Friday, September 28, 2012

Bruce Ross Swings and Misses (and Misleads) on Reform

Bruce Ross, editorial page editor at the Record Searchlight, penned a disingenuous caricature of Prop 31 critic and co-author (with Joe Mathews) of California Crackup, Mark Paul.  Ross first quotes Paul’s account of how California’s overburdened constitution, remade on an annual basis by schizophrenic and uncoordinated reform, has broken the back of our political process, before concluding, “I get where Paul’s coming from.  I’m not sure that ‘The system’s broken, stop fixing it’ is a viable path forward”.

I don’t know whether Ross has read California Crackup, but if he has, he would know that he is totally missing the point about Paul’s criticism.  Paul and Mathews, in opposing reforms like Prop 31, are not saying “the system’s broken, stop fixing it”.  They are making a more intelligent argument, by pointing out that piecemeal reform of the sort represented by Prop 31, a brainless, flailing, arrogant measure and misdiagnosis, is precisely what has made California un-governable.  If all you do is tinker with a couple of bits of state government, they contend, you simply set up more conflicts, inconsistencies, and points where the process can and will break down. 

Far from suggesting that we don’t fix the system, Paul and Mathews are arguing that we must do so intelligently.  Prop 31 seeks to corral a couple of the outcomes of our dysfunctional system rather than address the dysfunction.  Paul and Mathews describe in great detail in California Crackup the need for wholesale reform, as well as what such reform could look like.  Theirs is the rare instance of someone answering the “Well, you say there’s a problem, how would you address it?” question with precision and acumen.  It is indicative of how dysfunctional our collective approach to our ills has become that many political commentators don’t engage with their argument, but instead choose to misrepresent their arguments for rational reform. 

Read California Crackup.  It’s does a sterling job of outlining the problem and proposing which will only be feasible if more Californians learn about the state’s crisis of democracy and invest themselves in working for solutions to that crisis.

The Obama Foreign Policy Myth

There are few narratives surrounding U.S. foreign policy which infuriate me more than the one articulated by Michael Doran and Max Boot in their 26 September New York Times op-ed.  “Whether you agree or disagree with President Obama”, they wrote, “there is no doubt that he has formulated a coherent approach to the use of American power.  The Obama Doctrine involves getting into a conflict zone and getting out fast without ground wars or extended military occupations.  This approach proved its effectiveness in Libya last year”.  They then point out that “the president is not applying his own doctrine where it would benefit the United States the most—in Syria”.  

I think they’re drawing the wrong conclusions.  I think that the President’s foreign policy and his use of American power is based around amoral where not immoral expediency, and a combination of electoral arithmetic and bureaucratic calculus designed to meet the demands of a disinterested but still-jingoistic electorate on the one hand and the aspirations of a frankly rather bloodthirsty war-making apparatus on the other, its values increasingly out of step with those of the public. 

Doran and Boot are also plain wrong.  President Obama’s signature foreign policy move was his escalation of the war in Afghanistan, where over 250 U.S. soldiers and an unknown number of Afghans have been killed since he took office.  In advocating the continuation of this war, now eleven years old, President Obama made no pretence of wishing to transform the country for the better.  He defined the need for our presence there very narrowly, in purely national security terms, clearly disinterested in doing any good for Afghans.  But even by this narrow security metric, we are failing.  The training of Afghan security forces has been halted in many cases, the thorny political conflicts which drive violence remain as tangled as everywhere, the U.S. remains widely reviled across the Middle East and South Asia because of our hubristic militarism, and the President is now trumpeting the impending withdrawal, meaning that he and George W Bush have killed a whole lot of people for no purpose.

Over 6,600 U.S. soldiers, and nearly 8,000 coalition forces in general, have been killed in our wars of revenge and retribution against Afghanistan and Iraq, well over double the number of people killed on 9/11.  We are no safer, and are probably significantly less safe given that Iraq posed no security threat to the U.S. before 9/11 and that we have been busy making enemies across North and East Africa while doing nothing to discourage the impression in the Middle East that we support Israeli imperialism. 

One of the ways in which George W Bush was able to get away with invading Iraq was by muddling the issue.  He and members of his administration lied.  They invented an imminent threat.  They misused intelligence.  They made wild claims without substantiation.  They pretended that Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden were attached at the hip.

On Wednesday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton “suggested there was a link between the Qaeda franchise in North Africa and the attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi, Libya, that killed the American ambassador and three others”.  She provided no evidence for this claim—one which echoed Dick Cheney’s allegations from the last decade—allegations which helped to plunge us into an incredibly destructive, immoral, unnecessary, irresponsible and pointless war in Iraq.  Clinton, a notorious foreign policy radical and proponent of U.S. militarism, needs to shut up and stop making such claims if she’s not going to provide evidence.  Another popular Secretary of State did irreparable harm to the country and discredited himself by misrepresenting intelligence, engaging in irresponsible speculation, and in not thinking through the implications of sewing misinformation and inciting state violence. 

Her husband, Bill Clinton, famously eviscerated progressive politics in the nineties with his unholy strategy of triangulation, which mandated that policy be made constructed not on the basis of any merits or cohesiveness, but based on the appeal of a given policy to the 51st percentile of the electorate.  Obama has introduced this poll-driven policymaking framework into international affairs.  But in that sphere the opportunism is complemented by a capacity for extraordinary destructiveness, and is pulled and pushed unpredictably by a national security apparatus with its own agenda, an intelligence network which has been increasingly militarised under Bush and Obama, jumpy politicians (including the geographically illiterate, warmongering Mitt Romney, who appears to be running for the position of Israeli foreign minister) who, in election year, are ready to lash out at anything resembling a threat, purely for electoral gain.


Early this morning, the Kenyan military with its African Union allies stormed the beaches at Kismayo, an Al Shabab stronghold in Somalia.  Elements of the Kenyan media, along with the Kenyan President, were quick to proclaim victory for their country’s armed forces, in a move typical of their response to Kenya’s invasion of Somalia which has, on the whole, been a great discredit to the Kenyan media. 

Interestingly, the BBC reported that they were told “that the AU forces appeared to include white troops.  There have been numerous reports of U.S. special forces operating against the Islamist militants in Somalia”.  AFRICOM disputed the rumour.  But I’m left wondering.  I sadly do not trust our government to tell us the truth about its military interventions, and I don’t trust them to make good calls about deploying our military or about evaluating the consequences of that deployment.  I don’t believe that their vision of national security is one which reflects the public interest or safety, and I believe that their increasingly-casual use of U.S. military power is a threat to our country and to people around the world.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

California Forever: Why State Parks Matter (2)

A couple of week-ends ago I cajoled some family members into visiting the mission at Carmel, or San Carlos Borroméo de Carmelo Mission.  Looking like something plucked from a Mediterranean hillside and plopped down in California, the Mission is a reminder that California isn’t as “new” a place as we’re often tempted to think.  The labour by Native Americans which went into building and maintaining the missions under Spanish rule marked the end of an earlier era in our state’s history, one in which the pre-Contact population of the state numbered in the hundreds of thousands if not millions.
The Mission at Carmel

Visiting the mission reminded me of California Forever, a two-part film (airing on PBS) about the history of our State Parks and their place in California today (part 1 of this post).  Although not a State Park, the Mission serves analogous purposes.  People worship there.  They visit the museum to learn about their state’s history, about their religion, about Spanish California.  People come to be married.  They visit to walk in the gardens, to smell the flowers. 

Carmel Mission made me think of California Forever because one of the things that the film did very well was to show the extraordinary diversity of California’s State Parks.  Although at one time or another we’ve probably all known better, I suspect that most of us (this was the case for me, perhaps a North State bias) have an image of State Parks as wilderness areas, preserved for their scenic value.  California Forever was a salutary reminder of the multiplicity of purposes served by State Parks.  As Carolyn Finney, a Geographer at Berkeley, put it in her comments after the screening of California Forever at the College of Natural Resources, the film made the point that parks don’t simply exist, they do things, they bring communities together, they compel civic engagement, they teach, they remind, they reflect the changes occurring around us, slowing them down and setting them in stone, in weathered siding, in long-grazed pastures and well-used forests.

Shasta State Historic Park is a monument to the society that grew up around mining in Northern California, and marks the foundational years during which California was incorporated into the United States.  California Forever highlighted Colonel Allensworth State Historical Park, an historic San Joaquin Valley town where black Americans sought to break new ground and carve out a freer kind of life.  Angel Island State Park, the “Ellis Island of the Pacific”, was the first destination for immigrants after they passed through the Golden Gate (many of them during years before the landmark bridge spanned the entrance to the fabulous natural harbour).  It was also, for too many, the place where they first learned of the active discrimination and even hatred they would face.  Today these monuments serve as markers for our history, markers which, some would suggest, are instrumental if we are to find our way in the future. 

But if Parks are places where we can come together and meditate on our shared past, they generate dilemmas of their own.  In some sense, they are a microcosm of our state: growing in population, growing in complexity, posing problems that some would suggest we can only manage, never solve.  There are the ecological difficulties posed by the return of ever-larger number of Elephant Seals to beaches on the Central Coast, their strict protected status almost certainly creating a puzzle down the road for coastal communities which might see more of their coastal land closed to access when the gargantuan seals come ashore.  Snowy Plovers are smaller, posing different spatial constraints, but the Parks are doing their best to work with communities, trying to fence off individual nests the better to maintain access to beaches.  This, of course, costs money, and there are those who would say that the extinction of a small bird is irrelevant.  But many more of us would see such an occurrence as a failure of our supposedly enlightened society, a rebuke to the conceit that we can live sustainably if not harmoniously with our natural surroundings.

Sometimes the problems pit people against one another.  Ocotillo Wells is a premiere off-roading site in the deserts of southern California, but borders the spectacular Anza Borrego Desert State Park.  The “conflict” of interests is often presented as a point of division, but I’d actually see as a triumph the fact that what we’re usually told are irreconcilable interests are not just at the table, but have a fairly good framework for land use in place, one which simply needs maintenance, supervision, and some tinkering from time to time. 

California State Parks also reflect a democratic mindset.  There’s no great shortage of space to roam in northern California, and even in the Bay Area it’s not too difficult to get to some open space at least somewhat removed from the hustle and bustle of city life.  But in a city the size of Los Angeles, hemmed in by suburbs which extend literally beyond the reach of the eye, it’s a somewhat different matter, and the film documents how Angelenos are going about remaking bits of their city into spaces which serve the same physical, social and spiritual purpose as places like Mt Tam or Castle Crags.  The Los Angeles Historic Park and the LA River are being remade into green spaces in that smoggiest of cities, a testament far more to community willpower than the wasteful, soul-crushing bureaucracy that critics would have us believe characterises the interaction of state agencies with state communities.

It seems right that the State Park system should continue to grow, to reflect our communities and our history which, after all doesn’t stop happening.  Parks are a very republican ideal, restricted access to land having been a cornerstone of monarchical and aristocratic privilege, and so perhaps it makes perfect sense, given that California was—however briefly and enticingly—itself a republic, that we should, as Rolf Diamant (formerly of the National Parks Service) suggested, think of continued investment in our state parks as a “refinement of the republic”. 

In California Forever, Kevin Starr, our state’s most prolific historian, described neglect of State Parks as suggestive of something much more significant that budget retrenchment.  The hallmark of a society, he said in the film, is that it makes unshakeably long-term commitments to larger intentions, irrespective of the specific paths that different parties might wish to travel.  To fail with our state parks would be yet one more indicator that California is increasingly a society incapable of making such commitments. 

Starr is an unabashed fan of California, and sees the state as a somewhat extraordinary civilisation, comprised of an incredibly diverse array of people brought together by global forces.  Their journeys here were often difficult and frequently the product of injustice or inequality.  Their welcome in California was often equally unpleasant.  But the California State Parks, Starr suggested, are one of the things that hold our culture together, along with museums and libraries.  They tell everyone’s story.  They tell a collection of stories about where we’ve come from, and another tale about our visceral relationship to our land.  These are important things.

Starr said it very well: “If we lose our state parks it would be the equivalent of losing all the great paintings of California...all the great poems that were written about California, all the great novels, all the great films, all the great architectural monuments.  More importantly, we lose our usable past, the past that defines the present and the future.  We’ll become a people adrift.  A people not knowing who they were, where they came from, what mistakes they made and what things they did right.  We lose the essential premise of stewardship for our culture if we lose the state parks”.

Monday, September 24, 2012

California Forever: Why State Parks Matter (1)

From a vantage point on the Berkeley fire trail, which runs above the University of California campus, walkers and runners have views across a wide expanse of the Bay Area.  Depending on the weather, San Francisco might glitter across a bay which looks still enough to cross on foot, or might consist of the tops of two golden suspension towers jutting out of the fog.  It is a long way down to Oakland’s skyline, the mess of freeways that converge at the Bay Bridge, Alcatraz, Treasure Island, Alameda, the Berkeley Marina and, on a clear day, the Farallon Islands.  The huge urban area is strangely quiet from this vantage point; the noise from the individual vehicles, lives, and neighbourhoods is transformed into a soft hum by the time it makes it up to the top of the East Bay hills.

Castle Crags
Life in a crowded urban landscape becomes liveable because of spaces like this, and from the hill, you can see any number of similar areas: Robert W Crown Memorial State Beach, Eastshore State Park, Candlestick Point State Recreational Area, San Bruno Mountain State Park, Angel Island State Park, Mt Diablo State Park, Mt Tamalpais State Park.  And then there are the Regional Parks, including Tilden and Wildcat Canyon, and the East Bay MUD lands, with their still reservoirs and quiet trails.  Growing up, we were surrounded by such peaceful areas, but it was nonetheless a treat to visit places like the Burney Falls Memorial State Park, Castle Crags State Park, or Trinidad State Beach that were set aside expressly for the purpose.  School field trips took us to Shasta State Historical Park and to Bidwell Mansion State Historical Park (after visiting the mansion we’d have lunch and play soccer in Bidwell-Sacramento River State Park).

These are the kinds of areas that sprung to mind when I had the opportunity to watch a screening of the film California Forever at the College of Natural Resources here at Berkeley.  This was a beautiful, two-part homage to the California State Parks, their creation, their character, and their maintenance, in the form of a special which is airing on PBS.  The footage was truly stunning, the narration compelling, the story sweeping.  I felt like standing up and pointing every time I recognised a beautiful spot along the foggy coast or amongst the verdant redwood forests.  The screening was followed by a conversation with writers/directors/producers David Vassar and Sally Kaplan, Carolyn Finney (of Berkeley’s Geography Department), Rolf Diamant (formerly of the U.S. National Parks), and Caryl Hart (Chair of the State Park and Recreation Commission). 

The news about the undiscovered funds at Parks and Recreation didn’t come out until after the film was finished, but what has become an obsession and casus belli for the Parks’ critics didn’t change the story for Vassar and Kaplan, who spoke with tearful commitment about the many parks they’d been able to visit.  Their film, which I have to admit tugged quite forcefully at my heartstrings, suggested that it is particularly urgent, if we as a society are to remain optimistic about a better future, to hold the line where things like state parks are concerned at a time when they seem less essential.  Parks are, if you like, Big Small Things.  Less obviously essential than things like health, roads and schools, less apparently omnipresent than death and taxes, they are nonetheless essential in a different kind of way, for the solace and community, the beauty and splendour that they offer. 

I’ve suspected from the beginning that Governor Jerry Brown’s move to close State Parks was a gimmick.  Others have pointed out that the money saved does virtually nothing more than throw pennies at the budget deficit, while actually hammering communities that depend on those parks.  This was confirmed by Hart, who recalled that as Chair of the State Parks Commission she was not consulted before Brown’s announcement.  There was, as far as she and her colleagues were concerned, no rationale behind individual closures, no process of consultation, no serious thought.  It was, in other words, vintage Brown: carless, shoot-from-the-hip, made for the headlines rather than the long-term. 

Hart, together with the filmmakers, paid tribute to the “uprising of the public to make sure that parks did not close”, and cited the 70 parks maintained by coalitions of public and private groups of citizens.  That people would work so hard and give up much time and money at a time of great social and economic uncertainty should certainly be read as a tribute to the importance of the parks.  This grassroots movement is, of course, nothing new: it is the manner, as the film conveys, in which our parks came into being.

Hart seemed sincerely committed to seeking to reinvigorate the organisation, a task which will be admittedly difficult if it goes underfunded—there is currently a billion-odd dollars in deferred maintenance, a figure which mocks the claims of the critics who seek to use the $54 million stash as an argument against funding parks.  Diamant, drawing on his experience at the federal level and in Vermont (where he is currently closely engaged with parks) suggested that the parks need to be about relationships, relevancy and reciprocity.  All three Rs highlight the urgency of engaging Californians with no long tradition of using parks.  Such re-engagement might change the way in which parks are managed, but it would not mark a real change.  The strong environmental component of parks has always been complemented by a communitarian spirit.  It would simply be a matter of accounting for different communities which have emerged since the earlier great wave of parks foundations.

But all of this will require a change in our collective political mindset.  “You know what the response in Sacramento was [to the public backlash against closing the parks]?” Hart asked.  “Zero”.