Sunday, March 15, 2015

UC Irvine and the U.S. Flag

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

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

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Republican War Criminals in the Making

Senator Tom Cotton is agitating for an illegal war of aggression.
Tom Cotton is the Senator from Arkansas behind the letter—signed by 47 of his colleagues—designed to derail U.S. negotiations with Iran by way of provoking hostilities with that country, long a fantasy of the neoconservatives whose deadened mental and moral carapaces remain unscathed by the disasters they launched in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There are a variety of reasons why the political right remains intent on waging wars that have no discernible benefit for the public interest.  In the first place, they are beholden to radical religious fundamentalists who have a variety of beliefs about the relationship between a catastrophic war in the Middle East and the end of the world.  Such beliefs also help to explain the unconditional backing for Israel, which does so little good for U.S. and Israeli citizens, never mind the people who suffer under Israeli colonialism.

Others on the political right are unapologetic proponents of a revitalized American Empire.  American exceptionalism and hubris have long been characteristics of our international conduct, and explain many of our current difficulties today.  Our own nation’s emergence in its present geographical reform was the result of a colonial and often genocidal westward march.  We were briefly a formal imperial power, and waged vicious colonial campaigns in the Philippines to maintain a manifestly unjust rule.

In the latter part of the twentieth century, our country engaged in the violent and illegal overthrow of governments—many democratic, others not—around the world, particularly when those governments had the temerity to question our often-blinkered national security diktats, or sought to redress the inequality our embrace of a destructive capitalism generated in their own countries.

Since 9/11, these proponents of American imperialism have pushed for the use of violence and terrorism to re-make the world in our own image.  The rights and wrongs of such a project aside, the model that they wish to transplant is looking increasingly corrupt at home.

We live in a massively unequal society, in which corporate interests are essentially tearing up the features of democratic governance by asking their hired guns to confer citizenship rights on corporations.  At the same time, right-wingers in Congress are attempting to strip voting rights from actual citizens across the country.  And they are waging a guerrilla campaign against government, sabotaging its social democratic functions at every turn to bring to life their despicable lie that “government doesn’t work”.

But they are more than willing to make government work for their paymasters.  And this toxic relationship was very much on display when, the day after Senator Cotton and his colleagues launched their campaign to sabotage negotiations and increase the likelihood of conflict with Iran, the Senator attended an “‘Off the record and strictly non-attribution’ event with the National Defense Industrial Association, a lobbying and professional group for defense contractors”.

The Intercept reported that “the NDIA is composed of executives from major military business such as Northrup Grumman, L-3 Communications, ManTech International, Boeing, Oshkosh Defense and Booz Allen Hamilton”.

In other words, after firing the first salvo of a renewed effort to draw his country into war with Iran, Senator Cotton—who has argued that journalists reporting on the abuses of the national security state should be prosecuted—went to an event with the key industry players set to benefit the most from such a war.  This illustrates another, even more pernicious reason for the constant warmongering of the political right in the United States: that there are interests in our country that make a great deal of money from war, particularly when that war is privatized. 

Not only do taxpayer dollars flow to arms companies—merchants and proponents of death and destruction whose trade should be sharply controlled if not curtailed—but to the security contractors who increasingly take a prominent role in our conduct of imperial wars, and whose actions proved so reprehensible and destructive in Iraq. 

What Cotton and his colleagues are doing here is reminiscent of language used to describe earlier war crimes.  They are engaged in what looks like a “conspiracy to wage aggressive war”, by sabotaging treaties, slinging around unsubstantiated accusations about Iran’s nuclear program, working with state terrorists like Benjamin Netanyahu, and working with arms companies.  No voter of any political persuasion will benefit from a war of the likes that Cotton and his colleagues seem to be contemplating.

Legal scholar Steven Ratner describes “aggression international law” as “the use of force by one State against another, not justified by self-defense or other legally recognized exceptions.  The illegality of aggression is perhaps the most fundamental norm of modern international law and its prevention is the chief purpose of the United Nations”. 

And yet under George W. Bush, such wars became the centerpiece of the Republican Party’s international efforts.  Theirs is a criminal enterprise, designed to kill large numbers of people in defiance of international law, in a manner calculated to imperil U.S. citizens and destabilize the entire world.  It is a criminal enterprise which will also enrich people and corporations that make money from war. 


Senator Tom Cotton and his colleagues are war-criminals in the making, and must be recognized as such by their constituents and U.S. citizens more broadly, so that we can put a halt to their warmongering before their actions are able to claim the lives of U.S and Iranian citizens, and those of other countries that would be affected by the fallout from the violent world order that these people would usher in.  

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

The Republicans' "Dear Iran" Letter...

This week, a group of Republican Senators drafted a letter to the national leadership in Iran in what can only be described as a blatant effort to sabotage negotiations about that country’s nuclear program and increase the likelihood of war.

The letter, signed by Republican Party extremists—in this case, 46 Senators—would be almost comical for its crudeness, did the stupidity of its signatories and the sheer destructiveness of its goals not portend so poorly for the fate of our country in the hands of such people.

The letter is essentially an attempt to derail negotiations by insinuating to the Iranian government that any agreement it reaches with President Obama would be repudiated by a future Republican administration or Congress.

The Republican goon squad opened their salvo in a manner calculated to insult the intelligence of its recipients:

“It has come to our attention while observing your nuclear negotiations with our government that you may not fully understand our constitutional system….For example, the president may serve only two 4-year terms, whereas senators may serve an unlimited number of 6-year terms.  As applied today, for instance, President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then—perhaps decades”.

The Iranian cabinet, it should be said, consists of some fairly well-educated people.  The President has a PhD from Glasgow Caledonian University in Scotland.  The Minister of Foreign Affairs has degrees from San Francisco State and the University of Denver, with a doctorate in International Relations.  The Minister of Science, Research and Technology studied at MIT.  And so on.  These are people who have a working knowledge of the world and the systems of government within it.

It is not only insulting, but embarrassing for our own country, that 46 Senators would operate under the assumption that their willful—indeed gleeful—ignorance of the world beyond our country’s boundaries is shared by people in other governments.  While you’ll find ready caricatures of the U.S. floating around in most countries, Americans and their politicians are unique in depth of their disdain for and depth of their ignorance of other peoples and other governments.  This ignorance—and the ills that flow from it—are a result of the half-witted doctrine of “American exceptionalism” that shapes far too much of our foreign policy.

But if we move beyond the condescending and insulting assumptions of the letter, to its substance, it gets even more troubling, both because of its own inadequate understanding of U.S. government and law, but because of what it suggests about the international conduct of the United States.

The Senators wrote, “We will consider any agreement regarding your nuclear weapons program that is not approved by the Congress as nothing more than an executive agreement between President Obama and Ayatollah Khamenei.  The next president could revoke such an executive agreement with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time”.

Their essential warning is that no country in the world should take seriously treaties signed by the U.S. government.  They are suggesting that any moves towards peace will be swiftly undone by right-wing fanatics who are intent on exporting violence that serves no recognizable public purpose to any constituency in the United States.  They are making it clear that they intend to wage a guerrilla war against the President who—in their Koch-fuelled hatred and racism—they believe to be illegitimate, and that our international legal obligations will be casualties of that war.

The invitation to Benjamin Netanyahu, a state terrorist and leader of a colonial regime, and the attack on the President’s negotiations with Iran are markers of the Republican Party’s intention to bring to the international sphere the policy of sabotage which has for some time now defined its economic policy.

The Republican strategy is to attack the functioning of government and now diplomacy, to gum up the wheels of our institutions and our economy, to engineer the failure of programs and initiatives, and then to claim that “Government doesn’t work” and to point the finger at Democrats.

When voters inexplicably reward this treacherous behavior, Republicans then promptly set about making government work very well indeed—for the ultra-rich and for the corporate interests that bankrolled their guerrilla war and paid for their sabotage, and in this case, for the warmongers.

The Republican senators closed, “We hope this letter enriches your knowledge of our constitutional system and promotes mutual understanding and clarity as nuclear negotiations progress”.

It was certainly illustrative of the dysfunction of our current politics, which empowers fanatic right-wingers on the basis of corporate personhood and rights.  And it has undoubtedly made clear to the world that many politicians in the United States have definitively elevated ignorance and sociopathy to election-winning virtues.

It is clear now that negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program (the Republican Senators reference a “nuclear weapons program” which does not, by any evidence produced from anywhere other than Benjamin Netanyahu’s backside, exist) are proceeding between rational groups in the United States and Iran.  Both of these groups—comprising Democrats and a handful of more traditional Republicans in the United States, and the core of the Iranian administration—have their own agendas, but appear to be seriously committed to negotiations, and seem to understand that a settlement is infinitely preferable to the alternatives.

But both are hemmed in by nationalist, fundamentalist fanatics on their right flanks.  Both of these fringe elements—elements which threaten to dominate in their respective countries—suffer from a total inability or unwillingness to understand different perspectives.  In the case of the fanatics in the U.S.—of whom we have a bird’s eye view—they seem to lack some basic elements of human compassion, and seem unmoved by the prospect of unleashing a war on Iranians, with all of the catastrophe that would entail for the people of that country, in the region surrounding it, and ultimately for the United States.

And they have transplanted the methods which have served them so well in increasing economic and political inequality in the United States into the arena of foreign policy.  The consequences of right-wing fanatics being able to shape both our foreign and domestic policy are likely to be devastating for U.S. citizens, and catastrophic for the global community.  We have seen how small groups of fundamentalist fanatics can destablise the world and cause great violence.  And we’ve seen how U.S. imperialism—even in the hands of “moderate” leadership—can wreak havoc and generate global instability. 


In the modern Republican Party, we might see such fanatics take control of an imperial state with superpower capacities.  It’s a truly frightening combination.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Republicans Invite State Terrorist to Congress

Netanyahu with a leading supporter of Israeli colonialism.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has arrived in the United States.  Ahead of an election in his home country, Netanyahu was invited by the Republican Party to address Congress to make the case for deliberately raising tensions with Iran, and torpedoing the prospect of a settlement over the country’s nuclear program.
When Netanyahu appears before Congress, it will be with little credibility.  The subject of investigations in Israel, the Prime Minister has also been alleged to have lied about the intelligence he presented to the United Nations in 2012 about the development of an Iranian nuclear weapons program.  On that occasion, Netanyahu took his war-mongering to New York waving a diagram that looked like it had been thrown together for a first-grade science fair, albeit using logic that would have left any first-grader with eyebrows raised.
The first-grader would not have been alone.  We now know that Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency, repudiated the Prime Minister’s claims in a secret cable.  All of this suggests that the Israeli Prime Minister, like a number of our politicians and intelligence agencies 12 years ago, has a secret intelligence cache, although whether that is to be found in his fevered fundamentalist imagination or up his backside might be difficult to say.
A key point is that the Netanyahu will be attacking diplomatic efforts in an attempt to substitute violence for negotiation, and that when he launches his attack, we know that he has a history of dishonesty.
More disturbing altogether is the fact that Republicans in Congress saw fit to invite to the United States a man who is essentially a practitioner and proponent of state terror.
It is often claimed that Netanyahu is the leader of the only democracy in the Middle East, as though the fact that the United States has created a region so devoid of representative institutions by propping up assorted dictators and autocrats is a point of pride.  The claim also ignores the reality that Israel can hardly be considered to be a democracy so long as it possesses colonies in Gaza and the West Bank.
Netanyahu has repeatedly launched wars against his country’s colonies, using a policy of deliberately withholding adequate food supplies, creating tremendous hardship.  His regime practices the typical colonial policy of collective punishment, trying to defeat anti-colonial fighters—and they are such, whether or not we approve of every one of their actions—by punishing the population at large, killing thousands of civilians, many of them children, destroying housing and ensuring that utilities do not reach the colonized population. 
In short, the Israeli regime has used colonial warfare to engineer humanitarian crises.  And by keeping its colonies perpetually on the breaking point, fuelled with sinister rhetoric, not only is the regime sailing perilously close to articulating a policy of ethnic cleansing, but is ensuring that local authorities in those colonies lack the power to support their constituents, while lumbering with the burden of responsibility for the state of affairs the Israeli regime has actually created.
As though to trumpet the impunity with which his regime wields state terror, Netanyahu has also repeatedly and deliberately attacked the United Nations as it operates in his colonies, its task being to bring relief and monitor what is clearly an untenable and morally indefensible situation. 
These Israeli policies—the use of collective punishment, the deliberate impoverishment of a community, attacks on the United Nations, and the maintenance of colonies—are the actions of a rogue state.  The leader of such a state should not be the recipient of an invitation to address Congress.  The Hague might be a more appropriate venue for an appearance by Netanyahu, where he should be joined by a bevy of current and former U.S. administration officials complicit in a variety of international crimes.
Israelis, like all members of colonizing societies, are finding that the authoritarian behavior of their state in its colonies is seeping back home in toxic ways.  Netanyahu recently targeted Israeli intellectuals for their political views, attempting to shut down criticism of his administration and of the colonial military forces. 
He’s already voiced those concerns—and apparently lied while doing so.  The truth is, Netanyahu, and the community of neocons and fundamentalists in the United States are the far greater threat to Israel.  The reason Israel finds itself worrying about its survival has much to do with its colonial policies, the series of injustices the colonial regime has perpetrated against colonial populations over the past decades, its flouting of international law, and its close relationship with the United States, given the often-terroristic foreign policy of the latter government.

In short, the United States does Israel no favours by writing blank checks to prop-up a colonial regime that not only inflicts unspeakable damage on its colonized population, but also imperils its own society.  I for one hope that when they vote in the coming elections, Israelis recognize that their colonialism and terror will be their own downfall, and remove those like Netanyahu who support state terror and colonialism from positions of power. 

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Californians Need to Accept Responsibility for their Universities

The Los Angeles Times reported this morning that “California voters overwhelming oppose a tuition increase at University of California campuses, even if that forces the colleges to cut spending or accept more out-of-state students who pay higher fees”.
The poll also discovered that Californians believe that their state “has done a poor job of making a college education affordable”, and think that California Governor Jerry Brown is correct to call out the UC Regents and UC President for their efforts to raise tuition.
The poll finds California’s voters at their most typically obtuse and obdurate.  They oppose tuition increases, but apparently don’t realize that tuition increases have been necessary over the years because they have refused to provide UC with sufficient funding, while simultaneously asking the University to strive for excellence in research and public service. 
Taking more students, and taking those students from an increasingly diverse state costs money.  Performing world class research, preserving world class faculty, and maintaining world class campuses require money.  I hope that many Californians would agree that those are worthwhile ambitions, in contrast to the state’s half-witted Governor who wants a leaner, meaner university that shoves students in and out the door, giving them a tattered product instead of a rigorous learning experience.  Brown is dismissive of the UC’s research and its capacity to transform the lives and livelihoods of Californians.  Californians, I hope, feel differently.
But if Californians agree that those ambitions are worthwhile—excellence in education and research—they have a funny way of showing it.  Older generations in particular—the very people who attended UC for free or close to it—have consistently opposed creating a tax system that would allocate sufficient funding to UC for the institution to perform its mission for subsequent generations.  Having climbed up a ladder constructed by others to a position of success or at least security, those generations are now breaking off the rungs to prevent younger Californians making the same ascent.
If the state has done a poor job of making college affordable, that is to a large degree because voters have rejected one effort after another to raise the serious kind of revenue necessary to keeping UC truly public—that is, an institution supported by the collective for the good of the state’s youth.
Voters have not hesitated to discipline legislators and Governors who have argued for the need to reinvest in our public sphere, and voters have conditioned politicians in the state to steer clear of reforming the tax system or our political structure, moves which are seen as assaults on the surplus wealth of the upper-middle classes and the affluent—the people who, having benefited from a vibrant public sphere in their youths, are now content to trash and de-fund the same sphere.
UC could certainly manage its resources more wisely.  The past years have seen the unseemly bloating of an administrative class, the primary purpose of which often seems to shoot their institution in the foot by granting themselves outrageous bonuses and pay raises at the same time that they raise tuition for students and request more funds from the state. 
The basic immorality and strategic stupidity of the market approach adopted by UC’s administration should not obscure the fact that cutting administrative salaries would not make up for the systematic shortfall in public funding the system has experienced over the years. 
Voters support Jerry Brown’s arguments about the University of California because those are arguments that let them and the Governor—long a foe of public higher education, in stark contrast to his father—off the hook for their serial irresponsibility and their failure to maintain the system of higher education that is in their trust. 
But many of those voters might support Brown because it has been so long since they have been presented with any alternatives to the smaller, crueler state that they live in today.  It has been a long time since the state experienced a political movement in favour of creating a more communitarian California, one in which citizens realize that as a matter of moral fact as well as of practicality, they have a responsibility to one another and to future generations. 

It has been a long time since the state’s leadership expressed confidence in the ability of the state government—the legislature, the executive, and the voters who exercise outsized power through the state’s initiative process—to play an active, respectful role in the lives of citizens, promoting the kinds of institutions and investments that have the potential to lead to equality and justice in California.  I see no such movements or leaders on the horizon, but students, staff, and faculty at California’s universities should be thinking about how to work with those other communities who suffer from the absence of equality and justice, and to forge such a movement, to reclaim the state’s public sphere.