Sunday, March 28, 2010

First U-U Church Screens “Rethink Afghanistan”

Three Veterans for Peace Second Hard-Hitting Message of Film


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO: Jack Doxie and Jim Brown

The three members of San Diego’s chapter of Veterans for Peace who spoke at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 after the church showed Robert Greenwald’s hard-hitting anti-war movie Rethink Afghanistan may have been talking about the earlier wars in which they had served, but their meaning was unmistakable. “In Viet Nam, they had a campaign for us to work with the villagers, to try to win their hearts and minds,” said Jim Brown. “We’d do that during the day — and then at night we’d shoot at them. It’s crazy to send in an army, whose job is to kill, and expect them to help build a country. Troops don’t go out there to do good. They’re there to maintain order and kill people.”

Brown’s remarks made a mockery of “nation-building,” “counter-insurgency,” “counter-terrorism” and all the noble-sounding lies with which the American people are brainwashed by their government and media to support one war of naked conquest and aggression after another. So did Rethink Afghanistan, a 62-minute DVD from Greenwald’s Brave New Films that meticulously demolished all the various justifications that have been offered by two consecutive Presidents, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, and many other politicians and opinion makers for the U.S.’s continuing and escalating military involvement in Afghanistan — including the idea that by intervening in Afghanistan we are fighting al-Qaeda and making the U.S. safer from terrorism.

Greenwald made his film in 2009, releasing it as Obama was considering whether to grant the U.S. military commander in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, his request for 40,000 additional troops for the war effort. Obama eventually authorized 30,000 but said they would be withdrawn within a year and a half. The movie features interviews with a wide variety of sources, and not all of them the usual suspects from the Left either. Among Greenwald’s interviewees are former CIA field operative Robert Baer — who bluntly calls the idea that the U.S. is fighting terrorism in Afghanistan “bullshit” — and former CIA station chief Robert Grenier, as well as former Taliban official Ursala Rahmani and Mohammed Osman Tariq, former commander in the mujahedin — the so-called “freedom fighters” the CIA recruited to fight the secular, socialist, Soviet-supported Afghan government in the 1970’s and who eventually morphed into the Taliban and al-Qaeda.

Rethink Afghanistan focuses much of its attention on a truly dangerous country sandwiched between Afghanistan and India: Pakistan. “It’s not as if Pakistan is standing idle; 120,000 troops have been dispatched to the Afghan border,” says CNN correspondent Stan Grant in a clip shown in the film. “The [Pakistani] government says more than 1,000 soldiers [were] killed in the fighting. But the United States and others still question whether the Pakistan Military and Intelligence Service are playing a double game, [with] elements secretly supporting the Taliban to block a potential India-Afghanistan alliance.”

The sources quoted in Greenwald’s film — including Steve Coll, president and CEO of the New America Foundation; and Carl Conetta, co-director of the Project on Defense Alternatives — note that the one country Pakistan considers an “existential threat” is India, against which they have fought two wars over the disputed province of Kashmir. “The Pakistan army fears that India sees Afghanistan as a way to encircle Pakistan, to come in through the back door, to promote instability,” Coll says in the film. Other sources note that Pakistan, not Afghanistan, is the country in the region the U.S. should be worried about: it has a weak central government, a strong movement promoting militant Islam, and fully developed nuclear weapons. Should Pakistan fall into the hands of militant Islamist military officers or its own version of the Taliban, these sources warn, they could make nuclear weapons available to terrorists for an attack on the U.S. that would make 9/11 look like a mugging in the park by comparison.

Other topics covered in Rethink Afghanistan include the endemic corruption in the current Afghan government, the way U.S.-based contractors and their Afghan subcontractors are siphoning off vast amounts of money intended as reconstruction aid, and the sheer cost of the war to the U.S. itself. Linda J. Bilmes, co-author of The $3 Trillion War, estimates the cost of maintaining the U.S. forces in Iraq as $500,000 per troop per year — and for Afghanistan that figure is still higher, $775,000, mainly because it’s much harder to get supplies into Afghanistan’s landlocked, mountainous territory than into Iraq, which has ports and is virtually all flat desert. By contrast, Blimes says, the inflation-adjusted cost of the U.S. involvement in World War II was $50,000 per troop per year.

“Right now, the United States, through fiscal year 2009, will have committed and/or spent more than $185 billion on the U.S. war in Afghanistan,” says Jo Comerford, executive director of the National Priorities Project. Comerford devised an intriguing way to look at the cost of the war by breaking it down per U.S. state, calculating that Alabama has contributed $1.695 billion to the war effort — enough to pay for full health coverage for all Alabamans, plus 200,000 other Americans, for one year. In New York, the cost will have been $17 billion — enough for “nearly two million Head Start placements.” Arizona’s share of the tab for the war is $2.5 billion — enough to cover half the 20 percent of Arizonans who don’t currently have health insurance.

One of the more powerful sections of Rethink Afghanistan is the one about women. Many otherwise progressive Americans were encouraged to support the war by the horror stories of how Afghan women were treated under the Taliban. But according to the film, life for women in Afghanistan was hell before the Taliban took over — and it still is. One anonymous representative of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA) reports at least 23 rapes in just two months in northern Afghanistan and “a lot of violence against women in west Afghanistan.” The film shows girls who have had acid thrown in their faces for the “crime” of going to school, and Kabul in Winter author Ann Jones quotes Afghan Supreme Court Chief Justice Faisal Ahmad Shinwari — a hard-core Islamist personally appointed by supposedly secular president Hamid Karzai — as saying that Afghan women have two “equal rights”: to obey their husbands, and to pray (but not inside a mosque, since that space is reserved for men).

“The situation for women today in the Pashtun areas is actually worse than it was during the Taliban time, and the reason is because under the Taliban women were kept in burkas and in their homes, away from education,” says Wall Street Journal Washington correspondent Anand Gopal. “Today, the same situation persists — they’re kept in burkas, in homes, away from education — but on top of that, they’re also living in a war zone. And women disproportionately suffer, from the effects of a war. The majority of civilian casualties have been women. Women that I talk to in these areas often say that they actually wish the Taliban were back in power, because even though their lives were a prison then, at least they were kept free from bombs or from house raids. … Women also suffer in war zones because when their husbands are killed, they can’t work in any traditional jobs, so often they have to turn to prostitution. Otherwise they can’t work at all.”

Perhaps the most heart-rending section of the film is the one in which Greenwald and his translators interview Afghans trapped in an IDP (internally displaced persons) refugee camp in Kabul because their homes and farms have been destroyed by U.S. air raids. “If it wasn’t for the war, I would want to go back,” one unidentified man tells them. “If there was freedom, I would want to go back. Why am I here? Now there is war and bombardment. I can’t go back. Before I was a farmer, but I can’t go back. I was growing wheat and poppy and corn, melons. I was taking care of the children. But right now I can’t do anything. Look, they are barefoot in this cold weather. … One of my daughters is dead, and they will die too. This child, I can sell her but nobody would buy her. What can I do? … I have nothing. I am poor. I don’t have any blankets or shawls. I don’t have any clothes. There is no food that I can put in her mouth. … I know nobody wants to sell their daughter, but I have to. She is innocent, but I am poor.” Then a title reveals that the girl he was talking about trying to sell, just to get her out of the refugee camp and into the hands of people who could afford to take care of her, has since died.

Greenwald follows this heartbreaking sequence with a devastating demolition of the whole idea that we’re fighting in Afghanistan to protect Americans against future attacks by al-Qaeda. “Both wars have made the Middle East and the world much more dangerous for Americans and for any American presence overseas,” says Graham Fuller, former CIA station chief in Kabul and former vice-chair of the National Intelligence Council. “Terrorism has increased worldwide in the past seven years,” adds Carl Conetta, “and we’ve spent a tremendous amount of treasure and blood to achieve a result of increased terrorism.”

Finally, the film’s “Solutions” segment focuses on non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) which are actually building schools, providing jobs and offering health care to Afghans. The film depicts the Norwegian Afghanistan Committee ( English/Education/index.html), which operates schools for Afghan girls and distributes food for 50,000 students; Jobs for Afghans (, which seeks to provide just that — jobs for Afghans — so they can survive without joining the Taliban just for the $8 per day stipend the Taliban pays its fighters; and Emergency in Afghanistan (, which has built three hospitals and 30 clinics. All their care is provided free of charge, explains Emergency in Afghanistan medical director Dr. Marco Garatti, “because we believe that a state, a decent state, should take care of its own citizens” — an ironic thing to hear at the end of the acrimonious Congressional debate on health insurance reform, which if nothing else made clear how many in Congress and the American public don’t agree that the state has a responsibility to safeguard its citizens’ health.

The three Veterans for Peace representatives who led the post-film discussion at the First Unitarian-Universalist Church March 18 — Viet Nam veteran Jim Brown, Korean War veteran Jack Doxie and Gil Field, a Viet Nam-era veteran but one who avoided combat by volunteering for the U.S. Coast Guard — made brief opening statements and then threw the meeting open to questions. “After serving in Viet Nam, it was obvious to me just from being on the ground that we were pulling the triggers as Americans — and the people we were shooting lived there,” said Brown. “We coerced the government into giving us ‘permission’ and stayed there as long as we could make people money. Our leaders will send us off to war anywhere in the world to take what we want. We could have all the raw materials we needed if we paid for them and hired local people, and built them schools and hospitals, and this would cost far less than what we spend on combat.”

“Well over 50 years ago, I was in combat in Korea — and we still have troops in Korea,” Doxie said. “They sent us to Korea in a World War II-era transport ship that was probably built in eight days, and it took us 16 days to meet the enemy. The thought came to me that if I had to go 16 days to meet the enemy, then perhaps this was not my enemy. … It’s amazing that we can’t learn our lesson. We persist in trying to resolve issues through violence. In a very unjustifiable way, we show our might. I’d like our country to have a bias towards negotiating instead of fighting. Just weeks before we invaded Iraq, the whole world realized we were wrong. Two million people in London, one million in Rome and hundreds of thousands elsewhere asked us not to do what we did. Where would we be now if we had gone to the United Nations instead of going to war?”

“By sheer luck of birth, I was born in 1948, finished college in 1970 and immediately applied to the Coast Guard in New York City,” said Field. “I served admirably on a small island in New York harbor. … So much of the background of the Veterans for Peace is determined by our ages and backgrounds. People three years younger didn’t go at all. People four to five years older had to go. It’s amazing how our government uses situations as they occur to create excuses to go to war.”

The questions covered a wide range of topics, moving far back in history from Afghanistan and Iraq not only to the wars Doxie and Brown served in but even farther — questioning whether the U.S. even had a right to fight World War II, Some audience members raised the argument made by pacifists at the time — that the U.S. and the other victors in World War I created the Nazi threat by imposing a harsh peace on Germany in 1919 and thereby wrecking its economy and creating the political situation that allowed Hitler to come to power. “Is there any such thing as a ‘good war’?” Brown said. “Was World War II something we should have been in?”

Definitely not, said Doxie. “Seventy to 80 percent of the U.S. people did not want the war,” he noted. “Franklin Roosevelt won his third term by saying he wouldn’t send soldiers into war. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor because the U.S. had a plan to embargo Japan and keep them from getting oil and rubber. When you poke a smaller adversary in the eye with a brush, they’re going to react. The Japanese may not have been justified [in attacking Pearl Harbor], but we were the ones who dropped the A-bombs on civilian targets in Japan.”

An audience member raised the controversial claim — still hotly debated among historians — that President Roosevelt knew about the Pearl Harbor attack in advance and allowed it to happen because he knew the only way he could unify the country in support of a war it didn’t want was to frame it as a response to foreign aggression. The same person also claimed that the 9/11 attacks were not carried out by Osama bin Laden but were either known in advance or actively perpetrated by the U.S. government — and Doxie hinted that he agreed. “It looked like a controlled demolition,” Doxie said, “not something that happened from outside.”

Brown also expressed his cynicism — largely shared by most of the audience — that President Obama has any intention of pursuing a policy in Afghanistan or Iraq that differs in the slightest from President Bush’s. “We’re supposed to be out of Iraq by 2011, but I haven’t seen anyone pulled out,” Brown said. “I’ve heard he’s being politically expedient for the powers that be in America, and will pull the troops out by the end of his term, but I don’t believe that. That’s what they said in Viet Nam, too.”

“Obama said he was going to escalate in Afghanistan in his campaign,” said Peace and Freedom Party organizer Roger Batchelder. “Even in the peace movement, we labor under delusions, including the idea that America is not an empire. We are an empire. The other myth is that the Democratic Party is the party of the little person and the party of peace. World War II could have been stopped if Americans like Prescott Bush [father and grandfather of the two Presidents Bush] and Henry Ford hadn’t helped Hitler. We have a ruling class that gives to both parties, and Wall Street gave more money to Obama than to McCain. FDR interned the Japanese and Truman used A-bombs against civilians twice, and also started the U.S. involvement in Viet Nam. It’s all about the money. The richest 1 percent gives money to both parties.”

And despite the promises Obama has made to withdraw the extra 30,000 troops in Afghanistan within a year and a half, Doxie warned that the U.S. commitment there is likely to last far longer than that. “General McChrystal has said that if everything in Afghanistan goes exactly right, the way he wants it to, we have a minimum of 10 more years there — on top of the nine years we’ve already been there. And of course it won’t go exactly according to plan. It never does.”

Echoing a point made by some of the speakers in the movie that al-Qaeda no longer has, seeks or needs a permanent base in Afghanistan, Field added, “And the enemy is no longer even there.”

Queer Democrats’ Surprising Endorsement for Lt. Governor

Reject S.F. Mayor Newsom, Embrace L.A. City Councilmember Hahn


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Stephen Whitburn, Shelia Jackson, Juan del Río

In a surprising move, the predominantly Queer San Diego Democratic Club rejected San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom’s candidacy for California lieutenant governor at their regular meeting March 25. Instead, they endorsed Los Angeles City Councilmember Janice Hahn for the June 8 Democratic primary, after a brief but spirited debate in which two veteran club activists debated the race on behalf of the candidates. A third candidate, State Senator Dean Florez (D-Fresno), dropped out in mid-March but was unlikely to have got the club’s endorsement anyway because of his long-standing opposition to same-sex marriage equality. (Ironically, when Florez dropped out of the race he endorsed strong marriage-equality advocate Newsom.)

Former club president Craig Roberts spoke for Janice Hahn, but his remarks had the tone of a jilted lover about them as he described how he’d changed from supporting Newsom in his former bid for governor to opposing him now. During his gubernatorial campaign, Roberts said, Newsom “made disparaging remarks about the office of lieutenant governor and about Jerry Brown,” the former governor who’s the Democrats’ presumptive nominee for the top office in 2010. He stressed Hahn’s family background — her father Kenneth was a long-term member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors and her brother James served one term as mayor of Los Angeles — and the fact that unlike Newsom, Hahn has “been running for several months without apology.”

Speaking for Newsom, club vice-president for political action Alex Sachs stressed his courageous stand in 2004, when he unilaterally ordered San Francisco officials to start marrying same-sex couples who applied. Though the California Supreme Court shut down the marriages after one month and declared them invalid, Newsom’s actions, according to Sachs, “put marriage equality on the national issue map.” Sachs argued that Newsom would make a better lieutenant governor than Hahn because he has executive experience as mayor. “He and Jerry Brown can be an effective leadership team,” Sachs said, adding that Newsom had put 2,100 unemployed San Franciscans to work with federal stimulus money and had worked to get one-half of the city’s taxicabs to run on liquefied natural gas (LNG) instead of gasoline.

“I’m not that impressed with either Brown or Newsom,” said club member Bryan Wildenthal. “Other than on marriage equality, Newsom is not considered a progressive in San Francisco.” Wildenthal pointed out to the turmoil in Newsom’s personal life — his own marriage broke up during his mayoralty over an affair he had with a campaign staff member, and he has since divorced and remarried — and said that not only would he support Hahn for lieutenant governor, “I wish she were running for governor.”

Speaking for Newsom, club member Gerry Senda said, “Janice Hahn would be a great workaday lieutenant governor, but Gavin is a lightning rod and an attention-getter who would allow Jerry Brown to advance the progressive agenda three inches instead of one inch.”

“When Gavin Newsom was running for governor, the Young Democrats did a fundraiser for him down here, but he’s no longer running for that position, and when the California Young Democrats had their endorsement meeting in Sacramento, they endorsed Janice Hahn,” said Allan Acevedo, immediate past president of the Stonewall Young Democrats, the club’s youth affiliate. “Part of the reason we did that was because the progressives in San Francisco, the Young Democrats chapter, endorsed Janice Hahn. They wouldn’t endorse their own mayor. He’s not very well liked.” Acevedo said one of his concerns was that if Brown and Newsom head the Democrats’ statewide ticket, the party will be fielding two white men from the San Francisco Bay Area versus Republican Meg Whitman, who has a big lead in her party’s race for governor; and state legislator Abel Maldonado, likely Republican nominee for lieutenant governor. Like Roberts, Acevedo stressed the importance of nominating a woman to maintain the California Democratic Party’s progressive reputation against a Republican ticket likely to be headed by a woman.

The final vote on the endorsement wasn’t even close. With 49 votes cast, Hahn was backed by 33 members — well above the 60 percent threshold needed for an endorsement — with 13 votes for Newsom and three for no endorsement.

Four Democrats vs. Roberts for Supervisor

The lieutenant governor’s endorsement, and its surprising outcome, took some attention away from what was supposed to be the main business of the evening: hearing Democratic candidates seeking to replace Republican incumbent Ron Roberts on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors. Since Roberts won his seat in 1994 — ironically, with the endorsement of the San Diego Democratic Club, before the San Diego County Democratic Party changed its rules and forbade party clubs from endorsing non-Democrats even in non-partisan races — the Board of Supervisors has consisted of five Republicans and no Democrats, and party officials and activists have been frustrated by the unwillingness of Democrats with elective office experience and name identification even to run for the seats.

The frustration continued this year, as two “name” Democrats who were highly touted for Roberts’ seat failed to emerge as contenders. Assemblymember Lori Saldaña, whom the club actually endorsed in the race last November, dropped out, and termed-out City Councilmember Donna Frye procrastinated throughout the filing period and finally decided at the last minute not to run. So San Diego County Democratic Party chair Jess Durfee hit on a strategy to run four Democrats from different demographic backgrounds and political bases in the June 8 primary, in hopes that together they can deny Roberts the 50-percent-plus-1 he would need to win the seat outright in June and set the stage for a runoff between Roberts and whoever tops the Democratic field.

Three of the candidates — former San Diego City Council candidate Stephen Whitburn, San Diego Unified School District board member Shelia Jackson and Latino activist Juan del Río — spoke to the club on March 25. Ironically, the only one who didn’t show was former club vice-president Margaret Moody. Though the three candidates who did appear had slightly different emphases, all of them used the slogan, “Throw the bum out!,” and keyed their appeals to the need to get at least one Democrat on the Board of Supervisors rather than keep it an all-Republican club, insensitive to the needs of social-service recipients, working-class people and other consumers of the social services that are one of the county’s principal responsibilities.

“Ron Roberts has had too many years to do whatever he’s done,” said del Río. “There’s never been a Latino on the San Diego County Board of Supervisors, even though we’re 30 percent of the county’s population. I was in MEChA [the Latino student activist group Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán] at San Diego State University, and have worked with nonprofit organizations, standing up for people who need social services. Right now I’m a foreclosure counselor, because of the economic crisis we’re in that Ron Roberts doesn’t have a clue about.” Del Río said that his clients have included traditionally middle-class people — “electrical engineers, registered nurses” — and said that housing and public transportation are among his top priorities.

Jackson stressed her experience as the only Democratic candidate for Roberts’ seat who has actually served in elective office. “I started looking at this seat several years ago,” she said. “We have students coming to school hungry; 60 to 70 percent of our kids are on free or reduced-cost lunches. It’s the county that’s responsible for that. We don’t have a county hospital or a good food service program. The county has failed us. … Our county [government] has no clue about the suffering of people in the county. They don’t even consider how their decisions affect the most vulnerable people in the county. To get out of the economic crisis, we need well-fed and well-educated people.”

“Everyone in this room agrees it’s time to put a Democrat on the Board of Supervisors,” said Whitburn. “Let’s talk about specific issues. The Board of Supervisors has two major areas of responsibility — social services and development and land use issues — and because so much of their work is behind closed doors, most people don’t have a clue what the Board of Supervisors does.” Whitburn said they are “horrendously bad” on both social services and land use: “They don’t even seek available money for social services from the state and federal governments.” He praised the Board for voting down the proposed development atop Merriam Mountain near Escondido — which would have meant blowing off the top of the mountain to make room for over 25,000 homes — but said they should never let it get so far through the planning process that it took the Board itself to block it. Whitburn also criticized Roberts, as a county representative to the board of the Metropolitan Transit System (MTS), for voting for the recent sweeping cutbacks in Sunday bus service.

Though coming from widely varying backgrounds — Jackson an African-American woman, del Río a Latino man, Whitburn a Gay man and the absent Moody a straight woman — the candidates showed few differences on the issues. All three endorsed the controversial proposal from the local Service Employees’ International Union (SEIU) to impose a two-term limit on service on the Board of Supervisors — even though term limits are usually favored by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, and the limits would affect them if one of them won but not the Republican incumbents. All three also opposed privatizing or outsourcing county jobs, and del Río called himself “a victim of outsourcing,” since he’d been a state employee until former governor Pete Wilson privatized his job out of existence.

Asked about medical marijuana dispensaries, Jackson said they would be fine “as long as they are regulated the correct way” — which provoked a comment from Whitburn to the effect that Jackson had signed a letter calling for a complete ban on “pot shops.” Jackson said she’d signed onto the letter in support of a community organization seeking to keep dispensaries from being located near schools. Asked how they’ll handle being the lone Democrat on a board with four Republicans, Jackson said she’s used to the experience because when she got elected to the school board she was also an “unwelcome stranger,” but had been able to win votes and make her minority positions into majority ones. Whitburn stressed his 18 years’ experience as a reporter and his ability to ask tough questions, and del Río said he thought the staff and other resources of a supervisor’s office will help him persuade his colleagues to run the county “not as a private business, but for the public good.”

The club debated the race only briefly, pointing out that all three candidates would be an improvement over Roberts. Bob Leyh, the club’s vice-president for development, said the club should decline to endorse, but instead should rate all three candidates acceptable and mount a major push for whichever one makes it to the runoff in November — if there is one. Most of the other members who spoke favored Whitburn, not only because he’s a former president of the club and the club strongly backed him in his 2008 City Council campaign (which he lost to fellow Gay Democrat Todd Gloria) but because, as Gerry Senda put it, they felt it important “to keep Ron Roberts from getting LGBT [Queer] votes.” Whitburn won the endorsement easily, with 46 votes to three for Jackson, one for del Río and four for no endorsement — and Whitburn, in his acceptance speech, thanked the Stonewall Young Democrats for endorsing him as well.

Governor, Sheriff and a Farewell

The club also made a unanimous endorsement of Jerry Brown for governor — as the only major Democrat in the race, this was practically a given — and briefly considered the race for San Diego County Sheriff. Since there are only three candidates — appointed incumbent and former undersheriff Bill Gore; Jim Duffy, son of controversial former sheriff John Duffy; and former Assemblymember Jay LaSuer — and they are all Republicans, the club couldn’t endorse anyone in the race. Nor could they rate any of the candidates acceptable, since none had appeared or filled out the club’s issues questionnaire.

What the club did do was rate LaSuer “unacceptable.” Most club members were familiar with LaSuer’s background — elected to the La Mesa City Council and then to the California State Assembly on an anti-immigrant, anti-Queer platform — but for those who weren’t, political action vice-president Sachs read a November 4, 2009 blog post from self-proclaimed “ex-Gay” anti-Queer Christian activist James Hartline, strongly endorsing LaSuer and saying both Gore and Duffy had disqualified themselves by seeking Queer community endorsements and support.

“Time after time, Assemblyman LaSuer would hold his head up high and walk into the midst of the very radical, anti-Christian Democrat-controlled State Assembly and make his stand for the moms and dads of San Diego, California,” Hartline wrote in the blog post Sachs read. “Faced with the overwhelming assault of the radical Gay lobby and the extremist Democrat socialists who were redefining family, Jay LaSuer never once compromised his values or backed down from his opponents. In September of 2005, when radical Lesbian and homosexual legislators Mark Leno, Christine Kehoe, Carol Migden, John Laird and Sheila Kuehl were plotting to subvert the will of California voters to pass AB 849, the Gay marriage bill, Assemblyman Jay LaSuer planted his feet in the middle of the assembly chambers and declared, ‘Not On My Watch!’”

Finally — although it was actually the first item on the agenda — Gloria Johnson, the club’s second president and first woman president, paid a fond tribute to the late Midge Costanza, who had died two days before. Costanza was a New York activist in the 1970’s who campaigned for Jimmy Carter and was appointed to his White House staff — only to quit 20 months later when she couldn’t accept Carter’s support for a ban on federal funding for abortions. Costanza later moved to San Diego and worked for Democratic candidates, and officials, including Governor Gray Davis and Congressmember Lynn Schenk, and frequently appeared at club events. She keynoted the club’s Freedom Banquet one year and talked about how she had organized the first meeting of Queer community leaders ever held inside the White House — surreptitiously, during a weekend while President Carter was out of town.

“I first met Midge Costanza when she was working for Carter,” Johnson recalled. “She came to San Diego for a speaking engagement and I asked her what Carter was doing for Lesbian and Gay rights. She stumbled over the question but always remembered that I was the first one who ever asked her. She moved to San Diego in 1990 and really did a lot for our community. She was appointed by Gray Davis to the California Commission on the Status of Women. Midge and I didn’t always get along — a few years ago we had an argument over her support of Jerry Sanders instead of Donna Frye for mayor — but I always respected her.” Johnson announced that the Midge Costanza Institute is mounting a fundraising campaign in her memory; the Institute can be contacted at P. O. Box 15523,
San Diego, CA 92175, by phone at (619) 594-8033 or via e-mail at

Congratulations to Anthony Rollar and Tiger, Mr. and Ms. San Diego Leather 2010!

Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Photos taken at the Mr. San Diego Leather contest, Rich’s in Hillcrest, March 20, 2010

1) Mr. San Diego Leather 2010 winner Anthony Rollar

2) Mr. San Diego Leather 2010 runner-up Al Smith

3) Ms. San Diego Leather 2010 Tiger

4) Mr. San Diego Leather 2010 MC Lenny Broberg (a San Francisco police officer!)

5) wolfgang and slave jeff, “judges’ boys” at the 2010 Mr. San Diego Leather contest

6) slut bottom chris, one of the judges for Mr. San Diego Leather 2010

7) Mr. San Diego Leather 2009 Bryan Teague gets a shine from a bootblack

8) Rafael

9) Mark Gabrish Conlan and Joshua Simon

10) The color guard at the 2010 Mr. San Diego Leather contest

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

There Is No God — and He Can Prove It

Horacio Hanson Makes that Claim to S.D. Humanist Association


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There is no God, says 85-year-old author and ex-Roman Catholic Horacio Hanson — and he can prove it. That’s the claim he makes in his self-published book There Is No Creator: Religion Is a Fraud: What Now? — a title he readily admits is a deliberate in-your-face challenge to believers — and repeated when he spoke about it to the San Diego Humanist Association at the San Diego Public Library downtown on March 13. After noting that the worst insult in the Arabic language is, “May God deprive you of your religion,” Hanson launched into an hour-long presentation that made it clear that depriving his listeners — and the rest of humanity — of religion is precisely his intention.

“The purpose of this book is to liberate humanity from all religion,” Hanson said. “The intent is not to insult or injure an individual. I do understand that not everyone is capable of restraining strong emotion when challenged.” Hanson called atheism “the fastest-growing philosophy” and claimed that “there are about 1 billion non-religious people in the world today.” Why, then, isn’t atheism a mass movement? “Because there is no money in atheism,” Hanson said, “no chapels, no cathedrals, no priests, rabbis or mullahs, and no atheists collecting money for ‘salvation IOU’s’.”

According to his biographical note on the back cover, the roots of Hanson’s book came when, as a disillusioned ex-Catholic in his mid-20’s, he decided to read the Bible for himself without a lot of priests explaining away its nastier, more gruesome or more flatly unbelievable contents. For good measure, he read the Quran as well. His “proof” of the non-existence of God relies on taking the statements in the Bible and the Quran absolutely literally and subjecting them to the logical test called reductio ad absurdum — that is, extrapolating from them until they obviously defy both physical reality and common sense.

Most of the text of There Is No Creator is a kind of anti-spiritual nit-picking of the text of the scriptures of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, pointing out not only the passages of the Bible and Quran that unequivocally advocate slavery and genocide but the contradictions between different parts of the scriptures, as well as between the scriptures and observed reality. (One of the most grimly amusing passages is the description of how big Noah’s ark would have to have been to contain everything the Bible says it contained.) But his talk to the Humanist Association mostly avoided details of his critique and focused on the social harm done by religion and the abuses committed by believers in its name.

“Physical and economic crime and social abuses, committed in the name of religion, have been accepted and even justified as ‘freedom of religion’,” Hanson said. “During the past 12 decades, Islamic religious groups have unleashed indiscriminate attacks in many parts of the world, but the commission of crimes is not the principal reason religion must be denounced. Its basic excuse for existing, God or Allah, is false. It is not there. If this can be proven, religion is exposed as a fraud, and believers will face the embarrassment of having been suckered. Some people will resist, but a lot will be glad to be relieved of meaningless rituals and rules.”

Hanson admitted that the response of some religious people to his fly-specking the scriptures and pointing out all the logical absurdities and physical errors will be to assert that the Bible and Quran are just “parables” and are not to be read as literally true. The story he cited was the Exodus and the Hebrews’ years in the desert, during which — according to the Old Testament — they wandered for 40 years, traveled 87,650 miles (3.5 times the circumference of the earth) … and ended up in what is now Israel, only 180 miles from their starting point in Egypt. Citing “the appalling excuses given for God’s prolonging” their agony, Hanson said, “How can the brutal stupidity of Numbers have survived the Age of Reason?”

“Some religious propagandists say, ‘If it weren’t for the Bible, where would we get our morals?’” Hanson said. “Imagine what the world would be like if everyone who worked on the Sabbath were killed, as the Old Testament demands.” Hanson made it clear he doesn’t think much of “Biblical morality,” including “the institution and organization of slavery by God: God dictates that servants and their descendants must serve their masters.” He quoted Exodus 21:7 — “If a man sell his daughter to be a maidservant, she shall not go out as the menservants do” — and asked, “These are morals?”

Hanson also cited God’s — or at least his representatives on earth’s — seemingly endless need for money and the vicious punishments prescribed in the Bible for those who don’t fork it over. One would, he argued, expect the Creator of Heaven and Earth not to need continually to soak his creations for contributions — but that’s not what God says in Malachi 3:8-10: “Will a man rob God? Yet ye have robbed me. But ye say, Wherein have we robbed thee? In tithes and offerings. Ye are cursed with a curse: for ye have robbed me, even this whole nation. Bring ye all the tithes into the storehouse, that there may be meat in mine house.”

According to Hanson, the contradictions that run through the Bible begin at the very beginning — between the statement that “God created Man in his own likeness” and the part a bit later that says, “Male and female created He them.” Then which is God? Male or female? “The writers are stuck with multiple images of God because there are multiple images of man,” Hanson said. “And since 98 percent of chimpanzees’ genes are identical to human genes, God would have to be in the image of chimps as well.”

Arguing that “never have so few failed so many for so long” — a description of religious leaders he admitted paraphrasing from Churchill — Hanson also confronted the problem theologians call “theodicy”: the attempt to reconcile the idea that God is good with the disasters, natural and otherwise, that repeatedly strike humanity. In his book, Hanson ridicules the Exodus story by pointing out that God supposedly intervened to spare the Israelites from being kept in perpetual servitude by the Egyptians — but he didn’t do jack in the 20th century to stop the Jews from being annihilated en masse by the Nazis.

To Hanson, “theodicy” is just one more piece of evidence that there is no such thing as God: things just happen to people, sometimes at the hands of other people, sometimes not, and the sheer randomness of accidents, both good and bad, is one of his proofs that there is no God. Ridiculing some of the typical excuses religious people make for God — that “He works in mysterious ways,” that “everything happens for a reason,” that God is “testing our faith” — he cited some hypothetical stories chilling in their happenstances as proof that there is no design, no conscious intent, ruling the fates of human beings, and therefore there is no God.

“A soldier is badly wounded in battle, but the medics are close by and apply first aid. Then a mine explodes, killing the soldier and one of the two medics carrying him in the stretcher. Or a five-year-old boy goes into a river in the jungle to get his ball, and he starts to drown. His mother jumps in to save him, and then a crocodile comes and eats both of them. Or a group of people are on a camping trip and a bear attacks one of them, a woman. The others run away at the sight of the bear, and then they hear the woman’s cries for help: ‘Oh, God! He’s tearing off my arm! I’m dying!’ No one helps, including the nonexistent ‘God.’ What could she have done to ‘deserve’ being eaten by a bear?”

Hanson argued that there are “two basic elements of every religion: a Creator and a soul. But if the soul is eternal, what’s the purpose of having a body? What’s the point of the extinction of species, including ones that became extinct before there were humans? If you’re thinking pain, anguish, injury and death for humans is ‘punishment’ for ‘original sin,’ you will be disappointed. Why are there miscarriages and stillbirths? Why the institutionalization and eternalization of poverty? Religion does not have the answers to these questions — or the billions of things that happen beyond human control. ‘God is mysterious in His ways’ is an obvious cop-out.”

Perhaps the most interesting part of Hanson’s book is part four, in which he outlines a non-religious system of morality based on German philosopher Immanuel Kant’s “categorical imperative” and argues that, once freed from the yoke of religion, that people will be able to end war and solve many other social and psychological problems, including sexual jealousy. His argument about sex is that, once “free from religion or traditional social rules,” people will no longer believe that their relationships will last “till death do us part” and won’t have unreasonable expectations that the person they love will never have or want sex with anyone else again. This will also solve the abortion issue, Hanson said, since once people cease to believe religious preachments that regard the fetus as a “person” and instead realize that plenty of abortions happen without human intervention — we merely call them “miscarriages” or “stillbirths” — there will no longer be any justification for not allowing women reproductive choice.

Hanson described his book’s section on “War” as “a detailed plan for the antithesis of aggression and the total abolition of war, which in Eisenhower’s words will happen when ‘the demand for it by the hundreds of millions… become[s] so universal and insistent that no man, no government, anywhere can resist it.’ This may seem illusory to most people, but those who think beyond the box should pay attention.” But, Hanson argued, the end of religion is a necessary precondition for the end of war, because religion not only supplies the excuses over which people and nations fight, it also provides the rationale for people to set aside their usual moral scruples against killing other people, and justifies mass murder.

Asked how he could say that religion was the foundation of all war and genocide when the 20th century produced leaders like Lenin, Stalin and Mao — avowed atheists who killed millions of their own people — Hanson described them essentially as amoral psychopaths. “Lenin and Stalin were just murderers,” he said. “They killed, but not for religious beliefs. Stalin was so self-centered he didn’t care about religion. He just wanted to kill people.”

One questioner brought Hanson back to a topic he’d briefly touched on in his lecture and discussed in more detail in his book: how do you create a morality and get people to accept limits on their behavior without invoking God and the spectre of divine retribution. “Morals have been established forever,” Hanson said. “Even primitive people had certain rules. The Code of Hammurabi, the Roman code, the Napoleonic Code and the U.S. Constitution were not based on religion at all. People — except for the handful with busted-up minds — routinely stay away from cruelty. Religion didn’t stop John Gardner [the alleged killer of Chelsea King].”

Hanson cited Kant’s “categorical imperative” as a model for a non-religious code of ethics, though he said he’d come up with a pithier way of stating it than Kant’s (“Act as if the maxim of your action were to become, through your will, a general natural law”): “What if everybody did it?” This, he said, would provide enough of a rationale for any sane person to draw back from social nuisances and crimes, from playing your music too loud for your neighbors to killing people, without having to believe in a God that would punish them if they did things that would benefit themselves but harm others. “Morals don’t require religion,” Hanson said. “You can have morals completely independent of religion.”

Ironically, one questioner compared Hanson’s conversion to atheism in his 20’s with St. Paul’s in the other direction — moving from rejecting to accepting Christianity — and asked if there was a moment of epiphany in his 20’s when he rejected the church he’d grown up in, been educated by and, until then, believed in totally. “It doesn’t depend on epiphany,” Hanson said. “There are trillions of neurons in the brain and they never stop functioning. It was gradual at the beginning, but then I took an extended boat trip for 45 days and I had some doubts. I decided to make up my mind, and ultimately concluded, ‘No way!’”

Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Above the Law


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

There is a force in our society that controls trillions of dollars and has such totally unaccountable power it has literally put itself above the law — and no, unlike most people who write that way these days, I don’t mean the federal government. I mean the private business sector, especially the large corporations that dominate the U.S. economy. They fund the political system, paying millions of dollars in campaign contributions to elected officials and candidates, and in return getting legal changes that make them billions in profits. Among the laws they order from their kept politicians — with all the certainty you or I expect from a fast-food order from McDonald’s — are custom-tailored exemptions from the normal expectations of civilized behavior, ranging from paying taxes to not dumping your waste in other people’s backyards. Over and over again, corporate and business leaders tell us that they are the ones who provide the jobs and create all social wealth — and over and over again, we go on believing them and letting them live and operate beyond law, beyond ethics, beyond morality and beyond basic decency.

Just one month’s reading in a major newspaper will offer plenty of articles in support of everything I’ve just said. Los Angeles Times, February 20: “The billionaires’ club of private financiers who took over the remains of IndyMac bank from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. turned a profit of $1.57 billion last year on the failed mortgage lender — more than they invested less than a year ago.” And guess who’s on the hook for the failed bank’s losses? The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC), which operated the entity for the eight months between the time the previous owners’ mistakes drove it out of business and the time the new owners took over. This fund, which is supposed to make good on money you and I lose from our bank accounts if our banks go out of business, lost up to $11 billion making those financiers $1.57 billion richer.

Los Angeles Times, also February 20: “After months of public input and consultation with experts, the state’s pharmacy board appeared to be poised to adopt strict new requirements for prescription drug labels last month. But that changed when Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger placed a drugstore industry executive” — Deborah Veale of CVS, the company that of late has been gobbling already large chains like Sav-On and Long’s — “on the board a day before the vote.” The losers: “consumer advocacy groups and senior citizen and minority organizations.” The winners: the California Retailers Association, who had been fighting the changes — and had also contributed $400,000 to Schwarzenegger’s political campaign.

Los Angeles Times, February 23: David Lazarus’s column in the business section tells the story of 50-year-old Bob Iritano, who has terminal cancer. “It’s not a question of whether he’s going to die,” Lazarus wrote. “The only question is when, and how much longer he’ll be with his family. Iritano, understandably, wants all the time he can get … His health insurer, he believes, has a different time frame in mind. ‘My best guess is they want me dead as soon as possible … They know that the premiums I pay will never cover how much they’ll spend on me.’”

Iritano and his wife contacted Lazarus after his insurer, HealthNet, refused to pay for a procedure — microwave radiation — they’d covered just six months earlier. What’s more, they waited to tell him that until he was already in the hospital, ready to go, surrounded by doctors, nurses and an anaesthesiologist ready to treat him — and a HealthNet rep phoned the O.R. and said they weren’t going to pay for it, and if he went ahead it was going to cost him $20,000 out of pocket. The letter he got from HealthNet later said they thought it would be more cost-effective if he had chemo instead of radiation — even though his doctors were sure he couldn’t handle chemo and trying it would probably kill him.

Los Angeles Times, February 7: “Employing a broad-based lobbying effort, the soft drink industry has smothered a [federal] plan to tax sugared beverages — a plan advocates said would have reduced obesity and helped finance health care reform.” According to reporters Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, “the White House staff reviewing funding options never embraced the idea even after President Obama expressed interest last summer.” The soft drink industry went after the proposed tax with all barrels blazing, using tactics ranging from ridiculing the scientists who’d done the research linking soft drink consumption with obesity to tapping the goodwill from years of contributions they’d given “minority advocacy groups, including some committed to fighting obesity” and getting them to oppose the tax.

Los Angeles Times, February 21: “Manufacturing businesses, big financial firms and energy companies are eager for new tax breaks in California — but not if it means officials will take a harder look at how they claim the credits.” The story, by Sacramento-based reporter Evan Halper, said that “a coalition of corporations” was fighting a bill that stood to make them money because they didn’t like the 20 percent fee they’d have to pay if they were later found to have taken a tax credit they weren’t entitled to. “The only reason you would oppose this penalty is if you’re cheating on your taxes,” a frustrated state senator Lois Wolk, chair of the senate’s tax committee, told Halper.

And if you think that corporations have any sense of accountability even to their stockholders — the people they’re supposedly in business to benefit by paying them profits as dividends — think again. Los Angeles Times, February 24: “Since Brian Moynihan took over as chief executive at Bank of America Corp. at the turn of the year, he has sought to convey a flexible and cooperative attitude. But the accommodating approach hasn’t been extended to shareholders seeking to put proposals regarding executive pay on the ballot at the company’s April 28 annual meeting. The bank is ‘being aggressive in doing whatever they can do to keep shareholders off the ballot,’ said John Chevedden of Redondo Beach, a retired aerospace worker who has proposed a number of shareholder resolutions at banks.” Not that the executives at Bank of America would be in any real danger of losing such a vote — most corporations head into their annual meetings with so many shares locked up in favor of the existing management that such resolutions are usually swamped in the final vote — but this company doesn’t even want a few dissident shareholders to be able to stage a token protest vote against their swollen pay packages, stock options and bonuses.

Two more items show how the voter initiative — originally approved in California in 1912 as a way the people could bypass the control of the Southern Pacific Railroad and other mega-companies of the time over the legislative process — has instead become a way for corporations to set themselves even further above the law by tricking the people into giving them what they want when they haven’t been able to persuade elected legislators. Los Angeles Times, February 10: Michael Hiltzik’s column is about Proposition 16 on the June 8 state ballot. The measure would require any public entity to win two-thirds voter approval before it could start, expand or finance a publicly owned power service as an alternative to private utilities like Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E), the state’s largest private utility — which put up $3.5 million to get the measure on the ballot and had just contributed $3 million more in the face of a letter from nine state legislators, including State Senate President pro tem Darrell Steinberg, questioning whether PG&E’s use of the initiative process violated state law.

“By undermining all competition from public power agencies, [Proposition 16] will benefit no one except PG&E and other private utilities,” Hiltzik wrote. “In official documents, PG&E identifies its campaign finance committee as ‘a coalition of taxpayers, environmentalists, renewable energy, business and labor,’ but at this stage it’s a coalition of one: PG&E. No one else has contributed a dime, according to the most recent campaign finance filings. By the way, PG&E claims it is so strapped for money that it is currently seeking a $1.1-billion rate increase.”

Hiltzik again: Los Angeles Times, February 21. This time his column is about a corporate power grab in the tiny Pacific Coast city of Carpinteria, just south of Santa Barbara, pitting an elected city council against a Denver-based oil company called Venoco. This firm, Hiltzik wrote, “is spending lavishly to pass a ballot initiative specifically exempting itself from the city’s industrial development and environmental rules. That’s because it’s afraid that Carpinteria’s elected officials, left to their own devices, might not greenlight its proposal to operate a 10-story oil derrick round the clock on its property next to a 225-home residential neighborhood and on the edge of the ecologically sensitive coastal bluffs.” When, after four years of negotiation, the city refused to give Venoco the permit they wanted, the company spent its money to put the initiative on the ballot and is counting on stoking public fear and promising voters “royalties” that may never materialize.

All these examples — and they only scratch the surface — indicate an attitude on the part of corporate and business America that the ordinary rules of law, ethics and morals simply do not apply to them. The argument of the corporate leaders and their political, media and intellectual flunkies is that in a capitalist economy, it is the private sector that creates jobs and enables people to survive economically — and therefore they should be allowed to do anything they wanted, free from pesky regulations or social obligations the rest of us take for granted, like paying taxes. And ever since the 1970’s, elected officials — either out of genuine belief in the pro-corporate, anti-society mantras or out of fear the spigots of campaign cash they depend on would be turned off if they did otherwise — have consistently given the corporate desperadoes whatever they wanted: freedom from taxation, from regulation, from controls on so-called “innovations” that — especially in the so-called “FIRE” (finance, investment, real estate) sector that is now the largest part of the U.S. economy — usually just mean creative new ways of screwing ordinary people out of their money.

What’s more, we the people are letting them get away with it big-time. At the turn of the last century, plenty of Americans looked to building up the public sector as a viable way of controlling the abuses of private enterprises. No more: after decades of Right-wing propaganda extolling private enterprise as good, efficient and virtuous, and government as evil and corrupt — and after the failure of the socialist ideal in the face of the dictatorship and misery to which the Soviet Union and other “really existing socialisms” subjected their people — most Americans reflexively regard the business interest as the public interest and reject all organized challenges to it — from labor, environmentalists, people of color or anyone else — as “special interests.”

The ease with which the Right-wing propaganda machine in this country was able to demonize President Obama’s corporate-friendly health insurance reform as “socialism” and a “government takeover” of health care shows just how much most Americans have been brainwashed into the private-good, public-bad idolatry of “the Market.” The Rightists were able to win this stunning propaganda victory even in the face of the most far-reaching collapse of the private sector and the really existing market economy since the Great Depression of the 1930’s. And their successful strategy was to convince the American public that any expansion of government’s role in health care would bring such intolerable evils as long waits, arbitrary denials of treatment and bureaucrats coming between you and your doctor — which are already being done every day, in spades, by the private, for-profit health insurance industry.

Until the American people get over their zombie-like support of and faith in “the Market,” there will be no effective reform either of American politics or of any sector of the U.S. economy. There will only be scofflaw corporations, thumbing their noses at the people while they continue to drive wages down, export jobs to foreign countries, destroy the social safety net, pollute the environment and, through putting the pedal to the metal on global warming, ultimately speed up the extinction of the entire human race. If the people of this country were truly aware of how they’re getting screwed and who’s screwing them, we wouldn’t be seeing misled idiots staging “tea party” rallies trashing the government and calling for lower taxes; instead we’d be seeing a broad-based movement to demand accountability from a runaway private sector.


North Park Jeweler, Gallery Owner with a Bright Future


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: two shots of Matthew Cirello (wearing his own jewelry), Matthew’s partner Jasmine with him, and two photos of his work

North Park — specifically the block of Ray Street, a little side street just one block east of 30th, between University Avenue and North Park Way — becomes a real “happening” place the second Saturday of every month from 7 to 10 p.m. That’s when Ray at Night, a community arts event featuring gallery open houses and live music, occurs. One of the current mainstays of Ray at Night is Matthew Cirello, a young San Diego native who took over the gallery at the corner of Ray and North Park Way about a year and a half ago and is using it as a showcase for some of the most stunning — and surprisingly affordable -— jewelry available in San Diego.

Matthew Cirello is a busy young man. We had to reschedule his Zenger’s interview when he got in a big order and had to ship it the day we were first supposed to meet. When we finally did the interview, he squeezed us in for 20 minutes before he had an appointment with another reporter — and while we were talking a passer-by stepped into the gallery (it’s open Wednesday through Sunday), two people called on his cell phone, and his partner Jasmine came by, with perfect timing, just as Matt was talking about her and what an inspiration she’s been to him.

The Cirello gallery is located on 3803 Ray Street and can be reached at (619) 795-4850 or (619) 201-4668 (Matthew’s cell number). His Web site is The Cirello logo — a circle with his last name against a field of arcs and triangles — is good advertising for his work. So are the hand-crafted pendants Matthew and Jasmine were wearing while we spoke. See his stuff at Ray at Night, on the upcoming quarterly North Park art walks the third Saturday of every month, in his gallery during regular hours, or online.

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

Matthew Cirello: My name’s Matthew Cirello, and I’m a San Diego native. I grew up out in El Cajon, went to University of San Diego High School, and was always interested in art. I took my first art class — probably in sixth grade, maybe before that — and my parents were both really artistic, so I went to Humboldt State University in the year 2000 as a studio arts major.

I started taking ceramics, painting, woodworking classes and sculpture, and I really got into sculpture. In the year 2002 I took metalsmithing and jewelry, and have been pretty much committed to it since 2002. I moved back home 3 1/2 years ago, and before I had the gallery I was in Spanish Village Arts Center, which is San Diego’s arts community of working artists, right in Balboa Park. I outgrew it, opened up this space, and do our second Saturday of every month art walk, Ray at Night, featuring a wide range of local artists.

I love the art scene, being creative, and now since the new year I’ve started my relationship/romance with Jasmine. She and I are doing really, really well. She makes art as well. Being a creative person, I’ve always been drawn to creative people, so having a partner who’s creative is very good for me. I love meeting new people. I love talking to people. I’m kind of a people person. I love having the gallery for that reason, because it means people can walk in, say hello, look at my pieces and get into conversations with me.

Zenger’s: You said you were drawn to jewelry. What had you been doing before that?

Cirello: Sculpture. I did large foundry work, like welding, so it was similar to the jewelry but in a large scale. When I took my jewelry class I really liked the fact that I could have a year’s worth of work in one case. I could set up the shop out of my home, which was a lot easier and less expensive than a foundry.

Zenger’s: And also, I would assume, there was a much greater market for this.

Cirello: Yes. Jewelry is less exacting. If you’re going into sculpture, it’s larger than life scale.

Zenger’s: Do you still do any other kind of art?

Cirello: Yes, I’m trying to draw and paint a little bit more. I have my sketchbooks, so I’m always drawing with my pen. I like to do geometric line drawings. It helps me with my jewelry design ideas.

One thing I’ve really got into in the last six months is reclaimed stainless steel. We’re going into San Diego steel shops and taking the scraps. We use surgical stainless steel, so it’s hypoallergenic. It won’t bother your skin. It’s recycled, and then we laser-cut our designs and hand-polish them right here in San Diego. It’s utilizing resources in a great way, conserving and recycling.

Zenger’s: You said your partner also does art. What kind of stuff does she do, and is there anything of hers here?

Cirello: I would say Jasmine is a really creative person all around. She helps with just about everything in the gallery, like curating, hanging things, lining up artists, P.R., sales, and working behind the bench with jewelry, metalsmithing. She’s got a lot of neat jewelry design ideas of her own that she’s working on. She’s a well-rounded artistic individual.

Zenger’s: Who would you say your major influences are as an artist?

Cirello: I would say my parents. My family: my parents and my three older sisters. They really gave me support. I would say number one is Jasmine, and then my parents and then my three sisters.

Zenger’s: Did you have any older artists that influenced you?

Cirello: Kris Patzlaf and David Laplantz. They were my jewelry teachers and they really gave me my foundation for all my metalsmithing techniques, jeweler’s saw, files, sandpaper, all of that.

Zenger’s: What special techniques are involved working in sheet metal, since most of your pieces do seem to use sheet metal?

Cirello: I’m a machine fabricator, so I deal with sheet and a jeweler’s saw. I’m dealing with positive and negative space, so I have to design with that in mind, whereas if someone’s doing casting with wax, you can carve it away and cast that. I guess my limitations are whatever you can fabricate out of a sheet. I do not do any wire work. I’m a sheet metalsmith/fabricator; I guess would be the correct term.

Zenger’s: Is it one of those things where you’re inspired by the limitations of the medium to work around them?

Cirello: Yes. I like to be very hands-on and attack the metal as I am working with it. With wax I felt more separated from it. I like to be connected to it as I’m creating.

Zenger’s: How have you selected the other artists that exhibit here?

Cirello: For the most part, it could be a friend, a friend of a friend referral, or they just come in and show their stuff, and we go from there. There’s a bit of a reviewing process, and I guess it kind of has to fit the vision, if you will. I’m kind of open, but in general from what you see in here, I like to keep it within that theme.

Zenger’s: And how would you describe the theme?

Cirello: I definitely have an abstract feel going on. We have a couple of artists we feature on a permanent basis, and they give us new stuff all the time. We have Will Barton; he does a lot of jazz pieces, which are really nice. We also have Andrea Rushing, an oil painter. He’s been in North Park for the past 20 years, and he owned this gallery before I was here. He does more surrealistic paintings.

I like to have a little bit of everything, as long as they’re not too offensive. If it’s anything like if it’s something that’s very negative or directed towards one group, I might not be O.K. with that. But other than that, it’s pretty open. And as far as the caliber of the art, the marketing, promotions, Web site, business cards and a proper portfolio are prerequisites.

Zenger’s: Would you say that the jewelry you make is just for display purposes, or do you intend it actually to be worn?

Cirello: More to be worn than to be displayed, actually. The handmade pieces that are bigger, the sterling silver, the more expensive ones, the custom pieces I do for people are more ceremonial, maybe for something special, family heirloom. They don’t wear it all the time. But the stainless steel is to be worn like every day. People who buy these love them. It’s like their everyday piece. People who normally don’t like bracelets or forget to wear them are falling asleep with them on.

It’s almost like your favorite piece of jewelry in your house, because it’s great. It never rusts, it always looks the same, and it’s light, and it’s not too expensive as well. The stainless steel line is kind of designed to suit everyone’s needs. We have designs that are a little more masculine, a little more feminine. But even those that are a little more feminine, it seems like the guys are really enjoying those as well. We have earrings, rings and pendants.

Zenger’s [referring to the pendant Cirello was wearing]: Is that one of yours?

Cirello: This is one of the handmade sterling silver ones. We’d want a little more like $800 for this one. Jasmine’s is like $2,500 because there are a lot more rare gemstones in there. And those are unique items, “one of one,” as we say in the art world. These are things that are more like investments. They’ll appreciate over time. The stainless steel is something fun you can wear out at the clubs. The handmade stuff you might not want to wear every day, though Jasmine and I wear ours every day!

I also love to do custom-commissioned work. That’s really my passion. I just love it when two people come in, especially couples. They have a vision and need my help to make something, or they have a family heirloom stone that they want to showcase in a unique setting. It’s so neat to be able to help people through that and help them manifest that vision into a reality. It’s a real treat.

Zenger’s: How are you doing, business-wise?

Cirello: Pretty good. We’ve been here a year and a half. The first year was a little tough. We’re also starting to rent out our place for private parties, so that’s helping out a lot. We do birthday parties, private events, anniversaries, baby showers, whatever you really want, so people can come, bring about 20 to 30 of their friends, have a great time and utilize this space. Since we realized we needed to create our own buzz here and bring people in, it’s been pretty good.

It seems like every day we’re getting more and more busy, setting more things up, so we’re planning on being here long-term and getting established. It’s nice getting our feet in the soil and letting our roots start to grow a little bit. So so far, pretty good. It has not been easy, though, for sure.

Zenger’s: Yes, starting this right when the economy was tanking.

Cirello: That’s why we’re really trying to encourage the private events, because everyone who’s done them has just loved them and had a great time. It’s also great for us, because it helps with the overhead, of course. We do wine tastings as well. Those are really fun. We bring in a wine specialist and charge about $20 to $30 a person to come in, taste the wine and be able to buy the wine. If you wanted to have one of those events privately for you and your friends, we’re open to that as well.
Real Americans in the South

Paraguay Does What the U.S. Can’t: Universal Health Care


As 2009 drew to a close, U.S. Congressional members, each having one of the best health care policies on Earth for themselves and family, were backing down from the power of health care industry lobbyists, and with a wink of O.K. from Obama, gutted real health care reform in America.

While the wealth pimps in Washington, D.C. managed, over public opposition, to gut any fair, just, equitable public option and, instead, handed the HMO crooks a high-priced Christmas present in mandatory requirement for their extortion policies, the government of tiny Paraguay gave its citizens a gift of all public health fees being eliminated nationwide on Christmas Day.

Life over wealth won out, as President Fernando Lugo, a former bishop who took office in August 2008, instituted another round in his government’s efforts to provide free health care to everyone. “What we are doing is making health care a right, regardless of a person's ability to pay,” Diego Gamarra, director general of health services in the Ministry of Public Health and Social Welfare (MSPBS), told reporters.

Seven percent of Paraguay's population of 6.1 million currently have private health coverage, 20 percent are covered by the health services of the social security institute, the Instituto de Previsión Social, and the rest depend on the public health system. But an estimated 40 percent of the population were unable to afford health care of any kind.

Unlike the United States and its big lie about health care “reform,” the New Year in Paraguay saw all 1,000 public hospitals and health clinics in Paraguay accessible and free to anyone.

The MSPBS gradually began to make some public health services free in September 2008, when fees for office or outpatient visits and emergency room visits were waived. Later, hospital admission fees were eliminated, along with charges for intensive care, post-op incision care, nebulizer treatments, treatment in an infant incubator, oxygen therapy, surgery and other services. In late 2009, fees were removed for diagnostic tests in all specialties, and for dental and ophthalmological services.

However, Paraguay has the same problem that the United States has — wealthy families and large powerful corporations who do not pay their fair share in taxes and, thus, public money to fund public projects is limited.

In the U.S., where government is owned by the rich, for the rich, with so many tax loopholes and deduction allowances written by lobbyists, lawyers, accountants and others who serve the elite, public projects are financed by deficient spending, borrowing from the those very fat cats the money they are withholding from the public kitty and then, adding insult to injury, paying them a high interest on that stolen money.

In Paraguay, corporations and the rich simply evade taxes. There is no system in place to detect, let alone enforce, these parasites pay their fair share. President Lugo hopes to institute laws which crack down on evasion, however, the Supreme Court — as in the U.S. in Franklin Roosevelt’s day — is made up of wealthy men, all members of the Colorado Party of former dictator Gen. Alfredo Stroessner.

Like the United States, where the conservative lackeys of the rich, Republicans, whore Lieberman and other bought Democrats, the Supreme Court and most of the corporate media, will fight justice in health care tooth and nail, likewise the Colorado Party and the former elite of Paraguay will selfishly cling to their wealth while children and the ill die of neglect.

The deference however, I suspect, will be that while we here in the U.S. snivel and whimper and in delusion try health care reform at the state level, where HMO wealth is even more effective in buying elections, the citizens of Paraguay will take to the streets and physically take control of their mandate of health care for all.

How pitiful — and embarrassing — to be a U.S. citizen today, especially since our southern cousins are showing the world of what it is like to be a “real American” — with justice and equality for all.

Cirque du Soleil Returns to Del Mar Through March 28

story and photos by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Part circus and part theatre, a smaller-then-usual version of Cirque du Soleil is appearing at the Del Mar fairgrounds. It’s called Kooza.

The Canadian cirque, founded in 1984 in Montreal, is a blend of circus arts and theatrical per-formance. No animals are used; only sheer human strength and energy.

Cirque came from the street. Mimes, jugglers and stilt-walkers in a Quebec village banded to-gether in 1982 to create Club des Talons Hauts (High Heels Club). The name was chosen because they mostly performed on stilts, and many still do.

Militaristic marches and fanfares of traditional circuses were replaced with sometimes haunting, sometimes ethereal, original musical scores. Cirque is intent on being different.

There is no one Cirque du Soleil, but 19 different companies worldwide. The Elvis Cirque is totally different, but only appears at the Aria in Center City in Las Vegas. The show that appeared a few years ago at Del Mar was bigger and grander than the smaller Kooza, appearing there through March 28.

Indeed, in the first hour of the current show there are only two really stunning acts: female contortionists who bend their bodies in circles … backwards; and an act by several performers bal-ancing on a bicycle on a single high-wire.

The circus also has a formidable security staff of hard-nosed tough guys who will physically evict anyone they deem to violate so-called house rules, which aren’t posted.

Cirque du Soleil now has permanent homes in Vegas (the Elvis show), Biloxi, Mississippi and at the Walt Disney World Resort, according to its Web site. It’s a multi-million dollar operation.

Contact reporter Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or

Photo captions:

A balancing act at Cirque du Soleil at the Del Mar fairgrounds. Photo by Leo E. Laurence © 2010

A high-wire act at Cirque du Soleil at the Del Mar fairgrounds. Photo by Leo E. Laurence © 2010


Story and photos by Leo E. Laurence

Copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Expanding for its 17th season, the internationally respected Latino Film Festival will screen 185 films March 11 - 21, plus produce nightly, live music and dance performances with an added exhibit of Latino art. Most films are in Spanish, but with English subtitles.

“The festival started 17 years ago as a student festival at local universities and was called Cine Estudiantes (Student Film),” said festival founder and executive director, Ethan van Thillo, in an interview.

“In 1998 (the festival) changed from student films to screening feature films and inviting actors and directors. That’s when the whole thing kind of blew up and started growing,” van Thillo added.

“We have 185 films (this year), more than ever. 166 were screened last year.

“We also have a whole celebration of women filmmakers, called Cine Mujer (Women in Film), funded by the Motion Picture Academy for Arts & Sciences. The Oscars gave us a grant to cele-brate women filmmakers from Latin America, México and Spain; with more than 40 of their films being screened.

“We will have a wide celebration of Latino music every night at 8:30 p.m. in the UltraStar lobby; and Arte Latino, curated by Gonzales of La Onda Arte Latino,” van Thillo reported.

Several Hollywood celebrities are coming, including Jaime Camile who will attend the U.S. premier of “Regrets.”

Carmen Salinas is coming back this year, and comedian Paul Rodriquez will appear for a funny new Chicano film.

For the fifth year, “Cine Gay” will continue its mission to help correct the often distorted images of the Gay Community on television and in films with a showcase of five major, Gay films about and by Gay Latinos, according to Patrick Stillman.

He is the Innovations and Programming Officer for the Media Arts Center in Golden Hills, which produces the Latino Film Festival each year.

Two Gay counterpoints include “Contracorriente”, about a Peruvian fisherman in a small village dealing with being Gay. It won an award at the Sundance Film Festival this year.

“Contracorriente” is paired with “Andrew” as a counterpoint, the first Gay film from the Basque region of Spain. It tells the story of the rural lifestyle for a Gay senior.

The new film La Mission about an ex-con living in San Francisco’s largely Latino Mission District whose world is changed when he discovers that his son is Gay.

In addition to Hollywood and international films, a short, award-winning production by local filmmakers Antonio de Jesus, 26, of SDSU and Roberto Mora, 30, of Normal Heights called All About Martha will be screened.

The U.S. film stars Peter Bratt, son of well-known Hollywood actor Benjamin Bratt, who will be attending the festival.

Over 180,000 have seen over 4,000 films over the 17 successful years of the Latino Film Festival, now produced at the UltraStar Cinemas in the Hazard Center near I-163 and Friars Road in Mission Valley.

More information is available at or call (619) 230-1938.

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or

Photo captions:

Latino Film Festival staffer Patrick Stillman (l-r)is shown with San Diego filmmakers Roberto Mora, 30 and Antonio de Jesus, 26. Photo by Leo E. Laurence © 2010

SDSU filmaker Antonio de Jesus, 26, will appear with his movie All About Martha at the Latino Film Festival March 11-21. Photo by Leo E. Laurence

UCSD Psychiatrist Has Program to Cure Most Insomnia

story and photo by LEO E. LAURENCE

Copyright © 2010 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Insomnia at night can wreck your day, but a University of California at San Diego (UCSD) psychiatrist has developed a program that can cure it, assuming no physical problems exist.

Insomnia is the abnormal inability to get adequate sleep at night. Some research shows that it affects about 30 percent of the population, though that figure may actually be quite low.

“About 10 percent have such bad insomnia that it ruins their day,” says Dr. Joshua Kayman, M.D., a high-energy psychiatrist at UCSD Outpatient Services in Hillcrest, commonly known as the Gifford Clinic.

He has developed a workable program that can significantly reduce insomnia for those “who are committed to it and put some energy into it.”

Taking Control of Sleep

The comprehensive program used by Dr. Kayman is actually quite simple, with some firm rules that may change an insomniac’s daily routine in some surprising ways. Productivity increases dramatically.

First, the person keeps a daily log for one week of their sleep habits, including (1) recording their bedtime, (2) their rise time (when you get out of bed, not when you wake up), and to determine their total time from bed to rising.

Next, they estimate (1) the time it took to initially go to sleep, (2) the time awake during the night, and (3) the time lying in bed in the morning before getting up; but after first waking up. That time is deducted from their total time in bed, to determine the total “sleep time.”

The average of a person’s total sleep time for a full week establishes how much sleep that per-son really needs each night. Generally, it is longer for a younger person in their 20’s (8+ hrs.) than for a senior citizen (6+ hrs).

Then the person determines at what hour they want to get up in the morning. If, for example, that’s 7:30 a.m. and the person’s average “sleep time” is 7 1/2 hours, then that person should go to bed at midnight.

The old-fashioned rule of “Early to bed, early to rise … ” is a myth and inconsistent with the current science on the cure for insomnia.

Bed is for Sleeping or Sex, Only

Some people like to read or watch TV or make phone calls from their bed. Wrong! The bed is for sleeping or sex, only !!!

Get out of bed at the very same time, every morning. That will set your “biological clock,” according to this program used by Dr. Kayman. It is based in part on 2007 research from the University of Pittsburgh, and more recently replicated by him at UCSD/

“If you get up (out of bed) at the same time every day, it helps you to sleep better the next night,” Dr. Kayman explained.

Don’t go to bed unless you are sleepy. The longer you are awake, the better you’ll sleep.

Don’t stay in bed if you aren’t sleepy. If you go to bed and toss and turn, but don’t sleep for about 15 minutes, get up until you get really sleepy.

If you lie in bed frustrated that you are not sleeping, the bed = frustration. Stop trying to fall asleep, and it helps you train your brain that bed = sleep.

No Daytime Naps

Taking a “short” nap during the day may make you feel temporarily more refreshed, but they are murder to a good night’s sleep.

Forcing yourself to stay awake during the day helps you to fall asleep when you go to bed at night, according to Dr. Kayman.

Many people like to take “Churchillian naps,” short 10-15 minute naps mid-afternoon. WW-II English Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill reportedly had a bed in his wartime office in London to take short naps. But Churchill was an exception.

Staying awake during the day, even when you want desperately to take a short nap, helps you fall asleep that night, the UCSD psychiatrist reports.

New Sleeping Rules

If you work this program advocated by Dr. Kayman, you will cure your insomnia, unless you have some physical problems like sleep apnea, which is the transient cessation of respiration (breath-ing).

In other words, with sleep apnea a person will literally stop breathing temporarily and wake up — incorrectly thinking they have insomnia.

1. No naps. None, period!

2. The bed is for sleeping ONLY, no watching TV (to supposedly “get sleepy”) in bed. No reading in bed. Your body and mind need to get trained that it sleeps — and only sleeps — when you get into bed.

3. Sex is O.K. in bed, but only if it is enjoyable.

4. Keep the bedroom comfortably cool at night, several degrees lower than the rooms where you live. Very warm or very cold temperatures may disturb sleep.

5. Avoid drinking water after 6 p.m. (1800 hrs.), so you don’t have to get up in the middle of the night to take a leak.

6. Booze disturbs sleep. While we will eventually get sleepy when drinking, when the alcohol wears off, you will wake up and be wide awake, unable to sleep. You will wake up one hour earlier than usual, for every drink before bedtime.

7. Coffee cooks your sleep, especially Starbucks’ high-test stuff.

8. Smoking kills sleep. Nicotine is a stimulant, so no smokes at night before bedtime.

9. Don’t go to bed hungry. Eat a light snack (no meat) about an hour before you turn in.

10. Use the bedroom only for sleep. Especially no exercise equipment! Keep it dark at night and close the door when you turn in.

11. Take off pajamas immediately after getting up in the morning. They are for sleeping only, and not to be worn during breakfast.

12. Exercise (long walk, workout) regularly! But don’t exercise three hours before bedtime.


This program works. Commit to it and put some energy into keeping a daily log of your sleeping habits. By following these simple, but firm, rules; you’ll regularly sleep at night after about two weeks on the program.

Some people resist working this program “because there is an easy fix to their insomnia and they just go with the medication (e.g., Ambien),” said UCSD’s Dr. Kayman in an interview.

“If someone has some responsibility on their shoulders, a job to get to and they need a good night’s sleep,” they are more likely “to commit to the program and put some energy into it,” and it works amazingly well.

“But, it’s harder for someone on disability who doesn’t really need to get to work. It’s harder for them to (get the motivation) to do the program,” the UCSD psychiatrist added.

“There are some things that people like (drinking and smoking) and it’s harder for them to give it up.”

Even though it ruins their sleep, they continue to drink and smoke. Ultimately both will disturb their sleep in the wee hours of the morning.

This program to cure insomnia may turn your life (and habits) upside down, but it can be like a ride on a huge, high roller coaster, and that can be exciting!

Contact writer Leo E. Laurence at (619) 757-4909 or

Photo caption:

With a hint of a smile, Victor Gersten, 22, sleeps soundly, free of insomnia. Photo by Leo E. Laurence © 2010