Recently in Politics Category

We woke up early the next day to run errands, then off to the Liberation War Museum. We  spent the afternoon with friends old and new, meandering through crowded allies in Old Dhaka, and checking out local Hindu Saraswati Puja pandals (community altars).

Dhaka's Liberation War Museum documents the struggles of Bangladeshis to win political and cultural autonomy, culminating in independence in 1971. (The standard outline: when India and Pakistan gained freedom from Britain in 1947, geographically-separated but majority-Muslim Bangladesh and Pakistan (then "East Pakistan" and "West Pakistan") were lumped into the common Muslim nation of Pakistan. West Pakistani leaders clamped down on Bangladesh's Hindu/Muslim hybrid language and culture, and engaged in economic exploitation. Bangladeshis fought back, first within the system, then calling for more autonomy, and finally winning independence in the face of a West Pakistani military campaign of mass repression, rape, and murder.) The Liberation War Museum is excellent, with a wide range of exhibits, and very clear paragraph-length descriptions for each object. We walked away with a PDA full of notes on names and stories to research. It's all fine and good to speak of people's struggles in impersonal terms, but the museum was effective in bringing three decades of struggle down to a human level:

  • a newspaper clipping reporting the Pakistan government's banning radio stations from broadcasting works by Bengali Nobel Prize winner (and Hindu) Rabindranath Tagore
  • an photo of a female student leader at Dhaka University, standing up to police repression
  • stories and personal articles of soldiers who died in the war
  • lovely liberation war posters, calling for pan-Bengali cultural unity across religious lines
  • photographs, and skulls, of the dead, murdered by West Pakistanis

The loss of Ted Kennedy's Senate seat to a Republican was in our heads that day. Signage at The Liberation War Museum described Ted Kennedy's role as an ally to the Bengali people in the face of Nixon's pro-Pakistan anti-Bangladesh stance; a photograph shows him with Mother Teresa, visiting an Indian camp for Bangladeshi refugees fleeing Pakistani terror. The very previous day, we'd read an editorial in the newspaper calling on the government of Bangladesh to honor critical foreign supporters like Ted Kennedy.

It's very hard being half a world away, and seeing all the good that can be done by a lone senator from Massachusetts with a penchant for international human rights -- and then seeing that seat occupied by a man best known nationally for railing against the health care reform process. Whether we like it or not, our provincial domestic U.S. politics casts a long shadow around the world.

Gopal Chandra Ganguly didn't touch Muslims. When they came to his house, they were served with separate plates and glasses, to avoid having his Hindu Brahmin family contaminated by their ritual impurity. My grandmother's grandfather didn't hate Muslims; he worked and interacted with them, as long as they knew to keep their infernal Islamic cooties out of his upper-caste Hindu home in Calcutta, India.

The British would finally quit India the following year after a century of anti-colonial struggle, but in 1946, the future of the nation was still being hotly debated in conferences and dining rooms across the subcontinent -- and no issue loomed larger than the Hindu-Muslim question. In formerly peaceful Calcutta, in both majority Hindu and Muslim neighborhoods, racist mobs led attacks on members of the religious minority--the Great Calcutta Riot.

Anti-Muslim riots were spreading closer to his neighborhood when my great-great-grandfather approached two neighborhood Muslim merchants, asking them if they needed help. Could he give them shelter? My grandmother doesn't know what her grandfather was thinking, the mental calculus crunching away in his head, but he said yes. Yes, knowing the disastrous consequences for the two men if they were caught. Yes, knowing the possible violence his family would potentially face from their co-religionists if word got out.

Sheltering hunted minorities in the face of religious violence was no easy task. Gopal Chandra was the head of a large household, comprising about two dozen family members and a number of servants. He had to think fast. If word got out that their household was sheltering Muslims, the house might be attacked by angry Hindu mobs. And he couldn't trust the servants to keep mum. He needed a plan.

Gopal Chandra led the two men into an unused room upstairs, usually left locked. They were cautioned to remain absolutely silent. Late every night, after the servants had gone to bed downstairs, the door was quietly opened so the men could be let out and fed. Most families in the area were living on very limited rations, but the Gangulys was better off than their neighbors. A friendly local merchant, fleeing to a safe area, had given them some extra food before he left, his last gift to a family that had treated him well.

The two men remained hidden away in the unused room as anti-Muslim riots raged. Ten days later, the violence died down and Gopal Chandra Ganguly bid the men goodbye as they fled to safety. My great-great-grandfather's story wasn't exceptional. A people's history of South Asia is filled with these tiny acts of solidarity across communities, at times of peace and crisis.

If I'm ever so tested, I hope to be able to show the same kind of courage under fire, standing up to personal and community prejudices.

Sadly, I am tested every single day, with critical issues of life and death, injustice and war, where I can safely respond without needing to make these difficult decisions, just by exercising my basic democratic rights and wielding my checkbook in the richest country on the planet. I sometimes do a little, but my great-great-grandfather's story challenges me to do more, to take greater risks, in the battle to be human.

August 15 is India's Independence Day. B and I spent the day marching to save South Asia in Richmond, California, while keeping an eye on the India Day parade in New York.

We spent our day in Richmond, California, participating in a mobilization to turn up the heat on Chevron, a major California polluter, and part of a group of companies that's been trying to thwart the best efforts of citizens from around the world trying to come up with a fair, realistic, science-based approach to dealing with global warming.

The mayor was there, as were labor activists, environmentalists, community health organizations, and representatives from communities around the world where Chevron has a presence (Burma, Nigeria, Ecuador, etc.) The message: Chevron, the 5th largest corporation on the planet, needs to stop poisoning the communities it operates in, and stay out of the climate talks, where the future of the planet will be decided.

In Bangladesh and West Bengal, rural communities are dealing with declining fish catches, and bigger floods and droughts. In Bangladesh today, climate refugees are losing everything they own. This is not theoretical. The front-line affected communities of Bangladesh and West Bengal didn't invent this problem; many of those affected don't even have reliable access to electricity. Man-made climate change was caused by developed nations like the U.S., and we need to take a leadership in dealing with the issue; things won't magically change by themselves.

On the other side of the country, the tri-state Federation of Indian Associations was holding its annual India Day parade in New York. The last year was particularly significant for people of Indian origin, as the Delhi High Court just overturned Section 377, the 150-year-old British-era legislation that criminalized gay and lesbian Indians. Unfortunately, the organizers of the India Day parade didn't get the hint, and refused to let Indian gays and lesbians, their friends, and allies celebrate this momentous victory as part of the parade. (Yup, you can have a Pride parade in Bombay, but you can't have a gay float in New York.)

The Indian-American community supports the Indian government's decriminalization of homosexuality, and B and I did our very small parts to directly question the organizers about their stances. A feminist organization ultimately invited LGBT community members to march with them; I wish we could have been there to cheer them on.

The ultimate result? Loads of happy Indian-American LGBTQ people in the parade, and public embarrassment (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10) for the organizers. While parade organizers have previously gone to court to keep gays and lesbians out, the Indian government's change of stance is a game-changer. New York India Day parade organizers can choose to wallow in their cultural conservatism in New York, or change with the times as India moves ahead.

(photos by Roopa Singh)

There's a raging debate around climate change and intellectual property, and the planet's fate may be linked to the way we think about patent protectionism.

G77 countries at the Bonn climate conference were been demanding access to green technology intellectual property, as a requirement for moving ahead. Industrialized countries have been stonewalling, arguing that greentech IP is private, and can't be shared. G77 countries have come back with a proposal where developed nations would pay into a pool that would buy access to greentech IP, to be shared with developing nations, which has been worrying US politicians advocating for stronger IP rights. This is one of several important threads involved in international climate negotiations, but has been substantially underreported on in the American IP reform community.

I'm particularly interested by India's comparison of greentech IP to essential HIV/AIDS drugs, framing their current demands in light of a widely understood battle over patent protection vs. humanitarian access. I'm hoping to see more folks pick up on this angle, and see where the comparison works, and where it doesn't.

Boy. The new May 11, 2009 issue of Fortune has a feature called The Business Guide to Congress, featuring tips and tactics for business leaders trying to understand how to manage relations with the legislative branch in the current economic climate. It reads somewhere between The Onion and The Wall Street Journal, in a disconcerting ha-ha-only-serious kind of way.

It features five rules to follow:

  1. Remember populist symbolism (e.g. "If you're in a time bind to get to DC, fly your jet to Philly and take Amtrak from there")
  2. Find an ally who's popular (e.g. "credit unions and community banks are still as popular as apple pie, so they've become useful frontmen for big-bank agendas")
  3. Prepare your story before you're scrutinized (e.g. "'Business leaders create jobs. That's a story that needs to be told.'")
  4. If called to testify, be boring (e.g. "stick to a script religiously (think Obama at a press conference), avoid making news, and be humble and excruciatingly dull")
  5. Rely on Senate centrists (e.g. "it pays to get to know Republicans like Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, Arlen Specter and Charles Graessley; and Democrats like Mary Landrieu, Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor, Tom Johnson, and Evan Bayh")

And if you were curious on how to narrow the scope of financial regulation, or which Senator may crack down on offshore tax havens, the article has answers to those as well. A print-only sidebar discusses bothersome restrictions on lobbying.

Unfortunately, the online version's missing a lovely full-page Venn diagram of 25 legislators that are powerful, business-friendly, and/or willing to listen. Among those profiled, only three fall within every category: Rep. Charles Rangel (D-NY), Sen. Arlen Specter  (then-R-PA), and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn). You'll have to plunk down $4.99 to get the lobby-ability infographic, but it's a beaut, and totally recommended.

Fortune magazine--news you can use.

I'm reading Naked Airport: A Cultural History of the World's Most Revolutionary Structure by Alastair Gordon. As Gordon discusses about the expansion of early American aviation businesses into Latin America, he quotes early Pan Am exec Sanford Kauffman on his experiences working in Honduras:

"Kauffman had been at his post for only a few weeks when a revolution broke out in Honduras. Rebels were flying old biplanes and dropping bombs onto his airfield. Kauffman telegraphed Miami headquarters and informed his superiors that PAA [Pan America Airways] planes should not attempt to land but should fly directly on to San Salvador. When the local manager of the United Fruit Company inquired why the mail plane hadn't arrived that day, Kauffman told him about the aerial bombardment. The manager replied: 'Why didn't you come in and let me know? We're controlling the revolution, and I'll simply tell them to stop bombing you.' United Fruit had put the president into power in the first place, but when the president hiked the tax on bananas, the company thought it best to have him replaced. 'There's a general who would love to be president,' explain the agent, 'so we're supplying him with funds to buy ammunition and equipment, [and] he'll be the next one.' Kauffman got the message and reopened the airport the next day."

There's more discussion of this fun little corporate imperial anecdote in Kauffman's book, Pan Am Pioneer, in the "Stationed In Honduras" chapter.

Microsopic view of smallpox

Image via Wikipedia

Apparently, some conservative commentators are worried that swine flu may have made its way to the US due to movement by undocumented Mexican immigrants. For once, they're right.

Well, maybe not strictly right, in this specific case, given that a significant number of cases in the US involve vacationing presumably-documented Americans.

But our nativists certainly have the right historical instincts, recalling as they do how undocumented immigrants accidentally brought epidemic disease to the Americas, causing the deaths of millions of previously-unexposed non-resistant indigenous people.

And when out nativists put forth the theory that swine flu is being secretly spread by Al Qaeda, they're remembering the stories of deliberate infection of Native Americans. (Which, it turns out, was a very limited cause, if at all, compared to the larger story. But who knows--maybe the baddies are responsible this time.)

Who says we've lost our sense of historical memory?

NY Times immigration and jobs explorer map

I've been enjoying playing with "Immigration and Jobs: Where U.S. Workers Come From," an interactive feature in The New York Times, based on the Census Bureau's American Community Survey. It lets you select countries of birth and see the most common occupations for those immigrants, or choose occupations, and see which country's immigrants have the highest numbers in that sector.

I was particularly interested in seeing what professions are overwhelmingly and uniquely linked to certain national origins--a function of immigration trends, labor markets, geography, and chance. These included:

  • Mexico: sales-related professions; clerical and administrative staff; policemen and other protective workers; most hospitality, maintenance, and personal service professions; all construction, manufacturing, and other labor
  • Philippines: nurses
  • India: computer software developers, doctors
  • Vietnam: hairdressers

Some breakdowns by occupation...

Top origins of foreign-born managers and administrators

  1. Mexico
  2. India
  3. Britain
  4. Canada
  5. Germany

Top origins of foreign-born accountants and other financial specialists

  1. Philippines
  2. China
  3. India
  4. Mexico
  5. North and South Korea

Top origins of foreign-born hairdressers and other grooming services

  1. Vietnam
  2. Mexico
  3. North and South Korea
  4. Dominican Republic
  5. China

And some breakdowns by country of birth...

Top 5 occupations for those born in India

  1. Computer software developers
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Scientists and quantitative analysts
  4. Sales-related occupations
  5. Engineers and architects

Top 5 occupations for those born in Germany

  1. Clerical and administrative staff
  2. Managers and administrators
  3. Sales-related occupations
  4. Teachers
  5. Mechanics and equipment repairers

Top 5 occupations for those born in Mexico

  1. Skilled construction workers
  2. Industrial equipment operators
  3. Cooks and other food preparers
  4. Construction laborers
  5. Clerical and administrative staff

More at The New York Times interactive tool.

(via Partha S. Banerjee)

Wow. There are enough jobs in the U.S. government/public transparency sector that the Sunlight Foundation has a whole website for jobs in the transparency field. Who knew?

Among these, at least two of the jobs are in Berkeley--Research Associate and Program Assistant positions at's a great resource on bills, issues, and politicians. Here's Barbara Lee, my representative, and Loni Hancock, my state assemblyperson. (They both get love from unions and lawyers. Go figure.) I also love the interests view; while nobody always gets what they want, some do better than others, e.g. animal rights campaigners vs. international trade associations.

Know transparency-minded campaigners and hackers? Pass this along.

White House front lawn

Heard the story about the solar panels on the roof of the White House?

For years now, I've been hearing stories about how Jimmy Carter installed solar panels in the roof of the White House, in an attempt to inspire Americans to invest in clean renewable made-in-America energy. As the story goes, the panels were ripped out during the Reagan administration. Reagan's takedown of the White House solar panels have long been used as a symbol of right-wing inattention to environmental and energy issues.

Turns out the original White House solar panels are still around, and the Google Blog reports on the story.

There's also a documentary in progress about Carter's solar panels. The film, A Road Not Taken, is still in progress. The trailer's on YouTube:

Now if we could only get Obama to support a White House victory garden...