We're far short of King's dream

As we celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr's birthday and the inauguration of the first black American president, it's worth remembering what exactly King fought and died for. He believed in racial equality, democratic socialism, and an end to imperialism. It's a measure of how far we still have to go until we achieve King's vision and create a truly just society that Barack Obama only supports one of these principles.


Obama endorses the culture of impunity

The latest Obama disappointment is that he's not interested in investigating the crimes committed by the Cheney administration in torturing people and violating the civil liberties of US citizens. Congressional Democrats say they are more interested in enforcing the law, but given their generally spineless performance during the last eight years, I'm not holding my breath. Rule-of-law conservatives, who can marshal unlimited outrage over the similar crimes of official enemies and even over petty street crime, are nowhere to be seen.

Obama explained that violations of the law under Cheney should not be prosecuted because he believes “that we need to look forward as opposed to looking backwards.” The nation's prisoners - who constitute one-fourth of the world's total and are mostly in jail for nonviolent offenses - may be disappointed to learn that their less significant crimes do not qualify for such treatment. Philosophers of justice, however, may wish to further develop this new theory that crimes committed in the past need not be prosecuted.

More to the point, Obama explained that he has “to make sure that, for example, at the C.I.A., you’ve got extraordinarily talented people who are working very hard to keep Americans safe. I don’t want them to suddenly feel like they’ve got to spend their all their time looking over their shoulders.” He did not explain why we would want "extraordinarily talented" torturers to remain at the CIA.

In abandoning his campaign rhetoric, Obama has signaled his complete acceptance of the culture of impunity that surrounds the country's leaders. Some "extreme left-wing" Democrats who take human rights more seriously are willing to tear at the edges of this culture, but even they dare not raise the most monstrous crimes: initiating wars of aggression and extensive violations of the laws of war.

These acts are not even thinkable as crimes as long as the nationalist discourse of American righteousness remains intact. The task of human rights campaigners and progressives must not be limited to the legalistic demand of prosecuting those who break the law. It must extend to a radical critique of America's place in the world and to changing the culture of popular nationalism that has sustained the imperial agenda of presidents both Democrat and Republican for the last century and more.


Density makes great cities

If you could only pick one measure to predict whether a city is awesome or not, make it density. The list below of the top 50 American cities ranked by density (population/sq mile) also gives a very rough ordering of cities stretching from great places to live to horrific suburban wasteland "cities". Of course there are problems with using municipal boundaries, which are pretty arbitrary, as the cutoff point, and things like park land or industrial areas can bring down your score. But generally speaking, lots of people close together means good architecture, diversity of culture and entertainment, good transit, more space given over to living and less to cars, more interesting stores and fewer chains, and a sense of place that cannot be found at a strip mall or TGIFriday's. Density is also a good measure of how environmentally sustainable a city is.

The best way to promote density is to discourage cars. We all should take public transit whenever possible, of course, because a strong CTA makes for a stronger Chicago, and it's one of the best ways to fight global warming in your own life. But individual action is not enough - the only way to increase density and sustainability is by increasing the cost of driving (raise the gas tax, increase the cost of parking and other fees associated with driving, implement congestion pricing), improving public transit and biking infrastructure, and focusing on transit-oriented development (including zoning for higher density) rather than sprawl. People living in the suburbs remain the biggest obstacle, because they elect politicians who are afraid to make the necessary reforms restricting car culture. We could just wait until oil scarcity or global warming make the suburbs obsolete, but the costs to the environment and future generations would be very steep. We need to start figuring out how we can get suburbanites and other drivers on our side in the fight to essentially destroy their way of life. Even New York, the densest and most sustainable city in the country, hasn't figured it out yet. So we have a lot of work to do, and despite Obama's political timidity, this can't wait until the economy starts expanding again.

1 New York City 26,403.8
13 San Francisco 16,632.4
3 Chicago 12,752.2
21 Boston 12,172.3
6 Philadelphia 11,232.8
43 Miami 10,153.2
27 Washington, DC 9,316.9
36 Long Beach 9,157.2
20 Baltimore 8,058.8
2 Los Angeles 7,876.4
44 Oakland 7,120.9
46 Minneapolis 6,969.4
11 Detroit 6,853.5
24 Seattle 6,714.8
23 Milwaukee 6,212.0
40 Cleveland 6,165.0
10 San Jose 5,116.9
49 Honolulu 4,336.7
28 Las Vegas 4,222.7
37 Sacramento 4,187.4
29 Louisville 4,126.1
35 Fresno 4,096.3
30 Portland 3,939.8
8 San Diego 3,772.4
26 Denver 3,615.6
50 Arlington 3,475.7
9 Dallas 3,470.3
15 Columbus 3,383.1
4 Houston 3,371.8
42 Omaha 3,370.8
38 Mesa 3,171.0
33 Atlanta 3,162.3
7 San Antonio 2,808.3
5 Phoenix 2,781.7
16 Austin 2,610.6
32 Tucson 2,499.7
34 Albuquerque 2,484.0
48 Raleigh 2,409.2
18 Memphis 2,327.6
22 El Paso 2,262.8
19 Charlotte 2,232.1
14 Indianapolis 2,162.8
45 Tulsa 2,152.5
47 Colorado Springs 1,943.4
17 Fort Worth 1,828.0
41 Virginia Beach 1,712.7
39 Kansas City 1,408.4
25 Nashville 1,152.6
12 Jacksonville 970.9
31 Oklahoma City 833.8