in many aspects of his life, including his clothing and his diet -- Scotch and Cheez Doodles accompanied by cigarettes.

A few days after the article, Raines held an unusual meeting of hundreds of the Times' editorial staff where he offered a mea culpa for the Blair episode. He said that as a white man from Alabama who believes in diversity in the newsroom, he must admit that when he looks into his heart for the truth he realizes that he gave Blair one chance too many because he was black.

What does this mean? Well, for starters, it means that Raines still does not get it. He and Boyd seem not to understand that diversity in the workplace does not mean showing black people who are bad at their jobs greater leniency than whites would get. Diversity programs at their best provide greater access to institutions and workplaces that have a history of excluding qualified minorities. And by that measure, the New York Times newsroom definitely needs to be diversified.

Did Raines have to look into his heart to pull out another chance for this underperforming journalist because there aren't any high-performing minority reporters out there? Some people would love to believe that that's true. But it isn't. Many talented minority journalists have left the Times in frustration over the years, and they have gone on to success elsewhere. I met many great journalists (black and white) when I worked for the Times. And I know there are few minority journalists there who think the paper's management gives them the same high regard or opportunities that it more commonly offers white journalists.

The simple truth is that The New York Times has never been seriously committed to diversity in its newsroom. The Blair disaster shows that the top people don't even understand what diversity would look like.

Richard Hylton, a former New York Times reporter, lives in San Francisco.