Friday, January 30, 2009

Activist San Diego Celebrates “End of an Error”

Ball in Honor of Obama’s Presidency Draws 200


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom:

SuperSonic Samba School

Spoken word artist Bennie Herron

“Billionaires for Obama”

Girl Dancer

City Councilmember Marti Emerald

Ernie McCray and Martin Eder

Monarch School Steel Drums

Sacred Tribal Infusion

In 2001 and 2005, the progressive Internet group Activist San Diego (ASD) hosted “Counter-Inaugural Balls” to protest the ascension of George W. Bush to the presidency by what many of its members and supporters thought were corrupt and fraudulent means. On January 24, 2009 the location — the big auditorium of the Balboa Park Club — and many of the participants were the same, but the message couldn’t have been more different. This time, ASD’s “People’s Ball” was held to celebrate “the end of an error” and commemorate “democracy under construction” following Barack Obama’s election victory and his inauguration four days earlier.

About 200 people attended the event and heard infectious music by the salsa band Agua Dulce, the Mariachi Juvenil (Youth Mariachi) — which serenaded ball-goers as they walked in — the Monarch School Steel Drums Ensemble and the SuperSonic Samba School. One of the many high points of the event was when the steel drummers and the samba percussionists jammed together on one song. Another was the extraordinary performance by TranscenDance, the dance troupe of high school students (five of whom appeared at the ball), and a third was the belly-dancing performance by the Sacred Tribal Infusion. This was a troupe of three women, though the most moving part of their set was a solo dance by one performer to a recorded song calling for peace in the Middle East whose lyric was built around the similarity of the Hebrew and Arabic words for peace, “shalom” and “salaam.”

Other performers included Mitchell Walker, who played the didgeridoo (a traditional Australian instrument formed, event MC Ernie McCray announced, by natural processes working on a piece of eucalyptus wood) in the lobby before the program started; Bennie Herron, an African-American spoken-word performer who did a poem about Obama; and McCray himself, who also read a poem addressing the new administration in guardedly optimistic tone. The one elected official who spoke was District 7 City Councilmember Marti Emerald — introduced by ASD founder Martin Eder with a reference to her previous career as a consumer reporter for KGTV Channel 10 — after fellow City Councilmember Donna Frye and former city attorney Mike Aguirre were unable to attend.

Participants and attendees were hopeful but also fearful of the Obama administration. Eder, McCray and Herron all stressed the need for progressives to stay mobilized and push Obama to the Left in the face of “business-as-usual” types in the Democratic party and the Washington establishment who will pressure him to govern from the center or the Right. While most people in the room spoke proudly of Obama and their role in helping his campaign, a few were more skeptical. At least two attendees wore “Billionaires for Obama” costumes — a new twist on the “Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)” effort in 2000, which argued — largely by citing the similar positions Bush and former vice-president Al Gore took during that campaign — that it didn’t really matter which one of them won.

San Diego Democratic Club Elects New Officers

Sachs Easily Beats Krug for Political Action V-P; County Chair Reports on Inaugural


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos, top to bottom: Alex Sachs & Michelle Krug, Dennis Csillag, Jess Durfee

The predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club elected new officers at its meeting January 29 — the first one held during Barack Obama’s presidency — but at least one of the races was unusual. For the first time in years the club had a contested election for one of its top positions, vice-president in charge of political action. The club’s choices were Alex Sachs, former staffer in the Clinton White House and assistant to former San Diego City Attorney Mike Aguirre; and Michelle Krug, San Diego city worker and union activist.

“I’ve been the club’s legislative advisor for most of the last eight years,” Sachs said during the two-minute statement both candidates were allowed to make to club members. “As vice-president for political action I will work to expand the outreach into South Bay and North County. It’s important to work on the 50th Congressional District” — the North County district that narrowly elected Republican Brian Bilbray over Democrat Francine Busby in a 2006 special election to replace Randy “Duke” Cunningham after his bribery conviction. Sachs also stressed the importance of building coalitions with other progressive organizations, said he was “very committed to the diversity of this club,” and thanked the 60 people who signed his Facebook page to express their support of him.

Krug, who was clearly disappointed that the club wasn’t running its own election the way it decides on election endorsements (candidate presentations, question-and-answer periods and intra-club debate with the candidates out of the room), opted to yield her two minutes to a spokesperson, Dennis Csillag, president of Local 54 of the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Csillag presented Krug as someone who was already doing much of the outreach Sachs called for — she’s a South Bay resident as well as a union leader — and said she’d been “invaluable in our efforts to secure a fair contract at Channel 10.” Krug, Csillag said, “is able and willing to share her past work with the disability community, public transportation, affordable housing, labor and the Chula Vista/South Bay area.”

Club nominating committee chairs Jim Campbell, Kate Lyon and Fentress Ott met in the back room behind the main meeting hall at the Joyce Beers Community Center in Hillcrest to count the ballots, and invited a representative from each candidate to observe. With nearly 100 club members present and eligible to vote, the club ran out of pre-printed ballots for the race and late voters had to write in their choices on the ballot forms printed for the other, uncontested club offices. Eventually Sachs won a sweeping victory, with 85 votes to 11 for Krug.

The Sachs/Krug race somewhat overshadowed the other five officer elections, all of them uncontested, as Larry Baza became the club’s second consecutive Latino/a president, replacing Andrea Villa. Jeri Dilno, the outgoing vice-president for political action, switched over to executive vice-president. Bob Lay was chosen s vice-president for development [fundraising], longtime club secretary Brad Jacobsen was elected to another term, and John Gordon was chosen as treasurer. Dilno, who chaired this part of the meeting, explained that Gordon was already serving as acting treasurer because his predecessor, Chris Ward, had resigned to take a job as chief of staff for newly elected Assemblymember Marty Block.

The other business of the club January 29 was an eyewitness report on the inauguration of President Obama by Jess Durfee, recently re-elected as chair of the San Diego County Democratic Central Committee following his stint as the club’s president. He accompanied it with a slide show of pictures taken by himself and fellow club members Greg Bolian, Judy Ki and Alex Sachs. Durfee noted that the day he arrived he flew from San Diego, where the temperature was 80 degrees, to Baltimore, where it was three.

“The Sunday before the inauguration, the California Democratic Party had a bash at the automotive wing of the Smithsonian,” Durfee said. “Each state held their own state party before the inauguration, and there were some official and non-official inaugural balls. A reporter and cameraman for Channel 6 went at their own expense and used their press credentials to get into the events. I was interviewed, and took them down and found a bevy of San Diegans.”

As the audience gasped at the sight of a close-up photo of former President Clinton, Durfee explained that it had been taken at a reception Hillary Clinton hosted the night before the inauguration at her former campaign headquarters. “Hillary went to one side of the room and Bill went to the other,” Durfee said — explaining why he’d been able to greet him but not her. Also at this reception were former California Governor Gray Davis and his wife Sharon — who, Durfee was astonished to learn, vividly remembered the fundraiser she’d appeared at in San Diego at Peter Janopaul’s home years ago.

Durfee’s presentation included photos of the actual inaugural ceremony as well as the concert on the National Mall the night before — where, he ruefully noted, those who were actually there probably saw less of the performers than those watching on TV. He recalled getting a surprisingly good view of the swearing-in — “I was a little off to the side but fairly close to the podium” — from a pie-shaped section reserved for Democratic Party officials. Durfee also noted that, unlike him, the person sitting next to him remembered to bring a blanket to keep warm.

The night of the inauguration both of California’s senators, Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, had receptions in their offices — Durfee showed a photo Sachs had taken during Boxer’s — and there were also plenty of inaugural balls. Durfee had a grim assessment of the West/Southwest ball, which he described as “$150 per person tickets, no chairs, bad food and two separate ticket lines you had to wait through to get a drink.” He walked out of that one but the more perseverant Judy Ki got a photo of Barack and Michelle Obama hugging at this event.”

Durfee also stopped at California’s inaugural ball, which he noted was four blocks away from the Eagle, a D.C. Gay bar. “David Sanchez went to the Human Relations Commission (HRC) ball at $350 per ticket, and I went to the Eagle and met Steve Hildebrand, deputy political director of the Obama campaign, and David Binder, a California pollster the Obama campaign used. Steve Hildebrand has been living in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, but he asked me for information and contacts on real estate in San Diego.”

The day after the inauguration, Durfee said, was the first meeting of the new Democratic National Committee (DNC), which governs the party between Presidential elections. Howard Dean stepped down as DNC chair and was replaced by Virginia Governor Tim Kaine. Durfee explained that once a party has won the presidency, the newly elected president traditionally appoints the DNC’s new officers and the committee’s own election process is merely a formality — though he added that, as Obama’s choice for DNC chair, Kaine “very clearly stated that the 50-state strategy” — Dean’s aggressive push for Democratic votes throughout the country, including the South and other areas previous Democratic leaders essentially wrote off — “is here to stay.”

Many of the other DNC officers are familiar faces, Durfee said. Among them are former Gore for President campaign manager Donna Brazile (club members applauded her photo) and Linda Chavez-Thompson as vice-chairs, Alice Germond as secretary, and Andrew Tobias, investment advisor and author of the pseudonymous memoir The Best Little Boy in the World about growing up Gay, as treasurer, a post he’s held since 1999. Another openly Gay man, New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, was elected a vice-chair of the DNC and president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs. Former Minnesota state chair Rick Stafford was elected chair of the DNC’s LGBT Caucus.

Durfee got personal when he talked about Brian Bond, who was Obama’s director of constituencies during the presidential campaign and is now deputy director of public liaison for the White House. “I first met Brian Bond 11 years ago when he was executive director of the Victory Fund” — a fundraising and support organization formed specifically to elect politically viable openly Queer candidates to public office — “and he was the person who really got it under way. Then he was outreach director of the DNC and oversaw the contact people for African-Americans, Asian-Pacific Islanders and LGBT.” Durfee said that Bond’s current position in the Obama White House also includes Queer outreach.

Another part of Durfee’s presentation explained the complicated structure of the DNC and the various ways people get on it. “There are about 325 members, including every state party chair and vice-chair. Every state gets a committeeman and a committeewoman, and every state gets additional members apportioned by population” — so each state has a minimum of five members and California, as the nation’s most populous state, gets 19, almost double the number of the next largest state, New York.

But that’s not all; as Durfee explained, “75 members are at-large and for now we don’t know who they’re going to be.” The way he described them, they sounded like the controversial convention “superdelegates” discussed extensively in the last campaign: “Generally, they’re appointed to provide diversity, thank major donors and that sort of thing.” Durfee also said the Democratic Governors’ Association, Democratic Mayors’ Association, city and county governments and various organizations each get to name people, and Craig Roberts, the club’s liaison to the National Stonewall Federation (NSF) of Queer Democratic clubs, added that the national Young Democrats chair, Federation of Democratic Women chair and one additional representative are DNC members.

Durfee also said that one of the plum assignments of the DNC is a slot on one of its five committees. Only 90 of the 375 DNC members get to be on these committees, which include the two Durfee would most like to serve on, Rules and Credentials. “As a new member of the DNC, I probably won’t be able to pull that off,” he conceded. “The political arm of the White House makes most of those decisions.”

My Friend Christine


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“None of what’s happened to me and to my family has shaken what I know to be correct and true about science and medicine, and my experiences.”

— Christine Maggiore, ABC Prime Time Live, aired December 8, 2005

I got the call on December 29, 2008, two days after it happened. The caller identified himself as Paul Lineback and said he was with Reappraising AIDS, an international organization of scientists and lay people who question the mainstream view that the so-called Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the sole cause of AIDS. He told me he’d seen an item on the Los Angeles Times Web site that announced that 52-year-old Christine Maggiore, founder of the Alive & Well AIDS Alternatives organization in Los Angeles, a pillar of the alternative AIDS movement and someone I regarded as a personal friend, had died. The information the Times had published to its site came, ironically enough, from the office of the Los Angeles County Coroner, which had been sued by Maggiore and her husband, Robin Scovill, for publicly attributing the May 2005 death of their daughter Eliza Jane to AIDS.

When I got Paul Lineback’s call I couldn’t help but flash back to another phone call I’d got nearly four years earlier, when Fred Cline, alternative AIDS activist from San Francisco who was also close to Christine, told me Eliza Jane had died. I wasn’t sure whether or not it was true — so many rumors get spread so quickly, especially in the online age — so I called Christine’s number. I got a clearly harried woman who was working as her volunteer assistant, who put off my request to speak to Christine directly and finally told me, in a predictably exasperated tone of voice, “Don’t you realize she just lost her daughter?”

Oh my god it’s true it isn’t just one of those stupid rumors you hear on the Internet it really happened oh my god I’m so sorry … That’s about how my thoughts ran when I finally got the confirmation of Eliza Jane’s death in 2005. Christine herself eventually returned my call, and of course she was in tears — and at the same time oddly apologetic that I hadn’t been on the list of people she or her assistant had called directly. I babbled some of the inane attempts at comfort you speak when a friend has just gone through a terrible tragedy and you know the blow has been so hard that nothing you say is likely to comfort them, but you try your damnedest anyway and hope the words you’re barely able to stammer out offer some small degree of solace.

I first heard of Christine Maggiore in 1993 and first met her a year later. I interviewed her for the first of her two Zenger’s cover stories in 1995 and brought her down to San Diego to speak to our own alternative AIDS organization, the Association to Re-Evaluate AIDS (ATRA, later known as H.E.A.L.-San Diego) in the large auditorium of Craftsmen’s Hall — now the San Diego Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender Community Center. She told a story of how her life had been perfectly normal — she’d been an aspiring young businesswoman in Los Angeles preparing for a career in marketing and running an import-export business based on contacts in her family’s native country, Italy — when she’d gone for a routine exam with a new gynecologist who believed that all her patients should be tested for antibodies to HIV.

Maggiore’s world turned upside down when her test turned out positive. After all, she wasn’t a member of any of the identifiable AIDS risk groups. She wasn’t a Gay man, an injection drug user or a hemophiliac. In fact, when she first tested HIV-positive she was feeling better than she had in years because she’d just come off the thyroid medication she’d been put on by a doctor who’d misdiagnosed her. Nonetheless, at first she accepted the medical death sentence of an “HIV-positive” diagnosis and high-tailed it over to AIDS Project Los Angeles, where — she grimly noted later — the first service she was offered was help in drafting her will.

Throwing herself into AIDS volunteer work, she signed as a speaker for AIDS Project Los Angeles — where she was quite popular because, not being in one of the standard risk groups, she was a living illustration of the idea that “everyone can get AIDS” — and the Shanti Foundation. She was one of 14 board members of a group of HIV-positive women called Women at Risk — and she noted five years later that by then 11 of the co-founders had died and the only ones who were still alive were her and the two others who had refused the highly toxic “treatment” regimens then being offered to people with HIV and AIDS.

Her acceptance of the mainstream view of AIDS started to unravel when one of her doctors, telling her she didn’t fit the “profile” of a person with AIDS, suggested she take another HIV antibody test. This one came back negative. She underwent a succession of further tests that came back with a bewildering profusion of contradictory results — positive, negative, “indeterminate” and “seroequivocal” — the last two meaning that the people reading her test results couldn’t decide from the band patterns on her Western Blot test strips whether she was positive or negative.

That’s a far more common problem with the test than most people know. The HIV antibody test is regularly claimed to be 99-plus percent “accurate,” but the only experiments on which that claim is based were comparisons of different brands of antibody tests against each other. No one has ever checked the accuracy of the antibody tests against the only scientifically credible “gold standard” — actual isolation of live, infectious HIV from a living patient — because no one has ever actually isolated live, infectious HIV from a living patient. The researches Luc Montagnier and Françoise Barre-Sinoussi conducted at the Institut Pasteur in Paris in 1983, for which they won the 2008 Nobel Prize for supposedly “discovering” HIV, only came up with bits of protein and genetic material which Montagnier and Barre-Sinoussi conjectured were pieces of a new virus. Montagnier admitted on French TV in 1997 that he never isolated the virus — and neither has anyone else.

What’s more, the test is surprisingly ambiguous, given the finality of the medical judgments issued to this day to people who test “HIV-positive.” There are at least 11 different criteria for reading it used in the world today, including at least five that are accepted in the U.S. — so a test that is positive in one lab can be negative in another and seroequivocal or indeterminate in a third, Christine Johnson, a former associate of Christine Maggiore’s and herself an alternative AIDS activist in L.A., went through the scientific literature and documented 64 possible causes of a false-positive reading on the HIV antibody test, including such common infectious as hepatitis, herpes, flu, malaria, cholera and lupus, as well as certain vaccinations and even pregnancy — especially in women who’d been pregnant before.

Christine Maggore would learn all this information, and it would change her life. She heard of Peter Duesberg, the controversial professor of microbiology and cell biology at UC Berkeley and the first science to challenge publicly the assertion that HIV caused AIDS, and sought him out. Originally she thought he was a medical doctor (he’s a Ph.D.) and tried to make an appointment. When she heard his information, her first impulse was to bring it to her superiors at AIDS Project Los Angeles, thinking they would welcome the possibility that AIDS might be more complicated than they believed — and taught — it was, and that an “HIV-positive” test result might not be a death sentence after all. Instead, at one APLA meeting she was denounced for advancing “dangerous information.”

Maggiore’s growing awareness of the case against HIV as the cause of AIDS, and the adverse reaction within mainstream AIDS organizations of any questioning of the HIV = AIDS dogma, propelled her out of mainstream AIDS activism and into the alternative movement. In 1995 she organized a Los Angeles branch of H.E.A.L. — an international network of alternative AIDS organizations (the initials stand for Health, Education, AIDS Liaison and the first chapter was founded in New York in 1984) — and started holding meetings, proudly and cheekily advertising her programs as “dangerous information.” In 1999 she took her organization out of the H.E.A.L. network and renamed it Alive & Well, and in 2000 she became the first — and, to this day, the only — alternative AIDS activist to have a table at the official international AIDS conference.

While devoting herself so totally to alternative AIDS activism that it literally became her career, she also met Robin Scovill, a filmmaker 13 years her junior, and had her first child, Charlie. Learning the hard way about how pregnant “HIV-positive” women were treated — she gave birth at home with a midwife because no hospital would accept her unless she agreed to take anti-HIV medications intravenously during labor — she later started an organization called Mothers Opposing Mandatory Medicine (MOMM) and told other “HIV-positive” mothers how they could escape being exposed to the cell-killing “anti-HIV” drug AZT during their pregnancies. When she became pregnant with her second child, Eliza Jane, she was photographed for the cover of Mothering magazine with her midriff exposed and a “No AZT” sign painted across it.

Maggiore also wrote a book summing up the case against HIV as the cause of AIDS, against the standard anti-HIV medications and against the HIV antibody test. She called it What If Everything You Thought You Knew About AIDS Was Wrong? and published three editions; a fourth was scheduled for release when she died. The first one had no author’s name on the cover because she didn’t want to pose as an authority on the issue — she wanted the attention to be on the scientists and researchers she cited as sources — but she was told by booksellers and prospective buyers that she needed to sign the book to accept responsibility for its contents. It became a sort of Bible for the alternative AIDS movement, the book we passed to friends and acquaintances as the first step on their AIDS re-education before we referred them to the more formidable tomes by Duesberg and other alternative scientists.

In the mid-2000’s, Maggiore began to cut back on her alternative AIDS activities. She started a business that had nothing to do with AIDS or activism and inched towards a more normal life. Then her daughter Eliza Jane died in May 2005. Maggiore and her consultant, toxicologist Dr. Mohammed Ali Al-Bayati, insisted that the three-year-old girl had died of an allergic reaction to the antibiotic amoxicillin, which a doctor had prescribed for an ear infection. The authorities, led by Los Angeles County senior medical examiner Dr. James K. Ribe, insisted — without having tested Eliza Jane’s blood for HIV antibodies — that she died from Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia, an opportunistic infection associated with AIDS. Maggiore spent the next year not only grief-stricken but terrorized by threats of prosecution for felony child endangerment and even manslaughter — and though the Los Angeles County district attorney eventually decided not to prosecute, Maggiore still found herself pilloried by mainstream AIDS activists and media outlets.

Her reaction was just what those of us who knew her would expect. Feisty, indomitable and determined to channel her grief into productive activism, she started yet another organization, Justice for Eliza Jane, using the Internet to organize support and expose alleged misdiagnoses from Dr. Ribe’s office on so-called “shaken-baby syndrome” and other dubious medical concepts. In 2008 she re-started the monthly Alive & Well meetings and also launched a podcast called “How Positive Are You?” in association with David Crowe, president of the Reappraising AIDS Society of Alberta, Canada, and had recorded 11 episodes at the time of her death — including interviews with Gay men, social workers and others who had studied the evidence, as she had, and concluded that HIV could not possibly be the sole cause of AIDS.

The mainstream’s reaction was also about what those of us in the alternative AIDS movement could expect. Though Maggiore and her husband had been cleared by the L.A. district attorney’s office, at least three TV programs offered fictional stories loosely (or not so loosely) based on her case in which she either got prosecuted, died or both. The last one that aired during her lifetime was a Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episode called “Retro,” an ugly story in which the characters based on Maggiore and her pediatrician were pilloried and ultimately brought to justice. Maggiore, who despite constant rebuffs had never given up hope that someday mainstream and alternative AIDS activists could sit down and meet as equals working towards a solution to the AIDS problem, invited one of the show’s medical advisers, Dr. Jocelyn Dee, and she and Crowe interviewed her on what would turn out to be the last episode of “How Positive Are You?”

I heard this program in early December 2008 and was so profoundly moved that I called Christine and asked her for permission to transcribe the interview and publish it in Zenger’s. When we spoke on the phone, less than two weeks before her death, her voice sounded clear, bright and energetic, as it always had whenever we talked. She eagerly gave me permission to publish the show, and I signed off with no idea that Christine would soon die. When the Los Angeles Times published a print article on Christine’s death on December 30, it stated that she had died of pneumonia and said that unnamed “friends” had told the Times that she’d gone through a holistic “cleansing” about a month before and that she’d never really recovered from the death of her daughter.

The Times piece — interestingly, published as a news story rather than an obituary — was remarkably fair for a mainstream media outlet that previously had had no patience with anyone challenging the HIV/AIDS model. Brian Carter, Christine’s associate in Alive & Well in her later years, said the movement would survive her: “There is an outstanding number of prominent rethinkers, independent thinkers, doctors, scientists [and] lawyers who question AIDS causation.”

“Why did she remain basically healthy from 1992 until just before her death?” said David Crowe. “I think it’s certain that people who promote the establishment view of AIDS will declare that she died of AIDS and will attempt to use this to bring people back in line. But you can only learn so much from an unfortunate death.”

It’s true that Christine’s P.R. strategy of using herself and her family as exemplars of the possibility of living a healthy life despite an “HIV-positive” diagnosis was inherently risky. It’s also true, as Crowe commented in 2003 on the death of another alternative AIDS activist, Rob Johnston (a cancer patient who likely died of the side effects of chemotherapy), that no matter what an “HIV-positive” person dies of, the medical establishment will try to label it as “AIDS.” (Indeed, in the 1980’s clients of AIDS Foundation San Diego told me a joke that, if an “HIV-positive” person broke his or her leg, the medical chart would read, “HIV-related fracture in leg.”)

“Every time an AIDS reappraiser dies, people are anxious to know whether it was AIDS.” Crowe wrote. “Those who support the dominant paradigm are hopeful that, if it was, it will cause all the other ‘denialists’ to smarten up and get on drug therapy right away. Dissidents, on the other hand, often still have a sense of insecurity. Every time one of their number dies of AIDS they are forced to confront the possibility that they have been living a delusion. Somehow one person dying from symptoms that would not be called AIDS in HIV-negative people is ‘proof’ that the HIV-positive person really was killed by the virus.”

Nonetheless — as Christine Maggiore herself noted in the quote from her 2005 ABC Prime Time Live interview which I used as an epigram to this article — none of the deaths of prominent alternative AIDS activists (including H.E.A.L.-San Diego member Sandi Lenfestey, who passed away two weeks after Maggiore) change one whit the scientific logic that indicates that the HIV model of AIDS is not only wrong, but ridiculous. HIV is still a virus that has never been proven even to exist according to the strictest rules of virology, and even if it exists it certainly hasn’t been proved to cause a disease — as Dr. Dee admitted to Maggiore and Crowe in their podcast interview. Though the medical establishment has been proclaiming for a quarter-century that HIV causes AIDS, they still haven’t come up with a coherent explanation of how (its “pathogenesis,” to use the scientific term).

Supporters of the HIV/AIDS model don’t have an explanation for why many people get an “HIV-positive” test result and live for years with no medications and no health complications at all — they just write them off as “long-term non-progressors” (which once led Christine to ask why she had to get sick in order to “progress”) and hint at genetic explanations with no evidence to back them up — just as we on the alternative side don’t have a coherent explanation for why people who do take modern AIDS medications sometimes have dramatic improvements in health and live for years. AIDS mainstreamers are beginning to concede the horrific side effects of the HIV meds — from disfiguring body-fat redistribution to toxic liver failure — which alternative scientists like Dr. David Rasnick were warning about since 1996 (when I interviewed him on the subject).

In a sympathetic article despite her own proclaimed belief in the HIV/AIDS model, Connie Howard of the Edmonton, Canada magazine VUE put her finger on it when she wrote, “It’s time for research that compares outcomes of those who choose AIDS drugs and those who don’t.” The mainstream has consistently rejected calls for such research on the ground that it would be “unethical” to withhold drugs from a control group, and when organizations like Alive & Well and H.E.A.L. have offered to provide control groups from our members who have already decided voluntarily not to take the drugs, we’ve been turned down because — as one mainstream researcher put it — we’re a “self-selected sample” because the people who aren’t on the drugs tend to be healthier than the people who are.

Without that kind of research, the battle over whether AIDS drugs “work” — and whether, by working, they validate the HIV/AIDS model (it’s possible that they could be having some other positive pharmacological effect, unrelated to HIV, on the people who do survive and prosper on them) — devolves into a series of dueling anecdotes. No doubt Christine Maggiore was all too aware that if something happened to her health and she died prematurely, she’d be pressed into service by the mainstream as a cautionary example; after all, that had already happened with her daughter. But my sadness at seeing Christine’s name invoked to support a cause she abhorred is far, far less than the deep sorrow I feel at having lost a good and loyal friend.


His ManKind Video Isn’t Your Average Adult Store


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The location at 3425 Fifth Avenue in Hillcrest (the former headquarters of Stepping Stone) isn’t exactly off the beaten path — it’s across the street from the Loft bar and within a block of the Seniors Active in a Gay Environment (SAGE) headquarters — but though it’s just 4 1/2 blocks south of University Avenue it almost seems like it’s in another world. That’s part of what gives ManKind Video, the adult store and boutique that opened there last May, its unique charm. Instead of a single level of barely differentiated space, it’s a three-story house with discernibly different merchandise on each of the two currently occupied floors — they’re planning to develop the third floor later — and the brightly painted walls and high, airy ceilings give it a homier, more welcoming “feel” than the cookie-cutter pornomats consumers of sexual merchandise are all too used to.

ManKind Video’s name is deceptive — it’s a corporate title but they do a lot more than rent and sell DVD’s (mainstream and non-porn Queer cinema as well as porn). They’ve got a wide selection of magazines, toys and clothes — mostly T-shirts with catchy, vaguely sexual slogans and insignia — and they’re planning to branch out into fetish wear and other specialties. The manager is Jesse Greika, an attractive, personable young man with extensive experience in customer service as well as adult merchandising. Zenger’s sat with him one recent afternoon and discussed his background, his plans for the store and his experiences as a relative newcomer to San Diego’s Queer and fetish communities.

Zenger’s: Just tell me a little about yourself and how you got into this business.

Jesse Greika: I was born in Rockville, Connecticut. I grew up in Coventry, a very conservative small town, cow town if you will, and always knew I was Gay. So, of course, experimentation and curiosity ran rampant. I would sneak out of my house when I was young and sneak out to Hartford with my friends and go to the Gay bars, because I had a fake I.D. Oh God, I was a little whore, I guess, for lack of a better terminology. And that set me on my crusade to be me.

I finished high school in Connecticut and went to Johnson and Wales University in Rhode Island, where I was a fashion design major with a marketing/merchandising minor. I didn’t finish school there. School has never been really my thing. I’m a hands-on kind of a learner. So I left Johnson and Wales and spent a summer on Nantucket Island. Winter was coming around, so my friends on Nantucket Island were like, “Let’s do Miami for the winter.” I was a waiter on Nantucket, so I wasn’t really utilizing anything I’d learned in school and was sick of the cold, and decided to go and check out Florida.

I went to Florida and got into the travel industry, so that’s when I started to perfect my customer-service abilities. They really instill that the customer is always right, and teach you how to deal with them. I worked for Atlantis in the Bahamas for about four years and then moved to Fort Lauderdale, got into performing as a drag-queen entertainer for about 14 years. I wanted to do both a daytime job and a nighttime job to make the most of my time and make more money, so I got a part-time job at a place called the Pride Factory in Fort Lauderdale and worked there for about seven years, became an assistant manager over that time.

I left there briefly to go try new avenues. I opened an outlet of Larry Flynt’s Hustler of Hollywood in Fort Lauderdale. I was an assistant manager there and worked there for about three years. I got over the whole corporate design. It just wasn’t working with me. I worked with Fetish Factory, which was more of a straight-oriented adult community business. We used to have fetish parties once a month. You bought your tickets at the store, you bought your outfit for the fetish party at the store, and they had a really good system going there.

Basically, I wanted to take the three experiences — Fetish Factory, Hustler and Pride Factory — and roll them into one and come up with my own business plan, an upscale versioin of Hustler of Hollywood geared towards the Gay community. Since I do drag, more in my spare time now, I definitely have a soft spot for the Transgender community. I believe that there’s a lot of young Transgender individuals out there that just have no guidance. Many are forced into prostitution and into doing things the wrong way. Ideally, in the long run I would like to have groups, meetings, in regards to helping the Transgender community.

Zenger’s: So how did you end up in San Diego?

Greika: Helix Studios is my parent company, my financial backer. I’ve worked for Keith Miller, the owner of Helix Studios, for about seven or eight years. Back in Florida he used to own nightclubs, and I was an entertainer in his nightclubs from time to time. He started his adult business about five or six years ago, and basically all of my friends ended up working for him. They moved their company out to the West Coast about three years ago, and their online business ManKind Video was doing well. They decided to expand to a brick-and-mortar location, and with my experience and my background, felt that I would be the perfect person to spearhead the venture.

Zenger’s: What makes this store different from any of the other adult businesses in San Diego?

Greika: I feel it’s a level of customer service and product knowledge. I like to think of all of my employees, along with myself, as sexperts. When I go into other places, I don’t necessarily feel welcomed. When a customer comes through my doors, I want to make sure that they’re comfortable. I like to determine what their needs are, without being too pushy. I don’t want to be a shark, if you will. I’m here to help.

There are a lot of questions people have with regards to adult products, and a lot of times they’re embarrassed to ask them. You’ve got someone who’s bottoming for the first time, and they don’t know what kind of toy to use, what kind of lubrication to use, what’s considered safe play, what is not. There are a lot of factors, and we’re here to let them know.

Zenger’s: You said you’re particularly reaching out to the Gay community. Is that one of the reasons you happened to pick this location, or did it just happen to be available?

Greika: I was looking on University Avenue, to be right in the thick of things, but they wouldn’t allow my concept. I searched for four months, and every single place shot me down as soon as they heard I would have adult merchandise. I don’t know whether it was the adult concept that was driving them off, or the adult Gay concept. But, either way, nobody would let me in.

This particular address was on Craigslist. There were no pictures, no nothing, so I had it on the back burner. Then I got a phone call out of the blue from the gentleman who was showing the property, I decided to take a look, and when I saw the place I fell in love with it. I think it’s got a lot of character and charm. It’s an old house. It’s got a lot of history. It used to be Stepping Stone. If anything, it offers something extra. If you want to come into an adult store, and don’t want to feel seedy with the back rooms and the booths and everything, this is the perfect place. And it’s a little bit off the beaten trail, so you can walk in and out and it can be very discreet. Not everybody’s watching you.

Zenger’s: Of course, off the beaten path also means that much harder to promote it and get people to find it.

Greika: Yeah, I would say so. I kind of wanted it to be a building thing, though. I didn’t necessarily want to come on strong and overwhelm the community. We have lots of ads, but I wouldn’t say a strong amount of our clientele is coming in because they saw an ad. It’s more, “Oh a friend came in, and I heard from them,” which I think that is a stronger foundation for your business. We’re only as good as what the last customer that walked out the door is, and as long as they had a good experience and you know they’re going to tell their friends, and they’re going to tell their friends, we just hope it spreads. And so far, so good.

Zenger’s: When did you open?

Greika: We opened May 7. It started when we moved into the building on April 15. All the renovations in here have been by hand, by myself and friends. So it’s definitely a labor of love, and it’s still a work in progress. We’re a grower, not a shower.

Zenger’s: How’s the business been doing so far? Has it lived up to your projections?

Greika: It’s steadily growing. I had a business plan based on my experience in Fort Lauderdale, of course, because that’s all I knew of and I didn’t know San Diego yet. So it’s pulling through. It holds its own. One of the good things about this particular location is I was able to get triple the amount of space for half the amount of rent, so in a way it evens out. I probably would have more business if I was on University, but I don’t necessarily know that it would have been what I was looking for, customer-wise. Also, I think that on University Avenue you’d probably have more people just walking through, but here, they’re coming here for a purpose.

There’s also a large Gay community in Banker’s Hill and this area that don’t have the outlet. Before we opened, they had to drive all the way to 30th, where the Crypt is. Many of my customers are like, “Oh, we’re so glad that we have somebody close to us, where I can go and get my porn at, and oh, you have so much else.” So I’m glad at the way it happened.

Originally we were just going to be strictly adult, but this city wouldn’t allow that. When we first moved in, they said they would, but then it became a grey area and we had to change around our whole merchandise plan, product plan. Now we have more variety, so I think all in all it’s a good thing.

Zenger’s: Yeah, you’ve mentioned the city several times, and I’ve heard a lot of the horror stories over the years of the hoops San Diego puts adult business owners through. How have you been able to deal with it?

Greika: It’s been tedious but not necessarily difficult. The city has been very accommodating. They didn’t come in here trying to push us out, by any means. They were here for us, but also obviously had to uphold the regulations and the codes of the neighborhood. Unfortunately, with the product that we had it was a grey area. One city commissioner says one thing, another says another thing, and that’s basically what they said to me.

The gentleman that came in really helped me out. He helped me to understand the laws here better — which are very similar to Fort Lauderdale, with a couple of differences. And here, all the other places are grandfathered in, so they can be almost anywhere, whereas I have to be a little more selective.

Zenger’s: I noticed that, among the banners outside, you’re flying the BDSM flag. Are you doing a special outreach to the Leather community?

Greika: Not as of yet. We originally wanted to do, like Fetish 101, bondage classes and so forth. But after Pride I came to the conclusion that the Leather community and the Gay and Lesbian community don’t necessarily mesh really well here. I felt a definite separation between the two, whereas in Fort Lauderdale, you know, the Leather guys and the Gay community get along better.

Zenger’s: I wanted to ask about the non-adult merchandise which you’re carrying.

Greika: Once I bring the adult to the third floor, I really want to expand the first and second floors. I really like the whole eclectic boutique kind of feel. I really would like to promote local artists. One of my employees, Steven — you know Steven, he’s working downstairs now — he’s the artist who makes all the glasswork that we have downstairs.

I want stuff that is colorful, unique. I love rainbows. At the same time, I don’t want too much rainbow. It’s all just a growing thing. I found that there are a lot of guys into fetish here, so I really want to expand my fetish department. Lots of guys specifically ask for CB 6000’s, or certain toys that you can’t find anywhere else, so I would really like to expand that.

Zenger’s: O.K. You’ve piqued my curiosity. What’s a CB 6000?

Greika: It’s a cock-and-ball torture device, like a chastity device. Basically, it’s a Plexiglas-like plastic cup that goes over your cock, and there’s a locking mechanism on it for your partner to hold the key, so when he’s gone or whatever, it’s just like a chastity device.

I love the whole fetish thing. I love latex. Leather I like, latex I love. I just can’t get enough of that stuff. But that’s nowhere here in San Diego. I don’t even know if I’ll ever be able to get into that. We do carry some rubber harnesses and stuff like that from Nancy Pig, but nowhere near the amount I’d like to have. I’m still meeting people and learning.

I eventually would love to start events. I’ve been to a few of the fetish parties around town here, and I understand what it takes to promote an event, so no disrespect to the events that are going on, but that would never fly in Fort Lauderdale. I believe a fetish event should have a strict dress code enforced, and I think the hard-core fetish community really only wants to go to a place that is hosting other people who are as serious as they are.

I don’t like to go to a fetish party where I’ve spent the money and my time in getting my outfit down, and I walk in and see guys in jeans. I don’t find that to be a fetish. Wearing jeans and a T-shirt is not a fetish. So I think that the whole fetish needs to be re-evaluated and re-invented in San Diego. Maybe that will be the new slogan — “Are you real fetish?”

Zenger’s: So what are you hoping for the future?

Greika: I’m hoping to be successful. I want everybody to know the name. I want to provide a good product with the knowledge to go along with it. I want people to have more fun, to be a little more relaxed with their sexuality. I feel San Diego is a little uptight, and relax — it’s just sex. Everybody has it. Just understand what your likes and dislikes are, and respect the dislikes and likes of others, and we’ll all get along just fine.
Does President Obama Have Gay Issues?

by LEO E. LAURENCE • Copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence

As President-elect Barack Obama was being deified by the mainstream news media just before his inauguration, a comic strip published in the San Diego Union-Tribune suggested an explanation for Obama’s troubling selection of a prominent anti-Gay pastor to deliver the inaugural invocation.

And, as many Gays and Lesbians were saying privately, but none on the record that we could find, Obama may have Gay issues.

After all, he appointed no Gay to any prominent position in his new administration. There are a few low-level, inconsequential, “liaison” positions given to token Gays and Lesbians.

Even during the inaugural parade, Obama’s team made no “suggestions” to the TV networks to show any Gays participating.

Indeed, as a Gay unit was approaching the reviewing stand where President Obama was watching, the TV news coverage quickly cut away to another scene. The TV news anchor didn’t even mention the participating Gay unit.

If the Obama team had wanted any TV news exposure to be given to Gay units in his inaugural parade, it would have been done.

Gay Issues?

Does President Barack Obama have unresolved or closeted Gay issues?

Some Gays and Lesbians will deplore even the suggestion.

But consider this: the president is an incredibly handsome man. Photos of him when he was at Harvard Law reveal a very good-looking, muscular man with an attractive smooth chest (so popular in the Gay Community). He had — and still has — brilliant eyes and flat abs.

It seems incredulous that such a hot-looking young man in college would not be cruised, some-where and sometime.

How did he handle it?

How does he cope now with even the suggestion of the issue, as president?

What have been his behind-the-scenes reactions when the possibility, however remote, has been raised?

Comic Strip

The comic strip that raised the issue, albeit subtly, was La Cucaracha.

One of the comic strip’s characters sent a congratulatory cell-phone text message to Obama.

“And, u don’t have to explain y u got dat anti-Gay pastor Rick Warren, blessifying at ur inaug to ME,” the comic strip’s character wrote in his text message to Obama.

“Oh, really,” the president responds.

“It diffuses the talk about your ‘orientation,’” the comic-strip character writes in his return mes-sage to Obama.

“Oh, come on!,” Obama responds in the comic strip.

“Maybe ease up on the rock-hard abs, stud,” the comic strip character concludes.

Sometimes, comic strip characters are more real than our perceived reality.

It is interesting that the “sexual orientation” issue vis-à-vis President-elect Obama (at the time of the comic’s publication) had apparently only been raised in a comic strip, even though he was a hot man as a law student at Harvard.

If the president does have secret Gay issues, then he would do like most closet cases, and do whatever is necessary to diffuse any discussion of sexual orientation — past or present.

And it could all be in the secrecy of his mind, where scrutiny is impossible.

Of course, he may make a casual reference to “Gays and Lesbians” in a speech somewhere, thereby appeasing the Gay community which helped with millions of dollars and thousands of vol-unteer hours in his campaign.

I’ve heard many, many Gays in San Diego raise the “sexual orientation” issue in private discus-sions, but none had the guts to explore it publicly.

If the issue is raised publicly now, perhaps by a bold reporter in the White House press corps; I can hear him saying that he has “known many Gays and Lesbians in the past, and supports their civil rights.”

But does he?

During the campaign, Obama said several times that he was opposed to one of the hottest issues in the Gay community: Gay marriages.

Though he made a pro forma endorsement against Proposition 8 in the November 4 election, he expended no political capital to defeat the initiative. just like the Mormons.

His position as a candidate — that he supported domestic partnerships but not marriage equality for same-sex couples — was the same as that officially taken by the Yes on 8 campaign.

What’s more, as a scholar and former professor of Constitutional law, Obama must know there is a huge difference in the legal rights of the parties in a domestic partnership, as compared with a marriage.

That difference is explored extensively in the California Supreme Court’s Opinion legalizing Gay marriages in May of 2008.

On the major issue of Gay marriage, President Obama is no friend of the Gay community.

On picking a pastor to deliver the invocation at his inauguration, Obama was no friend of the Gay community.

The Gay professionals in the community are coming up with all sorts of rationalizations to excuse president Obama’s positions, which many nonetheless sincerely believe are homophobic.

Hopefully, the issue may somehow penetrate the shell that now surrounds the president.

But don’t hold your breath.

Privately Produced Song on CD Proves Inspiration Works

story and exclusive photos by LEO E. LAURENCE

copyright © 2009 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

The inspiration for a successful song is supremely important, and the inspiration for the new CD, “Shine Your Light on Me,” is the cradle of arts in San Diego: the School of Creative & Performing Arts (SCPA) in the South Bay.

While patrons of the arts can go to the expensive Civic Theatre, adjacent to City Hall, they will find equally inspired and professional music, theatre and the visual arts at the incredible SCPA for lots less expense during our deep recession.

SCPA’s superior students recently produced a professional-quality performance of The King and I that strongly echoed Yul Brynner’s powerful performances.

The King & I was followed in January with the SCPA’s three-day Winter Music Concert. It featured remarkable performances from the SCPA’s Chamber Strings to a Symphony Orchestra to their wildly popular Jazz Band.

It’s difficult for a talented teenager to get into the SCPA. They have to audition for enrollment.

And the SCPA is an incredibly diverse campus. Students speak 17 different languages. “Some students have difficulty understanding History Class,” said Choir Director R. C. Haus. SCPA has 8 different choirs.

“But, when they are performing music, it’s a universal language and they blossom. Shy kids in other classes become outgoing and productive in music classes.”

“Cat” Produces a CD Song

The artistic environment of the SCPA campus, staff and students provided the inspiration for one of its staffers to write and privately produce the soft, sensitive song, “Shine Your Light on Me,” on a CD.

While her name, “Cat,” is unusual; so is her talent and so is the SCPA inspiration for her new CD.

“It has always been a dream of mine to professionally record a song,” said Cat in an e-mail inter-view.

“I wrote the original version of ‘Shine Your Light on Me’ in August of 2007.

The song was inspired by a quote of singer/songwriter Bo Bice (American Idol runner-up, 2008): ‘Even in a place that seems so familiar, things can be clouded. So surround yourself with people that will help you through those blurry days and dark nights . . . because you can only be a light to others if you allow others to shine on you.’”

Eager to produce her song, “Shine Your Light on Me,” Cat went to SCPA’s Choral Director R. C. Haus. He had written music for songs, but not the lyrics. Cat had the lyrics, but not the music.

As R.C.’s music was gradually molded to Cat’s lyrics, many changes were made to the song, “some switching things around and editing,” as Cat put it.

She went to a local recording studio, Digital Productions, in Ocean Beach. Her seven-year old daughter, Crystalinda, recorded an introduction and sang in the background chorus.

The pressing for the CD’s was done in the East, and delivered in early January.

“I will be giving 10 percent of the profits to the SCPA’s Choral Department; since R.C. came up with the music, and he’s the choral director.

“Both R.C. and I care a lot about the (SCPA) kids, and they always need extra money for trips and such,” Cat explained.

“The rest of the (profit from the CD) is going towards paying off my student loans. I’m attending National University for my master’s in school counseling and will graduate this year.”


Cat has a sweet, soft voice that fits the theme of her song, Shine Your Light on Me.

But she is accompanied with a piano that almost overshadows her singing. The accompanying pi-ano is hard and loud, as if played in anger.

That harsh background piano is in sharp contrast to Cat’s soft, sensitive singing.

Sometimes it is difficult to understand the words Cat is singing, because the accompanying piano is so loud and harsh.

A professionally produced song on CD typically goes through many recording sessions until just the right effect is produced, to bring out the strengths of the song.

The artwork on the face of the CD needs improving. The text is in a faint script that is so small that it’s difficult to read.

The song can be downloaded for 99 cents at, or by e-mail to the artist at

Photo Captions (top to bottom):

1.“Cat” Ortiz-White and her daughter, Crystalinda, are shown at the School of Creative and Per-forming Arts. Photo by Leo E. Laurence

2. An exclusive, behind-the-scenes photo of the Concert Choir rehearsing at the School of Creative and Performing Arts. By Leo E. Laurence

3. A concert violinist rehearses back stage at the School of Creative and Performing Arts. Exclusive Photo by Leo E. Laurence

4. Starring pianist Joseph Rauch performs Beethoven's Sonata in C, Movement II, at the School of Creative and Performing Arts. Exclusive Photo by Leo E. Laurence

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

SDSU Hosts Teach-In on Israel and Gaza

Panel Tries to Be Fair, Draws Militant Israel Supporters


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photo, L to R: Jonathan Graubart, Gershon Shafir, Farid Abdel Nour

Maybe it was just an act — after all, calling together a meeting about the war between Israel and Hamas in Gaza while Israeli troops were still on the ground was about as safe and non-controversial as diving head-first into a barrel of rattlesnakes — but Ron King, chair of the political science department at San Diego State University (SDSU), sounded genuinely surprised at the reaction he’d got even before his meeting opened on January 15. “I have received a good number of calls and e-mails about this teach-in, and many are complaints,” he said in his introduction. “This is not a debate, it’s not tag-team wrestling and it’s not designed to blame one side or the other. Nor is this a panel discussion in which people are expected to represent views.”

King had selected three panelists — two from his own political science department at SDSU, Farid Abdel Nour and Jonathan Graubart; and UCSD sociology professor Gershon Shafir — whom he said would provide “scholarly understanding to help us interpret what’s going on” rather than advocacy for either the Israeli or Palestinian side of the conflict. Though some of the differences between the speakers could be predicted from their national origins — notably when former Israel resident and Peace Now activist Shafir said that under no circumstances could Hamas be a responsible participant in peace talks between Israel and Palestine, while Nour said Hamas would have to be part of a solution since they are the elected representatives of the Palestinian people — they had some surprising commonalities, especially when Nour joined Graubart and Shafir in condemning Hamas’s rocket attacks on Israeli civilians as war crimes.

Graubart, who spoke first, focused on accepted standards of international law and how they applied to the conflict in Gaza. “International law is designed to restrict the resort to war and to regulate the impact of war on civilians,” he said. “The Geneva Convention deals with the responsibilities of an occupying power — which Israel is because, even after they ‘withdrew’ from Gaza, they still controlled the borders. There have been 6,000 rockets and mortars fired into Israel from Gaza since 2005, and they have killed 15 Israelis. From September 2006 to September 2008 Israel killed 6,000 Palestinians and injured many more.”

Though Graubart conceded that the rocket attacks had a “significant” impact on Israel, he said most international-law experts believed Israel’s air attack and ground invasion were unjustified. The reasons were, first, Israel continued its siege of Gaza and closed the borders to almost every form of trade, including the international relief shipments of food and medical supplies on which Gazans depend for survival; and, second, Israel had not sufficiently pursued a diplomatic solution before resorting to war. But he also faulted Hamas, stating that before Israel’s attack on December 27 there was no justification for their rocket attacks on Israel, and even afterwards the rockets were not a legitimate weapon for self-defense because they are so crudely designed “they can’t distinguish between civilians and combatants.”

Graubart dealt with some of the Israeli justifications for the attacks, including the so-called “law of reprisal” and the accusation made by Israelis that Hamas has used civilians to conceal their rocket launchers and other military targets, and thereby the traditional distinction between civilian and military targets no longer applies. Graubart called Israel’s attack “not reprisal but massive retaliation” and said that, while Israel had a right to target the rocket launchers and the tunnels by which the rockets are brought into Gaza, they didn’t have a right to attack “civilian infrastructure and government agencies.”

Addressing the claim that Hamas has concealed its rocket launchers inside civilian homes and mosques, Graubart said that targeting “a mosque whose inhabitants are mostly militants is probably acceptable, but attacking residential areas and schools in the hope of killing a few militants is not.” He added that, even if the Israeli claim that “Hamas is hiding behind civilians” is true, that “does not give you the right to fire away” at civilian targets willy-nilly.

Graubart also dealt with the claim made by Israel — and also by the U.S. in its so-called “war on terror” — that its enemies are “terrorists” who don’t respect international law themselves, and therefore should not be able to invoke its protection. “I’m not defending Hamas,” he insisted, “but as an international relations professor I have a pretty good idea of how the world works. We deal with a lot of regimes, and Hamas is the chosen representative of the people of Gaza. Their popularity has gone up [since Israel’s attack], and having a cease-fire means that Israel and Hamas deal with each other. If leaders ask us to ‘trust us’ because the enemy is ‘evil,’ how do you deal with every side making that claim?”

“Among the many casualties of war is the sense of empathy for the other side,” said Shafir, who spoke next. “When we are willing to justify anything done by our own tribe, we lose the ability to walk in the shoes of the other side.” Shafir noted that the conflict between Israel and Hamas is the ninth war between Israel and its Arab neighbors since it was founded in 1948 — and an indication of the growing hostility between the sides is that the time lag between Israeli-Arab wars is getting shorter; while the earliest ones occurred nearly a decade apart (1948, 1956, 1967, 1973), the war with Gaza occurred less than two and one-half years after Israel’s assault on the Hezbollah movement in Lebanon in summer 2006.

“The Israel/Palestine conflict has assumed the character of a Greek tragedy,” Shafir said. “The Jews cannot imagine what it would be like to live in a refugee camp of 75,000, vulnerable to Israeli attacks and with no place to hide. The Palestinians can’t understand what it’s like to be the inhabitants of an Israeli village, wondering when it’s a safe time to leave home and go shopping. … Gaza is a hell-hole, a piece of real estate no one wants. Seventy-five percent of the population is refugees, and many of the rockets are aimed at their ancestral homes which now have Hebrew names.”

Like Graubart, Shafir said both sides are violating international law. “Israel’s actions border on war crimes,” he said, “and Hamas’s strategy aims not at military targets but civilians. Hamas has been firing rockets since 2001, and Hamas only agreed to a six-month cease-fire [in the summer of 2008], during which they got more sophisticated rockets with a 30-mile range” — more than twice as long as the weapons they’d had before. Shafir said Israel should have air-dropped supplies to the Palestinians during the attack so they wouldn’t be violating the international law against starving a civilian population, avoided targeting the humanitarian aid operations of the United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGO’s), and opened the borders so people wishing to flee Gaza could do so.

Shafir also discussed the background of Hamas, noting that it wasn’t founded until 1987 and therefore wasn’t part of the wave of secular nationalism in the Arab world in the 1950’s and 1960’s that produced Gamal Abdel Nasser’s party in Egypt, the Ba’ath party in Syria (where it still rules) and Iraq, and the Fatah movement in Palestine which Yasir Arafat headed until his death in 2004. Instead, from the get-go Hamas has been part of the radical Islamist movement that has gone on the ascendancy throughout the Muslim world since the 1980’s. “All the Arab world is divided between moderates and radicals,” Shafir said, “and Islamism is seen as in ascendance” — which, he added, is why moderate Arab states like Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states actually supported Israel’s invasion of Gaza, and Egypt assisted Israel by closing its own border with Gaza and thereby helping prevent Gazans ffrom fleeing.

Because of Hamas’s Islamist roots, and the specific clauses in its founding charter calling for the destruction of Israel, Shafir said that Hamas is not a legitimate partner with which Israel should negotiate for peace. “I do not believe there is a radical Islamist solution to the conflict,” he explained. “Two things make Hamas different from a secular movement like Fatah. Hamas fights not only for the 1967 territory [the West Bank and Gaza] but for all of historic Palestine, and its constitution says that all Palestine is consecrated to Muslims until Judgment Day. Since 2004, Hamas has not only targeted the settlements in the West Bank and Gaza but all of Israeli territory.”

What’s more, Shafir added, Hamas’s militancy and refusal to recognize the legitimacy of Israel as a Jewish-majority state has led Israelis to take a more militant position and abandon support for a peace process with the Palestinians. He said that, largely because of Hamas’s influence and the resulting discrediting of the peace process, Israelis are expected to return hard-liner Benjamin Netanyahu to the prime ministership in their upcoming elections. He said that Hamas doesn’t distinguish between its political and military wings, and isn’t pursuing a political solution; indeed, he claimed that Hamas had deliberately timed its attacks to undermine and sabotage progress in peace negotiations between Israel and Fatah.

“Hamas seems to be opposed to peace,” Shafir said bluntly. “Their charter refers to the ‘so-called peace proposals.’” At the same time, he said, Israel as well “shows no interest in political solutions, only in the military one.” Shafir said he would exclude Hamas from negotiations because “Hamas cannot be a peace partner,” but Israel should negotiate with the Palestinian Authority (dominated by Fatah) on three points. “The first principle is that Palestinians are entitled to their own state in the West Bank and Gaza, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Second, the issue in dispute is the West Bank and Gaza, not Israel’s right to exist. Third, attacks on civilians are not part of the solution, and any government or movement [that condones them] cannot be part of the solution.”

“My presentation is a little more pessimistic,” said Nour. While much of Shafir’s talk had been aimed at re-starting the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, Nour made it clear that as far as he was concerned the peace process was dead — and has been since 2001. “Its enemies on both sides did everything they could to undermine it,” he said, “but its greatest flaw was based on self-deception. The people who negotiated it knew they could not agree on anything of substance, so they left everything serious to a magical future time they called ‘final status negotiations.’ Palestinians expected a full withdrawal from all the lands Israel conquered in 1967. Israelis expected ‘adjustments.’”

What’s more, Nour added, though Israel allowed Palestine to set up a political system between 1993 and 2000, “the West Bank was broken into 200 pieces and Gaza into four. Every time there was an attack, Israel closed down all communications between these areas and put the entire Palestinian population under siege. By 2000, the fruits of the peace process for Israelis were fear, and for the Palestinians were fear and utter despair. The failure of the Camp David negotiations in 2000 led to a spontaneous Palestinian rebellion that gave expression to all the frustrations with the conditions under which they have to live. For the Israeli peace camp, the failure and the rebellion convinced them that Palestinians are no longer to be trusted. This state of affairs has continued from 2000 to today. The history is chock full of actions that prove to Palestinians that Israel will never let them live in peace and dignity, and to Israelis that Palestinians will never let them live in peace and safety.”

Owing to this mutual distrust, Nour said, “Palestinian life has become cheap to Israelis and Israeli life has become cheap to Palestinians. Nothing the Israeli public relations machine can do can change this perception, and Palestinians who excuse, justify and rationalize the launching of rockets that kill innocent Israelis show their own dehumanization.” Nour also argued that the much-ballyhooed Israeli “withdrawal” from Gaza was simply another expression of this distrust, since they simply “dumped” the territory without coordinating humanitarian aid to make sure the people of Gaza still had food and other necessities. As a result, the Israelis discredited Mohammed Abbas, Arafat’s successor and presumably their preferred Palestinian negotiating partner.

“Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth,” Nour said — a claim that was stridently attacked by a pro-Israeli audience member in the question-and-answer period. “Seventy-five percent of the population are refugees, and they live in a place that dies without access to the outside world. It cannot grow enough calories to feed itself. Yet Israel made no arrangements to sustain life in Gaza until 2008. This sent Palestinians a message that Abbas’s negotiating style has not produced results” — and it was that, along with the endemic corruption within Fatah, that led Palestinians to elect an overwhelming Hamas majority to their parliament in January 2006.

According to Nour, the reason Hamas refuses to recognize Israel’s right to exist is that they regard that as the only negotiating card they have to play against a country with a state-of-the-art military and an alliance with the greatest military superpower in world history, the United States. He argued that the Fatah government of Palestine gained nothing from recognizing Israel in 1993 except “the hope of Palestinian independence that was never realized,” and as a result Palestinian voters elected Hamas “ to retract the recognition of Israel and re-give it for future reward.” This, he said, is why Hamas so adamantly refuses to concede Israel’s “right to exist.” They don’t want to make the same mistake they believe Arafat, Abbas and Fatah made in 1993: giving up their hole card and getting nothing in return.

That, Nour argued, is why Hamas hasn’t gone through the usual evolution of a resistance movement that joins the political process and wins. Ordinarily, such groups become more moderate and more pragmatic as they realize they have to work the system in order to deliver for the people that elected them. That might or might not have happened to Hamas, Nour said, but “we will never know because the U.S. and Israel immediately started to punish the Palestinians for electing Hamas. The U.S. and Israel started giving money directly to Abbas to set up a parallel government — and Hamas cracked. In June 2006, the extreme Hamas cadres staged an operation to attack an Israeli military base and took one prisoner. Israel started a war and arrested 14 members of the Palestinian parliament, including the speaker, who remain in custody today” — which, he added, has prevented the Palestinian parliament from functioning because there aren’t enough members who aren’t in Israeli custody to form a quorum.

“Jordan and the U.S. trained Fatah cadres to prepare for a Palestinian civil war, which started in June 2006 and ended in the split between the West Bank and Gaza,” Nour added. “The Gaza border had already been tightly controlled by Israel since 2005. When Gaza came under complete Hamas control, the siege tightened even further. In 2008 Israel and Hamas agreed to a cease-fire and the siege was eased enough that by August 2008 Israel allowed fruit juice and clothes into Gaza” — a policy they have since reversed. Nour said that Israel has been waging continuous violence against the people of Gaza, “an insidious violence that kills more slowly [than outright military force] and destroys entire generations.”

The meeting organizers decided to take questions by asking people to step up to a microphone and address the professors directly — and when the question-and-answer period opened it was clear the hard-line supporters of Israel in the audience had “packed” the process by stepping up to the mike before the speakers were finished to make sure they were the first in line. The first questioner not only attacked Nour’s assertion that Gaza is the most densely populated area on earth (he cited other examples and Nour conceded the point) but also cast the war in terms of religious bigotry. “The Islamic sheikhs and mullahs call Jews ‘monkeys’ and ‘apes,’” the questioner said. He also argued that the Israelis were more humane because their media don’t show civilians wounded in Hamas attacks, “while the Muslims revel in showing blood.” He asked Graubart if there were any plans in the works to prosecute Hamas for war crimes.

“I am not excusing anti-Semitism or atrocities,” Graubart replied. “I see some value in international law in terms of holding all sides accountable. I condemned Hamas for hiding behind civilians, but there are plenty of atrocities and war crimes being committed by Israel as well, and it would be nice to see prosecutions for war crimes on both sides.”

The next questioner identified himself as J. V. Serbek and said he had worked on the International Committee of the Red Cross that had negotiated the most recent amendments to the Geneva Conventions in the 1980’s — amendments Graubart had cited during his presentation to argue that Israel as well as Hamas had committed war crimes in the current conflict. Serbek quoted the Geneva Conventions as saying that “the mere presence of civilians does not shield military areas from attack,” and argued that Hamas’s rocket attacks directly target civilians and are therefore far worse than anything Israel has done. He also denounced Nour’s presentation, saying that while his facts were accurate he had cherry-picked the historical record to deliver “a series of excuses for the Palestinians.”

Graubart’s response indicated that this was just one skirmish in an ongoing intellectual conflict between him and Serbek; when Graubart had published an op-ed in the January 8 San Diego Union-Tribune, Serbek had written a letter in response to it arguing that Hamas’s rocket attacks were so despicable and unjust that Israel had a legitimate right to do anything in response. Referencing Serbek’s published letter as well as his live comments, Graubart said, “I don’t know why it’s a ‘canard’ to demand that Israel’s response be ‘proportionate.’ I have said over and over again that Hamas is wrong in launching rockets and hiding behind civilians, but that does not give carte blanche to Israel.

Responding to an audience member who asked what Hamas’s strategy is and how it helps the Palestinians, Nour said, “This is the really sad thing about this situation. We don’t know. I don’t think the Hamas that has been put under siege and cornered can have an end-game strategy. All we can hope for from Hamas is a cease-fire that allows them to rethink their strategy. This is not the time to advocate solutions that would be lasting. My hope is that Hamas would not be the main movement in Palestinian politics — but that’s not my choice. That’s the Palestinians’ choice.”

“According to Hamas’s charter, it is one side or the other,” said Shafir. “The most they could do, according to their charter, is a ‘truce,’ which is only a lull in the fighting. Some people would like to present this as a peace agreement, but a truce can be terminated at any moment. Hamas essentially wants a rental agreement with Israel, and in exchange they want Israel to return to the pre-1967 borders and a right of return” — one of the stickiest demands in the whole situation. The “right of return” means that Palestinians would have the right to go back to their ancestral homelands in Israel and have full citizenship — which in a generation or two would create a Palestinian majority in Israel and end its character as a “Jewish state.”

Not all the questioners were militant pro-Israel supporters. Local alternative health activist Elliot Fox called himself a “recovering Jew” who said he’d have to overcome the rose-colored view of Israel he’d been taught growing up. Fox questioned the pro-Israel propaganda of America’s political system and mainstream media, particularly in labeling the Palestinians as “terrorists.” “Can people who are being annihilated, victimized and exiled honestly be called ‘terrorists’ when they try to resist,” Fox asked, “and shouldn’t 61 years of Israeli ethnic cleansing of Palestinians be called ‘terrorism’?”

“This is a question of how the two peoples and their supporters see the situation,” Nour replied. “People have spoken in good faith. Sometimes they’re ignorant; sometimes they’re knowledgeable. National narratives and elaborate mythologies have shaped the understanding of this situation to a dangerous degree.”

“A lot of times, terms like ‘terrorism,’ ‘genocide’ and ‘ethnic cleansing’ are used to end conversation,” Graubart added.

A woman named Tina Marie introduced herself as “the great-granddaughter of a Nazi who converted to Judaism” and asked a rhetorical question that indicated her pro-Israel sympathies. “When you have soldiers fighting, and one uses a child as a body shield, who’s responsible for the death of that child?” she asked. “When do we hold up the mirror to those who treat humans — their own kind — as body shields?”

“I worry about these stories that focus on one end without thinking that any injustices could be committed by Israelis,” Graubart replied. “I am appalled by all injustices, but I apply particular pressure to my own side because they’re acting in my name.”

“Both sides are guilty of something,” Nour conceded. “It is not the case that one side is innocent. That question was presented, I believe, in good faith, but as part of a dehumanizing impulse. If I came across a YouTube video of a Jewish soldier using a child as a shield, I would not regard that as representative of the Israelis. You are viewing that on the assumption that the other side is willing to do inhuman things, and your side is not. That is the beginning of dehumanization.”

Saturday, January 17, 2009

World Views Clash at Economics Meeting

Liberal Professor Lectures to Largely Socialist Group


Copyright © 2009 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Two world views unexpectedly clashed at the June 12 meeting of Activist San Diego. The group invited Grossmont College economics professor Shahrokh Shahrokhi to speak on “Understanding the Economic Meltdown,” but Shahrokhi’s understanding of it as a crisis of “market fundamentalism” and call for more and better regulation of the capitalist economy clearly disappointed some of the people in the audience. Many organizers from Activist San Diego are also key players in the Socialist Unity Network (SUN), and some were clearly disappointed they weren’t hearing a call to replace, not reform, the capitalist system.

“Market economies are inherently unstable,” Shahrokhi conceded at the start of his talk. After acknowledging Karl Marx for having coined the term “capitalism” and begun the modern analysis of “ups and downs” in a market-based economy, Shahrokhi said that the current crisis really began with the fall of the Soviet Union, which so-called “market fundamentalists” seized on as evidence of the failure of socialism and the triumph of the unregulated lassiez-faire market. As a result, he said, the regulatory brakes that had governed the U.S. financial markets since the 1930’s depression were lifted — and the way was cleared for market bubbles, first in Internet stocks and then, after that one collapsed in 2000, in real estate.

Much of Shahrokhi’s analysis was based on the contradiction between what sort of economic behavior is good for the individual and what’s good for the society as a whole. In an economy like the current one — in which employers are closing outlets and laying off workers, credit is incredibly difficult to obtain and many people rightly fear becoming unemployed — his advice to an individual would be to spend less and save more. But if everyone follows that advice, he added, “businesspeople receive less revenue, there’s less production, more unemployment and a smaller economy,” deepening the crisis.

“Pure economists pay much attention to ‘rational behavior,’” Shahrokhi said. “The idea is that people look at the costs and benefits of their own actions. If you are fearful of the future, your income and your job, it is prudent to lower spending and increase savings. People behave economically conservatively under stress, and that’s good. That’s rational. The problem is that what is good and rational for individuals is not necessarily good for the entire group. … If all people reduce spending, income and productivity will fall and it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy” of economic collapse.

Shahrokhi analyzed the recent collapse in the U.S. housing market as the classic bursting of an unsustainable economic bubble, in which housing prices went above the “normal rate” the market would ordinarily sustain. “The price of homes increased quickly and unsustainably due to overeager owners and investors,” Shahrokhi said. “They had different motives. Owners wanted to stay in their homes, and investors wanted to make a profit. In economics, nothing goes on forever.”

According to Shahrokhi, blame for the bubble and its eventual collapse lay equally with the people who bought overpriced homes on shaky adjustable-rate mortgages and the bankers and other investors who financed them. “Why did buyers want homes they couldn’t afford?” he said. “One, they thought the price of homes would keep rising — i.e., other people would keep increasing the demand for homes. Two, especially pervasive in recent years, conspicuous consumption” — a concept Shahrokhi borrowed from late-19th century economist Thorstein Veblen.

What Veblen meant by “conspicuous consumption” was the extravagant lifestyles led by the new super-rich at the end of the 19th century. His theory was that the rich were determined to avoid a crisis of overproduction — a depression caused by the inability of low-wage workers to buy the products they produced — by spending wildly and extravagantly themselves. But Shahrokhi argued that in today’s economy, it’s not only the wealthy but also the middle class that are overextending themselves in the pursuit of conspicuous consumption. “People wanted to consume, just to show off that they had large homes and oversized cars as signs of success,” Shahrokhi explained.

As for the investors, Shahrokhi said, they took “speculative risks” — ones in which they had little or no information about the true risk of their investments. “They knew the houses could be overpriced,” he explained, “but they still undertook the investments. They underestimated the actual risk.” He noted that behaviorist economists have spoken of a “herding theory,” in which investors buy when others are buying and sell when others are selling.

Shahrokhi also invoked the “greater-fool theory,” the idea that investors will sometimes deliberately make an investment they know is risky in the belief that they can quickly unload it again, at a profit, on a “greater fool,” a person with less awareness of the risk level and a willingness to buy in at a higher price. “Later, when no fools are left, people wonder, ‘Why did we buy all this?’” Shahrokhi said.

Answering his own question, Shahrokhi quoted the famous “Greed is good” line from the movie Wall Street and added that when financial assets are “securitized” — when they’re bundled together, as many of the subprime home loans were, and sold to investors as packages — “market fluctuations will change the value, and the value could become zero. In a financial economy, all shares ultimately have to be redeemed in money, and when everyone wants to sell and no one wants to buy, prices will fall.” Greed was also the reason home lenders made the bad loans in the first place, Shahrokhi said.

“Did they know many buyers weren’t qualified?” he noted. “Yes, but to make more commissions, they overlooked the qualifications. So all the normal criteria [for home lending] were ignored. People bought homes without down payments or any history of payment.” The product of these three groups — would-be homeowners taking out loans they couldn’t afford and counting on being able to refinance when the loans “adjusted” to higher (sometimes three times higher!) monthly payments; investors eager to make money from mortgage-backed securities; and lenders making loans to people who couldn’t afford to repay them and trusting that “greater fools” in the securities market would buy them — was the current housing crisis and the general collapse of the entire economy that has derived from it.

And why didn’t the federal government and the Federal Reserve — the quasi-public, quasi-private entity to which Congress has delegated the power to regulate our money supply — regulate the process and slow it down before it reached a crisis point? Because, Shahrokhi explained, the “market fundamentalists” had gained control of governments worldwide and convinced them that the only alternatives were lassiez-faire capitalism and state communism — and communism had clearly failed.

“Since the 1980’s,” he said, “it was held that markets could regulate themselves. So when these mortgage-backed securities started defaulting, the financial insurance institutions started to default too.” Shahrokhi cited AIG, the world’s largest insurance company, which was brought to the brink of ruin by marketing so-called “credit-default swaps,” essentially insurance policies against the failure of mortgage-backed securities. When the value of these securities collapsed in the wave of housing-loan defaults and foreclosures, many of their holders filed claims with AIG — and the avalanche so totally collapsed AIG that the federal government has spent $120 billion just to bail out this one company.

“A basic rule of Finance 101 is diversification,” Shahrokhi explained. “You don’t put all your eggs in one basket. After they lost a lot of money in Internet stocks, investors put their money in the housing market, betting that prices would always increase. After 9/11 the Federal Reserve lowered interest rates, so there was more money available. If all your eggs are in one basket and it goes wrong, there’s nowhere else to go. Unregulated markets and market fundamentalism helped start the crisis, and the housing crisis led to a crisis in the real economy.”

So what is to be done? “This is very complicated,” Shahrokhi said. “There is no simple answer.” But his emphasis was basically on reversing the trend towards deregulation and massive government intervention in the economy. He cited John Maynard Keynes’ recommendations for deficit spending and, speaking eight days before President Barack Obama was scheduled to take office, said that investment in infrastructure would be a more effective economic stimulus than tax cuts. “Governments should spend more,” Shahrokhi said. “Obama’s program will be close to $1 trillion.”

Shahrokhi also called on the next administration to be more aggressive in holding the major financial companies to account than the previous one has been. “I don’t think we should nationalize the debt of the financial companies,” he said. “Instead, we should buy their shares and not let them do things the way they used to. Right now, corporations are undemocratic and workers aren’t represented in their decision-making. In Europe, [governments] buy shares, so people own parts of these companies and governments demand that they restructure [when they need to]. If [U.S. financial institutions] continue to run the way they did before the crisis, you’ll have another one in six or seven years.”

Asked by an audience member why a drop in the annual growth rate of the gross domestic product (GDP) from 2.5 percent to zero precipitates an economic collapse, Shahrokhi said, “The confluence of people moves the economy. Because people lose their confidence, they reduce their spending and the GDP falls. When you’re talking about a labor force of 160 million people, a drop of 1 percent in employment is a lot. Economists say 5 percent unemployment is ‘natural,’ but now that unemployment has increased to 7.2 percent, that is a large number. Last year alone we lost 26 million jobs, and that’s a large number. People look at that and think, ‘Maybe I’ll be next.’ That’s why I expect GDP to fall further.”

Despite Shahrokhi’s criticisms of market fundamentalism and his praise for European nations and their more active interventions in their countries’ economies, much of his presentation rankled many members of his audience. They bristled at his suggestion that an economy is simply the sum total of the individuals in it, and were even more upset at his suggestion that would-be homeowners taking out mortgages they couldn’t afford were partly responsible for the collapse of the housing market. Many audience members suggested that they were actually victims, tricked by deceptive marketing strategies lenders were able to engage in once they were deregulated.

Shahrokhi refused to budge on the point. “People were encouraged” to take out loans they couldn’t afford, he admitted, “but they could also compare situations and find out whether the loans were good or not. Of course, there is always fine print, but the borrowers were told that the loans would double based on interest rates. We’re not dealing with fraudulent transactions. Fraud will be with us all the time, but fraud didn’t cause the meltdown.”

Veteran local activist Lace Watkins said that one problem is that before mortgages were securitized, borrowers could contact the company that lent them the money and have at least the possibility of renegotiating the loan to a payment schedule they could handle. Now, she said, loans change hands so often that “when they try to renegotiate, no one knows who owns the loan.” Watkins also argued that in a city like San Diego, with its notorious combination of high housing prices and relatively low wages — “the average income is $40,000 per year and the average home price, even now, is $400,000” — almost all housing purchases needed to be “creatively financed.”

Another woman in the audience said, “The working class should not be held responsible. They are the victims. The decisions [about the U.S. economy] are all top-down. There’s no democratic process to determine how loans were made.” Noting that the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), one of America’s largest, is expecting layoffs of hundreds of thousands of their members, she added, “People in much higher positions of power need to be held accountable.”

“I’m just trying to explain a process,” Shahrokhi replied. “I’m not blaming anyone. But if a working-class person in a three-bedroom home wants a four-bedroom home they can’t afford, are they blameless? You cannot just say that the decision you made is not your fault. One basic economic lesson for everyone is don’t spend beyond your income capacity. If they were not given the right information [about the terms of the loans], that’s one thing. But if they bought something they couldn’t afford, they’re responsible.”

One man who identified himself as a 64-year-old socialist said, “We don’t have power. It’s not like Karl Marx didn’t understand a depression. The Communist Manifesto called for progressive taxes. The people with money still have it, and they’re backed by the system to keep their money and power.” He added that in Cuba, contrary to popular belief, “you can still own property and use it to produce. You just can’t use it to speculate.” And he predicted that the next bubble to burst will be in the Midwest, where farmers have been steadily losing the land to agribusiness and commercial development.

Activist San Diego founder Martin Eder said, “I do think generally we are an enlightened audience. Most of us have a class perspective of the United States.” He asked Shahrokhi to “discuss the redistribution of income between the rich and poor, especially with a bailout that’s probably more like a $1-2 trillion burden being shifted to another group of working people” — i.e., the younger and as-yet unborn generations that will have the burden of paying back the money the U.S. is borrowing for bailouts and economic stimulus. “Is the bailout really an extension of class war?” Eder asked.

“The question is whether government is really representative,” Shahrokhi replied. “If not, they’re only going to help themselves.”