Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Why I am Supporting Bernie Sanders for President

It’s nearly a year and a half until the next presidential election, but I know who I hope will win that election: Senator Bernie Sanders. For over 45 years, our country has suffered from a refusal to face up to the causes and consequences of an increasingly grotesque economic inequality.  Our society and economy are now divided between a handful of individuals and families who possess obscene amounts of wealth, and the overwhelming majority of the middle and working class, who struggle to find jobs, to provide for themselves and their families, and to live in security and happiness.
Those few wealthy individuals have increasingly hijacked our political system, using their massive wealth to commandeer the loyalties of politicians, who not only vote in fundamentalist lockstep with the wishes of their paymasters, but stack the Supreme Court with justices prepared to privilege the rights of corporations over those of citizens.
Most politicians in the Democratic and Republican parties are singularly ill-equipped to discuss economic inequality, and most members of the latter see its increase as an indicator of a healthy, virtuous economy.
One stand-out exception is Bernie Sanders, a democratic socialist and independent Senator from Vermont.  In an era when politicians resemble contortionists more than they do ethical agents of change, Sanders is unapologetic about his left-wing ideology, which positions him diametrically opposite the right-wing consensus which has given so much power to the super-rich and the financial sector at the expense of labor and the overwhelming majority of our citizenry.
Many Americans, having been trained since infancy to think of socialism as the stuff of Stalinism and gulags, might balk at the thought of a democratic socialist for President.  Republicans will invoke the spectre of a planned economy and fearmonger about the dangers of redistributing wealth.
But Americans should know that Bernie Sanders’ democratic socialism underpins the political economies of many European countries where the quality of life for the average citizen is far higher than in the United States, and where citizens enjoy more political rights.  Democratic socialism would certainly require more substantial public investment, and therefore taxes, particularly from the super-rich who, in the United States, refuse to pay back their fair share.  But citizens in social democracies receive in exchange economic security, universal access to healthcare, free university access, and a host of other benefits and protections designed to shield people from misfortune, fear, and poverty.
Democratic socialism also calls for the state to take a more active hand in managing the economy.  Sanders, for example, has called for sustained investment in our country’s ramshackle infrastructure, a move which could remake our energy sector, create a great many jobs, improve transportation, and revitalize our economy.  It is this kind of ethical intervention—with an eye to making investments that benefit a large number of people and advance the public interest—that frightens the Republican Party when they talk about “big government”, and which is spurned by the invertebrates in the Democratic Party who recite the fairytale of “free trade” to comfort themselves.
But make no mistake, we currently live in a planned economy.  The difference between what we have now and what Bernie Sanders advocates when he talks about higher, fairer taxes, and investment in the public sector, is that our existing economy is planned in places we can’t see, for the welfare of people who are ashamed to participate openly in the democratic process, by people over whom we exercise no influence and can’t hold accountable.
Sanders is unapologetic in his rejection of this economy, just as he is staunch in his support of organized labor.  However imperfect, labor is nonetheless the best protector of the welfare of not just union members, but middle- and working-class citizens across our economy.
Sanders was also a steadfast opponent of the Iraq war and of the secretive and unaccountable security state that emerged after 9/11.  The Iraq war not only led to the deaths of thousands of Americans and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, but spread non-state terrorism across the Middle East, destabilized the region, and created a new generation of threats (including ISIS) with which we are contending today because of the short-sightedness of most Republican and Democratic politicians.
The American security state, defended and constructed by leaders from both parties, has proved unaccountable and irresponsible, breaking the law as it swept up the information of blameless citizens and created a climate of fear and political intimidation, where democratic citizens are surveilled with the connivance of corporate power.
Few politicians had the guts to push back against the claims leveled by the Bush administration as they launched their illegal, immoral, and ill-judged war of aggression in Iraq, and few have pushed back against the security state.
Bernie Sanders, in word and in deed, has defended those—whether working citizens, veterans, the unemployed, or the victims of U.S. colonialism—who are preyed upon by those with massive wealth and power. 
Sanders’ only opponent in the Democratic primary is a deeply-unserious, dangerously opportunistic, dreadfully flaky former Senator and Secretary of State.
Hillary Clinton, who supported the war in Iraq, defended U.S. terrorism abroad, and promotes Israeli colonialism has as many positions on any given issue as the Koch Brothers have spent dollars on it.  She has dismissed grassroots protests against economic inequality in speeches to Goldman Sachs, pledging to protect the financial sector that Sanders would dramatically reform. 
Bernie Sanders has led opposition to the Trans Pacific Partnership, a “free trade” agreement that would set back international and domestic human rights, environmental, and labor legislation by decades, taking us to a state that would resemble the nineteenth century, from whence the modern Republican Party draws its inspiration.  TPP is inexplicably being pushed by the Obama administration, and Hillary Clinton was a major supporter of the agreement, although in recent weeks (thanks to Sanders and Elizabeth Warren), she has been forced to alter her position and retreat into her sturdiest redoubt of dismissive silence.
That, in essence, is the trouble with Clinton’s deeply unserious and irresponsible bid for the presidency.  Today, many of her utterances will be closer to Sanders than one might suspect.  The problem with Clinton’s professed concern for the welfare of the working and middle classes in the U.S. is that if we look back just a few months, she was inevitably saying something quite difference.  Her support for U.S. terrorism and neo-conservatism, her defense of Wall Street and the economic inequality it creates, and her embrace of the inequality at the heart of her husband’s version of globalization all make the prospect of a Clinton presidency frightening, and suggest that she might be more at home in a Republican primary.
There are stylistic differences between Sanders and Clinton as well, which get to something more fundamental, a kind of basic honesty.  Clinton unilaterally deleted thousands of e-mails which should have been archived, intentionally or otherwise subverting the democratic process and accountability.  Her campaigns chase opinion polls and construct tortured positions on policy matters of life and death, designed to appease Washington opinion makers rather than benefit her constituents.  She hoovers up campaign cash from the super rich, who are clearly expecting something in return, and wouldn’t keep giving if Clinton hadn’t delivered in the past.  She represents a global foundation that is cosy with some of the most despicable regimes on the planet. 
Each Clintonian campaign pronouncement involves a hundred hangers-on, laboring over its every contour.  But that’s the extent of Clinton’s promise for our beleaguered economy.  Her sympathies do not align well with the needs of our country’s economic majority.
Sanders is blunt in his desire to remake our country in a truly revolutionary fashion.  He eschews the monarchical trappings that define the dynasties competing for high office, and does not deign to cloak his ideology in the gibberish of unrealistic, dishonest anti-politics.
A moment when our country is faced with daunting challenges is no time for a morally and ideologically peripatetic lightweight like Clinton.  We need someone with Sanders’ character and someone with his views to take on the grab-bag of psychopaths competing for the Republican nomination. 
Carly Fiorina, a CEO famous for firing thousands of workers, railed against a broken government in a video launching her campaign, minute and a half whine, with all the substance of a Donald Trump monologue.  Marco Rubio gave an acerebral speech at the last GOP convention on “American exceptionalism”, ignoring all of the ways in which a country this wealth is most exceptional for its failure to provide for its citizens.
Scott Walker of Wisconsin has launched a series of savage attacks on the working class, comparing union members to ISIS in his bid to destroy the public sphere in his home state. 
Ted Cruz and Rand Paul celebrate economic inequality and have sought to use the Senate as a forum to bring to life their pathological lie that “Government doesn’t work”.  Jeb Bush won’t get the vote of his own mother, although his brother will likely support him, since Jeb and Dick Cheney are the only other men left in America who think the Iraq war was a good thing. 
Commentators have referred to the Republican primary as a “clown car”, but these are people who pose a clear and serious threat to the future of our country.  Most of them have quite openly pledged their allegiance to anti-tax fundamentalist groups, and many of them embrace bigotry and discrimination.
Bernie Sanders offers a clear, ethical, democratic alternative to the danger posed by the Republicans and Hillary Clinton.  He is staunchly committed to addressing economic inequality, firmly opposed to an imperial foreign policy, committed to the welfare of the middle- and working-class, and unafraid to say as much…loudly and consistently.
In the first day of his campaign, Sanders raised more money than any of the Republican candidates and unlike the Republicans and Hillary Clinton, his financial support is genuinely grassroots, explaining why he is the most consistent candidate when it comes to advocating the removal of toxic and undemocratic money from our politics, and also indicating the breadth of support for his candidacy. 
Sanders democratic socialism has the potential to capture not only the imagination of the traditional left-wing of the Democratic Party.  His views about what a moral, fair society should look like speak profoundly to the discontent of the organized working class, those who were drawn to the Tea Party only to find their movement captured by the Koch Empire and its ilk, and anyone in the United States who, through no fault of their own, has faced hard times and uncertainty while a class of plutocrats amasses ever-greater wealth, and the political power that accompanies such wealth.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Hillary Clinton Should Not Lead the Democratic Party

The right-wing U.S. presidential primary for 2016 grew by one on Sunday when Hillary Clinton announced her entry into the race, bringing with her the massed support of a personalized political machine hell-bent on overwhelming the Democratic Party’s democratic process with a barrage of political intimidation and cash.
Predictably, most of the media have concentrated on the psychodrama of the politics, on the prospect of a female president (long overdue), and on Clinton’s chances in the presidential race.
Less focus has been devoted to the record that might make more critical commentators wonder why she is in the primary of a supposedly progressive party. 
Hillary Clinton is a neo-conservative neo-liberal, and the charge-sheet against her should make her utterly unacceptable as a candidate, if not put her in the criminal court at the Hague.
As Senator, Clinton voted in support of an illegal, immoral, and transparently illogical war of aggression against Iraq.  Whatever you thought of Saddam Hussein’s regime, this was a war launched in defiance of international law (the Nazis were prosecuted at Nuremberg for waging aggressive war) based on the flimsiest of evidence.  It was a war that destroyed the livelihoods, infrastructure, and civic institutions of a country and its residents, and killed possibly hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, while leading to the proliferation of international terrorism across the Middle East.
Clinton only reconsidered her support after the war became publicly unpopular, and is said to have remarked in private since that she only did so to be competitive in a Democratic primary in 2007.
As Secretary of State, Clinton agitated for the escalation of a purpose-less war in Afghanistan, becoming a key proponent of the U.S. War of Terror.  The administration in which she served has made murder-by-drone a routine policy, and has killed hundreds and thousands of people on two or more continents on the basis of disposition matrices.  This makes members of the administration complicit in this policy criminals who should be behind bars rather than seeking high office.
When democratic movements swept across the Middle East, the United States was presented with the opportunity to cast aside its tradition of supporting dictators and autocrats in the region.  But Hillary Clinton made a strong case for supporting authoritarian regimes in Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Egypt, helping to frustrate, crush, or stall democratic movements in those countries and elsewhere.  Within the administration, Clinton’s was always the voice calling for a violent foreign policy, whether in Libya or Syria. 
She has continued to contribute to the destabilization of the Middle East in office and as a de facto candidate through her half-witted, un-thinking, unconditional support for the colonial regime in Israel, the actions of which serve the public interest of neither Israeli nor U.S. citizens, and impose an unpardonable burden on Palestinians who are denied the basic right to self-government that our own country won from the British. 
Clinton has urged that the Israeli government be given a blank check, and has uncritically defended its colonial military when it murdered children in schools, offering no evidence to back the regime’s unsubstantiated claims that the schools housed militants.  She has defended the regime’s policy of collective punishment, its settlements, and its attacks on U.S. sovereignty.
When Edward Snowden sought to shed light on the abuses of the U.S. security state, shielded from scrutiny by a quiescent political class and its predilection for telling outright lies, Clinton accused Snowden of helping “terrorists”, providing no evidence for a claim designed to distract attention from our government’s efforts to trample on the rights of our citizens.
In supporting a terroristic, imperialistic, militaristic foreign policy that does nothing to advance the public interest, and spreads violence and terror around the world, Clinton has undermined trust in government, in our public institutions.
And yet in other spheres, where a strong, democratic, public-spirited state is sorely needed, Clinton has sided with the growing plutocracy that seeks to upend our democracy and reserve for itself the rights that should be universally available to citizens of our country.
No friend to consumers, Clinton began to support punitive bankruptcy laws when she became Senator for New York, representing the state’s financial sector.  In embracing and shielding from scrutiny the labyrinthine, secretive, behemoth that is the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Clinton is mounting an assault on U.S. sovereignty that will likely damage consumers and our already-beleaguered labour movement.
At a time of near-unprecedented economic inequality, a grassroots movement for change swept the United States.  Occupy transformed the dialogue around the distribution of wealth in the United States.  With the launch of her campaign, Clinton has been careful to adopt the social democratic and redistributionist rhetoric that some of her more left-leaning colleagues have deployed.
But in private, Clinton was dismissive of Occupy, reassuring her audiences at Goldman Sachs that they would be safe with her from the calls for economic democratization.  These interests, who Clinton pledged to protect, are those who have embraced Citizens United and other efforts to disempower the working class and strip citizens of their rights, enthroning corporate power in place of democratic power.
Clinton has used her liberal social views to begin to win over wavering Democratic voters.  These are critical social issues, but Clinton’s emphasis on them belies her support for state terrorism, imperialism, militarism, and the devastating assaults being launched on the economic security of our country’s working and middle class, an assault which if successful, would render the real gains made in the social sphere in recent years utterly meaningless.
In the general election, Clinton will face a series of psychopathic, wind-up Republican candidates, who march in lock-step to the tunes hummed by the Koch Empire, and who have pledged not to even consider raising the taxes that are the means by which we sort out our economic, social, and moral priorities as a national community.
These right-wing radicals are opposed to the welfare state which provides the foundation for an equal society, and preach a coded racist, misogynistic, and fundamentalist message designed to tear our country to shreds to allow the plutocrats to plunder the public coffers with impunity.
Clinton and much of the Democratic Party’s leadership like to pretend that her assumption of the party leadership is simply a matter of course and that she is the only candidate who has the right to take on the GOP’s fanatics, in spite of the fact that much of her money comes from the same sources, in spite of her defense of the plutocrats, and in spite of her support for a depraved foreign policy.
Nothing could be further from the truth.  There are serious candidates who represent serious ideological and moral alternatives who have the capacity to challenge Clinton and the Republican Party.
Elizabeth Warren has made it her work in the Senate—after founding an agency designed to shield consumers from exploitation by Wall Street—to chip away at the cosy little economic consensus that has sidelined the ideals of social democracy that give citizens of other countries around the world a quality of life far superior to what we have in the United States.  Warren hasn’t pulled any punches in her attacks on Wall Street’s efforts to strip down our democracy, and has mounted a firm defense of the rights of labor, the decline of which has paralleled (and caused) the failing fortunes of our country’s working class.
Bernie Sanders, a socialist in the Senate, offers an affirmative, public-spirited vision of what government can accomplish, which is in marked contrast to the militaristic security state defended and constructed by Clinton and the Republicans.  Having seen what the “Free Market” can do to a democracy, more and more of the public will be interested in an ideology which in a democratic setting promises economic as well as political equality, values the contributions of all members of society, and harnesses the power of the state for the public interest.
These people should, in the public interest, challenge Clinton, remind the public of her dreadful record, and seize the party’s leadership on behalf of the working and middle-class members of the Democratic and Republican parties who have been so poorly served by the right-wing consensus that has for too long dominated our country.

With a strong grass-roots movement and strong leadership, the United States could shift from being an imperial power based on systematic inequality and exploitation to a social democratic nation based on a commitment to equality at home and around the world. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

UC Irvine and the U.S. Flag

The week before last at the University of California, Irvine, the legislative branch of the student government voted to ban the display of the U.S. flag and other national flags in the lobby adjacent to the offices of the student government.  The rationale was that the U.S. flag “constructs paradigms of conformity and sets homogenized standards”, inhibiting “freedom of speech, in a space that aims to be as inclusive as possible”. 
The ban sparked outrage and accusations of treachery and a lack of patriotism, a veto from the student president, and a rebuke from the UC Irvine Chancellor. 
My own initial take was that the student legislative action didn’t seem like the best use of their resources, or the smartest way of making a political statement.  Issues of more immediate concern might be the privatization of the UC system, the transfer of costs to students from the public, and calls to instrumentalize higher education in the U.S. and beyond.  Unlike, for example, the divestment campaign, there are no materially improved outcomes for anyone.  And banning things for their “offensive” nature seems like a substitute for a more trenchant and serious argument.  In a strange way the students’ actions were reminiscent of the administrators who increasingly use the invocation of ‘civility’ as a way to police the behavior of others, and suggest that the most important thing about a university campus is that the goings-on there offend the fewest people possible.
For these reasons, the ban left the students looking a bit silly.
But the reaction from the public was typically hysterical, with people slinging around accusations of treachery and decrying what they saw as an appalling lack of patriotism on campuses.  The student legislators also earned themselves a rebuke from the UC Irvine Chancellor, Howard Gillman.
The Chancellor’s message offered a wholesale repudiation of the students’ actions, decrying them as the behavior of an unrepresentative minority.  The Chancellor began by noting that on any university campus one might expect to hear views that are “unconventional and even outrageous”.  The Chancellor’s formulation suggested that there is some relationship between the action of questioning—an action fundamental to the purpose of universities—and behavior that is “outrageous”, and by extension somehow unacceptable.
Later in his letter, Chancellor Gillman made the jump from disingenuousness to outright stupidity.  It was “outrageous and indefensible”, he wrote, that these students “would question the appropriateness of displaying the American flag on this great campus”.  Gillman is himself an academic, and one might therefore have expected a greater degree of understanding about the role of universities in civic life.
Universities are designed to be spaces for people to explore and as much as might be possible, act on questions of moral, philosophical, and material importance.  The purpose of a university is to create a sphere of critical intellectual inquiry shielded from the over-mighty hand of the state and its ability to intimidate and curtail thought.  They are places where no questions should be off-limits and where students should be able to—indeed, perhaps encouraged to—question the rituals of obeisance our larger society pays to brittle, dangerous national myths.
Gillman’s concluding remarks illustrated the need for critical thought.  He proclaimed grandly, “[UC Irvine is] an institution created by the world’s greatest democracy in order to serve this democracy, and we feel privileged to be able to serve the cause of freedom and progress under the American flag”.
This simple-minded and frankly quite ignorant reading of history by a university Chancellor demonstrates the pervasiveness of the fatuous and destructive patriotism that characterizes much of our national thinking.
The idea that the U.S. is the “world’s greatest democracy” is the stuff of all-too-easily spoofed political speeches, not of serious conversation, and demands some scrutiny.
By what measure is the U.S. the “world’s greatest democracy”? 
We have a voting system in which a national candidate with the most votes can lose the election to a candidate with fewer votes.  We have an antiquated “first past the post” voting system that limits us to choosing between only two parties, keeps small parties marginal, and can result in one party winning the majority of the votes across the country and winning fewer seats in our Congress.  We have one legislative body that gives as much representation to a state with a million people as to California with its nearly 40 million inhabitants.  We have our election on a week-day, and don’t grant people a voting holiday, and in many states moves are afoot to disenfranchise large numbers of voters, using methods associated with some of the many bleak and unjust moments in our country’s history.
We have a democracy that gives precious little to its people.  Instead of recognizing the equality of citizens, or even any aspiration towards equality, we have a political framework that spurns the opportunity to provide public welfare in favour of fetishizing economic inequality.  We give corporations rights while rigging the system against our middle and working classes. 
And well might students question the idea of serving “the cause of freedom and progress under the American flag”.
Our country has a long history of colonialism and imperialism.  Beginning in 2001, under the American flag and in the name of our values, our country developed a program of terror and torture, in which people were abducted and held without trial, and subjected to extraordinary cruelty and degradation.  Our leaders who engineered these acts of state terrorism, and the functionaries who carried them out have since been shielded from punishment. 
In 2003, our country launched and illegal war of aggression, pummeling the people of another nation with a bombardment meant to “shock and awe”.  In the course of a colonial-style occupation, our government destroyed the infrastructure of that country, gutted its already damaged civic institutions, and turned mercenaries loose on its streets, retreating into an armed encampment derided as the “emerald city”. 
Our country grants unconditional backing to the government in Israel, one of the world’s last colonial regimes, as well as to the authoritarian monarchy in Saudi Arabia.  Our President uses a “disposition matrix”, what amounts to a lethal profiling system, to murder people abroad without trial.  And massive rogue intelligence agencies vacuum up citizens’ information without oversight.  Even when it becomes known that such agencies have lied to Congress and the public, their leadership goes unpunished and their behavior unchecked. 
And none of these behaviours are without precedent.  But what they make clear is that we are not the world’s greatest democracy.  Given the ascendancy of the American plutocracy and the strength of our terrorist military-intelligence complex, it’s questionable to what extent we remain a democracy. 
To those who would argue that student government is not the place to debate matters of this scale, I would offer the reminder that students are the people who will have to live the longest and contend the hardest with the world being created at this moment.  It is also worth considering that while much of our country buried its head in the sand, students have issued some of the first calls to action about critical issues in our country’s recent history, whether the Vietnam War, Civil Right, apartheid in South Africa, Israeli colonialism, and the economic inequality that increasingly defines our own society. 
Few people today would argue that prosecuting the war in Vietnam was in the public interest.  And outside of the right wing of the Republican Party, opponents of civil rights in the 1960s would find few defenders.  The Republican Party’s embrace of South Africa’s National Party, and its designation of Nelson Mandela as an enemy of the state are decisions that have not weathered time well.  And I suspect that in a decade or two, criticism of our unbending support for Israeli colonialism will look similarly prescient.

The students’ efforts to ban national flags doesn’t get at any single issue, and isn’t the best way of making the point they seem to have in mind.  But their broader points about the nature of U.S. power in the world, and what the flag represents for many are well-taken.  And the snarling response they received both from the public at large and from university administrators charged with maintaining the intellectual integrity of the University of California is a strong indicator that the issues they have raised need to be debated, and not dismissed as “indefensible” criticism.