Monday, September 27, 2010

Prop 23

On 27 September 2006, Governor Schwarzeneggar signed AB 32 into law. AB 32 is designed to reduce California's greenhouse gas emissions by around 25% by 2020. The language of the bill, as drafted and passed would require "the state board to adopt regulations to require the reporting and verification of statewide greenhouse gas emissions and to monitor and enforce compliance with this program, as specified. The bill would require the state board to adopt a statewide greenhouse gas emissions limit equivalent to the statewide greenhouse gas emissions levels in 1990 to be achieved by 2020, as specified. The bill would require the state board to adopt rules and regulations in an open public process to achieve the maximum technologically feasible and cost-effective greenhouse gas emission reductions, as specified".

There was and should be debate about whether this law is the best way to curb emissions in view of the real threat posed by pollutants and their contributions to global warming. But the premise of Proposition 23, on the ballot before Californians this fall, is that AB 32 is a job-killer, and that it should be suspended until unemployment remains below 5.5% for four consecutive quarters (something that has happened on exactly three occasions over the last 35 years). Prop 23 advocates want us to blindly assume that there is and always will be a negative correlation between tackling environmental and energy issues head-on and employment in the state...that no other factors intervene.

And the logic of Prop 23 is absurd. It doesn't substitute any measures that would allow us to make progress on the energy front. It simply puts efforts to address serious threats on hold. There is to be no incentivising of irresponsible industries which have shown reluctance where not downright hostility to setting their own standards. There is to be no prodding of an energy sector that has let us down time and time again, and which has proven that if left to themselves, markets do not work for our state community. This is a sector that needs prodding. Its failures have already cost too many people their jobs and security.

What Prop 23 would do is allow people to go on doing stupid, dangerous and destructive things for far longer than is necessary (assuming that such practises are ever necessary or acceptable). It would allow people to keep making mistakes, and to carry on with practises that we all know are damaging, costly and bad for our environment, and would guarantee that we--the state community--will have to pick up the pieces and clean up the mess after they're finished making short-term profits at the expense of long-term and necessary adjustments.

Again, the logic is mind-blowing. Imagine what parenting would look like if it followed this line of thinking. I can just see little Jimmy at the zoo, trying to stick his head into the Alligator pen, and his father saying to his worried mother, "Now, now dear, how will Jimmy ever learn that Alligators are dangerous if he doesn't get his head bitten off at least once? And who knows, maybe Gavin the 'Gator is a vegan? He looks friendly, doesn't he?"

And we're supposed to ignore the fact that the ad is being bankrolled by Valero (Oil Company, of San Antonio, Texas), Tesoro (Oil Company, of San Antonio, Texas), AESC (Oil and Gas lobby, of Houston, Texas). It is also supported by California oil lobbies like CIOMA, the Independent Oil Producers' Agency, and national energy lobbies like the National Petrochemical and Refiners' Association--one and all, you can bet, more concerned with their profits than with the well-being of our state's community. All of these lobbies have in common the desire to expand their short-term profits whilst dodging regulation that will lead to a more sustainable energy regime.

Texas (like Alaska) is smart enough to tax oil extraction in the state, and these companies are leeching off of California, relying on the acerebral opposition of the California Republican Party to a tax on extracted oil (the typically hypocritical anti-tax extremist, Sarah Palin, raised Alaska's tax during her curtailed stint as governor), and their own ability to buy votes through heavy advertising.

The danger we face is that backwards-looking and irresponsible energy lobbies will be able to derail even the most passing of efforts at coming to terms with the damage our lifestyles and habits inflict on our surroundings. However, a defeat for Proposition 23 would not only be a reaffirmation of a commitment to mitigate that damage, but a start to the liberation of democracy from the clutches of Mammon. Whether or not we think AB 32 is the ideal legislation for tackling global warming, we should reject Prop 23.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The job offer that never was and Meg Whitman's plans for California

I got an e-mail from Jerry Brown the other day. 'Dear Jeff', it began. 'Because you seem to think you know best, I'm sacking that worthless Katy'--she's the one who sends me those 'We-really-appreciate-your-support-and-feedback' replies to all of my e-mails (all the more galling because I've usually been writing to explain why I can't support Brown)--'and appointing you my campaign coordinator'.

Of course that's not really what the e-mail said! Though perhaps it should have. It was actually asking people on his mailing list (assumed to be supporters rather than just the morbidly interested) to reject that worthless Meg Whitman, who is proposing to scrap the capital gains tax. This is actually an e-mail I can get on board with, because Whitman's policy seems so clearly wrongheaded. It's hard to muster up a lot of pity for people who make the kind of money that's going to put them in range of the capital gains tax (especially when Meg Whitman's plans for the renewable energy sector, education and state government are going to be putting a lot of workers in serious trouble). It's revenue for the state, which if properly utilised should work to close the gap between the rich and the poor which is far greater in our country than in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Japan and most of Europe. Why eliminate a tax which reflects a person's broader tax bracket, and which isn't generally touching people who might be in genuine need of tax relief?

But there's not much to be said for most of Whitman's policies. She talks callously about the need to make state employees redundant in the name of efficiency. What kind of an economic plan relies on forcing people out of work? I'm not sure how adding to the unemployment rolls will benefit our state's social fabric (but it's okay, apparently, because they're state workers, we're told), or whether her plan to alleviate some of the pain by relying on natural attrition and a hiring freeze will work (surely you can't predict which sectors of state work will see the most retirees, and some jobs will need replacement: thus either there will need to be a lot of cost- and time-consuming re-shuffling and re-training of workers, or else new hiring will actually be necessary).

We shouldn't be surprised to see Whitman demonising state employees, most of whom (like workers in general) work very hard, because the premise of her campaign is to break apart California as a social entity and to put the corporation and the individual (and woe betide that individual if they are thrown to the wolves of the unfettered market idealised by Whitman and her ilk) at the centre of life in our state, leaving no room for community and mutual responsibility.

This callousness is also reflected in Whitman's plan to rob a billion dollars from state welfare to throw at California higher education. While a billion dollars would be welcome anywhere in California's education system, it would only represent the beginning. And taking that money from people who are down on their luck, have been wronged by the system (soon enough some of those state employees Whitman is planning to fire, if she gets her way), who are sick, poor or otherwise unprivileged, is clearly morally wrong (moreover, it's been pointed out that cutting a billion from welfare could possibly lose the state almost four billion in federal funds). I certainly wouldn't want to know that my education was being paid for by money taken from those who need it to meet daily needs.

Whitman has no right to portray herself as the defender of public higher education. And this isn't really about higher education anyway. UC, CSU and CCC only feature as a positive, entrepreneurial counterpart to the so-called broken welfare system. This is part of the same malicious targeting of poverty that so many Republican Party candidates have joined in on over the years. Like those who have come before, Whitman whines about the generosity of California's welfare system (and the subtext is that most recipients of welfare are 'welfare cheats'). First off, our duty is to provide for those who are too weak, too old, too poor, too young or too ill to look after themselves, and we have to ensure that every one of these people are taken care of before we begin looking for savings.

There are, of course, people who game the system (and there are people who game the financial 'welfare for the wealthy' systems as well). But for every one of them, there are many, many people who are in need of help. We shouldn't be churlish about extending aid to those less fortunate than ourselves, and California's students certainly shouldn't make themselves party to the right-wing of the Republican Party's long-standing project of criminalising poverty.

We should in fact be thinking, in California and across the country, about the need for a living wage, the kind of commitment to something approaching full employment which characterised the post-World War II era in many countries, and a bill of rights which includes access to healthcare, housing and education.

It's easy for both Brown and Whitman to identify points of savings in prisons, education and welfare, and to suggest that these are the solution to California's social and economic malaise. But until one of them faces up to the democratic deficit represented by minority rule, Prop 13, the saturation of our politics with money that has been in a lot of filthy places, the lack of competitive primaries, and the idea that there is only space for two parties in state politics, Brown and Whitman are only skirting around the real problems. So long as they continue to do business through the 'usual channels' (which Tony Benn memorably referred to as 'the most polluted waterways in the world'), the state will only stagger on, living year-to-year, hand-to-mouth.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Labour Party Leadership

Gordon Brown is speaking to a Labour Party conference in Manchester, warming up the crowd, and reminding them of their achievements. Forceful and bullish, he asserted that 'markets need morals', and contended that the Labour Party is now the only progressive party in the country. The Labour Party, he said, is the 'greatest fighting force for fairness' ever seen in Britain. He got warm applause for his speech, and seemed at peace with his diminished role.
Harriet Harman, acting Labour leader and elected Deputy Leader is making the case for Labour's position of strength. She's describing the defection of LibDem party members to Labour, and is commending all five leadership candidates: Dianne Abbott, Ed Balls, Andy Burnham, David and Ed Miliband.
Ann Black, of the National Executive, is about to announce the results of the election as the candidates walk in. The announcing of the results is as tedious, perhaps, as Labour's torturous voting methods!
Ed Miliband has just been announced as the Leader of the Labour Party, pulling through on the basis of his support amongst the trades unions. His brother was the first to stand with applause. I would probably have voted for him as the more left-leaning of the two brothers, but he will have to avoid getting bogged down in technocratic management-speak whilst simultaneously developing a coherent critique of coalition economic policy, which will almost certainly be the major concern during Labour's spell in opposition, however long that lasts. Of course I personally hope that he draws back on the graduate tax he has been proposing, that he opposes the renewal of Trident, and that he begins to critique the war in Afghanistan. On all of these I have my doubts, but it will be interesting to see how Ed Miliband begins to tie the key political themes into a cogent narrative in the coming weeks and months.

Labour Party elections

By the time I've finished writing this, the Labour Party will have announced its new leader. In Britain, the Conservative Party is in coalition with the Liberal Democrats, and the two are pushing across severe cuts to welfare and other public services which a range of studies have already pointed out will affect the poorest in society disproportionately (nearly always the case with these things). Women will also be affected, on average, more than men. So whomever is leading the Labour Party from 1600 BST will have to decide whether and how to take on the Coalition over these cuts. Foreign policy featured precious little in the hustings and debates that I managed to see, but one Miliband or other (because it seems a sure thing that either Ed or David, two brothers, will win the leadership of the party) will have to work out whether to support the war in Afghanistan or begin to take a more critical stance.

What is worrying to me is that it used to be the Liberal Democrats who could be counted on to take innovative and progressive positions that would force Labour to tack away from more cautious if comfortable policy ground. But now the LibDems are part of a regressive coalition government, and Labour will have to shift of its own accord.

Yesterday's results out of London, however, might have created a sphere from which less conservative elements of the Labour Party can make their voices heard. 'Red' Ken Livingstone beat out Oona King (a former MP) to win the nomination to be Labour's candidate for the London Mayoralty in 2012. I've seen King speak at the LSE and on some Labour Party panels, and found her to come across as a bit smarmy, slightly condescending, and unapologetic about the vote for the Iraq war which cost her her seat in 2005. Livingstone on the other hand, has long used his political clout to speak against Iraq, and is a fixture at CND and Stop the War Coalition rallies.

He is also more likely to go after Conservative Party Mayor Boris Johnson vigorously, harrying him over cuts to transport and benefits. I hope that Livingstone can make London a microcosm for the larger argument that Labour needs to make about the economy, society and equality. Neither of the Miliband brothers inspire much confidence, and I suspect that they will need prodding from outside of the Parliamentary party to do Labour's traditions full justice.

Friday, September 24, 2010


I read this interesting article the other day on the danger to lion populations in Tanzania that conservationists say come from the character of the existing hunting regime allowed in the country. It really captures, both in what it says and in the argument it leaves out, the dilemmas that people working in and thinking about conservation have to deal with. Demographics, ethology and policy all combine, although the level-headed argument alludes to none of the emotions that often run high when it comes to the killing of charismatic megafauna.

The elephant debate, now and historically, is much more emotionally charged. South African culls always spark moral outrage around the world, and much soul searching, particularly given the nature of many studies on elephants. Even the title of Gay Bradshaw's paper, 'Elephant Breakdown', suggests something more than merely animal. And indeed, the question is no longer simply one of people hunting elephants, but of human-elephant conflict. The anthropomorphisation of elephants, like the debates themselves, is nothing new. Scores of pre-colonial and colonial-era hunters described elephants in very human terms, fearing and admiring their cleverness in equal measure; crediting them with an all-too-human malice and tenderness. And indeed, I think that having observed elephants interacting with each other and people, it would be quite a challenge to regard them as 'simply' animals. Whatever that might mean.

At the level of policy, elephants have long bedevilled conservationists and governments in eastern Africa. Their ivory fuelled an historic trade between the coast (from Mozambique to Somalia) and the interior, a trade which took on global proportions once the tusks were exported to the Middle East, Asia and Europe. The colonial era heightened demand, introduced weapons capable of killing far more elephants in a shorter period of time, as well as a host of legislation that attempted to regulate the sale of ivory. Anyone who remembers Joseph Conrad's Heart of darkness will recall the role of 'white gold' in fuelling European imperial ambitions. And yet the elephant quickly became more than a commodity, with the nascent preservation movement leading the charge against 'indiscriminate' hunting.

But there was a further angle. At the same time that the Society for the Preservation of the Wild Fauna of the Empire was lobbying the British Colonial Office, dispatching its members to investigate the illegal trade on the Kenya-Somaliland border, and convening conferences on the African Elephant, an Ugandan Game Warden, Charles Pitman, was creating Uganda's Elephant Control Department, which did more or less what the name suggests. Pitman, as a bridging figure who combined the man in the field with mud on his boots and the colonial bureaucrat working in an age of colonial development, was trying to work out how to kill the largest number of elephants possible (earning himself the sobriquet of 'The Elephant's Enemy' in the British press). Why? Expanding populations (human and elephant) brought the earth's largest terrestrial mammal into conflict with farmers (black and white) who were supposed to be the backbone of the colonial economy. And if you've seen the damage that elephants can do to whole forests, you won't wonder why people were a little jumpy about living next-door to animals that were liable to wipe out a season's crops in one night, and which occasionally flattened dwellings on the way to and from supper.

And it was this administrative imperative that helped to push along the idea of national parks in Africa, and which has historically vested them with such power. Unlike in the Americas, where landscapes have become the primary defining feature of national parks, African parks are and always have been most defined by their faunal inhabitants. Parks were a place where people and animals could ideally be kept far apart from each other (problematic when the areas selected for parks status were already inhabited by people). Thus, the emerging sensibilities that demanded the preservation of animals (which became transformed from 'game' into 'wildlife' could be accommodated alongside the anxieties of farmers who disparagingly referred to large, dangerous mammals as ng'ombe wa serikali (government cattle).

I don't know much about the scientific side of this work, but the 2007 'Assessment of South African Elephant Management' paper seems a very promising attempt at gaining a more rounded perspective on historical and moral questions inherent in conservation policy. Contributors to the assessment included UCT-historian Jane Carruthers (who writes about the foundation of the Kruger National Park), Oxford-based historian William Beinart (who has written widely about South African environments), and ESPM Berkeley professor Wayne Getz. The work of people like Getz and Justin Brashares at ESPM, to quote Brashares' webpage, 'extends beyond traditional ecology and conservation to consider the economic, political and cultural factors that drive, and in turn, are driven by, changes in wildlife abundance and diversity'.

It will be interesting to see whether policymakers and thinkers can manage to get on the same page, and to think, at the same time, about the moral, emotional arguments, and the technical as well as scientific ones.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Belated reflections on 9/11

There are many reasons to enjoy the International House Cafe at the top of Bancroft Avenue in Berkeley. There is its emptiness on week-end mornings (maybe the walk up the hill is a deterrent), and of course the fantastic views over Berkeley to the bay, the city and the Golden Gate Bridge. Some days the clouds and water merge so seamlessly together that the bridge and the Marin Headlands seem to be rising out of the sea. But there are also the headlines from newspapers around the U.S. and across the world that you can skim on three screens.

These headlines made particularly interesting reading on September 11th, nine years after the day that will be long associated with that date. I jotted down some of the headlines and have been meaning to write about them, because they seemed markedly different from any I remember seeing on previous anniversaries of the attacks on New York and D.C. It's worth sharing a sampling of them (all but three from U.S. papers):

'Calls for tolerance--how should we mark 9/11 in 2010?'
'Obama tries to calm tensions in call for religious tolerance'
'On September 11, a challenge for Obama--tries to balance war policy with calls for tolerance'
'This year, tense clouds threaten normally solemn September 11 events'
'Remembering 9/11'
'A time to honor, remember'
'US pastor's plan draws international demonstrations'
'9/11 memorial events shadowed by protests'
'A front line on terrorism is here'
'9/11 gets political'
'President appeals for religious tolerance'
'Grounds for prayer: visiting ground zero, asking Allah for comfort'
'Obama urges tolerance as 9/11 tensions simmer'
'A time of tension surrounding events'
'Muslims celebrate amid national controversy' [referring to Ramadan]
'Media saturation stirs anti-Muslim sentiment'
'9/11: painful memories and politics: contentious issues of religious freedom and national identity threaten to color today's ninth anniversary of the terrorist attack'
'Barack Obama: "no time for hate"'
'Pastor cancels Koran-burning amid international firestorm'
'"We are the target now"--hate grows for Islam in the U.S.'
'"Fear will not divide us": as U.S. debates, metro Detroiters push for peace'
'Calls for tolerance'
'Muslim teens shaped by effects of 9/11 attacks'

This does in fact seem to be the first year that a conversation of 'politics' has entered so overtly into the commemorations, and it seems to be discomforting to a lot of people. But the commemoration, really, is always political in one way or another. George W Bush attempted to use the attacks to rally the nation, and the anniversaries have become similarly solemn moments, during which people speak movingly about national unity (and inherent in that, about who or what we are as a nation--quite political things). But there has also been a somewhat sinister flip-side to the commemorations. They are a rallying cry around something that is simultaneously a rallying cry against other things--though no one has been very open about what those other things are. They have become an excuse for violence, war, the loss of liberty, and the curtailment of the ability to criticise freely...the greatest treasure that a liberal society can possess.

What might be different about this year's commemoration is that for the first time, we are seeing not the effects of 9/11, but the ramifications of our response to it. We are seeing the consequences of war, and of the fear that our response to the events of one fall day managed to ingrain in our minds, our psyches.

The anniversary was marked this year by what looked like a coincidental conjuncture of events, but which reflects the series of decisions that we took about how to react politically to 9/11, and about how to reconstitute ourselves as a nation and a people. Distrust in our political leaders has reached fever pitch, a fanatical pastor threatened to burn the text which is profoundly important to the worlds hundreds of millions of Muslims, equally intolerant people in Afghanistan and Pakistan protested this by turning it into a moment of rank anti-Americanism and burning the flag which assumes equally talismanic significance for many Americans, New Yorkers protested the building of a mosque (though, polls show, not the right that people have to build that mosque) near 'Ground Zero', U.S. and allied soldiers are engaged in an increasingly bloody and futile war in Afghanistan, and Muslims in the United States described the hostility to which they feel subjected.

None of this seems to portend well. And yet... Something might be changing... I was actually very happy to see what everyone has been thinking but not saying break out into the open, ugly though it is to behold. Because it is only by identifying and debating the problems that we can realise the extend to which we have let our military and psychological responses to 9/11 change us as a society...almost beyond all recognition, it seems at times.

I was a GSI (teaching assistant) for a European history course in the spring, and in lecturing on the Holocaust, the professor laid out the series of explanations for the systematic attempt to eradicate the Jews of Europe that historians and public figures have come up with over the years. One of these he termed the 'metaphysical' explanation: that is, the Holocaust is too horrible, too ghastly and unthinkable an Event to understand, and to attempt to explain it is profoundly disrespectful. Now no historian can accept this view, because if everyone could choose to designate events as 'off limits', we'd swiftly be out of a job. And less flippantly, we do ourselves a disservice when we fail to ask critical questions of each and every assumption that anyone makes. But like the Holocaust, 9/11 became for too many the same kind of metaphysical moment. To mention the motives of those who perpetrated what was undeniably mass murder became to sympathise with them, to be anti-American.

But that is not only dishonest. It is also damaging. Because then we never learn. The acts of appalling violence against civilians are surely difficult for us to understand. But the people who committed them had motives. They believed themselves to embody the grievances of people who have been undeniably wronged by U.S. policy in the Middle East.

Remembering what happened on 9/11 is not sufficient. Nor is the tolerance that Obama called for. For one thing, we need to also remember what happened before 9/11, to locate it in history, to think about causation seriously and learn from that. Memory, moreover, plays too many tricks, and can operate, most dangerously, independently of understanding--which is what we really need. And to tolerate is 'to endure, sustain', 'to allow to exist or to be done or practised', 'to bear', 'to put up with'.

The same History 5 students who heard the lecture on the Holocaust also read Gotthold Ephraim Lessing's Nathan the Wise, a play written in 1779 and set in the Holy Land during the Crusades. In it, Daja, a Christian governess in the household of Nathan, a rich Jew, discusses her young charge's infatuation with a Templar knight with her employer. Recha (Nathan's daughter) is 'especially smitten with one idea. It's that her Templar is not of this earth, but of the angels [...] Don't smile! Who knows?' Daja admonishes Nathan. 'At least leave her the illusion in which Jew and Christian and Muslim unite. Such a sweet illusion'. 'Then make room', Nathan counters, 'next to the sweet illusion for the even sweeter truth. For, Daja, believe me: to a human being another human being is always dearer than an angel'.

But the two lovers stand on opposite sides of an uneasy break in the fighting, in a Jerusalem ruled by the enlightened Saladin in which mistrust and violence against those who differ in faith are nonetheless very real obstacles. Later, asked by Saladin to tell him 'which religion, which law makes the most sense to you?', and aware of the thin and spiritually-charged ground on which he is treading, Nathan replies with the tale of a ring which 'had the mysterious power of making whoever wore it agreeable to God and human beings, as long as the wearer believed in its power'. This ring was passed down for generations until it came to one man with three sons, each of whom he imagined to be as virtuous as the next. He had two copies of the ring made, and upon his death, each son received a ring, whereupon they fought and quarreled with one another over whose was the true ring (the rings representing, of course, Christianity, Islam and Judaism).

The sons took their case before a judge, who scornfully ordered them from his court with these words: 'But wait! I hear that the true ring has the miraculous power of making its wearer loved, agreeable to God and human beings. That should decide the matter! For the false rings couldn't do that! Well, which one of you do the other two love the most? Go ahead, say it! You're not saying anything? The ring only works in reverse, inwardly and not outwardly? Each of you loves himself the most? Oh, then all three of you are deceived deceivers! None of your rings is the real one. The real ring must have been lost. To hide the loss, to replace it, your father has made three for one'. But Lessing's play ends happily, when Recha, the Templar and Saladin find that not only are they equally human, but that they are all in fact of the same blood.

Their discovery--of...what shall we call it? Humanity? Understanding? Kinship?--is what we need to go in quest of today. It is that, and not mere tolerance, which must be our aim. It was this inherent sameness that was perhaps the best and noblest 'discovery' of the Enlightenment. It was not by any means perfect then (it was tarnished by other less worthy ideas), and although it is most associated in the western world with a particular historical moment in Europe, there can be a monopoly neither on its origins nor on its still-awaited progeny. Wherever it came from, we desperately need to recapture it in our own troubled world.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Worth looking at...

As a discontented Democrat, I'm looking around for a gubernatorial candidate for whom I can vote in November. I'm going to be taking a closer look at Laura Wells of the Green Party and her platform.

Whitman and Fiorina

Someone pointed out that I've been awfully unfair in whining so much about Jerry Brown. I guess it's easy to forget, given his own emphasis on fiscal conservatism at all costs and his willingness to trash the democratic process (Prop 13, minority rule, a money-driven non-primary), that there are worse people than him running for California's highest offices.

I think that there are a lot of reasons why Meg Whitman (campaigning--sorry, shopping!--to be Governor) and Carly Fiorina (trying to unseat Barbara Boxer to win election to the Senate) are dangerous individuals to elect, but each one worries me for particular reasons.

Meg Whitman, who has spent $119 million of her own money on the election so far, has now set a record for the most personal wealth spent by a candidate on an election in American history. I wish that she'd set another record by becoming the person to spend the most of her own money on a race and then withdrawing because they realise that the democratic process oughtn't to be for sale. She is running as a bureaucrat, as a manager, as an 'I-know-best-because-I've-run-a-company'. This ignores the fact that the dynamic of state governance could not be more dissimilar to a corporate boardroom, and that our state is a community comprised of people whose interests have to be addressed.

And if her principle for governing is off, her policy positions do not inspire confidence: she opposes California's legislation to take meaningful action against climate change, she supports discrimination against gay couples, and has supported Proposition 13.

Carly Fiorina toes the far-right line on what are probably the Republican Party's most damaging foreign policy stances (which are shared, to be fair, by too many Democrats). Fiorina is a proponent of the security state which asks us to sacrifice our ideals (she supports Guantanamo Bay) and which is also functioning to demonise immigrants and their descendants in Arizona and elsewhere.

She also advocates the acerebral unconditional support of Israel that has earned the U.S. so much deserved opprobrium in the world. From the most cynical diplomatic standpoint this is an idiotic practise which hamstrings our flexibility and leaves us with no room to manoeuvre to protect our own interests in the region. And it is hard to be anything other than horrified to realise that Fiorina wants us to give our unconditional backing to a country which has isolated the Palestinian population and proceeded to try to starve it of access to the most basic of human needs.

Fiorina's Afghan policy is worth quoting in whole: 'Carly', her website tells us, 'also views defeating the terrorist threat in Afghanistan as an imperative that requires military commitment, economic development and diplomatic energy. To achieve victory, it is critically important to continue listening to our commanders on the ground and to stay until our job is done'.

As of September 11 of this year, our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq had claimed 4,281 casualties from our state (477 deaths). It would be difficult to actually prove that these wars have made us safer, and there is much evidence that suggests otherwise. Attacks on the U.S. are being planned by groups that didn't exist in 2001, which have grown out of our botched and immoral wars. Al Qaeda has now established a presence in Iraq--something that, whatever Dick Cheney insinuated, it never had prior to our invasion in 2003. Bombs have gone off in Madrid and London as a direct result of U.S., Spanish and British attacks on Iraq. We are now funding the next generation of warlords in Afghanistan because we don't trust the man who was meant to be our own puppet. Our continued presence is the biggest boon the Taliban could ask. We have become their raison d'etre. Our absence would undercut the sympathy they are able to elicit by pointing to the civilians murdered by drone attacks, botched raids or unnecessary bombings.

Fiorina has learnt nothing from the past nine years, and remains convinced that victory is possible in Afghanistan. I would like to hear, and Californians deserve to hear, what her definition of victory is. Our commanders on the ground don't necessarily have the best view of what we are creating in Afghanistan. It is not their job to make foreign policy. That's what happened in Vietnam, and it caused untold trouble. A runaway general of an earlier era, MacArthur, may have been right in that a nuclear attack on China would have won the Korean War for the U.S. But at what cost and with what implications? Fiorina clearly fails to grasp the centrality of civilian command and policy-making, a defining constitutional principle. She is not the kind of individual we need shaping our foreign policy in the Senate.

And unlike the gubernatorial contest, in which Jerry Brown is shamelessly singing from the Republican hymn-sheet, this one is one in which the candidates are a significant distance apart. Barbara Boxer has been a consistent foe of the Iraq war, having voted, unlike Dianne Feinstein (whose husband has made a bundle from the war), against authorising military action against Iraq. And she was not quiet after 2002. She took a praiseworthy path (and not always an easy one) by hammering at the Bush administration's incompetence and scaremongering, calling for a timeline for withdrawal. She has also been outspoken about Afghanistan (Dianne Feinstein has been amongst the most hawkish senators--by backing McChrystal publicly and undermining Obama's review process in December of last year, she directly contributed to the ill-judged surge) and has pledged not to let Obama's escalation of the war pass uncriticised. Boxer has solid credentials when it comes to social and economic policy, and has been amongst the Senate's most outspoken voices in defence of progressive environmental and energy policies.

Both Whitman and Fiorina think that governing a state or legislating for a country are analogous to running a business. Whitman has shown very little respect for the democratic process. One could be forgiven for thinking that she or someone in her campaign is a pathological liar, because as often as she has been called out (and almost universally condemned) for her advertisement's false claims, she persists in flooding the airwaves with misinformation, and in 'standing by' her claims. And Fiorina is promising a full-court press on behalf of the same kind of foreign policy that has cost the United States and California so much in lives and money, and which has caused the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people around the world and the displacement of millions more. Hardly the leadership we need.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Brown on the budget

I tried to take a look at Jerry Brown's website, this time at his proposals for dealing with the budget. But I quickly got confused. The author of the budget plan trumpeted their 'long and well deserved reputation for being cheap'. Well, it clearly isn't Meg Whitman, who has just broken records for spending the most personal funds on buying an election in American history (a sure sign that her ideas are so bankrupt that she needs her money to do the talking for her). But could it really be Jerry Brown who was trumpeting old praise from the American Conservative, which apparently once sang the praises of Brown, to the effect that he was 'much more of a fiscal conservative than Governor Reagan'? Why would someone who's running on the ticket of a progressive party be comparing themselves to the man famous for attacking public education, slashing social spending, and relentlessly assaulting the rights of labour to organise to protect their jobs?

'My philosophy', Brown writes, 'has always been one of frugality and living within our means'. But I'm still confused about some things. What exactly does this mean? It's one thing to fly around on Southwest to trumpet your man-of-the-people image. But does this mean that we scrimp on education funding and find ways to subcontract responsibility to the private sector? That we run schools and other services on the kind of for-profit model that works so abysmally in the healthcare sector and incentivises the kind of rank greed that led to the financial crisis? Brown sounds a lot like the Republicans in the assembly and senate who take the view that a budget is an end unto itself.

And the haziness doesn't go away. Under 'My Plan', Brown writes that 'Since World War II, California has experienced numerous recessions and our economy has always come back stronger than ever. I am confident that this will be the case again, especially if we build on our strengths and promote the kind of innovation for which our state has always been known'. Commendable optimism, but hardly a plan, or even a sketch of a philosophy. He notes that now is not the time for disinvestment in education. But if we're going to get out from under our deficit without raising any new revenue, and also roll back spending (strange commitments coming from a Democrat), how will we be able to increase investment in schools?

Brown's solution to budget deadlock is equally unrealistic. He pledges to 'personally engage the legislators, in large and small groups (both Republicans and Democrats) beginning in November ... My goal will be to work with all the Republican legislators to ensure that they produce and come forward with their best offer of a funded budget proposal'. But here he assumes that the Republicans are a) interested in negotiation, and b) have room to negotiate. Let's not forget that these people have signed the deceptively-named Taxpayer Protection Pledge, which means that can't vote for any revenue increases unless they violate what sounds like a primeval blood oath.

That leaves cuts as the only alternative, and this means that education, state parks and jobs are likely to continue suffering. Why would the Republicans negotiate with Brown when they already run the state from the minority thanks to Prop 13 and its enshrinement of minority rule (and let's remember...Brown re-wrote a well-crafted attempt by George Lakoff to end the two-thirds rules, and has been a defender of the unworkable Prop 13).

Brown offers more reforms of the budgetary and appropriations process, and notes many spheres in which cuts should take place. And he is right about many of these. But the problem remains the narrative. It is piecemeal, but the themes around which it is beginning to cohere are worrisome. The mantra of cuts (even if they are judicious ones rather than the slash and burn approach that the Republicans would like to take) is almost certainly over-optimistic about what these kinds of savings can deliver. It also takes people's eyes off what should be the real focus: what kind of society we want to live in, and what kinds of services we think should be universally accessible. And it plays into the hands of the Republicans by contributing to their narrative: that government is the problem, and that less of it is better.

Which is true, if you are independently wealthy, an oil magnate, a large corporation or an irresponsible lender. But only partially true. Because of course, these people rely on government too: the free market state of affairs they demand isn't, as suggested, the natural, default social and economic environment. It is artificially created by government intervention and legislation on behalf of the wealthy. So what the Republicans are demanding (inadvertently supported by Brown's mantra of cuts) is not less government, but a redirected government: a government of the few, by the few and for the few.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

The Stinking Ship

Read about Bagassi Koura's award-winning documentary The Stinking Ship. The film is being shown at the United Nations Association Film Festival.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

The destructive energies of the Newt who would be King

If you need further proof that the people the Republican Party is touting for 2012 are a truly repulsive lot, you need look no further than Newt Gingrich's musings that perhaps Obama 'is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?' as quoted in the National Review. Like the anti-colonial Kenyan, Obama 'is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works'. For someone who studies colonial history, Gingrich's comment, based on an article written by Dinesh D'Souza in Forbes, is horrifying. He brings together the trope of the irrational and dangerous African (something best left to long-dead Victorians), the genre of imperial apologia (in which colonial powers, Western or otherwise, are excused for their excesses), and the GOP habit of rendering Obama, in one form or another, menacingly foreign.

'Anticolonialism', D'Souza explains patronisingly, 'is the doctrine that rich countries of the West got rich by invading, occupying and looting poor countries of Asia, Africa and South America'. Well, sort of...anticolonialism is a reaction to the very real, verifiable, factual invading, occupying and looting (and lets add murder and thuggery to the list while we're about it) of poor countries in Asia, Africa, South America and the Pacific. Britain's world order was built on the horrific Atlantic Slave Trade (which people like Gingrich want us to call the Triangular Trade), an empire in India that depended on the subjugation of a subcontinent, the creation of the antecedents to apartheid in South Africa, the dispossession of entire populations in the highlands of central Kenya, and the virtual extirpation of Australian aboriginals. The U.S. fought a war of conquest in the Philippines that killed between 50,000 and 1,000,000 Filipinos, and required practises sufficiently brutal of its soldiers that many of them balked at what they were asked to do and spoke passionately against it on returning home.

But let's take a look at the Kenyans who Gingrich and D'Souza dismiss as so irrationally angry at their British overlords and the world that was forced upon them. In the Pipeline, the system of internment camps devised by the British in 1950s Kenya, 'persons to be screened are handcuffed with their hands on their backs, then water starts to be poured on them 4 debes at a time in every hour's time'. So far, no problem. Gingrich has supported the use of water boarding (on the word--savour the irony!--of a British court). 'Then at 12 midnight soap is smeared on the head and by pouring water it gets to the eyes of the detainees punished, paining as anything when it gets into the eyes. At the same time pliers is also applied to work as the apparatus of castrating the testicles, and also the ears'. Officers set their dogs on some of the quarter million detainees, and others were starved into confessions. These detainees were part of the Kikuyu population which was dislocated as a whole by the colonial government during what was euphemistically termed 'the Emergency'.*

Nationalist leaders were locked up after the most shameful of show-trials. Beatings were regular occurrences, 'electric shock was widely used, as well as cigarettes and fire. Bottles (often broken), gun barrels, knives, snakes, vermin, and hot eggs were thrust up men's rectums and women's vaginas. The screening teams whipped, shot, burned and mutilated Mau Mau suspects, ostensibly to gather intelligence for military operations, and as court evidence'.** And these were men and women whose crime was to challenge the same colonial authority that America's founding heroes (so venerated by Gingrich) fought against, after the land that they lived upon, owned, and worked was taken from them. These are unpleasant things to think and write about, but they are also the facts of colonialism, the experiences of still-living Kenyans who Gingrich is trying to casually dismiss. On 9/11 and December 7, Americans are enjoined to remember their past. Why are Kenyans so persistently told to forget theirs?

D'Souza expresses shock that anyone could '[come] to view America's military as an instrument of neocolonial occupation'. But for an Iraqi whose life was turned upside-down by our invasion in 2003, an Afghan whose family member was killed by an unmanned drone, a Salvadoran (or Nicaraguan or Guatemalan) who had family members murdered by U.S.-backed death squads, families of Filipino activists shot down by a regime that enjoys the moral and material backing of the United States, the Congolese who saw an idealistic young (and yes, perhaps socialist--but since when has political affiliation been an excuse for killing?) Prime Minister murdered by a U.S.-backed Belgian firing squad, who then cut up his body and dissolved it in acid, Gazans who see UN efforts to reprimand Israel constantly frustrated by the U.S., Iranians who saw U.S. support granted to the 'terrorist' regime of Saddam Hussein who gassed them in their thousands...for these people, the rosy view of U.S. military intervention around the world is difficult to sustain.

And if these aren't reasons enough, there are plenty of others for Americans to be less than thrilled with the antics of the military and its civilian masters. After all, part of the reason for our immense national debt is the wars waged in Afghanistan and Iraq. A prime example of political corruption in Congress is the military appropriations process. And if the proximate causes of the deaths of Americans on September 11 were the actions of murderous fundamentalists, the ultimate causes lie in the abuse of American military and economic power around the world. Colonialism is not, as D'Souza tritely pronounces, a 'dead issue' today.

Until people like Gingrich manage to wrap their heads around this, until they express even a modicum of respect for and interest in understanding the perspectives of other people, I suppose we can continue to expect them to spout this utter tripe that demeans and demonises people across the world, touts an utterly warped and deformed view of history, and plays on the fears of people.

A large part of me wishes that Obama were half as bold as Gingrich suggests, and that he was pushing an agenda centred on equality, the redistribution of wealth and the transmission of justice to oppressed people in the world. But Gingrich has created a spectacular straw man at which to tilt. No one wins...Obama faces still more ungrounded accusations about his origins, the Republicans lurch into obscene idiocy, history gets written by the chronically ill-informed, and we fail to debate what should be more pressing issues. Newt, frankly, is an odious little man of slight moral stature who needs, at this point, to slither away into the dustbins of history.

*Caroline Elkins, Imperial reckoning: the untold story of Britain's gulag in Kenya, (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2005): xiii, 66, 207, 210. David Anderson, Histories of the hanged: Britain's dirty war in Kenya and the end of the Empire (London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2005), 204, 296.
** Ibid.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Norway and the great war for civilisation

It was in Oslo's Gardermoen Airport that I picked up a copy of Robert Fisk's monumental book, The Great War for Civilisation: the conquest of the Middle East. And the location was, perhaps, fitting. For the thirty years of reporting compressed into 1,286 pages go some way towards explaining the presence of so many young men and women in camouflage in the departures halls at Gardermoen. As anonymous voices announced flight updates, echoing through the cavernous entryway, most of the soldiers, sitting alone, looked wrapped up in their thoughts, oblivious to the smart clip of travellers all around them. And well they might be, for wherever their next flight might take them, their ultimate destination is assured. It was written, if not on the flight billboard, then in the newspapers, on television, and in the strain that showed on their faces.

For all the world seems to be at war in Afghanistan today. And if it isn't, it should be, was the insinuation of British Parliamentarians, whingeing about how other countries needed to pull their weight, when they debated the war that's been going on for almost nine years for the very first time on Thursday, and voted 310-14 in favour of Britain's participation in that war (meaning that just over half of the MPs didn't bother to show up to vote).

But it's not just the presence of so many soldiers in the airport which makes Norway feel more like a country at war than the United States. The day's papers frequently include headlines on the conflict, and they often project a forcefulness far too impassioned to be countenanced in the U.S., even by the Gray Lady, probably the most consistent, if often absurdly cautious print questioner of our military endeavours abroad.

But the Norwegian government (and the same is true in Sweden and Denmark) persists in the fiction that their soldiers, so pensive and lonely in Gardermoen, are in Afghanistan as part of a peace-keeping, nation-building project. Scandinavian governments and citizens, then, might have been surprised to hear the British Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, say in a 21 May interview (and reaffirm in Parliament on Thursday) that 'We are not in Afghanistan for the sake of the education policy in a broken 13th-century country. We are there so the people of Britain and our global interests are not threatened'. So much for unity of purpose. So much for altruism.

And the U.S., of course, is there because the egos of our generals won't permit us to suffer another defeat like Vietnam (and look how we've suffered at their hands since!), because our gutless president allowed himself to be manoeuvred into ramping up a war that is almost certainly making us less safe and engendering more ill-feeling towards the U.S. around the world, and because the growing extremist wing in the Republican Party is committed to a war between civilisations in the name of national security. In his West Point speech, praised by many sycophantic commentators as a model of clarity, Obama announced that the U.S. was in Afghanistan to achieve a set of goals 'narrowly defined as disrupting, dismantling, and defeating al Qaeda and its extremist allies'. Nope, nothing about democracy, the rights of women, equality or education there either. Even, Obama maintained in his speech, where U.S. efforts would concentrate on building civil society (how do you build someone else's civil society?), this would be in the service of national and global security.

I suggest that Jens Stoltenberg and his counterparts in Sweden and Denmark get on the phone with Washington and London to clarify ISAF goals. And if they discover anything illuminating, they might share it with the rest of us. Scandinavian and other countries contributing to the ISAF forces should be thinking very critically about whether the secretive expansion of the war into Pakistan, with the truly frightening implications therein, is compatible with a commitment to a peacekeeping mission. And whether, if they are genuinely interested in fostering a better future for Afghanistan, in leaving the country better than they found it (the primary argument used against those calling for a withdrawal), they should be signed up to a mission that bribes local warlords into keeping order, nurturing the next generation of Mullah Omars, Saddam Husseins and Osama bin Ladens, ensuring the continuation of what Dexter Filkins called the 'forever war'.

On my flight home from Oslo, a man across the aisle commented on the size of Fisk's book, and asked what it was. On hearing that it was a history of sorts, penned by a journalist, he asked whether Fisk proposes any solutions. I was only just beginning the book at that point, but I said that I didn't think it was that kind of book. The man shook his head and sighed, averring that it didn't seem like there could be a solution to the Middle East. 'It's such a mess there. But', he went on, 'I think we need to stay there, because our being there seems to be the only thing that brings any stability'. I gently disagreed, proposing that perhaps there needed to be more than one 'solution' to the Middle East, that the countries and peoples and their histories aren't all the same. And that much of the existing chaos is the product of a hundred years of intervention by the U.S., Britain, France and Russia.

Robert Fisk's book was published in 2005, and so does not account for developments over the last five years. But it remains instructive, particularly as far as understanding why people think and remember the way they do. Take Iran, for example. Americans remember September 11, the hostage crisis of 1979, the Lockerbie bombing, and so on. So is it so strange that Iranians should remember our collusion with Britain to overthrow their democratically-elected government in 1953? Or the fact that, whilst proclaiming our neutrality, we armed Iraq, condoned Saddam Hussein's use of poisoned gas against Iranian armies (after Saddam attacked their country), before laundering arms to Iran to free hostages and fund death-squads in Central America? Or the whitewash that ensued after the USS Vicennes shot down an Iranian civilian airbus in 1988, killing all aboard? Is it not understandable, given our capacity for turning on our former 'friends' (witness the fate of Saddam Hussein, to whose incredible brutality we turned a blind eye for years before overthrowing him), that Iranians would have a profound distrust of our motives? In a sense, this is what Fisk is asking throughout the book...that we understand that there are very real reasons for current conflicts, and that they are inspired by grievances from the very recent past.

We should remember too, that to understand is not to excuse. Fisk does not write sympathetically of the Iranian regime's theocratic base or its brutal practises. He is every bit as excoriating when describing its excesses as when attacking Saddam Hussein for gassing the Kurds or the U.S. for its double-standards. His strength is that he writes as someone who is convinced by the most soul-rending of experiences that no 'side' has a monopoly on brutality, and that the people with the least control over events are inevitably those who suffer the most. In his preface, Fisk finds himself agreeing with Israeli journalist Amira Hass, that the 'best definition of journalism [... is] to challenge authority--all authority--especially so when governments and politicians take us to war, when they have decided that they will kill and others will die' (xxiii). He questions whether or not a journalist can achieve such an end. But his powerful book is a testament to one man's life-long attempt to do just that.

Only a few days before I was sitting in Gardermoen, I was on the bus from Oslo to Goteborg. I awake from my nap to see my neighbour loading pictures from his i-phone onto his facebook account. I averted my eyes, feeling intrusive, but then realised what they had been pictures of, and looked back to confirm that they were snapshots of him and his comrades-in-arms, in training camps and on bases in Afghanistan. In some they looked exultant, in others, frankly petrified, and often exhausted. Here was someone, most likely younger by several years than I, trying to communicate something of his experiences of a war three thousand miles away to people at home. But those people at home, whether in Norway, Sweden, Britain or the United States, should be trying to understand not only what the experiences of a towheaded twenty-year-old in a war zone must do to him, but why he is there, and whether the sacrifice for which he is asked to prepare himself can possibly be worthwhile.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Koran burning

As Pastor Terry Jones of Gainesville, Florida gears up to commemorate the anniversary of September 11 by burning Korans, it was encouraging to hear President Obama critique Jones' actions from two angles. He echoed the comments of many other administrative and military officials when he pointed out that this could well be a 'recruitment bonanza' for Al Qaeda. And it seems almost certainly true that people will die, somewhere, because of Jones' actions (and equally certain that the religious nutjob from the sunshine state won't be one of them).

But Obama was also careful to make the point that Jones' actions are not just dangerous for U.S. soldiers (and to Americans and Europeans living across the world), but are morally wrong. They constitute, he said, a fundamentally 'destructive act', and are 'completely contrary to our values as Americans [because] this country has been built on the notion of freedom and religious tolerance', although I suspect, judging from the demonisation of Muslims around the building of the Cordoba Mosque that a worrying number of people no longer ascribe to this foundational principle. Obama, as well as Mayor Michael Bloomberg, should be praised for supporting the right of people to build a mosque near the former World Trade Center site.

The argument needs to be made, again and again, that the attacks on New York and Washington on September 11 were made not by the Muslims of the world, but by a discrete group of people with a political agenda. That a feeble-minded, hate-mongering fundamentalist, whose mean-spirited intolerance bears a striking resemblance to what he is supposedly denouncing, doesn't understand the distinction is one thing--and something that should be condemned as widely as possible for the moral void his proposed actions exhibit. That his actions (rightly protected under the Constitution) will be taken by some equally intolerant people as representative of the views of all Americans, is unfortunate.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

California's rightward turn?

The LA Times writes that California's economic woes are turning voters to the right. I suspect that the real story is slightly different: that voters are turning to the Republican Party and its message because that party is offering an easy narrative about taxation and spending and public services, carefully crafted and solicitously spread to appeal to people's less pleasant angels.

At the risk of sounding redundant, I think that the greatest tragedy of this election cycle in California was the undemocratic character of the Democratic Party's gubernatorial primary. There was absolutely no debate about ideas, leaving Jerry Brown, unchallenged, able to run on the basis of his managerial abilities.

The Democratic Party has made no overarching argument about its philosophy, has offered no compelling story to link up California's past to its future. It is running on the assumption that the state's electoral arithmetic won't change. The Republican Party is intent on changing that arithmetic, and they've been given no greater gift than the acquiescence of Democrats to their core premise: that the election is about the management of the state rather than about ideas, and that the maintenance of a sound economic bottom line is more important than the welfare of Californians. And if that's the choice, I'm afraid that voters will go for the politician with more practise at shafting those people politicians are fond of calling 'ordinary Americans'. Which means students, the working class, the elderly, the sick, the unemployed, the homeless and any other marginal group.

The Democratic Party has chosen to take its members for granted, and this one at least is increasingly likely to take his vote elsewhere.

Monday, September 6, 2010

The trouble with Jerry Brown

I heard that Jerry Brown, the Democrats' candidate to be Governor of California, was running his first tv ad, and so looked it up online. I assumed that here, at last, after being able to coast on months of uninspired vagueness because of the money-oriented, un-democratic Democratic primary, Brown might offer some substance, or at least a coherent, progressive vision. What we got was an injunction to 'live within our means, we have to return power and decision-making to the local level, closer to the people, and no new taxes without voter approval'. Well, there is a vision of sorts there. Its first point echoes the mantra of Brown's earlier governorship, and when applied to excessive materialism on the part of the well-off, it is commendable. There are ways in which localism, promising more democracy, is also appealing (though that can very quickly be used as cover for geographic inequality).

But the combination of the three points is a little bit worrying to me. It suggests an abdication of the state's responsibilities, essentially meaning that Brown is running on a platform that could make a liberal Republican proud: personal responsibility, disinvestment by central government, and no tax increases (because if Brown doesn't have the guts to fight for a fairer and more effective tax system during the election, you can bet that he's not going to draft a ballot measure to do the same once he's been elected).

I decided to take a look at Brown's education policies, just to get a feel for how the broad strokes and the specifics (such as they are) fit together.

Brown has been right to point out that it is not strictly necessary to have a plan set in stone upon arrival in office. In fact, so wrongheaded and contradictory are many of Meg Whitman's policy documents that they seem to have been crafted on the premise that no one would actually go beyond the glossy covers and read what was written inside.

Brown comes to the table with much experience where state education policy is concerned, and is not short on ideas. He recognises the need to address the recruitment and training of teachers; the balance between what can be done in the classroom and what is mandated by the state and federal governments; the need to rationalise and simplify the testing cycle so that students can do some non-rote learning; and the need to shift funding away from prisons and towards higher education.

However, his education plans seem to be arranged around the image he's been cultivating of himself as the hard-nosed hatchet-man, ready and willing to cut waste and bureaucracy in the system. But if he's right that the discussion needs to start from a philosophically- rather than a data-based position, Brown has played into the hands of Republicans, for whom cuts are the answer to everything....the same people who think that it's okay to have teachers in classrooms with 30 and 40 students. Some of the 'bureaucracy' is there in the service of oversight, and if Brown wants to have it both ways (streamlining and universalising the training processes and involving the districts in this) a degree of oversight will be required.

I'm not sure, either, how appropriate the emphasis on 'themed schools' (i.e. those focussing on 'the arts, public service, technology') or 'career focussed schools' are. I think that historically the strength of the public school system in the United States has been that it seeks to keep a wide range of students together for a much longer time than schools in many European countries. There is no exam at 11 to decide who goes to college and who gets sent to the factory. I think that the longer the more possibilities are held out to all students, the more likely it is that students will be able to transcend the strictures placed on them by the inequalities of class, race and geography.

Brown is dead right about the need to do better teacher recruiting, and to improve the training process. Part of the way you do this is to transform the profession from one that has been increasingly stigmatised (the Republican politicians who talk about lazy teachers who get the week-ends and summers off could learn a lot from watching teachers like my mother fall asleep on the couch at night grading papers, getting up four hours before the start of school for more grading and planning, and agonising all summer long over the coming year) into one that carries the level of esteem that it should...people need to be reminded that a good teacher does more social (and possibly economic) good that any business mogul.

However, as so often, Brown doesn't follow this path to its logical conclusion: you can't sell people on a profession (and what becomes, for many, a calling) if its members are constantly being laid off, if there is no job security, if they're working in classrooms with twice the number of students as is ideal, if they have to be constantly harassed by parents for assigning too much homework, and then crucified in the press for setting low standards. The money question remains the elephant in the overcrowded, underfunded classroom, and if he wants to get back to basics, Brown is going to have to address the fact that it matters that spending-per-pupil in California is almost the lowest in the nation.

It is something of a paradox that the quintessential anti-details man is throwing a million little ideas about the minutiae of the education system at though the demons threatening California's education system can be killed by a thousand cuts. But if he wants to win voters round to the ideal of the visionary education system that's hovering in the background of his plans, he needs to articulate the accompanying philosophy. I suspect that most voters are ahead of the curve where this is concerned, and are simply waiting to see someone tie the tax system, education, collective responsibility and equality together convincingly. So far Brown has shown a marked reluctance to do so.

I was hopeful, however, to see Brown write that understanding is more important than the memorisation of 'factoids' that the standardised tests seem to encourage, as well as his defence of science, history and the humanities. It reminds me that unlike his opponent, he is a thoughtful man, who is not afraid to think out loud and to experiment. However, should he be elected governor, he'll need to work harder to marry his philosophy to policy specifics, and to be honest about the underlying, substantial solutions to problems like that facing education in California. And ideally, we should get this honesty now, during the campaign. The insinuation from Jerry Brown's backers is that once he's elected, he'll reveal himself in all his progressive glory. But I've heard Brown eschew the 'progressive' label often enough that I'm not sure that this will be the case.

And anyway, we've seen on the national stage how this strategy can ultimately fail: Barack Obama gave us only vague utterances on the campaign trail about general healthcare reform, and got ambushed by Republicans when he came out with a more specific plan after the election; he pledged to make Afghanistan the focus of U.S. military and diplomatic efforts after a sustained review process, but was sufficiently vague about the character of the proposed engagement that hardliners in the military and war-happy Republicans easily manoeuvred him into rushing the review and dashing into a harebrained ramping up of fighting in both Afghanistan and Pakistan that is clearly emboldening the Taliban and making us less safe, and which provides the sorry spectacle of Obama cabinet members offering statements that wouldn't have been out of place when Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsefeld were running the war room. Brown should learn from this, and if there is a progressive hiding away somewhere in him, he should seek to win a mandate on those grounds.

Frankly, I'd rather see Brown lose fighting on a progressive agenda, and at least begin to lay the much-needed groundwork for a progressive comeback in the state than win having waged a campaign sufficiently low on courage and ambition for state government that many a Republican politician could be proud of it. Because if he gets locked into a tax-cutting, bureaucracy-baiting gubernatorial term, we'll not only have wasted four years, but will actually have validated many of the wrong-headed arguments being made by socially-irresponsible Republican politicians.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Washington rules/the return of Blackwater

I'm very curious to read Andrew Bacevich's new book, Washington rules: America's path to permanent war, reviewed here by the New York Times. It seemed a particularly timely read on Friday, when the NYT broke a story, hints of which have been floating around the margins of the news for some time now, about the use of shell companies and subsidiaries by Xe (formerly Blackwater) to obtain contacts. This is the company that had odium heaped on it after its employees killed 17 Iraqi civilians (not, it emerged later, an isolated incident). But it would seem that no company is too dirty, too tarred by murder, mayhem and a lack of professionalism, to be kept by the intelligence and military communities of the United States. It is no wonder that Afghans and Iraqis doubt our goodwill. We give them very little reason to suspect that their sovereignty and their lives are of any value, as we continue to employ companies with this kind of track record.

Friday, September 3, 2010

End of an era in Iraq? And T Blair...

I had a slightly surreal moment earlier this week. On the very same day that I heard President Obama declare an end to combat operations in Iraq, a bellicose Vice-President Biden assured the military that the 50,000 soldiers remaining in Iraq were 'as combat-ready as any in our military ... [and would] support partnered counterterrorism operations, and protect military and civilian personnel as well as our infrastructure' (what infrastructure? A withdrawal, one would think, would mean that the only infrastructure needing protection would be associated with the remaining troops...a circular argument...), and I also learned that my old college roommate is shortly shipping out to Iraq.

Later in the week, the British Prime Minister whose advisors doctored intelligence, and who himself misled his country about the reasons for the invasion, published his autobiography. Not even the most morbid of curiosity could make me open the memoirs of a man who betrayed his country's soldiers, the principles of his party, and the public trust, but I was reminded of the last time I'd seen him in the news, giving evidence to the Chilcot Inquiry, one of the interminable investigations into British involvement in Iraq.

My thoughts from 29 January...


Watching Tony Blair in front of the Chilcot Inquiry was like watching a man who had come home to that arena which, in spite of the terrors it might hold from time to time for him, he loves best. His face was grey, his gestures (particularly the fumbling with his glasses) betrayed nervousness, but it was only a matter of time before the natural order of things was reversed, and the maestro, the man meant to be on the rack, was browbeating his questioners and managing the pace and flow of questioning. Even so, the gamut of emotions that Blair the Actor could allow himself to run was limited on this sombre occasion, one on which most of the onlookers and some of the participants (Baroness Prashar in particular) seemed aware that they were dealing with a particularly sordid specimen who, as Freedman pointed out when he noted the number of Iraqi deaths that occurred in given months, was directly responsible for civilian casualties on an enormous scale.

Or indirectly responsible. Or really, as we came to understand, not remotely responsible. 'The coalition forces weren't the ones doing the killing', Blair told us, suddenly blazing with passion. 'Terrorists...were doing it deliberately' to stop the progress that the coalition was trying to make. Somehow, post-invasion chaos, damage to infrastructure, loss of life, and lack of governing structure could be blamed on Iran and Al-Qaeda. This characteristic elision of time, space and the parties involved repeatedly allowed Blair to wriggle off the hook. And if his questioners (four knights and a peeress, all of whom, on the basis of their performance should be put out to the shire pastures to graze) more than once expressed frustration with his unwillingness to answer the questions being put to him, they were reprehensibly unwilling themselves to press him. They needed to hit back, to make clear, if for no other reason than that it be in the public record, that people were killing each other because of a condition created by an immoral, ill-conceived and dangerously mismanaged military action spearheaded by an ideologically-driven U.S. administration and its allies. It needed to be pointed out that Al-Qaeda was not in Iraq before the U.S. invasion, and that a bombing campaign meant to 'shock and awe' probably had something to do with the damage wrought in human and infrastructural terms on Iraq during the invasion.

We saw any number of evasive strategies that those who are familiar with Blair's performances will recognise. When Prashar pressed Blair on the degree of UN involvement, and the extent to which the U.S. was committed to this, he referenced documents and testimony which he could reasonably suppose she wouldn't have looked particularly closely at for this segment of questioning, disingenuously asking whether she would like time to look at them. Had Prashar called his bluff and scrutinised the given sources, she very likely would have found that the arguments Blair was making from them were torturously mangled versions of the truth, or spuriously derived. But by backing off and moving on, Prashar (and the other Inquiry members...this was a strategy used repeatedly by Blair) allowed him to stage-manage the questioning. Blair's ability to direct the line of questioning and to cut off certain lines of inquiry well before they ought to have been finished made the Inquiry members' lines of questioning look incoherent, their approach rather bumbling, and any conclusions or illuminating insights they drew uncontextualised and inconclusive.

When cornered over the readiness of kit for British soldiers before the war, Blair blatantly played the 'our boys' card, manoeuvring so that any criticism of him would come off as criticism of the troops...a road down which the Inquiry members were unwilling to travel, even in the service of truth and transparency. By sickeningly shrouding himself in the same Union Jack that drapes the coffins of returning soldiers, Blair followed the well-established example of Margaret Thatcher when questioned about the unnecessary sinking of the Belgrano, and the tack taken by both Gordon Brown and David Cameron when pressed on either Afghanistan or Iraq. And when he praised the 'outstanding work being done by our servicemen and women', Blair capitalised on what must be one of politicians' strangest euphemisms. Let us not forget that this 'work' involves killing other people, and being prepared, unquestioningly, to be killed yourself.

Another strategy which served Blair well during his testimony was pretending to agree. When leaned on by Prashar, perhaps the firmest questioner of the day, he would reply, 'Exactly', and then go on to contradict her point, and to make sweeping and inaccurate generalisations, points backed up by not an iota of logic...all of which would go unnoticed (or at least unremarked upon) by the panel. It was this ability to bury key (and illogical) arguments in brisk and authoritative asides, which served Blair excellently as a politician.

The irrationality of many of his arguments was on full display today. Those who have heard him make the case for war, and defend his drawing of Britain into an ideological war pushed by morally bankrupt neoconservatives in the United States, will be familiar with his 'hand on heart I did the right thing' mantra. So much of his defence in particular is built upon his actually having acted in good faith. Even, we are told, if mistakes were made, he was never disingenuous...they were simply the product of unanticipated events. Then came the moment when Prashar asked about why there were no visible military preparations until the last minute. This question is central given the pressure on the Inquiry to look into whether troops were properly equipped (stemming in part from the desire of David Cameron to force Gordon Brown into an admission before the election that he had denied funding requested by the military). Such preparations would have been natural, Prashar suggested, given that Blair believed Saddam to be an imminent military threat, given that military action was always one option from the start, and that logistically six months' preparation were necessary for action to be undertaken. Blair's reply was that there were no visible preparations 'because we didn't want people to think that war was inevitable'. So we are enjoined to take Blair at his word, to understand that trust is paramount in politics (and a proper substitute for oversight), and yet the reality was that preparations were put on hold, young men and women (many of whom would die violent and unnecessary deaths in Iraq) were deprived of equipment and training, and the public was misled for a political calculation (one all the more base given that other testimony to the Inquiry has suggested that Blair was committed to supporting Bush in taking military action from a very early stage).

Other contradictions emerged. Blair was ever keen to point out that though divided, there were a substantial number of countries committed to war alongside the U.S. and Britain. This was a broad coalition, we heard, not two rogue imperialist stages subverting internationalism. And yet he referenced that ever-present strain of British exceptionalism: 'We were the key ally...we believed in it' (when defending Britain's status as a joint-occupier).

Sir John Chilcot and Sir Martin Gilbert (an historian! and biographer of another warrior Prime Minister, Winston Churchill) were probably the least effective of the quinquevirate. Even if, as seems to be the case, the panel members are unwarmed by any moral or judicative fires, their line of questioning was laughable at times, and calculated to give Blair an advantage. General questions about how he envisioned the conflict, opportunities to reflect on his decision-making departed from the remit of the Inquiry to investigate, and allowed the Vicar of St Albion to take to the pulpit, proclaiming his good intentions and righteousness. The flaccidity of his arguments momentarily brought him down to earth when after asserting that it was 'right' to escalate the war in Afghanistan, it emerged that this righteousness was defined by what the MOD saw as feasible and expedient.

This constant collapsing of a perversion of high moral purpose with bureaucratic practicalities allowed Blair to proclaim his righteousness whilst incessantly asserting that real responsibility ultimately lay elsewhere. He was, we heard, always open to being deflected from war. Indeed, he would have welcomed such a deflection had it been practical. But this disingenuousness, even if it went unnoted by the panel, emerged in full flower during his closing statement when he restated the case for war yet again, arguing that Saddam 'was a monster, [that] he threatened not just the region but the world [and that] it was better to deal with this threat [...] The world is safer as a result'. Nothing to do with Saddam's ability to hit Britain with WMDs in 45 minutes, and no mention of the subsequent bombings of Madrid or London.

Most disturbing, alongside his total lack of contrition, was Blair's continued defence of a kind of Manichean worldview and policy. 'The Western world, if I may put it that way, needs to get its head around this [...] we should be prepared to take these people [terrorists] on'. Blair believes passionately that there is something like Western Civilisation, that it is a good thing, and that correspondingly, there are people who are culturally (and therefore qualitatively) different who must be brought round by force to our way of thinking. He is one of a group of people who is invested in the notion of a civilisational clash, and if he doesn't to my knowledge ever use the term 'Islamofascism', the implications are not far off from those who do.

In questioning Blair, the Iraq Inquiry mired itself in details without stepping back to take in the wider ramifications of the conflict. This was not its remit, so perhaps the Inquiry as it consists of five uninspired individuals is not to blame. But the real accounting for the human, political and moral wreckage that was the 2003 invasion of Iraq has yet to occur. There are all too few individuals in any proximity to power in either the U.S. or Britain who are interested in taking a long hard look at the extent to which instability, violence and unrepresentative government are the product of continuing U.S. and British foreign policy, of which Iraq is merely exemplary. This should change, and quickly, for the costs have been and remain tragically high, and are unsustainable on too many levels.

The Palestinian problem

It is good news that Obama seems to be investing effort in the Middle East peace process, and that he is doing so during the first half of his term, and not saving it 'til the end, for some kind of legacy project when all on the domestic scene is lost. The beginning of talks this week in Washington, D.C. is to be commended. However, there are problems. For one thing, the absence of Hamas calls into question the legitimacy with which any deal will be viewed by Palestinians. It is understandably difficult for the U.S., given the extant political climate and views of their leadership, to contemplate negotiations, but it should not be insurmountable.

Hamas' commitment to targeting Israeli citizens is deeply problematic, but all parties would do well to remember that their actions, whether proportional or not, often come in response to (repulsively heavy-handed) Israeli military action. If members of the State Department, the NATO high command and hardliners in the U.S. military have been able to suggest that negotiations with the Taliban are a distinct and even desirable possibility, then surely the same should hold for Hamas, which has the benefit of actually having won democratic elections to control a majority of seats in the Palestinian Legislative Council. It is suspiciously convenient for Israel and the United States to condemn Hamas as a terrorist, pariah organisation, and yet to also hold it responsible for every breakdown in the peace process. Burdening Hamas with all of the responsibility, and yet acknowledging none of its democratically won power is illogical and fuels a self-willed process of violence and misunderstanding.

A failure to bring all parties to the table will make negotiations easier but ultimately more problematic, particularly given that PNA President, Mahmoud Abbas, unilaterally extended his term in 2009. Imagine if George W Bush had begun negotiations with an outside power about some fundamental issue of American sovereignty on 1 December 2008. Negotiation, we should remember, is not the same as endorsement.

In some ways, the bigger problem is the proposed destination of the talks. The 'Two-State Solution' has become almost ridiculously reified over the years...the Holy Grail of diplomatic gamesmanship. Logic suggests that while in the short term this might prove to be a useful salve on a gaping historical wound, in the long-term, the existence of two states, defined in mutually exclusive racial and religious terms, will work to perpetuate enmity. One would think that the better prospect, the one which would actually work to alleviate the mutual antipathy and replace it with a sense of shared purpose and humanity, would be the creation of one state, in which all people share equal access to rights and living space...that this is a more difficult but also more genuinely desirable prospect, and one that people should be talking more about.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The Graduate Tax

Berkeley is a different city during the summer. The first week of term transforms campus and town alike, and the streets are now teeming with new and returning students, basking in warm weather after what was apparently a cold summer. Campus comes alive as some 40,000 students and faculty negotiate corridors and footpaths in the country's best public university. And you would never guess, amidst all the sun-drenched geniality, that this is a university that is facing what is probably its gravest challenge: fee hikes for students; budget cuts for departments; the threatened mutilation of the Master Plan, of which it is a key component; the wholesale redefinition of the value of higher education.

For anyone who has had contact with the higher education system, in California as well as nationally in the past years, recent trends in England offer some food for thought. As in the U.S., universities there are strapped for cash. The larger institutions, the Russell Group for example, are chomping at the big, eager to set higher fees to cement their status and exclusivity. And the shambles that is the national economy in Britain means that public funding is liable to drop off sharply under the coalition government, many universities already having experienced some sharp cuts. There are important differences between the status of English and American universities. Funded, as it is, at the state level, higher education in California assumes greater importance (education and prisons are the two largest recipients of money from the state's budget). Until now, there has been a greater willingness in England to milk international students as cash cows than there has been the will to rely on out-of-state fees in California. But that is set to change, and the set of principles being debated in the two places are strikingly similar.

A Liberal Democrat member of the coalition government that emerged after Britain's general election in May, Vince Cable (Business Secretary), has proposed a graduate tax as a partial and long-term antidote to the trials of institutions of higher education in Britain. This has received a mixed reception from his Conservative coalition partners, but even if the graduate tax itself is not adopted, it is a good signpost of the path the Conservatives are likely to take, and so is worth examining (all the more so because a version of the graduate tax has also been endorsed by the supposedly more left-leaning of the Miliband brothers, Ed, one of whom will likely be the next leader of the Labour Party).

Cable, known for his grasp of finance and for talking good sense, is right to acknowledge that there is no catch-all solution to the problems facing higher education in Britain (and the same is true of the U.S.), and also right to look for a solution that would remain effective in the long-term. And it is easy to find yourself nodding along to the idea of the graduate tax. After all, it seems to combine the best of financial solvency and good liberal fairness. Students effectively pay a tax on their degree upon completion, but (and here's the bit that answers criticism of unsustainable fee hikes) they do so according to their earnings. High earners pay a higher tax, low earners relatively less. This is a commonsense approach, meant to assure students, their parents, and critics of fees that, while you can't have something for nothing (never mind that you've paid already in taxes), you pay for it at least partially according to your ability to do so.

Appealing as this sounds, there are serious problems with it. The graduate tax does two things which are seriously troublesome. Firstly, it goes further towards transforming the relationship between student and university into a customer-service provider relationship. There is no longer anything special about knowledge, learning, the exchange of ideas and their ability to empower. Priority is given to the maintenance of a sound economic bottom line, and to providing the customer with a product they can afford (or identifying the customers to which the product can be marketed). But the identity of the person or people writing the cheques is changing too. The burden of payment, even as the sum of that payment rises inexorably, is shifting to students and their parents.

This is closely related to the second problem with Cable's graduate tax (and it not only shows the right-ward shift of the Liberal Democrats, who only one election cycle ago were arguing eloquently for the wholesale scrapping of tuition fees, but gives the lie to David Cameron's 'big society', an idea which never went down with the Tory right to begin with). Public education in Britain, as in California, has long been a project of both the left and of liberals. Ignorance, after all, was one of the five evils the 1942 Beveridge Report declared war on, and this recognition of the relationship between a healthy society and educational opportunity has long been a preoccupation of the Labour and Liberal parties in Britain. And in both places, that education was meant to be free. That central condition has been undone in higher education, more recently in England than in California, but there has long been a rearguard action fought in our state by universities and their supporters against the rise of a Right that has little time for notions of equality and fairness, and which sees free- and critical-thinking as a genuine threat.

No wonder then, that the standard-bearer of the modern Republican Party chose to make an institution like Berkeley his target of choice when running (successfully) to be Governor of California. Ronald Reagan had not just hedonistic hippies in his sights...he was targeting freedoms of dissent and expression, and the very potential of a pluralistic, open society. Successive Republican leaders in California, often with the collusion of business-minded university officials themselves, have worked to transform education into a commodity, one (if one reads only just between the lines of documents like the Commission on the Future of the UC) shorn of moral and social purpose.

The point here, to return to Cable's graduate tax, is that once upon a time higher education was a social good to be given to anyone with the talent, promise, ambition or even desire to take part in what was envisioned to be an empowering and liberating experience. It was to be provided for by the taxpayers of the nation or state, out of a recognition that the education of a young man or woman from the affluent suburbs alongside a poor one from the inner-city and a first-generation Californian or Briton (an education, moreover, that would be in common, on the same campus, in the same classroom), was good not only for those three students, but for the collective, and for the future of that society.

But a tax on a degree, however fair it seeks to be, shatters this remarkable vision. It is a blow directed squarely at the idea of a collective good and concomitant responsibility. It throws families and students back on their own resources and puts the individual at the centre of a social and financial whirlwind, at the mercy of a developing educational marketplace (UC Regent Richard Blum, Senator Feinstein's husband, is a typically hypocritical investor in some of these ventures) that is as hostile towards moralising as it is towards those who can't afford to be in the market.

Vince Cable's tax plan might make good economic sense. It might be exactly what one would expect from a modern liberal, in that it seeks to walk the fine line between fairness and economic solvency. But it is an answer to a financial problem, which should be secondary to the deeper, more significant social and moral question-mark hanging over the future of higher education. It is an answer which turns the public university into some kind of tawdry department store or shopping mall, and which disconnects these remarkable institutions, imperfect though they be, from what has been their public moral, social and collective endeavour. We must hope that the Labour Party and those Liberal Democrats who are frustrated with their strange coalition partners call Cable out on the flaws of his plan. And that the supporters of public higher education in California mount a stiff resistance to attempts to further commercialise colleges and universities while detaching them from their historic mission.