Friday, July 30, 2010

The politics of anti-politics in California

Against my better judgment I read a bile-raising story about the political races taking place in California this year, and decided that our unenviable situation couldn't pass without comment.

Both Meg Whitman and Carly Fiorina are running as the 'anti-politics' candidates--for Governor of California and Senator respectively. They are running on their business records (which strangely, neither is willing to have scrutinised in anything like detail), and are pledging to sort out the state and the country's economic woes. This will be accomplished, they tell us, by running government like a company. They present themselves as exalted managers, whose watchword is efficiency, for whom partisan politics are old-hat, and who eschew ideology of any stripe (unless they find themselves in the company of Tea Partiers, in which case they metamorphosise with alarming rapidity). But their sharp, clean, non-partisan version of politics assumes a good many things--things which in fact are very ideological.

The key assumption is that it is right to manage a state or a country the way you manage a business, and that the way you manage a business is upright and moral and just. Within this assumption is another: that the purpose of government is to maintain a good economic bottom-line at all costs, irrespective of human consequences, because make no mistake, this is the lesson of business that they are both seeking to apply to governance.

If the managerial mantra is one plank of these candidates' platforms, the other is the acerebral, foaming-at-the-mouth anti-government rhetoric. That someone as apparently intelligent as Fiorina could pick up the endorsement of the likes of Sarah Palin is curious indeed. And yet in other ways it is unsurprising when one looks at the kind of campaign Fiorina has run, which relies on slick presentation, a profound disrespect for the facts, a willingness to reduce genuinely complicated moral problems (education, healthcare, budgets, individual rights) to the most half-witted of sound-bytes (think FCINO, the demon sheep ad), and a business record that she is happy for us to admire as long as we don't get too close and take out the magnifying glass.

Fiorina has, we should remember, signed the deceptively-named Taxpayer Protection Pledge which, should she keep her pledge, prevents her from ever voting to raise taxes. No matter if schools are laying off teachers and increasing class sizes, if healthcare needs funding, if environmental or energy initiatives need jump-staring...better (or more politically expedient) for the likes of Fiorina to pander to the extremist Republican base which has come to dominate the party, excising anyone who threatens to think for themselves. Of course we might take some comfort from Fiorina having changed her mind about issues ranging from taxation to abortion to immigration in the past. But that is small comfort indeed.

Whitman comes from a similar ilk. She has produced thick policy documents in certain areas, but you get caught up in a bramble of unworkable contradictions and inconsistencies the moment you enter into them (on reducing the number of state employees, to take one example). Whitman's primary strength derives from her conviction that democracy can be bought, and dispiritingly, California's public seems ready to prostitute itself to the highest bidder--not in terms of high-mindedness, strong idealism or a sense of collective responsibility for our state's community...just cold, hard cash. That Whitman sees nothing problematic in spending $70 million of her own money to win a primary bespeaks, to me at least, a deep moral void. Neither Fiorina nor Whitman, with their support for Arizona's discriminatory immigration law (Whitman has said she'd veto it, but that it should be let stand in Arizona), their new-found contempt for individual rights, their disdain for public education, and their belief that public good doesn't matter and that equality is irrelevant, should be getting a second look in a state that prides itself on being progressive.

We've seldom seen such rank populism so skillfully combined with a soulless shafting of teachers, students, children, the elderly, immigrants, public-sector employees, low-earners, the sick and the unemployed. It helps that the Democratic Party is without a progressive standard-bearer of its own. Barbara Boxer's progressive voice sounds tired, hoarse,and more than a little arrogant. She has fair environmental and social legislative credentials, but is singularly uninspiring in her agenda and approach, and seemingly ineffective at shaping national debates. That she is the best hope for California's Democrats is a bit sad.

Jerry Brown reminisces about the good-old-days when Democrats and Republicans would sit down with cigars at the Capitol and stitch-up state politics (no wonder then that he opposes any move to eliminate minority rule in the state and the end to the crippling two-thirds rules that this would require). He talks up his non-ideological credentials. And in this, at least, he's right. It's hard to figure out what else Jerry Brown has ever believed in consistently aside from his own political future. It also helps Fiorina and Whitman to be able to tar every cent that comes into their opponents' campaign coffers as 'union money'...which is truly strange as accusations go, all the stranger for Californians to buy given its presupposition that the only voices that ought to count come from the top of the table...that the only people with a right to look after their interests are those making six, seven, eight figures.

So if California's budget can stay in the black, if the big business community can prosper, and if the Tea Party is happy, the candidates for California's two most important public offices will be pleased. And if you believe that they are right about the purpose of government--that it is there to manage the community in a state so as to balance a budget and meet an economic bottom-line--then they are probably inspiring candidates. But if you believe that there are times when the human consequences of that management need to be taken into account, or that, in fact, this thing we call 'the Economy' should be managed around the needs of people--real, live human beings--then theirs is a dangerous ideology, one which has little time for the needs and rights of people, and which should be condemned, as often and as loudly as possible, before November.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

A little bit of justice

In 2006, Trafigura, a multinational company, dumped masses of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast. Thousands of locals suffered the consequences, but the company went largely

If you've been following the Trafigura/Ivory Coast story (or happened to see Bagassi Koura's excellent short film on the subject, The Stinking Ship), the events of last week will be somewhat heartening. Previously, courts had found it difficult to lay a glove on Trafigura, but a Dutch court nailed the company last week. There's good reporting at the Guardian and the BBC, both of which were the targets of earlier legal onslaughts by Trafigura for reporting the story.

At the open forum after the showing of his film, I remember Bagassi saying that the chances of a court victory for the victims of the 2006 dumping of toxic waste seemed slim because libel laws allowed Trafigura to slither to safety. It remains to be seen whether this opens up the possibility for more claims or actions in other countries.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010


Nairobi is a city that looks very different depending on your perspective and the direction of your gaze. This is as true in the sense that it encompasses one of the world's largest slums, Kibera, together with the fortified paradises of Karen and Langata, as it is in that you see a very city if you look up rather than down in the city centre. Above are the towering skyscrapers that make up the skyline that is often portrayed in photographs of the city, towering above Uhuru Park. There are the Marabou Storks, gliding in on enormous, ungainly wings to roost on the acacia trees lining Uhuru Highway, looking like the planes that you can also see coming in to land at Jomo Kenyatta Airport.

Below, lots of dust. Streets that are busy, but not terribly crowded. Lots of carefully-dressed people. Buildings and shops that reflect different layers of history as well as well as a highly unequal society. Matatus, cars, trucks, scooters, and pedestrians who go about their business according to a very different set of rules for the road: 1) crossing signs are meaningless, and you invest them with significance at your peril; 2) vehicles may or may not stop for you if you run out in front of them to get across the street; 3) it is generally quite safe to walk halfway across the street, and then down the middle of a busy road until there is a break in the traffic in the other half; 4) when crossing, there is safety in numbers.

Amongst the shops and offices that inhabit steel skyscrapers and run-down cinder block buildings are a few that date from the colonial era, including the one where I spend most of my days, the National Archives (the yellow building in the foreground). This large, very international regional centre of commerce, sport, development efforts, medicine and education is a very different one to the town that grew up around the Uganda railway and didn't become a colonial capital until after 1900. The Nairobi of these early days was, by all accounts, a cross between the Wild West and an English village, with lions roaming up and down its dirt streets for good measure.

Walking through Nairobi today I passed the Dedan Kimathi statue. Kimathi was a Mau Mau guerrilla leader (and the subject of Ngugi wa Thiong'o and Micere Githae Mugo's play, The Trial of Dedan Kimathi).

Kimathi, unlike Nelson Mandela, did not live to make the transition in the world's eye from a 'terrorist' to a world statesman. In life, he was used by the British to represent Mau Mau as an unreasoning, senselessly violent, purposeless movement (not a movement at all, colonial propagandists suggested, but a kind of spasm from a primitive people...a view which allowed them to conveniently ignore the land issue when explaining Mau Mau to the world), and his execution in 1957 came near the end of the uprising. This representation was made easier by the (sometimes shockingly brutal) killings of white settlers and their families in the early days of Mau Mau. Now Kimathi is seen as one of the heroes of the liberation struggle. I've been wanting to get hold of Ngugi's play, and if it's as good as most of his other works, it is probably worth a read.

Ngugi is one of Kenya's foremost authors, but he has been in exile for many years (currently he writes from Irvine, California). He is not one to sugar-coat Kenya's history, and his portrayal of Mau Mau in his book, Grain of Wheat, allows us to think about the movement's complexities for all involved. We also get a sense of this in Ngugi's latest work, a memoir entitled Dreams in a Time of War, which though not as magical as his scathing satire of African dictatorships, The Wizard of the Crow, nonetheless makes for an extremely compelling read.

Monday, July 26, 2010


The leak of thousands of confidential documents relating to the war in Afghanistan (see Wikileaks, the NYT, the Guardian and Der Spiegel) and the response from the White House demonstrates that if Obama is not careful, the so-called 'graveyard of empires' will be the place where the trust and hope that were placed in him in 2008 will be definitively buried. That the same administration which promised to be the most open in history is waging a war that rages across Afghanistan and is increasingly spilling into Pakistan is nothing short of tragic, and is the result of a political calculation made before November 2008 rather than any particular principle.

This is not the clearly-defined military and civilian action that Obama spelt out in his West Point speech (problematic in itself). His speech made no mention of U.S. soldiers operating in Pakistan, and it took the New York Times to tell us in February of this year that the military presence in that country had in fact been expanded...something all the more chilling when we recall the last great military quagmire in U.S. history--Vietnam.

In response to the leaked documents, the administration, with National Security Advisor Jim Jones leading the charge on this count, even played that most sordid of cards: suggesting that the release of these documents would put national security and soldiers' lives at risk. This is absurd coming from the very parties that have made the decisions which (now by their own admission, the Pentagon's April 2010 report being particularly enlightening on this count are resulting in an appalling litany of failures: more civilian deaths in Afghanistan--with more and more of these being caused by U.S. and ISAF forces (a better recruiting tool for fundamentalists than could ever have been dreamt up in some cave in Tora Bora); attacks being planned on the U.S. (in New York earlier this year) by groups that didn't exist in 2001; the growth of a costly and unwieldy national security apparatus (see the Washington Post's recent feature that some claim does very little to protect us, but which compromises our liberties and ideals; the funding of warlords and the concomitant undermining of the very civil society whose cultivation was so central to the President's West Point speech; the alleged betrayal of the U.S. by Pakistan's intelligence and military community, to whom we've long given absurdly unqualified financial and logistical support; and a constant shifting of strategy that seems to do nothing other than increase the number of tragically young men and women coming home in coffins or else marked for life by their experiences in ways that the rest of us can never understand.

Obama and his officials frequently point out that theirs is not the administration that began the war. This is true. But they made a very deliberate and calculated decision to continue and escalate it.

In 2002, an Illinois State Senator spoke out against a war: 'A dumb war. A rash war. A war based not on reason but on passion, not on principle but on politics'. I can scarcely imagine a greater or more wretched irony than that the hopes and needs resting on the career of a man whose meteoric rise to power came as a result of his condemnation of a 'dumb war' should be let down because he chose to make just such a war his own.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kenya's colonial history...and some worrying signs

The aspiring historian in me can't resist giving some context for the 4 August referendum on Kenya's constitution...

Kenya was colonised by the British in the late nineteenth century, though as with so many other African colonies, it wasn't the British government which did the colonising, but rather a private company (in this case the British East African Company). It was only later that Kenya became a colony, but it was one (unlike Uganda for example) with a comparatively large settler population. Land alienation began with the process of colonisation, but intensified after the First and Second World Wars, when instead of rewarding the tens of thousands of Kenyans who served the British Empire, soldiers from Britain were invited to settle in Kenya. They were given newly-alienated land, which engendered much ill-feeling, particularly in the highlands, where a 'squatter' population grew restive in the face of continued injustice.

This all broke into open violence in the shape of the Mau Mau uprising, during which saw acts of violence on both sides as the government sought to crush the uprising. It was the colonial government, however, which perfected and institutionalised the horrible forms of brutality that were directed against Kenyans at-large in the colony, but more particularly the 1-2 million Kenyans who were imprisoned in the concentration camp system known as the Pipeline (read Caroline Elkins' book, Imperial Gulag, for a literally gut-wrenching account of this system, based both on hitherto unstudied records and [admittedly-problematic] interviews).

The government ultimately prevailed, but the British realised that their days in Kenya were numbered. Independence in 1963, however, only haltingly addressed the issue of land redistribution, and it is this partially-answered question that lies at the heart of the referendum on the draft constitution, with many who have questionably amassed vast tracts of land since independence worrying that some of this land could be repossessed by the state and redistributed. Tabitha Kanogo's monograph, The Squatter Roots of Mau Mau, provides a detailed investigation of the land issue for those interested.


In other news on the referendum, some 'No' campaigners have begun suggesting that the result of the referendum will be illegitimate, which makes one hope that this isn't a calculated strategy to excuse some planned action for 5 August, since at the moment, they look likely to lose by a substantial margin.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

An overhaul of democracy in Kenya?

I thought I’d experiment with this genre of writing, and there seemed no better time to start than when staying in a country buzzing excitedly and jittering nervously all at once about the potential of a history-making referendum. The referendum (to be held on 4 August) marks the most substantial overhaul of Kenya’s constitution since independence in 1963, and many Kenyans seem as concerned about whether the voting will pass off without substantial violence as with the result. The President (Mwai Kibaki) and the Prime Minister (Raila Odinga), who were at loggerheads during the 2007 election and the violent aftermath, are both pushing strongly in favour of the proposed changes. The most contentious issues in the proposed constitution are the language on abortion, the redrawing of constituencies and the increase in their numbers, and a proposed minimum and maximum acreage on landholding, aimed at righting historical injustices. Supporters say that the draft constitution does much for the recognition of the needs of women and minorities, whereas opponents say that the creation of a second parliamentary chamber and a supreme court will come at too high a cost to taxpayers.
I haven’t actually met anyone opposed to the constitutional revision (and the most recent opinion polls show the ‘yes’ campaign with a solid lead), but most of the country’s clergy, some cabinet ministers, and former-President Daniel Arap Moi (no great friend to democracy in Kenya) are leading the charge against reform, which they argue would open the door to easy access to abortions, the unfair confiscation of land, and the unfair redistribution of constituencies. Amongst those Kenyans I’ve spoken to who support the package, there exists a broad range of reasons for their backing. Some see the proposed constitution as a genuinely good one. Others think that it is something that simply needs to be done so that the country can move on (one law student said that things like the promised land reform and the establishment of a Supreme Court should have come immediately following independence, and that too many of the country’s institutions resemble the colonial edifice they were ostensibly replacing). Many Kenyans see the constitution as a starting point for a shake-up of the country’s political culture.
So far, there have been some instances of dirty-practise on the part of both the Greens and the Reds (the ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns respectively). The government stands accused of throwing civil servants onto the campaign trail, and thereby compromising their impartiality, whereas the ‘no’ campaign has resorted to shameless scaremongering. President Kibaki is accused of promising new constituencies in exchange for a ‘Yes’ vote, and both sides are relying as much on local power bases as on cogent argument.
But the energy is palpable, with rallies being held daily, newspapers and television hosting count-downs, and a genuine effort on the part of the press and other organisations and institutions to get people informed (the National Archives, for example, has signs posted ‘round its corridors encouraging people to request one of its copies of the draft constitution). And unusually, the support of influential Americans—Obama, Biden (who recently visited the country) and the outspoken Ambassador Michael Ranneberger—is seen as a boost to the ‘Yes’ campaign.
If the draft becomes law after 4 August, the question of effective implantation moves centre stage, and it remains to be seen if the nods towards the rights of women and minorities will recharge civil society, whether the proposed land reform will right historical wrongs whilst not fostering a new era of resentment, and whether the structural overhaul of the presidency, parliament and courts will provide a foundation on which something more than the stalemate that emerged in the aftermath of the 2007 violence can be built.
Follow the run-up to the referendum at the site of the Daily Nation or the Standard. Internet access allowing, I’ll post more on any developments.