Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Elections in Zimbabwe

Today, Zimbabweans go to the polls.  Robert Mugabe, geriatric and cranky, is aiming for another win for himself and for ZANU-PF.  The MDC, his main rivals, are already crying foul, citing irregularities in the electoral rolls and intimidation campaigns in rural areas.  A Crisis Group briefing billed the election as “Mugabe’s Last Stand” (which is as tired and oft-used descriptor as Mugabe’s speeches) and urged the Southern African Development Community to find its spine in responding to what is unlikely to be a “free and fair” election.

People in Zambia look south a little bit askance.  Many of them understand Mugabe’s appeal.  He is a hero of a liberation campaign which met stiff opposition from white Rhodesians who declared independence from Britain and created their own apartheid-style state in Central Africa, with the support of the South African regime.  And for people whose material lives have failed to improve significantly in the past decades, the eloquence and fury that he combines in his lengthy excoriations of Britain and the west undoubtedly strike a chord.  Zambia’s first President, Kenneth Kaunda (who eventually presided over a party-state), was an advocate of the view that countries like Zambia would never really be safe until their neighbours were also independent, and under his rule, Zambia provided refuge for South Africa’s ANC and Zimbabwe’s ZAPU.  But in Zambia today, where some people see the government creeping back towards a one-party state, Zimbabwe also offers a cautionary tale.

I was chatting about the election a couple of months back with my barber in the Northmead Market.  His view was that the problem lies not with what Mugabe is trying to achieve, but rather with how he has chosen to take action at various points.  Indeed, the redistribution of land after nearly a century of rapacious colonial rule is hard to argue with.  And farm seizures only began after the British broke off their agreement to subsidise the gradual purchase of farms. 

But there is a lot of ugliness and violence in the method.  Whether it’s Mugabe threatening to behead gay Zimbabweans earlier this week, turning farms over to “war veterans” who happen to be party cronies, or the massacre in Matabeleland in the ‘80s, it is hard to see how he retains any moral authority to rule.  But Mugabe understands that neo-colonialism is real, and he relies on the fears of exploitation of many Zimbabweans to whip up support.  It is a testament to the viciousness of the colonial era that now, over thirty years on, those memories—with a little intimidation and manipulation—can provide an election victory. 
Tellingly, Britain and the international community were largely silent about the Gukurahundi in the 1980s, and indeed awarded Mugabe a knighthood in the ‘90s.  It was only when he turned to the white farms that they found their voices, and the MDC fears that their selective outrage might generate an international climate of impunity, in which Mugabe’s brutality will be overlooked.

And today, having cleverly drawn the opposition into a coalition from which it could not help but emerge tarnished, Mugabe is aiming for a return to respectability.  The Guardian story which suggested as much was cited on Zambian radio yesterday, which predicted a win for the incumbent. 

Combining the bigotry of his fellow fundamentalists in the U.S., a dose of truth (calling Tony Blair a “real liar, downright one”), control over the media, and the ultimate ability to unleash violence through the loyal security services and military (the interests of which many believe are the real reason Mugabe has decided to contest yet another election... generals have said they would refuse to serve a winner who is not Mugabe), a Mugabe ‘victory’ would not be surprising.

I was back at the barber yesterday, and he shook his head, allowing that while Mugabe has done some good things for Zimbabwe, there has been too much hardship of late, and that his time should be up.  It will likely be a few days until results are released, and in the interim, Zimbabweans and people across Central Africa will be waiting with bated breath to see whether the election heralds the end of an era, and of a rule which became increasingly brutal, hateful, and divisive over the decades. 

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Elizabeth Warren and the Democratic Party

As regular readers will know, I’m a big Elizabeth Warren fan.  The Massachusetts Senator, both in her short time in the Senate, and as a consumer advocate before that, has proven herself to be a committed progressive in a party increasingly dominated by neoliberalism.  She has done more than our President to inject a dose of progressivism into our national debate and would, I think, be an excellent President.

However, detractors are crawling out of the woodwork to assail Warren, demonstrating the threat she poses not only to the fundamentalists on the political right, but also to the corporate-minded core of the Democratic Party.  She’s been accused of being too “noisy” and of behaving like a “feckless demagogue”.  

In the article Vaishampayan asked, “Is Elizabeth Warren Helping or Hurting the Democratic Party?”, citing her espousal of more progressive policies than either the President or the Senate leadership.  I think this question misses the point altogether.  The fact is that toadying to the rather cowardly Democratic leadership, and endorsing a series of regressive “compromises” might help to maintain party discipline, but it doesn’t do the Democratic Party any favours in the long run.  By “hurting” the Democratic Party—which has become a party defined by bloodstained warmongers like Hillary Clinton; proponents of crippling and socially irresponsible austerity like Jerry Brown; and authors of a dangerous economic accord with financial and corporate interests like President Obama—Warren is helping it. 

And more importantly, Warren is helping the public by ensuring that their interests are vocalised.  Under Bill Clinton, the Democratic Party decided that it needed to ape the GOP in order to win elections, marginalising the political left and creating a bipartisan consensus around deregulation, immoral market economics, and growth at all costs.  The party cosied up to financial interests, and made its support of most social welfare programmes contingent on getting a nod of approval from corporate backers.  The seeds of the recession were laid during the Clinton years, and were tended even more solicitously by George W Bush and a Republican Party which thanks to the influx of money into politics became ever more fundamentalist in its economic outlook. 

President Obama declined to challenge that consensus, and Hillary Clinton, the most popular potential presidential candidate for 2016, is committed to its maintenance, having abandoned the progressive mantle she once wore uneasily in order to present herself as a friend of finance, an ally of big business, and one of the most powerful proponents of U.S. imperialism and the national security state.  In any Democratic primary she will undoubtedly seek to tack away from the right towards the centre, but her actions speak louder than her hollow words.

Vaishampayan attacks Warren as a “left-wing ideologue”.  If being a “left-wing ideologue” means suggesting that students have as much a right to well-being as banks, that consumers deserve as much attention as the financial institutions which sabotage our economy, and that regulations should serve to protect the public rather than enrich private interests, we could use a lot more such ideologies in the Senate! 

Vaishampayan misses the point once again when he equates Warren with the Tea Party.  Speaking personally, my problem with the Tea Party was never that it was ideological or divisive.  In fact, although its founders and funders were corporate Astroturf organisations, many of the people who came to make up its grassroots did help to breathe life back into a moribund political debate (even if only because the threat that their backers’ ideology posed galvanised progressives) that was threatening to turn terribly technocratic.  My big problem with the Tea Party was that its claims were so divorced from the material conditions of the people that the “party” purported to represent.

It was a finance-friendly, corporate-supporting, anti-welfare, pro-war, regulation-averse ‘institution’.  And the people it claimed to stand up for were amongst those hardest hit by the recession caused if not engineered by a deregulated financial sector, a sector which is part of a broader corporate world which on the one hand resented being asked to look after its employees, pay its fair share, or temper its greed, and on the other benefited from a series of un-ending wars driven by sick profiteering and a twisted ideology which made cannon-fodder of the very people who waved the flag.  Its membership was incited by the dog-whistle politics of its leadership to question the President’s citizenship instead of his military policy, and to criticise agencies which sought to protect the middle class instead of interests in the Republican Party which worked hard to shield financial and war criminals from justice.

And so if Warren represents a similar kind of ideological groundswell, the benefit is that not only is her economic analysis based on the deteriorating material conditions of the overwhelming majority of our public, but that it is an argument that erstwhile Tea Partiers should be able to buy into.  All of us would benefit from life in a social democracy.  Europeans might pay higher taxes, but these are more than off-set by cheap where not free higher education, free healthcare, good infrastructure, and better working conditions.  These social provisions and institutions introduce a degree of stability over an individual’s life which is simply not present in the United States.  Social democracy might be brought about by increasing revenue, but I suspect that in the context of a regulated market it also helps to bring down costs by removing the incentives that exist in immoral market economies for healthcare providers, to take one example, to deliberately inflate the costs of goods and services.

So while the centrist commentariat might see Warren as introducing division into politics, I see her narrative as actually offering a vision which is much more unifying than anything coming out of the right wing of the Democratic Party or the GOP.  Students of all classes would, after all, benefit from just loan rates.  Anyone who is not attempting economic robbery would stand to gain from tougher regulation designed to protect the middle and working classes.  A majority of citizens in the U.S. would profit from a fairer distribution of wealth and equitable access to services. 

Legislators in D.C. obsess about compromise, partly because of the structural demands of an undemocratic Senate.  But too many of the deals they hammer out are either bad at face value, or contain some kind of ticking time bomb which paves the way for further profiteering, exploitation, and inequality down the road.  Warren represents a commendably uncompromising voice from the left, and her words illustrate not only the hollowness of the Democratic party’s creed, but the moral bankruptcy of a Republican Party which for too long has been able to build a base in the very working and middle classes that its corporate paymasters exploit.

When faced with an impassive wall of indifference, progressives have circumvented established parties in the past to drive political and economic reform, forcing those parties to change direction in order to survive.  We can do it again today if we choose.  Although they would hate to admit it, the Democratic Party needs Elizabeth Warren more than she needs the party.

South Luangwa National Park, Part III

On my final morning in South Luangwa, I joined another group for a final drive in the park.  There are relatively few people in travelling in Zambia—as compared to East Africa for example—simply as tourists, and our car-load was no exception.  There were two British teachers on an exchange in Kabwe, an Australian partnered with an NGO in Chipata, and two people working with the Zambian Carnivore Programme. 

The ZCP folks were based at Liuwa Plains, a vast open space dominated by wildebeest and lechwe in the far west of Zambia, an area accessible only by pontoon or plane during the wet season.  I knew some of their colleagues from Liuwa, and so was able to hear more about the research that the organisation does, its members based not only in Liuwa, but also in Kafue National Park and South Luangwa itself.  The researcher was based in the ecology department at Montana State, and had been joined in her research by her husband who works for the Wilderness Society.  They remarked that as beautiful as Liuwa is, it feels a bit isolated at times, and so they were keen to see another of Zambia’s national parks.

We followed the tracks of the lions from the night before, but never caught up with them.  In a dried-out lagoons, bisected by one of the deep, narrow trenches along which leopards hunt, we saw two young male impalas, going at it hammer-and-tongs, the crashes as their horns beat and locked together ringing out over the lagoon bed and up the banks into the trees, sending word to predators that here were two animals who had let down their normally-sharp guard, and might be particularly vulnerable. 

We enjoyed some of the bird life in the park (rollers, swallows, Bateleur eagles, a lovely lizard buzzard, some storks and ibises among other things), and stopped for tea and biscuits on the bank of one of the few lagoons still filled with water, now cut off from the main river.  Hippos sent short, sharp blasts of water up into the air, and impala drank warily at the far bank, keeping a weather eye out for crocodiles, of which there are many.  Weaver-birds had made their nests at the near bank, and we were able to watch a Jacana pick its careful way across the lily pads below. 

At such moments, the park feels deceptively peaceful, and it is hard to reconcile it as the site of not only the bursts of violence which come when a predator makes a kill or when an animal is caught in one of the snares scattered by poachers (and taken out by the South Luangwa Conservation Society if they can find them), but also of the intense moral and political debates about park management that have echoed down the years. 

Perhaps understandably, no one who I spoke to in the park wanted to talk to me about culling (although once they discovered what I was doing, they were happy to sing the praises of the non-governmental conservation sector).  Like many other national parks in colonial Africa, management in Luangwa pre-independence had been characterised by a fairly defensive mentality, and poachers from neighbouring communities, some of whom had formerly lived in the park, had been pursued by the under-staffed and under-funded game department.

Partially as a result of this, elephant populations rose precipitately during the 1960s, such that by the end of the decade, a report was issued which decried the hands-off management policy of the previous decade, pointing out the serious damage to habitat—and consequently to other species—that the large populations of elephants were doing.  Culling did in fact take place, and combined with a poaching surge in the next decade (which people in Luangwa told me grew out of the legal cull), brought elephant populations first very low, and now to healthier levels.

Tourism was also developed most extensively in South Luangwa.  Although the Kafue National Park was the first of its kind in the colony, gazetted in 1950 and opened for its first season to tourists in 1953, tourism in Luangwa came earlier, when in 1949 ranger Norman Carr worked with Chief Nsefu at the eastern edge of what is now the park to open a camp to visitors, the monies from which would accrue to the Native Treasury for the welfare of the inhabitants who gave over some of their land to wildlife. 

Today, like elsewhere in Africa, poaching of rhino (totally extirpated in Zambia, but now reintroduced into North Luangwa, where they roam under 24-hour guard) and elephant is on the rise, driven by new markets in Southeast Asia and older ones in China.  ZAWA, the country’s wildlife organisation, struggles to reign in poaching, which has become steadily more militarised over the years, mirroring the escalation on the part of wildlife services across Africa.

As with all good things, my musings had to draw to a close, and after a lazy afternoon on the banks of the Luangwa—a safe distance from the crocodile-patrolled waters of course—I joined a health sector consultant based in Lusaka and her parents who were visiting from D.C. in leaving Flatdogs camp—a veritable paradise—and boarding a van to the airport.  On Friday, the roads had been full of school children, those from the primary schools heading home, the older kids on their lunch break.  Today being Sunday, they were emptier, although Harold, at the wheel, honked at an elderly man labouring along on a bicycle, who he said was his dad (I hope he doesn’t ever give him a heart-attack).  Once at Mfuwe, we checked in sans formalities (I’d lost my ticket, but nobody asked for id and the ‘boarding passes’ were laminated cards that had neither names, codes, nor seat numbers), twelve of us wandered out onto the tarmac as dusk set in and boarded the plane for the flight back.

A fire was burning at the edge of the runway, and scores of baboons and hundreds of guinea fowl scattered to the edge of the tarmac as the plane built up speed for take-off.  And then moments later we were flying up over the countryside, which between the failing light, the dust, and smoke, looked largely featureless from the air.  The course of the Luangwa was the only distinguishable geographical feature.  As it grew darker, however, it looked like Zambia was aflame.  Hundreds of fires—most of them presumably in aid of clearing fields—burnt across the now completely dark landscape.  Some of them were mere specks, others formed circles, burning inwards, and others were drawn-out lines, bulging slightly at the centre as they raced across the kindling-dry countryside.

The country was otherwise completely dark, a testament to the difficult conditions in which many rural dwellers live, but also to the vastness of Zambia and its comparatively small population (around 14 million people in an area larger than Texas) which is heavily concentrated in Lusaka and the industrialised Copperbelt north of the capital.  By night, the burning countryside resembled an inverse of the previous night’s constellations, as the flames licked away, in rings, lines, specks, and swathes, at the bush. 

And then, quite suddenly, we were at the edge of Lusaka.  I’d never flown into or out of Lusaka at night before.  By day, the city feels comparatively small and quiet, but by night, even allowing for the many compounds, where the lights go out with the electricity at night for their tens of thousands of citizens, Lusaka looked enormous.  And just a little bit beautiful, too.  There’s something special about flying over a city—my city, or at least a city where I’ve had the fortune to spend 4-5 of the last 15 months—at night.  There’s a little thrill that comes with realising that you can trace its contours, identify the main roads, place landmarks, and thinks of the memories associated with the bucolic boulevards, the busy markets, the bustling highways, the wind-blown byways, and the kindnesses of friends and strangers who populate those places.  And there is some sadness, if the mind wanders to an all-too-quickly approaching departure. 

But then we were touching down, climbing out of the plane, crossing the runway, bidding fellow travellers farewell, and heading into town, myself with James, Lusaka’s best cab-driver who, as we made our way into the city which seemed much darker on the ground than it had from the air, recounted some of his memories of the late-colonial era and shared some of his worries and hopes about Zambia in the twenty-first century, as development threatens to be overshadowed by neo-colonialism; as a resurgent democracy hits some rough patches, pitching and rolling but never capsizing; and as Zambians—like people everywhere—work to puzzle out what kind of a country they want to inhabit, how to render that dream real, and whether visions on offer are best met by the promises that drift over prevailing political winds. 

Monday, July 29, 2013

South Luangwa National Park, Part II

The following morning, after a short drive, Robbie parked and we began our walk, a kind of mini ulendo of the sort that would have been undertaken over a period of weeks by game rangers and district commissioners during the colonial era, when these colonial officers, who ruled with dictatorial powers over massive stretches of the country, undertook extensive perambulations to check in on their ‘subjects’. 

One Game Ranger might have been accompanied by several game guards, and easily as many as thirty carriers, to ensure that he didn’t have to haul his own supplies, and would want for nothing.  These officers often conscripted labour from villages along the way, to the dismay of inhabitants who needed all hands on deck for planting or harvest, or to protect their fields from depredations by animals.  They also took food from the villages to feed themselves and their carriers, and on more than one occasion village headmen demonstrated discontent with these high-handed tactics by withholding maize (which the villagers themselves depended on) from a furious officer. 

Our ulendo, of course, would only last a couple of hours, but it was with some trepidation that we trekked into the rising sun, led by an armed ZAWA officer.  I was half hoping we’d see some interesting animals, and half hoping that we would see nothing larger than an impala!  The country through which we passed was open, and during the rains would be flooded.  As it was, the ground consisted of packed, dried mud, very uneven because while drying it had been trodden over by hippos and other animals.  We made our way along one such hippo highway, past five- to fifteen-foot termite mounds, some of which had large trees perched precariously atop them. 

We passed some herds of zebra and impala, which though they kept their distance and eyed us askance, did not seem unduly bothered by our noisy trek through the bush.  Robbie pointed out plenty of scat, tracks, and plant-life, and happily took us away from an elephant herd that we spotted far in the distance, as the wind was not in our favour.  So I was just thinking that I was home and clear when we pulled up short a few hundred yards from a herd of a half-dozen elephants, feeding on a small clump of bushes.  There was no cover, but the wind was now blowing our way, and the elephants apparently fully preoccupied with their feeding, so we steadily closed the distance separating us from their massive grey bulks, and were able to stand and watch them for a little while before slowly making our way back to the vehicle.

Our luck held, and later in the morning we came across a leopard up a tree with a young puku it had killed the night before.  The leopard itself was relatively young, and watched us with wide eyes and twitching tail before coming down the trunk of the tree and watching us from the ground.  At this point, some puku grazing nearby noticed it, and began barking and whistling furiously, to let the leopard know it wasn’t going to be able to sneak up on them.  Eventually, it faded into the bush.  Our luck with leopards was unwavering, and during a day and a half in the park, we had seven sightings of a total of five different individuals (not that any of us could tell the difference!). 

In the afternoons, indescribably pleased to be away from the traffic and pollution which even in quiet Lusaka gets old after a while, I sat at the edge of the camp overlooking the river.  Hippos wallowed at the bank, impalas grazed on the far elevated bank, where elephants also twined their trunks up into the branches in search of food.  After a while, the group of elephants found a spot where the bank had caved in, and made their way down this makeshift ramp, ever so carefully, mothers assisting the youngsters, who trotted the last few yards sending up plumes of dust.  They then forded the river, equally carefully.  As shallow as it was, the water was still nearly deep enough to submerge the baby elephant, and could certainly hide crocodiles, which I’m told accounts for the manner in which the elephants hold their tails out of the water whilst crossing. 

Needless to say, when the elephants arrived at our bank, I retreated to somewhere safer!

Before the evening’s drive, one of the camp managers came and asked me if I knew what time my flight back to Lusaka was on Sunday.  I confessed my total ignorance.  Thoughts of tomorrow, after all, seemed superfluous on a day so spectacular.

That evening, we spotted more leopards.  These cats often seem small, shy, and retiring.  They are around the size of a mountain lion, though larger specimens get considerably heavier.  And they are capable of killing a fair-sized antelope and hauling it up a tree where they wedge it in a fork to keep it out of reach of hyaenas, painted dogs, and particularly lions. 

If leopards, solitary animals which are easily driven off their kills by other predators, tend to slink and sulk elegantly through the bush, lions demonstrate altogether more confidence, and stride through their territory.  That night, after being fortunate enough to see an Eagle Owl, a Pel’s Fishing Owl, and a ratel (honey badger), we followed the headlights of another vehicle (parks in Zambia are far, far less crowded than their East African counterparts) and found ourselves below an embankment on which perched a large male lion, illuminated by the spotlight on the other vehicle.  On reaching the top of the bank, we found that we were suddenly in the midst of a pride of five lions—four females, one male—which were beginning their night’s hunt.

They moved along the road, unhurried, sometimes single file, at other times five abreast.  They gradually stalked off into the grass on one side, which was sparse enough that we could easily chart their sepulchral progress through the bush, like so many ghostly outlines as the spotlight played around their forms.  I felt a shiver down my spine watching these tan-coloured predators travel through their country, shoulders thrown out heavily with each unhurried step, heads nodding slightly as they criss-crossed the road.  Eventually we peeled away, to leave them to their night’s hunt, which we discovered the following morning had been successful when we saw the site of a kill which we were told had been a small puku, not enough to fill the lions for more than a day, meaning that they would once again be on the prowl when night fell. 

The sense of vulnerability that comes from seeing such predators move about in their element was in no way diminished as we turned into the total darkness of the park on our way home, and could look up at a sky unbelievably vast and impossibly filled with stars, some of them individually indistinguishable in their clustered milky gatherings, others startlingly distinctive as they set off points of constellations, so unfamiliar to those of us from the northern hemisphere. 

South Luangwa National Park, Part I

On Thursday evening, I went to the cinema with the Canadian comrades, Jen and Jess, where we saw World War Z (pronounced ‘Zed’ down here, of course).  It was good, but not as good, I’ve been assured by aficionados, as the book of the same name.  The following morning, granting myself an escape from the archives after two months of toil, unmitigated by fresh air or a journey beyond Lusaka’s edges, I started my trip up to Mfuwe, the gateway town to the South Luangwa National Park, Zambia’s preeminent park and tourist destination.  My original plan had been to go by road (which involves a journey to Chipata near the Malawian border, and thence to Mfuwe), but my time in Lusaka evaporating and a fresh batch of files calling, I decided I couldn’t spare the extra days.

At Lusaka airport, there was a school group being given a tour.  I don’t know which hidden recesses of the airport they were shown around, but from their perspective, the highlight of the trip was the fountain in the middle of the waiting area.  A close second was an elderly white gentleman awaiting his flight, with whom all forty of the children solemnly shook hands as they filed by.

There were about 18 people on the flight to Mfuwe, which looked like an audition for “Out of Africa”, people laden with safari clothing, massive cameras, piles of luggage, and their best Karen Blixen or Robert Redford airs.  Flying domestically in Zambia is pretty low key.  Nobody asked for ID, people meandered in and out through the metal detector to use the toilet whilst waiting, the machine beeping away. 

The flight north took one hour—the same journey by road would require a day and a half of travelling—and passed over fairly undifferentiated terrain until we neared the Muchinga escarpment, which forms the western boundary of the Luangwa Valley.  Soon, we saw the Luangwa River itself, its considerable breadth demarcated by sandy banks as in the dry season it was reduced to a narrow, meandering course lined by hundreds of yards of sand bank. 

At Mfuwe, I was met by Geoff from Flatdogs camp, and we drove through a series of villages that comprise outer Mfuwe on our way to the park boundary.  There were small thatched huts alongside the narrow tar road, the edges of which had been eaten away by the decades since it was laid down in the ‘70s, and by the rains which every October or November begin their work of redefining Zambia’s landscape.  Now, the area looked bone dry aside from fields of cabbage, palm, and some maize.  Like everywhere in Zambia, the air here was hazy, partly from the dust, and partly from smoke from controlled burns.  The shops lining the road were eclectic in their nomenclature.  One that stood out was the Obama Pub!!! (exclamation points in the original).

Another was an eatery called “Don’t Kubeba”, which requires some explanation.  In 2011, the ruling party MMD lost the election to the underdog PF campaign.  In the absence of access to the state apparatus and deep party coffers, PF waged what many considered a clever campaign based around the “Don’t kubeba” slogan, roughly “don’t tell”.  This suggested that people should feel free to benefit from the largesse MMD tossed around, and didn’t need to profess their support for PF out in the open where state agents could see them, but that in private they should support PF, and on polling day should cast their vote for the populist party.  Eastern Province has never been kind to the new government at the polls, and recent by-elections indicate that PF might be losing some steam.

We arrived uneventfully at the camp, situated outside of the park on the boundary of the Luangwa River which forms the eastern border of massive conservation area.  After signing the “If I get killed by an elephant on the way home from dinner I had it coming” clause, I went off to my tent.  Being unfenced, and just a hundred yards from the water in the middle of the mostly-dry riverbed, the camp does see its fair share of animals.  At night, it seems to be comedy hour, as hippos chortle and guffaw through the small hours, their bellows echoing up and down the banks.  They come out to feed, and wander amongst the tents, as do giraffes, and during the daytime, monkeys and mongooses. 

The real worry, of course, were the elephants, which wander at will through the camp at all hours of the day.  I spend my days reading about all the various ways an elephant can kill you, and so don’t like encountering them up close (not helped by an uncomfortable descent through elephant-riddled bamboo forests on Mount Kenya).  I had a dozen escape routes planned for the walk back to the tent from the eating area, in case I should have stumbled upon elephants, several of which were overly optimistic for the acrobatics they would have required after months of sedentary living, slouched in front of my files in the archives. 

In the late afternoon, with a family from Baltimore and Omaha, I went out on a game drive, led by Robbie.  We passed into the park, over a bridge, and into the afternoon sun.  South Luangwa is a massive park, over 5,000 square kilometres in area.  But for some historical contingencies, it would be nearly twice the size.  Although Kafue National Park was Northern Rhodesia’s first park, South Luangwa (gazetted as a formal reserve in 1939 and as a National Park in 1971), was where both the colonial administration and Zambia’s independent government directed most of its efforts.  In terms of tourism, management, and development, the Luangwa Valley was always believed to be the “crown jewel” where wildlife in Zambia was concerned.

The North Luangwa National Park is separated from its southern counterpart which preservationists had once hoped to combine by a strip known as the Munyamadzi corridor.  Although people throughout the parks were forced from their lands to make way for their gazetting, too many people who were too grounded in their land lived in the Corridor.  Despite the efforts of the colonial and independent governments, people were able to resist efforts to force them from their lands.  In other parts of the park, people who live in the Game Management Areas—successors to the colonial-era Controlled Hunting Areas—retain some rights to fish on the rivers.  I’ve run across many a document describing game rangers trying to get convictions against poachers and fishers and the judge delving into extensive water law to determine whether the offence occurred on the near or far side of the river’s centre—and how in fact one goes about determining the centre of a river!

On our drive, we saw a great deal of wildlife, both in grassy bush, mopane woodland, and on the massive, shallow lagoons which in the wet season extend into the park from the river, but which this time of year are largely dry plains, surfaces greenish from well-cropped grass.  Herds of puku and impala, interspersed with warthogs, zebra, and waterbuck particularly like these open areas, which deny predators sufficient cover for the short dash both lions and leopards require to secure their prey.

Herds of elephant wander blithely through any terrain.  Giraffes prefer more wooded areas, as they browse from trees.  Hippos lounge in or on the banks of the Luangwa and its muddy tributaries before lumbering out to forage at night.  We were particularly fortunate to see a leopard right at the edge of the river, silhouetted against a mud flat, where it seemed to be staring into the water before slinking up the bank and into the bush. 

That evening, crickets provided the instrumentals, hippos the vocals, and elephants the percussion, their rumbling, almost purring sounds coming perilously close to the tents.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Is Elizabeth Warren Just "Noisy"?

But let me back up.  In a column over the week-end in the Boston Globe, Alex Beam summed up his view that Warren is nothing more than a “feckless demagogue”, “a panderer”, full of “purported outrage”, “baying at the moon”, with her “hundred-megawatt smile; the Dos Passos-era haircut; the broad vowels redolent of her Oklahoma birthplace”.  She is, he concludes, “the Big Noise”.

Maybe—hopefully—I’m wrong in seeing in Beam’s vicious characterisation of Warren’s character and appearance some of the misogyny that in 2012 became a foundational plank of the Republican Party’s platform.  Language about shrillness, hysteria, shallowness, combined with scrutiny of everything from hair-styles to pant-suits—these are all weapons in the toolkit of commentators looking to tap into a vein of sexism that remains altogether too wide and deep in the public.

One of Warren’s crimes?  Being “earnest”.  Far better, in Beam’s world, to have a smirking Senator, who mouths all the right homilies to a broken social and economic system, cosies up to all the powerful interests who will enable some cosmetic legislation once the senator has surrendered their soul, and who doesn’t take their job—serving the public interest of our national community—all that seriously.  Because an earnest, serious, committed—yes, even ideological—politician is no fun for Beam.  A confirmed cynic, he lazily assumes that everyone shares his complacency, and that any ounce of passion, commitment, anger, or outrage must be pretence.

He goes on to attack Warren for her famously blistering questioning of Tim Geithner, the financial sector’s golden boy in the Treasury Department, arguing that because “the money was long gone and Geithner couldn’t do anything about it”, ignoring the fact that identifying and describing a problem, and criticising those responsible for its manifestation are the first steps on the way to preventing a repetition of such problems. 

Like so many other commentators, Beam deliberately misconstrues Warren’s arguments about Glass-Steagall, pretending that she has said that it is some kind of silver bullet to prevent all future economic turmoil.  What Warren has repeatedly said, but which doesn’t fit the misleading narrative that her self-satisfied critics like to peddle, is that Glass-Steagall is but one component amongst a suite of regulations and legislation that should be put in place to reconfigure our listing moral economy. 

Warren, Beam says, “became an icon for ‘speaking truth to power’ and accomplishing...very little”. 

Let’s examine this premise.  Beam doesn’t bother to tell his readers what his version of an “effective” Senator would look like.  California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein is often regarded as an “effective” legislator.  She’s got a finger in lots of pie, and carries a lot of clout on national security related issues through her committee chairmanship.  She, and most other powerful legislators certainly behave very differently from Warren.  They flip.  They flop.  They triangulate.  They don’t step on any toes.  They genuflect to vested interests and kowtow to their party leaders.  They imbibe conventional wisdom and spout uncritical nonsense.  Given command of the ship of state, they chart a course straight for the rocks, from which irresistibly sirenic vested interests sing their deceptively-reassuring hymns.  Our country is run by politicians who got where they are by not asking hard questions and by keeping their distance from serious issues around social, economic, political, and moral reform.

Many “successful” legislators pass legislation—much of it bad—largely because that legislation doesn’t offend anyone and doesn’t make significant changes to a political-economy which is clearly not up to the job of creating a fair, equitable, humane society.  Are the legislators who so “successfully” deregulated the financial sector really all that successful?  What about those who “successfully” passed the Patriot Act and subsequent infringements on human rights?  Those who aided President George W Bush in “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” (the words used to describe the German government’s crimes during the Second World War)?  Those who negotiate grand bargains which leave the profits of the wealthy intact and the lives of working people in tatters?  If “success” means getting your way more often than not, as Beam seems to suggest, the consequences of such success are nothing less than terrifying.

If Warren has accomplished very little, is that because she is so bad at what she does, or because most of her invertebrate colleagues are failures at what they do and lack the moral courage to stand with her?  Does being in a minority opinion, and not allowing yourself to be bought off like your colleagues make you wrong?  “Speaking truth to power” does not generally lead to instantaneous political success.  “Power”, after all, is accustomed to getting things its own way, and doesn’t like people who talk back.  Besides, I would contest Beam’s claim that Warren hasn’t accomplished anything.  Only six months into her tenure, building on her public profile, she has done more to change the nature of the national political conversation—for the better—than most senators mange over decades.

History is full of struggle—some of it violent, happily some of it not.  The right to vote; the end to chattel slavery; rights to wages, healthcare, working hours, vacation time, workplace safety; freedom from colonialism; an end to monarchical and other authoritarian regimes; equality before the law; the enshrinement of human rights; the expansion of civil rights...these changes—including the many which are incomplete—did not come about because of the kind of legislators Beam seems to idolise.  Historical change is not driven by morally moribund men of moderation who pat their constituents on their heads and send them on their way with a promise of gradual change over a period of a hundred years.  Ideological agnostics, by their nature, seldom leave an imprint on their world.

Change rather comes from the pressures that material conditions create within a society.  The force of that change comes from expressions and demonstrations of discontent from amongst what we rather quaintly call “ordinary people”, and that change occurs more rapidly when it finds expression in individuals who combine moral courage and political conviction to act. 

Warren, I believe, represents one version of this expression, reminding us, as she does, of the unfinished business of the progressive era early in the last century, when campaigns to better the lives of working people in the United States, and to put them in a position of equality to their sometime political and economic masters, were derailed.  They were derailed by half-hearted reformists who were frightened by the thought of economic justice, political equality, and a moral economy which would not shrink from judging and punishing greed and ill-gotten wealth.  In California—to take but one example—the idealism of direct democracy, designed as an answer to the robber barons of the nineteenth century, has been recaptured by twenty-first century plutocrats and their hand-picked representatives, and needs to be revisited.

In 1913, campaigning for the rights of women to vote, Emmeline Pankhurst declared that “in the course of our desperate struggle, we have had to make a great many people uncomfortable”.  Pankhurst, the icon of Britain’s suffrage movement, described what in her view was the only way of breaking up the cosy consensus which consigned women to the margins of society: “You have to make more noise than anybody else, you have to make yourself more obtrusive than anybody else, you have to fill all the papers more than anybody else, in fact you have to be there all the time and see that they do not snow you under, if you are really going to get your reform realised”.

If Warren’s crusading language makes people like Beam uncomfortable, that tells me she’s doing something right.  We tried incremental, half-hearted, one-step-forward-two-steps-back reform with President Obama.  In him, we elected someone who was comfortable with the financial industry, cosy with corporate power, contented with our colonialism, and complacent about what it would take to change our country. 

Warren represents a different brand of politics.  Billed by the representatives of conventional wisdom as “far left” and “divisive”, she actually demonstrates a far firmer understanding and more articulate vision of what ought to bring our divided working and middle classes together in the face of an unprecedented assault on their livelihoods (which is why she is so threatening to the public’s assailants).  Where Obama, who tried too hard to compromise, looked uncomfortable and performs abysmally because he keeps one foot on Wall Street and the other on Main Street, Warren has made it very clear that she is not prepared to indulge the interests which wrecked our economy and prey on our people. 

Warren is doing more than making noise.  She is trying to break through to the public with a compelling vision about a more just and equitable country.  So it’s no wonder people who fear justice and equality are doing their best to shout her down.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

What the Valley Senate Race tells us about California

Although it should survive until the elections in November of 2014, the Democrats’ supermajority in California looks to be an increasingly fragile thing, jeopardised by the strong showing by the Republican candidate in a state senate race that remains too close to call.

In California, where Prop 13—a ticking time bomb planted by political saboteurs in the ‘70s with the aim of shrinking public institutions for the majority while inflating profits for the minority—makes a supermajority the new majority, the state is ungovernable absent either a supermajority, some reasonable accord about responsible government, or serious political reform.  And while the Democrats’ use of their supermajority has been singularly impressive, with their leadership signing up to the same fiscal fundamentalism characteristic of the state GOP which ran the state into the ground from the sidelines until last November, a resurgent Republican Party would be a bad thing for the state.

The race for the valley senate seat might as well be a case study for many of the ills which afflict California. 

The incumbent Senator, a Democrat, quit the Senate to go and spend more time with his family.  It turned out that when he said “family”, he meant “Chevron”, and his departure followed a history of some smelly real estate deals and favour-taking in the senate.  

Expenditure in the race to replace Michael Rubio looks to top $4 million dollars.  There is clearly something wrong with our politics when even in a state senate election, candidates’ engagement with voters is filtered through such a maelstrom of money, with all the half-truths, outright lies, misrepresentations, and misinformation that inevitably comes along with it. 

According to the Sacramento Bee, the California Realtors Association has put $1 million into the Senate race, most of it directed towards the Republican candidate.  Typically, the ads they pay for do not explain to the voters that they are a lobby looking for tax breaks and loopholes, but instead attacked the Democratic candidate’s record as a public defender. 

Between 2004 and 2008, during which time the CRA spent over $12 million in the state, the real estate body gave more money to Republicans than Democrats.  As shows, in the wake of the financial and social crisis, which proved the danger of the GOP’s brand of fundamentalism nationwide and illustrated its growing irrelevance in California, the CRA switched its support, giving far more money to Democrats.  I would suggest that this switch represents both an effort to introduce greater stability in the state’s governance, while simultaneously corrupting the much more influential Democratic Party.  Their donations also overwhelmingly favoured incumbents, with most of the remainder going to open seats, and a paltry .8% to challengers.  They also backed winners 80% of the time. 

This time, CRA is working to corrupt both candidates, because in spite of Democrats’ outraged noises about its attack flyers, CRA has also given money to a front organisation that has spent money on the Democratic candidate’s campaign.  Most of the large interests increasingly go this route, working hard to corrupt both parties so that their interests will eclipse those of the general public irrespective of the election outcome.

CRA does not simply give money to candidates.  It has backed the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association, the organisation responsible for the supermajority requirements and caps on property taxes.  They have also multiple anti-tax ballot measures over the years to the tune of hundreds of thousands of dollars,

In a statement, the CRA president wrote, “We are not convinced that ‘one-party control’ of the Legislature can or will produce effective policy development for California.  This kind of complete control by definition does not need to take into consideration the other party’s perspective, and that is not healthy for California”.

Fair enough, but given the centrality of the power of the purse to governance, and the destructive programme of the Republican Party, California has been experiencing precisely such one-party rule since 1978, thanks to supermajority rules which allow a party which holds a mere 34% of seats in one house of the legislature to control the state’s finances.

What would be far better at reflecting political opinion in the state would be proportional representation across multi-member districts, a political framework in which winning a majority meant something, and a sufficiently broad spectrum of opinion represented in institutional for in the legislature such that there would be incentive for inter-party negotiations. 

But for the Republican Party and its corporate supporters to blame the same system that gave them a three and a half decade-long stranglehold on California for now giving the Democrats majoritarian power after crossing a ridiculously high threshold of seats (67%, just shy of twice the threshold the Republicans had to hit for them to run the state) speaks to a combination of delusion, amnesia, and manipulation.  Perhaps they should instead blame their own fundamentalist policies which mistook the means (taxation, a tool) for the ends (a humane, socially-responsible community, members of which recognise an obligation to one another). 

Their fundamentalism, after all, is responsible for the declining quality of K-12 education, the slow corrosion of public higher education, the evisceration of early childhood education, the shuttering of libraries and other public spaces, and the roll-back of social welfare for the working- and middle-classes while expanding financial welfare for the rich.

Their fundamentalism has forced California to depend too heavily on highly-volatile income taxes which subject the business community they purport to represent to a great degree of uncertainty, while simultaneously allowing the wealthier representatives of the corporate class to slither off the hook by dodging property and oil severance taxes. 

But as the valley senate race proves, Democrats indulge in their own special kind of hypocrisy.  It was their candidate’s willingness—whilst running to represent a supposedly progressive party—to take money from Chevron which infuriated many district residents and gave an assist to the Republican candidate.

In 2010, the California Fair Political Practices Commission issued a report titled “Big Money Talks”, which documented, among other things, how between 2000 and 2009, the top 15 interest groups in terms of expenditure threw more than a billion dollars at California’s political process.  The groups in question are: California Teachers Association; California State Council of Service Employees; Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America; Morongo Band of Mission Indians; Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians; Pacific Gas & Electric Company; Chevron Corporation; AT&T Inc; Philip Morris USA; Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians; Southern California Edison; California Hospital Association; California Chamber of Commerce; Western States Petroleum Association; and Aera Energy LLC.  The California Association of Realtors was 16th on the list, spending over $33 million during the decade, two thirds of that on ballot measures, candidates, political parties and other campaign committees, the remaining third devoted to lobbying California’s officials. 

The race for the valley senate seat, accompanied by the massive influx of cash into our election process, demonstrates the real need for serious, comprehensive structural reform in California.  That reform would have to detach the democratic process from the influence of money and those with the ability to throw it around.  It would have to ensure that the well-being of the state and its governability did not depend upon one party or another securing a supermajority—a ridiculous hurdle for the governance of any polity which considers itself a democracy.  It would have to introduce a more democratic voting process which could break the hammerlock that the two parties have on California. 

A more vibrant democracy, possessed of more parties, stricter regulations on campaign spending, and institutions that are built to function rather than fail, would make it more difficult for special interests to capture California, allowing the public to participate more freely and with greater impact than has been the case for a very long time. 

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Can Napolitano be an Effective UC President?

As most people will be aware, after closed-door deliberations and a process that was a travesty of transparency, the Board of Regents of the University of California named Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano to be the next President of the UC system. 

Most of the debate within UC’s community—a debate which should have been allowed to influence the Regents’ decision—has been about Napolitano’s role in the Obama administration’s deportation policy on the one hand, and the irresponsible and unaccountable manner of her nomination and confirmation on the other.

But this week the Los Angeles Times ran a story about Napolitano’s record as governor of Arizona, which strikes me as being a record more indicative of her approach to higher education than her service as Homeland Security Secretary.  The paper reported that as Governor, Napolitano “secured a $1-billion bond to build new facilities for the state’s universities, signed a law that boosted state contributions to financial aid and approved a special fund to retain professors—all with a Republican-controlled Legislature”. 

The Times quoted Napolitano herself as referring to her “[fight] to keep tuition for students as low as possible, while helping to create a new medical school in downtown Phoenix, a new research organization to foster university [research and development] and loan-forgiveness programs for high-demand fields of study”.

The paper focuses on Napolitano’s ability to negotiate with Republican legislators and the leaders of competing universities, and on the tuition freeze she persuaded the legislature to enact. 

However, it is not clear that any of these achievements are readily transferable into a Californian context, in which Napolitano will not be the state’s chief executive, but rather the head of a university system, subject not only to the whims of a notoriously whimsical Governor and the legislature, but to the approval of a Board of Regents which has repeatedly proven its willingness to work at cross-purposes to what ought to be the interests of a public University.

In time, UC’s leadership turned to privatisation, but although part of that turn was driven by a genuinely-held market mentality on the part of administrators, it was also at least partially-forced by the steady disinvestment by the state.  This was the point that the early round of protesters on UC campuses missed: that even if Yudof and Birgeneau had been the best-intentioned of people, handed over three-quarters of their salaries, and forsaken their vehicle and housing allowances, students would probably be paying the same high tuition and UC would be equally pressed for resources.

Because at the end of the day, if we are seriously opposed to privatisation, we have to understand that UC leadership has limited freedom of movement.  Absent a recommitment to public higher education by the state of California—and last November’s Prop 30 was nothing more than a band-aid—there is little Napolitano could do in terms of setting policy that would help the University in a big way.

She will face in Jerry Brown a Governor who has always been comparatively hostile to public investment, and who has made brutal cuts to public institutions to prove his commitment to thrift.  She will have to deal with Democrats who, having got a taste of power  by winning a supermajority in November, don’t appear inclined to do anything  with that power...lest they lose it again!  

In other words, there is no policy decision that I can imagine the UC President being able to make that would come anywhere close to hauling the University out of the morass into which it has been plunged by state neglect and internal sabotage.  But what we need to know—and what the University community should have been able to ask Napolitano and other candidates before a choice was made—is whether her experiences leave her with any ideas about how to persuade the state to reinvest, because the real test of her abilities will be as UC’s top spokesperson and lobbyist.

How will she lobby the state?  How will she leverage UC’s community and alumni in making the case for UC?  Will she focus her lobbying efforts on sympathetic but fearful Democrats, or extend them to the rabid, fundamentalist Republican legislators as well?  When lobbying UC, what will her priorities be?  Will she appeal primarily for the need for more research funding?  Or will she actually make an effort to persuade the Governor and legislature that tuition needs to fall? 

Might she even acknowledge the role of California’s democratic deficit—which stems from its mangled, unworkable political structure—in the unmaking of the University, and invest UC in the fraught but necessary process of political reform?  (If Napolitano hasn’t read it already, I recommend Mark Paul and Joe Mathews’ California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How We Can Fix It). 

Napolitano should be wary of easy fixes.  The value of the Governor’s pet panacea, online education, has been called into question.  Prop 30 represents a tired effort to kick the can down the road.  Targeted loan forgiveness of the sort that Napolitano managed in Arizona is not the same as tuition relief, and by tying degrees, and by extension research, to market forces, it will devalue those disciplines which do not offer the kind of instant gratification and immediate returns demanded by the education market being built by irresponsible administrators in conjunction with the corporate world. 

For years, the UC Regents have failed abjectly when it comes to protecting the institution they are charged with managing.  Their top administrators have advocated like so many amateurs in public, while working behind the scenes to turn UC into a grubby little market-oriented institution, slowly abandoning its public responsibilities.  The UC community deserved to hear from Napolitano and the other candidates.  Those candidates should have been forced to articulate not only their vision of UC—preferably a vision grounded in the material conditions and moral economy that they would like to obtain within the system, rather than empty homilies—but also their strategy for realising that vision.  They should have had to defend both their views and the process they envision embarking upon, and they should have made this defence in front of their constituents: students, faculty, and staff at the University of California, and the state’s public.

Because the Regents failed to permit such a conversation to take place, it is all the more imperative that Napolitano quickly clarify how she intends to spend the coming years at UCOP.  Otherwise, thanks to the bad-faith and bad-practise of her predecessor, and the corrupt process by which she was appointed, her tenure is in danger of being spoiled by its own illegitimacy before she even formally takes over.