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 tag “election year”

Who’s Afraid of the NRA?

I’m stuck on the topic of arms control. In the massive news coverage that surrounded the tragic shooting rampage in Colorado, I heard one comment repeated at least three times by different reporters and commentators. It went something along the lines of: “No presidential candidate would dare take on the National Rifle Association (NRA) during an election year” with one pundit suggesting that no elected president would either.

I am a great believer in pressure groups to protect our rights and advocate in an orderly and effective fashion. Being relatively new to the US (and I feel it politically when gun control is being discussed more than most other topics), I am not aware of the power of the NRA.

Their website is very impressive. They have launched a campaign to “Go All In’ as they actively push to get their members voting for their people at the polls. Now my stereotype of an NRA member has them firmly committed to heading to the polls in November, but it does look to be a slick campaign.

There is nothing wrong with that, by the way. This is a democracy and there are more than a few nonprofits that I support who could learn a lot from the NRA. Their page on the ‘Right To Carry’ laws looks very professional.

But it seems to be more than that. The NRA succeed by embracing two marketing principles: Their message is simple and it is repeated, repeated, repeated. Craig Montuori, apparently a left coaster himself sums up the messaging:

“The NRA boils issues down to one point–pro- or anti-gun–and takes a stand for the pro-gun side. Sometimes these issues are extremely complex. For example, gun trace data takes ballistic data from criminal cases, matches them to a gun, and matches that gun to a dealer. Then, the dealer can be checked out for whether or not they’re following proper sales procedure–background checks, hold periods, and the like, and oftentimes, the dealers do not. The NRA opposes this to the hilt, and annually, the Tiarht Amendment is proposed and adopted with their heavy lobbying support to restrict gun trace data from being used by police and the ATF to dry up criminals’ gun supply. The issue is boiled down to “restricting gun sales = bad, NRA oppose bad restrictions.”

Mr. Montuori then goes on to explain how the NRA has an effective direct mail campaign (and probably online as well) to swamp legislators with letters from the NRA’s huge membership list, giving the politician the clear message that s/he is going against a large number of his/her constituents. Now what politician doesn’t listen to this sophisticated message?

Members sign and mail prepaid issue cards telling their representatives that they oppose H.R. ____ that will restrict their 2nd Amendment Rights. They invariably warn the representative that they will oppose him/her if s/he doesn’t oppose the bill too.

Again Mr. Montuori: “Because the issue is so ‘hot,’ the NRA has an oversized effect on Congressional races, and many Members toe the NRA line to keep their support and avoid their opposition, further enhancing their lobbying chops.”

Mr. Montuori’s final point is that the NRA have such a huge membership and are very efficient at mobilizing and fundraising quickly. Given the emotional sensitivity surrounding the issue … “among certain American sub-cultures, especially in the South, and supposed threats to those rights can whip up a huge frenzy of feeling that is effectively exploited to raise large amounts of cash.”

In truth, I preferred him as Moses

While I have no doubt that this is so true, I am still left with the feeling that Presidential candidates also have a professional network, huge supporters and plenty of money. I am left with the nagging question: Why are even those at the very top scared of taking on the NRA?

Your opinion?

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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).

China and Human Rights Pt. 2

Following on from my blog post on Monday, I have been thinking of the threat China holds over the US. This is not about tanks and nuclear weapons, but money. The US owes China over $1 trillion – I can’t comprehend a number that size.

US companies are falling over themselves to business with China and the government is happy for the revenue.  Ironically, these companies are often collaborating on projects that provide effective tools to quash protests and free speech. A while ago my colleague, Tom Rossi, wrote that corporations exist solely to make money, not to better our society.

Installing surveillance cameras

Here are some examples I provided in an earlier post:

– Cisco Systems (among others) are creating the biggest police surveillance system in the world through a government contract in the city of Chongqing.

– Microsoft’s search engine, Bing, still censors searches in China. Earlier this month, it agreed to provide search results in English for Baidu, China’s leading — and heavily censored — engine. This is taking place 18 months after Google, to avoid aiding the government with such censorship, pulled its search engine out of China.

The Consequences:

1) Shi Tao sits in prison for a 10 year sentence after Yahoo provided copies of his emails to the government.

2) In May 2011, Cisco was sued by Chinese practitioners of Falun Gong who accused the multinational of abetting  the Chinese government through the creation and maintainable of the so-called Golden Shield system. This surveillance system targets and then follows dissidents communicating online, which has led to the detaining and torturing of Falun Gong practitioners.

Cisco took issue with the accusation. The company claims that it does not design it’s programs or equipment to aid the government censor content, intercept communications or track users. It sells the Chinese government standard-issue general network equipment.

In fairness, some of the multinational corporations did begin to take steps after Yahoo’s debacle regarding its role in Shi Tao’s arrest and convictionYahoo, Microsoft and Google joined in the Global Network Initiative which tries to create guidelines to protect “the freedom of expression rights of their users when confronted with government demands, laws and regulations to suppress freedom of expression.”

But these commitments are voluntary. Should the government take a role in clearly setting boundaries? It happened following the 1989 Tienanmen Square massacre when companies were barred from selling such technology. Quite rightly, it has been pointed out that effective anti-spam and hacking technology could be adapted to aid repressive regimes.

One executive from Hewlett-Packard, who are bidding for a stake in the Chongqing surveillance project told The Wall Street Journal: “It’s not my job to really understand what they’re going to use it for.”

Really? Is there no responsibility beyond the profit line? Coming from a multinational, probably not.

Which is why, if the United States truly sees itself as the leader of world freedom, it needs to create not guidelines or principles, but laws preventing American technology helping totalitarian regimes. However, we may discover that since our government cannot even get these companies to pay their taxes, it might have little power over such huge economic conglomerates and their powerful lobbyist allies.

Even scarier is the fact that we are confronting a country that is not only strong militarily, but outdoing us financially and to whom we owe over $1 trillion.

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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).

Revisiting China and Human Rights Part 1

There has been a lot written about Chinese dissident Chen Guangcheng, the blind ‘barefoot’ lawyer, who after sitting in prison or house arrest for advocating to change the way China forces abortion and sterilization to implement its one child policy.

It is difficult to understand whether Mr. Chen coming to the US as a student is a victory or not, or rather for whom it is a victory. Mr. Chen was clear from the outset that he had no desire to leave China. He wanted to live free of intimidation and continue to advocate for what he believes in.

The US, once again the lone voice in a human rights dispute, seemed more embarrassed than anything else. The fact that Mr. Chen forced his move while Hilary Clinton was on a high-profile visit was an obvious tactical move.

It seems as though the winner might actually be China, who might feel that they have off loaded another angry activist, destined after a few weeks of interviews and media attention to be buried under the next latest news item – and all this during an election year.

Part of me can’t help wondering whether the Chinese didn’t architect all this from the beginning. China excels in surveillance and strong-armed tactics. How does a blind man escape house arrest, avoid security and make his way to the one place in China where there are probably more cameras and surveillance than anywhere else in that country.

Chinese dissidents have a hard time in the US. There was a great article earlier this month, but I can’t find it here about these challenges. An ABC article offers some light on this, but there are a number of cold realities that these dissidents face.

Many of these men and women do not hold qualifications that enable them to enter the job market. There is a foundation that helps them financially. For a proud leader, however, this cannot be an empowering experience.

Often, they did not want to leave China, or at the risk of being clichéd, have left their hearts and family there. They risked their lives to change China, not live in the US. And they are faced with never being able to return.

While their short-lived celebrity status might garner a speaker tour during the first year, they are often not articulate in English and can’t sustain the speaker tour necessity to receive invites back the following year. The tough personalities that such brave people need in a totalitarian state might be difficult to process in the West.

Finally, their ability to influence what is happening in China is extremely limited. The world-wide web isn’t quite as world-wide as we would like to think. Hopefully these dissidents helped train their successors and, with thousands of miles and Chinese surveillance between them, they will find that their positions in the human rights organizations have been replaced.

China has discovered an effective way to neutralize a freedom activist. Send them to freedom and see how they like it there. And all along, the US has been  a compliant if unknowing partner.

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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).

Community Investing

I was proud to participate in Bank Transfer Day and I know I am not alone. The Credit Union National Association (CUNA) announced that between the end of September and beginning of November, $4.5 billion dollars were deposited in new accounts in the credit unions.

650,000 people moved their money into credit unions during this time and as the late Senator Everett Dirksen said: “A billion here, a billion there, pretty soon you’re talking about real money.”

There is a vital lesson here: we can control what we do with our money, and our money can have an effect when we band together. 99% of the population is a lot of people – over 300 million to be sure. This action remains for me the most exciting chapter in the burgeoning Occupy Wall Street movement and should stand as a model for how we can change the economic environment.

I want to share with you a user-friendly guide to community investing that has been put together by my friends over at the Progressive Jewish Alliance and the Jewish Funds for Social Justice.

I have not been moved to close more ports or participate in endless demonstrations. I have visited Occupy sites in the Bay Area, but not felt a part of what was happening. This is who I am, not a criticism of those participating. But actions such as Bank Transfer Day have been a very powerful experience. I am not sure how far the movement can go in an election year. We need to focus on ensuring that the candidates from the party that most represents our values.

They should receive 99% of our votes – a game changer.

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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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