Sunday, November 12, 2017

Can Nevada afford Adam Laxalt's trip to Fantasyland?

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Next year, Nevadans will vote for a new governor.  Term limits keep Republican Brian Sandoval from competing for a third term, and his party is likely to turn to the state’s Attorney General, Adam Laxalt, to be their standard-bearer.  
Sandoval has become a genuinely popular Republican in a Democratic-leaning state.  He won over 70% of the vote in his 2014 re-election (albeit with very low turnout), has proven determined to make the Affordable Healthcare Act work for his state, and has dedicated increased revenue to the state’s embattled education sector.  I probably would not vote for him, but I respect his willingness to bend conservative principles that he clearly values when he recognizes their irreconcilability with what appears to be his genuine care for the welfare of Nevadans.  
Adam Laxalt looks to be a very different kind of Republican.  Whereas Sandoval has proven himself capable of designing rational public policy, Laxalt’s “issues” page looks like something written by a campaign committee for a fantasy world of elves and dragons and libertarians, where moral imperatives and budgeting math never meet, and where there’s something for everyone, for nothing.  (Accessed November 12, 2017.)
Laxalt’s take on the issues that matter most to Nevada voters suggest serial inconsistency, serious irresponsibility when it comes to crafting policy, and have the effect--intended or otherwise--of seriously misleading voters.  The only way voters could take Laxalt seriously is if they either never read his take on the issues, or fail to consider the relationship between his prescriptions for ostensibly separate issues.  
The most glaring and elementary inconsistency involves Laxalt’s commitment to better fund education, and his pledge to not only “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burdens,” but also to “reduce taxes.”  
The state’s largest school district just came through a budget shortage of tens of millions of dollars.  The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is aspiring to “top tier” status, something that requires serious public investment if it is to achieve that status as a public university. Seventy-eight percent of Nevadans’ young children have no opportunities for early childhood education, and providing those opportunities will require public investment.  And many recent improvements to the state’s education system came from the Commerce Tax shepherded through by Sandoval that Laxalt is explicitly promising to roll back.  Per-pupil spending in Nevada is low, and lower still when one considers that it is a state growing in demographic diversity and therefore in complexity.   
In other words, the state will need serious new sources of revenue if it is going to address the education needs of its children and students.  Instead, Laxalt is pledging to cut already-low taxes.
Governor Sandoval has already weighed in on this particular piece of Laxalt irresponsibility, making it clear  to the Nevada Independent that if Laxalt makes good on his promise, he would “irreversibly and permanently harm” the state’s education sector, the children it serves, and the “generational investment” made by the state on his watch.  
Beyond that basic piece of inconsistency--the fantasy economics of raising funds while cutting taxes--Laxalt’s views about education are muddled, perhaps deliberately so given the “have your cake and eat it” streak of irresponsibility defining his campaign.  He opens the “education” section of his issues page by offering his belief “that education is the civil rights issue of this time.”
That’s a bold and powerful statement, and a welcome one in a state and country where people, particularly those on the right, have limited their calls for rights to traditional political rights.  However, if Laxalt actually believes that access to a quality education should be a right, he has a strange way of showing it.  When defending and enshrining rights, serious advocates recognize that you can spare no expense...that is, after all, part of what takes something from being an aspiration to a right.   
In contrast, Laxalt has committed to not only impairing the ability of the democratic state--the guarantor of rights in democratic systems--to enshrine and defend this right, he is also chipping away from day-one at the “right” status of education by advancing its privatization and financialization through the “choice” agenda.  Rights aren’t something you subcontract or balkanize.  They are, ideally, also not something that you devolve (something the federal government recognized in the oversight it long offered the implementation and guarantee of voting rights in southern states).  
The inconsistencies mount.  What Laxalt dismisses as “barriers to job creation” and “unnecessary regulations and licensing requirements” for some people, might prove to be mandates about healthcare or workplace protections (there’s a good case to be made that universal healthcare would reduce varying and unpredictable costs for business owners who are often held responsible for employees’ insurance).  What Laxalt describes as “outsized control” by the federal government that “chokes of opportunities for economic growth and development,” might just be code for destroying the public lands-based outdoor industry that brings jobs and opportunities to a broad swathe of Americans, and replacing it with profit opportunities for elites in the mining and real estate sectors.  As with rights, “local control” over public lands doesn’t translate into more opportunities; merely to less of the oversight to ensure that opportunities are not monopolized by the few and that land remains open to many.  
In the energy sector, Laxalt bemoans the “heavy hand of government [that] is used to try to force particular energy solutions on the entire population,” celebrating instead “more choice and competition.”  But of course both proponents of any form of public control and deference to markets have policy goals to which they aspire.  The question is, do we leave the execution of public policy to the blunt and inefficient hand of a market which has its own interests, or do we do public policy in the public interest?  
Laxalt extends his illogic deeper into his discussion of the relationship between people and their state community.  He simultaneously argues that the state government should “provide quality, essential services, but should refrain from becoming too big, too costly, or too burdensome.”  Most important in his view is the “low tax climate” that supposedly enables “businesses [to] thrive and our families [to] prosper.”  Hardly someone willing to be held hostage to events, changing circumstances, demographics, or political economy, Laxalt has offered a pledge to “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden, and will also look for ways we can reduce taxes.”
This kind of economic fundamentalism might sit well with the pledge-taking, oath-swearing Republican Party, its members prodded into such positions of inflexibility by anti-tax evangelists and corporate interests.  But it signals to Nevada’s voters that Laxalt isn’t particularly interested in the needs of the state or how those might change over time based on voters’ desires or our relationship to national and global factors.  Like most other Republicans nationwide, Laxalt is eschewing the basic principle of representative government: that we elect thinking, intelligent individuals, able and willing to weigh circumstances against principles and needs.  Instead, he is promising to preside over our political economy as a rubber stamp for the narrow interests that thrive in a low-tax, low-regulation environment characterized by a wasteland of a public sphere.
Nevadans might have a relatively low tax burden.  But for that we have underfunded universities and poorly performing schools that are unable to deliver sufficient opportunities to children.  Our state has insufficient economic diversity, few of the services and resources designed to attract skilled labor from out of state, a threadbare safety net, poor transit, and shaky civic infrastructure.  The wealthy can buy their way to top of the line universities, medical centers, schools, and other civic infrastructure here or out of state, when and as they choose.  But for the rest of us to enjoy infrastructure of a similar quality--we could even borrow a page from Laxalt’s book and describe some of these things as “rights”--we and our wealthy but irresponsible neighbors would have to pool our resources and invest in universally available and accessible public goods and services, something we can’t do if we’re lumbered with a governor who does nothing more than mumble the mantra of his wealthy backers.  
As we look at Laxalt’s “have your cake and eat it” approach to the issues, we’re bound to ask whose interests he will weigh up most carefully when it comes time for something to give.  He has offered voters utterly irreconcilable promises, no sense of the framework he will use or interests he will bear in mind as he makes these choices, and no sense that there is any kind of intellect at work trying to square the various circles he has drawn around himself.  What we do have, however, is a commitment by a Koch-funded SuperPAC to embark on “a million-dollar ad campaign to boost the Republican’s candidacy.”  Sheldon Adelson is also offering his backing to Laxalt.  The support of these interests help us to understand who is most enamored of Laxalt’s candidacy, and which way he’s going to break when his fantasy economic unravel in the face of reality.  
The deregulation of business, finance, and the workplace, and the privatization of education, healthcare, and land, together with the faith-based embrace of a market built by and for elites, has always led to predictably bad consequences for the middle and working classes.  Voters should realize that Laxalt is selling the patently false, but thoroughly recycled Republican idea that you can have it all (“education is the civil rights issue of our time”) without paying for it (“I will oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden”).  His economic fundamentalism has no space for the broadening realization that social and economic rights must take their place alongside civil and political rights if we are interested in building a better world. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Steve Bannon illustrates the rot in California's Republican Party

For almost nine years now, the Republican Party has ceased to be a good-faith party to our country’s small-d democratic governance, and has instead become a vehicle for targeted destruction, waging a campaign of sabotage based on a series of lies about our country’s politics, history, and society.  Prominent among those lies, and central to its decision to launch this search and destroy mission into the heart of our democracy, has been the idea that “government doesn’t work.”
The modern Republican Party’s platform involves returning power to unchecked free markets and those who thrive in such dangerous environments.  It involves giving large industries free rein to treat workers as they choose, and rolling back the power of agencies in the hands of a democratic state charged with protecting people not just as consumers, but as living beings who need clean air, healthy water, and safe food.  It involves pushing people into a sick libertarian celebration of the grinding struggles, hardships, cruelties, and uncertainties that come from the refusal to treat healthcare, childcare, higher education, workplace rights, and a host of other spheres of life as involving fundamental social and economic rights.
This re-regulation of power to benefit the already-wealthy and -powerful is deceitfully sold as de-regulation from “government,” which is simultaneously supposed to be grossly incompetent and disturbingly penetrating in its reach.  And this misleading packaging and salesmanship is only possible because the Republican Party has worked day and night since January of 2009 to reduce faith in public life and institutions, thereby bringing by their own hand their lie to life.
Since then, the Republican Party has engineered government shutdowns, held up the work of personnel crucial to the functioning of government departments and our court system, and embraced the work of a national security state that has eroded trust in the federal government, confirming the suspicions they have stoked that the state has an adversarial relationship with individual citizens.  The Republican Party has hamstrung the ability of state officials to deal with climate crises (or even to refer to climate change) and used supermajority rules to starve even progressively-dominated states of the revenue streams necessary to care for citizens.  The Republican Party publicly dedicated itself to the failure of one presidential administration, and threw its weight behind a candidate known to be serially incompetent and openly dedicated to the destruction of our constitutional framework.  
Last week, California Republicans signalled their re-commitment to their guerrilla warfare against our government’s abilities to help people to realize civil and political as well as social and economic rights.  The state’s marginalized party invited Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s fascist advisor, to speak at their party conference.
Compared to much that we’ve heard from Bannon, Trump, and others in recent months, the speech was dull.  Bannon adopted Trump’s speaking style and was throughout generally, perhaps deliberately, incoherent.  The rambling, wreck of a speech was full of incomplete sentences and uncompleted thoughts, but these are perfect for the innuendo-strewn politics practiced by the far right.  Comically, and disturbingly, Bannon discussed Black, Latino, and Asian Californians with a certainty that none were in the room, and offered a tortured historical narrative to underpin his views.  
But if the speech itself was unremarkable, Bannon’s presence and prominence there was, given all that he and this administration symbolize.  Bannon, an unconstructive bomb throwing troll granted power by his dear leader, is responsible for formally combining economic and ethnic nationalism in Trump and the Republicans’ programs.  These are the two ingredients which when combined yield fascism: a rhetorical commitment to addressing economic grievances and a very real effort to redefine citizenship and the national community along ethno-religious lines.  
Bannon’s call for “open revolt” is a reiteration of his desire to dismantle what he has characterized as the “administrative state,” but which is actually the small-d democratic state: the one which when empowered by idealistic and humane politics can generate prosperity and security and power for middle and working classes.  In the chaos that Bannon’s attack on our government would generate, only the wealthy and powerful could thrive.
Bannon’s presence was a symptom of the intellectual and moral failure of California’s Republican Party, and the extent to which that failure has turned them into a party perpetually circling the toilet drain.  The party’s failures are of the compounding variety.  The unpopularity of their racism, their trickle-down economics, and celebration of inequality has prevented them not just from occupying, but increasingly from seriously contesting, statewide offices.  In the summer primary, which in California pits all candidates from all parties against each other and sends the top-two to a run-off in November, the top Republican vote getter won only 7.8% of the total votes cast.  Between them, the top two Democrats won 58%, with other candidates of the center-left winning between five and seven percent, and other Republicans ranging from .8 to 4.7%.  
In other elections in 2014, Republicans made it onto the November ballot, but a place there for a statewide office is increasingly looking like a career-ender for Republican politicians, so toxic is the combination of ideology and practice they have embraced, both locally and nationally.
Most Republican leaders therefore retreat to their districts, and spend two to four years whipping up hate and spreading a noxious sense of grievance while refusing to participate in constructive governance in Sacramento or Washington, hoping  to advance through the ranks of a party basically reduced to social and economic gangsterism and thuggery, rather than occupy positions of leadership in their state.  
Because these people therefore never expose themselves to California’s full voting public, and therefore never have to think about how to construct a political economy and a moral economy built for all forty million of the state’s citizens (as opposed to the 710,000 who populate an average Californian congressional district, 465,000 in each assembly district, or 930,000 in each senate district).  Aside from San Diego’s mayor, there is no Republican officeholder in California in serious conversation with more than a million voters.  There is no Republican officeholder in California who is in conversation with a population that resembles the state’s broad demographics.  
The California Republican Party is not a good-faith participant in public discourse or in government.  Rather it comprises a group of embittered saboteurs, abusing the hospitality of the rural districts amongst which it shelters, and wrecking the public sphere in those districts to reiterate its self-evidently false claims about democratic governance.
Bannon’s appearance suggested that we will see no changes from California Republicans.  They will content to brood angrily in opposition, trolling the state’s public research universities and spreading intellectual rot in the districts they serve so poorly.  They will continue to use the state’s supermajority rules to frustrate Democrats’ efforts at serious healthcare reform, and stall efforts to reduce tuition at the University of California (even though older Californians attended that institution tuition-free).  They will continue to keep open the wounds inflicted by Prop 13 in 1978, which ensures that California’s budget remains misshapen and its politics remain incapable of more than tinkering.
And California Republicans will continue to provide votes in lock-step for a national party that Trump and Bannon are using to strip Americans of their rights, generate an economics of-by-and-for the 1%, and use chaos as a method for the disruption of efforts by Americans to claim social and economic rights.

Friday, October 13, 2017

California's Voters should Retire Feinstein and Look to a Better Future

This week, California’s long-time senator, Dianne Feinstein, announced her bid for re-election in 2018.  Coverage revolved around how Feinstein polls with Californians, and focused in particular on two issues: whether or not Feinstein’s age will prove to be a liability; and whether she will be challenged from the left of the Democratic Party.
Most of the talk surrounding a challenge from the left dealt with Feinstein’s understated and perhaps dangerously naive approach to dealing with the Trump administration.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein only last month declared her hope that Trump “has the ability to learn and change.  And if he does, he can be a good president.  And that’s my hope.”  
Feinstein is undoubtedly trying to strike a different tone from Republicans in 2009 who entered a new Congress rooting for the failure of President Barack Obama.  However, Obama had not campaigned on a platform containing the essential policy and stylistic components of classic fascism, and he did not spend the opening months of his presidency delivering a devastating salvo against Americans’ fundamental civil and political rights while demonstrating horrific disregard for the social and economic welfare of Americans, and engaging in systematic corruption.  In light of these very different circumstances, Feinstein’s hopes sound outright delusional, and unlikely to form a sound basis for a defense of either Californians’ rights or those of the broader American public.
What has been neglected in the ageist focus on Feinstein’s seniority, is the kind of senator she has been.  One of the spaces where Feinstein has carved out significant expertise and sought to establish considerable authority, is in the realm of national security.  There, however, Feinstein has demonstrated systematically and spectacularly bad judgment.  I would argue that this, more than anything, should call into question her fitness to serve Californians.
In 2001, Feinstein offered her support to the dangerously rushed and ill-considered Patriot Act, provisions of which we live with today in part thanks to her 2005 support for the extension of the Act.  Feinstein supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, without requiring that the Bush administration set out clear political goals and commitments, with the result that the U.S. has remained mired in a poorly-defined war for sixteen years.
In 2003, Feinstein supported the illegal war of aggression against Iraq, declining to use her considerable powers in the senate to question the Bush administration’s transparently disingenuous abuse of intelligence, the broader logic of a preventive war, or the refusal to plan for the aftermath of the catastrophic consequence.  If this vote had been an aberration, that would be one thing, but like other neo-conservative Democrats, the vote for Iraq fits a pattern.
This vote was particularly catastrophic because not only did the war in Iraq lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans and at a minimum hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  It also--as British intelligence warned in 2002 and 2003--led to the proliferation of international terrorism, Iraq’s descent into a civil war with regional ramifications, and ultimately to the emergence of ISIS as a deadly and destabilizing force.
As whistleblower Edward Snowden shed light on the abuses and civil liberties infringements of the U.S. security state in 2013, abuses and infringements enabled in part by Feinstein, the senator defended the head of U.S. national intelligence, even as he was found to have lied repeatedly to her colleagues in the senate about his slow erosion of Americans’ rights and aggrandizement of unchecked power for the security state.  She denied in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the NSA’s activities constituted “spying.”  
Thereafter, Feinstein worked carefully to derail efforts at serious reform of the security state, demonstrating once again that between her constituents and the post-9/11 rogue national security state that emerged under President Bush and continued to flourish under President Obama, her loyalties are with the latter.  Feinstein also made or supported a series of deeply disingenuous claims about the “successes” of the U.S. security state designed to pressure the public and her colleagues into backing away from serious reform.
Feinstein’s support of the security state is particularly significant because of the role of this episode and the subsequent attacks on whistleblowers played in eroding the trust of the public in the state.  In successive elections, disingenuously given their own history, Republicans were successfully able to conflate the mystery of the security state and its well documented abuses, with the broader efforts of the federal government to work for citizens.  Through her support from a position of power in the senate of the Bush administration’s wars, and the Bush-Obama expansion of the security state, Feinstein played a not-insignificant role in facilitating the mistrust in the state that led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Later in 2013 when President Obama contemplated an undefined, unresourced, and uncommitted attack on the Syrian regime, driven by the impulse to “do something, anything!” no matter whether intervention stood any success of helping Syrians, Dianne Feinstein was among those senators trying to influence the president to intervene.  Feinstein sought to bludgeon her colleagues into supporting an attack on Syria by circulating distressing images of gassed citizens, while refusing to ask hard questions of the administration--or answer any herself--about precisely how a muddled series of airstrikes would have halted the depredations of the Syrian regime.
She dismissed the serious reservations of her constituents, remarking condescendingly that “they have not seen what I have seen or heard.”  Nor were they likely to, thanks to her refusal to offer evidence of her claims or a basis for thinking that intervention would work in either the short or long term.  But what constituents could see was the emergence of a pattern wherein their senator could not be trusted to accurately represent intelligence, the activities of the national security state, or to exercise good judgement about those things.  
Nor has Feinstein offered more than the barest indulgence of democracy in her home state, systematically declining to debate primary or general election opponents and long disdaining the town hall and other mechanisms that allow voters to directly interrogate their representatives.  Instead, she and her husband, a former chair of the Regents of the University of California who worked to privatize that institution by stealth, wall their deeply political activities off from public scrutiny.  
Now, the Democratic establishment is stepping to Feinstein’s aid as she faces a challenge from the leader of California’s senate, Kevin de Leon.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently told a fundraising crowd, with reference to the prospect of a Democratic primary opponent, that “this cannibalistic approach, that somehow we should be at each other’s throats right now...is wrong for Democrats and what California should be doing right now.”  
The political primary, an important layer of democracy in our country that allows voters to influence parties and their ideas, is apparently regarded as a destructive nuisance by leading Democrats as they defend a senator with a track record of putting a rogue security state’s power ahead of the rights and interests of her constituents.  In equating a debate about ideas and direction and policy to “cannibalism,” Garcetti and those who share his mentality are demonstrating deep contempt for Californians and a troubling streak of “we know best” elitism that will rebound in one fashion or another to their deep disadvantage and that of their constituents.  Fear of debate by incumbents in power should always be read as underlining its profound necessity.
Another influential figure from Feinstein’s wing of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, wrote in a recent memoir, that the “progressive” approach to welfare, involving piecemeal, targeted reforms, has been proven to be inadequate, both in terms of creating robust and sustainable policy, and in terms of providing the basis for a civic national identity in contrast to the racist one fomented by Trump and his party (Clinton, What Happened, 238).  Clinton acknowledged that as a matter of both opportunity and urgency, the moment has arisen to embrace social democracy in the U.S.  In order for this to occur, California will need to send a senator with a different sensibility and a different ideological commitment to the senate.  
California state senate leader Kevin de Leon needs to think hard about his own approach should he wish to represent California in the senate.  He recently threw his fellow legislative leader in the Assembly under the bus by backing a regularly recycled universal healthcare bill from the ‘90s in California.  Under de Leon’s stewardship, the commendable desire in the senate to develop universal healthcare legislation was not matched by commensurate effort to develop legislation with a firm funding source.  The disinclination to work with the Assembly also indicated a laziness about the hard work of building consensus and harnessing expertise, suggesting that this effort in California was more about show than substance.
De Leon and others should realize the disservice they would have done their cause if they had passed such deeply flawed legislation, the failure of which would then have delivered a national setback to the push for universal healthcare.  The decision of California Democrats to tackle something as massive as healthcare without first dealing with the state’s mangled tax system--a legacy of 1978’s Prop 13 and decades’ of failure to come to grips with its consequences--that would be charged with sustaining the new legislation, is symbolic of the deep cowardice of the state’s elected officials.  
From Governor Jerry Brown (who presided over the failure to head off Prop 13 in 1978) on down, California’s Democrats have refused to understand that they are reduced to ineffectual tinkering unless they tackle the state’s constitution--broken as it has become by Republicans and their financial backers--and the straitjackets it imposes on legislators and their ability to muster serious revenue.  
When Californians vote for a new senator in 2018, I hope that they will ignore the anti-democratic blandishments of the most entrenched Democratic powerbrokers, and leave Senator Feinstein to a retirement more dignified and less violent than her tenure in office.  That tenure has been tragically marked by destructive interventions in the realm of national security that have led to global violence and instability, played a part in the rise of Donald Trump, and have diminished Americans’ civil liberties.  Californians should then ask hard questions of the alternatives.  But they should look hopefully for candidates from the left who understand that social and economic rights should take their place alongside the civil and political rights valued by Americans.  And they should look for candidates who promise to do their best to chart a new direction in U.S. foreign policy that is informed by the same values underpinning the desire to create a more fair and just country. 

Friday, September 1, 2017

Not Yet, Uhuru!

Kenyans rally for the new constitution (2010) that made this moment possible
In Kenya’s last presidential election, President Obama’s State Department decided to assert itself by warning Kenyans of the consequences of electing two men under investigation by the International Criminal Court for allegedly fomenting violence during the country’s disputed 2007 election.  Britain and other European countries joined in issuing these unveiled criticisms of Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto, the two men on the ticket for the country’s top job.
Predictably, the intervention by the U.S. and Britain backfired spectacularly.  The spectacularly wealthy Kenyatta, son of the country’s first president, lashed back at his critics, asking Kenyans whether they were going to let foreigners tell them how to vote.  He wondered aloud why the ICC only pursued African leaders (a fair enough question, though not in itself an argument in his defense).  And he campaigned claiming to be a nationalist under assault from the very kind of neo-colonial interests that his father allowed in the door after independence. 
The disappearance of witnesses led to the ICC dropping the case against Kenyatta after he won the presidential election, and he governed as an industry-, infrastructure-, and business-friendly technocrat, saving his populism for the campaign trail.  He has made skillful use of social media, even while seeking to restrict the ability of the national media to shed light on some of the goings on in his government.
And he was widely believed to have a strong edge in the 2017 election, having built a strong political coalition, hitched to the machine of his running mate, Ruto, whose Rift Valley machinations have drawn comparisons to the powerhouse Moi family, the patriarch of which served as Kenya’s president-dictator from 1978 until 2002. 
In 2017, international governments and observers believed they had learned their lesson.  Kenyatta had proven himself more than capable of leading a government with which they could do business, Barack Obama paid a nostalgia filled visit to the country under a presidency his administration had sworn would see Kenya isolated, and many believed that Kenyatta would not need to manipulate the election in order to win a clean victory.  The culture of impunity fostered by his escape from the ICC was a thing of the distant past.
And so observers brushed aside the under-substantiated complaints from opposition leader Raila Odinga’s NASA party about irregularities, and declared the election free and fair.
Three weeks later, Chief Justice David Maraga, presiding over an emboldened judiciary built by Willy Mutunga and others, announced the Supreme Court’s decision to annul the results of the election, citing unspecified irregularities and ordering a new contest within two months. 
Odinga supporters greeted the news ecstatically, believing that the cloud it set over the head of “Uhuruto” and the Jubilee Alliance will give Odinga a better chance at the presidency that has so far been denied him by means fair and foul.  He is an emotive populist to Kenyatta’s slick technocrat, and upon hearing the court’s decision, thundered that if on election day Kenyans had “crossed River Jordan and went until the great wall of Jericho,” then in two months’ time “we will have made it to Jerusalem.”
But other Kenyans are taking pride in the court’s decision because it marks the triumph of institutions above individuals.  In 2010, the country’s citizens voted to establish a new constitution, which has become a kind of touchstone for the country’s soul ever since.
The new constitution was designed to replace the governmental hardware and infrastructure inherited from the colonial state in the 1960s, which had enabled decades of dictatorship, abuse, and uneven development with more responsive, credible, and democratic institutions.  It strengthened the judiciary.  And it devolved significant powers to counties and governors in an effort to bring government and the development the state can foster closer to Kenyan citizens. 
I was in Kenya during the campaign for and referendum on the new constitution, and it embodied the same kind of optimism and excitement that had rippled through the country years earlier with the return of democratic politics.
This morning, Chief Justice Maraga reminded Kenyans, that “the greatness of a nation lies in its fidelity to its constitution and strict adherence to the rule of law and above all the fear of God,” collapsing the country’s considerable religiosity with the civic reverence for the document representing the second coming of independence.
The Daily Nation newspaper declared that the court’s decision was “the single most outstanding explication of the supremacy of the rule of law and maturation of our democracy,” demonstrating “independence of the Judiciary and signaled the end of the era of impunity that has painfully assailed this country for far too long.” 
To his credit, Kenyatta accepted the ruling, but promptly began attacking the court, wondering why “six people have deiced that they will go against the will of the people,” and accusing the judges of having been “paid by foreigners and other fools,” while reminding Maraga that he was “dealing with the serving president.” 
It is a style of politics that has worked for Kenyatta and other incumbents in the past.  But those shadowy outsiders will be more difficult to identify, particularly because they signed off on Kenyatta’s victory.  And Kenya’s judiciary, a source of national pride, will make for a trickier target than inept American and British diplomats who failed to grasp the basic elements of “geopolitics 101.” 
Kenyatta’s greater advantages might very well be the resources of his party and the impressive power of incumbency.  Much will depend on the court’s full articulation of the basis for its annulment of the earlier results, and the extent to which the alleged improprieties can be addressed in the coming sixty days.  And it will be fascinating to see whether the opinion polls that will soon again become a staple of reporting and analysis will reflect election fatigue and a desire to abandon or punish Odinga, a revitalization of his base (into which Kenyatta and Ruto made some inroads), or any signs that the independence of Kenya’s judiciary might provoke movement and re-thinking within the component parts of the two main alliances’ constituencies, something tentatively forecast in the immediate reactions of one keen-eyed analyst
Whatever happens, this is an event of monumental significance in a country in which for some of its national community, the strong always seemed to prevail and impunity seemed to define relations between the people and their government.  Odinga’s father wrote a famous book, Not Yet Uhuru, which highlighted impediments to full independence (uhuru).  The insertion of a single comma gives a new lease on life to the phrase.   

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Summer Reading Highlights

Monday marks the start of the semester after a both productive and enjoyable summer.  Among the many pleasures of the summer was the opportunity to do more reading unrelated to work.  I’m going to share some of my favorites here, and hope that people will comment with some of their own to add to my never-ending list.
On the fiction side I began with The Handmaid’s Tale.  I had been hearing a lot of people discuss the television version, and I decided to read Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name.  It’s a compelling and rather chilling read, inviting readers to contemplate the end point of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.
Another novel that felt somehow timely was Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, which had me looking over my shoulder as I strolled through London.  The novel revolves around a new Labour Party leader drawn from the left of the party.  His supposedly radical program so disconcerts Britain’s elite, that they mobilize to defend their privileged status.  It’s an understated political thriller from the eighties which still reads well.
My final fiction read of the summer was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., co-authored by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It concerns a secretive government agency intent on mastering time travel (that’s “diachronic operations” in the novel’s parlance) in order to avert what has come to be understood as the historical disappearance of magic.  It interweaves fantasy and physics (I’d be curious to hear how a physicist would evaluate the authors’ invocation of their epistemology)  I enjoyed the first half or so of the book the most, but on the whole it was actually quite good, and came together better than the various elements of the plot sound as I’m writing it down!
On the non-fiction side, early in the summer I read Naomi Klein’s No is not enough, a trenchant book that not only provides a compelling reading of some broader conditions that led to the rise of Donald Trump, but also the beginning of a blueprint for pushing back and, as importantly, articulating alternative policies and political practices.  Klein’s emphasis is on the intersectional nature of the environmental, social, economic, and political challenges facing our world, reflecting the complex reality of people’s lived experiences and interdependence.  
My experience of David Gessner’s All the Wild that Remains, a mediation on the lives and writings of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, was immeasurably enhanced because I read the book in between strolling the rim and trails of the Grand Canyon, while watching a sunset on Lake Powell, and beside the canyons of southern Utah.  Gessner’s book was a pleasure to read, partly autobiographical, partly biographical, partly an homage to the southwest, and partly mediation on the relationship between people and our environments.
Two of my books, fittingly enough since I spent a few weeks of the summer in Sweden, focused on the Nordic region.  Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything is very much a piece of advocacy, directed at Americans who are constantly reminded of our exceptional nature, but who in reality often forget just how much better we could have it.  Partanen describes the social dislocation, cultural alienation, and economic vulnerability she experienced upon moving to the United States, and spends the book pointing out how the Nordic states in general, and often Finland more particularly, address the points of weakness or gaping holes in the American social safety net.  I hear much of this daily from my wife, but what struck me most about the book was what Partanen implicitly identifies as the very liberal underpinnings of the Nordic welfare states.  To her mind, far from being states constructed along rigidly ideological social democratic (never mind socialist) lines, these were states that used the tools of social democracy to achieve a very liberal end: the emancipation of individuals from dependency and uncertainty.  
Dominic Hinde’s A Utopia Like Any Other was a very different sort of book on twentieth century social democracy.  His investigations revolve around how the hegemony (he’s on the fence about the applicability of the term) of the Social Democratic Party in twentieth century Sweden shaped the country’s welfare state, architecture, housing, cultural politics, and more.  In some sense the chapters read more like a fascinating collection of essays.  But at the core of the book’s argument is the idea that there was no Swedish sonderweg that led to the creation of a utopia that faces a surprisingly uncontested (here Hinde identifies the anemic technocracy of the Social Democrats) unmaking (by the liberal Alliance riksdag grouping).  Instead, the construction of this utopia and others--and here Hinde has his native Scotland in mind, but it applies more broadly--is contingent and requires constant political labor.  
Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers deals with the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of the Rwandan genocide.  Mamdani is a brilliant scholar, whose work on colonial governance, the relationship between humanitarian rhetoric and neocolonial practice, and authoritarianism in Uganda, and this work on Rwanda did not disappoint.  I’m not an expert on the Great Lakes region, but I found the book deeply informative and thought-provoking.  Parts of it are theory-heavy and slow-going, but definitely worth it.
Among the regrets and sadnesses I felt when my grandfather died in December was not having asked him often enough about his youth in El Salvador.  It was with that in mind that I picked up Matt Eisenbrandt’s book, Assassination of a Saint, which documents the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the decades-long quest for even a whiff of justice.  Eisenbrandt’s book is partly about his own work in pursuing one particular strand of that search for truth and justice, and partly about the broader historical and social context.  His description of how El Salvador’s elite and military, with the assistance of the U.S., conspired to strangle anti-authoritarian and social and economic justice movements in the country, was particularly harrowing because it so close to home in many ways.  
Some other fantastic books from the past six months would have to include Peter Kimani’s novel, Dance of the Jakaranda (dealing with race and power in Kenya during and after colonialism); Asne Seierstad’s One of Us (on white supremacy and terror in Norway); Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (on the powerful cross generational, trans-Atlantic experiences and persistence of a Ghanaian family); and Africanist historian Terence Ranger’s memoir, Writing Revolt (about his time in the 1960s in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe).  

Probably my favorite of the past year, and one to which I’ll return briefly Monday morning on my bus ride to mark the start of the semester, was the third installment of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memoirs, Birth of a Dream Weaver.  The book documents Ngugi’s university years, surrounding the moments of independence in East Africa.  The author is a celebrated Kenyan author, and his other memoirs have centered on his childhood in Kenya.  This book, however, revolved around his time at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  It captured beautifully how learning, art and theatre, student politics, and geographical dislocation reflected the transformation of decolonization and independence.  And it was moving because my own fleeting months at Makerere, and the ways in which it captured something timeless about the student experience, something that will undoubtedly permeate the atmosphere on campus beginning Monday.

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A few things I'm excited about reading in the coming months: John Grindrod's Concretopia: a journey around the rebuilding of postwar Britain; Abdulrazak Gurnah's Gravel Heart; Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers; Deepak Unnikrishnan's Temporary People; Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time; Ibram Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning; and Patrick Barkham's Badgerlands. Plus more.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Under Trump, Afghanistan will again be a proving ground for bad ideas

Mercenary and would-be viceroy Erik Prince.  Credit.
It is becoming something of a ritual for American presidents to declare a new strategy for Afghanistan, as though the fate of another sovereign state can be discussed in the same way as a healthcare bill or some pesky regulation.  After George W Bush forgot about the country that he invaded to such fanfare in 2001, Barack Obama brought it back into the spotlight.  Because he proposed to withdraw from Iraq, he needed a place to prove that he was tough on terror, and Afghanistan fit the bill.
President Obama was outmaneuvered by hawkish Democrats and backstabbing generals whose careers and reputations were on the line, and found himself dispatching increasing numbers of American soldiers to the country.  The farce which followed generated a cast of personalities sufficiently well-known and absurd that they are now the subjects of satirical war films.  
After excoriating politicians of both parties for a) invading Afghanistan; b) abandoning Afghanistan; c) sticking it out in Afghanistan; d) losing in Afghanistan; etc, Donald Trump is continuing this venerable tradition in a war undertaken without any clear goals, as an act of spasmodic revenge, itself as ritualistic as these “re-sets” which have followed.  It is also, I realize, a war old enough such that the children born in 2001 to eighteen-year-old men and women numbering among those who went off to fight for their country, are just two years shy of being able to fight in the same purposeless conflict.
What can we expect from Trump tonight when he announces a new strategy for the war?  His foreign policy views are incoherent but bloody.  Like his twitter-oriented presidency, they involve lashing out angrily at critics and threats, real or imagined.  They involve pitifully and tragically gratuitous displays of violence, like the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, or the launching of cruise missiles during dessert against Syrian targets.
His warmaking is shorn of any long-term objectives, and is characteristically clueless about long-term ramifications for global peace or national security, never mind the lives and livelihoods of the people in the target nation.
In the case of Afghanistan, one of the people bending Trump’s ear during the review is Erik Prince, the mercenary whose company Blackwater endangered U.S. soldiers and derailed what passed for strategy under President Bush by massacring Iraqi citizens.  Blackwater closed up shop, but Prince has continued his career as a war profiteer, intervening in conflicts in Africa, providing private security for Middle Eastern regimes, and seeking to build up a private airforce.
Like his sister, Betsy Devos, who runs the Department of Education, and is set on running public education into the ground, Prince subscribes to the simpleton’s belief that anything the state can do, the private sector can do better.  Such views ignore the desirability of democratic processes and accountability, and have little time for an idea as apparently quaint as the public interest.  They are based on deep historical ignorance, which perhaps helps to explain Prince’s vision for the war in Afghanistan.
Prince has recommended that Trump privatize the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, installing an imperial-style viceroy and leaving it to the private sector to manage a conflict of which the American public has never assumed serious ownership.  Just as Betsy DeVos wants an accountable public entity to abandon our schools and turn them into petri dish for twisted and failed free market ideologues, Prince wants to turn Afghanistan once again into a proving ground.
For George W Bush it was the testing site for the logic of the War of Terror, and Donald Rumsfeld’s chronically short-sighted belief that small, mobile American forces could remake the world in its own image.  For Barack Obama, Afghanistan was sacrificed to prove a point about Iraq.  And if Trump follows Prince’s recommendations, the country will take its turn as an experimental site for the waging of a war shorn of any purpose, fought by mercenaries primarily to enrich a fundamentalist war profiteer.  In addition to the literal crimes Prince’s mercenaries would commit in our name, the real crime would be once again making Afghanistan a casualty of electoral calculations and ideological evangelism.
Prince has invoked the East India Company as a model of the successful privatization of war.  The British East India Company was a private company that terrorized India for two centuries, morphing into a state with its own army, navy, and currency.  It gutted Bengal, once one of the richest regions in the world, for the profit of British investors and merchants, and enmeshed British elites and politicians in a series of scandals that damaged governments, injured public trust in the state, and helped to spark the American Revolution.  The conservative Edmund Burke believed that the East India Company and its practices was a dire threat to British parliamentary democracy.
Before its cruelty sparked an uprising that ended with Indian nationalists being blown from the mouths of cannons and pulled apart by elephants, the Company morphed into a drug running organization, pushing opium on a Chinese public against the will of the Chinese state, and persuading the British government to use its full military might in a war for “free trade”, the operative “freedom” being that to sell drugs wherever the company and its intermediaries wished.  
In other words, the East India Company represented all that Americans and global citizens believe to be toxic in our own world: dangerous entanglements between public and private interest, in which corporate power subverts democracy; the use of military power for private gain; corruption and the growth of inequality within and between nations.  So it makes perfect sense that for someone like Prince (and his sister), Trump looks like a gift from the gods.  
The United States has never been able to make up its mind about the nature of its commitment to Afghanistan.  For the public, it is a reminder of a time and an administration it would sooner forget, a complication.  For the families of slain and wounded veterans, it is a place much more significant, and the gap between their experience and that of the broader public signifies the casual manner in which our country today goes to war.
For successive administrations, the country has become an election-time tool, an ideological test site, and a symbol of the dysfunctional nature of international policymaking.  The country’s fate bears testament to the U.S. desire to transform the world and intervene in other people’s lives, sometimes in accordance with international law, frequently at cross purposes with the same.  And it illustrates the extraordinary gap between that desire and the willingness to commit resources of economy, imagination, law,  and personnel, and to forge the kinds of relationships and make the kinds of commitments to international frameworks and institutions that possess more relevant expertise.

In a sense, Trump has no good options, and he will find a way to make bad options worse.  And all of those who will rightly move to condemn Trump should he increase the American-made chaos, lawlessness, and violence in Afghanistan, should contemplate the extent to which they have offered tacit support to other administrations who have done the same.  To argue as much is not to engage in the politics of false equivalencies.  It is to point out the power of the military and the impoverishment of our imaginations about international policy, and to illustrate threads of continuity that run through our country’s violently intermittent engagement with our fellow global citizens across the past century and more.