Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Impeach Obama

Upon taking office, President Obama recklessly escalated the war in Afghanistan, while refusing to be either open or consistent with the public as to the necessity for this war, or to his war aims, which changed from speech to speech, tracking polling data more than any moral or security barometer, all the while costing more lives.

Simultaneously, following the lead of his criminal predecessor, the President fecklessly expanded that war into Pakistan without allowing for any public debate on the matter.

Similarly unaccountable and irresponsible was the President’s decision to wage war in Yemen, Somalia, and across North Africa, a war which accompanies the expansion of a U.S. military presence on that continent, an expansion which, historical evidence suggests, will lead to the U.S. becoming an even more prominent target for military activity at home and abroad, thereby imperilling rather than protecting the public.

This President has given a full-throated endorsement of many of the terroristic methods associated with the wars waged by his predecessor, maintaining the torture prison at Guantanamo, permitting a set of revolving torture prisons in Afghanistan and Somalia to replace the more permanent institutions, and embracing murder as a viable legal alternative to detention.

The President has launched a spirited defence of jingoistic and counter-productive imperialistic American exceptionalism, sentiments which amount to warmongering. 

The President signed the National Defence Authorisation Act, which permitted the indefinite detention without trial of American citizens.

The President has demonstrated his willingness to use drones to murder people on the basis of how well their activity matches a profile, and presides over a weekly “kill list”, an ugly and unethical abuse of power given the lack of interest in capturing criminals, the civilian deaths which result from acting on such a list, and his willingness to murder American citizens.

The President argued that a war waged using drones—as in Libya, where the United States deployed enormous force to overthrow a government—is not a war at all, thereby setting a frightening precedent to allow the executive branch to dodge responsibility and wage war unchecked.  Given that many wars of the future will be waged in this manner, the President’s redefinition of war has made a significant contribution to enabling the abuse of power and ensuring that war will become an increasingly casual enterprise in which deaths on the “other” side carry little or no moral weight.

The President who promised to preside over the most “open and transparent” administration in history went to extraordinary lengths to hide his “murder memo” from the public, when in fact the release of such a memo was very clearly in the public interest.

The President (again, remember the “open and transparent” bit) has launched an extraordinarily vicious campaign to shut down whistleblowers, thereby closing down what has become the public’s primary window into the workings of the secretive national security apparatus.

The President’s Justice Department, as we have learned in the last few days in what has been for me the final straw, has also seized records from the Associated Press in what seems a violation of First Amendment freedoms.  This is particularly egregious given that the administration’s claim that leaks to the AP “put the American people at risk” is hogwash, notably because of AP’s deference in holding off with publication of the story in question pending administration approval. 

This latest abuse demonstrates the administration’s selective approach to justice.  The President has shamefully refused to prosecute major criminals for their involvement in obscene financial deals which helped to plunge our nation’s economy into a tailspin, and yet casually violates press freedoms in an effort to intimidate journalists and limit the public’s access to information.

There are undoubtedly plenty of Republicans who would like to see the President impeached, if for all the wrong reasons.  They will focus on Benghazi, where it is increasingly clear that their already razor-thin case is evaporating as new evidence suggests that someone, somewhere, doctored the White House e-mails to make them look incriminatory.  They will focus on the IRS investigations (on which the President had precisely zero impact and input, unlike Nixon’s personal targeting of his opponents in Watergate), which entirely correctly investigated a series of newly-formed, anti-tax organisations which might well be suspected of trying to get the most advantageous tax status they could, and which like any new wave of political-non-profits, should be investigated. 

I am equally certain that Democrats will close ranks around the President, fearful that standing up for any principles will affect their showing in 2014 and beyond.  All of this means that any proceedings will stall, and that this President, like his criminal predecessor, will not be subject to justice.

But if Bill Clinton could be impeached for misleading Congress about an affair, surely President Obama could be impeached for commissioning murder, seeking to aggrandise executive power in order to wage wars of aggression, stifling inquiry into the workings of his war of terror, and acting in a way that imperils public safety, violates the public trust, and is in clear contravention of the public interest.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

In the Court of the Fiddling Governor

Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters recently wrote an interesting piece about Jerry Brown 2.0.  For the uninitiated, Jerry Brown is California’s Governor, taking a second stab at the job he held between 1975 and 1983.  What I found most interesting was Walters’ account of how Brown exploits weak-kneed, obsequious journalists to get his line across, or to just plain obfuscate.

“To first-timers—especially those from elsewhere”, Walters wrote, “Brown can be rather overwhelming, and he relishes giving the full treatment to out-of-state journalists who trek to Sacramento to consult the oracle.  Brown carefully limits his exposure to Capitol journalists, who might ask pointed questions about specific issues, but makes copious time for the out-of-towners, who usually emerge from interviews completely be-dazzled and eager to write fawning articles”.

Walters cited profiles in the Financial Times and Bloomberg Businessweek.  I decided to take a look at the two articles, and found that he was spot on.  In the former article, over 3,500 words in length, I calculated that fewer than 500 words were devoted to matters of legislative or political substance, as opposed to the copious quotes of Brown philosophising about nothing in particular, or the psychoanalytic indulgences on the part of the journalist in question.  That is, the article was 87% favourable fluff, and just 13% substance.  The second article was considerably better, devoting only about 60% of its wordcount to Brown’s self-aggrandising and off-topic ramblings.

Such fawning treatment of the Governor doesn't serve anyone’s interest.  Articles based on pop psychology and devoid of serious scrutiny of the Governor’s policies do not serve the interest of the public.  Soft-ball questions in interviews with major political figures do nothing to advance faith in journalists’ integrity.  And letting off the hook the man whose mantra has always been ‘he who governs least governs best’ does not serve to kick Brown’s political agenda into a higher gear.

But let’s be charitable, and see what we can learn from the thin layer of substance which isn’t entirely obscured by the smarmy gloss.

Interviewed by the Financial Times’ Matthew Garrahan, Brown noted proudly, “They don’t call me Moonbeam any more...We cut pensions, the equivalent of social security, we cut healthcare, childcare...we had a tax [ballot] and everyone said, that’s not going to pass—and it passes!  We’re getting things done.  We’re building the foundation for a renewed California”.  In the Bloomberg interview with Joel Stein, Brown waxed similarly lyrical: “We cut child care—I’m sorry to say—old age pensions, the disabled, the elderly, and the blind”. 

I shudder to think of what this renewed California is going to look like if it is constructed on the edifice of Brown’s austerity drive.  If cutting pensions, healthcare, childcare, university funding, school funding, parks funding, libraries, environmental protection, are in his mind necessary and virtuous endeavours which lay the foundations for a new society, we are in deep trouble.

Stein’s article pays precious little attention to the long-term social and economic effects of Brown’s punishing round of cuts (only a few of which will be rolled back by the much-heralded but little-analysed Prop 30), which came on the back of years of steady if less dramatic disinvestment from the public sphere. 

What the article does do is perpetuate the idea that, as the title suggests, “Brown Scared California Straight”. 

Stein fallaciously suggests that California, “the Greece of America” is somehow driven by conflicting psychological tendencies: it is “the liberal state that wants to spend on everything and the libertarian state that won’t pay for anything”.  This psychoanalytic framework is as ill-suited to explaining California as it is to understanding the meat and potatoes of Brown’s policies.  The ability for a state to (mal)function along such seemingly-contradictory lines is not so much a product of the voters’ psychosis as of a broken political structure, the same structure which generated our economic and democratic deficits.

Brown might have used a devastating austerity drive to persuade voters to endorse modest revenue increases which do not begin to offset the damage he did to the state’s social fabric in the meantime.  But he did exactly nothing to address the structural problems that have accumulated over generations as the state’s demographic and political makeup changed.  The contradictions do not, therefore, result from current ideological inconsistencies, but rather from an inherently undemocratic political structure which means that now-dead voters who helped to pass legislation in the ‘70s and earlier (the infamous Prop 13 is a good example of this) have as much if not more power in twenty-first century California as do voters of today.

Many commentators see something in Brown’s personal austerity to celebrate.  But they confuse the ability to make sacrifices from a position of ultimately unassailable privilege and power with sacrifice forced upon those with neither power nor wealth.  In this blinkered line, Stein wrote, “This is a man who remembers World War II ration cards with fondness.  ‘This idea you can have ice cream every night?  Ice cream was for your birthday’”.  Brown’s ramblings display the extent to which he is out of touch.  When we discuss the austerity driven by years of accumulated budget cuts, we’re not talking ice cream.  We’re talking healthcare, welfare, education, the ability to pay for a roof over your head and to live a decent life. 

Ultimately, beneath all the philosophising, Brown is a bit of a whiner.  “When you take polls”, he complained, “the only people you can tax are the very wealthy”.  Brown seems willing to accept the narrative that only personal wealth is up for grabs, and that oil taxes, property taxes, corporate taxes and the like are all out of bounds. 

 “The storyline is written by history, not your own ‘I want’”, Brown declared to Stein, basically declaiming responsibility for anything that happens under his watch.  The Governor should know better than that.  There is no such person as History.  The selfish desires of the Republican Party and their corporate handlers have been allowed to write the story of our state for the last forty or more years.  They were exceptionally adept at selling self-interest, anti-communitarianism, profiteering, and exploitation as virtues.  That narrative is beginning to wear thin, but it will not be “History” that kills off their morally-bankrupt worldview. 

That task will be up to actual people, who will be influenced not only by their material conditions, but by the stories that people like Jerry Brown tell about California and our society.  And for all of our sakes, I hope that his story is not one which valourises punishing austerity, abdicates responsibility, and preaches powerless fatalism while ignoring the structural deficiencies of our polity.  

Many Benghazi Critics are Themselves War Criminals

I continue to be amazed by the Republican Party’s obsession with the alleged culpability of the Obama administration in the deaths of four Americans at our country’s embassy in Benghazi.  Every “smoking gun” turns out to be another damp squib, and while it is disturbing that officials were discouraged from speaking without administration “minders” (and should be held accountable for what could amount to intimidation), the supposed case against the President, his United Nations ambassador (who had exactly nothing to do with handling the attack and its aftermath), and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton never quite materialises.

The Republican fixation with Benghazi, and the party’s sudden obsession with transparency and justice is all the more extraordinary to me given that many of the same people now baying for Clinton’s blood were responsible—together with Clinton and many a Democrat—for misleading the public about a war of aggression based on lies and power lust which led to the deaths of 4,487 U.S. soldiers, around a thousand times as many as were killed in Benghazi. 

The war, sold to the public by a lying Vice President who shamelessly manipulated intelligence, packaged and given cover by a credulous Secretary of State who read off misinformation to the United Nations as though it were the gospel truth, and facilitated by a Defence Secretary who made specious, warmongering claims, was arguably the most devastating U.S. blunder in over thirty years.

President George W Bush, driven by an ideologically-bankrupt and morally-repugnant militaristic agenda, presided over this cabinet of criminals who, abetted by a host of underlings—the CIA director, the National Security Advisor, deputies to the Secretaries, etc—incited an unnecessary, destructive, self-defeating, and almost unbelievably violent war which lasted eight years and claimed the lives of thousands of U.S. soldiers and hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  These people managed a war which brutally dismantled Iraq’s civil infrastructure, and they then invited in their cronies from the corporate world to take contracts for rebuilding that infrastructure, protected by lawless packs of military contractors who ravaged the streets of Iraq.

This terroristic war and the edifice of lies which enabled it would have been impossible without the complicity of many members of Congress, including some of those who are most vocal in condemning the Obama administration for what is at worst bureaucratic inefficiency followed upon by a streak of control-freakery. 

There are plenty of reasons to be critical of the Obama Administration’s foreign policy.  But Republicans have chosen the least substantive of reasons, hitting on an example which is an utter distraction and lets the administration off the hook for serious wrongdoing (again, much of it abetted by Congress).

It is, however, a distraction which serves to highlight the hypocrisy and criminality of many of these Republicans, who in a just world would be behind bars for the commission of war crimes and as accessories to crimes against humanity.

After the Second World War, before the development of a framework for prosecuting crimes against humanity, German war criminals were charged with “participation in a common plan of conspiracy for the accomplishment of crimes against peace” and “planning, initiating and waging wars of aggression and other crimes against peace”. 

If there was a shred of justice in the world, George W Bush and his cabinet, would be held accountable for the same crimes.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Prop 13: Ripe for Reform

It’s almost as though its potential purchase by the Koch Empire is spurring the Los Angeles Times to provide proof of its relevance in the past month.  The paper followed up on its illuminating series of stories on the changing character of the American workplace with several stories about what political commentators are fond of calling the “third rail” of California politics—Proposition 13.

Proposition 13, passed in 1978 thanks to the machinations of the state’s corporate community, the rise of economic fundamentalism within the Republican Party, and the failure of California’s Governor, Jerry Brown, to govern.  The initiative not only raised to two-thirds the threshold for passing revenue increases in the Assembly and Senate, but also took property tax off the table as a flexible instrument for managing the state’s revenue, and forced the centralisation of much of the state’s service provision.

The initiative, which amounts to what Tom Paine called “government from the grave” wrote specific tax details into California’s famously overburdened state constitution, enshrined a system of minority rule which continues to empower the state’s fundamentalist minority, and has been responsible for the decline in many of our state’s once-fine institutions.

In subsequent decades, California’s corporate titans have with their Republican allies spent a lot of money preying on the fears of voters and trying to convince them that any amount of tinkering with this undemocratic and ill-advised initiative amounts to nothing less than an assault on Californians’ liberties.  These economic and political interests have managed to play voters for suckers and elide the interests of the fabulously wealthy with those of middle- and working-class Californians who would actually benefit from reinvestment in the state’s institutions instead of their continued evisceration.

The Times reported how over the years, the extraordinarily wealthy have used Prop 13 to circumvent their tax obligations to their community.  That they do so legally makes their actions no less reprehensible, nor does it lessen the damaging effects of their dodge.  At the same time, the Times reported, homeowners have paid a rising percentage of property tax, while businesses continue to evade their taxes.   

The Times highlighted the case of Michael Dell, who “has saved more than a million dollars a year in taxes on a landmark Santa Monica hotel by exploiting a gaping legal loophole in the rules that govern how Proposition 13 is applied”.  It has been widely recognised in recent years that the gap between the wealthy and those who are struggling has been growing at an untenable rate, and this fact bears out what the Times describes as John Paul Stevens’ dissenting opinion when Prop 13 was tested in court: namely, that Prop 13’s “formula created a medieval situation favouring land-owning ‘squires’ who ‘voted themselves a tremendous windfall’”. 

Perhaps most disturbingly, the wealth gap in California and elsewhere maps along generational lines, and Prop 13 is just one example of the generational war that is being waged by those who would like to preserve things like social security for the elderly whilst changing the program for those currently paying into it, and who benefited from their parents’ generous investment in the social service and safety net (think free or extraordinarily cheap UC tuition, well-funded schools, infrastructure growing commensurate with social needs) but are now breaking the social contract by indulging in a fit of selfishness and starving the same programs and institutions.

Interestingly, the Times also reported how “two prominent defenders of Proposition 13 spoke out...against ‘gimmicks’ used by some companies to avoid paying additional property taxes when buying real estate in California”.  What this tells me is that the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association and the Small Business Action Committee—two regressive, anti-social, fundamentalist organisations—have read the writing on the wall and realise that Prop 13 is fast becoming untenable in California’s moral economy.

By critiquing what are supposed aberrations of their pet initiative, they are opening the door to cosmetic reform which will leave the basic “gimmicks” of the initiative intact: most egregiously its undemocratic supermajority requirement and the undifferentiated property tax which protects some generations at the expense of others.  The leadership of these two bodies are trying to pretend that disproportionate corporate benefits from Prop 13 are something new, a claim they know to be disingenuous. 

In the past, these groups have been unconditional in their defence of Prop 13 and all of its abuses, and that they are now moderating their stance suggests that they are afraid that voters are on the verge of calling them out on their decades-long demolition of California’s public sphere.  They will undoubtedly begin doing their best to head off serious reform by proposing minor measures to take the pressure off what is an explosive situation given the crisis of K-12 education, the evaporation of early childhood education, and the decline of higher education in the state, to say nothing of an ever-more splintered public welfare system. 

California could use a reform-minded coalition to push for an overhaul not just of Prop 13, but of the whole rotting edifice that is our political structure.  Thirty-five years ago, Governor Jerry Brown had the opportunity to avert a long-term crisis by tackling the ills that made Prop 13 so popular.  He failed, and was overtaken by events.  Today, once again under his stewardship, the state faces a similar crossroads.  This time it is one at which it is easier to imagine a happier outcome for California.  The Governor had better learn from his earlier tenure and demonstrate the reforming leadership that our state so much needs.  Otherwise he will, once again, find himself standing idly on the roadside.  Only this time there will be no follow-up act.

Thursday, May 9, 2013

California Democrats Embrace Fundamentalism of "Fiscal Responsibility" at their Peril

There has been some confusion since last November, when Democrats won supermajorities in both the California Senate and Assembly, as to whether they would try to do anything with that hard-won authority to govern (Republicans, thanks to undemocratic supermajority rules, had basically set the state on a course for self-destruction from the sidelines).

John Perez, the Speaker of the Assembly, provided to date the most definitive answer to that question in an interview with Los Angeles Times columnist George Skelton.  As quoted by Skelton, Perez had the following to say: “It shouldn’t--but it may--surprise folks that Democrats with our supermajority will be looking to build on the fiscal responsibility that we’ve shown in the last couple of years”.  

I assume that the fiscal responsibility to which Perez refers was the sadistic game of brinkmanship that California Governor Jerry Brown and Democrats played with voters in the years leading up to the 2012 vote on Prop 30 (which amounted to using a band-aid--or baling wire, to quote our fumbling Governor--to shore up a collapsing building).  That effort involved laying waste to our state’s public sphere, the sector which serves as a floor, an admittedly-flawed equaliser, and the foremost provider of institutional support for most Californians.

Brown and the Democrats decided that to convince voters to apply this useless band-aid, they had to first take a wrecking ball to our schools, universities, and other public institutions and spaces.  For years, goaded by serially-irresponsible Republicans, they hammered away at the public institutions which provide a foundation and framework for California’s children and students.  They undermined the social welfare structure which provides a bulwark for citizens in hard times--hard times which were exacerbated by the soaring costs of higher education, the declining quality of K-12 education, and the virtual evaporation of early childhood education.  

These developments occurred with breathtaking speed thanks to the serial irresponsibility of our political class, their cynical actions undertaken in the name of “fiscal responsibility”, a panacea that Perez now expects to absolve he and his colleagues of any number of sins against their community.

“We don’t”, Perez told Skelton, “have endless amounts of money”.  Strictly speaking, that’s true.  But it is also true that this very wealthy state can leverage basically whatever (however much ultimately finite) amount of money it chooses to, through its legislators.  It is party political, rather than moral mathematics which are driving Perez’ calculations to continue to starve our public sphere of funds, again in the name of “fiscal responsibility”.  

California’s Republican Party has long been the party of economic zealotry and fundamentalism, placing the sanctity of their hollow ideology above the welfare of the public.  But today, under the stewardship of our inept Governor, Jerry Brown, and the likes of Perez and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, Democrats are of their own volition in danger of adopting the same immoral creed.

A further example of their expediency can be found in Perez’ proposal for a new rainy day fund, a proposal roundly mocked by Mark Paul (co-author with Joe Mathews of the must-read California Crackup) as “a joke”, a convincing conclusion given that the state would need to see some unseasonable sunny weather before it could contemplate putting money aside unless it simply wants to rob from already-eroded institutions in the service of a pointless political gesture.  

But the Speaker pushed ahead with his insane logic, explaining to Skelton that “the best time to do this [push for the rainy day fund] is right now, in proximity to our worst economic crisis.  The memory is recent enough that we can act smart enough and not replicate the mistakes of our past”.  

This ignores the painfully obvious point that many people are still reeling from this economic crisis--a crisis which was exacerbated at a personal level for many people by the failure of public institutions to be able to support them at their darkest hour--and that failing to repair the damage done to our society risks making things worse for a great many people.  

Perez also plans to aim another blow at our long-beleaguered public education system.  What seems at face value a gesture of generosity to that system--tuition relief for poorer students funded by loopholes closed by Prop 39--actually serves to further undermine the system, putting Perez into cahoots with the most destructive members of the GOP caucus in what threatens to be a stunningly powerful anti-public legislative consensus.

What makes an institution or a good public--like education, for example--is that it is available free at the cost of use to members of the public because it has been supported by collective contributions by all members of that same public, contributions which are commensurate with individuals’ abilities to give.  The moment that a system of higher education based on this model is replaced by what amounts to differential systems of tuition based on income--a uniform tuition level being made differential by an entrenched scholarship system--it ceases to be public.

In some respects, Perez’ scholarship scheme is a practical solution to a difficult problem.  But for those of us who think that the integrity of public institutions is important, his ‘solution’ winds up entrenching a mentality of distinction in an education institution which has to this point prided itself on regarding all those who enter its hallowed walls equally.  Not only does it introduce greater inequity into our university system, it lets the public off the hook.  To this point, the public has played a significant if reprehensibly-diminishing role in funding public higher education.  The more legislators and the Governor rely on a balkanised system of decentralised funding, the more they chip away at the link between our finest and most globally-envied institution, and the public which should support and in turn be served by that institution.  

In short, it appears that politically-empowered but morally-neutered Democrats are suddenly in danger of replacing the numerically-marginalised but ideologically-ascendant right wing of the Republican Party as the most significant threat to California’s future and to the well-being of its citizens.  I suggest that Perez and his colleagues find a set of vertebrae to share out between one another in a hurry, lest the goodwill that empowered them hemorrhage as quickly as the public institutions they are puncturing with their ill-advised expediency.  

Democrats should understand that “fiscal responsibility” at the expense of California’s public and citizenry is not going to fly.

Maldonado Plots out California's Road to Ruin

Abel Maldonado, the former Lieutenant Governor and California State Senator who took substantial perks from the energy lobby while an assemblyman, and was sued by the IRS for tax dodging and claiming improper reductions, is running for Governor. He is supposed to represent the kinder, gentler, more in-touch, and coincidentally Latino face of the state Republican Party which has been dominated by fulminating economic fundamentalists who do their best to make non-white Californians (a majority in the state) feel like so much unwanted flotsam while ruthlessly dismantling our public sector--public schools, Community Colleges, the Universities, state parks, public libraries, and social welfare programs.

Maldonado’s ‘moderate’ credentials stem primarily from his willingness to support modest tax deals to enable the state to pass a budget in 2009. But now that he has his eye on higher office, the opportunist appears to be hewing to the more traditional party line. His opening salvo--a year and a half out from the election--targeted Governor Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program, an easily mischaracterised target for law-and-order Republicans.

According to the LA Times, Maldonado’s strategy is to caricature the program as an ‘early release’ agenda. The same paper wrote that Maldonado freely admitted that he had no plan of his own but “said it would likely include expansion and construction of new lockups”.

This gives the lie to Maldonado’s claim to embody the rationality that his party so eagerly repudiates. Like previous standard-bearers of his party’s right wing, and like the pack of morally stunted fanatics who make up the GOP caucus in Sacramento, Maldonado favours an expansion of the prison industrial complex which is bankrupting our state. The expansion of this complex--which eschews preventive measures which in other places have shown to be both more effective and less costly--can only occur at a cost to the other large item in our state’s budget: education.

In the past decade, early childhood education, K-12 schools, Community Colleges, the California State University, and the University of California have all been hit hard by budget cuts. This has occurred because the numerically marginalised Republican Party--empowered by Prop 13 and associated initiatives which generated an enormous democratic deficit--used its control of the state via the supermajority rules to starve the institutions which serve the majority of the public to serve their ideological fanaticism and the greed of their corporate handlers.

Unless Maldonado outflanks Jerry Brown on the left by arguing for more taxes (in which case, we'll take him!), he is going to find himself in the difficult and morally spurious position of arguing that we take further money from higher education and other public services to expand the prison system that has over time become part of the problem rather than the solution. Maldonado will not, of course, admit that this is the choice that voters will face in backing his candidacy. And his lies will find precedent in the dishonesty of his GOP compatriots, including the likes of Jim Nielsen who had the audacity (or stupidity) to blame Democrats for the decline of public education in the state.

I predict that Maldonado will become the Romney of the California GOP. His party won’t like him but they’ll stomach him because Tim Donnelly is a sociopath who will win 20% of the vote in a general election. He will go into unbelievable contortions to sell his toxic policies to the public. And he will lose. So he could save us a lot of trouble if, by acknowledging the impossible road that his hypocrisy and political dishonesty lays down for him on the way to 2014, he decides to abandon his ambitions and leaves the thankless task of representing California’s Republican Party to others.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Fiat Lux: Are UC Administrators Finally Seeing the Light?

As regular readers and members of the UC community will know, Berkeley is in the process of transitioning between Chancellors. I have found the tenure of out-going Chancellor Robert Birgeneau very frustrating for reasons I’ve outlined elsewhere,and have been worried about the approach tentatively sketched out by incoming Chancellor Nicholas Dirks. However, in the past week both university officials made some comments which I found interesting and, embryonically, hopeful.

In a meet-and-greet with members of the campus community, Dirks remarked that “the public character of this institution is palpable”. He went on to articulate his own aspiration to make Berkeley “‘even more a symbol” of public mindedness’, and “even more public”. Key to that now-elusive sensibility is the ability to answer in the affirmative to questions like, “Is this research or technology going to advance a better society? Is this kind of knowledge going to contribute to the well-being of our society and or planet?”

He made similarly interesting comments at a forum with students who created written and visual homages to UC Berkeley drawing inspiration from Ansel Adams’ photographs, admitting that “it’s very hard to know what language to use to reconstitute a sense of the public good that is in accord with what we’re doing at this institution...There’s something special about this place, and we have to be able to communicate that”.

In the course of that conversation with students and faculty, Birgeneau admitted that “We’ve focussed so much on the economic benefits to our graduates, I think it’s really backfired on us”. Dirks followed up, saying, “One of the things that we’ve been called upon to do as senior leaders of universities is constantly to instrumentalize the value of a college education...That’s become to a very large extent the way in which the public evaluates the success or failure of institutions of higher education. In a way, by giving in to that, we’ve abdicated what used to be a much more common way of thinking and talking about higher education...We have to find the language to justify the less quantifiable things that we do”.

I very much agree that university leadership, at the campus and system level, has struggled to find good language to discuss the importance of universities’ public character, and at times have seemed impatient with and even dismissive of that importance. It is nice to hear the man partially responsible for fracturing Berkeley’s community and public identity own up to this. It was equally promising to hear Dirks--who comes out of a humanistic and social scientific background--reference the need to resist being drawn into a scenario in which every intellectual endeavour and every academic labour must be justified from a merciless, thankless economic standpoint.

While it is encouraging to hear two high-profile administrators articulate these concerns (and I hope that both of them pass their concerns up the pipeline to UC President Mark Yudof and whomever his successor might be, as well as to the UC Board of Regents), Berkeley and the University of California more broadly are not simply facing a crisis of language. The decision to justify the University in economic terms, and to attempt to quantify its research and pedagogical endeavours has already been felt on campuses, and the practical changes that have come about as a result of that mis-measure of the University need to be treated as a practical as well as a rhetorical problem.

The University is faced by many ills today. The responsibility for funding its labours has been shifted away from the public as a whole (and most conspicuously, away from those generations who benefited from earlier investment in the University and who are in the process of breaking the social contract which mandated that they support future generations in the same way) and onto the backs of students and their families. In seeking to lessen this burden, the University has turned to private donors, and has been partially successful through the provision of generous scholarships.

But in making this turn, the University has put itself into the position of depending on interests which often expect instantaneous and institutionally self-centred gratification, inhibiting that research which takes either a longer view or has no obvious immediate practical value, and adversely impacting the teaching of those subjects which contribute to civic-mindedness rather than an obvious career-path. In the spirit of this new harsher dispensation, administrative support and in some cases whole academic divisions have fallen away.

Now, egged on by the most self-interested and short-termist of all self-interested and short-termist politicians, our current Governor, the University is turning to online education as a curative for its inability to perform its public duty. As appealing as expanding access to higher education through massive online courses might be, there are serious drawbacks to rushing into this scheme, as outlined by a recent letter from San Jose State University faculty, subjects of an early experiment in this form.

I hope that in Birgeneau’s final days, and Dirks’ early ones at Berkeley, campus and system administrators begin to examine the consequences of their actions of the past years, and to set another course for California’s preeminent public institutions, the public character of which has already been badly degraded by a hostile electorate, a structurally dysfunctional state, and, as Birgeneau and Dirks now admit, administrative mismeasurement. They both need to do what they can not only to change UCOP and the State of California’s approach to higher education, but to ensure that this conversation about the importance of our public institutions continues.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Open Letter to Rep. Doug LaMalfa on Guantanamo Bay

Dear Congressman LaMalfa,

As you are undoubtedly aware, conditions at the United States’ prison at Guantanamo Bay have been deteriorating precipitately in recent weeks.  A large number of detainees, many of them who have been held without charge for years—some for over a decade—have undertaken a hunger strike.  They are being force-fed, and shots have been fired at the prison.

This disintegration of order at the prison is probably inevitable at an institution based on such a shaky legal and demonstrably immoral basis: forced disappearance and extraordinary rendition; torture and detention without trial.  Our President made a commendable if perhaps ill-planned effort to close the base shortly after his election in 2008, but was stymied by members of Congress and by his own inconsistency and hypocrisy.

In the wake of condemnation by a UN Human Rights body, President Obama described Guantanamo as “not something that’s in the best interest of the American’s not sustainable”.  I can only hope that his renewed effort to close the prison will have greater success than before.

One key reason why his earlier effort stalled had to do with opposition from national security chicken hawks, largely in the Republican Party but counting more than a few Democrats amongst their number, who attacked the President for being “soft on terror” and sought to persuade the public that closing Guantanamo would put our country in greater danger.

On the basis of the character of the facility at Guantanamo and current events, your party’s ill-judged obstinacy (a charge that could equally apply to many NIMBYs in the Democratic Party) is in danger of turning our country’s behaviour and character into a byword for injustice and barbarism.

Moreover, the refusal to subject these and other people to our legal system undermines faith in that system and suggests that you and your colleagues believe that our institutions—good enough to deal with domestic criminals who have committed crimes as bad as if not worse than some of those alleged against people held at Guantanamo—are inadequate to the task of balancing justice and public safety.

In supporting the maintenance of the prison at Guantanamo, which for many people in the United States and around the world represents a litany of abuses meted out by our national security state, and some of the most serious underlying and unaddressed flaws of our approach to international relations and public safety, our representatives are giving comfort and recruiting propaganda to those who would attack our country.

The greatest long-term threat to our country does not take the form of any individual “terrorist” organisation or the ambitions of individuals or groups to attack the United States.  It is, rather, our own hubristic policies—driven by the internal logic of a profiteering and criminalistic military-industrial complex—and our government’s adoption of the tools of terror, which are in danger of committing us to a war without either end or purpose. 

A recent poll suggested that three quarters of Americans believe that “acts of terrorism will be a part of life in the future”.  That is tragic on so many levels.  It is deplorable that the public has come to believe that living a fearful, war-torn life is necessary and unavoidable.  It is a testament to the stunted imaginations of our policymakers that meeting terror with war and more terror is the best solution they can think of to a set of political and economic problems in the world. 

I urge you to take this opportunity to demonstrate leadership by working with your colleagues on both sides of the aisle to change the terms of the debate about our national security, to recommit our government to respect for our justice system and for human rights, and to support the President’s efforts to close Guantanamo Bay—one of the most egregious symbols of our mismanaged relations with not only our conscience but with global civil society.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Doug LaMalfa's Gamble

Out of morbid curiosity, I follow the North State’s new Congressman, Doug LaMalfa, on facebook.  This morning, I noticed that he had ‘liked’ the page “Let’s Make Fun of Liberals—a Political Stomping Ground”.

“A Political Conspiracy Ground” might be a slightly more accurate title for the site that LaMalfa or his minions apparently spend their time chuckling over, because posts on the site run to the bizarrely paranoid, claiming that the President doesn’t pay his fair share of tax and suggesting that Obama is building a “Muslim States of America”.  Then there are the clowns who just can’t give up on the Benghazi conspiracy theories, and some gloating over the fact that the bombing of the Boston Marathon proves that the President was wrong about Al Qaeda being on the run (never mind that there is no actual connection between those bombers and Al Qaeda).

There are also, of course, the vitriolic, dog-whistle attacks on immigrants we have come to expect from the more hateful on the right, with one post suggesting that all undocumented immigrants are drug dealers.

I understand that the good Congressman wouldn’t necessarily vet all of the sites he supports.  But given that his job is to do serious work in government in the service of his constituents—who include a significant number of non-Republicans and people who did not cast votes for him—it seems like both a less-than-productive use of his time to be giggling over and supporting this kind of delusional, hatemongering, and often wildly-inaccurate propaganda echo-chamber.

I think the Congressman’s tacit support for this kind of nonsense does tell us a lot about how he sees himself: as a voice for the most fearful, hateful, paranoid people around  I suspect that LaMalfa hopes that so long as he functions as a megaphone for this constituency, he can get away without doing anything to actually support their working conditions, without trying to provide them with a living wage, without offering them access to the public sphere and public assistance when they are on hard times, and without working to better the economic conditions of the working classes in our country.  His gamble (like that of his predecessor) on the gullibility of his constituents, paid off handsomely in the last election.