Friday, November 20, 2015

The GOP's Latest Fascism

Donald Trump long ago stopped being a joke and began representing a serious threat to our country.  From the beginning, I argued that his campaign could be characterized as fascist, and that in this he represented not an aberration within the Republican Party, but a trend.
This week, Trump decided to dispense with the pretense at decency and embrace one of the more obvious attributes of fascism in general, and Nazism in particular.  In an effort to seek scapegoats for economic and international crises, Trump turned first to Latinos in the U.S.  Now, in the wake of the terrorist attack on Paris, he is turning his hate on a new target, American Muslims.
In a recent interview, Trump declared that he would do “unthinkable” things to monitor U.S. citizens on the basis of their religion.  Asked whether “registering Muslims in a database or giving them a form of special identification that noted their religion” would be options, Trump replied that these would all be options.
Suggesting that American Muslims should carry a form of ID referencing their religion clearly evokes the darkest moments of Nazi Germany and its persecution of German and European Jews. 
But the bigotry and Islamophobia that this represents is nothing new for Trump and his supporters.  Months ago, an audience member at one of Trump’s rallies said, “We have a problem in our country, it’s called Muslims.  We know our current president is one”.  Trump did not take the decent approach of calling the man out for his Islamophobia, and simply responded, “Right”.
The audience member escalated, calling for ethnic cleansing when he said, “We have training camps growing where they want to kill us.  That’s my question.  When can we get rid of them?”
To this, Trump replied, “We’re going to be looking at that.”
So here we have the spectacle of a presidential candidate, in a country dedicated to the notion of inequality, to a separation of church and state, and to republican democracy, saying that he will “look into” both a form of ID designed to distinguish members of a religious community from the general population on the basis that they constitute a threat to our country, and a policy of somehow “getting rid of” members of that community, through unspecified means.
But Trump is in good company within his party.
One of the GOP’s “reasonable” candidates, Marco Rubio, said that he might pursue a policy of shutting down Mosques in the United States.  Ben Carson equated Syrian refugees, fleeing a catastrophe created in part by the foreign policy of the United States, with “rabid dogs”.  Chris Christie said that even orphans under the age of five, from Syria, needed to be kept out of the U.S. 
In addition to preaching hatred, ignorance, and paranoia, these politicians are failing to recognize the relationship between their own party’s behavior over time, and particularly its promotion of an aggressive, imperial foreign policy, and the actual threats the U.S. faces.

Scapegoating U.S. citizens of particular ethnic or religious groups is disgusting, wrong, and commits the Republican Party to the abandonment of key laws and protections in our country and on a path to committing some very dark deeds.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Hillary Clinton on Higher Education

For the second time in as many primary debates, Hillary Clinton launched an attack on the notion of free public higher education.  Her rival, Senator Bernie Sanders, has proposed a plan to make public universities free, by way of reducing student debt and creating more opportunities for would-be students in the U.S.
While Clinton has her own policies for addressing student debt (and while Sanders’ policy prescriptions are imperfect), she has mocked and attacked the principle of free public universities.  Her line of attack thus far—calculated to win cheap applause—has been to say that the taxpayers shouldn’t be paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to university.
There are, needless to say, some problems with this line of reasoning.  And the problems with this reasoning shed light on an even larger problem, at least for those of us resigned to seeing the Democratic Party as our best institutional tool at the national level for trying to make the U.S. a more equal and just society.  Hillary Clinton, the candidate who many want to lead that party into a national election next year, either doesn’t understand something as elementary as a social contract and what makes a public institution public, or else is seeking to undermine and un-do public institutions.
At a first glance, there seems to be something just and logical about claiming that the taxpayers—a term that brings to mind middle class families—should pay to send Donald Trump’s kids to school.  These “taxpayers,” after all, might very well be struggling, and by his own admission, Donald Trump is a very, very rich man.
But Donald Trump is also a taxpayer.  And based on his wealth, he is a taxpayer who should be contributing enough to the public education system to pay not only for his own kids, but for a great many other people’s kids to attend public university for free under the kind of plan envisioned by Sanders.
That’s what a public good ought to be.  A service—like university—provided at no cost to members of society irrespective of their parents’ wealth through contributions from the taxpayers.  Needless to say—although clearly Hillary Clinton does need to hear this—those contributions are proportionate to the wealth of individual taxpayers.
In the first debate, Clinton bragged about working when she went to college, and said “I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished,” adding that she “would like to see students work 10 hours a week.”
This demonstrates another series of misunderstandings on Clinton’s part, in part about the cyclical nature of the social contract, and in part about the changes in higher education that have occurred since she was a student.
The notion of a cross-generational social contract, that underpins the historic principles of free education and other features of welfare states that enhance the lives of their citizens means that people make the most substantial contributions to the maintenance of public goods and institutions when they have the ability to do so.  When they are younger or older, those requirements wane, and then they are supported by older or younger generations who have taken over as the primary economic contributors to the public welfare.
Therefore, although in a system of truly public higher education (wherein the taxpaying public supports qualified students to attend university at low or ideally no cost) students are not paying tuition and fees to “have some part of getting this accomplished” (as Clinton elegantly put it), they will, later in life, contribute towards the “free” education of others.
Thus, everyone is playing their part, just at different points in their lives.  And if Donald Trump’s kids were able to attend a public university for free, that would be because their father was paying significantly, through his taxes, into a system of public higher education, along with other taxpayers, whose contributions would be proportional to their income and other earnings.
The second problem is with Clinton’s “I worked through college, while walking uphill through snowstorms—both ways!” comment.  Using her experience from the mid-1960s to make intelligent commentary on public policy 50 years later is tin-eared and in this case more than a little silly.
When Clinton was a university student (at a private university), tuition at the country’s preeminent system of higher education, the University of California, was $0.  Today, tuition at the University of California runs at over $12,000, with an estimated total annual cost of over $30,000.  Hillary Clinton, in other words, is speaking as a member of a generation who benefited tremendously from a massive investment in truly public higher education. 
So having benefited from a generous social contract, and generations of taxpayers who invested in giving their generation free access to the world’s best universities, and the opportunities and economic advantages associated with that attendance, Clinton’s generation, and politicians like Clinton, have kicked away the latter, and are asking today’s generations of students to make significant contributions to paying their own way at a time in their lives when they are economically vulnerable, and are asking them to take on significant workloads.
I understand that in the eyes of many, there is virtue associated with work.  Work is good for its own sake, and working while going to college is a sign of strength and responsibility.
I also understand, as someone who has been teaching university students for six years, that asking students to work significant hours while they study is a really bad idea.  Students become distracted, their studies take a back seat, they become overwhelmed by the work, and they miss out on the opportunity to take a few years of their lives to think and learn systematically in an environment designed to foster and support critical thinking.  They miss out on opportunities for research that will make them more competitive on the job market and more proficient at the skills they are honing as they study.  They will miss out on the opportunities to associate with people from other places who have other perspectives.  Asking students to stretch their finite energies and time between work and study—particularly when we have, in the past found ways to ensure that this didn’t have to be the case—undermines many of the benefits associated with higher education.
Hillary Clinton is very clearly not stupid.  She knows how the social contract works.  She understands what public institutions are.  She must know something about the experience of students in today’s poorly-funded and costly public universities.
So I can only conclude, in light of her comments, that she doesn’t support the traditional social contract between generations, and doesn’t believe in truly public institutions. 
That’s fine.  Those are legitimate if ultimately unfortunate and misguided political positions.  But Hillary Clinton, while adopting these regressive positions, is casting herself as a leading progressive, and is competing in the primary of a party ostensibly committed to the defense of public institutions.

So Clinton’s attacks on public higher education, her deceitful rhetoric, and her repudiation of the social contract, are further evidence of her hypocrisy and further evidence that she is advocating a right-wing approach to public policy that is the last thing the U.S. needs at this stage.  All those voters, from whichever party, who are committed to public higher institutions, a fair social contract between the generations, and public institutions at large, should turn away from Clinton and the Republicans, and take a more serious look at Bernie Sanders, the candidate who is unafraid to discuss the benefits of a generous, healthy welfare state.

Discussing Democratic Socialism

Senator Bernie Sanders has recently declared his intention to make a speech explaining democratic socialism—the ideological and policy framework underpinning his presidential campaign—to an American public conditioned to see anything containing the word “socialism” as a threat to the country’s way of life.  Sanders’ speech on Thursday will be a welcome addition to what has become a stale political debate over the past decades, hemmed in by the policy dogmas associated with unchecked capitalism and its mythical “free market”.

In the course of his campaign, Sanders has invoked other countries that he argues practice forms of “democratic socialism,” including Denmark, Sweden, and Norway.  Central to his case has been the argument that far from being a dangerous pipe-dream, democratic socialism represents a viable political formation, which exists in other countries.

Noted U.S. historian Eric Foner, whose work has involved recapturing long-hidden voices in U.S. history, had some advice for Sanders as to how to discuss democratic socialism.  He encouraged the Senator to drop Denmark and “embrace our own American radical tradition…talk about our radical forebears here in the United States.”  Foner lists the likes of Thomas Paine, William Lloyd Garrison, Frederick Douglass, Abby Kelley and the various parties that have served as institutional vehicles for radical political advancement in the United States.

Foner is on to something, inasmuch as Americans tend to be xenophobic, and balk at the idea that they can learn something from other parts of the world.  From a rhetorical standpoint, there is probably value in calling attention to this tradition of radical or socialist thought in the United States.

But the approach that Foner advocates misses one crucial thing.  Sanders’ goal as a presidential aspirant is to convince the public not simply that they can relate to the ideology ostensibly at the heart of his campaign—and I would argue that what Sanders is actually advocating is a form of moderate social democracy—but that this is a system of organizing polities, economies, and societies which can work and has worked.

For this reason, it is both helpful and important to be able to invoke those societies—no matter the ways they might differ in size or demographics or in political structure from the United States—which have used different, and to some eyes radical, political principles in order to create a society that is more equal, more just, more free than our own.  Sanders needs to be able to convince people of the fact that social welfare doesn’t kill jobs, destroy industry, squash innovation, or make automatons of people.

So while invoking radicals of the American past who helped our country to make progress in combatting social and economic inequality is a good thing, it is equally if not more important to explain how as a broad ideology, that would serve as the basis for policymaking in a Sanders Administration, democratic socialism is something practical and workable that has yielded tremendous benefits for a great many people in other parts of the world.  

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Democratic Debate Illustrates Void in Foreign Policy Thinking

Shaped as it was by yesterday’s horrifying terrorist attacks in Paris, tonight’s Democratic Party primary debate exposed the impoverished state of coherent, intelligent, and forward-looking thought about international affairs in the Democratic Party.  While none of the three candidates offers the same toxic mix of casual and catastrophic violence, xenophobia, and rank ignorance as the GOP, they had nothing like a coherent, progressive, imaginative policy agenda for thinking about and acting on the major challenges facing a world wracked by violence.
There were, however, substantial differences in the ways in which the three candidates reflected on events, viewed recent history, and deliberated about how to contend with global terrorism.
Clinton invited us to think about history and invoked a history of U.S. “victimization” by history.  But a truly historical perspective would ask us to think about why the U.S. has been attacked over the years, and whether our behavior has created some of these threats.  They did not, after all, emerge from nowhere.  In contrast, Sanders invoked the history of U.S. efforts at regime change around the world, and connected these to terrorism and instability.  I know whose grasp of historical evidence and critical thinking would earn the better grade in my history class! 
However much better his instincts on foreign policy might be than Hillary Clinton’s, Bernie Sanders was nonetheless again incoherent and garbled.  He needs to do far more work in developing a thoughtful, progressive, pro-active foreign policy for a variety of important reasons.
Martin O’Malley was similarly disjointed in attempting to outline an international policy agenda.  He identified the lack of human intelligence as central to the countless failures of U.S. foreign policy making in the past years.  That is incredibly naïve, and overlooks the far more important role of a dysfunctional worldview and an over-mighty security state in mangling our ability to engage rationally with the world.
Nonetheless, no candidate was as frightening as Clinton when it came to articulating a foreign policy, not least because of her record.  We know Clinton as a supporter of the illegal, immoral, and disastrous war in Iraq.  We know her as the Obama administration’s strongest civilian advocate for regime change and war in Libya, Syria, and elsewhere in the Middle East.  We know her as a reactionary who, as Secretary of State defended dictators and autocrats against the democratic uprisings of the Arab Spring and helped to ensure, through her defense of them, that those uprisings were failed or mangled in many instances.  We know her as a defender of unconscionable Israeli colonialism that endangers the lives of Palestinian subjects and Israeli citizens alike.  We know her as a defender of Morocco’s indefensible colonialism in Western Sahara.  And we know her as the public servant who attacked as a traitor Edward Snowden, who shed light on the terrorism and abuse of the security state she has helped to enlarge.
Tonight’s debate offered further evidence of the dangerous nature of Clinton’s worldview.  She blamed the rise of ISIS on the Iraqi government and the Assad government in Syria.  Neither of those governments are blameless.  But to omit mentioning that the event most responsible for the creation of ISIS was the war in Iraq that she voted to authorize, and then never critiqued except along managerial lines, is appalling. 
Clinton also referred to former Egyptian president Mohamed Morsi as the “Muslim Brotherhood president” in Egypt who was “installed”.  The reality, as Clinton should recall since she was Secretary of State at the time, is that Morsi won an election, and was “elected”, not “installed”.  She might not care for the Muslim Brotherhood.  But the choice of president was Egyptians, and not hers.  But I can understand her reluctance, given the effort she expended in undermining Egypt’s democratic uprisings and defending the dictator Mubarak’s regime in the name of “stability”, small comfort to the Egyptians who perished or whose rights were extinguished under his 30 year regime.
When asked how to confront ISIS and other instances of terror, Clinton invoked the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11, suggesting that it was sufficient to authorize a president’s military response to ISIS.  This is deeply disturbing.  AUMF gave Bush the authorization to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001”.
ISIS is in some regard connected to 9/11, inasmuch as the Bush Administration used it to gain public support for their invasion of Iraq and lied about connections between Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein in order to persuade irresponsible and frankly ignorant representatives like Hillary Clinton to write them a blank, bipartisan check for the war that created ISIS. 
But the idea that a 2001 authorization for the pursuit of those individuals who attacked the U.S. 14 years ago can grant the president the authority to wage war against any terrorist group in 2015 is absurd, makes a mockery of the law, and demonstrates how quick Clinton would be to abuse Bush-era laws and take the U.S. into new wars. 
Clinton’s foreign policy record should be subjected to far more critical scrutiny by both Sanders and O’Malley, and the media.
Sanders was less hesitant than in previous debates to criticize Hillary Clinton, and having identified her vote for the Iraq war as a mistake with dire consequences, he also called attention to her long-term ties to Wall Street.
Clinton took umbrage, and whined about having her integrity impugned.  Sanders must have used a microscope to locate and question her integrity, given her career of hypocritical, regressive, flip-flopping, neo-conservative war-mongering, and sympathy for the irresponsible financial industry. 
Sensing that she was on the defensive, Clinton actually went so far as to invoke 9/11 as the reason for Wall Street’s support for her campaigns over the years to the tune of more than $35 million (her total haul of corporate money is far higher). 
Hillary Clinton once again revealed herself as the most right-wing of the three candidates when it came to social welfare.   She refused to acknowledge healthcare as the right that it is in much of the world, as opposed to the privilege that the over-priced and under-performing healthcare sector is the U.S.
She also proved her regressive credentials when it came to higher education.  The moderator criticized Bernie Sanders’ plan to make public higher education free by citing a 63% graduation rate across colleges.  This low rate, the moderator suggested, was a good reason not to “waste” money on making that education free
What Sanders should have said but didn’t is that a significant reason why a large number of college attendees have difficulty in completing their degrees is the high costs and massive debt associated with higher education.  Many students drop out because of this debt, and others leave their degrees unfinished as their college careers drag out over too many years because of the need to work as they study.
Investing in higher education, and making it free—as it was in many states for many years—is a good way to equip students with the tools to finish their degrees and emerge unencumbered by crippling debt.
For the second debate running, Hillary Clinton angled for cheap applause, framing her opposition to free public higher education as an opposition to taxpayers paying for Donald Trump’s kids to go to college for free.
But the very definition of public higher education is a system in which ALL students, irrespective of their parents’ wealth, attend college for free, supported by the taxpayers at large, who pay into that system according to their wealth.  Until the likes of Ronald Reagan came along, this was the model in California, home of the country’s—and arguably the world’s—best system of public higher education.
There were important moments during the domestic policy sections of the debate.  But I was most struck by the initial, lengthy foreign policy discussion.
It left me disheartened.  The Democratic Party has ceased to be—if it ever was—an entity which has anything resembling a moral or coherent world view, any sense of history, or an ability to hit back at the narrative our security state has constructed about the place of the U.S. in the wider world.  The Party is increasingly being pulled to the left in economic terms, and this will be to the long-term benefit of our public.  But none of that progressive momentum has filtered into thinking about international affairs, institutions, or innovations, and I fear for our country and our world.
In the past week, events in Beirut, Paris, and elsewhere have illustrated some of the dangers—regularly on display, often un-reported—that define the lives of too many people in the world.  They have illustrated the inadequacy of our global institutions, our policy frameworks, and our leadership to address our global crisis with anything resembling long-term or thoughtful policymaking.  The U.S. must play a role in whatever changes occur in this sphere.  And while the Republican Party offers nothing but naked violence, I see little better coming from a morally and intellectually impoverished Democratic Party based on tonight’s debate. 

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How the Media Won't Report on John Brennan's E-Mails

Not since the death of Osama bin Laden will the contents of a leading terrorist's e-mails have been subjected to such scrutiny (public, in this case).  Unlike Bin Laden, who led a non-state terrorist organization which in its latter years lacked any significant capacity to inflict damage on its stated enemy, the United States, Brennan is a high-ranking official in the security state that has over time shredded the rights of its own citizens, and heads the CIA, a highly active and destructive terrorist organization that has presided over global campaigns of torture, disappearance, and other crimes against humanity.  Brennan’s organization has repeatedly violated international law and has generated new threats to the public it claims to serve.

Brennan is best known for presiding over a series of terrorist attacks using predator drones that have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians in South Asia, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel.  The global public will undoubtedly read with interest the contents of his e-mails.  Brennan and other state terrorists in the regime, including past leaders like George W Bush and Dick Cheney, have been protected from prosecution by the failure of their country to sign many international legal accords, and by current President, Barack Obama, who has shielded the security state from scrutiny, while enhancing its capacity to commit acts of terror around the world in the name of the public interest, while failing to disclose how the global war of, on, and by terror relates to the bread and butter issues that occupy the minds of most Americans and other global citizens.

The complicity of many American officials, including a leading presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in decisions that led to the expansion of state terrorism makes it unlikely that Brennan and his colleagues will face accountability any time soon.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Media’s Debate Verdict Leaves Unanswered Questions about Clinton’s Record and Journalism

The mainstream media widely hailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the “winner” of last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas.  But the way in which they did so illustrates the failure of journalists to do their job, the manner in which celebrity journalism distorts narratives around politics, and the way in which defective journalism lets Hillary Clinton off the hook.

Immediately after the debate it hosted, CNN released a poll showing that 81% of viewers on facebook believed that Bernie Sanders won the debate, while a mere 13% came away convinced that Clinton had won.  Now that’s not necessarily a scientific poll, but CNN’s completely unsubstantiated verdict was far worse journalism:

“Hillary Clinton”, the network declared, under the banner “Winner”, “proved without a doubt Tuesday night why she is the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner.  Clinton remained unflappable throughout the debate, showcasing her political experience and her command of the issues—all the while deftly handling criticism of her flip-flops and displaying a humor that put a more human face to her oft-criticized candidacy”.  Their “source” for this verdict, was Obama strategist David Axlerod, who said that Clinton did “very well”.

I remember a high school journalist teacher warning our class about the danger of making big claims based on a single source.  She might have stern words for CNN.

But the network stuck to its message, which I would translate as follows: “If you focus on stage-presence, style, and the ability to pander to an audience, and aren’t bothered by flip-flopping, hypocrisy, and lies, Hillary won the debate.”

If we knew nothing about Hillary Clinton outside of her debate performance, she would come across as a passionate and plausible progressive.  Unfortunately for her, that is not the case.

We know that when Clinton declared herself a foe of the TransPacific Partnership and of the Keystone Pipeline, she was making a flip-flop of epic proportions in the case of the former, and coming clean after years of silence on the latter.  Clinton served in an administration that backed the TPP and deliberated on Keystone endlessly.  For a “progressive who likes to get things done” (one of the lines CNN focused on as representing Clinton’s strengths), she did precious little with her position in the administration to shape policy in a progressive fashion.

Instead, she backed and praised TPP, helping to ensure that it moved swiftly through approval processes, while refusing to comment on Keystone, making no contribution to public debate.

We also heard Clinton get tough on Wall Street.  This is a significant deviation from the work she did while Senator from New York, and marks a departure from her repeated fundraising trips to the likes of Goldman Sachs, during which she was heard to pledge to protect the financial industry from protestors and politicians who complained about pesky things like equality, justice, and strict, accountable regulatory measures.

No journalist questioned her seriously about that hypocrisy or about her claim to have gone to Wall Street and told them to “Cut it out”.  A real journalist might have asked when she made this epic journey, who she spoke to, what she actually said, or how why she was so naïve as to think that an industry renowned for its willingness to break the law and relentlessly test and undermine regulations would knuckle-under when chastised by Senator Clinton. 

No one pointed out Clinton’s inconsistency when she pledged to overhaul our economy to create a healthier and more equal society, but dismissed Bernie Sanders’ call to examine the social contracts and models that exist in other countries to secure citizens more rights, more equality, and more security.

It was left to other candidates rather than the journalists on stage to point out Clinton’s dishonesty in dodging questions about her decision to vote for an illegal, immoral, and ill-judged war in Iraq.  No one called her out for praising pro-democracy protesters in the Arab Spring when her State Department was dragging its feet and defending dictators and autocrats as key to U.S. interests.

And no one called her out for her lie when she described a non-existent process supposedly open to Edward Snowden that could have protected the whistleblower when he exposed the law-breaking and civil liberties violations of the security state she helped to protect and build.

No one asked her to explain her desire for all college students to work 10 hours a week, or to consider why working through college when she was young (when tuition at the country’s best public universities was non-existent) was more plausible then than now.

And no one in the mainstream media has questioned her credentials as a “progressive who likes to get things done”.  Reporters who do actual journalism have concluded that Senator Sanders has actually been quite productive in Congress, something that flies in the face of Clinton’s claims that her record contains more achievements than that of her rival.

Her tenure in the Senate was unremarkable, and she was responsible for no major or even controversial legislation.  She kept her head down, made friends and allies, and prepared for a presidential run, casting some decent, party-line votes along the way, and some catastrophically ill-judged ones on the Iraq war, evidence either of the neo-conservative tendencies that have since manifested themselves, or of laziness and poor judgement. 

Her time there and in the State Department gives the impression of someone angling for higher office who was more interested in using the trappings of high office to stay in the public eye than in using the power of that office to do good.

John Kerry’s energetic stint as Secretary of State has suggested that Clinton was a poor choice for Secretary of State.  She skirted many of the big issues of the day, declining to devote the same public, high-energy, risky commitment to peacemaking that has occupied Kerry.  Whether or not you share his politics or agenda at the State Department, Kerry’s drive and commitment and willingness to put himself out on a limb will make his tenure far more productive and memorable than Clinton’s calculating caution.

It might be a bit daft for Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a failed CEO who fired thousands of workers, to attack Clinton for not having any significant accomplishments to her name, but I think there is something in that claim.

Clinton’s record is bereft of significant legislative achievements, her tenure at the State Department riddled by misjudgments untampered by any transformation of the role of the U.S. in the world.  And her public life for the last 15 years is untroubled by any stands of principle at times when they mattered. 

Coming out against TPP after you praised it, negotiated it, and helped to ensure its passage isn’t leadership.  Criticizing the Iraq war after you gave the President a blank check to wage it isn’t leadership.  Cautioning Wall Street after spending your Senate tenure supporting its interests isn’t leadership.  Celebrating the Arab Spring after you backed and armed the dictators who slaughtered its revolutionaries isn’t leadership. 

Those are not progressive actions.  There are other words to describe that kind of behavior—hypocrisy, expediency, cowardice, criminality, and peripateticism come to mind—and they are not words that bespeak a person of great accomplishments or a person possessed of great leadership qualities.

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper could have exposed the basic falsity of Clinton’s central claim—that she is a progressive who has got things done—but he was too busy basking in his own moment of celebrity and preparing for his post-debate interview lap, a twisted spectacle in which the faux journalist becomes a celebrity and a story in his own right instead of someone with a job to perform for the sake of the public interest.  

 Fortunately, Hillary Clinton is not the only option for progressive-minded voters.  Bernie Sanders’ debate performance might have lacked “polish”, but the things he said on stage are the same things he has been saying for years.  His concern over economic, racial, and social injustices and inequalities are not the product of an election-year epiphany or lengthy poll-testing.  If he were to become the Democratic Party’s nominee, his message would remain the same during the general election.  If he were to become President, his consistency of rhetoric and his political accomplishments suggest that he would work to carry out the agenda he described on the debate stage.

With Clinton, we have no way of knowing whether her flip-flops mark the end or the beginning of a tortured political journey, marked by back-tracking, policy contortions, and hypocrisy. 

I hope that when the Democratic Party candidates next take to the stage, the journalists in attendance do their jobs, hold them accountable for the things they are saying, and put what they are saying into context so that when we analyze that debate it won’t be about their poise and their polish, but about the extent to which we can depend on the moral and political framework that shapes their policymaking agenda for our country.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Senator Sanders, Amateur Hour on Foreign Policy is Over

I’m a proud Bernie Sanders supporter and was thrilled with the way the Senator used last night’s debate to urge voters to back his quest to make our country a more equal, just, and secure place by building a robust welfare state, rolling back state intervention on behalf of the plutocrats, and re-democratizing our political system.
But I would say to Senator Sanders and to his supporters in the Democratic Party and beyond: amateur hour is over when it comes to thinking about the role of the U.S. in the world.  In last night’s debate, the Senator was incoherent, inconsistent, and at times ill-informed when it came to laying out foreign policy views.
His criticism of the war in Iraq was correct, his caution about waging endless wars was well-justified, and his criticism of the security state was well taken.  But those views are irreconcilable with his defense of weaponized drones and aerial bombings (such as those that murdered over 20 people in a Doctors Without Borders hospital), with his attacks on Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on the criminals in the Pentagon and the NSA, and with the general sense he gives that he hasn’t thought for more than five minutes about how to make the world’s citizens safer, the world order fairer, and the world’s working people more prosperous. 
Some of the Senator’s defenders will say that foreign policy issues aren’t traditionally important to voters, and that people want to hear about economics, jobs, and social welfare.  But here are a few reasons that defense isn’t good enough, and in fact insults voters and damages Sanders’ credibility.
Firstly, people like consistency in policy.  That’s one of Sanders’ big appeals for many.  That consistency—in his concern for human rights and welfare, and for equality and justice—should extend to the way he would like the U.S. to treat people in other parts of the world and to the way that he would like the U.S. to interact with countries in other parts of the world.
There is injustice and inequality in the world, and some of this is the fault of the U.S.  Our blank checks to the Israeli government fuel conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians they rule over in an undemocratic fashion.  Our backing for dictators and autocrats generates inequality in the countries those people rule over with U.S. support.  And our use of terror—bombing hospitals and weddings in Afghanistan, scattering weaponry around the world in pursuit of goals that contravene public and humanitarian interest, and our protection of state terrorists who tortured, abducted and murdered—is illegal, immoral, and offensive.
Secondly, Sanders’ ambitious domestic program requires a significant output of resources.  Foreign conflicts, fueled by our disastrous and never-ending War of Terror are damaging our ability to focus on domestic matters. 
Our budget is wildly skewed towards the desires of the Pentagon and the security state, away from the needs of our citizens.  To be able to re-orient our priorities, it is necessary to change the character of our engagement with the international community.
Thirdly, just because voters don’t care about foreign policy doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  We are but one country in a global community comprised largely of nations.  Just as individual states within our country, and individual members of our national community have a responsibility to each other, we have an obligation to interact in a reasonable, legal, and just fashion with other nations around the world.  Moreover, our actions abroad can bring faraway threats home with great alacrity.  Many of these threats would have been easily preventable if the U.S. had a history of behaving like a good, law-abiding neighbor in a community of nations instead of an arrogant, imperial power in a world of global subjects.
Isolationism is not the answer, but rather the fashioning of a more democratic world order that isn’t captured by the interests of the wealthy, that isn’t dominated by the voices of fundamentalists whether they are in the Middle East or the United States, and isn’t governed according to rules that benefit the few at the expense of the many. 
Finally, Sanders’ efforts to transform the U.S. into a social democracy, its energies directed to bettering the welfare of its citizens, requires significant faith in government.  That faith has been relentlessly eroded by the corruption of the Bush/Cheney administration and their illegal conspiracy to wage aggressive war; by Bush and Obama’s misdirection of power to a security state that has little regard for civil rights or the public interest; and by the impunity that successive administrations have promoted when it comes to addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When people think of “Government”, they think not only of Republicans’ mis-use of government to benefit the super-wealthy and of the deliberate inefficiency the GOP has introduced to our national politics.  They also think of an unaccountable, violent security state that seems preoccupied with interests and wars far removed from the daily lives of our citizens. 
For Sanders to restore faith in the capacity of government to do good for people, he must also re-capture it in the sphere of foreign relations from the neo-conservative ideologues, the murderous warmongers, and the corrupt arms industry that have used their power to do much ill in the world. 
For Sanders to achieve his domestic goals, for him to stay true to his social democratic values, and for him to bridge the gap between the foreign and the domestic, it is critical that he and his campaign get their act together.  Voters will not indulge repeated performances of last night’s muddled incoherence when it comes to foreign policy, and the Senator should hold himself to a higher standard, a standard it is necessary to reach for him to deliver on his goals for our country.  Authenticity shouldn’t be an excused for ill-preparedness.

Thoughts on the First Democratic Party Debate

Some thoughts on last night’s debate as it happened (lightly edited for clarity)…

The lead in to the debate sounds like the introduction to a reality tv show, and throughout, Anderson Cooper’s strategy seems to be to minimize the substance and maximize the conflict.  Clearly, he’s uncomfortable with his role as a “serious” journalist…
The candidates are introducing themselves.  Lincoln Chaffee is looking like he wants to vomit, but emphasizes his lack of scandals.
Jim Webb touts his “proven record of accomplishing different things”, and almost forgets one of his daughter’s names.
Martin O’Malley decries the “deep economic justice that threatens to tear our country apart”.
Bernie Sanders launches into an attack on the structural ills of our democracy that have enabled our politics and economics to be captured by elites, taking the energy in the room up a half-dozen notches.
Hillary Clinton tells us about her grandmother, her grandchild, and promised tax cuts for the middle class.
I’m not how important tax cuts for the middle class are.  It seems to me that the important thing is to ensure that the middle class gets enough back for the taxes they and the wealthy pay in the form of free healthcare, free or affordable higher education, parental leave, and a decent wage.
We’re now over five minutes into the debate, and no candidate has threatened to bomb another country, indulged in hate speech, or made racist, misogynistic remarks.  As little regard as I have for some of the people on this stage, they are all a cut above the troglodytes who make up the Republican Party’s field. 
Hillary Clinton is far more polished in her responses than Sanders or the others on stage, unsurprisingly given the machine-like nature of her campaign.  I suspect that Sanders’ performance will illustrate some of the limits of his “showing up and telling it like it is approach,” particularly when the candidates discuss foreign policy.
In answer to a question about her flip-flopping, Hillary Clinton declares, “I have a range of views”.  As the Republicans have learned to their pain with regards to the Benghazi “investigation”, sometimes the truth has a way of surfacing unintentionally.  Hillary is working hard to establish herself as the leading flip-flopper and hypocrite amongst the candidates on stage.
Cooper asks Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win an election in the United States?”
A better question might be, “How can anyone who supports the kind of job-destroying, dehumanizing, irresponsible capitalism that has defined life in the U.S. during the past 50 years win an election?”
 Sanders’ forceful reply includes what to many Americans will have been an unfamiliar if eye-opening critique of capitalism and the ills it has engendered in our society.  “It is immoral and wrong that [those at the top] own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%”, Sanders thundered, pointing out that over half of all new income accrues to the top 1%.
Americans are used to being flattered and told how exceptional our country is.  But Sanders is repeatedly asking us to learn from what other countries do, whether when discussing universal healthcare, parental leave, or living wages.  He points out that one of the prime ways in which the U.S. is exceptional amongst nations in much of Europe and Asia is in the extent to which wealth and power have been captured by a plutocracy, and in the ease with which Americans accept the degradation of their democracy, contenting themselves with vapid homilies about American exceptionalism.
Sanders invokes Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as examples to emulate.  Cue applause from the Swede in the house. 
Cooper points out that there are 5-6 million people in Denmark.  He doesn’t point out that Denmark has a democratic, representative political system that has not been captured by the super-rich, or that its ability to generate a much higher standard of living for its average citizen is not based primarily on the number of those citizens, but on the type of contribution it asks those citizens to make.
Cooper attacks Sanders for backing, while mayor of Vermont, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.  Cooper doesn’t point out that the Sandanistas were the social democratic party that fought the imperial U.S. invasion of that country, and who were undermined by the Contra guerillas and death squads funded by none other than St Ronnie of Reagan (who didn’t recall).
Hillary Clinton pipes up with a shocker, “We are not Denmark!”  Clearly there are benefits to being Secretary of State, not least being able to make announcements like that.
“I love Denmark”, Clinton snaps, “but we are the United States of America…we would be making a great mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest nation on earth!”
Translation: we have nothing to learn from other countries, even countries whose citizens enjoy much higher standards of living and greater security and liberty.  She doesn’t actually beat her chest and chant “USA! USA!” but you get the idea.
Jim Webb has apparently referred to affirmative action as “state sponsored racism”, and is unfamiliar with the fact that African Americans are not the only group in the U.S. who have experienced systematic discrimination and degradation.  Throughout the night, Webb is giving the impression that he showed up to the wrong debate.
Hillary is strong on gun control, hammering Sanders who his Hillary-esque efforts to explain his past support for fairly indefensible votes.  Sanders is rambling a bit…if he had a thought-out, prepared answer, I’m not seeing it.
If only Hillary had been this strong on gun control abroad, instead of supporting the sale of arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, colonial regimes like Israel, and conflict zones like Libya and Syria. 
Channeling Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton says that it is not acceptable for Russia to take unilateral action in Syria.  To people in much of the world, even those who see Putin’s intervention as dangerous and cynical, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical given the U.S. government’s predilection for unilateral interventions that destabilize the world and kill loads of people.
Chaffee, struggling to hold down his bile and remind us that he is on stage, nails Clinton for her poor decision over Iraq: “There was no real evidence of WMDs…I know because I did my homework”.
As she should, Clinton is being asked to live with a vote that was either an indication of destructive neo-conservative tendencies, or of laziness and sloppy thinking.  I personally agree that a vote for the conflict that led to thousands of deaths of U.S. citizens, killed over 100,000 Iraqis, spread international terrorism to Iraq, and created ISIS should disqualify a candidate for the presidency.  There were plenty of people at the time predicting most of this.
Hillary’s defense is that President Obama “valued my judgment” and made her Secretary of State.  For fans of the President’s foreign policy, this might be a satisfying answer.  For those who have a problem with the escalation of wars, murderous drone strikes, the persecution of whistleblowers, and the protection of state terrorists, torturers, and war criminals, not so much…
Sanders is rambling and incoherent on foreign policy.  It’s really amateur hour, and there is no indication that his social democratic views inform his ideas about international events in the slightest.  Painful to watch.  His campaign needs to get its act together.  This is important stuff.
Web wants World War III, and promises to tell the Chinese government, “You do not own the South China Sea!”
Hillary blames the violence in Libya on the Arab Spring (which she manages to celebrate at the same time), and defends the overthrow of Qaddafi, saying that he had “American blood on his hands”. 
Again, to anyone with a clue, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical, as under Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the U.S. has the blood of innocent civilians from a dozen countries or more on its hands.
Funny how Hillary can celebrate the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that had the potential to change the Middle East, when she was the cabinet member most responsible for hamstringing the U.S. response because of her solidarity with vicious dictators in the region.
Her “realpolitik”, that has caused untold harm to the U.S. never mind people in the Middle East, was responsible for warping and frustrating democratic uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond.
Cooper wants to spend as much time as possible discussing the e-mail “scandal”, but Bernie Sanders shuts it down with a back-handed assist to Clinton, thundering, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails”, both trying to move the conversation on to matters of substance, and implying that Clinton’s candidacy comes with a whole host of distractions.
Hillary Clinton gives a much-need shout-out to early childhood education, the best indicator of subsequent success for children.  It’s a shame that this isn’t something that is well funded or integrated with the rest of the school system. 
Sanders emphasizes infrastructure, the minimum wage, pay equity, a progressive trade policy, free higher education, and a whole host of benefits that are often dismissed as utopian but which are the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Cooper needles Clinton, asking how she can solve our country’s economic problems when “You and your husband are part of the 1%”.  Once again he misses the point.  The better question would have been, “How can you solve our country’s economic problems when you and your husband have backed policies that benefited the 1%?”
Hillary Clinton has recently flip-flopped on the TransPacific Partnership (the undemocratic trade deal she hoped to broker as Secretary of State) and the Keystone Pipeline.  She declares, in a moment reminiscent of her “I have a range of views”, that “I never took a position on keystone until I took a position on keystone”.
That gutless approach to politics is, of course, what puts many people off Clinton.  This debate has seen her stealing many of Sanders’ lines, but the fact is these newly adopted progressive positions have come after years of triangulation, during which time taking a stand on an issue could have changed policy for the better.
Clinton then tells an awkward story about “hunting for the Chinese” with Obama at a climate summit.  Are we talking “Chinese officials” or literally, all of “the Chinese”.  It’s a small thing, but even Clinton’s language illustrates her nationalistic, simplistic approach to foreign policy.
O’Malley brings up the fact that both he and Sanders would like to break up the big banks that terrorized our economy and received a taxpayer bailout.  Both favour reintroducing Glass-Steagall, the measure that separated risky commercial banking from the everyday banking activities of consumers.
Clinton is opposed to this approach, predictably. 
She defends herself by claiming that she “went to Wall Street and said ‘cut it out’”.  We all know how receptive the plutocrats are to being asked to play by the rules.  Hillary also omits the part where she went back to Wall Street, took loads of their money, and pledge to defend them against criticism from Occupy Wall Street and other critics of their plutocratic rule.
Sanders points out that “going to them and saying, ‘please do the right thing’” doesn’t have a great track record of working, and observed, winning substantial applause, that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress!”
Sanders sketches out his plan for free tuition at public universities, something that used to be reality in states like California until St Ronnie of Regan came along and pursued a vindictive campaign against the University of California.
Hillary responds that she’s “not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids”.  Clearly, Hillary doesn’t understand some basic things about the social contract.  Traditionally, in democratic societies, adult generations pay—according to their ability to do so—for public welfare for themselves, the elderly, and the young.  Then the next generation steps up and replicates the feat.  And so on. 
So it would be the Donald Trumps of this world who, through their taxes, would be paying for the education of their own children and a great many others, supported by smaller contributions from adult members of the middle- and working-class.  This is a system that worked pretty well in the U.S. until the Donald Trumps of this world decided they didn’t want to live up to their social responsibility, and it is a system that works pretty well in many other countries in the world.
Intent on showing that she’s out of step, Hillary does the “When I was your age” thing, saying, “I worked when I went through college…I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished”.
In most systems, everyone does have “some part of getting this accomplished” because they pay for taxes that fund education and other public services.
And then this howler from Hillary: “I would like to see students work 10 hours a week”.  As someone who teaches college students, I can say that this is a really bad idea.  It means that students struggle to complete their degree, that they struggle to stay on top of their work, and that they are unable to focus on their education.  I suggest that Clinton talk with students who have to work through college.
If a university education is about encouraging our youth to become keen, critical, focused thinkers, and to master their subject or field of choice, this has to be something they are able to devote themselves to.
On a roll, Clinton defends the Patriot Act, cementing her right-wing foreign policy credentials.  Sanders says that he would “shut down” existing NSA programs that broke the law and violated people’s civil liberties. 
Hillary wants to prosecute Edward Snowden, saying that there would have been a “positive response” to his coming clean as a whistleblower.  Yeah, right.  Given Obama’s record of prosecuting Whistleblowers and harassing journalists?  Disappointingly, Sanders also says that Snowden should face consequences for breaking the law.
Chaffee on the other hand defends Snowden, praising the young man for shedding light on the illegal activities of our security state and the sponsors of state terrorism who run them.  He isn’t given much time, but of all the candidates, Chaffee is the one who comes closest to making a coherent critique of our foreign policy, actually mentioning the U.S. terrorist strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
Moving on, Sanders connects our ability to deal with climate change to campaign finance, pointing out that the fossil fuel industry has considerable clout in Washington. 
When Sanders mentions paid parental leave, Cooper sneers, “Really, another government program, and on taxpayer money?”
Cooper, Clinton, and the Republicans seem to have a feeble grasp of how social welfare looks.  Everything our government does—from waging war to subsidizing dictators to bailing out banks to “investigating” Benghazi—comes from taxpayer dollars.  I don’t understand what is so outlandish about asking people to devote their taxes to a program that would improve the lives of families, the outlook of children, the health of communities and, in the long run, likely save taxpayer money that is currently spent picking up the pieces of those lives that are broken when people tumble through the gaping holes in our ragged social safety net.
Sanders objects to a mindset that imprisons people for smoking pot while letting CEOs who commit terrible social and economic violence against individuals and the public get off free.
Sanders indicates that unlike Obama, he actually intends to marshal his supporters and use them against the Republican Party and its obstructionism.  Obama calls up his fans during elections, but Sanders intends to use his supporters to generate constant, democratic political pressure to generate change.  This is refreshing.
Hillary Clinton is flip, and declares herself “proud” for making enemies of the Iranians in answer to a weird question from Cooper.
And then the closing statements are in and it is over!
At the level of performance, Clinton is clearly the most polished candidate, and if you were unaware of anything else she has said or done in her life before the mounted the debate stage, she might even begin to be convincing.  But given her political history, the night simply highlighted her hypocrisy and lack of conviction, while demonstrating how her persona and command of her own narrative would make her more than a match for Republicans on the debate stage. 
Sanders, his incoherent babblings about foreign policy aside (something he and his campaign need to fix soon), was focused on economic inequality and injustice.  By embracing the idea behind a social democratic society—that its members can pool their resources and ensure that every individual can live a decent, secure life—he is opening new horizons to American audiences and offering voters the opportunity to ask their government for the kind of commitment that is routine in much of the world.

I hope that in subsequent debates, Sanders can continue to articulate these views and defend the version of democracy that he would like to build in our country.