Saturday, October 25, 2014

Wanted--Political Alternatives to Conventional Wisdom

Credit
Bill Clinton famously waxed on about the meaning of “is”, encouraging the fascination of journalists with parsing each and every phrase that emerges from a politicians’ mouth for nuances real or imagined; significances intended or otherwise.

The current subject of this kind of scrutiny is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, one of the more unabashedly progressive members of Congress.  Apparently, in one of her many denials that she has any intentions to run to be President in 2016, Warren used some slightly different language than before.  This set the pens of the commentariat all aflutter, and is leading to renewed speculation that Warren might interject her formidable presence into a race that many in the Democratic establishment believe should feature only a single candidate—the neoconservative, neoliberal Hillary Clinton.

The country desperately needs a sharp departure from the devastating conventional wisdom—about the economy and finance, the public sphere, international relations, American terrorism and the security state, climate change, and organized labour—that has dominated our nation for the past decades.

For that reason, Elizabeth Warren—a modest social democrat—would be a welcome and indeed essential presence in any contest for the leadership of an ostensibly progressive party.  Indeed, her oft-expressed commitment to defending U.S. citizens against the unconscionable power-grab by corporate interests means that she has an obligation of sorts.

My own hope would be that both Warren and Bernie Sanders, the socialist Senator from Vermont, contest the election.  The Democratic Party and the country as a whole deserve a more diverse spectrum of opinion. 

The Republican Party believes that corporations are people, that money is free speech, and that the public sphere should be eviscerated.  The Democratic Party is also a corporate-friendly party that is steadily backing away from supporting organized labour—ordinary citizens’ primary tool for defending themselves against assaults by the super-wealthy –towards an embrace of the financial sector.  Both parties have been fulsome in their support of American terrorism (international affairs is one area where both Sanders and Warren need to think hard about what it means to be a socialist or a progressive), and while one rejects outright the importance of the public sector and the social welfare, the other has been singularly ineffective in defending them.

Usually during Democratic primaries, a bevy of right-wing candidates take the stage, trumpeting the conventional wisdom about how our economy should work, giving short shrift to the rights of workers or the inequality that defines our nation.  The odd dissenting voice is kept at the fringe, and made to look like a lunatic.

Imagine instead if that stage was dominated by powerful progressive voices, capable of articulating an alternative vision for how we should organize ourselves, relate to each other, and fashion a humane, compassionate society in which people are not left behind because of circumstances beyond their control.  What if it was the likes of Hillary Clinton—the corporate candidate who decried critics of inequality, supported the Iraq war, and escalated the war of terror—who was the marginalized candidate, representative of decades of dangerous failed ideologies and leadership?

I hope that Warren decides to run for higher office, and I hope that Sanders joins her.  Our country needs exposure to a wider set of ideas than are normally on offer.  We’ve heard an awful lot about what the right has to offer, and we’ve been living under a reactionary economic regime for a long time now.  The results aren’t pretty.  In fact, they are unfair, unjust, and violent in the way that they destroy people’s lives.  It’s time to try something else, and there are candidates out there who could try to point the way.


But their campaigns must be supported by or driven by citizen activism and protest, a renewed push by unions for rights and benefits for the workplace writ large, efforts to address our democratic deficit and our social crisis.  We can’t wait for political candidates to save us, but we should demonstrate through our actions and our words that we are happy for them to lend us the institutional support that would help in fashioning an equal and just society.  

European History, Day 18

Suffragettes were force-fed in British prisons
On Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV we discussed the experiences of women in European society during the long nineteenth century.  Building on our earlier discussions about the writings and advocacy of early feminists in 18th century Europe, we discussed how industrialization and the culture we associate with the Victorian era transformed gender relations.

Students had read two primary sources: a mid-19th century treatise on exemplary behavior for women in the household, and an early 20th century speech by British suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.  We had a good discussion analyzing these two sources in the context of the broader shift in gender roles during our time period.

Pankhurst’s speech—worth a read—was also an argument in defense of the rights the disenfranchised to use violence (in this case against property), and so that afforded us an opportunity to think about politics—both the formal political realm made up of parties and state institutions, and movements that originated and worked outside of those established realms—during the 19th century. 


Next week will transition us into the twentieth century, and students are working their way through Jaroslav Hasek’s novel, The Good Soldier Svejk.  

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Tomis Kapitan's "Reign of 'Terror'" Raises Critical Questions

I normally don’t do posts aimed purely at sharing other posts, but there was a really excellent piece in Sunday’s New York Times that warrants sharing.  Tomis Kapitan, in “The Reign of ‘Terror’”, examines how the term shapes our ability to ask serious questions about how to deal with incidents that we characterize as terrorism, but also shields our own government from criticism of its many atrocities. 

Here’s one passage that is an important takeaway, particularly in light of efforts of the Obama administration to cover up the crimes of George W. Bush and his administration, and also to obstruct our justice system as it attempts to document and perhaps check the machinations of our increasingly lawless military and security complex:

“The State Department cites a legal definition of “terrorism” as “premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by sub-national groups or clandestine agents.” It adds: “The term ‘noncombatant’ is interpreted to include, in addition to civilians, military personnel who at the time of the incident are unarmed or not on duty.” Thus, by means of linguistic gerrymander, members of uniformed government military forces acting under government authorization are incapable of committing acts of terrorism no matter how many civilians are ground up in the process”.

It’s a great piece, and deserves to be widely read by people of all political persuasions.

European History, Day 17

19th century pseudo-science
Yesterday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV, we discussed another feature of nineteenth century society.  Our focus was on the connections between science and society, and so we began by using the Oxford English Dictionary to chart the changing definitions of “science” over time, and also talked about the concept of “scientism”, the application of scientific ideas and methods to the social sphere.

We used the theory of evolution to think about how nineteenth century science was a product of its times, which both influenced and was influenced by ideas like liberalism and the experiences of industrialization.  And so when Europeans turned to apply concepts from the scientific realm to the social realm—to explaining the societies they encountered in other parts of the world or the poverty they “discovered” at home—the two spheres became intertwined.

We discussed how Social Darwinism, scientific racism, eugenics programs, and the emergence of the social sciences all sought to address “social problems” confronting Europeans in their own countries and in their overseas empires.  And we thought about how liberalism’s emphasis on reforming the individual’s moral character led to the growth in civil society and international organizations, many of which look similar to those in our own world, or have even endured to the present.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

European History, Day 16

Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV was mid-term day.  The exam consisted of triad essays.  These are groupings of three terms.  Students must provide crucial information about those terms in essays using sources from the class.  The key feature is that their essay must have an argument about the connections between the different terms, an important historical skill.
We’ve covered 200 years of history, touching on a variety of themes in a range of locations using a large number of readings, so this is a way of evaluating how well students are able to chart continuity and change, and make connections between this diverse material.
So the students had an opportunity to demonstrate their command over the substantial amount of material we’ve covered, and I had an hour and fifteen minutes in which to read part of Vivek Chibber’s critique of post-colonialism.

We’ll be back to substantive material next week! 

Friday, October 17, 2014

European History, Day 15

A critic of free trade also illustrates 19th century racism
Last week in European History Since 1648 at UNLV, we used Marx and Engels Manifesto to discuss the emergence of communism in Europe during the nineteenth century.  On Tuesday we discussed the other, rival ideology of nineteenth century: liberalism.
Erudite commentators at the Redding Record Searchlight have helped me to realize that in contemporary American politics, “liberalism” means roughly “Communist-Fascist-Islamist-Secularist-Bay Area-EnviroFascist pond scum”.
But in the nineteenth century, it had a rather different definition (which approximates its meaning in many other countries in the world today).  Our task in class was to unpack this meaning and then discuss its relation to our other topic of the period: imperialism.
Students spent time in their groups discussing a letter from China’s Commissioner Lin to Queen Victoria before the Opium Wars; the last will and testament of Cecil Rhodes; a speech by French parliamentarian Jules Ferry to the national assembly; and Rudyard Kipling’s poem, “White Man’s Burden”, coupled with an editorial response from a San Francisco newspaper.
Students were tasked with identifying strands of liberalism and nationalism in these documents, as well as any connections they could make to themes from earlier weeks, and I enjoyed hearing their thoughts on the topic. 

It was our final class period before the mid-term, and we will return to liberalism, socialism, and emerging sciences after the exam to discuss their impacts on 19th century European views of society and its ills.

Krugman's Defense of Obama Overlooks American Terror

Paul Krugman could take it no longer.  You get the sense he must have been sitting at his desk pecking out another piece of lucid economic analysis when suddenly he let out an unearthly scream, swept the piles of papers and dusty tomes from in front of him, and bawled, “I can’t take it any longer!”

Krugman then proceeded to pen what is being hailed as one of the most compelling defenses of our President in print.  It is being portrayed by progressives as the definitive statement on the Obama presidency, often derided for being ineffective in the face of its own timidity and the rabid hostility of the fundamentalist opposition.

Krugman cited the Affordable Care Act, modest but not insignificant financial reform, and a heightened focus on renewable energy and fuel efficiency.  He also noted the relatively better recovery of the U.S. economy as compared to some of its European counterparts, where governments responded with more stringent austerity programs of the sort advocated by the GOP’s fundamentalist caucus here at home

Many of Krugman’s caricatures of the left and its criticisms of the President are deliberately disingenuous, but I can understand that he wants his country’s President to succeed and feels that Obama should get more credit for his achievements. 

But he grudgingly acknowledges one area where Obama has disappointed many supporters: foreign policy.  But even here, Krugman goes to great lengths to salvage the President’s reputation.  “On overall foreign policy”, he wrote, “Obama has been essentially a normal post-Vietnam president, reluctant to commit U.S. ground troops and eager to extract them from ongoing commitments, but quite willing to bomb people considered threatening to U.S. interests”.  He concluded, “It’s hard to get excited about a policy of not going to war gratuitously [comparing Obama to McCain or Romney], but it’s a big deal compared to the alternative”.

I fully comprehend the frustration with the misleading and often downright racist attacks on the President and his domestic agenda.  From day-one, the Republican Party committed itself to sabotaging the functioning of our government in order to bring the President down.
But I remain baffled by the willingness of Krugman and others to leap to the defense of a President who in my view should join his predecessor and many members of his predecessor’s administration in the International Criminal Court because of his behavior.
Krugman dismisses concerns about Obama’s foreign policy in two paragraphs.  But let’s face it, this President like others before him is using methods of terror and barbarism to perpetrate a series of colonial style wars in violation of international law and in contempt of U.S. law.

The President, like his predecessor, is responsible for the killing of thousands of people.  Many of those people were killed in his drone wars.  His administration advanced the twisted, toxic legal argument that because these wars were conducted by drone rather than by “boots on the ground”, they were not really wars and therefore not subject to constitutional restrictions on the President’s ability to wage war unchecked.

The President’s predecessor relied on aggressive war, abduction, and torture to prosecute his terroristic wars.  Obama has relied instead on drones as weapons of terror, and on extrajudicial killings.  Most of the people he has ordered murdered in his wars of terror have not been accorded any legal process.  What process there is—secret courts and opaque analytics—bear no resemblance to law as it should exist in a democratic society. 

The use of disposition matrices (criteria for which remain hidden), killing people based on the probability that they are threats without even having to identify them, is shockingly immoral and should be illegal.  This kind of behavior began under the Bush administration, when that president’s intelligence services murdered people because their height matched that of Bin Laden.  But under Obama’s supervision, it has been perfected and—as always—provided with a veneer of legalese designed to throw progressive critics back on their heels into the kind of pathetic, reflexive defensiveness Krugman practices. 

Krugman praises Obama’s policy “of not going to war gratuitously”.  But in his elastic definition of his war of terror, Obama escalated the war in Afghanistan, and has waged what most people would recognize as wars in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya, Iraq, and Syria.  Following the lead of the Bush administration, Obama is committed to increasing our military footprint across Africa. 

Just as our military presence in the Middle East fueled a variety of critics—including the likes of Al Qaeda—our presence in many African countries is likely to create long-term problems and commitments.  This will be particularly the case if, as has been standard in the past, our military is drawn into alliances with regimes happy to use it as means of support for their undemocratic governments.

The President has gone further by encouraging a culture of impunity by allowing the criminals in the Bush administration—who tortured, murdered, abducted, and “disappeared” people, while waging aggressive war based on transparent lies—to walk free while cultivating his own brand of terrorism, backed up by perverse legal statements.  Granting impunity is not just an omission on Obama’s part—it amounts to an endorsement of the most sinister, violent, and self-destructive elements of U.S. foreign policy.  It ensure that our violent behavior—and the backlash it brings down on our nation and our public—will not be curtailed.

Obama’s administration has persecuted those journalists with the courage to shed light on his and his predecessors’ murderous policies.  His administration, like that of his predecessor, has associated with autocratic and colonial regimes abroad, counting them amongst our best allies to the dismay of the people they oppress.  His administration has sold arms to—or provided funds for the purchase of arms—to governments which we knew were going to use those arms to crush democratic protest, and with them, the hopes and ambitions of people with whom we should sympathize.

Obama’s critics on the left are often enjoined not to make the perfect the enemy of the good.  But praise of his domestic reform agenda leaves me cold when I consider that he has murdered hundreds and thousands of people and launched wars that leave international law and the lives of hundreds of thousands of people in tatters.  He is not a good President.  No one who breaks or perverts the law to murder people and wage colonial-style wars is a good person or worthy of support.

What kind of a country have we created, and what does it say about our respect for human life here and abroad, that we can admire and praise and re-elect officials who order murders as a routine matter?  What kind of a foreign policy has our culture of exceptionalism and jingoism produced such that people feel that there are no alternatives to supporting such appallingly immoral ways of interacting with our fellow human beings around the world?

We are constantly told that we cannot negotiate with terrorists, we cannot compromise with terrorists, and we cannot allow our values or our political process to be held hostage by terrorists.  But if we define “terrorism” as the use of violence to instill fear by way of pursuing political goals, how on earth can someone like Paul Krugman expect us to vote for a proponent of such terror, and vote with the enthusiasm he injects into his defense of the man who, like his predecessor, has behaved in such a shockingly immoral and violent fashion?

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Tuition Increases on the Horizon at the University of California

It was bound to happen.  A few years of tuition freezes followed some of the most dramatic increases in tuition in California history, and were at least in part a response to massive student protests and increasing public awareness of just how unaffordable the University of California had become.  I also believe that in agreeing to a freeze, Regents were hoping to see a generation of student activists finish their degree and move on, effectively forcing students on campus—should they wish to resist future increases—to re-invent the wheel in the absence of any community memory of the last round of cuts and protests.
California Governor Jerry Brown, in tune to public discomfort with the creeping privatization of UC, also sought to enforce a tuition freeze.  At the same time, by failing to re-invest state funds in the University, Brown has eroded his ability and that of the legislature to influence the Regents in their future policymaking for the University.  And I suspect that suits California’s serially-irresponsible Governor just fine…
In discussing tuition increases, Napolitano referred to “arithmetic”, as though increases are inevitable.  And to a certain extent, she is correct.  Absent any interest by the state in re-investing, a growing institution needs to raise funds.
However, the “arithmetic” is tied to a political context, and Napolitano has been ineffective at altering that context.  Indeed, some of her actions, like those of her predecessors, have contributed to maintaining the existing context.
Placing all of the blame on Napolitano would be unfair because now and for the past decades, UC has faced a Republican Party hostile to the public good and public institutions.  That party has prevented the state from raising revenue to accompany the growing number of students and the increasing complexity of the institution and its mandate.  And although the GOP’s statewide influence has declined of late, it only requires one third plus one vote in one of California’s two houses of government to continue its program of divestment.
During the last four years, the Republican Party has been supported by Governor Jerry Brown, a man with zero ambition to address California’s democratic deficit and zero commitment to investing in California’s youth.  Brown has pushed a program of austerity that would make many a right-wing party proud, and has been no friend to UC.
But Napolitano and the Regents (who are probably the bigger problem) have not helped their cause.  As I have long argued, and as UC Berkeley Professor James Vernon put to the Daily Cal, when the Regents grant exorbitant salary increases to the already very well-compensated Chancellors and lower-tier administrators on campus, they are signaling to the state that their priorities are not with bringing down costs—to the public in those areas where it is possible, and to students where it is so desperately needed. 
And so when the Regents and President go to the state to request more funds, our right-wing Governor has the perfect excuse to turn them down, citing waste.  And legislators will find themselves looking over their shoulders at their constituents, who have just read a story about a member of the Board of Regents discussing the “injustice” of only paying a UC Chancellor $383,000. 
The estimated cost of attending UC is now around $30,000 per year.  Adding to the burden that students face would be immoral, unforgivable, and unconscionable, particularly in a state of such great wealth (however unequally distributed) like California. 
Napolitano’s own experience demonstrates the limits of the Regents’ faith in high-paying administrators.  The Daily Cal reported a UC student representative arguing that “Napolitano was appointed with the expectation that her experience in government…would bring in investment from the state”.  In contrast, Kevin Sabo argued, “we’ve seen a difficult relationship between the system and the Governor’s Office that more closely resembles a teenager being scolded for poor spending choices of their allowance than an entity of the state”.
Napolitano and the Regents would be in a better condition to deal with the feckless Governor who is so happy to stab California’s students in the back if they had not burnt so many bridges by resorting to tuition increases so readily in the past and by spending with such abundance on the salaries of top administrators when faculty and staff faced wage freezes and furloughs, and students were plunged deeper into debt.

UC’s crisis is California’s crisis.  But poor decisions by University leadership, both the President and the corporate-minded Regents, has exacerbated the situation.  Having ensured that they have little leverage with the state, the Regents are now likely to speed up the process of privatization, a development which should be arrested as firmly and quickly as possible if Californians want to retain a hand in managing and shaping the University system that was perhaps their most magnificent civic achievement. 

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Why Do We Want to Hear From Hillary Clinton?

The Republican Party is constantly in search of a scandal to pin on Hillary Clinton as the former Senator and Secretary of State maneuvers towards a presidential run in 2016.  They struggle to come up with anything worse than Benghazi, which was a failure of collective intelligence and judgment, not of one individual.
But the real scandal is that anyone is interested in hearing what Hillary Clinton has to say.  The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is paying for the privilege next week, when Clinton will give the keynote speech at the UNLV Foundation’s Annual Dinner at the Bellagio Hotel.
The University has come in for stinging criticism from students for paying a tremendously rich former politician a considerable sum of money to come and address donors.  The University has protested that the payment is coming from foundation rather than general funds, but at a time when the University has recently raised tuition and is lobbying the state for reinvestment after hard times, I’m not sure what the decision to enrich Clinton or her family’s foundation says about the priorities of a public institution.
In any case, the point remains that I’m not sure that people at UNLV or elsewhere have much to learn from a Clinton speech.  All we need to do to know how she thinks the world should work is look around us: to a large degree, the last decade and a half has been shaped by debates and decisions in which Clinton was a key player.
We are preparing to re-commit ourselves to a war in Iraq.  It is a war spawned by our illegal, immoral war of aggression launched over a decade ago.  Hillary Clinton provided a key vote for that war and has since said that she only later turned against it because she was running for President.  That war claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and tens if not hundreds of thousands of Iraqi citizens, victims of a campaign to “shock and awe”.  It also helped to spread terrorism around the Middle East. 
We have been unable to extricate ourselves from a war in Afghanistan that will be 13 years old this month.  As Senator, Clinton voted to give President Bush the powers to wage an ill-judged war there, and as Secretary of State she was the most powerful advocate for the escalation of that war, backing the President into a corner and encouraging treacherous military commanders with political ambitions of their own to run roughshod over him.
People across the Middle East live uncertain lives under the thumbs of vicious autocrats and colonial powers.  During the Arab Spring, Clinton argued that the U.S. needed to back dictators and autocrats against the democratic aspirations of their people, and she has offered unconditional support to Israel in its illegal, immoral, and counter-productive colonial project.
Clinton has doubled-down on her view that supporting “really nasty guys” abroad, while perhaps not pleasant, should be essential to the conduct of our international affairs.  She cited historical examples of dictators in Latin America and Southeast Asia, and might also have mentioned the apartheid regime in South Africa, the Shah in Iran, and other anti-democratic, colonial, and authoritarian rulers. 
Clinton has been a formidable advocate for the use of brute force, leading the charge to bomb Libya, and attempting to pressure the President into bombing Syria last year.  Since leaving office, she and her hangers-on have repeatedly attacked the President—the man who uses extrajudicial killings as his foreign policy tool of choice—of being insufficiently bloodthirsty when it comes to wielding American military power.
Only last week, Leon Panetta, a longtime Clinton associate and staunch defender of the criminal behavior of our security services, crawled out of the woodwork to say that we should have maintained an aggressive occupying force in Iraq, precisely the kind of action which is a boon to non-state terrorist organizations which can then cast themselves as anti-colonial fighters.
At home, corporate plutocrats prepare ever more unconscionable assaults on what remains of our democratic edifice, in part because the presumed Democratic presidential candidate in 2016 has let them know behind closed doors that she has their back, and has no time for people who complain about economic inequality.  Upon being elected to the Senate in New York, Clinton pivoted to the right on economic and financial issues, genuflecting to Wall Street.  Her political network has ever since been tightly connected to the financial sector and the right wing of the Democratic Party, which has abandoned all commitment to social democratic progress in the U.S.
Our country is currently a wreck because for the past 40-50 years it has been run by neo-conservative and neo-liberal Presidents and/or Congresses.  The policies associated with these twisted ideologies have warped the management of our economy in a way that privileges the super-rich and have kept our country mired in a series of wars that are not only counter-productive, but shockingly brutal. 

Hillary Clinton appears to have signed up to both facets of this political consensus.  Whether she has done so from conviction or convenience it is difficult to say, but we are already living the sad legacy of her votes in the Senate and her lobbying from the State Department.  I’m not sure the country can handle another four to eight years of such devastation, or that the world can withstand the unleashing of more terror that a Clinton administration would promise, and I wish we could hear from other, less cynical and less morally compromised voices.