Tuesday, December 24, 2013


RECORD DEPORTATIONS — Hard to understand, impossible to justify.….

From the beginning of his first term, Obama has been submerged in conflicting currents. Whatever his personal commitments to peace, civil liberties. economic and social justice, they are countered by the conviction that he must prove his credibility as head of the world’s primary imperial power and commander-in-chief of its vast military establishment.

So, much as I strongly oppose the catastrophic NSA surveillance dragnet and the ghastly drone program, I’m not surprised by Obama’s stance. And I can still recognize positions that distinguish Obama from war hawks like John McCain and support his preference for peace (e.g. negotiations with Iran).

But why is the Obama Administration breaking all records for deportations? How can Obama stand by — no, actually enforce — the cruel destruction of families, seizing parents away from their children, wrecking marriages, separating brothers and sisters? His only answer, breaking the inexplicable silence, is that it’s up to Congress (this worst Congress since the time of slavery) to produce “reform”.

Is there no dramatic action Obama can take? Why can’t the President take this elementary human and moral issue forcefully to the people, with confidence in the conscience of the nation (most of it anyway)?

What would happen if the President said: “Stop”? What if, as a matter of conscience, the Administration refused to continue enforcing current policies of large-scale deportation?

Would Obama be impeached? Or would the public conscience wake up, the family wreckers be damned?

Sunday, December 22, 2013


Charles Blow's Defining Moments and Crystal Stairs (NY Times, December 18, 2013), is the most moving and powerful column I've read this year :

In June of 1998 in Jasper, Tex., just about three hours southeast of where I was raised, where the Lone Star State pushes itself into the back of the boot shape of Louisiana, a black man named James Byrd Jr. was subjected to what folks called a “lynching-by-dragging.”
Three white men had given Byrd a ride, but instead of taking him home they took him to the woods, where they beat him, urinated on him, tied his ankles to the back of their truck and dragged his body for three excruciating miles.
He was believed to be still alive while the asphalt ate away at his flesh. Reportedly, he died only when he was decapitated by a culvert.That was just 15 years ago. I was in my 20s. Yet the memory of that story remains fresh and wet in my mind like blood seeping through a bandage. It was a story that changed me, that revealed how my country’s violent past was linked to its present vestige.
For no matter how much progress had been made, or will be made, there will always linger, in the dark corners of cruel minds, something sinister: an assumption that not all men are created equal, or, perhaps, that some men aren’t even men at all.
I have struggled with the violence visited upon men who look like me — often by other men who look like me — for so long, trying to find a way to acknowledge it and remember it without being consumed by it. How to look optimistically to the future, while gazing painfully at the past?
Unfortunately, these sorts of defining moments keep coming. I have James Byrd Jr. My parents had Emmett Till. My children have Trayvon Martin.
These events play a defining role in the African-American dilemma. They violently remind us of otherness and give voice to frustration about nonviolent forms of societal inequality ever bubbling beneath the surface. They let the air out of aspirations.
Does this struggle affect young people today in the same way it affected me? Do centuries of violence inflicted on a people inculcate something deep within them? Has a culture systematically assigned to poverty and whose families were routinely plucked apart succumbed to the vision of the oppressors?
And how do we hold the system accountable, and yet break free from it? Are the scars too long and too deep?
I’m generally an optimistic person. I believe that, as the coaches and preachers say, “if you can conceive it, you can achieve it.” But, I’m also a person who keeps track of numbers and trends and I see just how daunting a reality many of us face.
These are not issues that can be overcome by the ever-elusive “national conversation on race” that folks always seem to call for after something egregious happens. Truth be told, I don’t know what that phrase — the “national conversation on race” — even means. People talk about race all the time. If it means something akin to a “truth and reconciliation” conversation, I won’t hold my breath for that. Personally, I don’t want or need that.
On the one hand, I prefer to focus on eliminating the systemic bias that sweeps across our culture like a bitter wind — invisible but inescapable. We must acknowledge what the data clearly show: that anti-black bias is real and widely affects people’s lives.
On the other hand, I want every person, especially every child, to understand and embrace the value of their beauty, worth and potential, cultural cues notwithstanding. Sometimes gathering the courage to simply love yourself — the skin that you’re in, the way your hair grows out of your head, the creativity that stirs in the pit of your stomach and the brilliance that erupts from your mind — is the most radical and transformative thing a child can do.
I want to encourage them to never give up “because of…” but to always keep going “in spite of…”
I’d like to share with them some words of one of my literary fathers, Langston Hughes, and his poem “Mother to Son”: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And yet, we must continue to climb, “sometimes goin’ in the dark, where there ain’t been no light.”

That poem helped change my life when I was younger. It steadied me when the world was rocky. Maybe today, it can do the same for someone else.

Saturday, December 7, 2013


Yesterday, our Current Events discussion group at the Downtown Oakland Senior Center did something unusual. We took turns reading from an eleven page text of the entire opening statement of Nelson Mandela at the Rivonia trial on April 20, 1964. It was a revelation, so much more enlightening than many of the tributes on TV.

Here was a young man on trial for his life, soon to be given a life sentence at hard labor by a government as beastly as any of the fascist regimes that had launched and lost a war for world conquest. What stands out though is not just his courage and self-sacrifice; he gives a remarkably reasoned account of what the struggle for freedom in South Africa was about, of his political and philosophical views, of the principles to which he dedicated his life — summed up in the final lines:

… I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities. It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve. But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.

In the speech, he takes difficult questions head on, telling his persecuters and the whole world why he and the African National Congress eventually moved from non-violent resistance to sabotage and armed struggle, why they put aside ideological debates and made common cause with communists, why he combined his admiration for parliamentary democracy and acceptance of private enterprise with ultimate belief in socialism.

Many eulogies have pointed out that Mandela never regarded himself as a saint or anointed authority, that he was flexible in his thinking, and respectful of differing opinions. That’s what makes his Rivonia speech so interesting, so worthwhile engaging with, so suited as a takeoff for considering issues of our time as well as of our history.

While the expected flood of eulogies for Mandela can never be “too much”, I must admit impatience with the glorification in death of Mandela by some pundits who, in the early years when it really mattered, ignored or even vilified him and the ANC as terrorists. One TV clip I saw shows Reagan praising Mandela after the victory over apartheid. But I remember Reagan’s “constructive engagement” with South African Apartheid when the ANC and worldwide movements for sanctions were striving to bring the beast down. Historical truth gives way often to fairy tales, fashioned to fit current political constructs and media mythology.

Steve Biko
The fact is that historical truth is complicated, that it encompasses contradictory, sometimes sharply conflicting realities. The media’s memorializing of Mandela is bound to run into difficulty on matters where “cold war” thinking still dominates. One can expect silence on the sorry tale of the West’s truck with the Apartheid regime, including US and Israeli collusion on military support and aid toward its acquiring nuclear weapons. We can expect equally uncomfortable silence on Mandela’s embrace of crucial support for the ANC by the Soviet Union; also the fact that black and white South African communists were prime allies of the ANC and among the most committed freedom fighters and martyrs.

The point here is not to overlook the history of atrocities and human suffering that is part of the legacy of the 20th Century, whether in the name of falsely claimed communist ideas or on behalf of capitalist "free enterprise" and colonialism. But we should honor, as Mandela does, the truthful legacy of all who fought heroically side by side for freedom.  Mandela was not a communist, although he was held guilty as a communist by the Court. This is what he said:

It is perhaps difficult for white South Africans, with an ingrained prejudice against communism, to understand why experienced African politicians so readily accept communists as their friends. But to us the reason is obvious. Theoretical differences amongst those fighting against oppression is a luxury we cannot afford at this stage. What is more, for many decades communists were the only political group in South Africa who were prepared to treat Africans as human beings and their equals; who were prepared to eat with us; talk with us, live with us, and work with us. They were the only political group which was prepared to work with the Africans for the attainment of political rights and a stake in society...

It is not only in internal politics that we count communists as amongst those who support our cause. In the international field, communist countries have always come to our aid. In the United Nations and other Councils of the world the communist bloc has supported the Afro-Asian struggle against colonialism and often seems to be more sympathetic to our plight than some of the Western powers. Although there is a universal condemnation of apartheid, the communist bloc speaks out against it with a louder voice than most of the white world. In these circumstances, it would take a brash young politician, such as I was in 1949, to proclaim that the Communists are our enemies.

Ruth First poster in South Africa
Perhaps I focus too much on Mandela and the communists. In part, it’s my reaction to a book I recently read: Ruth First and Joe Slovo in the War Against Apartheid, by Alan Wieder, with a forward by Nadine Gordimer  (Monthly Review Press, July 2013) 

They were wife and husband, South African Communists. The Apartheid regime assassinated Ruth by way of a mail bomb. Joe was one of the founders and builders of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the military arm of the ANC; he was a member of the cabinet Mandela chose when he became President. Their story is fascinating, including differences between them on attitudes toward the Soviet Union. Like Nelson Mandela, Oliver Tambo, Steve Biko and all the other heroes, their courage is almost beyond belief.

We would all do well to read and think about the Ravinia address of a young, brilliant and brave Nelson Mandela, probably the most outstanding person of our times.

Sunday, December 1, 2013


Past 90 (9)

On my 92nd birthday I lost a very old friend. These days, hardly a week goes by without the passing of a friend, usually one not as old as I. But this friend was 47 years old when I was born. I won’t miss her quite as much as so many of my dearest departed. But she was magnificent and I loved her.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been walking the approximately 3 miles around Lake Merritt in Oakland.  Many times I paused along the way to admire the massive and beautiful, 120 foot tall Eucalyptus. Now it lies prostrate, though impressive as ever, felled by a fierce windstorm in the early hours of Thursday, November 21st, 2013.

Our first group of Lake walkers started out as members of the Oakland Y. Now our variable group, about eight or nine, includes only one who was there when I first tagged along. We used to do it two times a week, now down to one.  The Lake area has been upgraded and landscaped into as nice a center of community as any city could call its own.

But our own Old Faithful is alive no more. Salud!

click to enlarge photos

Monday, November 25, 2013


 It would be hard to overestimate the fateful aspect of two battles that are now reaching frenzied pitch. The domestic ultra Right tastes blood in the snafu that threatens “Obamacare”; they are gleefully throwing everything into their last, best chance to overturn any expansion of health care. A “broader” coalition, both domestic and international, is feverishly doing its all to abort efforts at easing tensions with Iran.

To see how much is at stake is not to exaggerate the advances contained in the Affordable Care Act, nor is it to overlook imperial self-interests that favor realignment in the Middle East.

What stands out starkly on both issues is the directness of the collision with extreme elements that hope to reverse their political fortunes and dominate America’s course after the Obama years. Internationally, Netanyahu’s regime and Saudi Arabia hope to lock the US into permanent military commitment to their exclusive favored status, including to Israel’s occupation and further expansion and, most notably, to war on Iran.

Given the hysterical assault from the GOP and Netanyahu, it is no small thing that Obama has decided to hold firm so far on both crucial issues. That’s all the more important because the Administration has often disappointed (“surveillance” and drone policies, by way of example). It is also noteworthy that the negotiations with Iran override the stance of many Democrats in Congress who are no less than Republicans in thrall to Netanyahu.

These are very big battles. Right now, a majority of Americans are highly skeptical of “Obamacare”. And most of Congress buys into racist myths of Israeli superiority over Palestinians (and Arabs in general). On the other hand, the vast majority rejects the Tea party and the nihilist obstructionism of the GOP. And almost all of humanity, Americans certainly included, won’t abide the deliberate risk of more war. That was unmistakable in the recent historic uproar that prevented a US military strike in Syria.

There are other issues no less important over time. Some, such as immigrant rights, will have a potent political impact in the months ahead. Here I'm putting in focus the two battles in which the Right sees the chance to take the offensive, to defeat hallmark programs and initiatives that bear the Obama stamp — and so to shift political momentum and take control. 

* * * * * *

A comment on Israel and the nuclear weapons issue: 

It is generally conceded that a military strike against Iran would not eliminate the knowledge, will or capacity for attaining nuclear “equality”.

How far into a future of war is Israel, or the United States, prepared to go? If the Middle East is engulfed in war, can the eventual spread of nuclear rivalry be averted? Can Israel maintain a nuclear monopoly when the United States itself failed at that? And when it comes to a time of desperation, can anyone be sure who would be the first to resort to the bomb? Can we be sure that Rightist extremists of one country would act more responsibly toward humanity than those of another?

Wouldn’t Israel and the world be safer, if universal action toward nuclear disarmament became the cornerstone of nuclear non-proliferation? Converting the Middle East into a zone free of nuclear weapons might well be the key “bargaining chip” for general peace.

Monday, November 18, 2013

PAST 90: IMMUNOLOGY — A Return Journey

Past 90 (8)

Now long after retirement, I have all but lost connection with my years of research and teaching in immunology, the molecular and cell biology of the immune system. Once in a while I feel pangs of nostalgia and regret that I have allowed so significant a separation from my long and memorable active years on the UC Berkeley faculty.

That’s the background for my impulse to “catch up” when I heard about a new book: The Compatibility Gene: How Our Bodies Fight Disease, Attract Others, And Define Ourselves, Daniel M. Davis (Oxford University Press). My comments here are not directed at suggesting that most of my op-ed friends should read the book. It’s never easy to make a complex area of science accessible even to interested “outsiders”. But for me, the book served as an intellectual and emotional reawakening to the remarkable advances in our understanding of the immune system.

By the time I got involved in immunology, beginning as a chemistry graduate student in1958, what Davis calls a “scientific revolution” was underway. In the early 1950’s, Watson and Crick revealed the double helix structure of DNA, an event that ushered in the era of direct study of genes and impacted virtually every area of research in biology. At about the same time, Peter Medawar in Britain and Macfarlane Burnet in Australia each made seminal contributions that revolutionized our understanding of the immune system and led to a remarkable expansion of fruitful research in immunology.

The two fundamental riddles that the immune system presents are:

How can it recognize and respond specifically to an almost infinite array of antigens (bacterial, viral, even synthetic molecules)?

How does it normally avoid responding to “self”, that is, to antigens in one’s own make-up, while rejecting those from another individual?

Burnet and Medawar opened the way to answering both questions. Remarkable contributions by many outstanding researchers have since proven them correct and revealed vital, previously unknown, features of our immune system. In proof of Burnet’s “clonal selection” theory, it has been shown that each of our many billions of immune cells is restricted to making a unique antibody molecule or antigen-binding site. When activated by a particular antigen, the cell multiplies, resulting in a clone of cells that that will respond when exposed to the antigen. Medawar (and Burnet) also postulated “acquired tolerance” to “self”, whereby cells that could target self-antigens are destroyed in early stages of development. Indeed, as later discovered by Miller, that’s exactly what happens in the thymus, an organ whose function had been a mystery. Medawar’s experiments and insights paved the way for significant medical advances, including in organ transplantation.

Very exciting things happened during my almost thirty years in immunology. Some I recognized and marveled at as they unfolded. Some I took note of, but underestimated. In fact, the Davis book is most inspired by an area of research whose initial phases I found confusing and tended to overlook: the very intriguing and important place of variable histocompatibility sites on cells of the immune system and possibly the brain.

My intent here is not to attempt an even meager review of progress in immunology during and after my active connection. I only want to share some reflections.

I’m struck by the enormous creativity in scientific endeavor, no less than in art. The difference from at least most great art is that creative achievement in science is a collective experience, more than the imagination and genius of any one brilliant talent. Big ideas and small by many, many investigators, and lots of hard work, go into every important discovery and its verification. When the pieces come together, from many people in many lands, it’s a thing of beauty and a triumph of human creativity. The canvas is vast and the minor brush strokes by most contributors are soon lost from view.

My colleagues and I shed a little early light on the make-up of an antibody combining site, not of lasting consequence once the full picture emerged after it became possible to work out the complete structure of genes that code for an antibody molecule. That was achieved by Susumu Tonegawa, a Japanese scientist. Yet we had our moments and I can still feel each thrill. Of course, there is also chagrin when I think of a smudge or two we added inadvertently to the canvas by misinterpreting an experimental result.

Back to the Davis book, much about the significance of compatibility genes was new to me and impressive. Things have come a long way since Zinkernagel and Doherty discovered in 1974 that, in order to kill a virus-infected cell, an immune cell (a T cell) had to recognize both a viral antigen and the targeted cell’s major histocompatibility marker. The implications of this finding have become increasingly important in medical and genetic research into patterns of susceptibility to certain diseases.

Davis is most excited by the discovery that histocompatibility genes function in brain. That was bound to evoke great interest in further research and a lot of speculation as well. Davis and others are especially fascinated by a so-called “dirty T-shirt” experiment, where women are turned on by smell to the discarded undershirts of men with appropriately matched or unmatched histocompatibility genes. Davis embraces with enthusiasm the possibility that sub-conscious responses to histocompatibility types may be determining whom we choose to love and other fateful decisions.

Forgive me for being old fashioned, but this isn’t our first exposure to absurd theories of genetic determinism.

Still let’s not on that account minimize the established importance of compatibility genes. I should probably maintain humility regarding some (not all) speculation on connections between the immune system and the brain    — after all, during my time in immunology, I regretfully managed not to be much distracted by significant phenomena like histocompatibility, NK (natural killer) cells, and more.

So, thanks to Davis for making my fond ties to immunology vivid once more.

Saturday, November 9, 2013


I’ve neglected my OpEd page for the last few weeks, but I’ve been on a rewarding binge of book reading: Twelve Years a Slave, Solomon Northrup; The Compatibility Gene, Daniel M. Davis; To End All Wars, Adam Hochschild; The Burgess Boys, Elizabeth Strout; and The Nose, Nikolai Gogol. They were all worth the time, though not equally rewarding.

I’ll comment briefly on the first today and get to the second, the  gene story, later on.

Having read Twelve Years, I have now seen the movie as well. The book is remarkable. Northrup describes his experiences, his deepest emotions and reflections in the struggle to survive his captivity into slavery. Still, his dignity is never surrendered. His powers of observation are not dulled by whippings, acts of barbarism and humiliation. What survives his 12 years, and is recounted in his book, is a deep understanding of all aspects of the slave system and its impact on the human beings who inhabited that world. He understands people, differences in experience and reactions among those enslaved and among “masters” and families brutalized and corrupted by slavery.

The book’s depth and authenticity rank it in my opinion with Frederick Douglass’s narrative of his life as a slave. The movie is a noble achievement, but there’s no way the richness of Northrup’s account can be captured in a couple of hours of a movie. The movie should be seen by millions of Americans. Some will avoid it because they don’t recognize the great weight of slavery on our history and its impact on present-day economics, politics and so many, many lives. Others may think to avoid it because watching scenes of brutality is terribly difficult. But even if you close your eyes involuntarily from time to time, don’t allow yourself to miss out.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013


We heard Gwen Ifill live last night at the Paramount, featured by the Oakland Speaker’s Series. She was impressive, no surprise to the many who watch her on the PBS News Hour and Washington Week.

However, dismiss the thought that in a public lecture she might push the envelop beyond the constraints of journalistic “neutrality” as encoded at PBS. She began with a description of the crazy Washington scene and how relieved she was to escape it for a couple of days in Oakland and the East Bay. Her picture of the Washington scene was one that is widely promoted: Obama and Boehner unwilling to talk with each other, Democrats and Republicans alike unwilling to listen to each other, all behaving like spoiled brats rejecting compromise and negotiation.

She spoke sincerely and proudly about her journalistic values: emphasis on “fairness”, listening to ordinary people rather than politicians, being open to differing opinions. As an interviewer on TV, her object is to ask questions and let the viewers draw their own conclusions.

Ifill’s description of what’s going on in Washington was “even-handed”, but was it fair?

Equal scolding of “both sides” obscures and belittles the issues of contention that are paralyzing government and hurting so many people. Whatever the intention, it tilts the scales in favor of the GOP’s demand for its pound of flesh as a condition for allowing an end to the shutdown. So far, Obama has refused to give in to extortion, refusing to “negotiate” while the GOP-Tea Party caucus holds the country hostage to chronic government shutdowns.     

Of course, whether Gwen Ifill appears on TV or before a podium in Oakland, she is bound by the constraints that her job at PBS imposes. A questioner last night asked if programming on the News Hour was ever affected by fears over threats to public funding. She answered: “No, never once!”

It wouldn’t have hurt if she acknowledged that, even as a public speaker, she could not risk appearing to take sides. But then it might also have helped if she avoided giving her faux “analysis” of the current crisis.

Still, the audience loved her and with good reason. She is at the top of her profession. Too bad there aren’t more journalists and commentators who can tell it as it is, even when it offends the powers that be.