Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Dean Heller’s studiously ineffective protest of family destruction makes him a doormat for fascism

Nevada Senator Dean Heller recently offered a statement highlighting his opposition on paper to the Trump administration's most recent methods of barbarism: the deliberate policy of abusing children and destroying families on our southern border.

Trump has repeatedly and shamelessly lied by blaming Democrats and former president Obama for the origins of this policy. Trump has openly admitted that family separations are a strategy to instill terror and bring his critics to the negotiating table. And Trump has been defended by a series of morally depraved conservative allies. His Homeland Security secretary has also lied openly about the origins and rationale of the policy.

Dean Heller's statement, signed along with other Republican senators, acknowledges that enforcement of immigration policy should be "consistent with our values and ordinary human decency." While it sought to spread the blame to courts, it was also fairly clear in identifying Trump's "zero tolerance" policy as the source of the decision to abuse children, violate their human rights, and rip families apart.

The Republican senators' letter was addressed to the Attorney General. It steadfastly refuses to acknowledge the role of the president in calling for and defending these moral abominations and human rights abuses. The Republican senators declined to acknowledge that it is the president who sees the destruction of families as a negotiating ploy, a moral necessity, a fulfillment of his central campaign promises backed by his party, and a tool with which to discipline migrants.

On June 23, Trump will appear alongside Dean Heller to raise money for his re-election. The juxtaposition of Heller's weak but critical letter with his embrace of and by Donald Trump, is typical of how Nevada's Republican senator has dealt with the fascism menacing our country.

Time and again Heller has offered tepid criticism of Trump's actions--the assault on Americans' healthcare; the nomination of unqualified, corrupt, and malicious cabinet secretaries; gross violations of human rights. Heller has tantalized the media and Nevadans with threats to take bold action, before folding in the most complete and humiliating fashion. Time and again, Heller's brief time on his high horse has been followed by the utter collapse of his spinal column as he dismounts, and slithers off to do the President's bidding, whether that involves plunging our healthcare structures into chaos, passing a gargantuan tax giveaway to the wealthy, backing corrupt plutocrats for appointed office, or backing violent criminals to head government agencies.

These gross moral failures on the part of Dean Heller are not only nauseating in their own right. They represent one of two things. One possibility is that they are a carefully calibrated strategy that has so far managed to fool many Nevadans into thinking that Heller is a thoughtful moderate, when instead he is a powerful and enthusiastic supporter of the Trump agenda. The second possibility is that Heller is actually stupid enough to believe that a letter like the one he issued, in the context in which it was issued, represents a way of influencing the Trump administration.

Either scenario should be chilling for Nevadans. The Trump administration, and the bulk of the Republican Party, are mounting an assault on our country and many of its citizens that possesses all the hallmarks of fascism: palingenetic ethnic-ultranationalism; contempt for workers' organization; hostility toward internationalism; assaults on civil and human rights; scapegoating vulnerable minorities; the introduction of violence into political discourse and practice; a populist economic veneer over the promotion of profound economic inequality; destructive militarism; contempt for constitutional democracy; hostility toward the media; an authoritarianism which demands subservience from citizens, etc.

Whatever happens, our country will remain deeply marked by our experimentation with this fascism. But if the administration’s fascism continues to be strengthened, either by active proponents or foolishly misguided enablers, we are unlikely to survive as a society. In a global context where the United States joins other powerful authoritarians in seeking to export their model, the ascent of democracy as a global model will look like a blip on the historical radar.

Dean Heller might not realize how grave is the threat faced by our country. But he clearly recognizes that there are problematic features of Trump's program--the joint Republican statement implies a belief that Trump's immigration policy is immoral and indecent. Given that recognition, how can Heller and others believe that a letter to an Attorney General will influence Trump? How do they believe they can discipline this administration when they vote for its nominees, pass its favored legislation, and appear alongside its megalomaniac head at fundraisers? Their words might offer criticism, but their every action confirms that they are all bark and no bite. Their actions amount to a wink and a nod, a message to the fascist administration that they have its back, even if that sometimes means pretending to their constituents that they are troubled by its actions.

Nevada Senator Dean Heller is happiest when sitting astride a fence. Perhaps he enjoys the view, but it’s more like that it serves as his safe space, out of reach of the jack-booted racists and economic fundamentalists on the right, and removed from Nevada’s wider population which is suffering as a result of the crushing assault on civil, political, social, and economic rights mounted by the Trump administration with Heller’s assistance.

For the past few years Heller has paid lip service to decency, tolerance, reason, and other important values that hold our society together. And as he has mouthed his commitment to those values, he has steadily undermined them with a set of votes that have enabled an administration that makes profound appeals to people’s worst instincts by embracing bigotry, generating economic inequality, enshrining civic inequities, pedaling hate, and seeking to bring the same kind of savage disorder it is sewing in our own country to the international sphere.

The vicious assault on children and families on our southern border is the latest example of Heller’s spinelessness. No letters and no media statements will halt the depravity enacted there by the Trump administration and its Republican backers. That will require Republican senators rejecting each and every piece of Trump-backed legislation, turning down each and every Trump nominee, avoiding any Trump-associated fundraisers, and taking every opportunity to assail Trump’s administration in public. Otherwise, they are doormats and doormen at best, and enthusiastic allies at worst, for an administration that is taking our country and our world to the brink.

Monday, June 4, 2018

Chris Giunchigliani has my vote for Nevada governor

This fall, the nation’s eyes will be on Nevada’s senate race, where incumbent Republican Dean Heller has staked his career on enabling a dangerous ethno-nationalist administration dedicated to increasing both inequality before the law, and socio-economic inequality, while undermining the norms-based international order created after the Second World War.

But as Nevadans begin early voting in this summer’s primary, another race, with even more immediate implications for the state’s future, looms large. Nevada’s next governor will have a great deal to say about the future of a state that remains underdeveloped in its social and physical infrastructure. The two Democrats vying for their party’s nomination offer some important contrasts, and Nevadans would do well to look closely at this race.

Both nominees are Clark County commissioners, but Chris Giunchigliani, the more left leaning of the two, also has experience as a state legislator. She and Steve Sisolak have spent a primary campaign debating education policy, the nature and desirability of growth, different models for development in Nevada, gun control, and environmental protection. Either of them would be much preferable to social and economic fundamentalist Adam Laxalt who looks likely to win the Republican nomination.

However, I believe that Chris Giunchigliani would be most likely to work on making Nevada a place that those of us who live here--as opposed to people who come to Reno or Las Vegas for a week-end--can imagine as truly being our home as well as our zip code.

Steve Sisolak has moved to the left to woo primary voters, but many of his conversions--and to be fair, he is now asked to comment on broader issues than fell under the remit of a county commissioner--are open to question. My guess is that the fairly conservative Sisolak would draw on his basic “fiscal conservatism” to build some kind of an informal alliance with legislative Republicans to arrest the greater ambitions of Democrats in the legislature. It’s a model that has served a conservative Democratic governor well in California, and has stymied efforts in that state to address the long-term effects of the recession or to make public institutions more public and accessible.

The question of whether Sisolak would hold to some of his better primary positions is neither trivial nor, as some conservative Democrats like to suggest, a “purity test.” Rather, it is a legitimate concern about the degree to which we can expect real movement toward a state political economy that puts Nevadan families and communities at the heart of the model for the state’s future.

At the heart of the difference between Sisolak and Giunchigliani--who has declared that she will serve as the “education governor”--are two different visions of development for Nevada.

Sisolak’s model for development revolves around the idea that continued growth--in a fragile ecosystem and political economy--is the future, now and forever, for Nevada. It also relies on the serially irresponsible idea that the way to improve our social environment and livelihoods is to always ask outsiders to pay the bill. Sooner or later, Nevadans alike will have to come to grips with the reality that if they want a better life, they can’t rely on tourists to provide ever-new subsidies.

Much has been made about Giunchigliani and Sisolak’s different views about the public subsidy to the football stadium--she opposed it, he favored it. But this seemingly small issue demonstrates a great deal about their respective views about development. In my view, much else of substance--related to education, housing, the environment, etc--flows from these philosophies of development.

Sisolak opted for a public subsidy for the big ticket item which offers little to Nevadans aside from the possibility--experts say that stadiums seldom live up to the economic hype--of trickle-down development. Giunchigliani suggested that the funds for the stadium could have been devoted to improving the state’s mangled education system. Sisolak replied that Nevadans weren’t paying for the stadium--rather, the funds came from a room tax that would be paid by visitors. This point in no way negated Giunchigliani’s argument that a stadium was a less important feature of development than new educational infrastructure, something that like the stadium could simultaneously generate jobs while offering something far more substantial and enduring to Nevada’s children than the faraway glimmer of an entertainment venue.

Diverging views about sites for investment aside, Sisolak’s constant crowing about getting outsiders to pay for the stadium also masks a deep problem. Tourist dollars impose both a vulnerable and decidedly limited ceiling on Nevadans’ ambitions, and one which works to the disadvantage of most Nevadans and their needs.. The state’s constitution and tax code are riddled with limits (no state income tax, limited property taxes, protections for the powerful mining sector) on the state’s ability to draw on a broad and predictable range of revenue. As a result, the state relies on the limited indulgence of its poorest citizens for regressive taxes that cut more deeply into their earnings than those of their wealthy neighbors.

There are good reasons to be skeptical about the big ticket item, stadium model of development. As Las Vegas races outward, it leaves far too many of its citizens behind. Families struggle to make ends meet, children fall through the cracks at straining schools, high rents and a threadbare safety net drive people to homelessness, and the transit infrastructure on which poorer Nevadans depend stagnates. New proposals to push the city further into the desert miss both ecological limits and social needs, while failing to embrace an opportunity to build inward and upward--the future of global cities.

Sisolak’s attacks on Chris Giunchigliani amount to ‘why, as a single member of the legislature, were you not able to pull our state out of a hole?” ignoring that the hole is dug by a mangled state constitution and system of governance, a deep set but changing libertarian political culture, and a lengthy period of Republican dominance at the gubernatorial level.

Giunchigliani appears to better understand that the traditional trickle-down model of development isn’t working for Nevada’s communities. Trickle down development is the equivalent of offering ‘thoughts and prayers’ after a shooting, in that it turns over responsibility for a public policy problem to a faith-based initiative: divine intervention in the one case, and the fantasy of a market that doesn’t actually exist as a thing except in the fevered dreams of Laxalt’s libertarianism. Markets are collections of relationships and interests. They don’t do public policy, although the manner in which they are or aren’t regulated has implications for public policy. Governments, in contrast do public policy, and that is why they are better placed to ensure that resources reach the people who need them before affluent interests have taken their pound of flesh.

At a series of debates, Sisolak appeared to attack Giunchigliani for spending a career fighting for lost causes rather than “getting things done.” But her battles, even if sometimes lost, were for our state’s forgotten children, beleaguered families, battered workforce, and fragile institutions, and it is precisely because people like Giunchigliani fought them before there was a consensus about the need to do so, that the conversation has changed, forcing even conservative Democrats like Sisolak to talk the talk. The wellbeing of those constituencies are not lost causes.

As a new Nevadan, I’d love to live in a state with uniformly-excellent public schools, well-funded public universities, great public transit, protected public lands, clean air, affordable healthcare, generous support for those who fall on hard times, in which people, rather than commercial entities, are recognized as the source of a state community’s wellbeing.

Based on the respective philosophies of development articulated by Nevada’s two Democratic contenders for the governorship, Chris Giunchigliani will get my vote. Hers is a pro-active, human-oriented approach to public policy, that asks Nevadans to assert control over their own destinies, eschewing the trickle down model of development that has served the state rather poorly in the past.

Wednesday, May 16, 2018

National Security officials embrace their own version of Trump's post-truth world

Today, the Senate intelligence committee offered bipartisan support for the nomination of Gina Haspel to head the CIA. Haspel, while a CIA officer, oversaw a torture site, and participated actively in efforts to destroy evidence of CIA torture.

Late last month, Michael Hayden, a former director of the CIA and a persistent critic of the Trump administration, took to the pages of the New York Times to attack the “post truth” condition of Trump’s America and to emphasize the “serious stress” being placed on American “traditions and institutions that protect us from living Hobbesian ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short’ lives.”

As the antidote to Trump’s attacks on American institutions, Hayden celebrated “intelligence work.” Such work, he claimed, “at least as practiced in the Western liberal tradition--reflects...threatened Enlightenment values: gathering, evaluating and analyzing information, and then disseminating conclusions for use, study or refutation.” Hayden proceeded to blame Trump for undermining those values through the president’s Muslim ban, his fragile ego, and own lack of intelligence.

Hayden argued that “intelligence shares a broader duty with...other truth-tellers to preserve the commitment and ability of our society to base important decisions on our best judgment of what constitutes objective reality.”

These are a striking set of claims. While few inhabitants of the realm of reality would dispute the idea that Donald Trump’s fascism is undermining institutions, values, discourse, and thereby democracy, Hayden’s argument about the claim of national security agencies to be conveyors of Enlightenment values, “truth-tellers” that foster open modes of discourse deserve closer scrutiny and a good deal of skepticism.

Michael Hayden served as NSA Director, National Intelligence deputy director, and CIA director during the the Bush administration, a troubled period defined by the aggrandizement of power by the security state, a rash declaration of poorly-defined and unexplained war on terror. This period, and the abuses by the security state that it set in motion--abuses which, it should be noted, continued through the Obama administration--actually helped to facilitate Trump’s rise to power.

During this period, intelligence agencies offered a series of misleading claims that enabled the declaration of aggressive war--a crime--against Iraq, a war which led to the unravelling of the Middle East, the disintegration of the careers of several American presidential aspirants, and the proliferation of international terrorism.

During this era, Hayden defended expanded powers of domestic surveillance for the security state, warning that such powers were essential for American security. Hayden privatized components of these dangerous efforts, and contracts accrued to a company staffed by former high ranking intelligence officers. Hayden pursued whistleblowers with a vengeance (offering highly personalized attacks on Edward Snowden and lying to senators about the NSA’s spying programs), demonstrating little patience with the argument that Americans needed to know what happened behind the closed doors of the security state.

At the same time, he rebuffed or ignored Congressional critics of the security state’s stealthily-expanded remit. Hayden reportedly told one internal critic that “We didn’t need [constitutional safeguards]” for expanding surveillance of Americans, acknowledging that he did not believe his agency needed to acquire warrants for this surveillance.

In confirmation hearings, Hayden attacked journalistic scrutiny of intelligence work. And he later defended the utility of torture. Hayden lied to Congress in an effort to obstruct investigations into torture, and his agency waged a long-term campaign to undermine the senate investigation and control the report that emerged from the investigation.

Hayden also presided over and later defended the CIA’s drone program, which involved using disposition matrices (statistical assessments) to murder often faceless people without anything resembling due process. Such murders violated key legal principles, allowed for simmering conflicts to continue beneath Congress’ radars, often struck the wrong targets, and killed massive numbers of innocent civilians (sometimes 90% of their victims)--not that they allowed for anything resembling a concrete statement of their intended targets’ guilt. Hayden made the extraordinary request to be allowed to blow people to smithereens on the basis of unknown vehicles or houses exhibiting activities associated with an Al Qaeda-esque “pattern of life.”

In sum, Michael Hayden was a national security leader who sought the unaccountable and secret expansion of intelligence agencies’ powers to surveil and intrude on the lives of American citizens. He enabled his agencies to murder--sometimes singly, sometimes on a massive scale--our global neighbors in flagrant violation of our laws and international accords. He defended torture, attacked the press, prosecuted whistleblowers to keep citizens from learning about his agencies’ work, and waged a cold war against elected representatives charged with overseeing his agencies and shedding light on the security state’s activities in the public interest.

Through these actions, Hayden exported violence and terror, and undermined the principles of an open society, arguing that the security state along had a right to evaluate the premises undergirding international policy, military intervention, civil liberties grabs, and constitutional safeguards.

In light of this track record, Hayden’s claims about the “Enlightened,” “liberal,” “truth telling,” and knowledge-disseminating qualities of intelligence agencies are not just absurd. They exhibit profound ignorance about the set of factors--and the rogue nature of our security services are one of these--that elevated Trump to office, are deliberately ahistorical in their efforts to deny the barbarism of U.S. national security policy, and represent a foray into “post truth” politics that might not quite rival Donald Trump’s excursions, but which promise to resonate long after this administration has ended.

Perhaps it’s worth looking at an actual Enlightenment-era thinker to see what people of that era thought about the issues Hayden describes. Each spring, my European history students read passages from Cesare Beccaria, an eighteenth-century jurist and criminologist. On Crimes and Punishments remains a representative piece of Enlightenment-era thinking about law, criminality, and justice.

In it, Beccaria argued that although laws “ought to be conventions between men in a state of freedom,” they were historically too often “the work of the passions of a few, or the consequences of a fortuitous or temporary necessity,” the state of exception perhaps represented by the pressures our own “forever war” on terror placed on our institutions. Beccaria also commented on the role of punishments, the need for transparency, and the problems of torture.

Punishments, he declared, should not “torment a sensible being.” Those torments constituted “useless cruelty, the instrument of furious fanaticism, or the impotency of tyrants.”

“Secret accusations,” of the sort effectively levelled by the CIA and the NSA before the despatch of a drone to create a crater of mangled limbs and spattered blood in place of the human accused and his or her neighbors, “are a manifest abuse” stemming from “the weakness of the government,” and have the effect of making “men false and treacherous.” He approvingly cited Montesquieu’s notion that public, processual accusations “are more conformable to the nature of a republic.”

Beccaria reserved some of his harshest words for torture. “No man,” he wrote, “can be judged a criminal until he be found guilty; nor can society take from him the public protection, until it have been proved that he has violated the conditions on which it was granted.” “It is confounding all relations,” Beccaria argued, to suggest that “pain should be the test of truth, as if truth resided in the muscles and fibres of a wretch in torture.” The purpose of torture, he acknowledged, as Hayden and his ilk fail to acknowledge, is “to terrify and be an example to others,” a legacy of “savage legislation” from the pre-Enlightenment darkness of the human past. Beccaria also noted that in the case of torture, the incentive to confess to end the terror and pain meant that “the very means employed to distinguish the innocent from the guilty will most effectually destroy all difference between them.”

Beccaria praised the early abolition of torture in Sweden and the abhorrence for the practice that he believed pertained in Britain.

Torture, he said, amounted to a declaration of barbarism: “Men, be insensible to pain. Nature has indeed given you an irresistible self-love, and an unalienable right of self-preservation; but I create in you a contrary sentiment, an heroic hatred of yourselves. I command you to accuse yourselves, and to declare the truth, midst the tearing of your flesh, and the dislocation of your bones.”

Beccaria, of course, does not represent the totality of Enlightenment thinking about terror and punishment. He did not anticipate the threat of international terrorism, but nor did he guess at the self-destructive qualities of democratic states exposed for centuries to what he and his compatriots believed to be systems of values and laws that transcended exception in order to endure alongside wiser and more enlightened and more democratic states.

Alongside the more obvious menaces to our democratic institutions represented by the Trump administration, and its fellow global authoritarians, lurk a group of people described in other contexts as “securocrats.” That constellation of national security officials have argued for over a decade now, often with bipartisan support, that laws and norms and institutions should be subordinated to their privileged knowledge, knowledge which, moreover, the public is not fit to see. Those officials have abused their power, fostered mistrust of government, meddled in elections, exported terror--torture, drone strikes, aggressive war--and battled representative institutions to assert their primacy at the heart of our government.

They now seek to associate themselves with resistance to authoritarianism, when in reality they have been its enablers. They have squandered a public trust that they never actually earned, and should be uprooted and disciplined, rather than praised and promoted. Rejecting Gina Haspel’s nomination provides one important opportunity for legislators to send such a signal. But so too would rejecting recent efforts to put the securocrats’ war on, of, and for terror on autopilot. Likewise, efforts to wind down U.S. backing for and participation in a Saudi-led campaign of terror and destabilization in Yemen.

The watchers should become the watched, and we should all give careful scrutiny for the willingness and wherewithal of our legislators to hold securocrats accountable at our extended moment of democratic crisis.

Monday, May 7, 2018

Senators Prepare to Declare a Forever War

A bipartisan group of senators have crafted SJ Resolution 159, designed to address a sprawling series of global conflicts waged by the United States for the past 17 years. SJ Resolution 159 functions as a broad authorization of military action in six countries (Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Somalia, Yemen, Libya) against eight non-state entities (Al Qaeda, the Taliban, ISIS, Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, Al Shabaab, Al Qaeda in Syria, Haqqani Network, Al Qaeda in the Islamic Mahgreb).

The authorization cedes responsibility for waging what amounts to war--although it steadfastly refuses to use that word--against these entities in these places, leaving open the possibility for the executive, with minimal oversight, to extend military force against “associated forces,” “organizations, persons, or forces,” in new geographies. The Resolution would obligate Congress to revisit this authorization--every four years.

The authors of the resolution--Senators Kaine, Flake, Corker, Coons, Young, and Nelson--suggest that the resolution is designed to “provide an updated, transparent, and sustainable statutory basis for counter-terrorism operations.” But what it really does is entrench ignorance, legitimate what Dexter Filkins called the “forever war,” and place on autopilot a broad range of conflicts. It marks an extraordinarily irresponsible Congressional abdication of responsibility, and an unbelievable misreading of the past seventeen years of dismally failed American international policy and warmaking.

The resolution contains a litany of dangerous features.

Congress should be responsible for exercising close oversight of war to ensure that violence is a last resort, undertaken only in the public interest,when all else has failed, and in close conformance with domestic and international law. In stark contrast, this resolution suggests that Congress wants nothing to do with its constitutional obligations, and is content to allow an overmighty executive to accumulate and wield further powers, leaving Congressional representatives to focus on their squabbles, and on carrying out the bidding of their monied sponsors.

Wars should be avoided at all costs. But when waged, they should be designed to achieve clear objectives, in conjunction with a series of political, economic, and social goals. Conflicts on autopilot generate their own toxic logic, seldom related to the public interest. In contrast, this resolution leaves the executive free to wage these wars without clearly articulating the relationship between military action and objectives related to the public interest.

Moreover, the resolution envisions wars that stretch over the horizon and span generations. Children born the year of 9/11 will soon be old enough to fight in the forever war it spawned. By leaving the duration of the authorization open and imposing weak oversight only at four year intervals, the resolution’s sponsors accept the legitimacy and logic of a “forever war,” a war waged on a time-scale so vast that periods longer than U.S. participation in the Second World War are regarded as appropriate intervals for revisitation.

We should be appalled at the suggestion that our country should be committed in this deliberately slipshod fashion to the logic of these “long wars.” But we should be more disturbed still by the way in which this resolution is designed to undermine incentives for re-thinking the logic of such a war. By undermining those incentives, the resolution legitimates a strategy that has failed time and again. The conflicts in which the U.S. has embroiled itself across the Sahel, Sahara, Horn of Africa, Middle East, South Asia, and Arabian Peninsula, are political, social, and economic in their origin. They are complex. And war is a blunt and ineffective instrument, designed to address proximate rather than ultimate causes, and to generate short-term rather than long-term “fixes.” A war policy on autopilot will be unaffected by any of the nuance necessary to address complex problems. It will be subjected to none of the rigor of debate that should define the decision to commit money and lives to armed conflict.

Deploying violent military force has been proven in most of these instances not just to be an ineffective policy. It has also been demonstrated, time and again, to be a destructive tool. Our war in Iraq created a power vacuum, spread terrorism to previously unaffected areas, and facilitated our own descent into acts of barbarism.

Alongside that conflict, the war in Afghanistan has failed to address the underlying sources of conflict in that country, all the while providing the glue to link fundamentalists there to others in the region, making real the fearsome transnational terror links that the Bush administration manufactured to lead us in our nightmarish descent into permanent war.

Our 17-year war has also had domestic repercussions. For centuries commentators have observed how long-term national security “crises” corrode democracy, damage institutions, empower rogue domestic actors, and undermine the public trust. We have seen all of these things occur in the United States, and continuing this directionless conflict only magnifies the damage that our embrace of all things “national security” will do to institutions that actually do serve the public interest.

Of course proponents of the resolution would argue that it is not “war” they are authorizing, but “military force,” a euphemistic term that does not evoke the violence of war, which maims people, strips people of their families, flattens homes, destroys economies, and consumes lives. The sponsors are Orwellian in their refusal to confront the violence that their nice, neutral-sounding resolution naturalizes.

Perhaps the most elementary observation one could make about the resolution is its utterly baffling and truly incomprehensible suggestion that it somehow makes sense to throw together a series of different conflicts in different geographies, with different origins, different actors, different trajectories, and different outlooks, under the umbrella of a single resolution. If using war to address any one of these conflicts would amount to using a sledge hammer against a grain of sand or a drop of water, this blanket military authorization against what might be anywhere between six and forty conflicts is akin to using said hammer against a sand dune or ocean wave.

This all-American mash-up of diverse conflicts, actors, and interests into a single, reconstituted war on terror is the ultimate expression of our legislators’ fatal hubris, profound ignorance, and serial irresponsibility. Any person of minimal intelligence and good-will would recognize that policy must be crafted and oversight offered in a highly specific way, in which particular military actions are scrutinized with reference to particular political goals and particular social and economic contexts and the welfare of particular people in those contexts.

There are long-term repercussions associated with this broad authorization and the power it cedes to the executive--not just the presidency, but the array of acronymed security services who thrive, financially and otherwise in the environment created by permanent war. So long as the executive--in its democratic guise or from its dark, undemocratic corners, increasingly guarded from legislative oversight--can make a link to existing forms or sources of terrorism, it can expand the array of geographies in which we wage war to any corner of the globe. Congress could push back, but this resolution itself is a clear signal that Congress is weary of the tiresome task of doing its job.

We have relatively recent experience of what can happen when Congress takes the opportunity to back a war with an eye to passing the buck and making the hollow declaration of supporting the troops as it sends them off to kill and be killed. The war in Iraq in 2003 became the moment when a comparatively targeted response to 9/11 went off the tracks.

Both parties are to blame for the state of affairs which allows our confederacy of senatorial dunces--Kaine, Flake, Corker, Coons, Young, and Nelson--to parade their resolution as a good idea. Republicans have long embraced the strategy of beating their chests and howling at the moon--or rather, at our darker complected global neighbors--to distract their gullible base from the party’s moral depravity and intellectual bankruptcy.

From the depths of not dissimilar intellectual impoverishment, the Democratic Party made a cynical gamble after 9/11 that embracing aggressive war could be used to counteract those who questioned its patriotism--a patriotism defined by respect for a flag and defilement of the public welfare. Little did they imagine that this decision would cost them two presidencies, help to undermine trust in the state they sought to make work in the public interest, and facilitate the elevation of a fascist to the presidency.

But the flaws of the two parties aside, it is in the clear interests of members of Congress to offer a thundering bipartisan rejection to a resolution that represents historic levels of bipartisan stupidity. That they exhibit this stupidity at a time when the executive is in the hands of a man who by any reckoning, and by the judgment of several of this resolution’s sponsors from across the parties, is an ignoramus of historical proportions, trailing a bloated ego and wearing his elephantine insecurity and malignant disrespect for the constitution on his ill-fitting sleeve, is particularly obscene and demands explanation.

Citizens expect their representatives to represent their interests, exert oversight, and ensure that policy--domestic and international--is carried out in the public interest. Congress gains nothing in the long term by ceding its authority to a less accountable and already overmighty executive.

We also know full well that we cannot trust the grimy, bloodstained securocrats, some of them state terrorists themselves. Their institutional interests and methods run counter to the public interest. Torture, drone strikes, and rogue NSA spying, and the constant efforts of the securocrats to beat back legislative oversight, are clear signals of the need for tighter oversight still, and the need for legislators to ensure that there is a close relationship between the broad political, economic, and social goals of our international policy, and the manner in which we use our military. Those who seek to introduce a greater degree of equality and justice into our own domestic politics have a particular obligation to ensure that their international policy offers the same on a global scale.

The aggrandizement of the foreign policy executive and the abuse of power by securocrats is a bipartisan problem. In different ways and to different degrees, this accumulation and abuse has been perpetuated and expanded by all recent presidencies. It is a product of hubris, of corroded institutional culture, and the self-perpetuating logic of violence.

Our legislators should reject this resolution and its craven, destructive, and toxic approach to international policy. But in return, they should create something good. They should redouble their efforts to exert oversight over disparate and often disconnected wars. They should work to educate themselves about the particular roots of conflict. They should reflect on how their behavior over the past decade and a half has often worsened conflicts at the great expense of the people absorbed by them. They should consider how and where social and economic policy, and negotiation, and an emphasis on collective responses, international law and norms, and attention to the welfare of our fellow global citizens, can re-frame the way in which they contemplate conflicts.

And they should consider whether at times the U.S. might ultimately make itself stronger in the world if it holds back from using its power and instead focuses on institution-building, norm-reinforcing, law-affirming, and peace-building. They might consider that at heart, democracy is a recognition that it is in the long-term interests of societies to distribute power broadly, and to legitimate deliberation rather than a state of nature in which the strong might prevail in the short term, but have then precious little to look forward to in the wilderness that passes for peace in their moral wasteland, where might, rather than justice and equality, makes right.

It is precisely to such a desolation that this resolution’s commitment to a forever war on autopilot will take our country if we do not work to stop it. It is a commonplace among beltway deadbeats that Americans don’t care about foreign policy, and that legislators consequently have no reason to do so either. It is urgent--for anyone who cares about justice and equality in our world, and the health of our own democracy--that we prove the cynics wrong.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

War on Iraq, 15 years on

In his magisterial survey of European history since 1945, the late historian Tony Judt observed that “Afghanistan, in short, was a catastrophe for the Soviet Union. Its traumatic impact upon a generation of conscripted soldiers would emerge only later...It says something about the underlying fragility of the Soviet Union that it was so vulnerable to the impact of one--albeit spectacularly unsuccessful--neo-colonial adventure” (Judt, Postwar 594).

For a slightly different set of reasons, and in a less immediate sense, the same could be said for the 2003 invasion of Iraq launched by the United States for our own country’s political, cultural, and economic future. Fifteen years ago today, bombs rained down in Baghdad in what was variously described as a campaign to “shock and awe,” to export democracy, to embrace American empire, to mark a new era of warmaking and foreign policy, and to add an exclamation point rather than a tame period to the end of history.

Fifteen years on, there has yet to be a serious political reckoning for a war that helped to empower a class of securocrats, proved a boon to toxic American exceptionalism, represented corporate command of foreign policy, has led to the implosion of multiple Middle Eastern states, generated the proliferation of international terror, weakened our country’s civil liberties, killed hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and has led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Syrians, dismantled the Iraqi state and deeply compromised the integrity of the newly “liberated” country, killed thousands of American soldiers while leaving far greater numbers of others with visible and invisible wounds, and generated sufficient mistrust in our political institutions and the right wing of the Democratic Party to at least facilitate the rise of a fascist to the presidency.

For my generation the Iraq war was and remains particularly significant. Our high school history and government classes were dominated by debates about the war. In rural northern California some of us were force-fed FOX news in classes as its charlatans counted down breathlessly to the start of the war. One teacher screamed at a few of us dissenters that we were unpatriotic “commies” for questioning the march to war. Within two years, some of the people who sat in those or neighboring classrooms were dead. Some of them died dramatic deaths in the battles and offensives that for at least a couple of years dominated our news, while others expired more slowly upon their return to a largely indifferent nation that had apparently exhausted its patriotism through the mindless blood-lust with which it beat the war drums in rhythm with the lies spat out weekly by the Bush administration.

Members of that administration conspired to wage aggressive war, and yet did not face justice for their actions and the devastating consequences of those actions. Indeed, we are witnessing their return to respectability during the Trump administration as people look back to what they portray as the benign Bush years.

Time and decisions that Americans make in the coming few years will tell. But it is entirely possible that a few decades from now historians could tell a very similar story about the crumbling of our own state to the one that Judt offered about the relationship between the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the unravelling of that empire’s power.

Our journalists and press were certainly proven to be craven, inept, and awed by the power of the imperial presidency and its capacity to rally the nation around the flag, turning a blind eye to mounting contradictions, fallacies, and transparent lies. The media’s ineptitude and concomitant public cynicism can be linked to its inability to cover the 2016 primaries in a serious fashion.

The Democratic Party, supposedly the home of liberal internationalism and those sceptical of empire-building and aggressive war, proved itself to be a pitiful, hypocritical shell, measured not only by the number of its leading representatives who not voted for a ill-conceived, probably illegal, and self-evidently self-destructive war and then doubled-down on that position. Two of those figures became leaders of the party and not coincidentally led it to defeats in 2004 and 2016 that in turn led to financial meltdowns and a flirtation with fascism that still has plenty of time to turn into a fatal embrace.

Far from stamping out terror, the war expanded and connected existing but isolated terror networks, something that British intelligence and Middle East experts warned about in the months leading up to the war. It also brought the methods of terror into regular practice by the U.S. military and its intelligence agencies, degrading our ethics and recruiting for Al Qaeda and its ilk. The “forever war” launched by Bush and continued writ large and small by Obama and Trump, has also empowered our security state.

Abuses meted out by securocrats, and the impunity they enjoyed in the face of tepid efforts by legislators to reign them in, reinforced public mistrust in institutions of governance. The power of those securocrats also led them to take an outsized role in our politics. We might now depend on the work of a former FBI director to investigate a corrupt fascist administration, but let’s not forget that it was a highly politicized FBI which chose to publicize the investigation into Clinton’s e-mails while keeping their investigation about a far more compromised Trump campaign secret. We can be sure that whether Trump wins another term or is impeached, the security state will emerge stronger than ever. And the power of the securocrats expands at the direct expense of our democracy.

The Bush administration also regenerated an imperial cult of exceptionalism around the war, and that cult has helped to impair our ability to develop a functional international policy to combat the combination of global inequality, climate change, and authoritarianism, the combination of which could very well lead to a nightmarish global future.

There are certainly many other causes behind our national decrepitude and the frightening state of the world, just as there were behind the fall of the Soviet Union. But thus far, the 2003 invasion of Iraq has revealed the institutional, cultural, moral, and intellectual fragility of our country.Our task is to do what we can to ensure that it does not become a moment associated with the national and global demise of democracy and the cynical recuperation of aggressive war, terror, and brute violence.

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Trump's Reshuffle Takes the U.S. Deeper into the Dark Side

Thugs, criminals, and enablers. These are the people being promoted during Trump’s shake-up of his administration. After the “tough guy” president fired Secretary of State Rex Tillerson via twitter, he indicated that his choice to replace Tillerson is Mike Pompeo, currently the director of the C.I.A. His nominee to replace Pompeo is the deputy director of the C.I.A., Gina Haspel.

These are two deeply troubling nominations on several fronts.

Tillerson was widely perceived as being an independent voice in the administration. It is true that his independence stemmed from and reinforced his utter marginalization. International policy, whether the proposed meeting with North Korea’s leadership or statements about NATO, was conducted based on Trump’s whims and what little information he could process that was fed to him by advisors who read and appeased his mood.

Tillerson was not any force for good in the administration, but his was a voice that at least appeared to respect the (broadly) liberal, norm-based international order that has served the American public and the world at large inadequately but far better than anything that has come before. He criticized Russia’s extrajudicial killings when the administration would not. He seemed to recognize that dangerous words can have dangerous consequences.

Pompeo is a different creature. While Tillerson provided some check, or the threat of a check should he have threatened to resign at an inopportune moment, Pompeo will be an enabler of Trump’s basest, most ignorant, and authoritarian instincts.

Pompeo was a key proponent of the endless and partisan investigations into the non-scandal that was Benghazi. There were serious flaws with the international policy of the Obama administration in particular and the U.S. more systematically, but Pompeo’s cynical hijacking of the tools of oversight for nakedly partisan purposes ensured that those flaws received no attention. Then, as since, he did the bidding of his party, evincing no sense for or interest in the public good.

Pompeo has a history as an Islamophobe, characterizing terrorism as a feature of Islam, and seeking to hold “moderate Muslims” responsible for violent members of their faith. His congressional campaigns drew on bigoted websites that characterized an Asian American rival for his seat as a “turban topper,” and he supported torture and the secret torture facilities designed by the Bush administration during its war of terror.

He is a defender of the offshore prison at Guantanamo, and therefore a critic of constitutional safeguards and the U.S. justice system more broadly, which he does not view as capable of handling accusations of terrorism.

He defended the illegal and unaccountable surveillance of the NSA, attempted to normalize and legalize its activities, and castigated whistleblowers with a vengeance that demonstrated extraordinary contempt for democratic norms and the right of the public to know what elected and and appointed officials do in their name.

In other words, Pompeo has been a defender of the overmighty and abusive security state about which Trump whinged endlessly during his campaign. That security state and its employees have abused the rights of Americans, sought to curb the ability of our legislators to offer oversight, pursued both deeply immoral and clearly self-destructive methods that have debased our national culture, diminished the standing of our national security institutions, made our public less safe, and claimed the lives and dignity of our fellow global citizens, all while dispensing with the norms of justice and decency that we like to pretend is our national signature.

There are few better embodiments of the rogue security state emboldened by Pompeo than his deputy and would-be replacement, Gina Haspel. Haspel is a long-time C.I.A. employee who helped to engineer what Dick Cheney called America’s shift to the “dark side.” Even as the Bush administration pledged to wage a war in defense of our freedoms and their global dissemination, it embraced the use of torture, aggressive war, secret prisons, and the shredding of safeguards both for those captured by our country and by extension American soldiers or civilians held prisoner abroad.

The deputy director of the C.I.A., an institution profoundly culpable in our country’s descent into terror and criminality, was a central player in this tragedy. The New York Times documented how Haspel “oversaw the torture” of suspects, and then worked to cover up evidence of her team’s brutality. She did so from one of the “black sites” in southeast Asia designed to outsource the methods of barbarism embraced by a cancerous agency which has long bridled at the notion of democratic accountability, and which has metastasized at the expense of our legislature’s power.

The C.I.A. entered into what amounted to a cold war with senators who sought to shed light on its criminal behavior. The cover-up, as much as the crime, was directed not just at the victims of waterboarding and other abuses, but also at the heart of American democracy. We now rely on spies and their shadowy maneuvers to investigate the president’s ties to global authoritarians and obstruction of justice, but the current of public mistrust and cynicism which led to Trump’s election was created in part by the abuse by the rogue security agencies of the public trust.

Some of the people tortured by Haspel remain in Guantanamo, denied their day in court. The American public has still not learned the full extent of the routinized savagery that Haspel and others unleashed, unknown, in our names, precisely because of directives like the one she signed to facilitate the destruction of records associated with torture sites.

Likely criminals in our security state like Haspel, aided by accomplices in government like Pompeo, have sought to simultaneously erase the details of our long and sinister flirtation with the “dark side,” and to draw on Americans’ fears and prejudices to prepare us for a return to those methods.

Haspel should be on trial for her brutality, and Pompeo should never have been re-elected to office once he lent his Congressional power in support of an abusive security state. Instead, Trump is proposing the promotion of a criminal and her thuggish enabler to still greater positions of power in our government, demonstrating that impunity is alive and well for war crimes, crimes against humanity, and abuses of our constitution.

Citizens should express their forceful outrage over this appointment, and our senators should refuse to confirm people who are a disgrace not just to their country, but to the notions of a shared humanity, democracy, and rule of law.

Friday, February 23, 2018

The NRA threatens our schools, our democracy, and our future

Thus far, there have been eight school shootings so far in 2018. In 2017, there were 345 mass shootings in our country, some of them at schools. Yesterday, in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the powerful NRA gun lobby, fired a series of rounds at the heart of American democracy, intending to put our political structure--based on principles of democracy, a critical understanding of the past, and a concern for the welfare of all citizens--on life support.

LaPierre’s intervention, made at CPAC, a gathering far-right interests, was extraordinary in a number of ways.

He accused “elites” and “socialists” of undermining Americans’ constitutional rights. They care more about control and more of it,” he argued, claiming that “their goal is to eliminate the second amendment and our firearms freedoms so that they can eradicate all individual freedoms. They hate the NRA, they hate the second amendment, they hate individual freedom.” The “socialist enemy”, according to LaPierre, is a “political disease” spread through our university system.

LaPierre is drawing on decades-old American stereotypes of liberalism by invoking Marxism, socialism, and elitism against individual freedoms. It is first perhaps worth clarifying that the American political spectrum, capacious though it might be in including carnivalesque figures like LaPierre, does not today include socialists and communists. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary platform, would barely qualify to sit on the right-wing of European social democracy, let alone the democratic socialism Sanders himself claimed, and certainly never mind the socialism and communism that LaPierre bleats about.

Socialism and communism are ideologies associated with a political economy advocating an ascendant working class, the eradication of private property and industry, and the common ownership of the means of production. In some ways, these ideologies are highly concerned with individual rights, but see the path toward making them meaningful as taking a very different route than what LaPierre describes. But that aside, they are not ideologies which have any purchase on American politics. All parties to and members of that politics, until the Republican Party’s flirtation with fascism, have been defined by a broad, but fundamentally (and perhaps fundamentally flawed) shared version of liberalism that prioritized civil and political rights over social and economic rights, mounted fierce defences of capitalism, and shied away from social democracy’s efforts to nationalize--literally or through subsidies--the provision of services like healthcare, higher education, and other social benefits.

So what’s behind LaPierre’s abject ignorance and almost comical attempts to distort the meanings of words and concepts? Because he, his arms lobby, and his fascist political backers* are on the defensive, he has to portray people trying to protect children as “elites” or “communists”, thereby making himself more American and more virtuous, leading to the laughable claim that “the NRA does care.”

As a part of the pretence that they care, the NRA and Trump have joined forces to advocate immediately arming a million teachers and transforming schools into armed fortresses. “We must,” LaPierre declared, “immediately harden our schools!”

There are a number of reasons why this approach is not only flawed, but dangerous.

Schools serve a number of purposes in our society. In addition to conveying important content, based on professionally established standards to our children, our public schools are one of just a few kinds of civic institutions in our country that are open to all regardless of background. Schools might be unequal in their access to resources, but the public school ideal is a fundamentally democratic one.

But schools, because they are based on the idea of democratic learning and the importance of collectively as well as individually nurturing, guiding, and empowering our children, should also be spaces devoted to showing children what our world can be. Education prizes words over weapons, reason over paranoia, kindness over cruelty, and excitement about the future over fear of the world.

Children should enter each school day excited, knowing they are arriving in a space devoted to allowing them to learn and play, make friends, experience joy, absent the discrimination, inequities, cruelties, and hardships that they experience in an imperfect world. Children cannot prosper in an atmosphere that valorizes violent struggle, and they cannot learn in an environment defined by fear.

“Hardening” our schools will ensure that imperfection and the presence of violence become naturalized for children. It would be a genuine tragedy to transform schools into armed encampments, where entrance is monitored by grim security officers, where teaching is carried out by armed teachers trained to evaluate their children as potential threats, and where routines revolve around drills designed to ingrain in children that the world is a place defined by violence.

Such a transformation would send the message that “might makes right,” a doctrine designed to enshrine an inequality enforced by violence into the fabric of our society. Such a transformation, in addition to being deeply harmful, would address only symptoms of a far deeper problem.

Part of that problem is that a single amendment--and one that in even the most mulishly literalist reading is qualified by clauses describing a world that no longer exists--has been permitted to transcend the welfare of our society and of the individuals who comprise it. The second amendment has been perverted by an industry that profits from increasing the likelihood of lethal violence in our society. That industry has worked to ensure that Americans do not just have the right to own reasonable firearms in appropriate circumstances--things that can be defined by collective debate and a system of courts--but that we worship and valorize the mass possession of such weapons, including those that serve no other imaginable purpose than to take human life at horrifying rates.

The culture of fear and paranoia the worship of guns has created is one that has delegitimized all efforts to have reasonable conversations about their regulation. Any such conversation is portrayed as an assault on fundamental rights, disregarding the contextual qualifications that courts have attached to other rights (the first amendment, for example). It also inexplicably suggests that the ability for all people to own all guns is more fundamental to individual liberties that the ability to receive medical care when ill, to receive economically and socially empowering education, to support parents in their care for children, to allow workers to define the parameters of their labor, or to live free from fear. Such a notion, though possible in the literal sense through a deliberate and self-interested mis-reading of an 18th century document, is neither morally, logically, or ultimately constitutionally defensible.

The culture LaPierre is seeking to engineer suggests that disagreement in society is best or most fundamentally resolved through violence, promotes the notion that our fellow citizens are innately bad, and discourages empathy by intimating that threats lurk around every corner. The more common it becomes to see people walking in public spaces visibly armed--I have been shocked in Nevada to see people openly carrying guns in the DMV, restaurants, malls, a car dealership--the more it promotes a cycle of fear that leads to cycles of violence.

The more a culture that venerates guns, the more likely people--who are dangerously animated by internal and external factors--are to be able to imagine the gun as a solution to their particular trouble. By prizing such lethal weapons over welfare, we shape in destructive ways the manner in which angry, frightened, or metaphorically cornered people act. Instead of seeking assistance in a culture that prizes compassion and shared responsibility for our troubles, they seek the instrument of the wronged and isolated individual’s false and tragic liberation, and use it to claim the lives of their brothers and sisters, generally as a prelude to their own death.

In promoting this culture, LaPierre advanced the radical and utterly false argument that the second amendment was “not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans at our American birthright.”

It is one thing for people to believe that morality has sources that are spiritual as well as civic. But it is something else, something extraordinary, to make this claim about the origins of our rights. Such a violently ahistorical claim about the origins of our rights would come as news to the people who gave of their lives and labors to create our republic, craft its legal framework, and ensure that our liberties have been expanded to include people initially denied full membership of our society. Both the original architects and ongoing authors would be appalled at the idea that we should think of governance as being removed from the hands of human society and placed into the hands of a divinity, ownership over which can be claimed by skilled and cynical ventriloquists intent on doing harm to the basic principles of our constitution and human decency. We have enhanced our framework to guarantee people equal status before the law; what is to prevent us from doing so again to decrease the centrality of violence to our social order?

Wayne LaPierre’s god, if we take his word for it, whistles at a pitch only audible to cynical profiteers and plunderers, who clamber to power and prosperity over a paranoia of their own deliberate design, and up the mounting pile of bodies that the instruments of their twisted trade scatter in our streets and our schools.

LaPierre’s vision for our country, one apparently shared by his enablers, beneficiaries, and hired thugs in Congress, involves a people in fear of each other and of their government, intent on living a version of liberty that strips their lives of support, community, opportunity, and hope for a genuinely richer life, materially and morally.

The alternative liberties that LaPierre and his hangers-on deride are collective in their fashioning, but no less individualistic in their end goal. What is a liberated individual if not a person who does not have to fear that an illness can bankrupt and kill them? What is a liberated individual if not a person who does not have to fight tooth and nail for time to care for their children and a workplace that respects their humanity, dignity, and inherent worth separate from the arbitrary values that their employers assigned to what they produce? What is a liberated individual if not a person who knows that a political economy outside of their control will not be allowed to destroy their livelihood? What is a liberated person if not someone free to learn, love, labor, dwell, dream, and dare while knowing that the central purpose of the government in which they have placed their trust is to ensure their wellbeing?

It is with these liberties, and not that wielded like a deadly fetish, that we should concern ourselves. In protecting our children and making a better world, we should not allow the NRA and its adherents to define the terms of debate, the meaning of freedom, or the environments in which our society’s children spend formative years of their precious lives.


* Unlike LaPierrre's description of "socialism", I use the concept of “fascism” in a concrete fashion. Donald Trump’s campaign and politics contain most of the ingredients of fascism: palingenetic nationalism (“make America great again”); ethnic nationalism (using language and advocating policies that define the U.S. as a white, Christian nation); invoking an internal enemy to be vanquished (variously, Latinos, American Muslims, liberals, African Americans); militarism (“bombing the shit out of them”; requesting a military parade); a leadership cult (the centrality of Trump himself to this politics); anti-internationalism (attacks on the UN, NATO); hostility toward democracy (threatening courts, journalists, musing about postponing elections, trying to delegitimize the political process); advocacy of political violence (encouraging violence at rallies, suggesting supporters assassinate his opponent, his campaign threatening a crisis or bloodbath if he lost the election); hostility toward organized labor (packing a cabinet with anti-union members); patrimonialism (nepotistic appointments, using policy to benefit “his” people and harm others).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hold down tuition at public institutions to make Nevada different, daring, and diverse

Last month, UNLV hosted a forum offering students the opportunity to comment on proposed 1.8% increases to in-state fees and out-of-state tuition across NSHE (Nevada’s higher education sector). As recommended, 2019 and 2020 would each see a 1.8% increase. Most of the small number of students who attended expressed hostility to the increases, and many suggested that even small increases could be the difference between continuing at UNLV and leaving the university.

Context for the proposed increase is important. NSHE officials operate in a political environment that is often neglectful or dysfunctional. Nevada’s political economy has not historically been conducive to robust public institutions. And by national standards, tuition and fees in Nevada remain low. The latter point was one that administrators were particularly keen to stress. Things at NSHE could be worse, they argued, and their “modest” increases were only tracking unavoidable national trends. There was also a “because we can” element to NSHE’s argument, which was based on national “cost of living” data rather than on the ability to cite any compelling need to increase the burden on students.

Tracking a bad trend is not a good argument. And doubling down on a bad model is particularly self-destructive at a time when growing numbers of Americans are familiarizing themselves with arguments for or examples of systems with reduced or eliminated tuition. Many U.S. public universities were, only a few decades ago, nearly free at the point of entry, supported by taxpayers who recognized the long-term public and private value associated with investing in the education of young people. This truly public model of higher education is also something enjoyed by students in many other countries around the world.

Strong public institutions and frameworks for the delivery of welfare and of guaranteeing social and economic rights are not only more just, in that they help those who need help, diminish the stigma of means-tested welfare, and perform badly needed forms of redistribution in our highly unequal society. They are also more robust. By ensuring that all members of society, across class, racial, geographic, and other boundaries all access precisely the same good for the same cost, and then all contribute to funding our institutions as taxpayers, they ensure that all members of society have something at stake, making public institutions genuinely civic enterprises.

Instead of successfully leveraging the importance of these national conversations and citing the examples of successful cases elsewhere, NSHE is joining other American universities in participating in what scholar Christopher Newfield called the “great mistake”: the slow and harmful privatization of public institutions. On the one hand then, NSHE officials pursue policy recommendations that are partly constrained by the--to all appearances limited--scope of their imaginations, and simultaneously structured by a noncommittal state.

On the other, whatever factors are involved in the decision, raising tuition at a public institution, by whatever amount for whatever constituency over whatever number of years, represents a failure. More specifically, it represents a failure of public policy and an abdication of responsibility by state government, and a failure of advocacy and of mission by university officials.

Officials defended increasing the contributions from students and their families as burden-sharing, but our students already contribute more than previous generations, even as wages stagnate, housing costs rise, and debt increases. They also share doubly in the burden, as taxpayers and as “customers,” a status which degrades the learning experience that in theory should remain at the heart of our institution’s work.

Behind these increases are a set of competing demands and imperatives: the quest for top tier status and the costs associated with a more robust research university, particularly at a time when federal funding for the public research endeavors which drive private development is collapsing; new infrastructure; increasing demands for higher education; upward trending administrative salaries; and the perverse sentiment I’ve heard expressed quietly on campus that too-low tuition could actually hurt universities’ reputations admidst the steady drive to introduce damaging market principles into institutions which should be driven by a different set of motivations. NSHE and the legislature are responsible for reconciling those demands in a manner which does not compromise universities’ public mission and character.

Student critics at the town hall requested increased transparency from NSHE officials. But they should also ask why, in contrast with other moments in the history of public universities, students rather than the public at large are required to shoulder the costs of funding a public good that benefits our entire state community, private and public interests alike. They should ask how the state can reconcile its latent libertarian sensibilities with the demands of a more diverse population that has higher expectations of its public sphere. They should ask why their generation should not enjoy the public support for their future that previous generations did.

Students should pressure legislators, who provide the parameters in which university administrators make decisions about funding. Those administrators make comparatively better or relatively worse arguments about the rationale for their decisions, but students and the state community should realize that a university can only be as public--and therefore, as accessible and affordable--as its legislators and voters are willing to make it. If the most productive focus is likely on public officials, students should continue to dialogue with and confront NSHE administrators, who can choose--as California’s administrators did ten years ago--to embrace rhetoric and practice which makes a return to a more public university unlikely. NSHE Regents are particularly important figures, not just as the figures who will vote on proposed increases. They are also elected officials who will react if they feel pressure, and can pass on their anxieties to legislators.

Many might question why it’s worth making a fuss over such small increases. But when it comes to keeping public institutions public, and resisting the erosion of our civic institutions, momentum counts for a great deal. Processes like privatization and the erosion of the public welfare are generally long and slow and difficult to discern rather than swift and spectacular, and should be resisted at every opportunity.

UNLV’s motto is “different, daring, and diverse.” NSHE and Nevada can prove that we are indeed “different” and “daring” by resisting the ill-advised national trend of shifting the costs of public goods to students. Doing so can contribute toward preserving and increasing the diversity of our universities and colleges. Nevadans can commit to shouldering the burden for students who will later do their bit as taxpayers, and officials could halt or even roll back the costs to students and their families.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mark Yudof visits UNLV, bringing memories of dark days in California

This week, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is hosting two high-profile figures from the education world to whom I have my own institutional connections. The first is Howard Gillman, the Chancellor of my alma mater, the University of California, Irvine. The second is Mark Yudof, the former President of the University of California. Gillman came to UCI some time after I had moved on. But I was a student at Berkeley while Yudof was responsible for leading the world’s best public university system.

Mark Yudof served as system president during the recession. That was a disaster over which he had no control, but his response drove powerful wedges between the university and the state, the university and the public, and the university and its students. I suspect I’m not the only student, faculty member, or staff member from those days who responds viscerally and negatively to his name.

In 2009, responding to a broken state budget, Yudof explained that UC would have to “change the way we do business.” The model adopted by the system under his stewardship revolved around shifting the burden of funding from the public to individuals, transforming students into customers, permanently damaging the integrity of the university, and around the fetishization of an upper cadre of ever-more-lavishly compensated administrators, whose presence was supposedly all that was standing between UC and utter ruin.

Yudof dismally failed to read the state’s political climate, setting UC back by decades in terms of its relationship with the state. The recession proved to be a painful interlude for California as a whole, but UC’s behavior during those years ensured that the very real possibility of renewed state support for UC thereafter was never realized.

Increasing executive salaries gave Governor Jerry Brown, historically hostile to the University of California, just the excuse he needed to force further budget cuts on the institution in an effort at fiscal discipline. So the institution as a whole suffered at the same time that executives did better than ever before, ensuring that state lawmakers and the public at large were unlikely to see the badly-needed recommitment of state funds as a priority given UC’s reputation for handing out raises to executives, none of whose labors seemed to save the UC education from being montetized, the project of learning from being instrumentalized, the labor of teaching from being casualized, or the university itself from being privatized.

Administrative salaries might not have been nearly a sufficiently large line-item to explain the need for higher tuition, but it was certainly the crucial factor in explaining why the university has been unable to recapture significant amounts of funding even when the state is dominated by the previously friendly Democratic Party.

Yudof is probably best-remembered by those of us who called UC our home during those years for an extraordinarily contemptuous interview he gave to the New York Times, wherein he likened the honor of heading a vibrant, diverse, intellectual powerhouse, and the hopes, dreams, careers, and ideals it contained, to “being manager of a cemetery.” There, he swatted away concerns about faculty furloughs by invoking his working class origins, and refused to address whether rising executive salaries played a role in the UC’s crisis, responding to the observation that he made more than the President of the United States by snarkily asking the interviewer whether he’d “throw in Air Force One and the White House.”

Under Yudof, tuition and fees at the University of California rose dramatically, as did executive salaries. Coinciding with the recession, these affronts provoked a considerable student backlash, and thousands of us marched in Berkeley and other campuses. Chancellors responded with a mailed fist, and hundreds of students wore the bruises from truncheons and rubber bullets as vivid evidence of the hostility and contempt that University of California leadership had for the young people in its charge.

Yudof and Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau became loathed by students. Birgeneau for his e-mails, which described protesting students as a “health and safety” problem and blamed the lack of internet technology in Asia for his inability to control the campus crisis, and for the bone-headed contempt for students that film makers captured as he stalked his campus “war room”.

While the breathtaking and savage violence of the response was the responsibility of campus Chancellors, Mark Yudof defended them to the hilt. A famously egregious incident involved UC Davis police spraying unthreatening, seated students point-blank with pepper spray after campus chancellor, Linda Katehi authorized them to deploy force against peaceful protesters.

Yudof had once defended Katehi as one of the “Tom Cruises of the academic world,” a judgment called seriously into question first by a later report which found that Katehi personally “substantially undermined the goal of avoiding a physical confrontation” between students and police, and then by spending tens of thousands of dollars of UC resources scrubbing the internet of negative references to her chancellorship.

In later years we learned that Katehi, bored by her over-$400,000 per year day job, Katehi joined the for-profit DeVry Education Group as a paid board member, and added a paid position at a textbook company, and a board slot at King Abdulaziz University to round out her docket. Yudof might not have been responsible for Katehi’s actions, but during his tenure, he and the UC Regents celebrated the UC’s corporate leadership, and made them virtually untouchable, fostering the culture of arrogance that led to these abuses.

Yudof is speaking at UNLV on the topic of speech, drawing on his years in university leadership and legal expertise. But his presence on campus--at a time when UNLV debates its path to Top Tier and students question the need for tuition increases--should cause our campus community and leadership to reflect on the desirability of slow privatization, the interests and worldviews of administration, and how to maintain and in Nevada’s case improve the relationship with the wider public that ought to be responsible for equipping the university to fulfill its public mission.

In explaining his role to the New York Times, Yudof flippantly remarked, “I smile, I shake hands, I tell jokes.” And time and again, UC’s community of students and educators, and the state with which we sought to rebuild ties, found that the joke was on us.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Adam Laxalt's silly surveys represent dishonest and anti-democratic tendencies

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Perhaps realizing that he will fare poorly against any Democratic challenger if he runs on his serially irresponsible and inconsistent platform for mauling Nevada’s public institutions, public lands, and public welfare, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt is instead turning to the most powerful weapon in any Republican’s arsenal.  How better to distract Republican citizens from the wreckage he wants to make of the schools, healthcare, landscape, and civic infrastructure they share with their Democratic neighbors, than to huff and puff and blow on the dog-whistle?
Laxalt’s tune of choice involves bombarding people on his e-mail list with comically loaded survey questions, asking them if they oppose the federal government killing all babies (I exaggerate, but just barely).  His most recent survey question involves an issue surely weighing on the minds of all Nevadans: NFL players and the First Amendment.  
The question itself asked voters whether they “agree that NFL players should stand for our National Anthem?”  The accompanying text declared that “While the first amendment guarantees our right to free speech, NLF players’ protest is disrespectful to our flag and those who have fought and died to defend our nation.”
I can’t help but think that for most Nevadans, healthcare, education, transit, public services, public lands, and other questions around political-economy probably loom largest in their minds.  But Laxalt’s decision to run this survey question does offer a useful window into his thinking and his campaign.
Laxalt’s basic argument is that NFL players’ protest is offensive to our military.  That claim demonstrates one of two things.  Either Laxalt is seriously dumb (doubtful given his accomplishments) or he is fundamentally dishonest.
As players’ own words, never mind the tens of thousands of words of reporting about their actions have made clear, they are not protesting the U.S. military.  Rather, they are protesting systemic inequalities in the way that police in our country behave toward citizens in our country.  They are protesting how a justice system, far from being blind, sees very vividly in color, a legacy not just of hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, but of denial of the same over the past several decades.
The insistence on maintaining that athletes’ protests are there somehow an insult to the military tells us some things.  It firstly indicates that there is a deep disinclination of both citizens and public figures to listen to protesters to understand their cause.  That Laxalt--deliberately or through ignorance, and unless he is a literal troglodyte it’s certainly the former--chooses to ignore their well-substantiated claims speaks particularly poorly of him, because as state Attorney General it is his responsibility to think long and hard about how law functions and is implemented and experienced by the state’s citizens.
The insistence on lying in this particular way about the basis for athletes’ protests--claiming that they are trying to insult the military--also suggests a toxic mindset about nationalism, patriotism, and the military in our country.  There is a long and pathetic tradition in our country of urging people to “rally ‘round the flag” as a way of distracting from other issues or shutting down other conversations.
There is an equally sordid tradition of trying to claim that the military maintains some kind of monopoly on national symbols and discourse.  The military, like other public institutions, exists to serve the citizens, and any suggestion that we should, voluntarily or otherwise, subordinate our claims on rights to an institution that is for better or worse about coercion, is extremely dangerous and undemocratic.  Flags, anthems, and other symbols of our nation, along with the rights they are supposed to represent, belong first and foremost to citizens, and not to any particular category of people.
The reality is that since 1945 the U.S. military has almost never been deployed in conflict to defend the public interest of the U.S.  Rather, it has been deployed to defend often deeply-flawed national security nostrums, or the power and profits of American companies.  It has been deployed to defend or augment American hegemony, which far from serving the public interest, is often self-defeating and destructive.  These realities do not lessen the individual sacrifices that members of the military have made, but they should caution the public about accepting the claim that the military is wielded in order to defend our rights.  The suggestion that this is true ranks with the disingenuous claim, “They hate us for our freedoms,” a blanket assertion designed to sweep away a century of politics and relationships and entanglements.  
Even if the military did regularly work to protect Americans’ rights, that does not give it and its “supporters” the ability to invoke their work and sacrifice to shut down other conversations.  This is what military officials and the Bush administration sought to do in order to quiet critics as they dispatched American soldiers to kill and be killed in a fruitless, illegal war in Iraq.  If anything demonstrates disrespect for sacrifice, it was and is the decision by these powerful men and women, and others like them, to hide behind the bodies of dead American soldiers to avoid being called to account for their crimes.
So when Adam Laxalt first lies about the purpose of athletes’ protests, and then invokes the military to shut down discussion about the actual reason for those protests, he is showing us that he is fully prepared to participate in a nasty and dangerous tradition that has been used to silence debate, redirect scrutiny, and foreclose opportunities to make our country more just and equal.  It also indicates that as governor he would not take inequities in law enforcement and the law itself seriously, and that he is perfectly happy to subordinate fundamental rights to the basest of political ends.

Nevada politicians support Trump's dangerous Middle East move

Nevada’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, has joined the chorus praising Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and commit to moving the U.S. embassy to that city.  Trump made this announcement in spite of pleas from Palestinian, Middle Eastern, and European leaders who understand that it represents a needless provocation and a dangerous impediment to a just settlement in the region.
Jerusalem is deeply contested territory, and a key part of negotiations between the Israeli colonial state and Palestinian subjects who seek their own independent state.  The U.S. has always played an awkward role as mediator between Israel and its occupied territories given its fulsome support for Israeli colonialism and its willingness to undercut its own negotiating ability by writing blank checks to the Israeli state, thereby offering few incentives for that state to participate in good-faith negotiations.  
Nevada’s senate race should and shall focus largely on where the candidates stand in relation to healthcare, taxation, the basic relationships between citizens and government, and their approach to matters of justice and political-economy.  However, senators also have opportunities to weigh in on and influence international policy, a role that is particularly important given the dysfunction, incompetence, and malice that drive the Trump administration’s approach to the wider world.
In this particular piece of unbridled stupidity, Dean Heller is joined by his would-be Democratic replacement, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who has a history of supporting this signally bad policy.  It is incumbent on Heller and Rosen to do what Trump declined to do, and explain how this move makes the slightest strategic, moral, diplomatic, or security sense.  
They should explain how Trump’s decision to offer a calculated slight to Palestinians and their allies in the Middle East is in our public interest.  Allying the U.S. so transparently with one side of a struggle makes us a party to the violence and inequality that has flown from Israel’s colonialism, and will likely imperil American lives.
While recognizing Jerusalem’s status might serve the short-term interests of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ethno-religious nationalism as his scandal-ridden premiership reels at home, this alteration of U.S. policy is unlikely to enhance the long-term security prospects of Israeli citizens.  In fact, because it is such a deliberate provocation, it is likely to do the reverse, giving the lie to the protestations of those in the U.S. who claim that this is about Israel’s best interests.
Finally, rewarding Israel’s bad behavior--colonial policing, the construction of illegal settlements, embracing ethno-religious nationalism--will embolden Israeli securocrats, who are likely to read this move by the Trump administration as an endorsement of their violent excesses.  If they react accordingly, they are likely to further escalate conflict between their state and their occupied territories.  The result will be further insecurity for Israeli citizens and greater violence and deprivation for their colonial subjects, the Palestinians.  Escalation of every kind diminishes the opportunities for a just settlement.  
So Nevada’s incumbent senator and his rival are both demonstrating a signal inability to adopt a reasoned, long-term view about U.S. interests, international peace, and conflict resolution by backing a decision by the Trump administration which runs counter to public interest in the U.S., which will make Israelis less secure, and which will degrade the lives of Palestinians.  
The United States gained its own independence from colonial rule in the eighteenth century.  And while our country has a history of imposing its own rule on indigenous subjects and hemispheric neighbors, its independence struggle nevertheless helped to inspire a wave of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the coming centuries: in Latin America and parts of Europe during the nineteenth century, and in Africa and Asia during the twentieth century.  
Now, in the twenty-first century, colonial rule is largely accepted as a self-evidently unjust and malicious enterprise, generating destruction for the colonized and internal corrosion for the colonizer.  The U.S. government and our representatives do no one any good by defending the indefensible, and this ill-advised decision to appease the Israeli government does nothing more than endanger the prospects of peace, and make the citizens of all parties to negotiation less safe because of the climate of mistrust and injustice it fuels.