Left Coast Voices

"I would hurl words into the darkness and wait for an echo. If an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight." Richard Wright, American Hunger

Archive for the month “January, 2012”

Dumb Republicans! – Tom Rossi

It’s been a fun week for those who enjoy making fun of right-wing ideologues. News of a study by Gordon Hodson and Michael A. Brusseri was released that appears to have shown that right-wingers are dumb. I can’t wait to see Jon Stewart’s bit on this, but because this has been pounced upon by so many already, I’ll leave the fun and the defensiveness to others and explain why I think the truth in this matter is a little more complicated.

Judging by the abstract (that’s all that’s currently available, as the article is “in press”), the authors did not actually attempt to link the lack of cognitive ability (called “dumbness” in articles that have appeared all over the internet) with conservatism but rather concluded that low cognitive ability along with low “intergroup contact” were strongly linked to racial and homosexual prejudice, with the presence of “right wing ideology” mediating the relationship.

This little abstract, much as the avalanche of related internet materials, is loaded with potentially fine and not-so-fine hairs to split in terminology – cognitive ability vs. intelligence, conservative vs. right-wing ideologue, etc. It’s too big a mess to sort out here, so let’s just explore some experiences I’ve had in the relation between politics and intelligence.

At one point in my life, I found that I had three very close friends who identified themselves as conservatives. In order to talk about them freely, without fear of the potential the retaliation of a really long list of my own “interesting” characteristics being posted on the internet, I’ll just call them, “Snap,” “Crackle,” and “Pop.” I knew each well and each was highly intelligent and at least somewhat well educated.

Snap was instrumental in my getting through one of the most difficult times of my life. He was heavily involved in the “fine arts” – music, specifically, in which he got a Master’s degree. When he graduated, he returned to his home in the “Deep South.” He became re-immersed in his family’s politics and soon, Snap snapped and stopped talking to me, mostly because I refused to accept George W. Bush as the savior of America. Admittedly, I made lots of jokes at W.’s expense, even when I knew it antagonized my friend, so some of the blame is certainly mine. But his (I say illegitimate) admiration for W. was eclipsed by his legitimate admiration for his own father – a brilliant surgeon who miraculously puts people back together after horrifying accidents. I greatly miss his Snap’s friendship.

Crackle is somewhat high up in the criminal justice field. He “only” has a Bachelor’s degree (that he received alongside me), but he just might have the most organized mind of the three. He is a staunch conservative and he gives generously to good charities, both of his time and his money. He has invested his work and his money very wisely and is a middle-class success story if there ever was one. His debating skills are incredible and he keeps up on current events amazingly well, especially with all the work he does while raising two kids. He challenges me on the issues of politics so well that I have to work way too hard to compete with him. Sometimes I give up, not because he’s beaten me, but because I can’t keep up with his energy.

Pop has been one of my best friends for many years. He’s very smart, and honest even when there are clear incentives not to be. He has an MBA from a top university and what is commonly called a “type A” personality in that he is incredibly energetic and is adamant in expressing his opinions. Faced with obstacles, he only sees ways to overcome them. He always encourages me even when it must feel like bashing his head against a brick wall. Recently, Pop has decided that he is, after all, a liberal, except when it comes to certain issues like guns. I actually credit Bill Maher with this transformation.

Each of these three also seems to admire me, even though I think of myself as not much more than a screw-up. These are all good, smart, caring people. Why is this long-winded, personal story important? Because it shows that people don’t have to be dumb to have conservative values.

I know what you’re going to say: “Whoa there Tom! You love nothing more than to make fun of Republicans!” And you would be right. I make fun of just about everything. But it would be a mistake to think that conservatism is simply based on a lack of intelligence. Lots of conservatives are dumb, as are lots of liberals. But plenty are not dumb. Instead they have followed false algorithms from their values to their political affiliations.

This means that progressives can’t just fall back on their mental superiority and assume that they will (along with all humanity) easily win the battle for the earth. It means we have to sharpen our pencils… and our rhetoric. I love to make jokes, but explaining just why it is that I and others believe that we must change the trajectory of this country is going to be a lot more difficult. It involves the illumination of more than one inconvenient truth.

The reality of broad variation in intelligence among conservatives splits the work of creating a more progressive society in two. The fact is that, in order to advance to a better society, conservatives have to be convinced that many of their ideas are wrong – especially about economics. I always feel that I have a legitimate shot at changing the minds of intelligent conservatives. The dumb ones? I’m not sure how to deal with them.

We’ll talk more about this next week.

-Tom Rossi

(with thanks to Roger Ingalls)


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.


State of the Left Coast Union

Last week (at least at the time of writing), President Obama gave his State of the Union and I enjoyed it. I even subjected my sons to listening live as we ate dinner (PST) – actually I bribed them offering that they could watch The Simpsons after homework (reverse psychology – two teaching opportunities for the price of one – kids haven’t caught on yet).

Speaking as a new American, (the 49’ers run finally had me watching American football) I am still puzzled at how much power and attention this jewel of democracy gives its President. We elect representatives to Congress as our direct representatives. They are paid to protect and advance our interests. The judiciary, while a very important watchdog, is there to ensure that the laws are interpreted and enforced.

Now I am all for strong leadership and a steady fan of the President. I have one of his books on my iTunes and when a chapter randomly comes up (usually while I am at the gym) I listen. I should also confess at this point, and did a year ago, that I am a faithful devotee of West Wing.

However, I often feel that the media frenzy that dogs the Presidential trail (and that includes the Primary circus) provides a comfortable distraction for those we sent directly to Congress. The vast majority of laypeople, myself included, know more about the activities, thoughts and efforts of the President than we do of our representative. I wonder how many people of voting age even know who their representative is? I have read two books by the President, but have no idea if Representative Barbara Lee or Senators Boxer and Feinstein have even written any books.

The role of the President should be to represent our country and to have a strategic overview. Many have criticized President Obama as being too conciliatory with Republicans, but I admire his collaborative nature, even though I am frustrated that it cost us a serious health care bill.

While I believe that  Congress should be more prominent and accountable, I enjoy the State of the Union – certainly better than the Queen’s (bless ‘er) Christmas Address at 3pm every 12/25.

The President should be the communicator to the nation. The State of the Union should be a 10,000 foot view of our accomplishments and challenges over the past year and looking ahead, but it should never replace, or give the illusion that, the responsibility lies with all our leaders.

President Obama’s speech did give the impression of electioneering, but there was an important recurring message: Put it on my desk and I’ll sign it into law.

President Obama was addressing the nation, but he was also addressing Congress. Partisan stagnation has no place when our nation is suffering. So my State of the Left Coast Union is simple:

Electioneering be damned: Our nation is hurting. Stop the circus. One debate, one half hour uninterrupted prime time TV slot to each candidate and let’s go to the ballot.

The rest of our politician’s time should be spent doing what we pay them to do. I realize this will seriously hurt our media industry, but perhaps they might be inspired to focus on real news and analysis to empower the people to make informed decisions.

Too Radical?


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Nice Review – from Molly

The Accidental Activist received a generous review from Reviews By Molly. Thank you for the kind words.

My Review:
Mr. Shalev is a new-to-me author and one that I am happy to say, knows his stuff! He really created a complex and captivating plot line and kept it twisting and turning through out. It was never boring and each character introduced highlighted the story perfectly.

I love a good suspenseful mystery story. Ones that center around a court room,especially. Stories based on actual facts and cases, but written fictionally, really cinch the deal for me, because I love being able to say “I know that” or, “I’ve heard of that”, while still getting a whole new fresh look on things with the fictional aspect. Throw all that together with Matt and Suzie’s characters and you’ve got one GREAT court room drama novel!

The interaction between Matt and Suzie was awesome. I loved watching Matt try to woo Suzie, all the while Matt was trying to rise to the top, over come is downfalls, creating a website and causing a stir, really added to the depth and meaning of the story.

I highly recommend this story with a high 5 Book rating! Complete with laughable British humor, this story will hook you from first page to last, as you take a ride of romance, dodging the downfalls and trying to over come the legalities of a harsh time. While this is my first Shalev novel, it will NOT be my last. I loved the curve balls he threw into the middle of the story, along with the passionate way he created a story and added amazing hook lines for the readers.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Occupy Report Card – Roger Ingalls

A few days ago I got into a mildly hot discussion with a few people over the Occupy Movement. It started due to a news report about protesters stealing property from a church that allowed them to sleep on the premises.

A few in the discussion group concluded that the Occupy folks were just a bunch of thugs causing problems and haven’t done anything worth noting. The rest of us disagreed and took the position that you can’t judge the whole movement based on a few bad apples that caught the eye of Mainstream Media.

picture from dawnstephensbooks.com

Our discussion then turned to accomplishments by Occupy Wall Street. The naysayers initially said the movement hadn’t done anything but eventually gave them some credit for helping with the roll-back of the $5 transaction fee proposed by Bank of America. After chatting further, many of us thought the rebirth of civil disobedience and mass public protesting in the U.S. were positives and should be credited to the Occupy Movements.

“The Tree of Liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants”, Thomas Jefferson.

A small group of us that are, generally, pro Occupy, thought the movements biggest accomplishment was education of the masses. Prior to the whole Occupy thing, the public, as a whole, never discussed the inequity of the Top 1% versus the Bottom 99%, rarely cared about how politician received money for campaigning or gave many thoughts to how Big Business sets government agenda. Now these issues are on the tongues of people everywhere, of all ages, races and economic standing. This is an awesome accomplishment. Awareness is the first step.

Occupy Revolution Year One gets an A+.


Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

Urban Adamah – Farming and Learning in Berkeley

Urban Adamah is a Jewish urban farm walking distance from my house. I have been there a few times for events and my eldest son goes regularly for a workshop.

As urban as it gets

Adamah is hebrew for earth and when the group received permission to develop the land, earth is one thing they did not find. Instead, the land was full of chemicals and metals from past construction projects. Today, only a year later, there are proud boxes straining with vegetables.

Urban agriculture has been discussed in this blog and I have highlighted another project nearby – Spiral Gardens. I want to share something special at Urban Adamah, an opportunity to participate in a three month fellowship.

For anyone in between jobs, taking a gap year, or needing sometime to reassess, this is a great program. I have spoken with a number of fellows and am profoundly impressed by the depth of their knowledge, enthusiasm and commitment to continue their eco-Jewish journey.

This pretty much reflects the goal of this program: “The Urban Adamah Fellowship is a three-month residential leadership-training program for young adults that integrates urban organic farming, direct social justice work and progressive Jewish living and learning. The fellowship curriculum is designed to equip fellows with the tools to become agents of positive change in their own lives and in their communities.”

Down on the farm at Urban Adamah

There is a similar program at my kibbutz in Israel, Kibbutz Lotan. This is not an urban program (the kibbutz in situated in the Afro-Syrian rift, desert country), but teaches many techniques that can be used in the city.  You actually reside in an eco-campus that previous students built and receive US university credits, and there is an element of conflict resolution built into the program.

The Kibbutz Lotan campus where fellows live and build.

Back to Urban Adamah and they have just opened applications for the next fellowship (I believe there are three a year). I suspect that places fill quickly, a sign that many Jews, myself included, are finding their way back to Judaism through environmental and social justice. And this is good news all round.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Arrrrrrr! There Be Pirates Afloat on the Digital Sea! – Tom Rossi

Would you like some sopa? Mmmmm… Sopa is Spanish for soup. Nothing wrong with that. But we’re currently faced with an unpleasant variation – SOPA, the Stop Online Piracy Act – H.R. 3261. SOPA (along with it’s evil twin, PIPA) would grant witch-hunt like powers to the government in it’s never-ending quest to satisfy it’s corporate owners.

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) cites a study by the Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) that claims the U.S. economy is “harmed” to the tune of $12.5 billion annually by audio-recording piracy alone. In addition it is claimed that this leads to the loss of over 70,000 jobs, again – each year. And IPI says that these are really conservative figures. And remember, the movie and print industries aren’t even included here!

Really? 70,000 jobs from the recording industry each year? Even if you count the jobs at nearby McDonalds’ and Wal-Marts supported by the employees of the recording industry that number is a little hard on the ears.

And how does the IPI come up with these losses? Basically, through a tortured process, it’s the equivalent of what the so-called “pirate” would have spent if he or she had bought a retail copy of, say, a CD instead of downloading it from the internet.

Again I ask… Really? Imagine, for a moment, you are at a conference. You’ve already eaten lunch, but there is a table with free donuts, fruit, turkey legs, whatever you like. I don’t know about you, but I’m about 37.8 times more likely to take a free donut as I would be if I had to pay for it, especially considering that I have already eaten. If you enjoyed my made-up math there, you’ll really love these “statistics.”

In other words, I’m postulating that, if the downloads weren’t free, most of these “pirates” (a term the RIAA calls, “too benign”) didn’t get these recordings for free, they wouldn’t get them at all. The recording industry would NOT be taking in another $12.5 billion at all, but maybe a fraction of that.

And the job losses? They’re not losses at all. They are the projected increases in jobs that aren’t going to be created because the imaginary revenues aren’t coming in.

Why does this matter? Efforts to control this mythically-proportioned crime cost millions in tax dollars. Investigations, sting operations, raids, it’s yet another money toilet that’s kept alive while schools and libraries are forced to shut their doors. Whose priorities are being served here? I’ll give you one guess.

-Tom Rossi


Tom Rossi is a commentator on politics and social issues. He is a Ph.D. student in International Sustainable Development, concentrating in natural resource and economic policy. Tom greatly enjoys a hearty debate, especially over a hearty pint of Guinness.

Tom also posts on thrustblog.blogspot.com


Water or Tea Party

Allow me to assert my credentials as an Englishman: there is no tea without water.  It has always been thus, since the Earl of Grey accidentally dropped the rind of his bergamot orange into a cup of hot water he was sipping (I’ve no idea…don’t bother the Wiki Goddess).

Though it is the silly season of Republican debates and strange voting habits of the primaries (Ohio – yes I’m talking about you), there emerges a call for sanity, not to balance the Tea Party and Occupy Movement, but to create a framework that might actually work.

And so, with much aplomb, I wish to introduce The Water Party (here on Facebook if this is your preferred medium). Percentages seem to be the defining element these days, so the Water Party claim to represent the 70%, slightly less ambitious than Occupy (99%) or Tea Party (103%). This is not based upon some empirical equation, rather inspired by Mother Nature herself.

“70% of the earth is covered by water, but you don’t think of it, because the land is right in front of you most of the time. Likewise, 70% of Americans favor accuracy, fairness, civility and helping others, but it doesn’t seem that way with angry opinionated people dominating the news and airwaves spouting falsehoods to further their agendas and vendettas. The Water Party represents the 70% of Americans from all political spectrums who are the true majority in America. It’s time for us to stand up and be counted.”

What I like about The Water Party is that they welcome people of any political persuasion, from any party, as long as there is a commitment to “support truth and accuracy, reasonableness, kindness and sanity.”

Friends – this is a political landscape game changer right here. Close your eyes and try to imagine a Republican Presidential debate based on these principles. Admit it, you would be forced to channel surf to try and find those insipid, hate ads that the candidates are absolutely not putting out there against each other.

Back to The Water Party and I want to focus on their three principles. The first suggests that we all commit to being truthful in our political debates – I can go for that.  The third suggests that we emulate the founding fathers – I am really not sure about this but maybe I’ve been reading the wrong books and articles about them.

But the second principle really got my attention because it has very concrete actions that can impact the world.

“Justice: Nobody should have to “try to live” on less than $1 a day, as one billion people are. 8 million children a year (one every 4 seconds) should not die from lack of food and clean water. I will take less so children can have the basics to live. One option is the water pledge to drink more water, and less alchohol, coffee and soda, and give some or all the money to the poorest. If 100,000 people drink $5 less a month, that will create $6.7 million a year that will save tens of thousands of lives. We’ll also live longer, and save time and money not having to work out and diet as much.”

If you click on the water pledge you get to a page where you can actually translate the pledge into an individualized and measurable commitment.

Joking aside, I love the concept that the Water Party represents, that we could actually sit people from all political directions for a nice cup of te–water, and work on a way together to fix what ails this country. It would require a commitment to rational debate, to listening to the other side and being willing to compromise.

Perhaps we might even be surprised and discover that behind all the slogans we shout at each other, there just might be more consensus than we care to admit. Maybe the 70% can make a difference.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Winning the Lottery

It is true that you can become a millionaire from winning the lottery and indeed there are lottery winners every week. But for the aspiring author, winning the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA) is akin to that precious and elusive lottery ticket.

In today’s economic climate, it is a brave publisher who invests in an unknown author. Yes there will always be the J.K. Rowling out there, but they are as rare as, well, a winning lottery ticket. Assuming you are not a celebrity or have a good friend in the industry, it is almost impossible to pick up a literary agent. Then you need the agent to stay in the business to find you an interested publisher, and then the publisher needs to stay in  business long enough to … well you get the gist.

But once a year, optimism pervades among the writing community. ABNA is the mother of all writing competitions. They accept only 10,000 entries (already better odds than the lottery) which then go through a series of rounds until two talented individuals stand alone. Or more significantly stand with the publishing folks at Penguin Group (USA), Amazon.com, and CreateSpace. There is a $15,000 advance along with the publishing contract.

It is an exciting process. As midnight approaches on Sunday, thousands of optimistic writers will sit poised by our computers, all necessary documents ready to upload. A month later we will all anxiously await the first cut. We look first for our own names and then those of our friends who have also entered.

For the last two years I have reached the last 250 entries, the Quarter Finals, with The Accidental Activist (2010) and Unwanted Heroes (2011), both political fiction. Like any good lottery player, I was already dreaming of my shining literary future. Alas, I went no further and my dreams were put aside in favor of actively seeking an agent and publisher. I did succeed, with The Accidental Activist coming out last year and Unwanted Heroes due this coming spring.

But this is the first time that I am entering the YA contest with an epic fantasy manuscript that I wrote with my eldest son (then 11yrs old). It is my first foray into the world of Young Adult fiction and also the world of fantasy. You can read more at elfwriter.

And once again for the next 48 hours, I will be watching the clock tick away to midnight Sunday night and begin the dream all over again.

I will keep you posted – to the bitter end – but until then, allow me to dream.


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

Aquaponics: Farming the Good Way

Last week I blogged about the new Occupy Gardens movement and it seemed to strike a positive nerve with many people. I believe food production is the most important issue facing the human race so I’ll stay with this theme for another week and probably many more.

Our current industrial farming methods are atrocious; they’re wasteful and extremely destructive. I’ll explain more about the perils of our fossil fuel based agricultural system is future posts but today I want to draw attention to a new way to grow food called aquaponics.

What is aquaponics? It is a constructed ecosystem based on fish, plants and beneficial bacteria that harnesses nature’s propensity to balance growth (survival) with low consumption of resources (water, nutrients or energy…). Essentially, one life form benefits the next in a re-circulating system. Beneficial bacteria create a probiotic environment where fish waste (poop and ammonia) is converted into nitrite and then nitrate which is a usable form of natural fertilizer for plants. In turn, the plants remove the nitrate from the water to fuel their growth leaving clean water for the fish. Other than a little water, the only input is food for the fish. Since fish are cold-blooded, they waste no energy regulating their body temperature making them efficient consumers of food. On average, two pounds of food adds one pound of weight to a fish compared to 16 pounds of cattle feed to produce one pound of beef.

Aquaponic Benefits:

1)      Up to 10 times more vegetables per given space. Plants are grown in a soil-less media and nutrient packed water is directly supplied to the roots. Plants can be densely grown because there’s no competition for food.

2)      Since nutrient packed water is supplied to the root system, the plants use their energy growing vegetation not spreading roots. The plants grow twice as fast.

3)      There are no weeds since wanted plants are densely grown and there’s no soil to harbor unwanted weed seeds.

4)      Since there is no soil, there’s no soil borne pests. No pests no pesticides.

5)      Aquaponics uses 95% less water than conventional farming or gardening.

6)      No daily watering is required since plants grow in a re-circulating water system.

7)      Both plants and fish are grown creating two sources of food (meat protein and vegetables).

8)      Overall, aquaponics uses 70% less energy than conventional farming.

9)      It’s all organic, no fossil fuel based fertilizers or pesticides.

10)  It can be replicated anywhere on Earth.

Is aquaponics really a viable form of farming? Will Allen’s three acre Growing Power farm located in the city of Milwaukee WI, produces one million pounds of food per year. Aquaponics is central to his urban operation and has been described as the most productive farm in the country.

Aquaponics, check it out. Demand it. Your grandkids will thank you.


Roger Ingalls is well traveled and has seen the good and bad of many foreign governments. He hopes his blogging will encourage readers to think more deeply about the American political system and its impact on US citizens and the international community.

The Power of the Internet – SignUp

I am intrigued with the potential of the Internet to mobilize grassroots activism. My novel, The Accidental Activist, is a fictitious account of the McDonald’s libel trial in England in the 1990’s. The role of McSpotlight.org, the first interactive advocacy website, was integral in enabling two young activists to negotiate the maze of the British libel laws and take on one of the most famous law companies in the UK.

Twitter and Facebook were central tools utilized in the Arab Spring and China is putting considerable resources into controlling the Internet, at least within its borders. Shi Tzu, a journalist, found this out and languishes in jail.

Today, I walked past a few young people standing at the main thoroughfare at San Francisco State University, canvassing people to sign a petition supporting an environmental initiative. It was cold and I felt sorry for them. Despite their enthusiasm. students passed them by. I am sure it was not the issues, rather the desire to escape the cold and make it on time to class.

I thought there must be a better way to do it. Guess what? Apparently there is. Allow me to introduce you to SignOn.org. This is a new initiative that came to my attention when I wrote about Whole Foods and one of their (previous) Muslim employees.

The goal is to allow busy people to create and promote a petition. Though sponsored by the (thought of) left-wing organization Move On, the service is for any citizen to create a petition.

I want to applaud MoveOn for this initiative. It is efficient, time-saving and reaching people where they have discretionary time – on-line rather than on the street. Of course, there is always the loss of the human interaction as with all social media, but in terms of practicality and effectiveness, it seems like a great service.

And the fact that SignUp can be used by those with political views that do not fall in line with the MoveOn folks is also commendable. It elevates the core values of democracy and freedom of speech that we all talk about and forget often .


Alon Shalev is the author of The Accidental Activist and A Gardener’s Tale. He is the Executive Director of the San Francisco Hillel Foundation, a non-profit that provides spiritual and social justice opportunities to Jewish students in the Bay Area. More on Alon Shalev at http://www.alonshalev.com/ and on Twitter (@alonshalevsf).

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