Sunday, January 30, 2011

Selling-off Britain

‘Reading week’ is one of those mixed-blessings of British higher education. It combines the temptation to enjoyment with the guilt that would come with it. I knew that at the end of my first reading week in London I was responsible for handing an essay on the origins of Indian nationalism to Dr Andrew Dilley. But as splendid as London is, it was also grating on me, and so one early morning I threw caution to the four winds, went up to Euston Station, and took the train northward for a week in the Lake District. The train stopped at Oxenholme, and then carried on north, perhaps to Edinburgh.

I caught the branch line to Windermere, and stepped out into fresher air than I’d breathed in many a month. On my way to the hostel at Troutbeck, I picked up some canned food for the coming week, and poked through a bookshop where, wonder of wonders, I discovered a dog-eared copy of Judith Brown’s Modern India (though by far the best find of the week was the ratty copy of The Good Soldier Schweik that I found coming back through the YHA at Troutbeck).

So fortified, and further invigorated by an evening stroll across the hills, I set out for Keswick the following morning and from there made my way, aided by a bus, to the foot of Honister Pass. I spent the next two days exploring the terrain, crossing farmland, open moor, clambering up fells, watching Great Gable come in and out of the mist, an elusive quarry.

On the day I walked back across the hills to Keswick, the sun came out, and spilled with reckless abandon down either side of the hoary ridges, down into bucolic valleys and shimmering waters. From Dale Head I crossed High Spy and Maiden Moor before making my way down Catbells to the shores of Derwent Water. Neither Skiddaw nor Castlerigg nor the walk back to Troutbeck rivalled the sheer beauty of that November day. The Lake District remains my favourite place in Britain.

But it is worth remembering today that the kind of access walkers enjoy today is comparatively novel. Established footpaths, gates that lead along fields, the right to cross open moorland—all of these were highly contested for many years. Seventy-nine years ago in April, some ten thousand walkers, angry at being denied the Right to Roam by aristocratic landlords and their gamekeepers, marched on Kinder Scout to trespass en masse.

England won its first National Park in 1951 (Scotland’s did not come until 2002), and the Right to Roam (still not fully implemented) was not passed until 2000. National Parks in England are, moreover, a very different beast from those in many other countries. Comparatively little of the park land is publicly owned, and contemporary access remains contentious.


Why worry about public access to land in Britain today and the state of the nation’s countryside? The Coalition Government has given the public some good reasons to look over their shoulders, because one component of the coalition’s economic agenda involves the selling off of the majority of publicly-owned forests in England. The government’s sell-off gives some forests to the National Trust, asks communities to lease others, and does not make clear what will happen to the remainder. Tory Environment Secretary, Caroline Spellman claims that the sell-off is being made in the name of the economising being undertaken by the government (a nice word for cuts) as well as in the name of efficiency, that other watch-word of a government that is taking a set of chain-saws to Britain’s social services and public agencies.

Spellman is quoted in the Guardian as saying that “State control of forests dates back to the first world war, when needs were very different. There's now no reason for the government to be in the business of timber production and forest management. It's time for the government to step back and allow those who are most involved with England's woodlands to play a much greater role in their future”.

These remarks are calculated to push all the right buttons. By referencing “state control” rather than “public ownership”, the Conservatives are trying to make their process sound decentralised and democratic. There is, of course, the implication that government management of forest is comparatively inefficient (when in fact the “business” of timber production is probably not why so many people are irate at the government’s plans).

And finally, there is the appeal to localist sensibilities. Surely it makes good sense to let ‘local people’ (“those who are most involved with England’s woodlands”) to step up and take responsibility. After all, they’d surely know best anyway.

But of course it’s not clear how many community groups (a la Big Society) would get grants to make purchases. It is conceivable that many forests could end up in the hands of industry or other private interests, and though the government is stipulating that whomever purchases the forests mustn’t deny rights of access, part of access is maintenance, and neither community groups nor private interests are bound to spend any money in maintaining conditions that allow for public access.

Nor is it clear that community groups would have the financial ability to manage forests in the long-term. So what this comes down to is another instance of the Tory-led government abdicating responsibility and foisting the burden of providing for the public good onto communities that are potentially very ill-equipped and –prepared to manage what was once thought to be a public trust.

And it is not necessarily fair that in the Lake District for example (where upwards of 30 forests are to be sold off), a local community bears responsibility for the maintenance of what would have been considered land made public in the interests of the whole nation. That is a financial burden that should be collectively carried in recognition of the shared rewards.

The signs are promising at this point. Land is still a touchy issue in a nation in which as late as the 1960s the titled nobility alone (just a few hundred families) owned as much as 30% of the countryside. It was reported just last year that .6 per-cent of the population owns 50% of rural Britain. Writers Bill Bryson and Melvyn Bragg are leading the charge against the sell-off—particularly fitting given that some of the latter’s novels, including the The Soldier’s Return and its sequels, are set in some of the craggy lakelands that David Cameron and his thoroughly destructive government are trying to sell off.

Lakeland Laureate Alfred Wainwright, the Kinder Scout ramblers who bravely trespassed in 1932, generations of country-dwellers who got the short end of the stick they were thrashed with by an undemocratic landed aristocracy, and the British public will all be done a dreadful disservice if the sell-off is allowed to go through. There are many ways in which Britain remains a frighteningly feudal kind of society, and the privatisation of the precious little public land that exists would be a step in the wrong direction.


It's now, incidentally, been shown that the sell-off wouldn't even work as a cost-saving measure. It's likely to be made at a loss, which demonstrates that it is an ideologically-driven move that the Tory government should be honest about.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

The U.S. and Egypt: diplomatic contortions

This article provides a more honest appraisal of the role of the U.S. in Egypt at this moment of crisis and promise than is likely to be found in U.S. media. The U.S. response to demands for democratic government by Egyptians has probably rightfully discredited the Obama administration in the minds of many Egyptians. To claim to be a supporter of democracy at one moment, and to praise Mubarak fulsomely the next is dreadful hypocrisy.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Dismantling society, one cut at a time--Philip Pullman

I highly recommend a read through the transcript of noted author Philip Pullman's speech. He is discussing the philosophical and moral bankruptcy of the British Coalition government's assault on communities and public services in general, and libraries more particularly.

But his argument should resonate just as loudly in the U.S., where we hear the things that we and people around us value and depend on for material and spiritual sustenance--whether libraries, universities, schools, public radio, the arts and humanities more broadly, social services--dismissed as expendable when not outright condemned, by people in power of all political stripes, by our President who promised to be different just as much as by a Republican Party from which we've learnt to expect nothing better.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Good Soldiers

I finished up David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers last week, but found that it was one of those books that needs a lot of processing before any attempt to write about it can be made. Finkel follows an army battalion that is deployed to Iraq in conjunction with the now-nigh-mythical “Surge”, George W Bush’s last-ditch effort to salvage a war that the public, Congress and—Finkel convincingly shows—the rank and file of the military were increasingly coming to see as both misconceived and unwinnable.

Commentators have mounted powerful and compelling attacks on the practise of “embedding”, in which journalists travel with and report from inside of military units. I agree with Robert Fisk, who argues that this practise subverts the task of reporters (to report the whole conflict, not just one side of it), subjects journalists to the dictates of the U.S. military, and might lead to sycophantic reporting on the military and a willingness to cover up some of the horrific incidents of the war. And I have no doubt that the ‘embedding’ of reporters contributed to the misinformation that flowed uncritically out of Iraq for far too long, and which continues to plague the efforts of those who would like some measure of honesty and transparency in finding out more about the wars being waged by the U.S. in Pakistan and Afghanistan.

But The Good Soldiers improbably manages to convey as bitter, outraged and intense an image of the war as anything that Fisk has ever written. In part this is because it sets out to do something different, or at least, given Finkel’s own likely transformation at the ‘hands’ of events, it becomes a strikingly different project to most war reporting. Each chapter relates the experiences of the 2-16 as they become part of the U.S. military’s ‘success story’ that was the “Surge”, but begins with a quotation from George W Bush.

All of us are familiar with the sensation of living in a different world to the president as we watched his increasingly bizarre and laboured pronouncements on television, or listened (a more chilling experience, in some respects) to his addresses on radio. He would declare a victory as the number of attacks on U.S. soldiers spiraled and as our hometown newspaper would report the death of a young man or woman just a year or two out of high school. He would say that the ‘terrorists’ were on the run, while we scratched our heads and dimly remembered that we invaded Iraq to go after a dictator, not the terrorists, who had, it seemed, once inhabited the mountain ranges of Afghanistan.

This disjuncture gets driven home ruthlessly as Finkel relates the strains that combat placed on the soldiers of the 2-16, their ever-more-fraught psyches, and their families. I advise against reading The Good Soldiers in public, because you will be distraught. I cried, repeatedly, and the most emotionally-compelling moments came out of the descriptions of deployments, homecoming, and hospital-visits.

But most outrageous are the insights that Finkel offers into the tortured logic of the war.

The military averred to provide a body-count, trying to avoid any associations with that earlier military quagmire: Vietnam. But there developed, Finkel recounts, an obsession with meaningless statistics which, devoid of context, could be sent in to the high command and paraded as a symbol of success: the number of COPs, or command outposts, became a talismanic measure of progress in Iraq under the surge (49). The White House itself was not averse to fiddling the figure when it came to reporting the deaths of U.S soldiers. They discounted non-combat deaths and illnesses to convey the impression that things were indeed improving with the surge. Sometimes this meant that as many as a third of the deaths suffered by the U.S. military in the space of a month were discounted (164).

“In 2006”, Finkel writes, “the year the 2-16 was getting most of its soldiers, 15 percent of the army’s recruits were given criminal waivers. Most were for misdemeanours, but nearly a thousand were for some type of felony conviction, which was more than double the number granted just three years before” (120). Waivers were also issued to get around medical guidelines that would normally have prohibited individuals serving in the military.

The commanding officer of the 2-16, Colonel Kauzlarich, is both a sympathetic and maddening figure. Even as he attempts to fight off his own demons, which visit him during his sleeping as well as waking hours, he embodies the maddening, unthinking optimism of the military, to which many of his soldiers and thousands of serving soldiers have fallen victim. “’You guys are living the dream right now’”, he tells his soldiers. To his men, he was “The Lost Kauz” (123). An IED would blow a Humvee sky-high, or a mortar would crash down into the 2-16’s base, and soldiers would summon up enough morbid humour to joke, “Good thing we’re winning” (246).

The inimitable logic of a military on its knees, buffeted by an insurgency in Iraq and a furious public at home, would rear its head: “The surge was working, and this [Kauzarlich, like the Bush White House, reasoned], now, was proof. ‘They wouldn’t be fighting if we weren’t winning’” (280).

No reader will fail to be shaken by the view taken by the military and White House towards the soldiers they asked to win their war—they were fighting their own battles, for their political and professional lives after all, and mere enlisted men were, Finkel makes clear, eminently expendable: “there had been internal studies suggesting that 20 percent of soldiers deployed to Iraq were experiencing symptoms of PTSD”. Unsurprisingly, symptoms of PTSD “increased significantly with multiple deployments”. These deployments were defended as necessary by the managers of the war, even as the Pentagon’s own studies suggested that “the cost of treating the hundreds of thousands of soldiers suffering from [PTSD] could eventually cost more than the war itself” (206).

Many of the soldiers who were brutally, horrifically injured fighting in Iraq, missing limbs, eyes, and whole swathes of their memories and consciousness, received excellent care at military facilities where, Finkel recounts, “they were given a Warrior Welcome Packet and a Hero Handbook” upon arrival, and listened to a dedication speech from the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs: “”There are those who speak about you who say, ‘He lost an arm. He lost a leg. She lost her sight’. I object. You gave your arm. You gave your leg. You gave your sight. As gifts to your nation. That we might live in freedom’” (223).

This is but one of many moments in The Good Soldiers that is almost too nauseating for words, so powerfully does it capture the demented logic that the war in Iraq assumed for the Pentagon Brass and the butchers in Bush’s White House. Because what really happened, of course, is that soldiers were sent to Iraq because Saddam Hussein rumouredly posed an imminent threat to humanity, because his deposition was ostensibly more urgently required than that of three-score other thugs and dictators around the world, because he was supposedly in cahoots with Osama bin Laden, and because a pack of nihilist neoconservatives needed their war and needed it now.

Once there, these soldiers watched the unfolding of a display of military might designed to “Shock and Awe”, which turned sections of Baghdad into an inferno, killing thousands of civilians. This was followed by a protracted and bloody struggle against an insurgency that was partially a rearguard action by followers of Saddam and partially the fury of a people whose country was being forcibly occupied by a massive military power which proceeded to dismantle any still-standing institutional structures after its bombing campaign destroyed the infrastructure of major cities.

The limbs, the sight, the minds and the futures of these soldiers were not given, and they certainly didn’t yield themselves up as “gifts” to the nation. They were taken by the sorry political machinations of warmongering Republicans and cowardly Democrats, and the survivors constitute the sad wreckage of a hubristic war that has yet—whatever Obama might say—to be resolved.

Ready to leave Iraq to return with the 2-16 to the United States, Kauzarlish reflected on a prediction made by a friend before his departure: “’You’re going to see a good man disintegrate before your eyes’ [...] Four hundred and twenty days later, the only question left was how many of the eight hundred good men it was going to be” (292).

Finkel doesn’t do much moralising himself, for which he would undoubtedly be condemned by other, more openly polemical writers. But the strength of good storytelling—which is, after all, what journalism is, except that the stories happen to be some version of the truth—is in constructing a narrative that speaks for itself, and which does, by laying out a sequence of events, make the reader far angrier than any furious diatribe. It is a clichĂ© to suggest that The Good Soldiers should be required reading for Americans, but it is probably, even more so than Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, the most powerful account of our war in Iraq, of the pain and grief it has caused countless Americans and Iraqis, and of the logic behind it, being leveraged anew in support of equally pointless, immoral and bloody conflicts in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Finkel, David. The Good Soldiers. New York: Picador, 2009.

Musings on localism

Last week I was sent Christina Romer’s thoughtful Op-Ed in the New York Times, in which she outlines her hopes for the President’s State of the Union, as well as some broad prescriptions for managing the federal deficit in the long-haul (prescriptions much more deserving of consideration than the Republican Party’s promise of cuts, cuts and more cuts—cuts that Romer shows would make the faintest of dents in the deficit in the short term).

Hers is largely a recognition that greater oversight can remake our system of providing social services (a necessity) it in a way that makes it simultaneously more democratic and more cost-effective (and there’s clearly a link between the two that Romer doesn’t fully pursue). Perhaps most importantly, Romer puts the deficit in perspective:

“Republicans in Congress have pledged to cut nonmilitary, non-entitlement spending in 2011 by $100 billion (less if recent reports are correct). Such a step would do nothing to address the fundamental drivers of the budget problem, and would weaken the economy when we are only beginning to recover […]

“Finally, the president has to be frank about the need for more tax revenue. Even with bold spending cuts, there will still be a large deficit. The only realistic way to close the gap is by raising revenue […]

“None of these changes should be immediate. With the unemployment at 9.4 percent and the economy constrained by lack of demand, it would be heartless and counterproductive to move to fiscal austerity in 2011”.

Romer is asking us to recognise that the austerity to which Congressional Republicans, urged on by the thugs of talk radio, have committed themselves, ought to be a means rather than an end. Austerity comprises a set of political-economic measures to be implemented when the time is right. This stands in stark contrast to the Republican Party’s approach. Their party is committed to replacing democratic government by what amounts to corporate rule. Someone will continue to provide services in education, healthcare and welfare. But those services will be structured around what is profitable for the self-interested industries that will have a free rein in deciding how to provide them rather than the needs of people.

Romer’s challenge to knee-jerk austerity should give pause to the coalition government in Britain as well. David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister, has assailed the waste and interference supposedly associated with social democratic governance in Britain since 1945 (not entirely coincidentally, the period of full democratisation, of the rise of standards of living, of real gains for the working- and middle-classes, of the creation of a National Health Service and of a more democratic education system).

Cameron’s counter-proposal is something he calls ‘The Big Society’. This is framed as an answer to Britain’s economic crisis, and goes something like this: the massive deficit in Britain necessitates enormous cuts across whole swathes of public services. These cuts will cause huge economic and material damage to large numbers of middle- and working-class people, and will push unemployment up. But even as government retreats from its responsibilities to its people, affluent individuals, companies with sound bottom lines, neighbourhood organisations and “local people” will step into the breach and create new chains of communication and modes through which they can maintain these services.

At root, the Big Society is a return to a kind of Victorian paternalism. Social services are no longer the rights that Liberals, Social Democrats and Socialists once fought for, but are a charity. The reversion to this paternalism, a key part of the Republican Party’s philosophy, introduces greater uncertainty into the lives of people who are most affected by any economic downturn. It makes them reliant on the goodwill of their wealthier neighbours, who have not always been willing to make even small sacrifices for the welfare of society at large in the past. This paternalism is both an abdication of responsibility on the part of government, and a call for localism.

Left-wing orthodoxy demands a knee-jerk rejection of the Localism peddled by the Conservative-Liberal coalition in Britain. But there is something alluring about the promise of localism in government—not necessarily the type peddled by the high command of a Conservative Party that is nearly as committed to dismantling the state as its Republican Party counterpart in the United States (although it has to be much more cautious about its rhetoric).

Indeed, anti-globalisation efforts and many environmental justice movements deliver stinging critiques of industrial capitalism as a web that ties people—without ever asking them what they think—to something called a ‘global economy’ which has a knack for preying on the weak, exacerbating inequality both between and within nations, and destroying large swathes of land across the planet. A version of localism, it is argued, is lower-impact, means that production is controlled by a local community, and curtails the inequitable distribution of resources that seems inherent in virtually all societies today.

If localism appeals to people who, because of environmental, cultural and philosophical-political reasons, are troubled by a concentration of power in the hands of highly-centralised national governments, it also has relevance to the debates about the function and role of government that plague U.S. politics today.

Much of the alienation that lies at the root of the anti-government mood behind the Tea Party (to take but one example) stems from the distance between the formal structures of governance and the people who do double-duty as the electors and the governed. It is this sense of being governed—ruled almost—from a distance, by an often-unresponsive, frequently-unaccountable government, which angers people.

And it is certainly true that in many respects the federal government in the United States is highly unresponsive and undemocratic—though in this respect the energies of the Tea Party and associated movements seem bizarrely misdirected, attacking most vociferously, as they do, social democratic members of Congress and state government. It was, after all, a series of right-wing administrations that rolled back protection for working people, both from the vagaries of economic life in a capitalist republic, from the predations of financial and industrial interests, and from the malpractise of insurance and energy industries. Similarly, it is the political right that has traditionally ramped up military spending and sent a volunteer army off to depose (often-democratic, sometimes dictatorial) governments across the world, at the same time that it disinvested in education, public transportation and international development.

Our system of elections fails to inspire much confidence either. The President is chosen in a vote which discourages more than two candidates, and allows a candidate with fewer votes to walk away with the election. It is a system which favours the influence of wealthy interests whilst decrying the rights of the politically marginal to organise. It relies, for arbitration, on a Supreme Court which unabashedly declared that money is a form of free speech.

Taking these ills into account, it makes a great deal of sense to locate the levers of power as close to electors as possible, allowing them greater oversight of the people who have been elected to do their bidding, as well as insight into the process. What is local, it seems reasonable to assume, will be more transparent, accessible and responsive. It holds out the promise of reinvigorating democracy and civil society more generally.

The real problem with localism is that in the context of a nation-state it subverts the universalism that many of us hold dear. California’s current predicament is a good illustration of the conundrum. Jerry Brown has long (in spite of being labeled a traditional social democrat by the Republican Party) held to a ‘small is beautiful’, low-impact, or even non-governance version of state politics (unlike his father, a genuine social democrat who invested in state infrastructure and higher education).

Brown has seized his return to the governorship as an opportunity to put his ideas into practise. His proposals for addressing California’s economic woes depend heavily on cutting the state’s provision of welfare and support for education—on rolling back, that is, the state’s commitment to any provision of universally-accessible services of equal quality. The solution, in Brown’s mind, is the devolution of responsibility for service provision and revenue raising to local governments. The idea is that this will motivate people to see how much damage Prop 13 has done to the capacity of local government to look after its people, and that if people are seriously committed to providing social welfare (whether that be healthcare, education or support for the less-well-off) they will be faced with the reality of the need to raise revenue more immediately than they are when the process is removed to the level of state government.

The trouble is, of course, that not all communities are created equally. There might conceivably be crowded communities much in need of social welfare services, who are committed to providing them, but who are faced with a small revenue base. Local resources, land and property values, accessibility to and responsiveness of local government—these all vary dramatically from one community to the next. If equality is something that we believe is valuable to promote in our society, localism poses a troublesome set of questions that asks us to think long and hard about who the ‘we’ is, and about the most practically useful and philosophically necessary level at which governance is most effective in promoting quality of life, social welfare and equality.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

All the Pretty Horses--Cormac McCarthy

I like most of the fiction that I read. Whether that's because my tastes are indiscriminate or because I pre-screen my reading according to taste I'm not sure. But whatever the case, I'm more likely to talk a book up than down on completion.

Even so, it's fairly rare that I read something that I really feel like raving about. And although I'd call a lot of books great, it's not so often, upon closing the covers of a book, that I feel that I've been in the presence of sheer literary genius. The most recent three awfully good reads I've had have been Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, J M Coetzee's Disgrace, and Ngugi wa Thiong'o's The Wizard of the Crow. I've also indulged in the very good first two novels of Stieg Larsson's Millennium series.

But if Rushdie ranges poetically across the recent history of a subcontinent, if Coetzee horrifies with his account of crime, violence and powerlessness, and if Ngugi lampoons Africa's dictators with unparalleled ferocity, then Cormac McCarthy, for me, paints an exquisite verbal panorama as broad in its insight into our world as the landscape it plays out against is vast. All the Pretty Horses is the best novel and the most amazing writing that I've run across in many years.

It portrays two young men (John Grady and Rawlins), born on the Texas borderlands, who are dismayed as the lifestyle and values they hold dear--because it is what they have known--come to look increasingly antiquated in the world. Theirs is a displacement of place as well as of character, and they watch as much in dismay as their steeds are driven from the roads by the automobile as they wince at personal betrayal and caustic violence--because theirs is a world of almost liturgical codes and honor if not of actual law.

McCarthy's novel also works as a meditation on geography, or rather on an actual place that is more potent than the national borders it bestrides. The Americans who cross the border into Mexico have more in common with what they seek there, than they would with any idea of, for example, the United States. And the Mexicans they meet along the way might be surprised at the distance they've travelled--it's a long way from Texas to the Old World that John Grady and Rawlins find in the hacienda high in the mountains--but they recognise much of themselves in the interlopers from Texas. The geographic solidarity is borne out by the natural presence of Spanish names in the San Angelo cemetery (where John Grady's abuela is buried alongside his father), names of people, no doubt, who would be as out of place in Mexico City as Grady would be in New York.

But it is also a place which is a kind of paradise, concealing between literary and imaginary gilding, a certain hardness, which makes room, when necessary for a wonder that seems genuine.

"I never knowed there was such a place as this.
I guess there's probably every kind of place you can think of.
Rawlins nodded. I wouldn't of thought of this one, he said.
It was raining somewhere out in the desert. They could smell the wet creosote on the wind."*

So powerful is McCarthy's writing that at times the storyline becomes almost incidental. As a reader, you are torn between a compulsion to follow up the plot and the temptation to lose yourself in contemplation of an evocation of the West that seems too powerful to exist solely on the page. But if San Angelo and La Purisima seem dangerously real, perhaps it is because they evoke so many associations of the West. I was reminded of people I've never known, and recalled places I've never been because there is something in McCarthy's West that didn't die when John Grady rode south, into the red desert, whose "bloodred dust blew down out of the sun."** Nor did the frail yet knowing humanity which McCarthy captures so well.

"Luis told them tales of the country and the people who lived in it and the people who died and how they died [...] He said that war had destroyed the country and that men believe the cure for war is war as the curandero prescribes the serpent's flesh for its bite. He spoke of his campaigns in the deserts of Mexico and he told them of horses killed under him and he said that the souls of horses mirror the souls of men more closely than men suppose and that horses also love war. men say they only learn this but he said that no creature can learn that which his heart has no shape to hold. His own father said that no man who has not gone to war horseback can ever truly understand the horse and he said the he supposed he wished that this were not so but that it was so".***


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Power without responsibility: California's Republican Party at work

This is really too extraordinary for words!

The LA Times has reported that California Republicans have admitted that they "won't be presenting a cuts-only budget proposal to counter Gov. Jerry Brown's tax plan because it would be politically damaging and pointless".

Bob Huff, who sits on the budget panel in the state senate justified Republicans' approach by saying that "It's a majority-vote's not like we're going to lead with all the things where we become the bad guys. The majority has the ability, they have the authority. God bless them, we're here to help". But of course Brown's plan to put a vote on the taxes that would be necessary to pass his own cuts-driven budget before California voters depends on getting the votes of four Republicans in the state legislature.

But Republicans will be responsible for preventing the budget from passing, depending as it does on the maintenance of tax rates (requiring a two-thirds vote), meaning that it is incumbent on them to present an alternative. Exercising power without responsibility has long been the strategy of the California Republican Party, but the admission that they won't deign to show voters what a California run by Republicans would look like because they are afraid that people would see them as the "bad guys" beggars belief.

Moreover, their cynical move demonstrates that California Republicans have no confidence in the ability of their ideas to do any good for California...they are playing a purely political game--and an anti-democratic one at that--in an effort to hamstring the efforts of state government to uplift the material lives of constituents.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Brown's budget, California's choices

Jerry Brown has unveiled his proposed budget for a state in dire economic and social straits, and it isn't one that is likely to please voters. Colleges, universities, social welfare agencies and Medi-Cal will all face deep cuts.

But it's going to be difficult for labour, students and others to critique the Governor very effectively. Because the fact is, he is delivering exactly what he promised during the campaign, meaning that the outrage of too many progressives reflects either dis-ingenuity on their part or else a profound ignorance of who and what they were campaigning for in the run-up to the election in November of last year.

Brown promised a cuts-driven budget, and made no commitment to raising taxes. In fact, one of the precious few platforms of his campaign was that he wouldn't raise any taxes without the approval of voters. Brown supporters should have seen this coming. Progressives are now paying the price for having allowed the Democratic Party to avoid a competitive primary in which Brown's positions would have got more public airing early on and during which he might have come under pressure from progressives in the state party.

The Governor is nothing if not honest, and he will very likely be able to ignore the protests from the left by reminding people that they voted for exactly what he is delivering. His problem will be with the criminally inflexible Republicans in the state legislatures, nearly all of whom have signed an idiotic anti-tax oath.

The rearguard action against the destructive proposed cuts is one that should have been fought months ago, so that people understood the stakes during the general election. The elapse of many months and an election, Brown's apparent mandate, and Californians' historic aversion to taxing themselves to pay for the services they so badly want mean that there are few visible and viable alternatives to Brown's budget.

Monday, January 3, 2011

The Newt who would be King--and his foreign policy

In May of last year, when asked whether waterboarding was torture, Newt Gingrich, widely considered to be mulling over a presidential bid in 2012, said “No. As a British court noted, waterboarding is not torture”. Oh, that settles it. Perhaps this was the same justice system that was a party to extraordinary rendition, the forced removal of the inhabitants of the Chagos Archipelago to make way for the U.S. military, and the jettisoning of an inquiry into corruption in the British arms industry on receiving blackmail orders from the Saudis.
This sudden respect for a foreign court is the height of hypocrisy coming from the author of the Contract for America, which was notable for its insular, xenophobic view of the world. In the same interview, Gingrich averred that “in the larger and longer war with the irreconciliable wing of Islam, it is clear we are not yet winning”. One of the slimiest specimens to ever grace Capitol Hill is back in political business, ready to run for the White House. Not that he was ever really out of it, as evinced by his active website,
Much more recently, Newt “Obama has a Kenyan an anti-colonial worldview” Gingrich has announced today that he is “much more inclined to run [for President in 2012] than not to run”. And with every ridiculous pronouncement that comes out of Gingrich’s mouth, I’m much more inclined to dismiss [Gingrich as a blow-hard, foreign policy neocon, ] than not to dismiss.
Characterising the Obama administration’s foreign policy as “chaotic” is hypocrisy of the most unsavoury kind coming from Newt Gingrich. I think that it is fair to say that Obama doesn’t have much of a foreign policy agenda. But that’s largely because he’s been left so many messes by George W Bush, some of which, in turn, originated farther back in time, and many of which stem from a particular kind of militant exceptionalism that has long infused American foreign policymaking.
You can bet that Gingrich’s own foreign policy prescriptions, as they begin to emerge in the coming year, will be nothing if not carefully plotted and calculated. But as usual, the care with which his pronouncements are constructed will have precious little to do with what is best for our country, and a great deal to do with what Gingrich thinks will endear him to his electorate.
What is very interesting is the extent to which Gingrich, someone ostensibly always more interested in domestic than in foreign policy, is actually in large measure responsible for many of our current ills. His breathtakingly ill-informed and incredibly un-thoughtful National Security Restoration Act, bereft of even the most basic understanding of cause-and-effect in the world, lies at the heart of the strand of militant exceptionalism that gets the U.S. into so many messes around the world. It is a mode of thinking which has cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of lives around the world.
The National Security Restoration Act sought to de-internationalise U.S. foreign policy and created an ideological environment within the Republican Party in which, when in ascendance in the Presidency and Congress, the shoot-from-the-hip, go-it-alone, with-us-or-against-us mentality of the Bush administration flourished. It has not only led to us ramping up unilateral military intervention, but to the U.S. bearing the economic costs of those interventions, and to the overwhelming majority of the coffins coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq being draped in the Stars and Stripes.
It encourages contempt for empathy, and a pathological unwillingness to see reason in the actions of other people, to express curiosity in common human motivations, or to question national security orthodoxy. It fetishises ignorance, makes a virtue of chest-thumping jingoism, and leads all too easily to the demonising or scapegoating of what we don’t make time to understand.
For someone who has supposedly steeped himself in history, Gingrich displays an astonishing thoughtlessness about the characteristics that contribute to a free, liberal society. To begin all foreign policy endeavours from the standpoint that the U.S. is somehow always inherently right is to abandon the critically-minded free-thinking which characterises the most thoughtfully-made and beneficial decisions.
Gingrich will have to do one of two things when pressed by the less-supine media outlets and his competitors in the GOP primary. Either he will try to be more blatantly militant than the competition (and with Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney, both of whom pedal neoconservative, ‘clash of civilisations’, Islamofascist tripe, he might have rough going). This will mean attacking Obama for being soft on terrorism, advocating more brutal torture tactics, and further expanding the wars in Afghanistan and Pakistan, with all the dangerous implications of such an action.
One sign that Gingrich might be moving in this direction is his use of the term, ‘the Irreconciliable wing of Islam’, which he characterises as promoting “an uncivilised and barbaric world” and as being incapable of “peacefully coexist[ing] with the civilised world”. To combat this “wing”, Gingrich has called for a “Long War”. In theory, he writes, “the Long War might only last 50-70 years. Yet, it will probably last much longer”. The “Long War” is a “war of survival”.
On the other hand, he could turn to the ‘Fortress America’ model. Quite frankly this would not surprise me. Sixty-three percent of the public declares itself opposed to the war in Afghanistan, and it would undoubtedly come as a surprise to many people that the President, with the connivance of both parties in Congress, has expanded the war to Pakistan. Gingrich’s political calculations might prompt him to jump on the anti-war cause. It might seem unlikely that a hawkish author of a document that ideologically underwrote Bush’s wars would declare himself an anti-war candidate. And undoubtedly Gingrich would never present himself as the anti-war candidate.
But he could call for a draw-down of troop levels in Afghanistan without critiquing the underlying premises of the war, winning the votes of the growing number of Republicans who are dissatisfied with their Party’s warmongering. His national security agenda would, presumably, then rely on turning the mainland U.S. into a fortress guarded by border security, intelligence agencies and ever-more draconian immigration policies (which are already separating families, undermining the competitiveness of American universities, and hurting many employers).
This would further isolate the United States, and further de-internationalise our foreign policy, all but ensuring that we present ourselves as a militant (because his policies would almost certainly not withdraw U.S. troops entirely from Iraq, Afghanistan or Pakistan), isolated, self-interested power, by turns hegemonic and disinterested, sometimes withdrawing and later lashing out at all perceived adversaries.
The triumph of such a fear-mongering ideology would likely have tragic consequences for our country. There is something bordering on the nihilist in the paranoia-wracked, exceptionalist-promoting, violence-prone worldview of Republican politicians of Gingrich’s ilk. We would do well to think hard about whether his dark and violent future, forever plagued by wars of our own choosing, is one into which we would like to descend.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The year of the 'Big Government' (non)debate

In January of 2009, a Newsweek poll found that 76% of Americans favoured spending increases even at the cost of raising the federal deficit in order to make healthcare more affordable and accessible. 75% said the same about constructing and repairing roads, bridges and other infrastructure, and 74% when asked about developing new clean-energy technology.

The same poll suggested that even as 22% of Americans believed that the government was doing too much to stimulate the economy during the recession, 25% believed that it was doing the ‘right amount’ of stimulating, and 42% believed that more government intervention was necessary. During 2010, the President and Congress enacted a new healthcare law and got the ball rolling in the creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. Obama and a Democratic Congress, seemingly in tune with the national mood, have also pressed for greater public oversight of corporate and financial sectors. Yet at every turn, the Republican Party has fought these efforts vociferously, arguing against oversight, opposing any notion of a collective public good, and steadfastly maintaining that the private rather than the public sector is best suited to oversee people’s lives.

And by November of 2010, the Republican Party made major gains in the Senate and won the House (along with the battle for public opinion) on a platform of rolling back government intervention, whether that is intervention to rein in the excesses of financial sectors or insurance agencies, or intervention to stimulate the national economy.

In the debates about healthcare, about education, about finance and about energy, the Republican Party, at the national, state and local levels, has successfully created a monstrous red herring, and with characteristic blood-curdling, foaming-at-the-mouth-in-mock-outrage histrionics, have christened it Big Government. Playing into the hands of these demagogues, we have all swivelled our eyes ‘round to look at their fantastic Frankenstein creation, and have been debating, with more vigour and passion than common sense or critical thinking, the appropriate size of Government. I say that Big Government is a red herring because the size of government is not, or oughtn’t to be, the issue. What we should be thinking about is what government is doing and how government is doing those things that it is doing.

The size of government isn’t something that you can effectively measure, because its effects can be felt even where it spends but a little money. We should not fall into the trap of thinking, for example in terms of the financial world, that the absence of regulation is the absence of government, and therefore one of life’s Good Things. The absence of regulation is an act that is legislated into being. It is not Small Government, but rather government acting on behalf of certain interests.

We should look at the priorities of government. Reagan, as California governor, began the process of destroying California’s public education system, our state’s greatest social, economic and cultural asset. When president, this so-called proponent of Small Government then ramped up defence spending and military rhetoric, wasting billions on the likes of Star Wars, propping up rogue nuclear states like apartheid South Africa, training death squads to murder thousands in Central America, fuelling the catastrophic war between Iraq and Iran (our involvement in which is coming back to haunt us), and all the while repudiating the responsibilities of government towards its own people.

George W Bush, another Small Government president, waged irrational, immoral and ill-planned wars that have actually imperilled U.S. citizens at home and around the world, and have made the likelihood of a terrorist attack infinitely more probable. (The most oft-cited defence of neoconservative policy, supported by such leading lights of the Republican Party as Sarah Palin, Mitt Romney and Dick Cheney, is that we have a moral duty to people around the world. The uniformity of their silence over Zimbabwe, the Congo, Palestine and the Philippines, and in an earlier era, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Angola, Vietnam and South Africa gives the lie to their concern.) These wars have and will continue to cost billions of dollars, and the cost in human lives will, as is often the case in these wars, probably never be known.

Let us then step back and scrutinise what is left of the Republican Party’s edifice. Their argument is that government has no responsibility to look after the most basic needs of its citizens, but that its primary responsibility is the waging of war. And yet using the most sophisticated military hardware and information technology in the world, our government has been unable to defeat Al Qaeda. Rather, we have seen a rash of attacks by militants in Bali, Madrid, London, Pakistan and India, and multiple attempts to mount attacks on U.S. soil. Most of these attacks are not carried out by Al Qaeda operatives, but by people who are discontented (often for very legitimate reasons) by U.S. interference within their home countries, or U.S. and European internal policies. Our wars and the backing of authoritarian governments that this has engendered has created ‘terrorists’ in countries as diverse as Britain, Nigeria, Mali, the Sudan, Yemen, Pakistan and the Philippines.

Far from taking the fight to free people from oppression, to spread democracy, or to engender universal human rights in the world, we have actually propped up authoritarian regimes, who invent Al Qaeda cells in order to receive military or financial assistance from the U.S., which is then turned on their own people who aspire to live freely. This is one version of Big Government: one which prioritises waging unnecessary wars and feeding a sprawling military industrial complex. This is a state that monitors its own people, substitutes torture and military tribunal for what should be our treasured rule of law, and regulates in favour of inequitable economic distribution. This is Big Government as Ronald Reagan, George W Bush, John McCain, Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich see it.

But there is another version of ‘Big Government’ as caricatured by the Republican Party. It is what is commonly characterised as the welfare state, and is a government which sees for itself not a broader remit in society (for the flag-draped coffins returning from Afghanistan, the unemployment lines that lengthen even as the bottom lines of corporations fatten afresh, reach as deep into people’s lives as any existing welfare state), but a fundamentally different one.

At its most basic, it is a mode of government which recognises that, in the twenty-first century, when all things are supposed to be possible, we—that is, humans—remain captive. Both our imaginations and our actions are geared (by a range of historical contingencies and processes) towards thinking about the health of the economy rather than the lives of the people who create real wealth, actual products or genuine services. It is true that we can draw a connection between economic indicators and the well-being of people, but these measurements seldom take the costs of things like healthcare, education, mental well-being, happiness, or living condition into account. Economic indicators, moreover, examine businesses, profits and losses, industries, manufacturing, finance and a whole range of money- and job-producing sectors. It is only when these are put together and imagined to have a certain ideological coherence, that they become ‘The Economy’.

This thing that we call ‘the Economy’ is the biggest faith-based initiative in history, and the violence and inequality that it has fuelled probably surpasses anything wrought by religious difference. It emerged during a particular historical period, was cobbled together to serve a burgeoning set of interests, and has spiralled out of the control of any nation, class or group of people. It is based not on the real labour done by the backbone of our society--the people who live in it--nor on any material output, or even on a value system that we have all judged adequate to allow people to live decent lives. Rather, it is based on money and services that have little basis in material reality, on speculation and on the exploitation of the marginalised, and on the uncontested ideology of the ‘free market’ which empowers those endowed with wealth and political power.

It is unintuitive to me that a private sector that time and time again has, because of the concentration of power in the hands of massive corporations in select industries, proven itself corrupt and immoral is going to do a better job of providing healthcare, coordinating energy policy, educating children or managing the economy than a public sector that is democratically accountable, and which has as its raison d’ĂȘtre the service of the nation’s people.

So the real question, again, is not whether we want big or small government. because what governments do is govern. And our lives will be governed just as surely by insurance companies, energy moguls, profiteering education investors, arms companies, industrial monopolies and financiers just as surely as they are now by a mix of private and public interests. But I, for one, would prefer to know who holds the cards, who spends my money, who is regulating products, financial practises, the tax structure, foreign policy, and energy use. And I rather like having the power to vote, however indirectly, on these policies. Because that is what the Republican Party is calling for: a ceding of all power over those sectors that profoundly impact our daily lives to people, institutions and structures over which we have not one iota of control. If this perverse version of the free market is the natural state of things, it is a highly undemocratic and hierarchical state of things.

Upon being elected as Florida’s newest Senator, Mark Rubio (feted as an up-and-coming Republican leader) declared that “the natural state of the economy is to grow”. Rand Paul opined that “we’re all interconnected. There are no rich, there are no middle class, there are no poor; we are all interconnected in the economy ... Let’s not punish anyone. Let’s keep taxes low and let’s cut spending”.

There’s nothing ‘natural’ about the growth of economic sectors: they grow, constrict and implode according to political decisions taken by those in power. The financial sector ballooned (unhealthily, we now know) because people took the decision to deregulate it and to avert their eyes to some unseemly practises which have destroyed the livelihoods of many, many people. And it is difficult to argue, if we believe that we are a nation--that is, a group of people with a shared interest of some sort--that asking people with lots of money (the rich, who do exist) to give up a little to help not only themselves through the creation of common services, but also their countrymen, is ‘punishment’.

Our challenge, in the coming year, should be to think a little harder about what government is, what we would like it to do, and what the dangerous, undemocratic and un-egalitarian alternatives being proposed would do to us as a nation, a society and a people.