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Monthly Archives: May 2010

Barack Obama returned triumphant to San Francisco on Tuesday and was welcomed by throngs of cheering supporters.


You’d think he’d receive a hero’s homecoming, considering that San Francisco is the most liberal big city in the nation and its residents voted for him in overwhelming numbers. But in stark reality, here’s the full extent of the cheering section that awaited him:

A grand total of two people.

Incredible as it may seem, these were the only two identifiably pro-Obama demonstrators I saw all day. On the other hand, there were hundreds upon hundreds of fiercely anti-Obama protesters, attacking him from…

..the left, and…

…the right.

How did we get here? Let’s go back to the beginning of the day and tell the story chronologically.

Boxer fundraiser at the Fairmont Hotel

Obama was in town for one primary reason: To raise money for Barbara Boxer’s struggling Senate re-election campaign. He was to attend two events: The first one a gala reception at the Fairmont Hotel on Nob Hill, and the second a fundraising dinner at the Getty mansion in Pacific Heights.

Yet things didn’t go exactly as you might have imagined.

While wealthy people who had paid as much as $2,000 each lined up to enter the Fairmont, across the street…

…was a large and raucous protest against Obama and Boxer.

And it wasn’t just one group, or even one half of the political spectrum. Obama was whipsawed, pummelled from all sides simultaneously. Left-wingers, right-wingers, pacifists, libertarians, communists, conservatives, people angry about the BP oil spill, people angry that Obama’s healthcare reform bill didn’t go far enough, others angry that it went too far, extremists, moderates, and everyone in between on both sides of the aisle.

In short, it was the people who came out to express their displeasure with Obama and Boxer. Regular folks, San Francisco-style — which means plenty of leftist ideologues, but also now a substantial contingent of heretofore unseen conservatives who had for decades stayed mute until Obama’s agenda touched such a raw nerve that they could remain mute no more.

So, while the commoners (such as this contingent of Tea Partiers) jostled for space to make their voices heard on the sidewalk across the street from the hotel…

…the wealthy aristocrats one by one were ushered into the hotel’s inner sanctum after showing the police guards their $2,000 admission tickets. So my statement at the beginning of this essay wasn’t entirely accurate. True, there were only two street protesters in favor of Obama, but he was welcomed by several hundred people. It’s just that those hundreds of welcomers were all rich donors who bought access to the president’s presence. And we shall soon see that this Fairmont reception was actually for the riffraff among the aristocrats; later in the day, the real plutocrats shelled out $35,200 per couple to see the Pres at the Getty mansion on Billionaires’ Row.

This whole sorry state of affairs might not be particularly noteworthy with most politicians, since most politicians are blatant money-grubbers. But Obama campaigned and positioned himself as a left-wing populist, “a man of the people,” someone whose run for office was supposedly fueled by $5 donations from the average shmoe, a representative of the common man who would kick out the lobbyists and put an end to the system of big money buying influence and access.

Instead, we got this: Millionaire liberals in tailored suits replacing the country-club Republicans in the inner circles of power. While the average American, as always, was left out in the rain.

Today in San Francisco, the stench of elitism hung heavy in the air.

Back in the cage, commoners!

Kaleidoscopic protest

Many of the news reports about the president’s visit focused on the diverse nature of the protesters arrayed against him. This video made early in the protest by an independent media company called Shaky Hand Productions walks the viewer down the block and identifies many — but nowhere near all — of the protest groups:

Despite the videographer’s amazement that left-wingers and right-wingers and everyone in between could be unified in their loathing of Obama, this is not actually anything new: Ever since Obama’s election a year and a half ago, Bay Area protests have frequently had left-wingers and conservatives simultaneously criticizing Obama from opposite camps. (Actually, I documented Republicans protesting alongside the extreme left-wing as far back as October, 2007 — but that’s a different story altogether.)

Here’s what I saw outside the Fairmont while Obama was being heckled inside. (Later in this essay, we’ll travel to Obama’s next stop at the Getty mansion.)

The Left

The top of Nob Hill — San Francisco’s poshest neighborhood — is not a comfortable place for a protest. The demonstrators were all corralled onto the sidewalk facing the Fairmont Hotel, and so necessarily arrayed themselves into a long line. Although there were no formal “camps” for each ideology, the protest naturally manifested as a political spectrum, with the left-wingers and socialists at the south end of the block and the conservatives and libertarians tending toward the north end. So when I first arrived from Union Square to the south, I initially encountered CodePink, who had encamped at the corner of Mason and California. Here, the Pinkers are protesting against Obama’s and the Democratic congress’ (including Senator Boxer) continued funding of the war in Afghanistan and operations in Iraq.

CodePink’s other pet project these days is denouncing Obama’s use of drones to attack terror targets in Pakistan.

Never content to focus on one issue, like a hyperactive puppy, CodePink also produced a ridiculously oversized banner which was supposed to read “IS CLIMATE CHANGE THE ONLY CHANGE WE GET? — a rather comical sentiment considering the chilly downpour soaking this rally in late May — but it was so huge that all they could do was lay it sideways and try to prop it up from behind, rendering it indecipherable to all but the most dedicated sign-readers (such as yours truly).

Nearby was one of Boxer’s opponents in the Senatorial race, Marsha Feinland of the Peace & Freedom Party. Marsha was holding her own low-end fundraiser in protest against the $2,000-a-plate Boxer fundraiser across the street: $1 for a cup of juice and some cubes of cheese (notice the sign at the lower left). I’ve encountered Feinland repeatedly at protests over the years, and while I confess that I oppose most of the untenable utopian political positions she espouses, I can genuinely say that she seems like a nice enough person; she’s very down-to-earth and has a sense of humor, quite unlike her opponent Madame Highness Her Majesty Senatorissima Boxer.

Nearby were some universal healthcare advocates.

Despite a seeming overlap with Feinland’s healthcare position, the “Medicare for all” people turned out to be Democrat-voting union members who were among the very few people on the scene professing to support Boxer, and I overheard some harsh words and bickering between the Feinland and Boxer camps.

Frost-Paw the Polar Bear showed up to protest against oil exploration and drilling in the Arctic.

He nonchalantly took his place in the protest line.

Some of the Millionaires for Boxer across the street saw Frost-Paw and were like WTF??

Next up were the GLOBAMA cultists. One has the feeling that their entire movement started with someone coming up with the word GLOBAMA and then they subsequently concocted a cause to match the word.

The cause ended up being “Solar on the White House” — a drive to have solar panels installed on the White House roof. One wonders whether they’re serious or not. I mean, considering that Obama’s other stop in the Bay Area was at the Solyndra company in Fremont to which he just gave $535 million in taxpayer money to publicly fund the construction of a privately-owned solar panel factory (now it’s my turn: WTF??), what’s the point of a purely symbolic gesture like putting a couple solar panels on the White House roof? If the guy is already doling out billions in government handouts to solar companies, the need for symbolic gestures is long past. Methinks they just like the word “GLOBAMA” and they haven’t put much thought into it beyond that.

The “Seize BP” contingent was fairly large. Their goal is first to have the government seize and take control of BP (as punishment for the Deepwater Horizon spill), and eventually to nationalize, Chavez-style, the entire oil industry. They’re frustrated with Obama for his slow pace in dismantling the capitalist system. Patience, people, patience! He’s still got over two years left at least — anything is possible.

Various socialist and communist groups manned the barricades, while Truthers wandered about. Par for the course in San Francisco.

The videographer who listed the various groups in the video embedded above missed out on the full extent of the “diversity,” to phrase it gently. Among the harder-to-notice groups were…

…the one-world government advocates (don’t laugh — they’ve already set up a Provisional World Parliament to rule over you from afar)…

…the anti-Israel activists…

…the Free Leonard Peltier monomaniacs…

…The Maoists at World Can’t Wait…

…and the Revolutionary Communist Party.

An indentation in the barricades served as sort of a de facto no-man’s-land separating the “progressive” anti-Obama/anti-Boxer protesters from the “conservative” anti-Obama/anti-Boxer protesters. Let’s cross over.

The Right

Oh my! Those Tea Partiers! They are so EXTREME!!!!

Many on the “right” side of the protest were focused on taxes (i.e. lowering them) and economic issues.

There was a palpable anticipation of an anti-Obama blowback in the upcoming November elections.

I had never realized until today just how intensely disliked Barbara Boxer is among certain sectors of the population.

This guy had the harshest anti-Boxer message on one side of his placard…

And a slightly more lighthearted one on the other side.

The Carly Fiorina for Senate campaign (Boxer’s presumptive Republican opponent in the upcoming general election) engaged in a bit of semi-astroturfing by sending “protesters” outside Boxer’s Fairmont fundraiser. These Fiorina fans were “boxing against Boxer” (a pretty lame campaign metaphor, frankly). The presence of “Republican protesters” astounded some liberal pundits, for some reason; you can see one of them here mockingly interviewing the Fiorina boxers.

The Fiorina people also had the most eye-catching protest gimmick of the day, a giant blimp with the words “Stop the Hot Air,” part of Fiorina’s “failedsenator.com” anti-Boxer campaign which portrays Boxer as a gigantic menacing blimp — one of several completely bizarre Fiorina ads.

One wonders what the bloggers over at HotAir think of their namesake blimp.

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The New Free Speech Movement

May 20th, 2010 - 2:16 am

Today is Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, a completely made-up satirical “holiday” dedicated to the concept of drawing Mohammed cartoons, as a way of making a statement about freedom of speech.

Not everyone agrees with this idea, however. And I’m not just talking about the expected naysayers — that is, fundamentalist Muslims (who demand that no one be allowed to depict their prophet) and progressive multiculturalists (who run interference for fundamentalist Muslims by insisting that we all obey Islamic demands or risk being branded as racists).

No, even some level-headed conservative-leaning pundits have begun to cast aspersions on this whole Mohammed cartoon thing. Most notable among them is J.E. Dyer, whose recent article posted at HotAir entitled “Provocation isn’t the highest form of free speech” made the argument that mocking Mohammed is basically pointless “provocation” and that, although provocative speech is protected, it is the embarrassing stepchild of the noble, high-toned political speech imagined by our forefathers, and as such should be avoided lest we come off as brutes and rubes. To quote the key passage of Dyer’s thesis,

The right to offend others is something that gets a pass because of the good that comes from the better, higher, more important right to make our own philosophical decisions. The right to be deliberately offensive is a parasite, not a first principle.

I disagree. Strongly. And I’ll tell you why.

Who Decides What Is Provocative?

Protesters in Pakistan yesterday, angry about the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day Facebook page

This is not an argument over the right to be “provocative” or “offensive”; rather, it is something much more significant — an argument over who gets to determine what counts as provocative or offensive in the first place. The Western world dragged itself out of the church-dominated Dark Ages and into the Enlightenment in part over this precise issue: the freedom to engage in speech and actions which formerly had been classified as the crime known as “blasphemy.” It seems such a trivial and quaint issue in retrospect, and hardly worthy of note from our hyper-secularized 21st-century perspective, but tell that to the millions of people who for centuries lived under the yoke of governments which used accusations of blasphemy and other religious misbehaviors as a primary tool of tyranny and oppression. The modern world dawned with the American and French Revolutions and the emergence of the explicitly secular state — the Americans rejecting the Church of England as Britain’s legally enforced national religion, and the French shrugging off centuries of acquiescence to domination by the Catholic Church in civil affairs. In both cases, new governmental paradigms were established in which there was an inviolable separation of church and state, which in practice meant no civil laws enforcing religious doctrines and (most importantly for our discussion) no laws against blasphemy.

The original “Draw Winky” ad from a 1971 comic book

We’re now so accustomed to this liberated society that we have all but forgotten how horrible it was in the Bad Old Days before our Founding Fathers (wipes away tear) created a safe haven for the human mind, a place called the United States of America. The laws and punishments of the Puritans and of the Spanish Inquisition and all the rest were decisively and emphatically swept off the table and replaced with a simple principle: personal freedom. Freedom of conscience, freedom of thought, and freedom of speech.

Everybody Expects the Islamic Inquisition

Well, the Spanish Inquisition may be a distant memory now relegated to Monty Python skits, but the self-appointed Islamic Inquisition is threatening to take its place. Remember that the Spanish Inquisition (and the much larger papal inquisition which preceded it) existed for the purpose of enforcing religious dictates on the general populace, including and especially religious crimes such as heresy, blasphemy, and apostasy. Punishment for these deeds could be severe and often as not included torture or execution. This is exactly what the Islamic fundamentalists want to impose on us in the 21st century: Obedience to religious dictates, enforced where necessary by violence.

Luckily, outside of a few Middle Eastern countries, the Islamists do not have the power to enforce their hellish vision of society. But that doesn’t stop them from trying. Where they can’t impose their religious rules by force, they try to impose them by fear and intimidation. Since we have our freedoms permanently etched into our Constitution, the Islamists are going to have little luck getting blasphemy laws passed in the U.S. Yet they can achieve the same result if they can use terror to bring about our own self-censorship. Which is exactly what they have set about doing, the most recent round starting with the murder of Theo Van Gogh in 2004 and reaching the boiling point with the Danish Cartoon Controversy in 2006. The pot hasn’t stopped boiling since. The Islamists’ strategy is to kill, or threaten to kill, anyone who gets media attention for “disrespecting” Islam or Mohammed — thereby convincing the rest of us infidels to remain silent if we know what’s good for us.

Updated 2010 version of “Draw Winky” (parody by buzzsawmonkey)

And here we come to the crux of the matter. Which side in this conflict gets to determine what counts as “disrespectful” (a contemporary euphemism for “blasphemous”)? In the jihadists’ view, any depiction of Mohammed — even a positive or honorific depiction — is deemed blasphemous. It’s our religion, they say, so we get to say what’s offensive. Yet if we grant them this inch, they’ll take another inch (it’s also disrespectful to write Mohammed’s name without a worshipful “PBUH” after it), and another inch (it’s disrespectful to criticize Islam in any way), and before long it’s the whole mile, and we once again will be living in an intellectual Middle Ages in which religious tyrants dictate our every thought and action.

So you can see the urge of every sane-minded Westerner to say a hearty Fuck you! to anyone who tries to erode away the bedrock of our free society. The more insistent (and violent) these attempts at erosion, the less civil the resistance will become. Which is exactly as it should be. If the Islamists want us to to stop mocking (or even questioning) Mohammed, they can achieve this goal quite simply: Just go away and leave us alone. Don’t bother us, and we won’t bother you. Seriously, 99% of non-Muslims don’t give a good goddamn about Mohammed one way or the other, and we’d gladly ignore him and his followers until the end of time – if they’d just stop trying to boss us around. But if someone comes to our safe haven and tries to impose a repressive or restrictive rule on us, then that is the exact rule we’re going to flout until the interlopers learn their lesson: We don’t take kindly to bullshit medieval religious oppression in these parts.

And so we return to J.E. Dyer’s essay, where she essentially argues that freedom of speech is simply the vehicle through which we can express our political ideals without fear of reprisal. While that may be true, it leaves out the final piece of the puzzle: Freedom of speech itself is our highest political ideal. We need freedom of speech not merely so we can discuss Aristotle and the Teapot Dome Scandal and non-proliferation treaties, but more importantly we need freedom of speech so we can defend the unconditional right of freedom to speak — or think, or draw, for that matter. As soon as someone comes along and says (as Dyer does) that some forms of speech are “better” or “higher” than others, the implication is that the low-class expressions are somehow less worthy of defending. But that way lies the road to ruin. We would soon begin to slide down what I call Niemöller’s Slippery Slope, which in this instance would begin, “First they came for the cartoonists….”

It is precisely the most offensive speech which needs to be defended, because that is the only speech which ever gets challenged in the first place. If we cave in on this seemingly trivial issue, we have already lost.

Mario Savio in 1964 helped launch the Free Speech Movement into national consciousness by climbing atop a police car at U.C. Berkeley and denouncing campus rules which prohibited political speech

The New Free Speech Movement

And it is often on the most trivial of points that history pivots. Take, for example, the original Free Speech Movement of the mid-1960s, which was the fuse that ignited the social transformations in the second half of that decade. At first, the initial dispute was over something as ridiculous as which student groups were allowed to have a literature table on U.C. Berkeley’s Sproul Plaza, and whether or not the sidewalk bordering the campus counted as university property (where leafletting would be banned) or city property (where it would be allowed). Hardly something worth getting worked up over. But the students pressed the issue, and pressed, and eventually an utterly trivial local dispute became a not-so-trivial local dispute, and when the University caved in, it opened the floodgates to student activism and social upheaval first at Berkeley and eventually across the nation (and world, for that matter).

I posit that this cartoon fiasco may look as trivial now as did the silly Berkeley sidewalk dispute back in 1964, but it could very well morph into a new Free Speech Movement which could affect the course of history just as much as did the first one.

The Mohammed cartoons — whether they appear in a Danish newspaper, on South Park, on Everybody Draw Mohammed Day, or anywhere else, are basically our way of saying, Bring it on. They are an intentional goading to accelerate the inevitable clash of civilizations: totalitarianism vs. democracy, religion vs. secularism, repression vs. freedom, Islam vs. the liberal West — choose your definitions. It’s coming, whether we like it or not. And it’s quite apparent to the Mohammed cartoonists and their supporters that, currently, Team Islam does not have the tools to win. Philosophically, militarily, financially, analytically, morally and in just about every other way they have a losing hand. But the crazy part is, they don’t seem to realize it quite yet. So, from a strategic standpoint, if your opponent is overconfident and bound to lose yet still itching for a fight, it’s best to let him engage now and get defeated, than wait for some future day of conflict where the outcome may be in doubt.

Islamic extremists still seem to think that banning Facebook or threatening to kill the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day organizers will somehow make the problem of blasphemy go away. They don’t yet understand that we in the West have spent the last 600 years not merely earning the right to be blasphemous, but more importantly creating a society and a worldview in which there is no such thing as blasphemy, because all forms of speech are permitted and religious bullies no longer get to determine what is forbidden.

Now get out your pencils and start drawing.


Over the last few hours I’ve received an avalanche of Mohammed cartoon submissions in response to the Everybody Draw Mohammed Day “contest.” And even though it isn’t a real contest (and even if it was a competition I am not the organizer nor any kind of “judge”), I did just receive a submission which stands out as far and away the most eye-catching of the bunch. If I was a judge, this Mohammed cartoon, by an anonymous artist who wishes to go by the name “Tad Pole,” is currently my favorite to be deemed the “winner” of today’s Draw Mohammed contest:

Lars Vilks, a Swedish artist, sketched some caricatures of Mohammed as a dog back in 2007, and for his efforts earned himself a fatwa — a death sentence issued by the good clerics of Al Qaeda in Iraq for the capital crime of depicting Islam’s prophet. Today that death sentence was nearly carried out as Vilks was assaulted (by a Muslim screaming “Allahu Ackbar!”) while giving a lecture in Uppsala, Sweden about his experiences with censorship. Luckily, Vilks survived; unluckily, he was headbutted directly in his face by the attacker; Vilks’ glasses were smashed, but police were on hand to prevent the follow-up beheading which the fatwa-givers had called for.

A Swedish TV station was on hand and managed to catch the attack on video:

What you actually see here is the immediate aftermath of the attack: the cameraman missed the headbutt by a second or two, and by the time the camera pans down from the screen, Vilks is already crumpling to the floor and the attacker is trying to dodge his way out of the police’s grasp.

But the video is remarkable in a different way: It shows dozens of Muslims repeatedly screaming “Allahu Ackbar” in what looks like religious ecstasy over violence committed in their name, and joy over witnessing an attempted murder as punishment for blasphemy.

This happened today in Sweden, mind you, not during the Middle Ages nor even in 2001 in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan. Right now, in what is supposed to be the most liberal and progressive nation in the world.

Coverage of the Incident

Reason magazine seems to have been the ones who broke the story in the English-speaking world; it was quickly picked up by HotAir, which reminds us that recently arrested would-be terrorist “Jihad Jane” was plotting to kill Vilks over his sketches. The Jawa Report captured a screenshot of a Muslim woman on Facebook saying of Vilks “I would have shot him” rather than merely headbutt him.

And the mainstream media? To its eternal shame, in the BBC’s coverage of this incident they refer to Mohammed (as they are required to refer to Mohammed as part of the BBC’s style guidelines) as “the Prophet Muhammad”, with the epithet “Prophet” preceding his name in each instance. Does the BBC similarly refer to Jesus Christ as “The Messiah” or “Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” or even “Jesus the Christ”? No. Due to abject fear and groveling cowardice, they use one religion’s own descriptor for their founder, but not any other religions’ descriptors for their founders.

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Five students at a California high school were forced to leave school and then face disciplinary action yesterday for the crime of wearing clothing printed with American flag designs.

If you’re wondering how being patriotic could possibly merit punishment, it’s because the kids displayed the American flags on May 5. And as everyone knows, American flags are absolutely verboten on May 5.

Right? Doesn’t anybody remember that rule? Anybody? Bueller?

According to local TV stations KTVU and NBC Bay Area, this bewildering and deeply unsettling incident happened at Live Oak High School in Morgan Hill, a suburban town south of San Jose. As KTVU reported,

Five students at a South Bay high school stirred up some controversy Wednesday for wearing t-shirts depicting red, white and blue American flags on Cinco de Mayo.

School officials at Live Oak High in Morgan Hill told the students they had to go home if they wouldn’t turn the shirts inside out.

One of the students said it appeared school administrators were worried the patriotic shirts could trigger fights.

Some students at Live Oak High in Morgan Hill said others were planning to come to school Thursday wearing red, white and blue.

Four of the five students who wore American flags or patriotic colors on campus walked into a meeting with the superintendent of the Morgan Hill unified school district Wednesday night.

They were facing unexcused absences because they chose to go home early rather than take off what they were wearing.

“We knew it was Cinco de Mayo. But we just came to show our flag,” said student Dominic Maciel. “We didn’t mean anything by it. We didn’t want to start anything. Nothing like that.”

Student Anthony Caravalho was also sent home for not turning his shirt inside out.

“They said we had to wear our t-shirts inside out and then we could go back to class and we said no,” said Caravalho. “It would be disrespectful to the flag by hiding it.”

Daniel Galli, another student who was reprimanded for wearing a US flag, described what he was told by school administration.

“He said ‘If you wear it on any other day, it’s fine; but just because it’s today you can’t wear it,’” Galli said.

Photo courtesy of The Morgan Hill Times

Make sure to watch the video at the KTVU link, because it shows clearly that the kids were not troublemakers, not “racists,” and not looking to start a fight. One of the five kids, Dominic Maciel, was himself of Hispanic heritage.

And the punishment wasn’t an off-the-cuff blunder by some inexperienced teacher; according to NBC,

Galli says he and his friends were sitting at a table during brunch break when the Vice Principal asked two of the boys to remove American flag bandannas that they wearing on their heads and for the others to turn their American flag t-shirts inside-out. When they refused, the boys were ordered to go to the principal‘s office.

“They said we could wear it on any other day, but today is sensitive to Mexican Americans because it’s supposed to be their holiday so we were not allowed to wear it today,” Daniel Galli said.

The boys said the administrators called their t-shirts “incendiary” that would lead to fights on campus.

“They said if we tried to go back to class with our shirts not taken off, they said it was defiance and we would get suspended,” Dominic Maciel, Galli’s friend, said.

So here we have the Principal and the Vice-Principal of an American high school treating the Stars and Stripes as if it was a gang bandanna; even worse, the school administrators took sides in this imaginary US-vs.-Mexico gang fight by allowing the widespread display of Mexican flags on campus but banning (under threat of punishment) any display of the American flag.

NBC quotes a fellow student:

“I think they should apologize cause it is a Mexican Heritage Day,” Annicia Nunez, a Live Oak High student, said. “We don’t deserve to be get disrespected like that. We wouldn’t do that on Fourth of July.”

Disrespected? I’m confused. Aren’t all the students Americans? Who is being disrespected by the display of our shared national flag?

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