Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Would Jerry Brown Make a Good President?

Unsure of whether to laugh or cry, I instead sought to wake myself from what I was sure would prove to be nothing more than a particularly vivid nightmare.  But despite my best efforts, the headline would not go away.  I instead decided to concentrate my efforts on dismissing what was manifestly an absurd proposition.  After all, a White House run by California’s Governor would require a king-sized dose of delusion, an outsized ego, the ability to misrepresent accomplishments and mislead about ambitions, combined with the ability to flip and flop along the Clintons, who wrote the book on political reinvention. 
And then my head sunk into my hands, for I realised that I had just described Jerry Brown. 
The LA Times article led off with a recitation of homilies that may very well have been written by Brown’s own office.  They were certainly written by someone who is unfamiliar with the state of California, a descriptor that could be accurately applied to Brown, who appears to live in another state, Denial.
According to author Mark Barabak, Brown “boasts a household name, an impressive list of accomplishments in the country’s most populous state some once deemed ungovernable—glowing national media coverage and a deep familiarity with the pitfalls and rigors of a White House bid, having run three times before”.
Brown undoubtedly offers experience and name recognition.  But I strenuously disagree with the idea that Brown has accomplishments in California of which he can be proud, or that he has contributed to making California more governable than it was when he was elected in 2010.  But the article persists in this vein.  “The governor”, it notes, “has widely touted California’s comeback and his record as a model for the rest of the country and, especially, a dysfunctional Washington, D.C.  With support from an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature—and a combination of spending cuts and voter-approved tax hikes—Brown has brought the state’s deficit ridden budget under control, overhauled the education finance system to benefit poorer students, pushed through major environmental initiatives and reaped the benefits—job growth, an improved housing market—of a slow but steady economic recovery”.
Before dispatching the honesty of that portrayal of Brown—cultivated by a vapid national press establishment which comes crawling to hear the Governor’s tiresome homilies—let us deal with the blindingly obvious.  The “successes” that Barabak credits to Brown came as a result of California’s peculiar conditions.  No president is likely to have Democratic supermajorities in Congress.  And the president cannot—and should not—engage in ballot-box budget writing. 
Now on to the real problem with this Panglossian interpretation of our Governor, who resembles less some classical sage in the agora of the “new California” than an addled Nero, fiddling to some orchestra only he can hear atop a social and economic tinderbox. 
Brown’s accomplishments are remarkable in one respect...that they have been tolerated by California’s voters.  Elected Governor by a progressive coalition, he spent two years shredding the state’s social net with a frighteningly deliberate vigour.  He then persuaded voters to pass cosmetic tax increases which he sold as a “fix” but which will do nothing over the long term to address the state’s striking democratic deficit, or the momentum his tenure has given to the fundamentalist doctrine of austerity. 
Jerry Brown is like a thug who mugs someone on the street, takes $50, later returns the victim $10, and expects them to be grateful.  With Brown, it’s always one step forward and two—or three—steps back.
The notion that his tenure in California provides a “model” for the country is risible.  Brown’s model is only any good if you can endorse his punitive assault on public libraries, public parks, public schools, public universities, care for children, and support for the young, the sick, the weak, and the poor.  He balanced the budget on the backs of the working class in a way that has eviscerated California’s civil society and has made some of our state’s most treasured institutions—like the University of California—dramatically more unequal places. 
Far from being novel, this is what Republicans in D.C. have been clamouring for.  Brown has totally ignored the democratic deficit in California, a deficit manifested in the infamous Prop 13 (with its supermajority requirements and tax restrictions), in the disjuncture between the power and responsibilities of voters, in the disconnected nature of the state’s formal and informal governing structures, and in the antiquated voting system California shares with the national government.  By selling his pet initiative as a “fix”, Brown has made it infinitely more difficult for future state leaders to explain to voters that no, nothing was really fixed, and we might need more from them.
Brown has advanced the argument that tax increases in California should require a public vote (of course the same would not apply to cuts to social welfare), a move which is not only a signal abdication of responsibility on his own part, but which introduces an extraordinary degree of uncertainty into an already farcical political process.  He has also proved totally unwilling to do anything with the supermajorities his progressive coalition has won for his party.  Brown has justified the state’s retreat from responsibility in many spheres through his crackpot exposition of “subsidiarity”, which he promptly violates as he seeks to micromanage California’s Universities into marketplaces rather than institutes of higher learning.
The Los Angeles Times quoted Rose Ann DeMoro, a Brown political ally, as saying, “I think Jerry is precisely what America needs.  He has the courage of his convictions, which we haven’t seen in a very long while”. 
Not to put too fine a point on it, but DeMoro is nuts.  California has not become more governable under Jerry Brown.  It has become a place where our governing principles, our governing institutions, and our governors themselves are increasingly dysfunctional, deluded, and disordered.  We live in a place where corrupt prison quotas count for more than children, and where only an abjectly amoral cynic like Brown could thrive as a politician.  Brown governs with more myopic Zen than communitarian zest, more inspired by what the polls whisper than by what any moral compass tells him.
That he looks like an improvement over Hillary Clinton says more about how appalling the prospect of a Clinton Coronation is than about any qualities that our Governor brings to the table.  There are good, progressive candidates like Elizabeth Warren who are committed to an affirmative program that transcends their personal ambitions.  Brown offers no such commitment.  His most recent tenure in California has been a case study in political malpractice, and as maddening as the rest of the country might be, I wouldn’t wish Jerry Brown on anyone! 

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Elizabeth Warren Offers a Good Alternative to Hillary Clinton’s Corporatism

“Four more years!  Four more years!”

Those were the chilling chants echoing around the 2004 Republican National Convention, prelude to the re-election of a right-wing fundamentalist, who launched a global war of terror, and whose administration fed lies to the public to launch an illegal war of aggression on Iraq.  George W Bush’s fundamentalism did not stop at his cruise-missile evangelism.  He enacted sweeping tax breaks for the wealthy, allowed his Vice-President (with long-standing connections to the oil industry) to write his energy policy, initiated an epic civil liberties grab by the security state, and rolled back regulations designed to protect workers and consumers.
In many of these actions—the war of terror, the Patriot Act, a punitive bankruptcy bill, the Iraq War—he was supported by a woman who was supposedly a leading progressive light in the Democratic Party.  Presumed incumbent in 2008, Hillary Clinton went on to serve as Secretary of State for President Obama, in which office she reaffirmed her neoconservative credentials: she argued for an escalation of the war in Afghanistan; she lobbied for expanding the global war of terror; and she backed Middle Eastern dictators when they faced popular uprisings during the Arab Spring.
Now Clinton is positioning herself for another presidential bid, and is assumed to be in an even better position than in 2008.  Her hatchet-men and –women in the Democratic Party are trying to scare other candidates off.  Even more tellingly, Clinton is transforming herself into a flunky for the financial sector, telling the plutocrats that criticism of their greed and excess is “unproductive and indeed foolish”. 
Mind-bogglingly, Clintons adorers in the Democratic Party do not seem put off by the knowledge that she disdains them and their cause, or her suggestion that there is no room for the grass roots (who are responsible for virtually all political advancements) in today’s Democratic Party.  But not everyone is enthusiastic about the idea of the Clinton Coronation that the former Secretary of State and her husband are hoping to engineer.  Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer suggested that progressives should think twice about electing “the Hillary that says, ‘I’m already going to win the Democratic nomination, and so I can shift hard right on Day 1’”. 
Criticising Obama as overly “corporatist”, Schweitzer argued that a Clinton presidency would likely constitute four more years of George W Bush: “We can’t afford any more hard fight.  We had eight years of George Bush”. 
Schweitzer, of course, is saying this in the hopes that he can emerge as a populist anti-Clinton candidate.  But Schweitzer’s populism is not terribly progressive...more of a pose than anything serious.  He and his defenders sell the former Governor as a “fiscal conservative and social liberal”, the ultimate political pass, wherein a politician declares themselves “progressive” on largely settled social questions while embracing doctrinaire right-wing positions on the economic issues which most impact people’s lives and which render many of their “socially liberal” questions moot.
Schweitzer and others of this mould are progressives of convenience.  Given a cosy political environment, they will fund education, support healthcare reform, and protect pensions.  But when faced by a budget crisis they fall back on the mantra that being able to claim they cut taxes and balanced a budget is more important than people’s livelihoods.
Schweitzer’s criticisms of Clinton are accurate.  But if Democrats want to challenge Clinton and the neoliberal consensus she represents, they need someone who can simultaneously advance a populist critique of capitalism and suggest a remedy that involves more than wielding a cattle brand against unpopular opponents.  Progressives will need a leader who doesn’t stop with criticism of unpopular corporate profiteering, but who can support them as they make the next step towards tackling many of the popular assumptions concerning the choices available to us as a society.
Regular readers will of course be unsurprised that I think that Elizabeth Warren, the Senator from Massachusetts, would be the best candidate to support the working class as it seeks to reclaim our country from the plutocratic and corporate interests which are hijacking our governing system to aid their unconscionable profiteering.  Warren has been consistent in pointing out the impunity with which financial criminals and profiteers operate in Washington, D.C.  Her ability to connect our democratic deficit to the rampant inequality which has come to characterise life in the United States has the potential to make her a conduit for a reinvigorated progressive movement in the United States. 
Unlike Obama and Clinton, who spent their Senate years scratching backs and sponsoring anodyne legislation, Warren is fashioning a record of advocacy which builds on her work for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and her consistent public critiques of the interests which engineer economic inequality to the detriment of the working class.  Warren has spoken out strongly on banking regulation, student loan reform, and discrimination in hiring, as well as on the growing inequities of opportunity in the U.S.
Progressives can hope that Warren expands her advocacy to include pushing for energy reform, ending U.S. terrorism abroad, reforming the oversized security state, redistributing wealth which has been directed to an anti-social elite, protecting the labour rights of the working class, re-investing in education, shoring up the safety net, and investing in an economy which replaces monopoly with forms of collective ownership. 
Given the speed with which business and party leaders are coalescing around Hillary Clinton, progressives can’t expect the Democratic Party to allow for a genuinely open primary, and must take the initiative and make it clear that a corporatist like Clinton is unacceptable to a country which needs to close its democratic deficit and address growing economic inequality, two sides of the same coin. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Berkeley Remembers Mandela...and California Forgets his Lessons

On Saturday, members of the Berkeley community—from campus and the town—converged on Sproul Plaza to commemorate the life of Nelson Mandela, the South African freedom fighter, peace-maker, and President who died recently. 
The Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir at 'Biko Hall'

A small group of students, faculty, administrators, and community members gathered to hear remarks from the Chancellor, students and faculty, Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, and the Speaker of the Assembly, John Perez.  The speeches were punctuated by performances, including one by the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir, and the ceremony concluded with a candlelight vigil on the steps of Sproul Hall.
The location was poignant, for it was on those steps of that building—renamed Biko Hall by students in the 1980s in recognition of the young anti-apartheid activist murdered by the South African security services—that the Berkeley community once staked out its commitment to ending the apartheid regime that imprisoned Mandela and many of his colleagues and sought to break the spirit of non-white South Africans through a system of racial segregation which dominated all aspects of social, economic, political, and cultural life in South Africa for over forty years.
In actions documented in the film Soweto to Berkeley, students (and a handful of faculty) demanded that the University of California’s Board of Regents divest from South Africa to contribute to the global campaign to dismantle apartheid.  The UC Regents not only refused to concede that students had any right to make moral claims about where the tuition they paid to the University should be invested, but turned the police loose on demonstrators, unleashing violence on campus which though small in its scale was all too reminiscent in its viciousness of that wielded by the South African state against its colonial subjects.
It took years of protest before the Regents gave in to the demands of their constituents, during which time many global citizens rallied to the cause of South Africans resisting apartheid.  California Congressman Ron Dellums echoed his community by introducing a bill imposing sanctions on South Africa.  Ronald Reagan, who with Margaret Thatcher was one of the apartheid government's staunchest defenders on the international stage, vetoed the bill, but was overridden by Congress (sanctions were supported even by the likes of Newt Gingrich, who last week was attacked by other right-wingers for having supported Mandela). 
These events seem very long ago to many.  Indeed, one passer-by paused behind me to ask what the ceremony was for.  I said it was for Mandela, and he pointed to the sign-language translator on the steps of Sproul, and asked if that was Mandela.
Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner and Speaker Perez
But for others, the events of the 1980s were lived history, and Mandela’s passing was all the more important to commemorate for that reason.  Assemblywoman Skinner helped to lead the student divestment campaign, and she and other speakers recalled what an uphill struggle they had faced in campaigning for a cause which was not popular at the time.  One speaker praised Chancellor Nicholas Dirks, remarking that in the 1980s you couldn’t have found UC administrators willing to attend an event at which Mandela was praised.  In the 1980s, Mandela was not in vogue, whereas the outsized profits which could accrue to corporations from investing in a country with a vast and exploitable labour reservoir were very popular.
But that remark demonstrates how, even as the Berkeley community commemorates Mandela and his legacy, the leadership of the University and the state are forgetting many of his lessons.  Today, Mandela is a “safe” topic for Dirks and Speaker Perez.  Less safe is one of the unpopular causes of our era: censuring Israeli colonialism in Palestine. 
Speaker Perez was demonstrating an expansive capacity for hypocrisy when he praised Mandela out of one side of his mouth.  He did, after all, support a bill which demanded that criticism of Israeli colonialism be regarded as anti-Semitism.  This bill was designed to stifle free speech in California’s universities, which are supposed to be open and intellectually-honest spaces.  It is all too easy to imagine how if students were protesting South African apartheid in today’s climate, politicians would seek to silence them by passing legislation equating support for Mandela with support for “terrorism”. 
Today, Berkeley’s administration expresses great hostility towards those students advocating divestment from Israeli colonialism—even when student proposals for such divestment narrowly target investment in the Israeli military, and couple such calls with similar language applying to Palestinian groups.  This hostility—whipped up by the powerful, irresponsible, and untruthful Israeli lobby—is shared by state legislators, including Perez’ colleague Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the Senate.  Steinberg and other legislators have written letters seeking to ensure that campus and system administrators resist the introduction of morality into their behaviour and finances.  
So although Dirks, Perez, and other administrators and state politicians would like to link themselves to Mandela’s legacy, they are in fact occupying the same role that their predecessors did in defending something which is unconscionable—then South African colonialism, today Israeli colonialism—but also comfortable in the face of moral critiques from their constituents, whether students or Californian voters. 
Some student speakers at Saturday’s events had the courage to point out the hypocrisy—or perhaps consistency—of the administration and of politicians.  The critique appeared lost on the beaming Perez, but George Breslauer—one of the administrators most hostile towards and contemptuous of student activism--stalked, pouting out of Sproul Plaza the moment the current divestment campaign was raised.
Mandela and others veterans of the anti-apartheid struggle have themselves called attention to the brutal anachronism that is Israeli colonialism in the twenty-first century.  They speak with experience and moral authority when they ridicule the premise of the U.S. government, that it is possible for peoples to find peace if one group is held in subjugation to another, an absurd premise which echoes the Reagan era policy of “constructive engagement”, which involved writing blank checks to the apartheid government.
If we want to remember Mandela’s legacy, we should also think about the lessons of South Africans’ struggle, and we should ensure that those lessons are not lost on those who claim to support liberty even as their actions constrain the freedom of others and prevent members of our community from making moral claims about how and where we should invest our economic and political resources. 

Saturday, December 14, 2013

When the Police Become the Problem

In the past few years, political developments in the U.S. have called significant attention to the role of the police in our society.  The violence with which police handled campus protests in California and Occupations across the country has demonstrated that the “public safety” role of those police is entirely secondary in explaining their actions.

Their primary role has been in seeking to crush protest.  This is disturbing because it means that police forces have been taking sides in political disputes, effectively enforcing the economic inequality which has come to characterise our society.  Their role on university campuses has been in stifling free speech and in preventing university communities from debating the growing inequality and inaccessibility which characterises institutions of higher education.
The outcome is a clear loss of legitimacy for law enforcement, which cannot maintain its authority if it is obviously working to serve particular interests in our society (plutocrats in New York or administrators on campuses).
But there are other, perhaps even more sinister ways in which some police forces and departments have been corrupted.  Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop: the Militarization of America’s Police Forces illustrates how police are increasingly equipped, trained, and deployed as though they are occupying a country full of “hostiles” to be subdued.  If we consider this alongside the outlook of the national security apparatus—which spies on the people in the service of the military-intelligence complex, rather than serving the interest of the public—is becomes clear that the public welfare is increasingly being subordinated to a violent, paranoid vision of “security” promulgated by soldiers, spies, and the “warrior cops” of Balko’s title.
The video is worth watching in full.  It displays the arrogance of power and the manner in which structural incentivising of corrupt and violent behaviours can dehumanise citizens and turn public safety officers into so many thugs whose actions will ultimately shatter rather than shield communities.
It also represents a worrying trend in our country that we should do our best to reverse. 

Friday, December 13, 2013

Hillary Clinton: Flunky For the 1%

Mother Jones has reported that a team of right-wing crackpots is working on a film to attack former Secretary of State and Once and Future Presidential Candidate Hillary Clinton.  The centrepiece will undoubtedly be the non-scandal that was Benghazi, and we can expect the film to be substance-free, in common with most strands of right-wing hysteria. 
However, just as their failed efforts in 2008 had a by-product that was the terrible Citizens United decision (corporations are people and money is free speech—the central platform of the twenty-first century Republican Party), their efforts before 2016 might have a similarly unintended consequence: the unchallenged election of Hillary Clinton.
Too many Democrats remain convinced today that they can chalk down election losses in 2004 and 2010 to the lack of discipline which supposedly defines them in opposition to the GOP, which marches in lock-step to the authoritarian strains of its thought-police, who deliver their message through talk radio and discipline their troops through the Koch Empire and similar ilk.
Democrats’ new inclination is to close ranks in the face of all criticism.  And because too many Democrats are prepared to uncritically accept Hillary Clinton as the party’s standard-bearer in 2016, they are reflexive in defending her.  The same money and networks which twice propelled President Obama to high office will likely do the same for Clinton who, if I read the signs aright, will have considerable backing from Wall Street if (when) she runs.
And progressives should look carefully at what a Clinton presidency might mean, given both her record and the things she is saying today.  Entirely aside from her support for American terrorism, her backing of the Iraq War, and her hostility to the democratic uprisings in the Middle East that she sought to squelch when Secretary of State, Clinton needs to answer for the arguments she is advancing about our national economy.
Economic equality is increasingly recognised to be the foremost challenge facing our country today.  The minimum wage looks positively paltry measured against the rising costs of living in the United States.  CEO salaries have risen dramatically against those of workers and are today literally hundreds of times higher.  The same interests which lobby our government to strip away protections for consumers and citizens—whether those are environmental, financial, or workplace protections—simultaneously lobby for massive corporate welfare packages to shore up their already stratospheric fortunes.
Social differences aside, both the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street developed critiques of capitalism.  The onslaught of winter, the disinterest of the media, and assaults by the security state chipped away at the latter, and the former were captured by the plutocrats, their grass-roots having been persuaded to turn themselves into a lobby for the very people under-cutting their quality of life.
Today, with the Obama administration belatedly responding to the public’s clamour for inequality to be addressed, the plutocrats are looking for friends.
The critiques of Wall Street, Clinton reportedly assured the assembled elites, were “unproductive and indeed foolish”.  Clinton has good reason to be putting forward this line which suggests that she doesn’t understand the link between plutocratic profiteering and the falling fortunes of the working class in the United States.  She is paid, after all, as much as $200,000 for talking to firms like Goldman Sachs. 
Clinton gave two speeches to Goldman Sachs, netting $400,000.  But she is not nearly so accessible to the public or to the media which has the responsibility of reporting her words to the people who she will likely be asking for votes in due course. 
The San Francisco Chronicle recently wrote about “Clinton’s moves to bar mainstream and social media coverage at major speeches”, documenting the restrictions the Clinton Cabal placed on both media and attendees.  Clinton and her followers earlier shut down a serious investigative film which sought to document her political career.  Political strategists read this as simply a case of the candidate trying to control the message.  But when “controlling the message” involves shutting up the media, shutting down scrutiny, and shutting out the public, there is a more serious problem.
This problem is compounded when it is revealed that Clinton dismisses those who want to talk about inequality and the irresponsible behaviour of the financial sector as “foolish”, demonstrating where her sympathies lie and what short shrift the working class can expect from a candidate who has already sent their sons and daughters to kill and be killed in the imperial wars of the United States.
I can tell Mrs Clinton what is “foolish”, and also “insulting”: it’s when an aspiring presidential candidate, ostensibly representing a progressive political party, dismisses what should be her constituency and becomes a paid flunky of the interests who have consistently put their greed ahead of the well-being of the country. 
Democrats should not defend Hillary Clinton reflexively.  Instead they should reject outright the candidacy of the warmongering politician who has so transparently rejected their concerns.  There are real progressives in the party—including the likes of Elizabeth Warren—who would take their responsibilities to their constituents seriously.  Above all, they should avoid being marched by the Democratic Party machine into a scenario where their only choice is also the plutocrats’ choice. 

Thursday, December 12, 2013

As Assembly Follows Students’ Lead, Jerry Brown Looks Lonely on Higher Ed Funding

Jerry Brown | Photo: ohad/Flickr/Creative Commons License

But the Daily Californian has now reported that “Democrats in the state Assembly announced plans Wednesday to expand funding for the UC system”.  The Assembly Speaker (John Perez) and the Assemblywoman who represents Berkeley (Nancy Skinner) led the charge to restore funds to the state’s two university systems—UC and the even larger and more belagured California State University.
In doing so, progressive Democrats are answering charges that they have been reticent to use the supermajorities they were awarded by voters in 2012 after years of Republican Party misrule from its minority perch (empowered by Prop 13).  And whether the four years of student protest are what drove their actions or not, those protests were critical to reminding Californians and their elected representatives that there are serious costs to the privatisation of higher education, costs which are felt by those who represent our state’s future.
Calling for such funding is significant more for the gesture than for its immediate impact on students and the state, and more for the momentum it could represent than for the actual scale of the funds, which are not likely to lead to the reduction of the sky-high tuition which makes UC public in name only.  But Perez’ belief that this budget is an opportunity to “show some of the key priorities that will be shaping the discussion” suggests that Democrats realise how far they have strayed from any sort of commitment to the public good in recent years.
But there is one Democrat who will resist the restoration of funding—however small—to California’s Universities, and he is the one Democrat in a position to halt any renewed commitment to our public institutions, which serve as the bulwark for California’s citizenry.
I speak, of course, of Governor Jerry Brown, who faces re-election in 2014 and is fond of portraying himself as a Democrat even Republican fundamentalists can love.  Brown has turned himself into the very embodiment of austerity, and although his long-term design for the University of California is as opaque as his other policy ambitions or lack thereof, his short-term goals have tended towards subjecting UC to a punishing transformation from a citadel of learning into a kind of educational WalMart.
Brown has insisted on thinking of the University as a market, and if we take him at his word, he is interested in offering an inferior, devalued product to squeezed customers.  That product will be offered by an increasingly ill-treated workforce in an increasingly hostile workplace. 
Of course if we insist on thinking of education as a public good that should be available to any of California’s citizens who has the desires and qualifications to attend the University, we would be equally disturbed, because Brown is demanding that the University abandon the public spirit of its mission and focus on turning itself into a monetised, instrumentalist institution wherein the wealthiest students pay whatever the market can squeeze out of them while other Californians fall between the cracks.
Brown’s idea of the University does not emerge from any deep consideration.  Rather, it comes from the political miscalculation which he doggedly re-writes as some wacky moral imperative to chop away at public institutions out of the misplaced belief that the  leaner, meaner University of the GOP fundamentalists’ dreams would be able to do the same job as the well-funded institution staffed by well-paid faculty and workers and attended by well-supported students.
Brown’s high-water mark was probably the 2012 election, where he reaped the electoral fruits of his austerity drive.  But the fact that just one year after his Proposition 30—which he promised would “fix” higher education for California—passed, he is threatening “gigantic” tuition increases is making clear to Californians just how untrustworthy and uncommitted the Governor is.
In the Assembly, with the backing of California’s students, progressives are offering to commit more funds to UC, and Californians should demand a commitment from that same body to returning UC and CSU over time to their public status by assuming the funding burden as the representatives of the state’s citizenry.
If he fails to seize what is certain to be his last opportunity to accomplish anything significant for California, he might win a hollow election victory next year by walking some vacuous centrist line.  But he will live out his days as Governor as a marginal, obstructionist figure, intent on holding California back rather than on allowing our Republic to make good on its obligations to its citizens.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

At Berkeley (Review)

There is something deeply flattering about watching a film set in the place where you live out your own banal existence, an existence which is suddenly given an expanded significance by dint of its presence on the big screen.
For citizens of the People’s Republic of Berkeley, Frederick Wiseman’s At Berkeley, has this precise effect.  Filmed as a series of glimpses into daily life at the University of California campus in the autumn of 2010, the film proceeds without an instantaneously identifiable narrative and without identifying any of the students, professors, or administrators whose conversations occupy the screen.
When At Berkeley is shown at Berkeley, of course, some of those cues are unnecessary, as depending on their vantage point, most of us have a good idea of the villains and heroes of this particular piece.  Because although Wiseman’s film is ostensibly an exercise in portraiture or simple truth-telling (I understand the correct term to be cinema verite), it was shot over a twelve weeks in which student discontent rose along with tuition rates as the administration struggled to define what kind of an institution it was seeking to create.  Campus characters are filmed as they go about their business, and no one is speaking directly to the camera.
There are several different kinds of episodes in the film.  Firstly, there are incursions into classrooms across fields: literature, public policy, urban planning, engineering, and various sciences I wouldn’t know how to label.  In the scientific fields these episodes tend to showcase some of the spectacular work being done on campus and at the National Labs which Berkeley runs.  An unmediated ten-minute interval with a Nobel Prize winner leaves most of the cinema audience in the dust, a feeling that might be analogous to that felt by scientists after Wiseman throws us into an English lecture discussing the works of John Donne. 
In the humanistic and social scientific classes, the episodes serve a different kind of purpose.  The snippets of discussions between star professors and students in more intimate courses than most Cal students would recognise showcase the ability of the University to foster critical thinking and engage clearly brilliant students in sophisticated discussions about the state of the world.  These moments also help to build a critique of the instrumentalisation of the University which is occurring literally as they speak. 
These are a wonderful commercial for the University, but by showcasing celebrity faculty (and admittedly touching on the controversy surrounding the University’s efforts to retain them, efforts which often come at the cost of other faculty or students) teaching seminar-style classrooms, they present an experience which is not necessarily characteristic of students at Berkeley.  My jaw dropped when I saw the luxury of some of the classrooms.  I’ve taught in a half-dozen buildings on campus and attended events in probably a dozen others and haven’t ever seen classrooms and facilities as nice as these.  The film presented an inner sanctum and level of intimacy (a celebrated professor of Global Poverty and Practice calls on her dozen students by name) alien to many students at Berkeley. 
The film also documents conversations amongst student groups about the opportunities Berkeley provides to former military personnel, and the struggles that black students experience on a campus which has recently come under criticism for its lack of diversity. 
Each episode is separated from the next by gorgeous shots of the campus, of students walking to class, studying in the halls or on balmy Memorial Glade, of maintenance workers cleaning steps or mowing the lawn, and examples of Berkeley’s quirky charm on Sproul Plaza.  Some of these occur jarringly, as when the camera cuts from an intensely earnest conversation in a global poverty class to an a capella group entertaining students and administrators on the lawn of the Chancellor’s mansion. 
For those of us who walk across this beautiful place on a daily basis, these scenes are perhaps less interesting than the series of conversations amongst administrators that Wiseman documents.  He might enable a critique of Operation Excellence—Berkeley’s ill-advised austerity drive—but the hero of the film, presented in soft colours in plush offices, is the man responsible for the corporatisation of Berkeley, former Chancellor Robert Birgeneau. 
The film portrays Birgeneau and his colleagues, working earnestly at University House and California Hall for the good of public education, as fundamentally mis-understood and wrongly-maligned by students and other critics.  Birgeneau and other members of Operation Excellence, very acutely conscious of the camera in the room, repeatedly portray their efforts as the only hope of rescuing Berkeley’s public character.  Whether or not these meetings and conversations contained dissenting voices or any diversity of opinion, they were left out of the film, and these segments read like an administration-created infomercial for the integrity of their efforts as they work against what is portrayed as a bloated and ossified campus community.
The only serious critiques come from juxtaposition, as when the slimy, self-congratulatory culture of Operation Excellence meetings are contrasted with former Labor Secretary and Public Policy Professor Robert Reich telling his students how important it is for decision-makers to surround themselves with people unafraid to criticise them. 
There are other good moments, as when it is pointed out how when students pile up debt, irrespective of their major, their career trajectory will be bent by the weight of that debt towards the need to pay off overwhelming loans rather than towards public service or any moral imperative.  Thus the problems of Birgeneau’s high-fees plus high-aid approach not only remain at the point of access, but have tremendous implications for the shape of our workforce and society.
No one has the opportunity to point out that when Birgeneau claims he is defending public education, he is misunderstanding what public education actually is.  A good that is public is one which is paid for by revenue collected from society at large and is then offered to citizens of that society at no cost upon their entry.  Berkeley and the University of California as a whole are nothing of the kind at this stage, and although state divestment bears primary responsibility for their privatisation, the basic dishonesty of the administration, and its enthusiasm for privatisation, are grating, particularly when presented so as fulsomely as Wiseman does. 
At the end of the day, Wiseman has created a beautiful portrait of a beautiful place.
But in his efforts to document the battle for Berkeley’s soul, he suffers from the same problem as an embedded journalists in any battle zone.  His documentary is asymmetric coverage of an asymmetric conflict. 
In its latter stages, it covers campus protests and the blow-by-blow efforts of the administration to contain those protests.  Each group both deliberated and acted, but the film is uneven in its treatment of these events.  Administrators are portrayed meeting in some kind of Situation Room, rapping out commands, huddling with campus security, conferring with the campus librarian when students storm the reading room in Doe Library.  Birgeneau and his team might as well be Obama and his cabinet in the moments leading up to the Bin Laden assassination.
Students, by contrast, are almost Taliban-esque, shouting, moving, lurching around the careening camera in chaotic scenes, and both Birgeneau and the filmmaker marvel at the disjointed nature of their demands.
But in such confrontations, each “side” should be documented not only in terms of its deliberations (only illustrated on the administration side), but in terms of the consequences of its actions (only illustrated in the case of the students).  As those of us on campus in those days know, the slick deliberations in California Hall degenerated into spectacular violence when police blasted students with rubber bullets, beat them with batons, and crushed them with riot shields and fences.  And the fragmentation of student protests belies the serious efforts of organisers to develop a message, secure buy-in from different constituencies, and bring thousands of students together to engage in a campaign of protest.
Chancellor Birgeneau and Provost George Breslauer are openly contemptuous of students, making a deliberate choice to see them as adversaries rather than allies.  Birgeneau’s most obnoxious moment in the film comes when his ego gets the better of him and he boasts about his own activist past, portraying the 1960s protests as organised, monolithic in their messaging and constituencies, and instantaneously effective, ignoring the time lapse between the earliest of civil rights/anti-Vietnam war/anti-poverty/feminist/free speech protests, and their coherence into a mass movement. 
The administration’s historical illiteracy extends further.  They compare themselves to Clark Kerr, one of UC’s most fabled if controversial leaders, noting that students had eviscerated a man who the same community now looks upon much more favourably.  But there is a critical difference.  Students famously misread Kerr’s description of the multiversity in his The Uses of the University as an endorsement of the novel institutional form.  With Birgeneau and his colleagues on the other hand, we have concrete examples of their individual efforts to transform and diminish UC, whether in their advocacy for differential tuition and the slow break-up of UC, in their abandonment of the public that is these days so lukewarm about its University, and as documented in this film, their open contempt for their students as lazy, misguided, and disorganised, charges which no students, faculty, or staff are given the opportunity to contest in the form of their own meetings or deliberations.
At more than one point in the film, I could almost feel the cool fall air reverberate to the bells in Sather Tower on this wonderful campus of this wonderful institution.  But the film fails to do justice to the politics which it attempts to document, and in today’s climate—with our Governor threatening tuition increases and California no more governable than it was in 2010, with Operation Excellence going full steam ahead—it felt very much like an epitaph for an institution whose glory years, given its conflicted history, are perhaps as mythic as its rescue by the forces of the market today.  

Thursday, December 5, 2013

Remembering Mandela

Nelson Mandela died earlier today, and the world is mourning his passing and evaluating his legacy.  The fact that many South Africans believed that he actually died during the summer and that his death was covered up at the time by the government suggests what a long way the African National Congress—the party to which he dedicated his life in the service of South Africa—has to go to regain the levels of trust Mandela commanded.

Today Mandela is universally celebrated, including by those who sought to frustrate the ANC during its years of struggle, and his story is all the better known thanks to the recent film Invictus which foregrounded the powers of forgiveness he sternly demanded from South Africans at the end of apartheid.  But few are likely to appreciate just how powerfully symbolic were his efforts to unify his country in light of his own personal experiences and those of the people who, with his election, won back their humanity from a government which dehumanised them, imprisoned them, and waged war on them.
Mandela is best remembered for his advocacy of forgiveness and nonviolence.  But he was sent into decades of imprisonment when he and the ANC realised that they had struck a rock in efforts to negotiate with the National Party which won power in 1949 and proceeded to implement a system of apartheid, a form of racial segregation which began by separating people according to race, proceeded to press one group of people into the service of an economy which benefited only white South Africans, and built a formidable police and security state to secure white hegemony.
Mandela helped to form Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the ANC, and it was when he was taken to a show trial by the apartheid government that he uttered his famous speech articulating both the tradition in which he worked for freedom, and hints of the aspirations towards harmony for which he is now so celebrated:
“In my youth in the Transkei I listened to the elders of my tribe telling stories of the old days.  Amongst the tales they related to me were those of wars fought by our ancestors in defence of the fatherland.  The names of Dingane and Bambata, Hintsa and Makana, Squngthi and Dalasile, Moshoeshoe and Sekhukhuni, were praised as the glory of the entire African nation.
“During my lifetime I have dedicated myself to this struggle of the African people.  I have fought against white domination, and I have fought against black domination.  I have cherished the ideal of a democratic and free society in which all persons live together in harmony and with equal opportunities.  It is an ideal which I hope to live for and to achieve.  But if needs be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die”.
Like few other movements in the twentieth century which ostensibly concerned a single country, the struggle against apartheid captured the attention of the world.  And that was in part because as articulated by people like Zambia’s President Kenneth Kaunda, apartheid was so transparently immoral that it acted as a contaminant to all those who came in contact with it.  While some of South Africa’s neighbours took an understandably accommodating stance towards the well-armed and economically powerful government in Pretoria, Kaunda declared that Zambia would never truly be free until it had assisted in the dismantling of the “ideology of apartheid [which was] hitting the neighbours back into the stone age”.
And so when students around the world protested their University administrations and governments for investing in apartheid, when social democratic governments in Europe called for sanctions, when Kaunda gave the ANC’s leader Oliver Tambo refuge in State House in Lusaka, they were sharing the ideals of a democratic and free society that Mandela articulated so powerfully before his imprisonment, and which Oliver Tambo, Desmond Tutu, and thousands of others carried with them as they aided the ANC’s efforts within South Africa and as a part of the External Mission.
Umkhonto we Sizwe might have styled itself as the military wing of the ANC, but its efforts were primarily those of sabotage, as set against a nuclear-armed power with a massive military which did not hesitate to roam abroad with that power, whether that took the form of assassinations or commando raids in other countries.
And the apartheid government behind that military might was for many years aided and armed by Western powers, including the United States, and particularly the United Kingdom, where right-wing governments indulged in the fantasy which they called “Constructive Engagement”, namely the writing of blank checks to the regime which kept Mandela in jail and nationalists on the run.
By the 1980s, the apartheid government was reeling from an economic downturn and the internal disorder created by its bulging police state.  Rebuffed in its efforts to force independence upon Bantustans (scraps of overpopulated and over farmed marginal land) and a racially-divisive constitution on Black, Coloured, and Indian South Africans, the government slowly reconciled itself to the idea of facing the man it had sworn would live out his days on a windswept island off of Cape Town, a pilgrimage to which even today feels like venturing beyond the edge of the world.
And when Mandela emerged before a hushed, breathless, wreck of a country, the world looking on, it was not as the fearsome terrorist portrayed by the apartheid government and demonised by Dick Cheney.  It was as a hero whose moral stature dwarfed the pygmies of the National Party which had imprisoned him, and brought hope to a country which had come through a decade of increasingly indiscriminate violence meted out by the police and security services, between supporters of rival nationalist groups, and by the disenfranchised, disempowered, and dehumanised youth of the townships.
Mandela’s critics, pointing to the inequality which remains such a defining feature of life in South Africa today, argue that he let his supporters down by sacrificing justice for peace.  But we write these things at a time when we know that it was possible—thanks to his efforts—to achieve at least one of these things, rather than at a time when there was no such certainty, and indeed many reasons to believe otherwise.  After all, Zimbabwe’s first decade of independence had been sabotaged in part by the successful efforts of apartheid agents and rogue members of the Rhodesian security services to turn the nationalists against each other.  There should be debate about that decision, but it is difficult to question his motives.
Through his words to those who had been his enemies, through the freedom he gave Archbishop Desmond Tutu to pursue the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and through the grace and humour that he offered the world, Mandela sought to honour the efforts of those whose efforts won him his freedom from prison and one of the most celebrated elections in history, and South Africa its liberation from a tyranny of the body and soul.  He became a hero in a way which won him the adulation of people around Africa and the envy of leaders who declined to leave power with a sunny smile and easy wave.

At the Rivonia Trial, Mandela said, “I hoped then that life might offer me the opportunity to serve my people and make my own humble contribution to their freedom struggle”.  Many people are offered such opportunities, but few have the courage to seize them or the wherewithal to act upon them in a way that leaves the world feeling the loss it does with Mandela’s passing.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Duncan Hunter, Psychopath

According to the American Heritage Dictionary, a psychopath is “a person with an antisocial personality disorder, manifested in aggressive, perverted, criminal, or amoral behaviour without empathy or remorse”.

These people are sick and dangerous.  They are casually advocating not only preventive violence, which is illegal.  They are casually advocating that illegal war be waged with some of the worst weapons we have at our disposal.  Not only do nuclear weapons, tactical or otherwise, have the capacity to instantly kill large numbers of people in an indiscriminate fashion.  They also cause serious health and environmental degradation, even in the addled Adelson’s imaginary unpopulated Iranian desert. 
The idea that the possibility of another country acquiring nuclear energy is worth starting a nuclear war shows just how far from reality the right-wing of the Republican Party and its backers have moved.  And the fact that they would say these terrible things just as the President is working to secure a peaceful deal with Iran which would avert the conflict for which the warmongers in the GOP have been clamouring for years shows that their desire for bloodshed has nothing to do with national security.
I suspect that Duncan Hunter doesn’t even understand what he’s saying when he advocates that we use these awful weapons to attack a country in which most of the people have no quarrel whatsoever with the U.S., and the government of which appears to be negotiating with international parties in good faith.
I expect he hasn’t given a moment’s thought to what it would mean to casualise and naturalise the use of despicable weapons which no country has dared to use since the U.S. annihilated two Japanese cities in 1945 to prove to the world that it had come of age as an imperial power. 
The bloodlust of Republican Party politicians and their backers reminds me of Stephen Vincent Benet’s touching poem, written in 1940, which is a sober reminder of why those like Hunter and his colleagues who reach reflexively for the sword are so dangerous:

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, fine soldier,
In your dandy new uniform, all spick and span,
With your helmeted head and the gun on your shoulder,
Where are you coming from, gallant young man?

I come from the war that was yesterday’s trouble,
I come with the bullet still blunt in my breast;
Though long was the battle and bitter the struggle,
Yet I fought with the bravest, I fought with the best.

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, tall soldier,
With ray-gun and sun-bomb and everything new,
And a face that might well have been carved from a boulder,
Where are you coming from, now tell me true!

My harness is novel, my uniform other
Than any gay uniform people have seen,
Yet I am your future and I am your brother
And I am the battle than has not yet been.

Oh, where are you coming from, soldier, gaunt soldier,
With weapons beyond any reach of my mind,
With weapons so deadly the world must grow older
And die in its tracks, if it does not turn kind?

Stand out of my way and be silent before me!
For none shall come after me, foeman or friend,
Since the seed of your seed called me out to employ me,
And that was the longest, and that was the end.