The troubled USA today — August for the people in the Bay Area, waiting for River Falcon at Walnut Creek

Aug 20th, 2014 | By | Category: USA Today

California State Route 24 near Lafayette, with BART track in the middle and Mount Diablo in the background.

The Bay Area Rapid Transit (BART) tracks in the region of such stations as Lafayette, Walnut Creek, and Pleasant Hill/Contra Costa Center run on the surface, in between the two multilane automobile passageways of California state highway 24. You speed along in public transit trains, with private automobiles speeding along in opposite directions on either side of you.

In this region at least BART is a surface public transit system of which even Toronto Mayor Rob Ford might approve. If he ever went far enough beyond his own experience to actually visit the quite vast geography of the larger San Francisco Bay Area. (Or just “the Bay Area” to locals, old and new.)  And this is a place that hosts both today’s legendary Silicon Valley, and much else of at least somewhat older (and wiser?) vintage. (Including the late great Robin Williams.)

One thing I think I have finally come to understand this summer is the five main Bay Area sub-regions (of particular importance for weather reports on TV) :
SOUTH BAY — from Gilroy to San Jose ;
PENINSULA — Palo Alto, Redwood City, Half Moon Bay, San Mateo, etc, etc ;
SAN FRANCISCO — the city everyone loves (current population 825,000 + ) ;
NORTH BAY — Marin County and beyond, or north (and east) of the Golden Gate Bridge, including the Napa wine country ;
EAST BAY —  Freemont, Oakland, Berkeley, and Walnut Creek (and much more).

As noted by the editors in the last post here, our August 2014 Walnut Creek Conference was “in the Mount Diablo region of the beautiful Contra Costa County.” And this is in the East Bay sub-region of the larger Bay Area.

The devil mountain burning last September. Photo: Brant Ward, The Chronicle.

“Diablo,” of course, means “devil” in Spanish. I was intrigued to hear that a few years ago a fervently religious individual launched a campaign to change the name of Mount Diablo to Mount Reagan, to avoid references to the devil in local place names. The campaign failed. As explained by a relevant Wikipedia article : “Contra Costa County has become a Democratic stronghold, with even wealthy cities like Orinda and Walnut Creek voting Democratic in recent elections. The last Republican to win a majority in the county was Ronald Reagan in 1984.”

House of legendary pioneer environmentalist John Muir, Martinez, California — north and somewhat west of Walnut Creek. As seen in 1900 with the orchards of Dr. John Theophile Strentzel and John Muir in the background.

As also noted by the editors in the last post here : “Meanwhile, back in the old east end of Toronto, Ontario, Canada, down by the lake, our counterweights editorial office will be closed from now until the middle of August. When we return, someone among us will post a short report on the main big political (and economic) question under investigation at this summer’s Walnut Creek Conference — ‘Where in the world is the USA going, and what does it mean for Canada, if anything, etc, etc ??’”  I am the one appointed to undertake this task now.  I was handed a pencil-and-paper list of eight headings under the general title “Troubled USA Today,” and told to report briefly on each heading. If you are really desperate to see the results, click on “Read the rest of this page” and/or scroll below. (And remember : “August for the people and their favourite islands / Daily the steamers sidle up to meet / The effusive welcome of the pier … Beside the undiscriminating sea.”)


1. Ferguson, Missouri. Watching CNN and MSNBC late into the early morning of Tuesday, August 19, back here in Anglo Central Canada, you can’t help but think of the Number One Trouble in the USA in the Summer of 2014 as the strange echoes of 1968 (and even 1848?), on the streets of the St. Louis suburb of Ferguson, Missouri.

Although his name was not yet known, local white police officer Darren Wilson had already shot and killed an unarmed black youth called Michael Brown in Ferguson, when we were in the East Bay area of Northern California at our Walnut Creek Conference. The Ferguson African-American majority reaction was understandably feisty. And for those as old as I am there was already a sudden vague echo of the Sixties. Our Conference was somewhat intrigued. But things have gone deeper since we returned to Canada.

Militarization of police forces generally is one big issue. Made dramatically — even ludicrously — clear in Ferguson by the marvels of Cable TV, or whatever it is. Really, what does any local US (or Canadian)  police force need a tank for, etc, etc?). Treatment of Black Youth by White Police Officers is another big issue. And it is easy enough to imagine the subtler pathologies of a smaller municipality where some two-thirds of the local population has become Black, but almost all the police force and even the local government council is still White.

So yes. What most demonstrators want in Ferguson is just justice for Michael Brown and his family — and some kind of a beginning to an end for the world in which his fate is all too possible for young black men. (And even, thinking of the police killing of Sammy Yatim from Syria in Toronto last summer, for other young men who are not necessarily “black” — depending of course on exactly what you mean by such often too-simple words as “black” and “white.”)

At the same time, there also seems to be growing evidence of a more “radical minority” edge to things. Yes, no doubt, some of it is just opportunistic vandalism and plain old-fashioned crime by those who seek such opportunities. (And this ought to be just crushed.) But some of it is starting to look like potentially more serious political action. (Maybe, in some degree, etc, etc …)

Of course, what can we up here really know, so far away from the face-to-face scene on the banks of the Mighty Mississippi, or thereabouts? But from what the TV reality shows on CNN and MSNBC seem to be telling us, there is also some kind of radical political minority of especially young black “working class” (“underclass”?) men on the streets of Ferguson.  It’s only half-interested in Michael Brown. It is finally just saying : “Fuck You Whoever You Are. You really gotta start giving us better chances of making something of our lives.” And the biggest trouble here of course is that the politically divided and even fractured USA today still seems light years away from even starting to do something serious and sensible about the similar problems of so many working class / underclass urban downtowns and even old suburbs, across the land — “From California to the New York Island / From the Redwood Forest, to the Gulf stream waters / This land was made for you and me.”

2. President Obama, ISIS/ISIL in Iraq (and Hillary C) . Barack Obama has been restrained in his reactions to Ferguson, Missouri. And there are always some who will criticize him for not acting boldly enough. (See eg,”Obama struggles to find his role after Brown death.”) In my estimation (and I think this was a widely if not quite unanimously supported position at our California conference) Obama remains the best President of the United States in my conscious experience. (I was born in 1945, somewhat before the death of Franklin Delano Roosevelt on April 12 that year, but of course I remember nothing about it.)

Graham Jackson Playing Dvorak's "Going Home" on his Accordion as Franklin Delano Roosevelt's body departs from his beloved second home of Warm Springs, Georgia on April 13, 1945. Life Magazine, April 23, 1945.

I am, it probably bears stressing, a Canadian. And subject to the notable prejudice for Barack Obama that implies. As Shachi Kurl, vice-president of the pollster Angus Reid Global, recently explained, up here in  the land of ice and snow (in the winter at any rate) : “The love story with [Mr. Obama] continues … Canadians hold him in higher esteem than their own prime minister.” (Chris Hanay at the Globe and Mail has added : “And in higher esteem than Americans, who elected him — the US President frequently polls better in Canada than he does back home.” Except what does “frequently” mean? When has Barack Obama ever polled remotely as low in Canada as he is polling in the USA right now?)

One thing I like about President Obama is the quiet, subtle, and aggressively realistic way in which he has been carefully and gradually rolling out a new kind of foreign policy for Democracy in America in the 21st century. His specific restrained but resolute reaction to the latest so-called ISIS/ISIL crisis in Iraq quickly became an important part of our Walnut Creek Conference. (And for some sharp insight into just what the rather sudden and disturbing rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria [ISIS] or the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant [ISIL] is all about, see Patrick Cockburn on “Isis consolidates,” in the 21 August 2014 issue of the London Review of Books.)

During our conference period US TV news had a lot to say about the alleged weakness of Obama’s response to the latest permutation in the unique Islamist pathology induced by George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. It wasn’t enough to drop bombs, deploy drones, and send humanitarian aid to Zoroastrians. The US had to “go in there and take ISIS out for good.”

No one at our Walnut Creek Conference agreed with that — vainly trying to “take ISIS out.” (For one thing, it would almost certainly only have the opposite effect from the one intended — as in how the Bush/Cheney War in Iraq finally led to ISIS and ISIL in the first place!)

We were pleased, however, to see an editorial appear on the San Francisco Chronicle website, early in the evening of August 12 —  “Obama critics on Iraq forgot who led them there … It’s interesting to note that some of the voices of hubris that led the US charge into Iraq are now critical of the humility and restraint that President Obama has exhibited in response to the advance of a jihadist militia in the war-ravaged nation. It seems that their hindsight only extends to the day Obama took office … Those who are taking the president to task seem to have either forgotten or conveniently rewritten the history of the US invasion in March 2003.”

President Barack Obama discusses military and humanitarian operations in Iraq at the White House, August 9, 2014. Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

Our conference almost unanimously agreed with virtually every word of this editorial. (Is it also surprising that in a recent poll 67% of Bay Area voters supported California’s particular state version of Obama’s new federal Affordable Care Act, compared with only 56% of all California voters statewide?) And at least most of us disagreed strongly with “Hillary Clinton criticizes Obama’s foreign policy ‘failure’ … ‘Great nations need organizing principles, and Don’t Do Stupid Stuff is not an organizing principle,’ the former secretary of state says.”

Ms Clinton’s intervention may or may not have been ill-judged politically. It at any rate reminds people like me who can’t vote for anyone in US politics anyway that she voted for the Bush/Cheney Iraq War way back when. And I think myself that “Don’t Do Stupid Stuff” is an  excellent US foreign policy for 2014, and more than a little beyond. Hillary is sometimes too willing to heed the more reckless and dark red-blooded John Wayne/Jonathan Winters side of The Mind of America. Washington’s Farewell Address, someone said in a discussion group, can also be read as a kind of caution against even trying to become an old European “great nation.” And at least some at our conference in Northern California started having fresh doubts about just what kind of president Hillary Clinton might prove to be ??

As I think of all these things now, two final thoughts cross my mind. The first involves a presumably humourous and/or satirical article posted on the UK Daily Mail website on August19, that cleverly manages to combine the Top Two Troubles in the USA in the Summer of 2014 — “’How is democracy treating you guys?’ ISIS militants take to social media to encourage Ferguson protesters to embrace Islamic extremism … ISIS supporters urge Ferguson demonstrators to embrace radical Islam … Use social media to stir up racial hatred and encourage yet more violence …Militants urge ISIS sympathisers in US to travel to Ferguson to join protest … News comes as image appears to show demonstrator holding ISIS banner …  Man was seen holding an ‘ISIS is here’ placard on purported CNN footage …  Chilling developments come on ninth night of violent protests in Ferguson …”

Lori in Walnut Creek, California works on the Obama campaign in 2008.

My second final thought is that I have finally run out of both space and time for the other six items on my list. So I will just list the item headings I was given by the Editor in Chief below. And interested readers might imagine the kinds of things that may have happened in each case at our Walnut Creek Conference, 2014.

UPDATE : Just as we went to press here, so to speak, President Obama offered some televised “remarks on the execution of journalist James Foley by Islamic State.” And in my view he once again rang all the right changes, and said all the right things :

“Today, the entire world is appalled by the brutal murder of Jim Foley by the terrorist group ISIL …   Jim Foley’s life stands in stark contrast to his killers. Let’s be clear about ISIL. They have rampaged across cities and villages killing innocent, unarmed civilians in cowardly acts of violence. They abduct women and children and subject them to torture and rape and slavery. They have murdered Muslims, both Sunni and Shia, by the thousands. They target Christians and religious minorities, driving them from their homes, murdering them when they can, for no other reason than they practice a different religion … They declared their ambition to commit genocide against an ancient people …

President Barack Obama speaks during a campaign event at the Fox Theatre in the East Bay city of Oakland, July 23, 2012. (Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images).

“People like this ultimately fail. They fail because the future is won by those who build and not destroy. The world is shaped by people like Jim Foley and the overwhelming majority of humanity who are appalled by those who killed him.

“The United States of America will continue to do what we must do to protect our people. We will be vigilant and we will be relentless. When people harm Americans anywhere, we do what’s necessary to see that justice is done and we act against ISIL, standing alongside others. The people of Iraq, who with our support are taking the fight to ISIL must continue coming together to expel these terrorists from their community. The people of Syria, whose story Jim Foley told, do not deserve to live under the shadow of a tyrant or terrorists. They have our support in their pursuit of a future rooted in dignity.”

3. Troubled nuances of the East Bay … how dangerous is downtown Oakland anyway?

4. Gaza, Israel, Palestine … and the Mediterranean climate of Northern California

5. Ukraine and the US economy ????

6. The November (“Mid-Term”) elections in the Bay Area (and “Impeach Obama” !!!!)

Robin Williams with football fan and old friend Kitten Trout (one half of “the royal couple of the North Bay Forty-Niner Faithful”) in San Francisco.

7. Robin Williams. Although he was born in Chicago and spent his childhood in Michigan, Robin Williams moved to Marin County in the Bay Area with his parents in time for high school. And it remained his personal home and native land for the rest of his life. As ABC News explained on his surprising death, just as our Walnut Creek Conference was concluding, “Robin Williams: Bay Area Made Him Feel Normal.” Also see “Letterman’s Moving Tribute to Robin Williams.”

8. Lauren Bacall. Even in Northern California you always seem a little close (geo-emotionally at least?) to Hollywood. The passing of an 89-year old Lauren Bacall — legendary wife of the great Humphrey Bogart, etc, etc — was also announced just as our conference was concluding.

The unquestioned star of the conference was a California girl named after Lauren Bacall. And we finally stopped waiting for River Falcon, at the John Muir Medical Centre in Walnut Creek, greeted at last by a piano solo from the great A. Tatum. (Buh duh dat duh, duh buh. Yaaaaaaaay!)

X’s UPDATE AUGUST 21 : An editorial colleague has pointed out that the W.H. Auden poem of the 1930s alluded to at the end of the introductory section above — “August for the people and their favourite islands”, aka “To A Writer On His Birthday” — also has a brilliant final verse, which fits the mood of almost everything written here quite nicely, and would make an excellent conclusion. So here it is, with many thanks to the opera-loving late Mr. Auden:

This then my birthday wish for you, as now
From the narrow window of my fourth floor room
I smoke into the night, and watch reflections
Stretch in the harbour. In the houses
The little pianos are closed, and a clock strikes.
And all sway forward on the dangerous flood
Of history that never sleeps or dies,
And, held one moment, burns the hand
.”

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