Sunday, June 30, 2013

Drones Mean War, and War Doesn't Work

Writing in Foreign Affairs ("Why Drones Work"), Daniel Byman makes what might be the Obama administration’s own case for the use of drones to kill people in aid of prosecuting the U.S. war of terror overseas.  It even echoes the President in its ostensibly even-handed tone, affecting anguish over the difficulty of the decision but not letting moral qualms stand in the way of endorsing the President’s weapon of choice in a war in which the abductions and torture memos which characterised the Bush years have given way to kill lists and murderous missile campaigns.

However, like the Obama administration, Byman declines to ask the serious questions which should form the starting point for any investigation into whether or how the United States should use drones.  In essence, Byman argues that drones are cheap, efficient, and that their use is unavoidable given the benefits they yield to the U.S. national security apparatus.  His title, “Why Drones Work”, provides the theme as well as the method for an article in which he disingenuously caricatures opposition to drones and dismisses them without either examining the substance of their criticisms or explaining the premise of his own argument.

In the entire paper, Byman doesn’t even bother to pause and elaborate upon what ought to be the departing point for any discussion of the use of drones: what do these weapons actually “work” at doing? 

That so elementary a question could go unanswered let alone unasked perhaps tells us all we need to know about the self-perpetuating nature of the national security commentariat, whose own momentum—as opposed to the public interest—unchecked by any consultation of those two savants Cause and Effect, not slowed in the slightest by any coherent investigation of motive or interest, and unhampered by the exercise of any grey cells, drives national security policy in the United States.

Clearly, drones are good at killing individuals or small groups of people.  But technology is ultimately only as moral or as useful as the purpose which inspires it and the production process—from its conception to its application—which animates its deployment.  In the case of drones, thanks to commentators like Byman, the technology is being separated from its policy goals and from the relationship between those goals and any sense of morality.  It is striking that the author has exactly nothing to say about the character of the world terroristic drone war is actually meant to aid the United States in creating.

There is something almost ungrammatical about Byman’s invocation of drones.  His thoughts are always left uncompleted.  Drones are “a necessary instrument of counterterrorism...”, but to what end counterterrorism is necessary, we are not told.  “They work”, he repeats, but does not say at what. 

Byman is willing to criticise aspects of the drone programme, urging the administration “to improve its drone policy, spelling out clearer rules for extrajudicial and extraterritorial killings”.  That is, he believes that we need to perfect the process for killing outside the legal system which exists to protect people against such abuse. 

Byman pretends that most drone critics believe the only alternative is capturing “militants”.  But the questions that most critics ask probe deeper than this.  What we’re asking is that people like Byman spend a few moments processing why it is that there are militants in the first place.  Why do we feel that it is necessary to take recourse to methods of war which make many of us queasy?  Is it in fact necessary?  What motivates “terrorists” and “militants”, and are there actions that we could take—compatible with our values—which would defang people’s anger with the United States?

Byman boasts that the extrajudicial and extraterritorial use of drones within other nations is often supported by the governments of those nations.  But isn’t this part of the problem?  That these governments, so eager to convince the sanguinary suckers in our national security establishment that their domestic opponents are “terrorists”, use U.S. military power to interfere in contests about democracy, accountability, and religion in their countries.  That despite the conceit that we know what we’re doing and hold all the cards, we too readily fall into the role of proxy for some pretty nasty governments, who are virtually indistinguishable from the “terrorists” in their methods. 

Byman complains that the critics are unrealistic when they suggest “slashing unemployment in Yemen, bringing democracy to Saudi Arabia, and building a functioning government in Somalia”.  He might be correct to say that the United States cannot wave a magic wand and bring these goals to pass.  But what we could do is stop aiding and abetting those forces and interests which work actively against these ends. 

Byman also notes the controversy around the use of “signature strikes, which target not specific individuals but instead groups engaged in suspicious activities”.  Like the NSA’s unregulated data mining, signature strikes are an illustration of the hubris of our security state, which makes the outrageous claim that it doesn’t have to provide serious evidence, prove guilt, or pay more than lip service to the values in the name of which it claims to wage its vicious, hidden war.

Byman’s response to these concerns is to take up the question of whether the strikes cause less “collateral damage” (i.e. murder fewer innocent people) than other methods of killing.  But he persistently refuses to acknowledge the more nagging question...of whether we could act in a manner that prevented us from having to kill people. 

In his statistical ramblings, Byman does not ask serious questions or seek to establish that the drone killings don’t cause problems for the United States, but merely sows doubts about the accuracy of the number of people we murder, and the degree of hatred our terroristic methods generate.  His inappropriately chipper view seems to be, People hate us...but not as much as we might think!  We kill a lot of innocent people...but not as many as we might!  We can murder U.S. citizens...but only some of them!  This pitiless Pollyanna believes that clarity about our immorality will save us from what he appears to regard as the greatest danger: that “mistakes risk tarnishing the entire drone program”.

Indeed, it would be terribly unfortunate if the reputation of the drone programme was called into question.  Less worrisome to Byman, apparently, is the danger that terrorism becomes the norm, a legally accepted, established, and inscribed practise conducted by democratic governments in the name of the people they represent.  Or that the United States is taking lives in an increasingly casual manner which not only diminishes the value of human beings outside our borders, but does so in a way that is calculated to spread violence and conflict across our world.

Byman might see himself as dealing with a technical matter rather than addressing questions of right and wrong, and the article demonstrates a clear disinterest in the use to which drones are being put.  But when a person advocates for the utility of tools of war and violence and devastation, they cannot somehow decide to recues themselves from the consequences of their advocacy.

Because ultimately, whatever fantasy the Obama administration wants to indulge about drone wars not being real wars, to believe that drones can work, you also have to believe that war can work.  And we are faced with a litany of historical misadventures, too many of them from our own lifetimes—resulting in butchery, savagery, and destruction—which demonstrate time and again the futility of making anything other than a victor’s pyrrhic peace by means of war. 

Saturday, June 29, 2013

The (Early) Case for Elizabeth Warren in 2016

Going on three years ago, I fell hopelessly in love.  It was an October night in the Pauley Ballroom at UC Berkeley.  I was sitting near the back of the room.  She was on stage at the front, unaware of my existence.  And though in the personal sense my devotion—and that of the several hundred other people in the room—goes unrequited, Senator Elizabeth Warren delivers with inspiring regularity on the relationships she has built with we besotted members of the public across the United States.

Then, she was in the process of helping President Obama set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, her brainchild which, as she put it that night, should be responsible for “looking out for people as they interact with the financial system”.  These remarks came in the wake of a national financial crisis which had gone global, driven by deliberately deregulated greed.  People, Warren remarked memorably, had been “mugged by contract”, and she was doing her best to do something about that.

In the end, her agency was created against the intense opposition of a Republican Party which tugs its forelock to financial and other moneyed interests, and gives the cold shoulder to the public.  In an effort to sabotage the CFPB’s work on behalf of the public, however, the GOP threatened to turn Warren’s confirmation as the agency’s chief into a pyrrhic victory for Obama’s administration, which was already showing signs of spinelessness.  Barred by the intervention of corporate America from serving the public from within the administration, Warren did not back down.

Instead, she ran for the Senate in Massachusetts, unseating Scott Brown, whose surprise victory over the Democratic candidate after Ted Kennedy’s death had made him the darling of the commentariat who believed that moderation and compromise were required to address the gross inequality—of income, opportunity, means, and of access to democratic institutions—which has been allowed to emerge in the U.S. in the past several decades.  A self-serving opportunist, Brown’s shine was soon sullied, and Warren, who speaks with an old-style progressive accent many of us had forgot existed in the United States, won a convincing victory in 2012.

For progressives, in a year when a warmongering candidate who had knuckled under to the financial sector won a victory over an equally blood-thirsty candidate who was a product of that sector and swore fealty to its valueless credo, Warren’s triumph was one of the few bright spots in the election season.

For she has been fearless and unflinching in pointing out the double standard in the government’s handling of the financial crisis, which saw citizens turned out of their homes, lose their jobs, and fall through the gaping holes in a social net shredded by years of bipartisan zeal for deregulation, all at the same time that those who committed financial crimes walked free, or bailed out of the wrecked plane, drifting to safety, security, and obscene profits on golden parachutes and federal funds. 

No other public figure has managed to make former Treasury Secretary Tim Geithner squirm quite so uncomfortably, question the logic behind financial profiteering quite so convincingly, hammer regulators for their dereliction of their duties quite so passionately, or articulate the premise behind our national social contract in so movingly eloquent a manner.  And she has been consistent in a way that is almost baffling given the contortions and spinning of the poll- and money-driven Congressional and Presidential pygmies, morally-stunted almost to a member, to whom we have become accustomed.  Warren actually warned that the fundamentalist economics embraced by Reagan, Clinton, and two Bushes would ultimately lead to the very socioeconomic earthquake that wreaked such havoc in our nation just a few years ago.

What this means is that Senator Warren now has the toughest job representing the largest constituency in the country.  Because in contrast to the regressive Republicans, financial criminals, market fundamentalists, and the top 1%, all of whom have a seemingly-inexhaustible reserve of Congressional representatives and administration officials to do their bidding, it very often seems that those of us who would call ourselves progressives or social democrats, or who believe that the whole point of associating as a nation is that we have some responsibility to use democratic institutions to look after one another, have exactly one representative in government—Elizabeth Warren.

And it is for these reasons that I hope to see Elizabeth Warren on the presidential ballot in 2016.

True, it is early.  But an assortment of ideologically-indistinguishable Republican sociopaths are already jockeying for position.  And Democrats will undoubtedly hope for a coronation of Hillary Clinton, with senior party members already urging her to run. 

But for anyone who believes that this country needs peace rather than war, that prosperity needs to be defined by the health and welfare of our public, that we need strong institutions to protect that public, and that fairness and equality are values worth fighting for, the prospect of a Clinton-GOP competition is chilling.

Hillary Clinton is a practising neoconservative, whose judgment has helped to plunge us into, and then keep us mired in, wars in the Middle East and South Asia while expanding our involvement in less visible but equally violent and counterproductive conflicts across Northern and Sahelian Africa and the Arabian peninsula.  I have not the slightest doubt that the massive expansion of the security state we have seen under President Obama—with its attendant abuses and violence—would have been replicated on an even larger scale had we the misfortune to experience a Clinton presidency.

During the last two decades, Clinton has also completed one of nature’s more spectacular metamorphoses, from a professed progressive to a nasty neoliberal, signing up to the economic consensus that Warren is working to shatter before it fractures our society.  Whether Big Banks, Big Pharma, or Big Weapons, Clinton has grown solicitous of the corporate powerbrokers who roam our economic highways and byways, behaving like so many economic gangsters as they plunder the public’s coffers, abuse the public good, and undermine public institutions. 

Hillary Clinton might be intelligent for all I know, but she does her best to cloak any thoughtfulness beneath the crudest and least productive kind of jingoistic populism, one which yields none of the benefits to the larger community that the word suggests.  Can you imagine Clinton grilling Geithner  and Holder about financial crimes the way Warren has?  Can you picture Clinton—who has perfected her husband’s amoral strategy of political triangulation—waging an unashamed campaign based on establishing the primacy of the community over the well-being of moneyed interests, in a year when Democrats were running for the hills and proclaiming their conservatism?  Clinton is no kind of progressive.

And then there will be the Republicans, who are churned out of a 24-hour factory, cookie-cutter men and women, full of anger at the government, spitting vitriol at the community, and preaching hatred against diversity.  Some of them do a slick line in political moderation, but when in office, they so zealously implement the will of their corporate backers that one could almost imagine them to be actually inspired by some evangelical belief that inequality and exploitation are the markers of a virtuous society, instead of being merely motivated by the pay checks and marching orders they take from the Koch Empire and its detestable ilk.

I can hear the nay-sayers in the discredited Democratic Party already.  Warren, they will whisper, is unelectable—a word meant to send a chill down the spine of the political witch-doctors who groom acceptable candidates and send them out to the voters, where they converge on a point around the economic and military theories which are currently taking our country to pieces.

But maybe we need a better metric than “electability”.  After all, everyone from Joe Biden to Harry Reid told us that Obama was ‘electable’.  He was, of course.  And he’s waged war with frightening vigour and more frightening consequences on half a dozen fronts, whilst turning the cheek to bankers, going cap-in-hand to the energy lobby, and for all of his fiercely urgent rhetoric, declining to lift a finger to help America’s working class.  Hillary Clinton would undoubtedly be electable, and would be no better than Obama, and perhaps much, much worse.

Elizabeth Warren promises the same kind of inspiring politics that President Obama did in 2008.  But unlike the President, she has demonstrated, both on the campaign trail and in government, the kind of consistency (in itself inspiring) and steel spine that would be prerequisites for taking on the interests which have so vigorously undermined the foundations of our society.  We need someone who is proud to speak a progressive language and set a social democratic pace, not the fumbling, lackadaisical, quiescent president eviscerated in Timothy Egan’s superbly on-point Thursday column in the New York Times.

Moreover, Warren offers a heartening vision of the role of government.  Where Obama’s deployment of government power—whether it’s the drone strikes and murder memos or the NSA spying and the NDAA—has generated mistrust of government and done grievous harm to the public interest, Warren’s version is predicated on the maintenance of institutions which have as their raison d’ĂȘtre the public welfare, and which never act without first inquiring how their policies will contribute to the public good.

Perhaps it’s time we did something really outrageous, like backing a candidate we’re told us unelectable.  Unelectable because she might just do something as outlandish as standing up for the public, for the rights and welfare of citizens, and for economic inequality and the health of our democracy.

Because in spite of Obama’s words denying the existence of two separate Americas—words which catapulted him to prominence—the fact remains that our country is deeply divided between those who have wealth and those who do not.  Between those with security, and those who live on the economic brink.  Between those with access to political power and those without.  And between those who are committed to some common, collective endeavour, and those who are not.  We need to address these deficits—democratic as much as budgetary—with honesty and clarity and force.  And I’m convinced that Warren could do so.

For the time being, I hope that she continues with her lonely labours in the Senate, toiling for transparency, accountability, and fairness—increasingly alien values in the United States of the twenty-first century—on behalf of an otherwise-largely neglected citizenry. 

But should she declare for 2016 on a progressive platform—which I sincerely hope she does, for the good of our country—I can promise Senator Warren that she will have the goodwill, support, and labour of this mwananchi. 

Friday, June 28, 2013

Censorship: a Funny Way to Fight for "Freedom"

I thought that after the last weeks, there could be very little about the behaviour of our security state which could surprise or disgust me in their handling of the leaks about the NSA’s breach of the public trust (including revelations about e-mail collection).  Needless to say, my optimism was grievously misplaced.

Earlier this week, the Monterey Herald reported that soldiers at the town’s Presidio had been unable to access content on the Guardian relating to the revelations about the extent of the NSA’s intrusive spying on the public and the lies told by intelligence officials when questioned about the nature of this extraordinary intrusion by Congressional representatives who are supposed to provide oversight of the intelligence services.

The excuse made by the military for blocking the access of military personnel was, of course, the same one used to justify keeping the public in the dark: that disclosure of such information (reported in virtually every newspaper) would expose classified information, help the terrorists, and compromise national security.  Never mind that these claims—so central to the unending War Of, By, and For Terror—themselves cannot be substantiated because to do so would either require the release of said classified information, or else the fabrication of links between threats and security measures (WMDs anyone?).  [See this letter on the topic signed by a number of Senators to Director of National Intelligence James Clapper who carefully lied on multiple occasions to Senator Ron Wyden about the NSA’s spying.]

The Army’s spokesman, given the unenviable task of defending censorship in the ranks, bleated about the need to preserve “network hygiene”, tortured terminology that might have been stripped from an Orwell novel.  Another PR operative explained that “an employee who downloads classified information [i.e. a newspaper article universally available in the United States] could face disciplinary action if found to have knowingly downloaded the material on an unclassified computer”.

In a strange way, the military’s censorship disturbs me even more than the other revelations.  Perhaps it has to do with the sequence of events.  The unaccountable behaviour of our intelligence agencies—empowered by two criminal, terroristic administrations—is sparking considerable public mistrust in such institutions.  People are going to be scrutinising their behaviour to determine the extent to which their abuse of their duties is habitual as opposed to some kind of one-off.  And in the face of that scrutiny, the security state continues to behave as though nothing has happened and as though they can hide their misdeeds.

And from whom, in this case, are they hiding details of their actions?  It is all the more incredible that such patently absurd censorship would be implemented in an institution supposedly dedicated to “protecting our freedoms”.  Such censorship is, at the end of the day, the most effective manner of ensuring that we never learn from our mistakes, whatever the cost of burying our heads in the sand and murmuring self-aggrandising homilies might ultimately be. 

The dissonance in the ability of institutions obsessed with security to simultaneously claim to treasure “freedom” and “democracy” and “openness” while simultaneously embracing the group-think and tics of authoritarian, closed-off regimes the world over, is incredible—urgently so, given that we will be living with the consequences of such dissonance in the foreseeable future. 

In explaining military censorship, its spokesperson declared, “We make every effort to balance the need to preserve information access with operational security”.  Perhaps the military, like our intelligence services, our executive, and our legislature, needs to contemplate a different balance which is tipping out of their favour: that between their ability to abuse the public interest with impunity, and the capacity to maintain their legitimacy in the face of such serial and sanguinary abuse.

Measuring Democratic Success

I was recently bemoaning the state of California’s society to a Danish neighbour.  He asked me if California’s prison problem was as bad as Europeans often hear.  Most Europeans I meet while abroad have heard what they generally assume are all kinds of outlandish and wildly exaggerated accounts about the decline of civil society in the United States.  This means that I have the misfortune of being the person to assure them that in most cases things are as bad as if not worse than what they’ve heard.  The U.S. is nothing if not skilled at self-caricature.

In this case, I told him the story of Abel Maldonado’s recent effort to embarrass Jerry Brown’s prison realignment program by taking dramatic posters in front of the media that just happened to be dealing with a  case that had exactly nothing to do with the state’s current efforts to get its prison population under control.  If nothing else, Maldonado was helpful in providing an illustration of his party’s animating pathology, which does not shrink from hurling lies in front of a roof-top full of reporters in the hope that some of the smears will stick.

The nastiness of Republican politicking aside, most thinking people will readily acknowledge that putting small-time drug users and other petty offenders into prison does nothing more than ensure that they will be transformed into more serious criminals, more likely to reoffend. 

But what most horrified my Danish neighbour was that the reflex of the Republican Party to what is so obviously a big problem for the state—not only does our prison-industrial complex suggest a morally-broken society, but it constitutes a massive drain on our public coffers, and a wilful rejection of preventive measures—was to go on the attack, calling for an escalation of the same “tough” measures that caused the problem in the first place (measures perhaps best characterised as proven stupidity)

Flabbergasted, he said, “We’d never do that in Denmark”, and noted that this is the feature of U.S. politics which baffles many northern Europeans even more than our working- and middle-class’ embrace of the economic well-being of their exploiters at their own expense: the instinctively oppositional relationship between the two parties irrespective of the issue, the potential for common ground, or the level of government. 

This in turn reminded me of the remarks made by a Kenyan columnist, dissatisfied with the casual manner in which Fund for Peace draws up its “Failed States Index”.  Near the end of his column, he cited the view of a British academic that a better metric of measuring the “success” of a state might be evaluating those societies which “allow all sorts of ideas and policy choices to be put forward”.

Charles Onyango-Obbo wrapped up, “The debate, and sometimes fights, over which [policy choice] should carry the day are a sign of how healthy and democratic a society is.  Therefore, a society that didn’t have any of these conflicts would be in a very bad place.  The real test of state failure, we might conclude, should not be the presence or absence of conflict, but of the institutional ability to resolve the conflicts”.

When you ponder that formulation, you’re left with a rather sobering thought given the structural impediments in the United States today—a Senate which is undemocratic in its composition and rules; a first-past-the-post electoral system; the intrusion of moneyed interests into politics; the empowerment of corporations and the concomitant disempowerment of citizens; etc—which stand in the way of government, in its various iterations, enacting coherent policy.

Our system has become one which allows if not encourages the flourishing of irresolvable conflict, thanks to that system’s failure to adequately represent people, its inability to yield clear election results, and its lack of capacity to act in the public good and on the concerns of its citizens.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Life in the Archives

Seven hours of sitting hunched at a desk over faded files in dim light takes a lot out of me, whatever the thrills of finding something new and exciting.  So I’m always a little shell-shocked when I finally stand up, unplug my laptop, tidy up my desk corner, hand back my finished files and put a little ‘reserved’ sign on the unfinished ones,  and stumble out into the dying hour of sunlight after bidding farewell until tomorrow to the cheery, helpful staff at the desk.

Yesterday must have been a particularly long day, because when I was a hundred meters or so out of the gate and down the road, I realised that I was still clutching ZNA.SEC/6/196 in my clammy hands.  I gasped with horror at my inadvertent theft and hurried back to the building to surrender the precious file to the desk. 


I saw a speed indicator on Church Road in Lusaka the other day.  It flashes out the speed of passing vehicles, but I couldn’t tell whether it was having any effect on the light but consistent traffic that churns around town. 

It’s a bit sad to see the preponderance of unnecessarily massive SUVs coursing around Lusaka.  Given the rough roads beyond the capital, some people undoubtedly do need a heavy-duty vehicle, but many of these are sufficiently shiny that I feel comfortable saying they’ve never gone beyond Lusaka’s suburbs.  As in the U.S., it seems that owning a massive car is more of a status thing, and it’s a preoccupation which is undoubtedly costly to those who breathe in the city’s polluted air, brave its traffic each morning and evening, and face its under-regulated and under-serviced public transportation on a daily basis.  It’s too bad that the west’s costly experiment with the “bigger is better” philosophy hasn’t informed the decisions that other societies take about how to get around and how to build their cities.


I was reacquainted—solely through various secretariat files (SEC ), thankfully—with Mr Muspratt, a world-class ranter whose efforts put my own harangues against officialdom to shame.  In this case, Game Department officials gave as good as they got, the long-suffering director referring to Muspratt as “a gentleman of independent means, neurosis and strong political feelings”.


I found myself waiting in the immigration office the other day, and suddenly noticed that several of the men also waiting in the front room were speaking Kiswahili with one another.  Guessing that they were Tanzanian, I tried out my mangled Swahili, and they were thrilled, in spite of my basic unintelligibility and their total lack of English (it must be difficult for them to work in Zambia).  They got a real kick out of hearing that young American students at Berkeley High have the opportunity to learn Swahili, and one of them proudly bragged to one of his comrades, “See, Swahili is a global language!”


If ever I die coming or going from the archives, it will most likely be the fault of a trainee driver who fails to look where they’re going when they turn out of the Road Safety Agency that I pass every day.  But last week, those maniacs were given a run for their money when I nearly walked into a pick-axe being wielded with more abandon than precision by a worker tearing up a strip of concrete outside the ministry of finance.  I was day-dreaming as I meandered home, and only the intervention of his co-worker prevented my head being cleft in two.


There were bed bugs in one of the neighbouring hostel blocks over the week-end, and the pest control officer was summoned.  His arrival was heralded by a squeaking and clanking sound, and he soon rattled through the gate on a bicycle that had seen better days—possibly back in the mid-twentieth century—all of his equipment perched on the back.  He cheerfully proceeded to blast the offending room with chemicals which, he assured the spectators, were “environmentally friendly”. 


I’m happy to report that I’ve met some Cal alums around Zambia.  There was a former football player and sometime Peace Corps worker, who’d stayed on in the country and was heading briefly back to Bakersfield before returning to start up a farm and agricultural development program in Zambia.  And then there was a Dutch student travelling around Southern Africa who’d done a semester abroad at Berkeley, and had wonderful memories of the experience.  And I got a lift home one evening from a water aid worker who lives up in Samfya and had an engineering degree from Cal.  I also met a Norwegian political risk analyst who asked if I knew that his country’s Crown Prince had briefly attended Berkeley (he had, in fact, stayed at the International House).  It’s good to see former residents of the People’s Republic scattered around the world doing good works. 


The spot in Lusaka which shall always be dearest in my heart is Mahak’s, an unpretentious Indian eatery off of the Great East Road.  The Sunday dosa special was a bit skimpy, and the price of the bottomless veg thali may have gone up, but the latter is still an excellent deal, and various other dishes—lamb vindaloo, chicken hydrabadi, and chicken kolhapuri, for example, best taken with garlic nan—are exquisite.

Although I have to admit that there’s something nice and comforting about facing a big pile of nshima, the flavourless staple which inevitably accompanies vegetable or meat dishes in Zambia.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Should we have Expectations of Obama on Climate Change?

In what will be one of the more unremarked but ultimately critical moves of his Presidency, Obama will today give a speech on climate change, providing some sense of the path the U.S. will take in the short term moving forward.  As demonstrated by the extraordinary mobilisation against the Keystone XL pipeline, protesters against which have dogged the President consistently on his visits to his California ATMs in Marin, Silicon Valley, San Francisco and Los Angeles, the grassroots are up in arms about Obama’s weak-kneed efforts to address climate change.

In his first term, Obama’s approach to climate change was technocratic.  Mother Jones sums it up thus: “he pledged action on climate change in his campaign in 2008, but the effort to pass a bill died in the Senate in 2010.  The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) did take regulatory action on climate-changing emissions in his first term, including increasing the fuel economy of automobiles and the first-ever rules on greenhouse gases from new power plants.  But environmentalists were frustrated by what they saw as an unwillingness by Obama himself to make a strident push for comprehensive action on climate change”.

In a kind of irony, the problem with this technical, fiddling approach to climate change is that summed up by Lippmann when he remarked in a different context that “we have changed our environment more quickly than we knew how to change ourselves”.  These small moves will, in other words, do some good, but they do nothing to change the broad culture within which people assess their relationship to the environment and its health, meaning that they are not changes which will endure beyond Obama’s occupancy of the Oval Office.

The problem is that Obama could have chosen to make climate change a campaign issue.  It could have been his “cause” in 2012.  But he refused, and debate moderators declined to ask a single question about such a critical issue, ceding ground to the deniers, who in any other political context would be marginalised as a bunch of know-nothings, people who make an extraordinary virtue out of incredible ignorance.

I had to laugh when the President on Saturday, in a warm-up for his address as reported by Mother Jones, referred to climate change as “a serious challenge, but it’s one uniquely suited to America’s strengths”.

That’s about the silliest thing I’ve ever heard.  We are a country affected by a debilitating hubris, a conceit that there will be no consequences for our avarice, and that if there are, they will be felt either by other people in other lands, or by future generations in our own country and that, in any case, that’s someone else’s problem.

We are a nation that refuses to meet the eye of looming challenges until they overtake us—the fallout from our dreadful foreign policy, the drain on our economy caused by a behemoth prison industrial complex, the inevitable financial collapse caused by the government-endorsed rapacity of the financial sector, and now climate change—and then we have a knack for responding in a manner which abdicates responsibility, compounds the problems, and gives in to a culture of greed. 

In the meantime, the Republican Party, carrying out the wishes of its corporateconstituency, is doing its best to sabotage even the technocratic tinkering that Obama’s proposals are likely to include (for example, blocking the appointment of an EPA director).  In the Mother Jones article cited above, Kate Sheppard outlines measures that the President might embrace: altered emission rules for existing power plants, tougher efficiency standards for homes and appliances, more renewable energy development on public lands, and preparing the U.S. for climate impacts. 

None of these are bad things.  But they are small measures for a people with small ambitions and small concern for how their actions might impact subsequent generations. 

Monday, June 24, 2013

Reclaiming "Welfare"

The vicious reaction to the invocation of “welfare” always startles me.  Conservatives’ blood roils when they talk about people “on welfare”.  Progressives fear to defend a “welfare state”.  Ronald Reagan practised dog-whistle politics, tapping both class and race hatred with characteristic skill when discussed “welfare queens”.  I’m ashamed to admit that I sometimes find myself grasping for a different word when looking to describe the set of social and political arrangements the word defines.

And yet a return to definitions suggests that the idea of “welfare” should be comparatively uncontroversial, perhaps even universally-acceptable, to the point that it might define a common starting point for our politics, both because of the affirmative definition and because of the alternatives that this definition suggests.

The Oxford English dictionary defines “welfare” as “the state or condition of doing or being well; good fortune, happiness, or well-being (of a person, community, or thing); thriving or successful progress in life, prosperity”.  For those seeking more, it also offers “a source of well-being or happiness; the good things of life”.  And finally, nodding to the institutional forms which emerged largely in the twentieth century, there is this: “the maintenance of members of a group or community in a state of (esp. physical and economic) well-being, esp. as provided for and organised by legislation or social effort”.

However hard one squints and probes at this definition, it is difficult to see what is so objectionable, horrifying, and threatening to the public about the word or the concepts it embodies. 

We are not just yet, I would hope, quite so mean-spirited and selfish as to wish to deny “good fortune, happiness, or well-being”, or the “good things of life” to our neighbours. Surely we are not so churlish as to believe that the conditions of “well-being and happiness” are the right only of some members of our society.  And could we really be so fuzzy as to believe the above but fail to see that in a complex society composed of many people doing much work which is valued differently by that agglomeration of interests we call an economy will require some larger agent imbued with the public’s power to achieve a measure of redistribution with the purpose of securing the well-being, or the “welfare” of the public. 

And yet progressives in the United States in general and California in particular seem afraid to use a word which could potentially be such a powerful tool for explaining what a social democratic agenda is all about.  Instead of talking about the public good, the welfare of society, collective endeavours, a common purpose, public institutions, or economic equality, they speak of discipline.  They invoke fiscal fundamentalism.  They impose constraints on progressive ambitions, which translate into shackles on progressive action. 

Fiscal discipline, fiscal restraint, austerity budgets...these have ceased to be things associated with creating particular material conditions in particular economic circumstances, and have instead become the things to which public figures who cast themselves as progressives—think President Obama or Governor Brown, to take the most dramatic examples—actually aspire. 

Philip Selznick, a sociologist who wrote about the Tennessee Valley Authority, put it very well, writing, “Democracy has to do with means, with instruments, with tools which define the relationship between authority and individual”.  He cautioned against a state of affairs in which we would experience the “tyranny of means and the impotence of ends”, suggesting that “means tyrannise when the commitments they build up divert us from our true objectives.  Ends are impotent when they are so abstract and unspecified that they offer no principles of criticism and assessment”.*

The embrace of constraints, limitations, and strictures on the means by which we manage our economy—a management which should be about achieving some social goal—has, as Selznick would suggest, come to drastically redefine the outcomes we can achieve, and not for the better.  At the same time, the social outcomes that discipline and constraint offer tend to be either prohibitively vague (using GDP instead of, for example, HDI as an index), increasingly untenable (“growth”), or reprehensibly harsh (“austerity”). 

Absent some conception of social or public welfare, what gains an un- or mis-regulated economy does generate accrue deliberately unevenly.  After all, we’ve had years of rising GDP that has brought no concomitant rise in the welfare or standard of living for most people.  “Growth” brings with it ecological and environmental damage which tends to impact the already-vulnerable in society.  And everyone should have noticed by now that the punishing programme of austerity—which has impacted the quality of public schools, the ability of the working and middle classes to send their children to university, the ability of workers to negotiate wages, the accessibility of healthcare and other basic needs—has left the wealthiest amongst us unscathed thanks to their ability to abuse our weak democracy in order to create a safety net of their own at the expense of the majority of their fellow citizens. 

It would be helpful to have the language to point out that what these people are doing, with the aid of their political bag-carriers in both parties.  The short-lived Occupy movement had some impact on the debate.  But tellingly, even when grassroots members of the Astroturf Tea Party organisations raged against corporate welfare, they proved unable to articulate that criticism in cogent language because of their allergy to the words “welfare” and “public”.

And yet surely that is what critics of the status quo who saw themselves as occupying the right, just as much as Occupiers on the left, were actually talking about.  A “welfare state” is, after all, a state that concerns itself with looking after the welfare of its citizens.  The alternative is something with which we’re altogether too familiar: a state which looks after its wealthiest members, caters to corporations rather than citizens, and which—under the regressive and security-minded Bush and Obama administrations of the last 12 years—increasingly sees the public as a threat to be managed rather than a constituency whose welfare it is bound to look after.

Reclaiming words like “welfare” and “public” won’t, in itself, get us anywhere.  But it might allow us to debate things like the purpose of government, the importance of institutions, and most importantly, the ends we envision with much greater openness and honesty.


* Philip Selznick, TVA and the Grass Roots: a Study of Politics and Organization.  Berkeley: University of California Press: 3, x.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Tracking Edward Snowden from Lusaka

Edward Snowden’s flight from Hong Kong, with what looks like the tacit support of the government there, is taking on the air of a Hollywood drama.  It almost reminds me of the recent film Argo, except in this case, the U.S. authorities are playing the role of the clunky, repressive security state.  In this iteration, they are pursuing Edward Snowden, the former NSA-employee who exposed the extent of illicit intrusion by the U.S. government into the lives of its citizens, revealed the bald-faced lies spouted by intelligence personnel to Congress, and illuminated the half-heartedness of that body’s efforts to exert control over a national security apparatus, the efforts of which looks increasingly bloody-minded, anti-democratic, and counter-productive.

Right-wingers like John McCain and Dianne Feinstein have been joined in parroting the condemnations of Snowden by progressives like Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi.  The former accused China and Vladimir Putin of aiding Snowden’s escape (imagine, countries that the U.S. seeks to spy on and undermine not bending over backwards to do Washington’s bidding!), and Pelosi bleated pathetically about security outweighing public interest.

At the Lusaka Backpackers, those of us working from home on Sunday have been following Snowden’s movements live throughout the day, online when possible, and on the radio when the internet connection goes on the blink.  And I’m not ashamed to admit that our little party gave a cheer when we heard that Ecuadorean embassy vehicles were sighted at the Moscow airport.

Undoubtedly, there are those who would see our cheering the whistleblower as irresponsible and unpatriotic, but I’d say that’s the problem of the administration and Congress which have brought deserved opprobrium on its own head through their contempt for both public and process.  Snowden risked a great deal to expose the machinations of his former masters, and the idea that his service to the public should expose him to American injustice seems wrong.

At the end of the day, it might have been ideal if Snowden had come to the U.S. and defended himself publicly, further exposing the shambles of our national security state.  On the other, it’s easy for a third party to ask him to yield himself up to the kind of treatment meted out to Bradley Manning and other whistleblowers—treatment which makes a mockery of the public interest—when he’s already been forced to leave his home, his family, and the life that he knew. 

I think I speak for most of this group of international travellers, researchers, and Zambians when I say that I hope Snowden arrives safely in a country where people and governments have a bit stronger sense of the public good and of the importance of transparency and accountability. 

Dishonesty over Divestment from California's Political Leadership

The blog Mandoweiss has published a letter from high-ranking elected Californian politicians which criticised “the boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) movement and the passage of divestment resolutions on California campuses.  Addressed to the chair of the University of California Regents, which controls UC investments”, Mandoweiss reports, “the letter ‘congratulates’ the Regents on ‘standing firm’ against divestment”.

California’s legislators, in condemning students at Irvine, Berkeley, and San Diego, are caving into a lobby which practises very shady patronage, propaganda, and ‘treatment’ oriented politics.  The lobby does not shrink from offering free trips to Israel, propaganda sessions at AIPAC, and outright lies about the character of the divestment bills on campuses.  It offers seminars aimed at indoctrinating what it regards as critical and strategic sectors in social and political institutions.  These include U.S. energy experts; University presidents; civil rights leaders; senior counterterrorism officials; Indian-American media and foreign policy leaders; city, county, and state elected officials; Latino leaders; campus media; and California student leaders. 

I wonder how many of the Californian politicians who signed the ill-informed letter were subject to such ‘treatment’, given their very obvious ignorance about the actual contents of the divestment bills on campus, which were extraordinarily even-handed and went to great pains not to single out the state of Israel. 

Their letter, which serves as a rebuke to a generation of California’s students who are seeking to construct a moral economy within the community they call home, is particularly offensive given that many signatories, including Darrell Steinberg, the leader of the Senate, write from within a party supposedly dedicated to progressivism, equality, and self-determination, values which are totally incompatible with the uncritical endorsement of colonial rule.

It is hardly surprising that the UC Regents, a corporate-minded body, its members appointed on a corrupt patronage basis by successive Governors, would ally itself with American corporations which profit from violence in Israel and Palestine.  There has been another time when the UC Regents found themselves on the wrong side of a moral debate about colonialism, and their intransigence led to acts of unconscionable violence by university police against students.  I refer, of course, to the move to persuade the Regents to divest from apartheid South Africa during the 1980s.

Much has been made of parallels between South African apartheid and Israeli colonialism in Palestine.  Many of Israel’s critics assert that what Israel practises there is nothing less than apartheid—and given international legal definitions of the crime of apartheid, it is difficult to argue with this.  Supporters of Israel, demonstrating a critical historicism glaringly absent elsewhere in their arguments, contend that the structural and physical violence meted out by Israel’s government against Palestinians is different to that implemented by the apartheid regime. 

Given the intensity of feelings on campus last semester, I allowed my students in two South African history courses to debate the issue, which they did with great respect and attention to historical specificity, concluding that there are striking similarities as well as dramatic differences.

For me, the most interesting similarities lie in the efforts of the Israeli and South African governments to have their cake and eat it.  In South Africa, building on earlier legislation, the apartheid government used the 1959 Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Act to force black South Africans into dismembered ‘homelands’.  These marginal lands were overpopulated and over-farmed and could not feed the vast numbers of people the state forced into them.  This rendered the homelands dependent on the apartheid state, which was able to use them as a reservoir of readily-exploitable labour in the construction of an economy based on affirmative action programmes for Afrikaans-speakers and the building of infrastructure geared towards allowing white South Africans to live the good life on the backs of their countrymen and –women.

The South African government then declared these homelands “independent” through the 1971 Bantu Homelands Constitution Act, a move which stripped black South Africans working in the “white” areas which comprised 87% of the country of their few remaining rights.  The farce whereby the apartheid state pretended that these balkanised homelands, carefully controlled by Pretoria and its stooges, were independent countries with the capacity to take responsibility for their affairs and development was a transparent ruse which most of the world ridiculed.  For many years, however, Conservative and Republican governments in Britain and the United States engaged in a policy referred to as “constructive engagement”, whereby they entertained the apartheid government’s claims that it was “democratic”, thereby allowing corporations to make massive profits from the cheap labour supplies available in South Africa, and arms companies to shore up the increasingly-isolated regime in Pretoria. 

The parallels with Israel’s claims about the benevolence of its colonial rule, about its own democratic character, and about Palestinian freedom and self-determination, are too great to ignore.

I’m less interested in whether what Israel practises in Palestine is apartheid per se.  I think what is most interesting are the parallels between two states swimming against broader historical trends.  South Africa built the apartheid state in an era in which most African countries were moving steadily towards majority rule and independence.  Similarly, Israel’s colonial structure has been implemented in an era when global rhetoric—if not always reality—should render colonial rule morally and legally untenable. 

It is therefore unsurprising that both Israel and South Africa would develop a similarly tortured line of logic, comparable institutional bases for their rule, and analogous rhetorical claims about what their respective states are doing.  When we think of colonialism, we generally think of the European powers during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and their far flung overseas empires, which they were proud to claim as such.  Because our understanding of colonialism is informed by this historical precedent, instead of a more basic reflection about unequal power relations and the social subjugation and economic domination of one people by another, it is often hard to accept a system like South African apartheid or Israeli rule in Palestine as colonialism.  Modern colonial powers depend on moral and material aid from larger powers, and are sustained by global capital, which renders them stronger in the face of a united front by capital, but also more vulnerable to critiques from moral majorities within those larger powers.

And just as colonialism has taken a different and in some respects more insidious form in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, so too has anti-colonialism changed.  It is more global than before, and its ‘members’ better informed and more able to identify lies and inconsistencies in defenders of the unequal and exploitative order they seek to confound.  Students, churches, and labour movements abroad have been at the forefront of movements to call their governments to account for supporting colonial regimes.  The actions of anti-colonial ‘movements’ have forced corporations and institutions like the UC Regents—unelected by and unaccountable to the communities they govern—to nail their colours to the mast.

When I read about the actions of California’s legislators, I am reminded of Thomas Paine’s words in The Age of Reason, wherein he wrote, “It is impossible to calculate the moral mischief...that mental lying has produced in society.  When a man has so far corrupted and prostituted the chastity of his mind, as to subscribe his professional belief to things he does not believe, he has prepared himself for the commission of every other crime.  He takes up the trade of a priest for the sake of gain, and, in order to qualify himself for that trade, he begins with a perjury.  Can we conceive anything more destructive to morality than this?” (12).

Legislators and Regents are an intelligent bunch of people.  I don’t think they’re stupid enough to buy Israel’s assertions about the benevolence of its rule.  Nor are the credulous enough, I think, to believe that in the long run colonialism will do anything other than harm Israel. 

But a combination of political expediency—in the face of intense pressure from an ultimately self-destructive and dishonest lobby—and a basic sympathy with the corporate interests which profit from violence in the Middle East and the fuelling of an endless conflict has led the UC Regents and California’s legislators to abandon common sense and spurn the efforts of their constituents in defending what—in the second decade of the twenty-first century—should be an utterly indefensible system of exploitation, misrule, and violence.