Sunday, February 27, 2011

Over 1,000 Turn Out in San Diego to Support Wisconsin Workers


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: crowd assembling at the start of the February 26 action; Assemblymember Toni Atkins speaking during the rally. Photos by Charles Nelson.

Braving cold weather and the threat of rain, over 1,000 San Diegans — many, but not all, of them union workers — turned out at noon Saturday, February 26 to the back lawn of the San Diego County Administrative Center in downtown San Diego for a rally in support of public employees in Wisconsin. The issue began when Republican Scott Walker, recently elected governor of Wisconsin, and the state’s Republican-dominated state legislature first enacted $117 million in state tax giveaways to business and wealthy individuals, and then Walker put a bill before the legislature that would not only cut the state employees’ health and pension benefits but would effectively strip them of the right to union representation and collective bargaining.

Wisconsin state workers and their supporters in the private sector responded by holding mass demonstrations in Madison, the state capital, and occupying the building where the legislature meets. What’s more, the 14 Democrats in the Wisconsin State Senate left the state for Illinois to make sure the Senate couldn’t convene a quorum to pass Walker’s so-called “budget repair” bill. Workers have come from all over the country to Madison to support the demonstrations. Some of them have been recruited to do so by national unions, but they’ve had to pay their own way to get to Wisconsin — and they’ve been told that there’s no place to stay in the city and they need to bring sleeping bags and plan to sleep outdoors in the cold and snow of a Wisconsin winter.

Support rallies have been held throughout the country, and a nationwide call went out for people to meet in their own state’s capitals for demonstrations backing Wisconsin’s workers at noon on February 26. Because of California’s size, the demonstrations here were held not only in Sacramento but in the state’s larger cities, including San Diego. The San Diego rally was called not by the city’s labor leadership but by veteran activist Frank Gormlie, who published an alternative newspaper called the O. B. Rag in the 1970’s and early 2000’s and now operates a local news Web site under the same name,

The rally was MC’d by Lorena Gonzalez, secretary-treasurer of the San Diego and Imperial Counties Labor Council. “It’s snowing in Wisconsin, so it’s much better out here,” she said. “We’re standing in solidarity with every state employee currently threatened with the loss of collective bargaining rights. We worked hard in the last election to make sure we’d have a governor in California who would protect our collective bargaining rights — and it was Jerry Brown, the governor who signed them into law in the first place — but in San Diego we have our own Scott Walker: Carl DeMaio, a City Councilmember who’s every bit as bad.”

Like many of the subsequent speakers, Gonzalez portrayed the conflict in Wisconsin as not an isolated clash between public employee unions and a Republican governor, but as part of a nationwide movement to demonize public workers and unions in general so rich people can make themselves even richer. “”Big corporations have $87 billion and they’re going to demonize a teacher who makes $60,000 a year?” Gonzalez said. “This isn’t about public employees. It’s about politics. In the 2010 election, only three out of the top 10 political action committees (PAC’s) gave to Democrats — and they were all members of public employee unions. Businesses have a collective effort to get rid of those PAC’s so they can get rid of Democrats and every value they stand for, including the rights of workers.”

Gonzalez mounted an energetic defense not only of public workers but of unions in general. “When people report crimes, who sends out the call, and who answers it? Public employees,” she said. “When there’s a fire we can call a dispatcher, a public employee, who sends out firefighters — public employees. When I send my kids to school, teachers — public employees — spend more time with my kids than I can. When my family members have to be cleaned up after by a nurse’s aide, they are public workers.” Pointing out that some members of the audience were not represented by unions, she said, “If you have an eight-hour work day and a 40-hour work week, thank a union worker. If you can go to the bathroom at work without being docked, thank a union worker. If you’re grateful for the minimum wage, unemployment insurance, Social Security and [the promise of] affordable health care, thank a union worker.”

“Right now the American dream is slipping away from all of us,” said Brian Marvel, president of the San Diego Police Officers’ Association (POA). “In state capitals and Washington, D.C., Republicans are using a ripped economy to go after union workers and the middle class. [Walker’s bill] isn’t a budget, it’s a naked power grab to go after middle-class workers everywhere.” Commenting on a Sign On San Diego Web poster who said he resented his tax money being paid to public workers who then donated it to a union PAC that used it to advance liberal candidates and issues, and therefore public employees shouldn’t be allowed to have unions or PAC’s, Marvel called it “bullshit. … Is he saying private-sector workers shouldn’t have bargaining rights because we pay their salaries as part of everything we buy? Because organized labor supported Social Security and civil rights, is he saying they shouldn’t exist?”

California State Senator Juan Vargas, along with Assemblymembers Toni Atkins and Ben Hueso and San Diego Unified School Board member Richard Barrera, spoke as elected officials ¬— and Vargas delivered a militant pro-union speech confounding progressive Democrats who had supported his primary opponent and ridiculed him as a “DINO” [Democrat in name only]. “We are going to stand with the workers of Wisconsin and the Democrats in the state legislature,” he thundered. “We are going to stand up for the rights of a middle class. Unfortunately our budget troubles in California are worse than Wisconsin’s, but our unions are willing to stand up and say they’re going to be part of the solution.”

Like a number of other speakers, Vargas mentioned the controversial Koch brothers, Charles and David, who own Koch Industries, the second largest privately held company in the U.S. According to New Yorker reporter Jane Mayer, Koch Industries “owns Brawny paper towels, Dixie cups, Georgia-Pacific lumber, Stainmaster carpet, and Lycra, among other products.” Mayer’s article, published August 30, 2010, was many people’s first source of information about the Kochs and their political activities. “The Kochs are longtime libertarians who believe in drastically lower personal and corporate taxes, minimal social services for the needy, and much less oversight of industry — especially environmental regulation,” Mayer wrote. “These views dovetail with the brothers’ corporate interests. In a study released this spring, the University of Massachusetts at Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute named Koch Industries one of the top ten air polluters in the United States. And Greenpeace issued a report identifying the company as a ‘kingpin of climate science denial.’”

The Kochs also launched a political action group called Americans for Prosperity, which made large donations to Governor Walker and other anti-labor Republican politicians and, according to Mayer, helped finance and promote the “Tea Party” movement that mobilized opposition to President Obama and helped the Republicans take over the U.S. House and many state governments in the 2010 election. A number of speakers on February 26 made puns on the Koch name — it’s pronounced “coke” — and one person at the rally carried a sign reading, “Gov. Walker, Your Koch Dealer Is On Line 2.” This was a reference to a prank carried out the week before by an Internet blogger who called Walker’s office, impersonating David Koch — and actually got through to the governor and discussed his plans for suppressing the demonstrations.

“Boycott Koch, just as we boycott Wal-Mart,” Vargas said at the February 26 rally. “We’ve seen an unprecedented attack on the middle class ever since President Reagan changed the tax code in the early 1980’s. If we don’t fight back, the middle class will disappear completely.”

“You look beautiful from up here!” Assemblymember Atkins greeted the crowd. “We are a union town! This week we stand with you in Sacramento. It’s not just about workers in Wisconsin. It’s about all of us. My parents were union members. My dad was a coal miner; my mom was a seamstress. They worked hard so I could go to college and be a middle-class American.” Recalling that she and Hueso had been key votes on the San Diego City Council to pass a living-wage law covering city contractors before both of them moved up to the Assembly, Atkins said, “There are elected officials who will scapegoat public employees. I will not do that. People around the globe are fighting for the right to speak. … We are going to stand with people in Wisconsin and all across the country. We’re not going to forget where we came from.”

Before introducing San Diego Firefighters’ Union president Frank DeClerq, who spoke right after Vargas, Gonzales said that Walker had tried to split labor’s ranks by exempting the police and fire unions (both of which supported him in his campaign) from his bill to strip public workers of collective bargaining rights — but it hadn’t worked. DeClerq denounced the “orchestrated and careful” tactics the Republicans are using in their attacks on labor, but said they won’t work. “We will fight, and put our money and resources behind it,” he said. “They’re not going to take us down. We’ve got to organize and get to the grass roots. People have the right to be in a union and to fight for fair wages and benefits. We will not let them destroy the middle class. We will unite with the poor and take them down at the polls.”

“It’s not greed for teachers and school support staff to have collective bargaining,” said Tierra Gonzalez Evans, Lorena Gonzalez’ 15-year-old daughter and a student at Mission Bay High School. “Greed is not our science teacher who went for a week without pay to chaperone us to Washington, D.C. Greed is not a counselor who’s so dedicated they see students during their lunch hour and on weekends. Greed is the CEO’s who make billions off workers. Greed is a corporation that doesn’t pay workers living wages or health benefits. Greed is developers in downtown San Diego who won’t allow redevelopment money to go to schools.”

“I want to give a shout-out to our brothers and sisters in Wisconsin,” said Bill Freeman, president of the San Diego Education Association and last year’s Teacher of the Year in the San Diego Unified School District. “It’s a dreary day when Americans attack Americans. We are under attack by the elite wealthy. Those officials did not get into office by chance. Wealthy people are beginning to run for office not because they feel it is their time to give back to society, but to further their own greed.” Freeman said that if Republican Meg Whitman had won her largely self-financed campaign against Jerry Brown for governor of California, “we would be just where Wisconsin is.”

Freeman said he blamed the economic crisis on “greedy bankers who made loans they shouldn’t have made … [and] greedy investors who bet against their own securities.” After the government bailed them out with the TARP program, according to Freeman, “someone had to replace the tax base. So they’re coming after us union workers and asking for more.” He also said that the No Child Left Behind act, passed under President George W. Bush with bipartisan support, will ultimately brand every public school in the U.S. a “failure,” scapegoating teachers when the real cause for students’ failure to learn is poverty. “It’s hard being a teacher when both your students’ parents are working low-wage jobs and not reading to their kids or even buying them warm clothes,” Freeman said. “Last year I had three students in my class who were homeless.”

“I know the role unions have played in keeping higher education affordable and available,” said Amanda Ferry, graduate student at San Diego State University (SDSU). “As CSU [the California State University system, of which SDSU is a part] looks to cut custs, teachers, graduate students and unions have fought back. Governor Walker and big business want to silence students and workers. It is a bleak prospect, an attack on public education. Students are here ready to show solidarity with Wisconsin. It’s time to save the middle class.”

“Scott Walker lit a fire under people like you here and everywhere to get them to fight back,” said Art Pulaski, secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “Your being here today is important because this battle is not about one state, one governor, one bill, and it’s about more than public employees. It’s even about more than unions. It’s about the great American right of freedom of association: to fight for a better wage for yourselves and your family. We across America are one.” He read a letter from Pam Perask, a school counselor from Wisconsin, and said, “When Scott Walker tries to silence the voice of a guidance counselor in Wisconsin, the people stood up and said, ‘Not here!’ When he tries to silence a firefighter or health care worker, we say, ‘Not here! Not anywhere!’”

“I know what unions have done to keep our health care system running,” said Tim Newlis, nurse at Kaiser Permanente and member of a nurses’ union affiliated with the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). “Nurses and unions are part of the solution, not the problem. We have fought for patient ratios so there’d be more nurses at patients’ beds. It gets harder and harder to be a nurse.” He called Governor Walker’s plan to end collective bargaining for public workers “a crazy idea.”

The final speaker, representing the Interfaith Committee for Worker Justice (ICWJ) of San Diego County, was something of a surprise: Imam Taha Hassane of the Islamic Center of San Diego. “It’s an honor representing the Muslim faith and the ICWJ,” Hassane said. “What’s happening on Capitol Hill and in the state capitols around the nation is really shameful. Fixing the deficit on the backs of poor people and public workers is immoral. Depriving people of a decent education, health care and safe neighborhoods is immoral. We pray to you, Lord, to enlighten the minds of our leaders and elected officials, and to soften their hearts so they can see the pain of suffering people and hear the voices of oppressed people. Bless us all, and bless our nation.”

Friday, February 25, 2011

Who’s Poisoning the Well of Our Political Discourse?

It’s Secularists, Not Believers, USD Professor Smith Says


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

Many Americans believe that the conversation around political and social issues in this country has become cruder, meaner and less civil in recent years, and quite a few — especially in the circles University of San Diego (USD) law professor Steven D. Smith travels in, academe and law — blame that on the increasing reach and power of religious believers in civic life. But Smith says it’s secularists, not believers, who have done more to coarsen political debate in American life, and on February 22 at the San Diego Public Library downtown he brought his contrarian message to an unlikely audience: the San Diego Humanist Fellowship, whose members share a skepticism not only towards the existence of God but the role of religion in public life.

Smith began his presentation, distilled from a book he recently published called The Disenchantment of Secular Discourse, by saying that all people “engage in moral reasoning” about political issues, particularly hot-button ones like abortion, same-sex marriage and the use of torture in the “war on terror.” “Through much of history,” he explained, “moral reasoning proceeded on the assumption that there was a built-in moral order in nature, and the task was to find out what it was and bring human life into conformance with it. Aristotle had the idea that things had a built-in telos [a Greek word generally defined as ‘end,’ ‘purpose’ or ‘goal’] that they’re supposed to realize.” Smith also cited what he called “the Jerusalem view,” the belief on which the Abrahamic (Judeo-Christian-Islamic) religious tradition is founded, that “we are created by God under certain moral values.”

The rise of science in the 17th and 18th centuries changed all that, Smith argued. Scientists rejected the classical Aristotelian view of telos and believed instead “that matter consists of physical particles that combine and recombine and sometimes end up looking something like us,” Smith said, paraphrasing author John Searle’s statement of that viewpoint. “This is the view [of nature and humanity], almost mandatory today,” Searle summed up Searle’s view, in a tone that made it clear he disagreed. “In our deepest reflections, we cannot take claims of God and the afterlife seriously. There isn’t any inherent morality; the more the universe is understood, the more it seems pointless. As Bertrand Russell said, man is the result of processes that have no intentional end.”

Citing philosopher Max Weber, who called the scientific/secular view “the disenchantment of the world,” Smith described its triumph, especially in the academy, as a dual-edged sword. “At one end, there’s complacency or even jubilation and liberation to approach human freedom and reason in a new way,” Smith said. “At the other end, there’s a reaction that sees [the scientific view] as nihilism. As Dostoyevsky’s Ivan said, ‘If there is no God, then everything is permitted.’ … The loss of faith signals the ruin of moral principles and, indeed, of all values. Some people think you can build a moral philosophy purely on secular things, but that’s an illusion.”

As an example of why that doesn’t work, he cited an attempt at it by a former law professor of his, Arthur Alan Leff (1935-1981), who in December 1979 published an article in the Duke Law Journal called “Unspeakable Ethics, Unnatural Law” which argued that the nonexistence of God meant that there were no hard-and-fast rules of moral conduct by which people must behave that could form the basis of a legal system. “There is no such thing as an unchallengeable evaluative system,” Leff wrote (italics his). “There is no way to prove one ethical or legal system superior to any other, unless at some point an evaluator is asserted to have the final, uncontrollable, unexaminable word.”

At the end of his article — which Smith quoted in his lecture — Leff wrote that, “if all men are brothers, the ruling model is Cain and Abel.” Leff wrote a series of moral prescriptions in which he implied he believed — “Napalming babies is bad. Starving the poor is wicked. Buying and selling each other is depraved. Those who stood up to and died resisting Hitler, Stalin, Amin and Pol Pot — and General Custer, too — have earned salvation. Those who acquiesced deserve to be damned. There is in the world such a thing as evil” — and then finished his article, “All together now: Sez who? God help us.”

Whereas Leff — at least according to Smith’s reading of him — bought into the view that there is no God, no afterlife and no “unchallengeable evaluative system,” and therefore we’re on our own to create our own morality, Smith argued that it’s the closing of the doors of academe to religious arguments that has brought down the level of our political discourse. His idea is that “many of our normative positions” — including the ones Leff listed at the end of his article — “are based on a classical view of nature. But modern secular discourse tries, and to some extent succeeds, in ruling those considerations out of order.” Smith said that in law and academe, “the discipline is total,” and even in popular circles many people feel they can’t openly base their arguments on religious beliefs.

Instead, said Smith, they engage in what he called “smuggling” — a term that clearly made his audience uncomfortable. “I suggest we sneak in our deeper convictions without fully acknowledging them,” he explained. He argued that the “smuggling” of religious values into ostensibly secular debate centers around two basic value systems: “freedom/liberty” and “equality/reciprocity.” Citing author Peter Westen’s essay “The Empty Promise of Equality” (Harvard Law Review, 1982), Smith mentioned an example that shows how difficult using “equality” as a value to make social decisions can be: should a blind person be allowed to vote, and should a blind person be allowed to drive? His argument is that there’s no reason to argue that blind people are “equal” to sighted people to decide either question because there are “substantive criteria … we can apply … without invoking ‘equality.’”

“Some qualifications are needed to Westen’s thesis,” Smith admitted. “Most people understand the basic point about substantive criteria, but issues like same-sex marriage and religious freedom are argued in terms of ‘equality.’ If Westen is right, some major smuggling is going on.” Indeed, said Smith, “Much of our public discourse is about smuggling. I have chapters in my book about euthanasia, religious freedom and civil rights.” He also wrote a chapter called “Science, Humanity and Atrocity,” dealing with the ability of scientists in authoritarian regimes like Japan-occupied Manchuria, Nazi Germany and Pol Pot’s Cambodia to rationalize conducting brutal scientific experiments on human subjects, and said that the “professor I know” on whose work most of the chapter was based, Joseph Vining, was “trying to get out of the secular cage.”

Noting that his publisher, Harvard University Press, had asked him for a closing chapter explaining how he thinks people should argue and approach the issues he wrote about, Smith said he really didn’t want to do that, “What I write is clinical and diagnostic, not prescriptive,” he explained, — and he described the final chapter he did supply was “essentially a plea to be open.” Smith also criticized author John Rawls’ appeal for a “public reason” that left out religious values “as saying that we’re not going to get agreement about a comprehensive doctrine except through government coercion. ‘Public reason’ is an attempt to get along by agreeing we’re not going to bring these things up in public discourse.”

According to Smith, “consensus is not likely to happen” if we follow Rawls’ formula and require religious believers to “smuggle” their beliefs into ostensibly secular arguments. He cited philosopher Richard Rorty’s line that religion was “a conversation-stopper” — essentially a rebuke to those who say things like, “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” — and Smith believes that, at least in the academic and legal circles in which he travels, it’s secularism that’s the “conversation-stopper” because as soon as anyone invokes an openly religious argument, the secularists rule it out of court and refuse to engage it.

“In this book, I’m not arguing one way or another that a secular world view cannot support morality, I’m saying that as we know it, it doesn’t,” Smith said. “What you could do is have a conversation where people’s deepest convictions won’t be sneered at, and that might bring people around to different views.”

Monday, February 21, 2011

States of Disunion


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

“They’ve got to be protected,
All their rights respected,
’Til someone that we like can be elected.”
— Tom Lehrer, “Send the Marines”

As Dorothy Gale said in The Wizard of Oz, people come and go so quickly here! The last time I sat down to write one of these columns, Hosni Mubarak was well into the 30th year of his reign in Egypt and it looked virtually certain that he would continue as that country’s president until he died — whereupon his son Gamal would succeed him. Only a lot of people in Egypt had other ideas, and the success of a series of street protests in dislodging the equally long-serving and out-of-touch ruler of Tunisia inspired restive Egyptians to crowd into Cairo’s Tahrir Square and try the same thing. After 18 days, they succeeded — sort of; Mubarak and his hand-picked vice-president, Omar Sulieman, stepped down, but the Egyptian military, which has run the country since they got rid of the British-supported monarchy in 1952, announced they were taking over, dissolving Parliament, suspending the constitution and ruling by military committee until they can organize elections.

It’s been fascinating to watch the radical-Right hypocrites of talk radio and Fox News dance around the struggle of the Egyptian people and ultimately come down on the side of Mubarak and his U.S.- and Israel-friendly dictatorship. The same people who eight years ago said it was the bounden duty of the U.S. to spend thousands of its people’s lives and billions of dollars to oust Saddam Hussein from the presidency of Iraq are now piously telling us that it wasn’t any of our business to decide for the Egyptian people who their leader should be, and the Egyptians in the street were denying the rights of their countrymen who wanted Mubarak to stay in office. They whined about the Muslim Brotherhood and the possibility that it could build on its 25- to 30-percent popular support to take over the new government and turn Egypt into another Iran — and they made it clear, as they had previously in the Gaza Strip (where the U.S. and western Europe refused to acknowledge the result of a free and fair election because the “wrong” people won), that when confronted with the possibility of real democracy in an Arab country — not the sham we imposed on Iraq — they much prefer a dictator who can be counted on to aid Israel in maintaining its genocidal blockade of Gaza, as Mubarak did.

The Egyptian struggle bounced the fallout from President Obama’s State of the Union address off the media, but in a weird way the two events interlinked. In Egypt people united to overthrow a probably corrupt and certainly clueless ruler in hopes that new leadership would get what was traditionally the Arab world’s most economically advanced country working again and creating jobs for its people. Meanwhile, in the U.S. Obama proposed a series of big ideas to get his people working again and to develop his country’s economy for the 21st century — notably high-speed rail transportation and a variety of energy alternatives to fossil fuels — and, flush with their election victory in the House of Representatives last November, Republicans sneered at him as usual, trashing every program he advanced without suggesting anything constructive of their own.

It wasn’t always this way. By coincidence, I happened to watch Obama’s State of the Union on the same day I saw a PBS documentary on the building of the Panama Canal. The confluence of those two programs forcefully brought home how different today’s microscopic-minded Republican party is from its past, when Republican presidents routinely proposed major, game-changing infrastructure projects — Abraham Lincoln with the transcontinental railroad, Theodore Roosevelt with the Panama Canal, Dwight Eisenhower with the interstate highway system — because they understood, as today’s Republicans do not, that the private sector alone cannot develop a vibrant modern economy. It takes government spending — and lots of it — to create the public investment in education, transportation and economic pump-priming that allows the private sector to innovate and thrive.

Years ago in these pages I argued that if the 1980’s had been called the “Me Decade” — in which, under the malign influence of Ronald Reagan, American politicians definitively stopped asking their citizens what they could do for their country and started asking them if they personally were “better off” — the 1990’s could be called the “No Decade.” It was a decade in which we were told over and over again that the age of big government was over and that private investment — particularly in telecommunications and a new something-or-other called the Internet — would create limitless prosperity, but we’d still have to put up with substandard schools, crumbling cities and an industrial base that was allowed to rot as corporations shifted manufacturing elsewhere so they could pay workers pennies a day and count on local dictators to arrest or shoot them if they tried to organize.

Never mind that the Internet was itself a government creation; it was developed by the U.S. Defense Department’s Advanced Research and Projects Administration (ARPA) and originally called the “Arpanet.” Before the words “Al Gore” and “inconvenient truth” took on a quite different joint meaning, he embarrassed all the self-proclaimed anti-government libertarians and anarchists in the computer world by saying he had taken a leading role in the creation of their new toy. They ridiculed him for claiming to have “invented the Internet,” but Vinton Cerf, one of the two people (along with Tim Berners-Lee) who more than anyone else actually did invent the Internet, said Gore was right: as a U.S. Senator he’d taken the lead in getting the Arpanet enough government funding so it could advance from a private toy of Defense Department-contracted professors and think tanks to the globe-changing force we know today.

I had hoped that events — particularly the Clinton administration’s economic policy, which used the tax revenues generated by the Internet boom of the late 1990’s to erase the massive budget deficits of the Reagan and Bush I administrations and balance the federal budget for two consecutive years (1999 and 2000) for the first time since the 1950’s — would put an end to the “No Decade” and expand both Americans’ sense of possibility and their awareness that a strong public sector was essential to realizing the American dream. Alas, that didn’t happen; instead Bush II’s ruinous tax cuts for the rich (just extended in a corrupt deal that had the stink of “bipartisanship,” which in today’s political world generally means the Republicans playing attack dogs and the Democrats rolling over and playing dead) gave away the Clinton surpluses and put the federal budget back where the Republicans want it: so deeply in deficit that they can piously proclaim about any government initiative they oppose on ideological grounds (which basically means anything government does other than killing or punishing people), “We can’t afford it.”

What’s been astonishing to watch over the last two and one-half years — now that Obama’s 2008 election is looking more and more like what Debussy said of Wagner, “a beautiful sunset that was mistaken for a dawn” — is how industriously Americans are organizing, petitioning their government, demonstrating and, on occasion, even shooting each other to support and extend a regime that proudly and unashamedly proclaims the people’s powerlessness. At least the attempts by conservative governments in Western Europe to cut spending on people’s basic needs have been targeted with mass protests against them — and through much of the less-developed world, with Egypt as the most recent example, people have taken to the streets to demand real democracy and a greater say in their own governance.

Meanwhile, who’s marching in the streets of the U.S. today? The Tea Party, a movement secretly bankrolled by billionaires aimed at destroying government power and thereby eliminating any challenges to the giant corporations that really control our lives. Decades of brainwashing by Right-wing media, especially talk radio and Fox News, have convinced most of America’s working class that their enemies are “illegal” immigrants, public employees, organized labor, college professors and the usual standbys: people of color, women, Queers — and their protectors are the huge companies that in the real world have stripped America of its industrial base and thereby eliminated millions of working-class jobs. Since 1968 the Republican party and the American Right in general have shrewdly “played” the racist, sexist and homohating prejudices of the white working class and put it so firmly in their corner that a key ingredient of Obama’s victory in 2008 was reducing the margin by which he lost the white working class to “only” 10 percent. In 2010 the Democrats lost it by 30 percent.

In a nation with real class consciousness, private-sector workers wouldn’t be saying, “Why do government workers get defined-benefit pensions? Why aren’t they stuck with 401(k)’s like we are?” Instead, they’d be saying, “We deserve pensions as good as the government workers get. Why don’t we have them?” And it’s not like their employers can’t afford them. Contrary to popular belief, there really is an economic recovery going on in the U.S. in 2011 — corporate profits are way up and stock prices have largely recovered from the bath they took in 2008 — but only the rich are benefiting. Secure in their place in a globalized economy, American employers are not only shipping jobs overseas but selling their products elsewhere as well. As Harold Meyerson wrote in the March 2011 issue of The American Prospect, “Americans confront a grim new reality: Our corporations don’t need us anymore. … Their interests grow increasingly detached from those of our workers, our consumers — and our economic future.”

What this is leading to is a Marie Antoinette economy in which a tiny handful of super-rich people at the top can continue to make mega-profits and spend them in lavish displays of wealth like those economist Thorstein Veblen, writing in the 1890’s (the last time American economics and ideology were so skewed in favor of the rich), called “conspicuous consumption.” (There’s an ultra-high-end restaurant in New York in which, if you can afford it, you can literally eat gold; it’s ground into a fine powder and sprinkled on your food like pepper.) They don’t have to worry about the increasingly impoverished masses because they’ve got an impressive array of mass-media outlets convincing them, the way the Church convinced the peasants in Europe, that having a handful of people at the top own and run everything and everyone else live in misery and squalor is simply the way the world was meant to be.

At least they don’t have to worry about that until somehow the veils lift and the people realize they’re being screwed, and who’s screwing them, and turn out in the streets to stop it. That’s what happened in France in 1789, in Russia in 1917 and in Egypt in 2011. And if there’s any hope for this country, it lies in the thin but still present possibility that somehow the overwhelming majority of working-class Americans who today are (in John Lennon’s words) “doped with religion and sex and TV” will see through the fog their corporate overlords have created for them and turn their anger against their real enemies.

DeMaio Stars in Hillcrest Council’s Debate on City Budget

Aguirre, Zucchet, Gin Challenge Councilmember’s “Roadmap to Recovery”


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTOS, top to bottom: Carl DeMaio, Michael Zucchet, Mike Aguirre, Alan Gin

The Hillcrest Town Council invited a fascinating quartet of speakers to its February 5 meeting at the Joyce Beers Community Center in the Uptown District, but City Councilmember and undeclared mayoral candidate Carl DeMaio stood out. Presenting a so-called “Roadmap to Recovery” he released just after San Diego voters overwhelmingly rejected a half-cent sales tax increase in the November 2010 election, DeMaio offered much the same recipe he had when he spoke to the same group before the election to argue against the tax hike: aggressive outsourcing of city jobs and a frontal assault on city workers’ pensions by any legal means available. At the same time he ridiculed his ally in the anti-tax fight, former city attorney Mike Aguirre, for having said that the only way the city can break the pensions is to declare bankruptcy.

The panel was unusual in that three of its four members — DeMaio, Aguirre and former City Councilmember Michael Zucchet — have held local elective office. But DeMaio, the only current officeholder, spoke first and dominated from the get-go, essentially calling the tune and creating the context to which the other panelists had to respond. “The city has been facing this nightmare for seven or eight years, but I think we will finally make the tough decisions,” DeMaio said. “Our common goal must be to make government work again. We want the basic services back and our quality-of-life services protected. We get our best ideas from forums like this.”

DeMaio claimed that his “Roadmap to Recovery” would eliminate San Diego’s current budget deficit and earn a surplus for each of the next five years “and put back money into browned-out fire stations” — a reference to the controversial closures of some firefighting facilities the city can no longer afford to run. “We have to demand from our elected leaders a comprehensive financial plan, in writing, scored not only from a financial standpoint but from a legal standpoint,” DeMaio said. “I appreciate much of what Mike Aguirre has been trying to do, but what I don’t appreciate is his claiming bankruptcy is a plan. It’s not.”

Though DeMaio’s “Roadmap” goes considerably beyond an attack on city workers’ pensions, both the document itself and his comments make it clear he regards pensions as the number one roadblock to San Diego’s financial stability. “There is no way we will be able to fix our city’s financial system or protect our services from future cuts if we don’t reform our pensions,” he said. “Mathematically, the realities are sobering. Our pension payment in 2003-04 was around $40-50 million. Today, it’s $232 million. It will continue to climb to the $500 million neighborhood. Where do you get the money for that? You get it from shutting fire stations, delaying road repairs and cutting library hours for our kids. Your services have been cut back and that money has been put into the pension system.”

According to DeMaio, the total cost of the city’s pension system — including health benefits for life, the second pensions some city employees are entitled to and city subsidies of the contributions workers are supposed to pay into the system — is $375 million this year. “That’s more than we spend on the entire police department,” he said. “That’s more than two times what we spend on the fire department. That is 12 times what we spend on our branch library system.” DeMaio said that the cost of the pension system is “two-thirds of the city payroll,” compared to the 14 to 16 percent average for the private sector in San Diego County. He argued that the 16 pension reforms in the Roadmap are all legal and “can be done without approval from the unions.”

DeMaio also argued that the services the city does deliver are done inefficiently. “Why does it take six people to fill a pothole?” he said. “We have to fundamentally rethink how we deliver city services and look for best management practices. That means managed competition” — his favored euphemism for outsourcing or privatizing city jobs — “and holding both city employees and private contractors responsible.” DeMaio said that the city is owed $99 million in accounts receivable but won’t hire third-party collection agencies to get it, and “we didn’t take up a volunteer offer to clean firepits in a park in my district because our union contracts prevent it. I have the money [in the city budget] to build a park in Mira Mesa but not the money to run it.”

Aguirre, up next, began by proclaiming himself a “liberal Democrat” and running through his progressive bona fides — “I was student body president at UC Berkeley and I was Cesar Chavez’s attorney, representing the farmworkers against the growers” — just in case anybody thought his emphatic and sometimes overwrought campaign against the sales-tax proposal last fall signaled a permanent Reagan-like change to the Right. “In San Diego we have an example in which the whole idea that someone can make a living at public service for life is at risk,” he said. “The pension system in San Diego was rigged to serve the mayors and city councilmembers, and it was all done under the radar. That’s why we were found to have committed fraud. What’s sad to me is my team is doing things inimical to society, and we’re playing into the hands of our friends who don’t like organized labor.”

According to Aguirre, “The San Diego pension system was $1 billion under water when I was in office [as city attorney from 2004 to 2008] and is $2.2 billion under water now. We have 97 percent coverage for retirees and zero percent for actives” — that is, people currently working for the city. “The only way to get out of it is to shrink the debt, and the only way to shrink the debt is through bankruptcy,” he argued. He also said that unlike the labor leaders of old, who when they went out on strike would tell people they were making sacrifices for future generations, the leaders of the city workers’ unions were sacrificing the welfare of city residents and new workers to protect the pensions of retirees. Aguirre admitted that when he served as city attorney he’d opposed bankruptcy, but argued that without it both elected officials ¬— whose own pensions gave them an interest in retaining the current system — and union leaders won’t make the sacrifices called for in the current emergency.

Michael Zucchet began his presentation by describing himself as “a recovering politician” — ironically using the same term as one of the most Right-wing figures in San Diego, former mayor Roger Hedgecock, who like Zucchet was driven from office due to a criminal conviction that was later thrown out on appeal. Zucchet explained that he represents the San Diego Municipal Employees’ Association (MEA), an umbrella union for city workers who aren’t police officers or firefighters. He struck back against DeMaio’s handouts — DeMaio had brought a few copies of his full “Roadmap to Recovery” and had blanketed the room with a two-page handout summarizing it — with a graph of his own that allegedly showed that DeMaio’s presentation was deceptive.

According to Zucchet, the economic health of the pension system has improved since DeMaio published his “Roadmap.” The pension deficit, Zucchet argued, “still increases, but it’s 10 percent less than it was reported last year. The pension fund made $600 million in investment income in the last six months. When Agurre says ‘nada’ [referring to his statement that the pension system wasn’t getting any money to cover retirement costs for current city workers], he’s assuming that no extra money is going into the system. Our pension system has $500 million in assets and $600 million in liabilities. It’s significant, but it’s not a debt that’s due today.”

Zucchet accused DeMaio of creating a false impression by publishing a graph in the “Roadmap” based on actuarial assumptions over the next 15 years — and ignoring the full 30-year projection the actuaries made. Zucchet said the health of the city’s pension system “gets dramatically better after the first 15 years,” and he described the graph he handed out — which depicts a sudden drop in the city’s pension liabilities after 2025 — as showing the system “falling off a cliff,” an odd metaphor to use for a development he was arguing was positive.

“Over the last 25 years, the city budget has grown 5 percent per year, and the pension debt has stayed constant at 8 to 9 percent of the city budget,” Zucchet argued. “Even if we do nothing, it is quite sustainable.” What created the “falling off a cliff” budget projection, Zucchet said, is a provision in one of the voter-approved pension control initiatives to change the amortization level — the rate at which the pension debt is supposed to be paid back — from 30 to 15 years. “There was this great move to put more money in the pension system, and that’s why we’re feeling the budget pinch right now,” Zucchet argued. “We literally cut off our nose to spite our face.” If the city went back to paying off the pension debt on a 30-year basis, the way it does for all its other debts, there would be no crisis and no need for drastic cuts in city services to pay the pension system, Zucchet said.

Zucchet attacked DeMaio’s anecdote about the city using six people to fill a pothole. “The city of San Diego does more with less than any other city in California,” he said. “You take any measure of staffing, and San Diego will be at the bottom. We had 11,000 city employees in 2006; we have 8,000 today. You’ve seen cuts in services, but nothing like the cuts in staff. On the other side, this city’s taxes are the lowest of the 10 largest cities in California. If you adopt the average transit occupancy [hotel] taxes and utility user fees [charged by California cities], the budget will rise $250 million. This is not a call to raise taxes” — a postlude which made DeMaio laugh. Zucchet also argued that, with $13 billion in assets, $4.5 million in liabilities and a record of never having missed a bond payment, San Diego would be “laughed out of bankruptcy court” if it tried to file as Aguirre was suggesting.

Like DeMaio and Zucchet, Alan Gin — the only member of the panel who’d never been an elected official — came with documents. In his case, they were a report called The Bottom Line, produced by the labor-funded Center on Policy Initiatives in April 2005, and an update from 2010. Like Zucchet, Gin made the point that San Diego’s taxes are much lower than those of other comparable California cities (San Francisco, Oakland, San José, Sacramento, Fresno, Los Angeles, Long Beach, Anaheim and Santa Ana), and argued that raising hotel taxes and business fees, and ending San Diego’s guarantee of free trash collection for owner-occupied single-family homes, would bring in enough money to help the city past its crisis.

“One problem with the pension situation dominating the discussion of the city budget is it masks the fact that the city of San Diego and its citizens are cheap,” Gin said. “You can be fiscally sound in two ways: low taxes and low levels of services, or high taxes and high levels of services. The people of San Diego want low taxes and high services.” He cited a survey conducted by the city’s independent budget analyst that showed San Diegans “did not want higher taxes or reduced services. To the extent that there could be cost savings that protected services, that was their first option. If revenues needed to be raised, their preferred option was fees rather than taxes. So our committee” — which, he acknowledged, worked only on the revenue side and didn’t consider cutting costs — “came up with those recommendations [higher hotel taxes and business fees, and charging for trash collection] in terms of an economic strategy.”

The event’s MC, Scott Lewis of Voice of San Diego, pointed out to Zucchet and Gin that in addition to the 10.5 percent official hotel tax, guests in San Diego pay an additional 2.5 percent the hotel owners got together and voluntarily imposed to keep the city’s Convention and Visitors’ Bureau (CONVIS) going after the city stopped funding it. DeMaio said he’d like to see more private interests getting together and voluntarily assessing themselves to pay for services the city can no longer afford to offer them. “The city’s general fund should be for the 3R’s: roads, response times [to police and fire calls] and recreation,” he said. “In a recession, you should expect the people who make the money to pay the fees.”

DeMaio also said that the city’s voters had shown time and time again that until the pension problem is dealt with finally and definitively, revenue increases are a non-starter. “One of the arguments against Proposition D [the failed sales-tax hike DeMaio led the opposition to] is that if you give them more money, they won’t end the gravy train,” he said. DeMaio claimed that San Diego’s pensions were so generous “you have a retired librarian making $227,000 per year” and “the average city worker receives 129 percent of their salary if they retire at 67 and they get free health care for life” — figures Zucchet disputed. “We have to insist on reform before revenue,” DeMaio said. “That has been a consistent message from voters.”


Veteran Bootblack on the Importance of His Craft to the Leather Community


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

The Leather community has a lot of folkways non-Leather people are often baffled by, and one of them is the importance of the bootblack. Curtis Dickson has been bootblacking for almost a quarter of a century and has won several major honors in the craft. In this interview, celebrating the upcoming San Diego Leather Pride events in March as well as the California Leather SIR/boy contest in San Diego in May, Curtis talks about what bootblacking means to the Leather community as a whole and its importance to him personally. Though Curtis is not involved in actively recruiting bootblacks for this year’s San Diego Leather events, the person who is has put out an online call for people who want “an opportunity to shine or … to learn how,” and he can be e-mailed at

Zenger’s: Just tell me about yourself and your background.

Curtis Dickson: Well, I grew up in Dallas, Texas. I’ve lived in San Diego since 1996, but I’ve been doing boots for almost 25 years and became earnest about doing it while I lived in Germany. I came to the Leather community from the world of the arts, and so everything is looked at through creative eyes, let us say. Because as a bootblack, you have to be creative. You have to be prepared for the unprepared situation.

My background comes from the Leather bars of the 1970’s and 1980’s, so my bootblacking was done in a dark corner with 100 Leathermen and all of the testosterone and imbibing. Half the time you couldn’t see the boots, but you still had to solve all the problems of the boots. That’s what I mean when I say you have to be prepared for the unprepared. Usually, the procedure entails basically the same things you do to all boots. But I had to be ready, in that dark corner of the bar, to solve all the problems, because they’d go out into the light and they’d want the boots to look as good as though I was doing them in daytime.

Zenger’s: What exactly is the big deal? I mean, people outside the Leather community will hear of this and go, “Oh, shining a pair of boots. What’s the big deal?” Why is that important?

Dickson: Why is that important? You have to look at the history of Leather. Our community started from servicemen who returned after World War II, and they formed their own clubs. You know how important boots are in the Army. They were everything, because if you didn’t have good boots to march in, you just wouldn’t last. So they brought this attention to their boots into their secular world. I won’t go into the motorcycle clubs and all that part of it, but suffice it to say that the boots became important. They insisted that their boots be given that same level of attention as their Leather.

We’re talking here about butch boots, not patent leather or those kinds of boots. I know the Leather community has expanded today. We use dress boots and all different kinds of boots, but originally it was just work boots, butch boots with very few flowery details or what have you. So out of this tradition grew the bootblack. As soon as they had people doing this specifically with the boots, the shining of the boots went into their private life, for instance as foreplay.

Boots can be used to stimulate, because the person sitting in the chair receives much more than the bootblack gives. They feel their foot being massaged. The boots will be finished when they step off the stand. It became a tradition that that would be part of the uniform, as you would say. You didn’t just march in in shoes or sneakers or sandals with your leathers. You always wore boots. So it became entrenched as a tradition in the community.

Zenger’s: What drew you, personally, to being a bootblack? Out of all the roles you could have played in the Leather community, why that one?

Dickson: Usually, bootblacks have a foot fetish or something to do with the feet. At least that’s how I got started. And since it is a fetish of sorts, I’m also drawn to sneakers and socks and any male foot attire. But boots are my core tradition because I’m in the Leather community, and it plays an important role. I’ve won three titles of importance. In 1998 I was second runner-up to International Mr. Leather (IML) Bootblack in Chicago. There are two major contests in the Leather community that involve bootblacks. One is IML, in Chicago; and the other is International Leather SIR/boy/bootblack.

San Diego is going to be able to see the California Leather SIR contest. It’s going to be held here in San Diego. I’m going to be coordinating the bootblacks, so it gives us some great opportunities for people who are interested in this to see it locally. This is on May 14 at Queen Bee’s, 3925 Ohio Street, right next to the laundry as you come off of University on the right, right across from La Bohème. It’s California Leather SIR/boy and bootblack. It’s part of a nationwide contest. California is so big it’s made into one area for itself, but there are also regions that can comprise two or three states.

This year we’re adding something new, which is going to be a puppy contest. So there’s going to be the California puppy, the California bootblack, and California Leather SIR and boy. The puppy is an indication of how the Leather community is expanding. It used to be all contests were just the Sir and the boy and the bootblack. In 2008 I won the Southern California bootblack. I went to the International, which was held in San Francisco, and I was first runner-up to the winner.

I’ve also bootblacked around the nation and at the Toronto Church Street Fetish Fair. I’m the official bootblack for several events, including the Utah Rebellion; for Rocky Mountain Mr. Olympus; and the Las Vegas Smokeout, which is probably my best event because it draws over 1,000 Leathermen and bikers to Las Vegas for the first weekend in April. I’ve been the official bootblack for them for — this will be my fifth year.

As a part of the community, I used to be the bootblack at the old Eagle in the late 1990’s, which was a real Leather bar. Now we have a different Eagle, which is expanding and bringing more people in. I’ve retired from full-time bootblacking here in the city but I do these guest visits just to keep my hands in the business, I guess. But locally, the bootblack is seen as an integral part of the community, because boots are still held high in esteem and they are a part of the “uniform” of the Leather community, and they always will be. So there will always be a place for the bootblack.

Now, the approach of the newer bootblacks that are coming along now is a little different from what it was when I came through, because when I came through more of the attention was given to the person receiving the shine. That is, his comfort, his mood, what he wants with his boots done, and all of that was the most dominant thing. As a result, my bootblacking is called “very passionate” because I actually get a vibe going, or a relationship going, through the boots, with the person sitting in the chair. So I can feel what they want with their boots, or how to approach it. There’s a lot of mental in mine.

A lot of that is being lost with the newer bootblacks, because today it’s not about how you do it. It’s more about what you know, the amount of information. Do you know how to get ink off of leather? Do you know how to remove this stain off of that? A lot of things that can occur to leather, but they’re the sorts of problems you can look up on the Web now. A lot of people have been frightened away from doing bootblacking because they feel like they can never memorize all the information. Another thing the bootblacks do today is leather care. That is, taking care of the jackets, the vests, the leather pants, and the other leather attire, harnesses, collars, all of the different accessories that go with the dress of the Leatherman or Leatherwoman.

We’re having a hard time finding bootblacks that will do it week after week after week. We don’t have a full-time bootblack for the community, like I was in the late 1990’s when I was at the Eagle every Saturday, and also I attended and did a lot of community benefits and judged contests and mentored up-and-coming bootblacks. So if you want your boots done, you have to look for when it’s done intermittently. Now, I know once a month [usually the first Sunday of the month from 5 to 8 p.m.] the Fetish Men meet at the Redwing, and there they smoke cigars and have their boots done, so you’ll see a lot of bootblacks there at that gathering and at various gatherings.

There are a lot of roles a bootblack can take in the community. It’s just feeling your way and being open to those possibilities. You don’t even have to create them yourself; you just have to be open and listening, and offer your services, because bootblacking is a service. It is a submissive role. A dominant can still be a bootblack. But the mission of the bootblack in service to the client, to the one getting his boots done, is a submissive position, and you need to have that in your mind even if you’re not a submissive. If you’re a dominant, still remember you are offering a service, and it’s the person in the chair whose happiness or satisfaction you’re after.

Zenger’s: I don’t know if you’ve ever sat down and had to explain it all this way.

Dickson: I’ve given bootblack classes, and I’ve given some of this information out.

Zenger’s: Who signs up for bootblack class?

Dickson: Anyone who’s interested in what it is.

Zenger’s: What would that experience be like?

Dickson: I would come in and I would probably do a shine on the bootstand. I own my own bootstand, which I use in parties and events around the city, and also I take it with me to Las Vegas for the Las Vegas Smokeout. If you come to a bootblack class, you’ll see me actually do a shine. Then I’ll give background and information on how I got started, and how you can get started. And after I do the shine I open my kit up and explain everything you should have in a kit to get you started.

You need very little to get started, because it’s sort of like learning a new game. Once you learn it, the more knowledge you have, the better you do it. I usually discuss the different products, because for every step in cleaning a boot there are about 10,000 products you can choose from. There are some that are the most popular, and some that do the best job.

Zenger’s: You mentioned “surprises.” You have any stories you want to tell about how you’ve been “surprised”?

Dickson: Oh, let’s see, which ones can I share? This is a family paper, isn’t it? When I say “surprise” I mean if there’s a particular scuff. Usually the way you handle a scuff is you clean it off, and then I usually strip all of the polish and conditioning out of that area. Then, if it needs redyeing, I would dye it, and then dry it and then recondition it and rewax it. But all scuffs aren’t that simple. You might find some kind of extraneous mark on it. That’s why you have to be prepared for any kind of condition the boot comes in.

I must say I love the challenge of old boots, because they have more personality, rather than brand-new boots that just came out of the store. The more you work with boots, the more you like the ones that have taken on a personality. Once you have people who come back often — which I enjoyed when I was at the Eagle — the boots get on a rotation. I know exactly what I did with them before, so I know what they need. They need less of this or more of that, whereas when a generic boot comes in I have to cover all the bases.

The owner of the Eagle had six or seven pairs of boots, and each time I did them it was a different boot, but I knew exactly how it had been prepared before. I knew what kind of product was on it, so you don’t have products that don’t go with each other. It was easier to do the boots, and it was wonderful to be able to, because the boots become your friends. You get to know them, you know their quirks, you know what they need. Some boots need a little bit more of this, others need a little bit more of that. Remember, if you look at humans, we all have skins, and each person’s skin is a different texture. And remember that leather is just a skin, so you don’t want to do anything to it that you wouldn’t do with your own skin.

If you’re doing this in a bar or in public, you never know what’s going to happen. You have to be prepared for whatever condition the boots are in. This is what scares away a lot of people who want to be bootblacks, because they don’t think they’ll come up with the solution at the tip of their finger. Once you get into it, it almost becomes second nature, because there are a few basic problems that everybody has with footwear. Either they walk through snow, or they walk through mud, or they have dirt, or some chewing gum’s on the bottom. Or if they bought them at a thrift store, they can’t get the price off the bottom. What do you do with that?

If they bring their boots for me to do and the boots have a problem of some kind that I don’t know how to solve, I’ll just tell them, “I don’t know how to do this. I’ll just work around it.” But make sure you know the answer the next time that person comes back to your bootstand!

Zenger’s: What do you think is the most interesting experience you’ve had as a bootblack?

Dickson: The traveling: Toronto, Salt Lake City, Chicago, Dallas, San Diego, L.A., San Francisco. All of those places I’ve bootblacked numerous times, and it’s so neat to meet people from all those different areas of the country. If you go to a bar, or you go to a coffee shop even, you might speak to one or two people. But if you’re a bootblack, you’re going to meet at least 20 to 25 people every night you go out to do the boots.


They’re Gay, They’re Married and They Do Video


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

It seems that the politics of marriage equality for same-sex couples are inescapable even when all you’re doing is trying to make a living. For Anthony Gioffre and Gary Rader, marriage is both part of their private life — they “made it legal” on June 17, 2008, the first day they legally could during California’s 4 ½-month period of enlightenment before the passage of Proposition 8 snatched this civil right from us — and their business plan. They started their video production company, Golden Lodestar, to serve the niche market for documenting same-sex weddings, only to be so overcome by Prop. 8 that for a while they couldn’t bear working at or attending any weddings, Queer or straight.

They’ve become fixtures at local events — they filmed some of the marriage equality protests as well as the February 5 meeting of the Hillcrest Town Council, where openly Gay Republican City Councilmember Carl DeMaio and three others faced off about the city’s budget crisis — and they’re still working in video production as their main livelihood. Zenger’s caught up with them last January and interviewed them as part of San Diego’s alternative media.

Gary Rader and Anthony Gioffre of Golden Lodestar Productions can be reached at (619) 563-6225 or through their Web site,

Zenger’s: What exactly is Golden Lodestar Productions, and why did you folks start it?

Anthony Gioffre: We first started Golden Lodestar Productions as a wedding videography business to serve the LGBT [Queer] community. Knowing that that could either go or stay, we did have a Plan B, which was just simply to serve the LGBT community in various video projects. To define and specify our mission was simply to serve the LGBT community, in that doing a lot of charity work, and that’s what we mean by “serving.”

We are, of course, for profit We are seeking the LGBT video production business and offering ourselves specialized video production company which is familiar with this particular market: the age group, the issue, what the message is to this particular buying group, and whatnot. We feel we have some insight into the buyer.

Zenger’s: Why don’t you tell me a little about yourselves and how you got into this business?

Gary Rader: I’ve been doing audio stuff for years. Back in 1986 I got a little eight-track open-reel deck and a little soundboard, and I was recording my own songs. Then the computer age came along, things got a lot simpler, and I went to all-digital music. And friend of mine who makes little films showed me his software one day, and I started getting into it. Things just kind of fell into place after that. I bought my own camera, and then it evolved into weddings. I quit my old job. I used to be a phlebotomist — I’m still a phlebotomist, but I didn’t want to do that anymore. I wanted to do something artsy and more meaningful for me. Video and film just evolved out of that, and I love it.

Gioffre: I have a background in acting, teaching, and talent management, and also marketing. So to put that all to work for the camera required minimal technical knowledge from me. I’m more creative and outspoken, for the company and for different causes — Transgender, family issues.

Rader: It’s evolving all the time.

Gioffre: I volunteer for Family Matters. On Friday morning we do a music group — I do a music group there, and we sing all kinds of songs, “Yellow Submarine” by the Beatles, and try to carry the tradition into the next generation. And of course the moms and dads love it. We also give some financial support to Family Matters. I still do local theatre. I just finished Tales of Chelm with Kronos Theatre Group. There are so many different projects going on.

Rader: I’m the technical computer guy.

Gioffre: And I do the writing, the focusing on scripts. We now have one movie script and a Web series and two plays on my desk, as well as video projects for, the online news network, in which we are producing a weekly news roundup on video with Ben Cartwright, who’s the staff writer for nonprofits.

Zenger’s: Is this how you make your living?

Gioffre: Primarily, yes.

Rader: It does get a little rough sometimes.

Gioffre: It has been difficult over the last couple of years, with the economy, with the direction of the company, with doing a lot of service work — which is not a problem, because —

Rader: — it usually leads into paid work. You never know who you’re going to meet, what the needs are. It’s an adventure.

Gioffre: We’ve provided Latino Services with film.

Rader: We did the “Mi Familia” thing. That’s what we just finished.

Gioffre: We do a lot of work for the San Diego Unified school system, for the Music Club, MUSIQ, through the Bayfield Foundation. Music Club goes into the schools and teaches them the science between music and notes and whatnot. We film it for them, and they play it on their break, so they can study during their break from school. So We give them all a DVD from the direction of their teacher, Bill Bailey, and we’re working on some continuing video projects with him.

Rader: I like to do little Web commercials for people. I’ve done a couple for some businesses here in town, where you feature your business and your face in video that you can put on your Web site, two or three minutes, introducing yourself and your features, and what you do, and how you are. Video is unique because it shows all aspects: what you sound like, how you act, what you look like, what your personality’s like.

I like to tell stories. I want to make some short inspirational kinds of films that get people thinking and make you feel good — only with truth instead of fantasy. Hopefully the business will become such that we’ll be able to do the things we like to do like that. Plus reporting things is fun.

Zenger’s: I notice we are all wearing wedding rings.

Rader: We were married on June 17, 2008, the very first day we legally could, just for the hell of it, O.K.

Gioffre: We did some wonderful weddings. We did 10 weddings in October alone. October was the hot time; everyone was rushing to get married before the election. But we did some ceremonies and some parties that were endearing, and they were so special that when voters voted to stop Gay marriage in California, there were three of me, because I was definitely beside myself. At least two of me.

Because here’s the thing: we continued to do weddings after that, and to watch other people celebrating that we did celebrate, but that other people could not celebrate, was so damaging to my soul — I don’t know about Gary, but it was damaging to my soul — that we stopped doing them, not from a discriminatory place but because we just became very disinterested in weddings as a whole, until we all can get married. When we all can get married, then we’ll join in the celebration again.

Rader: Not that we would want to deny anyone.

Gioffre: No, we don’t deny business. We don’t deny anybody’s happiness. We found ourselves unhappy covering those types of situations, so we moved on.

Rader: But we still do commitment celebrations.

Gioffre: And we can’t wait until it comes back. We cannot wait. I’ve continued my promotion of our business as same-sex wedding specialists through the last two years nonstop, three years, with my flyers. I had boxes and boxes of flyers left over, and I keep advertising, because it’s our picture on the flyer, and I’m happy to have celebrated the right to marry.

Zenger’s: Any thoughts on the latest development in the Perry v. Schwarzenegger suit: the U.S. Appeals Court bouncing it back to the state supreme court for clarification on whether the proponents have standing.

Gioffre: I oftentimes wonder why it’s crawling at a snail’s pace. It’s really all the legalese. They’re trying to cover all bases to finally put the law in force, so there’s no future argument. I also think they’re bouncing the ball back and forth to each other, and nobody really wants to claim it.

Rader: It seems like they’re bouncing it into a corner, where we’re going to win. They’re going to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that it’s ridiculous not to allow Gay people to marry, and there will be no legal ledge to stand on for the proponents of Prop. 8.

Gioffre: I don’t understand why it takes three years to sort that all out, personally.

Rader: Considering how long some things could take, hope. It’s looking good, as far as I can see. Because there will be a war — it won’t be pretty.

Gioffre: There will be civil unrest, I believe, at this point. I come from a very outspoken political background in New York, ACT UP New York, ACT UP San Francisco. I’ve had to retract some things I’ve said, because we were caught up in the moment.

Zenger’s: Is there anything else you want to say about your video business, where it’s going?

Gioffre: We’ve been working with the community and preparing to become media partners with a few news outlets to provide video that they could couple with stories.

Rader: Like on the Internet, so they could have their text story and then they could have a complementary video to it.

Gioffre: Video highlight of it.

Rader: So we’re conducting a series of interviews.

Gioffre: I’m conducting a series of interviews —

Rader: — that I film —

Gioffre: — that Gary is producing. I’m the interviewer. We did retired army colonel Stewart Bornhoft, which is available \on our Facebook page at Golden Lodestar. And I have three interviews scheduled with people of major interest to the Gay community in southern California, addressing such issues as bullying, “don’t ask, don’t tell” —

Rader: Equal rights and marriage equality.

Gioffre: Well, actually I don’t have an interview scheduled about marriage equality. Different community leaders from here and Los Angeles, and to promote well-being in the LGBT community in San Diego.

Zenger’s: Any plans to do more about Bisexual and Transgender people? I attend the Bisexual Forum fairly regularly and I joke that bisexuality is now the love that dare not speak its name.

Rader: I would love to do a day in the life of a Transgender or Transsexual person, and from their point of view. I’ve met so many Gay people that are surprisingly —

Gioffre: Transphobic.

Rader: — biased, prejudiced or disgusted by what they don’t understand. It’s basically the same thing as —

Gioffre: They think the Transgenders and Bisexuals ¬are going to stand in the way of Gay rights, because Transgender is the new Gay. We were at a public forum last night about violence in the Gay community in San Diego. One of the questions that was raised were that the Transgender were just added to —

Rader: — the legal definition of what constitutes a hate crime, I think.

Gioffre: And what I brought up was that if it ultimately lies in the hands of a jury of our peers, a decision as to whether something was a hate crime or not, if a jury of our peers doesn’t even know what Transgender is, how are they going to be able to decipher whether or not a crime has been committed? So if we can produce projects that expose the realities of Gay, Lesbian, Transgender and Bisexual, you know —

Rader: Right. You put a face and then feelings towards those kinds of real-life situations that are kind of freaky to people that don’t understand it until you see it and get used to it. You don’t think of “us” as people, really.

Gioffre: I don’t see it as prejudice, really.

Rader: It’s easy to condemn somebody you don’t know or don’t understand, that aren’t right in front of you. I’ve found that I run in a couple of different circles, and one of them is a predominantly heterosexual, undereducated — sort of unenlightened — group of people. When these social issues like Gay marriage and all of that come up, and they’re awfully vocal about it, and they don’t realize they’re saying it to, right in front of, a Gay man who’s married, I always wait for them to finish their little piece, and then I love to show them my wedding ring, and go, “You’re certainly entitled to your opinion, but you should know you’re talking to a married Gay man about that issue that you’re so against.”

I’ve done that at least twice, and one guy just went, “Everybody’s against me! I’m not staying here,” and he turned around and walked out, because he was just too overwhelmed by the fact that, “Oh, my God! These are real people? I know one?” There was a time when I would not have said anything, and hid, but I don’t do that anymore — damnit. The other guy’s a pretty good friend now. He’s sort of changed his opinion about the whole issue, because he knows somebody.

Gioffre: Actually, he knows more than he realizes.

Rader: That’s why I think it’s important for us to become more visible, more “out,” and kind of be on our best behavior as much as possible, to show them that we’re like real people, too.
New Threat to Medical Pot Dispensaries


On January 27, 2011, medical marijuana dispensary operator Jovan Jackson was given an additional two weeks to turn himself in to begin serving his sentence for marijuana sales.

Judge Shore agreed that Jovan Jackson could remain free on $150,00 bail pending appeal. He gave Mr. Jackson two weeks to raise the money.

When a case is heard on appeal, the resulting decision becomes law. The issue raised is whether retail sales of marijuana is legal under California’s medical marijuana laws. Although many counties have zoned to allow retail sales, where growers sell to a middleman operating out of a storefront, the actual wording of the laws allows for patients to grow together in group cultivation projects. While some medical marijuana patients are not in a position to grow, the law does exempt prosecution for sales when a patient compensates the actual grower or collective grow members.

In the case of Jovan Jackson, Judge Shore ruled that Mr. Jackson would need to have growers testify that they grew for a collective in order to present a medical marijuana defense.

Mr. Jackson’s attorney chose not to present any defense at all, and instead vowed to appeal this case to determine once and for all if retail sales are legal.

This is just the type of case San Diego’s District Attorney Bonnie Dumanis has been looking for. I believe she is hoping to get a ruling that makes it illegal to sell marijuana from retail locations.

If the California Supreme Court chooses to hear this case and decides against Mr. Jackson, the resulting case law will allow for law enforcement to shut the hundreds of marijuana storefront collectives now in operation in California.
The Challenges of a May-December Romance


Copyright © 2011 by Leo E. Laurence • All rights reserved

Some tell me that the 60-year age difference between me (78) and Gary (18) is too much on which to build a relationship. While the challenges are real, the times when it works are so unexpectedly fantastic to put me in heaven.

While the gap in our ages is formidable, our heights are equally opposite. I’m 5’4” and Gary is 6’ 2.5” tall, yet his towering height is a big turn-on when we’re together, whether out socializing or cuddling for hours in bed.

Even our body types are opposites: I’m hairy all over; and Gary’s skin is smooth and soft like silk, yet all his muscles are firm.

We met under the most unusual circumstances. A close friend called in in mid-December needing a place for a teenager to crash temporarily.

But I didn’t expect to develop a relationship with this crasher, who later became my committed roommate.

Our lifestyles were/are so different. For example, when I go to buy some groceries, I go directly to the supermarket, buy what I need and return directly to my condo in Hillcrest.

But a teenager like Gary can make an adventure out of a routine trip to the grocery, by taking totally different route inbound as outbound; or by making the shopping trip into a game somehow, usually quite spontaneously.

It is still taking me time to adjust to Gary’s teenage spontaneity, in our first month together he had me laughing more than I’ve laughed in the past 30 years. We also had sex 24/7, with brief interruptions for some sleep, food or an intimate shower together. It seemed so unreal, at times.

“But what do you talk about?” asked a bewildered Gay senior. “They’re too young to know anything,” the white-haired retiree said, revealing a lot about his overall ignorance and biases.

Gary’s thoughts sometimes range from the mysteries of the universe to systematically analyzing stage plays.

Being Fatherly

“I’m not your father, but sometimes I will be fatherly,” I told Gary as we gradually got adjusted to each other’s differences and the friction that can erupt unexpectedly.

When Gary began to explore some career choices, he considered a federally funded local agency that did job training, etc. Being a journalist, I called the agency and asked direct questions about their program . . . but I didn’t like the militaristic program that was revealed.

Gary appreciated my help. He had simultaneously discovered the militaristic aspects of the program also; and rejected it.

Perhaps one of my biggest challenges was to realize – and accept – that Gary is still a teenager with an 18-year-old’s perspective on life.

Gary’s hair is kind of long and one of my best friends, Robert, cut it for him. At night, while I’m sitting on the davenport, Gary will sit on the floor between my spread legs and play with a small electronic device he loves. He’ll be wearing only shorts, with a bare chest and bare feet.

Then I will carefully brush his fair over and over and over, until it feels so light and silky. Frequently I’ll set the hair brush aside and reach over Gary’s shoulders and run my hands across his muscular, totally smooth chest and I’m in heaven.

While a guy’s smooth chest can feel like soft silk, if he’s only 18 the softness of his smooth chest can be like feeling a most luxurious, Asian silk material . . . just unbelievably soft and rich.


Communication and compromise are absolutely necessary as an “odd couple” with decades in age differences find friction on such mundane issues as the position of the moon.

The big issues that Gary and I discovered were causing friction were trust, expectations, and the role of sex in our relationship and food supplies.

After he and I had lived together under fabulous conditions for a full 30 days, we celebrated with a walk in Balboa Park that he planned. Sitting on the grass near massive sculptures in the center of the park, and with the bell tower ringing beautifully in the background, Gary taught me some origami and I made a jumping frog (that really jumps).

The next day, he didn’t return home and stayed away for six days. No calls. I went crazy and sank into deep depression. I was unable to work. Pain from a crushed bone is nothing like hurt I was feeling in my heart hour-after-hour, every day.

But, Gary did come back and we both discovered that we had lots to talk about. But, we had to be determined to have those discussions.

At times I was so angry at him that we hardly spoke.

Making an effort to be more spontaneous, I suggested we forget our problems for a while and go into the bedroom and play and play and play. It’s almost impossible to remain angry at someone and be naked and have sex at the same time.

I realized that I had to take the lead and stop everything to have some serious discussion of our problems, most totally unrelated to our vast, age differences.

We both like the House show on TV. One night recently, I sat at one end of my wide davenport and Gary stretched his long body out, with his shoulders at one end, his bare (hairy) legs stretched out across my lap and his bare feet at the other end.

Eventually, also in a game that we spontaneously invented, his shorts and underwear came off and he was naked. While we both watched the House show on TV, my left hand was playing with his toes and my right hand was slowly running across his smooth chest, abs and legs. We were both leaking a lot.

One night after we had some friction about trust issues, he was getting into bed naked and suggested I do the same. He stretched out his long body on the bed and lay on his left side. I snuggled up to him and fit my crotch firmly against his bubble-butt, with my right arm wrapped round his waist and my right hand resting/playing on his left nipple.

Admittedly, my face only reached the middle of his shoulders, but I looked really closely at his skin and discovered why it is so unbelievably exciting to cuddle up to a naked teenager.

Tuesday, February 08, 2011

Not Just Another Immigration Memoir

Viet Namese-American Lê Thi Diem Thúy Honored with “One Book, One San Diego”


Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

In 1978, at age six, Lê Thi Diem Thúy was taken by her father from their home in southern Viet Nam and put in a small fishing boat as one of the fabled “boat people” who were fleeing Viet Nam’s Communist government after the U.S. and its South Viet Namese ally definitively lost the war three years earlier. Their boat was picked up by an American naval ship and Lê and her father were placed in a refugee camp in Singapore. Eventually they were given visas to enter the U.S. and were placed in San Diego, where they lived with her father’s four brothers. Lê’s mother and surviving sister were eventually united with Lê and her father after they fled Viet Nam by a different route, following a stint in a refugee camp in Malaysia where one of Lê’s sisters drowned. The sister’s given name had been Thúy (Viet Namese, like most Asians, place the family name first and the given name last) and Lê’s original name had been Trang, but when the Navy ship picked them up at sea Lê’s father gave Thúy as the name of his surviving daughter. In 1990 Lê chose to go to college in Massachusetts to get away from her family and her childhood in San Diego, and she studied to be a writer and performance artist.

These bare facts inspired a prose piece called The Gangster We Are All Looking For, originally published in the Massachusetts Review in 1996 and expanded into a novel, published in 2003. At least “novel” is the description of the book on its back cover; though the book follows the basic outlines of Lê’s childhood, publishing it as fiction instead of memoir freed her to give the book a haunting quality which, if the term hadn’t been so dreadfully abused, misused and overused in the last 40 years, could be called “magical realism.” Like other writers from Asian backgrounds who have learned English as a second language, Lê creates an almost palpable sense of the physical reality of her childhood as well as communicating a reverence for nature and the details of the natural world rare in writers for whom English was their native tongue. She also plays fast and loose with the reader’s sense of time — one moment she’s in her teens in San Diego, the next she offers a dim memory of her childhood in Viet Nam — but she gives the book an emotional unity that makes its non-linear structure work.

Lê’s book was honored by the San Diego Public Library and its media partner, KPBS, as the fifth annual “One Book, One San Diego” selection. It’s appropriate in one way — virtually all the previous “One Book” entries have either been about U.S. outreach to foreign countries or the immigrant experience in one form or another — and, as Lê explained when she came to the downtown library February 2 to speak about the book, read excerpts and take questions, the honor had an unusually deep meaning for her because she remembered using the library as a refuge during her childhood. “Volatile things happened with my family, and with the library I could be alone or share space and time with others in silence,” she explained. “I was raised by my father, my mother, the public library and the public schools. I had a high school teacher who had an all-Viet Namese class. None of us spoke English well, so he’d pair up the ones who spoke a little English with the ones who didn’t speak it at all, and he adapted.”

The Gangster We Are All Looking For starts out seeming like it’s going to be yet another immigration memoir, but as you keep reading the stark, simple elegance of Lê’s prose steals its way into you and gives the book extraordinary power and scope. Lê recaptures the awe and terror she felt as a six-year-old coming to a new land where the rules seemed so different and incomprehensible — notably in a scene in a supermarket in which her father picks up one item after another, not buying anything but just awestruck at the experience of being in a wonderland of consumer delights, so different from the ways people in Viet Nam acquired their food. The two butterflies on the book’s cover — images in vivid color superimposed on a black-and-white head shot — stem from Lê’s childhood fascination with a paperweight, a butterfly encased in glass, and her belief that the butterfly was alive and talking to her, telling her to free it from its glass prison.

One chapter in the book is titled “Nu’ó’c,” a Viet Namese word that, Lê explained, “means both ‘water’ and ‘home’ or ‘nation.’ Viet Nam’s emergence as a nation had to do with its maritime power. Viet Namese people have a deep and elemental relationship to their homeland. When you’re elsewhere, you feel like a fish out of water. The story is defined and shaped by water, because these are people who escaped by boat, and they ended up on the other side of the Pacific Ocean. So the Pacific is holding their past, and their past is calling them back.” Water also claims the lives of two of Lê’s siblings: the sister who died in Malaysia and unwittingly gave Lê her name, and a brother who had drowned even earlier, in Viet Nam, the memory of whose life forms the book’s powerful and wrenching climax.

A particularly moving section describes the Lê family living in an apartment with a swimming pool — until, for reasons they never learn, the owners of the building suddenly and without notice drain the pool, fill it with rocks and pave over the top with concrete. Recalling how her mother had looked across the surface of the pool and felt like she was back in Viet Nam, looking from her home across the beach to the sea, Lê described the filling of the pool as “like the end of the world, because it brought something homelike in the middle of all this concrete. Then the concrete comes in and takes over. The pool was a connection to home, and it being paved and covered over is like a death in the family.”

So much of the book has a somber, silent quality — Lê explained that unlike Americans, who have a slogan that “silence equals death,” Viet Namese are conscious of “the power of silence” — that it’s an abrupt shock when she describes an argument between her father and mother that quickly turns violent. Not that her parents attack each other directly, but her dad, whom she calls “Ba,” smashes the family aquarium and her mom retaliates by breaking the household dishes. “You must take all this with a grain of salt,” Lê warned. “Just because I wrote it does not necessarily mean I know what it means. In the first place, Ba starts this and Ma goes in the kitchen and breaks the dishes, and the girl inhales and swallows this stuff (the fish from the broken aquarium) down — the internalization of all this — and then says, ‘When I grow up, I am going to be the gangster we are all looking for.’” Earlier Lê has repeated her mom’s description of her dad as a “gangster” back in Viet Nam — though exactly what that meant is kept powerfully ambiguous — and here the word “gangster” gets applied to her and, by extension, to all of us.

Asked what feedback she’d got from other Viet Namese-Americans, Lê said, “A lot of them will say, ‘Those are my parents.’ I think it gives them a perspective on their parents. I get readers who are immigrants, refugees from other countries. One man said it made him remember how it felt when he first came here, and he wasn’t even a refugee. A lot of us have gone to another place, not knowing whether we will be accepted, but it’s been special for the Viet Namese-American community because our countries were involved in a war with each other. Viet Namese people have been in America a long time. I wrote this book to announce my parents’ arrival 27 years after the fact. It took me that long to learn the language and absorb the lessons.”

One of the book’s most powerful scenes is one in which, years after she left her family behind in San Diego and went to school on the East Coast, Lê gets a call from her father who tells her he has a “problem.” Lê doesn’t say what the “problem” was in the book — and she wouldn’t specify it when an audience member asked her about it, either. “When she’s 16 she leaves home and doesn’t come back,” Lê said. “She calls her parents one time to let them know she’s going to the East Coast to go to college. Her dad is a violent man, and he’s abused her physically. When he picks her up at the shelter, she’s still loyal to him but can’t be under the same roof with him. It’s really up to the reader to consider what’s up with him, and the question is how were they broken and how he can be made whole again. The character has often asked himself what’s wrong with him.”

Asked during her downtown library appearance about her experience in school, Lê said, “School is another strange world in the book. When the girl starts school, it’s ‘nap time’ in kindergarten and she can’t go to sleep, she wonders, ‘Why am I lying on the floor trying to sleep when I’m not sleepy?’ None of these people sleep very well. They’re often awake. She describes it as looking for a thread in the ceiling where, if she could pull it, her grandfather and her brother and the starfish would all come tumbling out of the sky. It’s like her relationship with the glass curio animals, where she’s trying to make them into the [real] animals she’s used to and wants them to be. She’s moving through public spaces like school and the bus, but she’s in a whole other space inside. Cities put people together when they’re in very different places. After the Communists took over South Viet Nam, a lot of the officials in the South Viet Namese government became cyclo — pedicab — drivers because those were the only jobs available.”

Another question, coming from an audience member who read Lê’s book in school as part of a class assignment, evoked this response: “Oftentimes, when you have led what they say is a dramatic or eventful life, people come at you and say, ‘Tell me your story.’ That attitude is not reciprocal. It’s, ‘Tell me your story, but I won’t give up anything about me.’ Every story, novel and fairy tale has told me how to become the writer I am today. You’re forced into the writer’s internal voice, found in that particular story. What reading allows you to do is when you read someone’s story, you have to focus on that character and pay attention. When you’re from an oral tradition, you have to listen very carefully.”

Indeed, Lê seems to regard language as not only the medium in which she (or anyone else) writes but an important subject in her writing. “The story is being told in English by characters who don’t speak English when the majority of the events occur” she said. “I wanted to tell a story in English about characters who’ve arrived to English as they have arrived to America, and they’re trying to express themselves in a language they really don’t understand. We are equally valid even if we don’t speak each other’s languages.” Later she called her book “a story about subverting English” and added, “I’m interested in language as a destabilizing agent, as much as I am in it as a net that gathers us together. I’m interested in the shadows of what the language does not say. One thing these people can’t talk about is the brother who died.”

Fielding one of the usual dumb questions authors get confronted with at public appearances — what three people, living or dead, would she most want to invite to dinner and a conversation — Lê’s first choice was Ho Chi Minh, leader (until his death in 1969) of the Communist government of North Viet Nam that eventually won the war against the U.S. and its South Viet Namese allies, “because I have so much to ask him.” Her second choice was William Faulkner — not surprisingly, given how much her writing, like his, focuses on the inner life and thoughts of the characters — and her third wasn’t a human being at all. It was Secretariat, whose spectacular victory in horse racing’s Triple Crown electrified the country in 1973 and set speed records in two of the events, the Kentucky Derby and the Belmont Stakes, that still stand today.

Though a number of people in the audience felt uncomfortable that Lê had selected a horse as her dinner companion (not that it should have been surprising from a writer who in her autobiographical novel had described herself talking to glass animals and believing a butterfly trapped inside a glass paperweight was calling out to her to be rescued), Lê said Secretariat deserved a place at her table because “what he did was amazing. He brought grown men to tears at Belmont because he did something that they, as men, felt was impossible, but for the horse it was possible.” Lê said she first learned Secretariat’s story from watching a documentary on ESPN, and she seemed to be speaking about both horses and people when she said of his performance, “There’s an energy that’s released, a deep expansion that goes beyond your wildest imaginings.” Lê then said she’s working on a new book that at first will have a conventional narrative structure leading up to an ending — and then will continue. “It’s what’s beyond the end that matters to me,” she explained.

Asked about “the American identity” from a fellow Viet Namese-American who’s a student at UCSD, Lê recalled a question she got earlier in the day at the Linda Vista library about the butterfly incident in the book. “For me all transformation is violent,” she said. “You’re reading not only about the girl but also the mother and father becoming Americans. The tragedy is that they have so much more to contribute than they are allowed or asked. The trajectory is taking [the girl] away from her Viet Namese identity, but the act of telling her story is bringing her back to her past. It is an American story because it’s about coming to America, and also because the event that brought her to America is a war that America and Viet Nam engaged in. … America is a diverse country, and yet the stories we’ve allowed to represent ourselves are very limited. It’s about the stakes of arrival, and in the process of reading it. It’s set here, it’s about here, and hopefully it will encourage people to talk about Viet Nam, about war in general — and about food, music and swimming.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The two-word spelling of “Viet Nam” was given to me as correct by UCSD literature professor Jorge Mariscal when he spoke at the San Diego Public Library about his 1999 book Aztlán & Viet Nam: Chicano and Chicana Experiences of the War.