Monday, October 23, 2017

Don’t tell Catalans to speak white

“Speak White!”

By that he meant to “speak English”.

My friends had told me that some English Canadians would say such a thing. I had never seen that done in person before. At that time one would have already assumed such blatant bigotry to be a thing of the past in Quebec and I am sure it continues to be a thing of the past today. 

The middle age guy in business slacks and an open collar shirt had made it clear that this kind of anti-French chauvinism was not a thing of the past for him as I was trying to find an address in English speaking west Montreal. It seems that I was more than geographically lost. I had asked for help in French, which was the language of two thirds of the city and ninety percent of the province. For an answer I got one of my early lessons on how minority ethnic groups can be treated. 

Of the various forms of entitlement that dominant groups have, one of the common ones is to make the dominated speak the boss’ language.

Catalans have been told to “speak white” too.
Let’s not join the chorus of those telling them that. 

I’ll be very clear that I do not know much about Catalonia. The only time I went there my reaction was a great big internal sigh. “Yet another Romance language?” In school one learns that there are five Romance languages and in Europe one learns that there are a few more. Catalan was not so hard to decipher when it was written and nobody ever gave me any attitude when I spoke with them in Central American Spanish. 

I know even less of the history, but I do know that under the Fascist Franco dictatorship their local language was basically outlawed and democracy has meant a return of Catalan to the schools. To “speak white” in Catalonia is to speak Spanish.

I understand that there is a regional authority based on the constitution that was written after the dictatorship back in ‘78, and that the last election gave a majority of seats in that local assembly to nationalists and separatists of at least two types. It is they who decided to hold a referendum on independence.

We all know that the Spanish police attacked voting stations, at times violently, and that the Spanish government seized funds and threatened and jailed mayors who were hosting the referendum vote because we got to watch that part in the world news. 

A big justification of all Spanish actions is that the referendum is not “legal” which is echoed as an arrogant lecture by the BBC and clever background by NPR. In our country we should not need to think very hard to remember that when Rosa Parks sat down, she too was breaking the law. Legal in this case is not the exact words in their post Franco constitution but the interpretation that a court made of it. Do we remember “separate but equal”? 

Before the Spanish authorities sent in the police to stop people from voting, the opinion polls showed that independence would have probably lost. Less than half of the people who could have voted did so and most all of those votes went towards a YES for independence. The majority did not get to vote and we can assume that most of them would have voted NO and some probably would have voted YES. It is hard to say what the vote would be today considering the obvious backlash after the Spanish police violently suppressed their referendum and the large number of voters who were seriously hurt.

One has to admire those ten percent of voters who risked police repression to go vote NO.

No doubt that there are many more complications. It would be surprising if the map of the Catalan autonomous area corresponded at all times to where ethnic Catalans live today and there must be a large number of residents from other parts of Spain as well as immigrants from inside and outside of Europe.

There were probably a good number of people who did not care that much.

There is an open border between Catalonia and France because both Spain and France are full participants in Europe. They have the European Union free flow of goods and people, they both participate in the open customs and visa union and the are both using the Euro as their currency. This is real Europe, not the half-in half-out version of Europe we hear so much about from the English language media, especially the BBC. Their lives are very integrated and that border is now an old formality where a car no longer has to even stop.

So, if Catalonia voted to succeed and they negotiated a deal with Spain so that both could stay in Europe with the same treaty obligations, then what exactly would be the big difference?

And now I hear all kinds of people saying why Catalonia should not be independent, and by that I do not mean the Spanish government.

By all kinds of people I mean that I hear all kinds of our fellow Americans saying why Catalonia should not be independent.

(We read it in the overseas press too. Let’s keep in mind that minority regional national groups exist all across Europe and the world, so that many anti Catalan voices are really anti-Tibetan voices, anti-Scottish voices, anti-Corse voices and other similar voices from across the continent not wanting to allow in Spain what they do not want to allow at home.)

We outsiders do not have standing to make a judgment on the independence of nations.

The value of the independence cause is not for Americans to decide one way or the other. Not in Catalonia and not anywhere else. The negotiations that would lead to such a separation are between the Catalan government and the central government in Madrid.

Some international law makes it totally appropriate for our government to have a word and a vote on issues that come before the security council of the United Nations. Part of that law covers civil rights. When the Spanish government rules that the Catalan independence referendum is not legal, well that is their internal affair. When the Spanish Civil Guard police are beating voters and arresting people for wanting to be independent, we have a probable violation of the international charter on human rights. If the Catalan government made a request for help based on that, the UN should hear them out. There are also international courts that do not involve the USA including one for human rights in Europe, where a case could be heard. Those courts may come into play before this is over.

What is all the stranger is to see our chattering classes take the side of the Spanish government or the Catalan separatists when we should leave them alone.

But is it not part of our US culture to give ourselves the right to judge? Isn’t our never ending problem with Cuba based on the idea that we have a right to tell them what kind of a government is right or wrong for Cuba? Our right wing says the Communists are bad and that justifies trying to force regime change and our left wing says that the Castros have done a lot of good things and should be left alone. Neither seems clear that it is up to Cubans to decide, not us.

I wonder what such people will say now to Puerto Rican’s who want independence. How does membership in the United States family look in Puerto Rico today? Will we also have a public discourse to tell them what they should think? Will US politicians have the gall to tell them not to hold a referendum on statehood or independence? Maybe instead of judging Catalan politics, we should watch and learn so that we might do better ourselves? 

One commentator on NPR went as far as to say that Catalonia (as if it were a single person) has no claim on independence because it has been part of Spain since some takeover centuries ago and that things have been fine since. I guess having their local language outlawed for a fifty year dictatorship is part of what that person calls “fine” ever since. In Quebec French was never outlawed and things were still not “fine”.

On line I have heard arguments from Americans against Catalan independence based on such things as the fact that Catalonia has a good economy. Does one have to have a bad economy to be a nation apart?

“Did I see oppression in Catalonia when I was there?” That was a “counter argument” that another on-line correspondent sent my way. No I did not, but I did see that they were a different ethnic group from the Spanish. Does one have to be oppressed to justify independence? 

That same person listed two Spanish government threats as reasons to doubt the legitimacy of the local parliament’s call for a negotiation with Madrid. The threats are to encourage businesses to leave Catalonia and to block any eventual Catalan membership in the European Union.

The same kind of threatening actions in a business contract dissolution would get you a lawsuit for coercion and in family court it would earn you a stay away order.

Other voices seem to think that Catalonia needs to be “free”. Since when did US support for separatism in Europe equal “freedom”? Do we mean human rights by that freedom? And since when is it our business to take such a position in our politics? We have standing to demand that Spain respect the human rights accords that we have all signed. We have standing to oppose a military conflict or insurgency when democratic and peaceful dialog is possible. We have no legal or ethical cause to say one group of foreigners should or shouldn’t be independent from another.

That is sort of like advising a couple on getting divorced. Unless something is seriously wrong or you are close enough that it involves you, one stays out of it.

If by “freedom” we mean a better state of self-governance and higher level of civil rights, then the US record is poor in Europe. Some understanding that minority linguistic rights are human rights would go a long way to improve our foreign relations, and for example, it could correct our misguided involvement in the Ukraine.

Our US press would be giving us better reporting about the conflict in the eastern Ukraine if our media would remember that part of the context that started this war was a Ukrainian provisional government outlawing the easterners use of Russian as their local language and also shut down their regional political parties. Those people have been Russian speakers since before any of those national governments, or our own nation, existed.

We are poorly served by this kind of partial reporting and we are seriously mislead by the charlatans that pass off one sided legalese and distorted half-truths as some kind of analysis when what they are really doing is finding justifications for an aggressive attitude towards Russia. To listen to NPR and the BBC, the Ukrainian crisis is 100% Russian involvement and they skip quickly over the part about how the people involved are not all ethnic Ukrainians as if that is unimportant. 

Reporting on a series of conflicts around Europe suffers this blindness to the needs of regional ethnic groups. Most of what we think we know about Ukraine and ex-Yugoslavia is too segmented to be of any value.

Somehow the statements of the head of the Serbian government did not make the news here. In Serbia the question asked about Catalonia was simple. I’ll paraphrase it to: 

“Why don’t the Catalans have the right to even ask Spain for negotiated independence when the Kosovo government was given the right to unilaterally declare independence without holding a vote and without negotiating with Serbia?”

“Why” is because our governments and their apologists have one set of rules for their friends and another for anyone else. Justifications are made on the fly. National rights are called paramount in one conflict, but declared outdated in another and most of our press just echoes the nonsense.

Ethically we have a chance to find some clarity about one of the most common crimes committed by majority groups all over the world, the crime of the denial of dignity and self-determination to the minority. There are lots of pros and cons about independence but I do not see any pros in the Spanish government making it effectively illegal to even ask for independence and I do not see how that is not political repression.

What Madrid has to say is all over the news. The Prime Minister and the King have told Catalans to stop wanting independence, that they should not ask for it and that they are not even allowed to hold a vote on the matter. Requesting negotiations has been met with a move to dissolve their local autonomy. 

We should not be judging the issue and our government should not be taking sides but we certainly have an opportunity to reflect on the ethics involved in Spain and here at home. And one of the things we should push for is that our government should not take sides other than the sides of respect for human rights, peace between nations and respect for other countries right to resolve their own affairs. For the USA that would be a three part policy change.

One can find a lot of press talking about why Catalonia should not hold a vote, should not want independence and should not do anything outside of the way a Madrid court interprets a constitution that Barcelona never ratified. And that talk is in Spanish, English and French.

Ask yourself how much news you have heard coming directly from the Catalan government or even from any Catalonian analysts, journalists, and union leaders or folk on the street. This is a problem with our media most of the time. Ask yourself the same question about the Russian speakers of eastern Ukraine. How often do we hear a report included their views directly?

This is the same talk I got to hear in Montreal, in English, about the Québécois, in Nicaragua, in Spanish, about the Atlantic Coast and in China, in Mandarin, about the Tibetans. All talk from the majority telling us that their minority is doing fine and should not be complaining. 

In effect, the minority groups get told that they should all shut up and speak white.

And the sub text is that “speaking white” is not to speak about their national rights.

We as a country should have some principals to guide our foreign policy. We don’t. Given the economic and military interests that dominant our government we won’t change this double standard by which we judge the rights of national minorities any time soon. In fact, minority rights is not even the main problem with our foreign policy. Our country does not respect the sovereignty of other nations, dictates terms, advocates for the interests of our affluent plutocrats and business sectors and throws around its weight with the world's largest military. Issues like regional autonomy pale in comparison with the structural problems.

So it is up to us as a people to bring some sanity, compassion, ethics and law into our public discourse when we have such an event as we have in Spain right now.

As a culture we need to rid ourselves of our feeling of entitlement that allows us to judge and lecture these national minorities or their majorities. As Americans, we need to stop thinking we are the judge of any foreign government. Not in Cuba, not in Spain and not in Barcelona.

We could start by listening to our own national minorities who are asking for redress without the arrogance of us telling them what their problems are and what rights they do and don’t have to protest injustice. That would be a big change for a country that can hardly tolerate a black football player kneeling because our police are trigger happy shooting young black men. 

Internationally we need to learn that the way to counter the right wing discourse that dictates to other nations is not a left wing judgment of other peoples. That too would be a big change for a people who have dominated Latin America for generations and do things like invade Iraq.

But maybe, just maybe, we could look into the better part of our history and pull out a principal that we could use to guide ourselves in respect for other people's national rights:

Government with the consent of the governed.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

We need to live with fire and not let it burn us down

When a disaster like the current outbreak of California fires takes place there are an inevitable number of people throwing spin and the spin we should least believe is that these outbreaks of fire could not be prevented.

The fires cannot be prevented, but the disasters can.

Let’s just start with:

Much of California is a natural fire ecology.

You will hear a lot of lip service to that and a lot of jargon thrown around more than you will hear about how our state planning and regulations are ready for the inevitable fires.

So how could we have kept this from being a disaster?
I’ll propose five expensive parts to a plan that could well work.

Part one: Stop building buildings that burn.

“Oh we have done that and it did not solve everything” is part of the CYA discourse and that is basically not true. We did not get fireproof building codes, we got “fire resistant” building codes.

Sure, we don't have shake wooden roofs any more, but what we do have is not fireproof.

Fire resistant shingles on plywood held up by cheap pine burns quite well and the standards that claimed it was sufficient are just bogus. Walls made of press board held together with “fire resistant” insulation paper and covered with some kind of plastic siding or stucco, also burn.

And unfortunately you will see block after block of buildings built to this new “better” code burned to the ground in Santa Rosa.

Roofs made of ceramic tile and held up by metal are what is fireproof. You will find them in the San Diego area, but only after some serious suffering and loss of homes there. Walls made of cement or adobe don’t burn so well either. That would be a standard that might help.

Cheap is probably the word to follow here. I wonder who lobbied for those watered down standards that allow builders and developers to make so much money, so fast, building cheap buildings for a hot market?

I heard one government apologist on the radio saying that even concrete buildings with cement roofs would have burned in this fire. Yeah? Show us one that did.

Fireproof building is not new, it is ancient. Those old adobe buildings with red tile roofs? How many of those have burned to the ground due to wildfire?

Part two: The choice is big fire or small fire, but not no fire.

It seems that every time a fire like this happens the forestry experts get out and tell folk that either we do proscribe small burns or the fuel will build up. So, let’s start our own small fires to avoid the big ones.

Part three: Fire ecology areas should have fire ecology plants.

The native plants of our area have evolved to survive. They do not produce so much fuel and when there is a small fire, the fires that we should have, they open their fire resistant seed pods and plant the regrowth. Some of our native plants only can reproduce when there is a fire.

In practice that means enough of the grass fields and non-native trees already. 

They may grow well in our climate, but they also burn well in our fires. Too well. And stop planting that stuff as landscaping around our “fire resistant” buildings.

Part four: Get ready, get proactive, actively prevent and isolate the danger.

Well of course everyone wants that right? But our local and state budgets don’t show prevention as a priority. Right now people are acting surprised. Any state office holder who is surprised by this set of fires should not be. They could just listen to their own excuses.

“The rains created a lot of fuel”. “The winds whip up a forge”. “There was unusually high heat”.

None of this was not predicted and by the heart wave in early July of this year it was obvious that too much grass fuel had built up along with other types of fuels. This was so obvious that the cattle industry trucked their animals north to get them out of the dry, high fire risk, areas.

Note that the lack of controlled burns and lack of native plant restoration is happening on top of the drought, the rains, the unusual growth and the following heat wave. Global warming has an influence here in only in the statistics and intensity; the basic environmental science was figured out before any of us were born.

Informed land management people have known how bad the problem was this year for a long time and the risk of this kind of disaster was predicted. Our state did not prevent or prepare.

Part five: Spend the money it takes.

The press is now being filled with speculation about where the fire started and who started it. This is a diversion. If a tanker truck turned over and spilled, we would not blame that fire on the pilot light of a nearby water heater. The conditions that our state authorities allowed to develop were just as flammable as a gasoline spill. Can anyone doubt that now?

When such conditions build up, it takes work to build the buffer zones between habitations and open lands. It takes money to remove fuel, do prescribe burns, and replant with fire ecology vegetation around the key buffer zones and waterways.

And it takes some time. This work should have started years ago and this year we should have been on an emergency footing since that June-July heat wave.

And when conditions get as bad as they have been in California since July, get ready.

Mow the damn grass in key locations if you have to. Grass fields need buffer zones and intense fire control practices. Other than move the cows to safety, what was done?

Have people, materials and equipment pre-positioned in the danger areas. Calling for extra support after the fire starts is a bit late. It would have been better to have everyone on guard for a fire that did not happen than to be rushing in help as we are now. We need to budget for what we know is coming sooner or later.

So, I offer these five proposals intending to start the conversation. It would be good to hear other proposals if you want to shoot these down. If not this, then what? Right now what we are doing is tragically and obviously too little too late and I am proposing we avoid a “next time”.

My background is as an administrator and activist. It is time to hear from the scientific community that is willing to speak up and not afraid that their funding is at risk. It is time for those who work the land to speak up. It is time for those who actually build the buildings to speak up. The only voices that we should not give much credence to are the spin doctors and lobbyists representing those who oppose any regulation that curbs their profits.

I can be accused of proposing that people be told what they can do with their own private property. 

Yes, we need to tell people what to do with private property in land management the same way we tell that not to build a dynamite factory next to a school yard or throw raw sewage into the river that runs past their home.

Ownership has its rights, but it also has its responsibilities. If you owned a Rembrandt and decided to cut it into coasters to sell, well you might have the right to do that, but I doubt you would have much public support. If you own a stand of redwoods that are older than our culture, you fall under laws of stewardship and are not allowed to cut them indiscriminately.

The ownership of real estate, farm and city, has a bit of both types of law applied to it. On the one hand we have stewardship obligations and on the other we are prohibited from public endangerment. In the case of building and land management regulations as they relate to fire we have both the moral task of conserving our collective natural heritage and we need to stop building and growing fire hazards.

Addressing conservation and fire control we can also give ourselves a healthier environment in biodiversity, biomass and carbon capturing. Of all the things said about global climate change, one thing is sure: we need to plant more trees and protect more waterways. The kind of land management regulations we will need to manage our fire ecology home state will help with both. 

Now we will get talked down to by our political class who will read this and then lecturer us about budget and political realities.

Realities like why they won't stand up to the lobbyists who resist reasonable regulation.
By that I mean the builders and agribusiness.

Realities like why they don’t really have a decent fire management budget or much of any land management leadership, authority or financing. The buck gets passed to the local authorities who are starved for funds and the private agribusiness and building sector, who are part of the problem.

Those who will lecture us about the realities of money and politics have delivered to us the realities of loss of life, homes and livelihoods.

The first step in preventing the next disaster is to know that this one should not have happened.