Thursday, January 31, 2013

Our Dimwitted Columnist (On Egypt and Israel)

The Dimwit in question is Jennifer Rubin, writing for the Washington Post, who on 28 January published some commentary about the Obama administration’s policy towards Egypt charmingly titled “Our Dimwitted State Department”.  My creativity being of the stunted nature, I thought I’d borrow a rhetorical leaf from Rubin’s book.

She began on a promising note, critiquing the President’s uncritical arming of the Egyptian government.  In undertaking such a move, Obama follows in the illustrious footsteps of every one of his predecessors.  Flogging arms to autocrats, thugs and murderers is a specialty of the U.S. government and arms industry.  After all, there’s plenty of money to be made.

If Obama is the villain of Rubin’s piece, Senator Jim Inhofe is the hero.  He has been inveighing against the Obama administration for selling F-16s to the Egyptian government—less, it should be noted, out of any concern for the safety of Egyptian citizens or the health of Egyptian democracy than out of an extraordinary solicitousness for Israeli security.

In assailing the State Department for dealing with Egyptian President Morsi, Rubin wrote, “We should be deploring Morsi’s move and making clear that the special relationship Egypt enjoys is dependent upon the regime’s behaviour”.  First, note that the word “regime” suggests a certain illegitimacy, but however crudely populist Morsi might be, he is legitimate.  And let’s face it, he doesn’t have anything on GOP Presidential candidates last year who told audiences that sick people should be left to die if they can’t afford health insurance, proudly proclaimed the number of people they’d executed to audience applause, who equated gay marriage with “man on child, man on dog, or whatever the case may be”, and who suggested that Muslims should be prohibited from public service in the United States. 

What Inhofe and Rubin don’t have much of a problem with is the manner in which Morsi is dealing with dissent and violating people’s rights.  And there, he shares some notable characteristics with the Israeli “regime”.  The word “regime” is perhaps more applicable in this case, because although commentators in the United States are wont to praise Israel as the region’s only democracy, it only counts if we discount its colonies, the possession of which generally precludes a democracy given that possession of colonies is predicated on some people possessing fewer rights than others, and being subject to the controls and whims of the colonisers. 

Rubin’s remark about Morsi—to the effect that our “relationship” with Egypt should be predicated on his “behaviour”—should apply equally to Israel.  Surely a country that sows such instability in the Middle East by dispossessing people from their land, herding them into marginal territory, deliberately creating refugee-like conditions amongst those people, and sabotaging their every effort to obtain international recognition is violating enough legal norms and moral frameworks that we should reconsider our support.

Surely a country which takes U.S. military aid and then expands its imperial incursions onto subject people’s lands through illegal settlements, should be prepared to suffer, at the minimum, a loss of uncritical support. 

Chuck Hagel, Obama’s pick for Defence Secretary, was today grilled for once saying that Israel keeps “Palestinians caged up like animals”, for suggesting that the Israeli lob intimidates people, and for suggesting that Palestinians who seek to kill Israelis have legitimate “grievances”.  One Senator attacked him for saying that Israel stands guilty of war crimes, because it is “particularly offensive given the Jewish people suffered war crimes”.  The same bloviating hypocrite (Ted Cruz) attacked Hagel for referring to the “Jewish” rather than “Israeli” lobby, precisely the same conflation Cruz performed in attempting to use the Holocaust experienced by Jews in the 1940s to obscure Israeli war crimes in the twenty-first century. 

Much is made of Hagel’s remarks about the Israeli lobby’s intimidation.  I personally don’t see how what Hagel said is in any way controversial.  All lobby groups, by their nature, work by some combination of carrot and stick.  They use both bribes and threats, some implicit, others explicit.  Their task is to make politicians fear for their job so that they will perform the will of the lobby in question.  Everyone knows this.  It is one of the elementary problems of our democracy that no politician is willing to tackle...because they’ve already sold themselves to various lobbies.

We see intimidation everywhere.  Our President is intimidated.  Why else would he go to AIPAC every year and talk about how much he loves Israel and how unshakeable his commitment to Israel is.  This is a sordid, shameful ceremony in which every President and every presidential candidate engages.  Joe Biden is intimidated.  Why else, during his Vice Presidential debate, would he grin that toothy grin and talk about how much he loves nutty “Bibi” Netanyahu?  Hagel himself is intimidated.  Why else would he be attempting to backtrack on all of these statements now?  Most of the Senate is intimidated.  Why else would they spend so much time talking about Israel’s needs instead of our own, particularly when Israel’s intransigence, coupled with our blinkered backing of its every move, tends to bring the ire of its neighbours down on our own heads.

Rubin concluded, “You have to wonder why, in the face of a mound of evidence to the contrary, the Obama team keeps enabling a [sic] Islamist despot”.  I don’t hear Rubin’s crocodile sobs on behalf of people in Saudi Arabia or Bahrain when their U.S.-armed autocrats brutally put down protests.  Where was she during the Mubarak years, when the dictator and his family engorged themselves on their nation’s wealth and swept aside all dissent...once again using U.S. arms?  Does she have any sympathy for Palestinians when the Israeli government blocks their efforts to attain statehood, or rolls through their territories, or erects a blockade, always safe in the knowledge that it can maintain its colonial regime so long as it has the unconditional backing of the U.S. government? 

Has she ever spoken out against the global arms trade in which the U.S. participates so enthusiastically?  This is, after all, a trade of spectacular proportions in which arms companies rake in incomprehensibly large profits so that people may be killed every year around the world in their thousands.  It is a murderous trade which in a just world would be criminalised.  Rubin is right to object to weapons sales to Egypt.  But she should equally reject the arming of other countries, in general because the proliferation of weapons of war brings no good to mankind, and in particular in those places where those weapons are so actively used to promote injustice and inequality.

Rubin’s critique is partly dim-witted, but most just hypocritical.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The State of the Golden State According to Jerry Brown

Colton Hall (Monterey), site of California's 1849 Constitutional Convention
Last week, California Governor Jerry Brown got up in front of our state legislators and proclaimed that the Golden State had “confounded our critics”.  In the sense that we haven’t yet self-destructed I suppose he’s right, but the Governor’s triumphalist address, the full extent of his muddled, opaque, and often contradictory thinking was on display.

Students on UC and CSU campuses should welcome Brown’s rhetorical refusal “to let the students become the default financiers of our colleges and universities”, and we should do whatever we can to see that he lives up to those words, and to see that other decision makers hear them.

Equally welcome was Brown’s invocation of the threat posed by climate change, to which, he argued, “California is extremely vulnerable because of our Mediterranean climate, long coastline and reliance on snowpack for so much of our water supply”. 

But when one moved beyond the more sweeping rhetoric, Brown ran into troubles.  Characteristically, he echoed his perennial call for embracing limitations.  “It is cruel”, the Governor argued, “to lead people on by expanding good programs, only to cut them back when the funding disappears.  That is not progress; it is not even progressive.  It is illusion.  That stop and go, boom and bust, serves no one”.  Imbibed without the benefit of critical thought, the Governor’s words sound fine.  But they are actually rather disturbing.  His cynically-invoked fear of disappointing people is a recipe for stasis.  How, if we always declined to act on the basis that someday someone might change some of the things we create, would we ever create or achieve anything?  Is it never important to do the right thing? 

Brown’s premise (not unlike that of Prop 13 which continues to cripple our state) ignores the moving principle behind a democracy, which is that each generation of citizens is free, within broad constitutional guidelines which they may change too if they like, to chart their own way.  I fear that his invocation of “illusion” is nothing more than a rhetorical ploy to stymie those who would like to preside over a desperately-needed reinvestment in our public sphere. 

On some level, Brown would be at home with the slavering, barking Tea Party-ers.  He might have joined them in their collective whinge against the healthcare law—“it’s too’s too complicated” (as though the provision of healthcare for millions of people within a system constrained by our moral limits is a simple matter that could be summed up in 500 words or less)—as when he cited the Ten Commandments as an example of commendable legislative brevity.  The Governor is right to suggest that we need to reform and in many respects simplify the management and funding of California’s schools.  But to pretend that there is some simple formula out there plays into the hands of the critics for whom wholesale evisceration is the ultimate ambition.

Brown is, of course, right to critique an education system which “requires quiz-bits of information, regurgitated at regular intervals and stored in vast computers”.  It is indeed wrong that “a stark, single number” has the potential to “encapsulate the precise achievement level of every child”.  But to blame this on centralisation per se rather than on the method or character of that centralisation is the easy, incomplete, and inadequate way out.  After all, devolving authority en masse to schools or districts risks turning the state education system into something resembling our national education system: where in some states creationism is taught as a scientific theory; where the Civil War, Jim Crow, the rise of capitalism, and the internment of Japanese Americans are all re-written to conform to a “patriotic” version of our history; where, in short, students are short-changed because of the ideological ambitions of pre-modern fundamentalists.

It might instead be more productive to quote something a little more recent than the Ten Commandments.  Brown and his administration could do worse than to read David Lilienthal, a proponent of the decentralisation of centralised power, a process he described as the endeavour to “delegate, dilute, and withdraw federal power out of Washington and back into the regions and states and localities...”*  Note, he is not discussing the destruction of legitimate, centralised authority which is the only kind of authority with the perspective and the legitimacy to promote a universalistic view of the common good (i.e. equality).  Rather, Lilienthal endorsed the repositioning of that authority, precisely the kind of move which might aid in reforming California’s chaotic education structure. 

Putting power closer to the people, a favourite refrain of Washington-based Congressional representatives who are generally interested in doing anything but giving up their own power, doesn’t have to mean putting that power in the hands of lower-level authorities in a way that sounds nice but might lead to gross inequities in standards or access.  It could mean sending the executors of centralised authority to the localities so that they too are attuned to local conditions.  In a sense it would be to expand the mandate of centralised educational authority, but in a way calculated to democratise the execution of their authority and their consumption of information from smaller-scale units.

Brown, between quoting Yeats and Portola, proposed the principle of subsidiarity, which he described as “the idea that a central authority should only perform those tasks which cannot be performed at a more immediate or local level”.  “Subsidiarity is offended”, he remarked, invoking a theory as though it was a “thing” (something he castigated others for doing in the case of education), “when distant authorities prescribe in minute detail what is taught, how it is taught, and how it is to be measured”. 

Brown’s theorising ignores the fact that it is not always a matter of the ability of local authorities to perform tasks, but rather their ability or willingness to perform them in a way which reflects our society’s push for an equality more expansive and substantive than the hollow “equality of opportunity” which postulates that anyone born into twenty-first century American society who does not fall into an embarrassment of riches is somehow suffering from a character flaw.  The alternative to the micromanagement of curricula is not necessarily the wholesale devolution of power, although the caricature is one which suits Brown.

The era of limits does not, it seems, extend to politicians’ rhetoric.  Brown attempted soaring tones: “We—right here in California—have such a rendezvous with destiny”.  But to Brown, destiny is a dry, dusty auditor, more interested in checking dreams, bringing ambitions up short, and squelching desires than in enabling the dramatic, expansive, and progressive kind of California to which the Governor alluded in his historical remarks.


*David Lilienthal, TVA: Democracy on the March.  New York: Harper, 1953: xiv to xv.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The GOP's Benghazi Agenda

Here is an interesting and revealing piece illustrating the GOP’s cynical approach to the killings in Benghazi, written by someone with a substantive grasp of the history and contemporary politics of North Africa and the Middle East.  Rather than focussing on lessons to be learnt or on the flaws with U.S. military and intelligence policy that might be corrected, GOP Congressmen and –women are focussing intently on a single event, misconstruing its significance, making up details about its perpetrators, conflating actors and agents, and using their manipulation of facts and events to smear people they don’t like for party political purposes.

Set your views of Hillary Clinton aside (I’m no fan, but pinning Benghazi on her seems moronic and unproductive), and think about what the GOP approach to evidence, security, and the public interest says about their role in modern U.S. society.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

Replacing University of California President Mark Yudof

University of California President, Mark Yudof, recently announced that he would be drawing his tenure as head of California’s research university system to a close, stepping down in August.  During his tenure, student fees rose at a steady rate to unconscionable levels, and police positioned themselves as defenders of campus and system administrators against the campus communities, making ready use of shocking violence against students, staff and faculty.  The state of California has continued to disinvest from the system, a slide that was only temporarily checked in November.  UC has worked feverishly to create a new caste of administrators, separated from students, faculty and staff not only by a gaping pay chasm, but by their failure to commit to making the University a friendly, open, accountable, democratic, and public space. 

At the same time that he plaintively (and unsuccessfully) pleaded with the public and legislators to re-invest in UC, Yudof and his supervisors on the Board of Regents showed the public how they would use those funds: creating more administrative positions as departments lost faculty and staff; and raising salaries for administrators as students’ fees rose inexorably.  He launched reviews tasked with charting UC’s future, and these reached few conclusions which dispelled the view on campuses that Yudof and the Regents were committed to privatising the University and introducing the remorseless, soulless, short-termist, and anti-social illogic of the market into a system dedicated to citizenship, the public good, and freedom of inquiry and discovery over the long-term.

So I suspect that there will be few on UC campuses who will shed any tears over Yudof’s departure.  Many will and should see this as an opportunity to pivot away from the harsher, more harried place we have become in the past several years, our campus and University communities riven by disputes and disparities. 

We should seek a replacement who recognises that the University of California is at the economic, social, political, and cultural heart of the Golden State.  That the research and teaching at this institution drives developments in all of those fields, but the University also aspires to act as a kind of conscience to a diverse state which is in the process of being re-founded amidst long-heralded demographic shifts, and to help Californians understand that we have nothing to fear from this re-founding. 

We need leadership that complements a critical mind with a compassionate heart.  Who is willing to tackle the issues around UC’s future that the Governor has been raising in the past weeks, but in a consultative, democratic fashion, and without succumbing to the desire to reject the human contact and relations that are critical to the idea of a University as a community which is more than the sum of its departments and classes and degree-holders.

We need most of all leadership which understands that making decisions about fees, making judgments about the value of degrees and major fields, making calls about where to direct funding, and making representations to our state legislature and public are political actions.  These are not decisions, judgements, calls and representations that one man in a suit can make, not even one backed by the Board of Regents, a group of individuals and an institution which has been fast losing legitimacy in recent years as students and faculty increasingly question the basis for appointments (political favours to one governor or other), for decision-making (highly undemocratic), and judgment (the experiences that these people bring from an unforgiving corporate world). 

It was telling that in a sloppy, hurried few-week campaign last autumn, our prevaricating Governor, Jerry Brown, was able to do more to direct the attention of the university community towards our plight than Yudof ever was during his five years at UC.  Only Yudof knows whether his decision to ignore and permit campus authorities to stifle, sometimes rather brutally, the commendable resurgence of democracy and activism on our campus, was the result of deliberation or of basic laziness and a misreading of his job description.  But the consequences for UC have been more serious that we will be able to appreciate for some time.

After three years of getting the hard end of police batons, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and official indifference in the face, students seem to me to have reverted to caution, cynicism, and apathy.  People were quick to sign petitions about Prop 30 (the measure which, far from marking a re-investment in UC, simply represents a stop-gap measure to avert the slide) and to reject meddling with the venerable campus logo.  But the campuses remain reprehensibly quiet on the question of the fitness of Berkeley’s new chancellor, the unrepresentativeness of the UC Regents, the replacement of Yudof, and the fact that they will inevitably be required to pay more fees for a poorer, leaner, meaner education if they don’t take a stand for UC.

One measure of how important a place or an institution is to us is how willing we are to put ourselves on the line or to suffer some discomfort in the service or defence of that place.  This could be something as small as signing a petition (far more students signed the petition about the ultimately-irrelevant logo than ever did about their skyrocketing fees), attending a meeting, or taking the time to get informed.  It could also entail speaking out in some public forum about the University, joining a picket line, missing a class to register a protest, or e-mailing friends and family.

Some members of our community—those who are often caricatured, but who have done more than any others to put UC’s crisis in the public eye—have organised protests, chained themselves to railings, undertaken hunger strikes, and been beaten, bloodied, arrested, and humiliated for their troubles and for the love they have for our community.

But in general, it is safe to say, by this method of measuring our commitment, our community has been sadly lacking.  We have allowed the pressures of daily life—exams, lectures, the social calendar—to distract us from the fact that we are living in the Indian Summer of an institution which, if we are not careful, will be changed beyond recognition for those who come here in the not-too-distant future.  We have bowed to the conceit that grades, quizzes, and gossip are more worthy of our time and attention than the community which has nurtured, educated, sheltered, and inspired generations of Californians—and which will cease to do so in a recognisable manner if we do not act.

UC’s crisis was made in the arena of state politics, but it is being exacerbated within our system and on our campuses by leadership which has been apathetic and amateurish where not downright destructive and dangerous.  The least we can do at this point is to do what we can to ensure that when the Regents consider Yudof’s replacement, they hear from us about why a repeat of his style, his moral and political framework, and his priorities would be unacceptable to those of us who call the University of California home.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Rewarding Administrative Malpractice

Berkeley’s Daily Cal reported last week that out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau, a physics professor, is being awarded the Karl Taylor Compton Medal for Leadership in Physics by the American Institute of Physics.  The newspaper quoted Birgeneau as expressing “shock” when he learned of the award, and I can only concur.

By all accounts, the AIP is a very reputable institution, and I am therefore surprised that it would desire to be associated in any capacity with a man responsible for the degredation of the public character of the preeminent campus of the world’s finest university system.  The citation, as documented by the Daily Cal, is not primarily focussed on Birgeneau’s activities as Berkeley’s Chancellor, but it is nonetheless unfortunate that his un-ambitious tenure, which has seen the skyrocketing of fees, attempts to extricate Berkeley from its public obligations, the authoring of articles calling for charging differential tuition, and repeated endorsement of police brutality, should be capped by a leadership award of any variety.

Birgeneau, after all, is the man who referred to protestors as a “health and safety issue” and sent counsellors to speak to them, as though their concerns were a manifestation of some mental disorder.  He is the man who excused police baton charges by describing protestors who were linking arms in a stationary position (in the style of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) as “not non-violent”.  He is the man who declined to unify the campus community in the early days of the most recent round of state disinvestment, and chose instead to tell those students and faculty who were deeply worried about the future of the university we call home to mind their own business and leave the lobbying to him. 

 Birgeneau has been active in arguing that Berkeley cut its losses and disengage from the University of California system, leaving less prominent campuses in the lurch to fend for themselves.  He has promoted and in fact written policy papers aimed at allowing Berkeley to subvert its public character. 

In short, he is not an administrator deserving of a leadership award.  He failed to avert the slide towards privatisation at UC Berkeley.  He failed to heal or tend to the wounds his callousness inflicted on the campus community.  He failed to embrace the cause of the public sphere.  And he failed to set an example of constructive leadership at a moment when our state and our university system lacked firm moral hands at the tiller.

In fact, in common with leadership within the UC Regents and at the UC Office of the President, Birgeneau has presided over a growing leadership deficit which has signalled a major loss of legitimacy on the part of university administrators, something unhelpful for our educational system at a time of great crisis. 

We have an incoming Chancellor who faces a moment of both crisis and possibility, and important questions about Berkeley’s future relationship to our state and systemwide community.  Nicholas Dirks, however, has so far appeared as tone-deaf as his predecessors on issues of style and character (issues which matter given UC’s place at the heart of California’s politics).  Dirks has also signalled that he is prepared to concede that Berkeley’s slide in the last several years is irreversible, not the message a hopeful campus was hoping to hear. 

If we are not more demanding of our campus leadership, we will find ourselves dealing with further years or even decades of fallout from the kind of administrative malpractice which has characterised Birgeneau’s rather sorry tenure.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

An Act of Terror (Book Review)

The moment around which AndrĂ© Brink’s novel, An Act of Terror, revolves comes early in the narrative, when the anti-apartheid group known only as the “Organisation”, attempts to blow up the State President in Cape Town’s castle. 

A sign from Cape Town's District Six Museum
What follows is one part cliff-hanger in the best crime novel tradition, one part touching romance, and one part meditation on the relationship between individuals, their causes, and their methods. 

The story is told from multiple perspectives of people on all sides of the apartheid debate and on both the receiving and handing-out sides of the monstrous system which was so carefully and clinically constructed by what was probably the twentieth century’s rogue state par excellence (and the political and material stand-points don’t overlay as neatly in all cases as one might assume). 

In spite of the novel’s brave use of perspective, the brooding tale—which reminds me both of Brink’s works like The Other Side of Silence and some of J M Coetzee’s novels—centres on the character of Thomas Landham who, to his dismay as much as our own, comes to be something like the last man standing.

Landham, in common with some of his compatriots in the “Organisation”, is an Afrikaner who is desperate to repudiate the sins of his fathers and his contemporaries, so much so that he is willing to commit the act of the book’s title.  And perhaps even more drastically, to seek to collaborate with his immovable father in the writing of a family history fraught with dark deeds and skeletons.  The novel is primarily a story of Landham’s journey across the scorched land his people have called home for over 300 years, but which he can’t yet call his country.  He is accompanied, at different points in his journey, by two women: one attracted by his devotion to the cause, the other by the doubts about violence that lurk below that same commitment.

That Landham’s devotion was forged as a part of the “external mission”, in Moscow, Dar, Lusaka, and London, reminds readers that resistance to apartheid was global, and perpetually on the move, in search of funding, a safe haven, and sympathetic audiences.  That movement, like Landham and his colleagues, is pursued by state agents who seem the very incarnation of depravity at one moment, and hopeless cogs in a machine that has usurped the power of its controllers the next.  Brink has created a geography not only of the human mind, but of a movement.

The book is beautiful, the story terribly powerful, and the characters who Landham encounters in the course of his flight across the “beloved country” are memorable, even if they never quite understand who they’ve just met until it’s too blow the whistle, to extend a hand, to confront their own place in South Africa’s society.  I found myself almost literally flinching as the journey drew to its almost inevitable close, and deeply moved by the characters and their struggles.

This story of this particular act of terror is an important one for a number of reasons.  It reminds us of the long, hard struggles during the twentieth century against forces of racism and colonialism which refused to die all around the world, and in South Africa nailed their flag to the mast in defiance of liberalism and solidarity.  It evokes the struggles, inner and external, which people undergo when they are tested, and asked to choose between each other and a more abstract cause.

And it is an important story in the nightmarish version of the twenty-first century that we are creating in which we are in the process of pledging ourselves to an endless war on terror.  Terror, we are reminded daily, whether in response to events in Mali, Algeria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, or somewhere closer to home, is something which should not be analysed or understood.  It is evil and thus metaphysical and thus we must, we are told, approach it and the people who perpetuate it uncritically.  It is ungrounded, unhistorical, and therefore both inexplicable and unforgivable. 

Because of course, the application of reason to the chain of events which leads to an act of terror might tell us something dispiriting and dangerous about ourselves.  It might check our self-destruction, or cause us to squint at the world from a different perspective, something which is always uncomfortable, giving the lie as it does to the easy answers and knee-jerk reactions.

Brink’s is, after all, a story in which it’s the “good guys” who do the “bad things”.

“Can you imagine it?” Thomas asks Nina, as they prepare themselves for their assault on the system which still dogs the conscience of the world and plagues the rainbow nation, “All the fugitives, all the exiles, streaming back from all over the world.  And all the mails opening their doors to let out their prisoners.  And from the island over there—” (31).

They could not.  We can.  But our own imagination stopped there.


AndrĂ© Brink, An Act of Terror.  London: Vintage, 1991.