Wednesday, August 28, 2013

U.S. and Britain Should Step Back from the Brink Before Bombing Syria

After nearly a week without picking up a paper, seeing a television, or imbibing any news, I picked up a copy of the Guardian while changing trains at Crewe and was confronted with a determined looking Prime Minister, David Cameron, climbing out of a car beneath a headline indicating that the U.S. and Britain could be just days away from launching an attack on Syria after claiming that that country’s government had used chemical weapons in the protraction of what has become a multiple-year civil war.

When it looked like he could win the vote, Cameron was promising to give the Commons a vote on the bombing campaign, and it was suggested that that (as with Iraq, when the Bush administration rolled its eyes and checked its watch as the Blair government struggled to drum up support for the war) this democratic nicety was the only thing holding back what was billed as a 48-hour bombing campaign.

Eventually, the Labour Party decided against supporting any motion which did not include a UN resolution (and there were enough Tories and LibDems prepared to define the whips to make Cameron’s motion likely to fail), poking a hole in the logic of the U.S. and British governments which, while citing “responsibility to protect” as the rationale for their bombing, failed to do so within the context of UN authority as the relevant treaties demand.

The nature of the campaign being contemplated also makes a mockery of their invocation of “R2P”, as it is called.  To avoid serious entanglement, all that was proposed was a limited bombing campaign aimed at keeping the regime (and the UN has not yet verified that it was the government which used the chemical weapons, though—shades of Iraq—the U.S. is claiming that it doesn’t matter what the UN says) from using further chemical weapons. 

Such action, the Obama and Cameron governments have assured nervous supporters, would not actually be about regime change or an alteration of the political situation on the ground, but only deterring the Syrian government from using one variety of the many types of weapon at its disposal.  The action would not, therefore, really protect civilians, who can be killed as easily by conventional weapons as by chemical ones.  Indeed, the history of warfare for the last century demonstrates that ugly, brutal wars do not need chemical weapons.  So it seems that the bombing being contemplated has nothing to do with protecting Syrians, who will still be subject to atrocities from government and rebel troops alike, but is simply designed to show that the West—or the old and new colonial powers—are doing something.

That “something” will not be enough to materially alter conditions on the ground or draw the U.S. and Britain into a full military quagmire, but by destroying infrastructure and killing people, they will become parties to the conflict and will be held responsible by the Syrian government and public for their actions.  And although this might look like a clean, hands-off, nanosecond kind of war to publics in the U.S. and Britain, the violation of their sovereignty and the attack on their nation will undoubtedly upset many Syrians, perhaps all the more so because such action would be undertaken without anything like an international consensus or international legal authority. 

Getting UN authority or crafting a careful plan of humanitarian intervention which does more than help to insulate President Obama from his bloodthirsty critics on the right—if indeed such intervention is desirable and feasible—would indeed be harder than the rogue bombing campaign which the authors of the Iraq disaster are now prepared to undertake.

But although the UN is often frustratingly Byzantine and slow-moving (though certainly no more so than the U.S. Senate), it is no bad thing that the consensus a resolution there takes hard work, slowing the propensity of the U.S. and its coalition of warmongers to rush to battle.  It is, after all, no small thing to go to war, although the frequency with which the U.S. does so, and the total absence of serious public debate and legislative scrutiny which accompanies such wars certainly makes it look as though our political leadership views war, and the violence and destruction which accompanies it, as a trivial thing. 

Britain has now committed itself to some kind of a UN resolution after the Labour Party found it spine and made it clear that the vote would not be a sure thing for the government.  Perhaps the U.S. can follow this example and step back from what might well be a precipice, below which lie unintended consequences, unforeseen events, and plenty of violence and bloodshed. 

Obama’s proposed bombing campaign lacks clear goals, a moral mandate, a good basis in international law, and any real appreciation for the consequences.  It has secured the backing of the Arab League, but many of these countries are authoritarian regimes themselves, with a history of stifling dissent and killing off protest.  The publics in the Middle East will undoubtedly look askance at yet another U.S. campaign designed to “shock and awe”, and such a careless act of war will put the U.S. and Britain in a dangerous place and contribute exactly nothing to the condition of those suffering under civil war.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Dianne Feinstein is a Security Threat

California’s senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, is proud to be a national security hawk.

Feinstein is amongst those whose behaviour most threatens our country’s security and the public’s interests.  Whether it’s supporting the war of aggression waged against Iraq by the Bush administration, pressuring the Obama administration to escalate our wars in Pakistan and Afghanistan, egging on the generals whose egos rather than good sense keeps us bogged down in military quagmires, or defending the abuses of our growing and irresponsible security state, Feinstein is at the forefront of the erosion of civil liberties and the militarisation of our foreign policy.

Her commitment to keeping us locked into a dangerous and counter-productive war of terror, fought on an undefined number of fronts using methods of barbarism means that more U.S. citizens, at home and abroad, will be victims of violence as those on the receiving end of U.S. colonial wars fight back.

Like the administration whose war on Iraq she supported, Feinstein is not averse to trashing the truth in defending the security state.  She has repeatedly invoked the plot to bomb the New York subway, arguing that the NSA’s surveillance thwarted this plot.  Over two months ago, this claim was reported to be untrue, but that hasn’t stopped Feinstein repeating it. 

So entrenched is Feinstein’s position as the security service’s Senate mudslinger that no revelations about the abuse or dishonesty built into the surveillance programmes can move her radar.  So when it was revealed that , contrary to its claims, the NSA has violated the law on thousands of occasions in the course of its spying, Feinstein defended the agency, arguing that none of these abuses were “intentionally” committed for “inappropriate purposes”.

But given that she’s earlier admitted that she’s “not a high-techie” and doesn’t understand how the NSA prevents its employees from spying on Americans, it’s difficult to understand how she can be so sure that the NSA acts in good faith.  Perhaps James “pants on fire” Clapper told her.  After all, after Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, lied to Senator Ron Wyden repeatedly about the extent of NSA spying, Feinstein maintained that “there is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper”.  

Feinstein’s argument all along has been that she and her colleagues provide rigorous oversight of the NSA’s spying.  But it turns out that she didn’t even read the full 2012 report which outlined the extent of law-breaking within the intelligence community until the existence of the report was made public last week in U.S. and British newspapers.  Of course if she had read it, that’s no guarantee that she would have made its existence public, or offered any scrutiny.  Her House colleague, Mike Rogers, did see the report, but couldn’t be bothered to do anything about it, and appears to have withheld the document before Congressional representatives voted on the Patriot Act. 

Feinstein criticised Edward Snowden for not revealing as much about the restraints on the NSA as he did about its abuses.  But we have been learning more about these since, and we are coming to understand that they simply do not work.

In the first place, Feinstein and her colleagues on the intelligence committees have failed repeatedly in their oversight role, in which they have shown a willingness to bend evidence to provide examples of NSA “successes”.  Secondly, it has been revealed that the FISA courts, providing a veneer of legality to an otherwise Stasi-like process, don’t actually work.  Those courts, like the public and our representatives, must take known liars like Clapper at their word when making judgments, and don’t actually see much of the evidence on which they base their judgments.  Finally, we work within a social and political context within a society which at least likes to think of itself as retaining some trappings of a democracy.  This means that it’s not good enough to run wars, what amount to programmes of state terrorism, or massive spy programmes on the say-so of Dianne Feinstein. 

Some of her more critically-minded colleagues have said that the NSA lawbreaking we now know about is merely “the tip of the iceberg”, but absurdly, they cannot expound on what they know because the classified nature of the information prevents them! 

I don’t think that Feinstein (unlike some of her colleagues) is lazy.  I think she’s just arrogant and complacent.  In California, she’s not used to being challenged.  When she runs for re-elections she refuses to debate her opponents, and treats campaigning and responding to public inquiries like a nuisance.

Senator Feinstein’s disdain for scrutiny and oversight were on full display when she was initially confronted with evidence of the NSA’s abuses.  “It’s called defending America”, she harrumphed.  Well, call me crazy, but if to defend a country’s national security you have to dismantle its laws and reassemble them such that they begin to resemble an embryonic police state, maybe there’s something about our national security apparatus—rather than laws that actually protect the public—that needs to be changed.  If to defend that national security you need to apply state terrorism and wage aggressive wars, it seems like a sure sign that our definition of security is the problem rather than the solution.

Too many members of our political leadership subscribes to an immoral and self-interested sense of what constitutes the national interest.  Their dangerously entrenched conventional wisdom is defended at every turn by ossified political specimens like Feinstein. 

In the twilight of an unremarkable career, Feinstein is finally making a mark by positioning herself with the authoritarian right-wing in the United States, defending the assault on our civil liberties by an intelligence apparatus which has been known to break the law and commit acts of terrorism.  She is an embarrassment to California and more importantly, a threat to the public. 

Monday, August 19, 2013

U.S. Hubris in Egypt

John McCain has become the latest public figure to attack President Obama for refusing to cut off aid to Egypt’s government after the military staged a coup and mowed down supporters of the deposed President, Mohamed Morsi.  Such economic support undermines the claim of the U.S. to be a disinterested party, because the aid both legitimises and helps to finance what is clearly an illegitimate regime.

The Guardian describes, however, how other individuals and interests are urging the U.S. to maintain support for the generals.

The dictatorial Saudi government, which sent troops to suppress a democratic rising in neighbouring Bahrain during the Arab Spring, is urging the U.S. to stand by the generals.

Unbelievably, Democratic congressman Eliot Engel urged support for the military coup using the following logic: “We essentially have two choices in Egypt, and that’s a military government or the Muslim brotherhood.  I don’t think the Muslim Brotherhood is a choice”.

That is a frighteningly arrogant thing to say, and demonstrates how the U.S. manages to alienate so many people both around the world in general and in the Middle East in particular.  Morsi, the Muslim Brotherhood’s candidate, won a general election.  That is, in the run-off campaign, a majority of Egyptians voted for his candidacy.  In the months after that election, Morsi abused his power, sparking massive demonstrations in the streets which the military used as a pretext for intervention. 

A member of the United States’ government is now saying that Egyptian voters’ choice is essentially unacceptable to the U.S.  Engel is arguing that the U.S. would rather support a military government which deposes civilian leaders at will and massacres people in the streets than respect the outcome of an election.  He would undoubtedly agree with those in the interim Egyptian government who are discussing a ban of the Muslim Brotherhood.

This, in case you ever wondered, is how what we call “terrorist” organisations are born.  Under Hosni Mubarak’s dictatorship, the Muslim Brotherhood was banned and harassed, forced to the margins of political life.  After his overthrow, that organisation re-entered the formal political sphere, played by the rules, demonstrated faith in the process, and won an election in spite of apocalyptic warnings from the U.S. about its “extremism”.  Now, backed by the U.S., a military-installed government is threatening to drive the organisation underground once again, which will undoubtedly confirm the worst fears of its members about how little it is possible to gain for its membership by taking part in electoral politics and following the rules.  We can imagine what some of the alternatives might be.

The arrogance of the U.S. in attempting to tell Egyptians what constitutes acceptable opinion and what crosses a line laid down in Washington, is just breathtaking.  Sure, there might be aspects of the party that some don’t like or find threatening, and possibly for good reason.

But that doesn’t mean you ban a party.  The Republican Party in the U.S. is run by a combination of religious fundamentalists and plutocrats, who shamelessly distort government so that it favours the privileged.  Its most lasting political commitment is to increasing economic inequality in the U.S.  Some of its leaders believe the U.S. must remain allied to Israel so that we can find divine favour when the “end times” arrive.  Some of its representatives are openly racist.  Others believe that the woman’s place is sitting quietly in the home (and that those women who do work do not deserve the same pay as men), and its vice-presidential candidate in the last election referred to rape as a “method of conception”.  It has engaged in a series of attacks on civil liberties, undermines international human rights treaties and arms control laws, and practises a policy of international terrorism, using torture, forced disappearance, rendition, and murder.  Its members conspired to manipulate intelligence to wage a war of aggression ten years ago which claimed the lives of over 100,000 people.

I feel threatened by this party.  Its more unhinged leaders make the  radical wing of the Muslim Brotherhood look like so many un-ambitious amateurs. 

But we don’t talk about banning the Republican Party.

The U.S. can’t call for democratic elections and then subvert them when the “right” candidate doesn’t win.  They can’t support the suppression of all opinion that doesn’t fit comfortably with the narrow spectrum of political opinion in the U.S.  And if our government does, it should be prepared to face some unpleasant consequences.  It will have earned any opprobrium directed its way.

Punishing those who staged a coup in Egypt does not mean that we have to support the Muslim Brotherhood.  But the U.S. should be consistent in its respect for democratic process, respectful of the rights of other people to elect their representatives, and should refuse to support the Egyptian military, which would readily and as easily overthrow a liberal or leftist government as the more conservative one it just deposed if its own interests were threatened. 

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Willie Brown Endorses Hillary Clinton; She Deserves Him

Hillary Clinton just got what amounts to a presidential endorsement from one of the crookedest characters in California politics—Willie Brown, the Assembly Speaker who called himself the Ayatollah for his strong-arm tactics.  His long political career, which took him from the capitol in Sacramento to the mayor’s office in San Francisco, and which occasioned the writing of term-limit laws to pry him from his Speaker’s desk, is riddled with accusations of cronyism and corruption.

To take one example, while serving in the Assembly, Brown openly attempted to browbeat the University of California into admitting “the son of a close friend of Brown’s”.  After initially refusing, but then growing fearful that the petty assemblyman would cut UC funds, a Chancellor then considered admitting him outside of the application process if the student in question committed to complete the required pre-med courses.  This was not good enough for Willie Brown, who reportedly said, “You go back and tell those b******s that if this kid is not admitted forthwith, without any conditions, the university’s 1973-4 budget will be reduced by 10 million”.  When UC refused, Brown made good on his threat.*

These days Brown appears to still exert considerable informal influence on California’s political scene, and he contends that “Clinton is the only real candidate the party has”.  In brushing off other candidates, he refers to Joe Biden as “too much of the politics of yesterday”, remarks that Andrew Cuomo has a “good name, good image, but he has yet to accomplish anything grand or make a mark on the national stage”. 

Can Brown—an empty-vessel politician of yesterday if ever there was one—hear himself?

What could be more representative of the “bad old days” than Hillary Clinton’s support for the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act, the knee-jerk response of the U.S. after 9/11, or her unconditional backing of the irresponsible where not outright criminal financial industry which brought our public to its knees?

And what has Hillary Clinton ever accomplished as a legislator or cabinet secretary?  She used her time in the Senate to put her name on a series of anodyne bills, refusing to rock the boat or tackle any big issue lest she offend anyone in advance of her 2008 presidential bid.  As Secretary of State, she similarly disdained to tackle any big problems, and will be best remembered for being one of the neocons in the administration who urged the President to escalate our disastrously bloody war in Afghanistan and South Asia and to open up drone wars in North Africa and beyond. 

That her tenure is most marked by advocacy of a bloody-minded U.S. foreign policy demonstrates that the vote on the Iraq war was not some aberration in which she and other right-wing democrats were somehow “tricked” by the Bush administration.  Rather, it is a vote which is emblematic of the cynical and violent foreign policy which she has been pushing for over a decade now, with disastrous results for the public.

It was fitting when lawmakers pushed to name the trouble-plagued new span of the Bay Bridge after a vice-ridden former Assembly Speaker.   It is equally fitting that a nihilistic political operator like Hillary Clinton should receive the backing of as sorry an individual as Willie Brown.  She deserves him.  And if the Democratic Party can't come up with a more progressive candidate than Hillary Clinton, maybe it deserves her!


* This incident is recorded in Jay Michaels and Dan Walters, Third House: Lobbyists, Money, and Power in Sacramento(Institute of Governmental Studies Press, 2002), 88-89. 

Obama: Accessory to Murder in Egypt

Whatever we might have thought of former Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi’s politics, he was an elected leader.  True, as critics pointed out, he wasn’t exactly solicitous of the losing side, but that’s not exactly an unprecedented development in a majoritarian system.  He took it a bit farther, egged on by hard-liners, and made efforts to shut down oppositional politics, quickly becoming his own worst enemy and infuriating the faction-plagued liberal contingent which had been central to the popular revolution which brought Morsi to power.

But his overthrow came not in an election, nor through a popular rising that clearly represented the majority of Egyptians.  Instead, it came in the form of a military coup, in which military institutions handed “moderates” the now-poisoned and tarnished chalice of government.  To their great shame, there were politicians on hand who were prepared to be the beneficiaries of a coup which made a mockery of democracy in Egypt.  They took up the task of governing knowing that they govern only on sufferance from an undemocratic military cabal which could turn on them as quickly as it did on Morsi.

Morsi’s supporters did not take his dethronement lying down, and took to the streets in scenes visually reminiscent of the original protests at Tahrir Square.  There, last week, they were gunned down brutally, the military killing hundreds as it sought to break up their encampments.  Protesters have been called “terrorists” by members of the interim government, installed by the terroristic military apparatus.

And what is the U.S. role in all of this?

Some would suggest that Obama’s myopic disinterest is a smart policy...that the U.S. should avoid taking sides, and keep its nose out of what is an internal affair.

But Obama’s anaemic response, in which he called for all sides to exercise “restraint” (when only one side was gunning down the other in its hundreds), is in itself a form of taking sides.  Because in refusing to call the coup a “coup” (and Obama is brilliant when it comes to the legal fudge, whether it’s in his murder memos or in saying that a drone war isn’t really a war), the President is leaving the door open for arms sales and military aid to the country, ensuring that those who call the shots—the armed forces—can remain well-equipped with weaponry and the official imprimatur of the United States.

Obama’s position translates into a tacit endorsement of a vicious military which thinks it has only to snap its fingers for the country’s political classes of whatever ideology or religion to come a-crawling, on pain of being overthrown. 

The “situation” in Egypt, which looks to verge on a civil war, is a classic example of how the United States become so hated in the world, and will undoubtedly serve as an example of how the supposedly-essential maintenance of our strategic links with murderers and thugs ensures that we will reap the violence that our military-industrial complex sows on other people’s soils.

The President backed Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak for far too long, earning the fury of Egyptian revolutionaries—liberal, conservative, and leftist alike.  Now he has betrayed Egyptians again by sitting on the fence—his administration is adept at “watching” and “observing”, but abysmal when it comes to actually doing anything—in the face of military brutality which is shored up by U.S. aid funds and armaments. 

Once again, the President—who has defined his administration by a commitment to waging a widening terroristic war—is turning himself into an accessory to murder.  It is difficult to know if his de facto backing of the murderous military is part of a calculated policy, or simply representative of the aimlessness and absence of a moral core that some commentators see. 

In any case, the President is reaffirming the hollow and uneven character of the U.S.’ supposed commitment to democratic process, the disregard for people in other parts of the world which so characterises our foreign policy, and the strength of military commitments which ultimately pose a great threat to the safety of our public. 

Friday, August 16, 2013

One Hack's Attack on Higher Education in California

Dan Walters, of the Sacramento Bee, set out in a recent column to show how “college administrators and instructors...tend to be very conservative, even reactionary, in resisting operational changes.  They revere traditional classes in traditional classrooms, calendars organized by semesters and quarters of instruction, lengthy recesses between these periods, curricula controlled by faculty senates—and, of course, tenure”.

This supposedly reactionary mentality—more on this below—supposedly explains why UC and CSU have been slow to streamline their relationship with the Community Colleges to facilitate easier transferring (I’m not sure how much input faculty have into this process...Walters lazily conflates faculty and administrators). 

It also ostensibly explains why faculty at the universities are reluctant to allow politicians to exert control over course offerings, and why those at the colleges are wary of a scheme to allow the state to duck out of its responsibilities to its citizens by transferring the burden of costs to students for any courses offered outside the normal academic sessions.

It is true that institutions and their inhabitants are often resistant to change (an epic example would be when doctors in Britain treated the creation of the National Health Service as an apocalyptic event, and today defend one of Britain’s most popular institutions against its assailants).  But sometimes there is a good reason for that resistance.  For instance, faculty are opposed to changing the current structure of teaching not least because the alternatives of which “reformers” are so enamoured manifestly do not work (there is a growing amount of data to this effect).  In other words, classes in classrooms tend to work.  But we should be clear up one of Walters’ major omissions: impetus for changing universities is not coming from committed educationalists, but rather from people who see an opportunity to assert control over the creeping privatisation of California’s universities and, in so doing, make lots and lots of money.

Faculty are concerned to protect the system of tenure because that offers job security, allows them to pursue their research, and is part of what stands in the way of efforts to casualise academic work (my generation of graduate students are already looking at entering an academic world in which university administrators are committed to keeping us in insecure adjunct positions as long as possible).  Job security, and the intellectual security which comes with it, is a good way of preserving the integrity of academic research and teaching, and preventing these exercises from being suborned by the political or economic interests and demands of the moment.  And for many faculty at research universities, the “lengthy recesses” are their only real opportunities to undertake the research which comprises part of their role.

Walters concludes with an authoritarian rhetorical flourish, demonstrating just how wrong he is about the role of education in our society: “California’s higher education system should adapt to new economic, sociological, economic and fiscal realities, rather than dwell in an obsolescent past.  But since they are not changing willingly, the Capitol must force the issue”.

Let’s step back and think about those “realities”, a word which is usually code for “the world as I think it should be”.

The economic “reality” to which Walters refers is one in which markets and the large-scale capital behind them (and we all know how much they have society’s best interests at heart!) tell universities which courses they should offer, how many graduates they should process, and how much they should charge their students. 

Walters’ sociological “reality” dictates that this market pressure should exacerbate the already-unconscionable gap between the wealthy and the poor, and makes universities—once levelling institutions within our society—complicit in the business of growing inequality.

And the fiscal “realities” are highly political in nature, and are built into our state’s dysfunctional political structure by measures which allowed a generation of voters in 1978 to make decisions about the economic, social, and moral lives of people born in the 1990s and 2000s by writing details of tax policy into the state constitution. 

This is not about the future versus the past, as Walters’ sloppy and dangerous analysis would have us believe.  It is about a lazy journalist, wittingly or otherwise, working to help establish the ransacking of our educational sphere, the monkey-wrenching of our democracy, and the sabotaging of our society by a group of economic fundamentalists and their backers as a fait accompli, rather than a politically-engineered state against which we have the capacity to push back.

Those things that Walters calls “obsolescent” were once the stuff of the California dream (often more apparent than real), and one would hope, might have a role in the resuscitation of that dream: opportunity, access, equality, fairness, free intellectual inquiry, the promotion of research, the fostering of citizenship, and the creation of a space where Californians of diverse backgrounds—economic, social, racial, political—could learn, debate, think, and live together for a few precious years. 

The idea was that when they left the University, those young citizens would depart not only equipped with the skills of a particular discipline, but with a well-rounded education which left them prepared to think about their society more clearly and ask questions about their world.  And, we might have hoped, students would have gone back into a world in which their idealism, intellect, and hope would not be out of place.

Today, Walters and his ilk are insisting that universities be transformed into technologically updated versions of nineteenth century factories, churning out “products” at the behest of industry with no regard for the conditions in which their inhabitants labour.  They insist that what should be a liberating institution must conform to a restrictive social and economic orthodoxy, the diktats of which are antithetical to a free and fair society. 

The institutions that would be created by Walters’ urgent “realities” would bear little resemblance to universities as we know them.  Similarly, Walters’ hit job on California’s universities bears little resemblance to journalism as most of us would understand it. 

Less Zen, More Zest

I’ve got a suggestion for the Los Angeles Times.  In this era of urgent austerity and universal belt-tightening (except, that is, for the wealthy), they could save some time and effort by recycling a headline they used to describe the actions of California’s Governor, Jerry Brown a couple of days ago.

The piece, of course, was about how intellectual and unconventional and zany Brown was and remains.  The Governor is certainly not above showing off his smarts, which is a bit unusual in an age when most politicians are eager to show that they’re just as dumb as the lowest common denominator by way of demonstrating the common touch.

And ‘unconventional’ is equally accurate.  Most governors understand that their duty is, well, to govern.  Brown hasn’t quite wrapped his mind around this, and whether he’s refusing to outline a political platform for voters, declining to address the state’s debilitating structural dysfunction, or passing the buck for crafting a budget to the voters via an initiative, most of his actions seem geared towards evading responsibility, putting off decisions or, ideally, getting someone else to make them for him.

He’s a classic opportunist...seeing where the wind was blowing on Prop 8, he refused to defend the measure as Attorney General or Governor.  Presented with a legally-different but principally-similar situation where Prop 13 was concerned, Brown embraced the plutocratic measure dressed in populist robes with an evangelical fervour, and it has proved central to the unmaking of California.

The Governor is, we are told, constantly planning his next move, and we’re always enjoined to be waiting for something big, something spectacular, something transformational.  That “something”, in the context of Brown’s bid to intervene in California’s unsustainable political morass, turned out to mean the construction of a short-term fix in the form of Prop 30, which did exactly nothing in terms of addressing structural breakdown, economic inequality, or the democratic deficit which so famously mangle our state. 

Instead, it turned over a significant part of the budgeting process to voters via initiative, adding yet another level of unsustainability to our Frankensteinian system.  In so doing, Brown created a situation in which he could claim strategic genius if the measure passed, and shake his head quietly at the poor judgment of voters if it didn’t.

In their book California Crackup: How Reform Broke the Golden State and How we can Fix It, Mark Paul and Joe Mathews convincingly argue that state government has become structured in such a way that it cannot possibly work absent serious, comprehensive structural reform.  Brown, who has spent decades playing the political game in California, must surely know this.  But instead he spends his days meditating on abstractions and working out how best to bamboozle voters so that his poll numbers can survive to fight another election without having to do any of the serious business of governing.

Brown is perhaps uniquely situated—because of the trust large numbers of voters unaccountably place in him, because of his familiarity with the state’s structure, and because he doesn’t really have much to lose—to tackle the issue of reform and articulate an affirmative vision of California’s society.  He’s had nearly three years to gather his thoughts—forty years, if you start the clock with his lacklustre and un-ambitious first term—and now we could use a little action.

In sum, Governor Brown, we could use a little less Zen and a little more zest. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Back in Kenya

I arrived in Kenya as Zambia’s winter was dissipating, only to find Nairobi engulfed in an unseasonal gloom.  On the long ride into town from the airport the taxi driver complained about the awful traffic.  I don’t blame him.  Supposedly there are bypasses and even a two-level highway under construction, but cynics—and Kenya’s leaders ensure that there are a lot of these around—suppose that it will be decades before Nairobi manages to tame its traffic jams.

Amidst the personal vehicles and long-distance freight lorries are the matatus (which are death-traps bearing a misleading resemblance to minivans).  In Lusaka, most matatus are painted cheery colours (which I hear they’re going to have to change because the ruling party doesn’t like that they match the opposition) and generally look to be in reasonably good shape.  Not so in Nairobi.  The taxi driver joked that some matatus are so ugly they’re ashamed to come out until after dark. 

In Nairobi, I stay at the YMCA, a hospitable institution near the city centre.  The staff are really nice, they do hearty meals of fish or chicken with rice or ugali, and they now offer free wifi (the catch being that it works intermittently at best).  Normally it would be busy on the week-ends since the weather should be improving, but the massive pool—where they offer lessons and where various swim teams practise—is empty.  They also have a gym on site.  Having a debilitating exercise allergy, however, I restrict myself to more sedate forms of movement, and take an evening stroll around the arboretum most days.   

Democracy under construction
It was a holiday last Friday, and so I worked from the YMCA, where I stay whilst in town.  It began raining lightly, and the staff clustered on the terrace for their morning meeting around a table, looking despondent at the weather, wrapped in sweaters and shawls and scarves.  Earlier this week, it looked as though the weather might be improving, although when the sun comes out in Nairobi this time of year, it’s like when some people show their teeth: you can’t tell whether it’s a smile or a grimace; if they really mean it, or if it’s just a nervous tic.  The collective optimism was washed away when a massive rainstorm rolled in Wednesday afternoon, complete with lightning and thunder that had everyone jumping out of their seats on the terrace at dinnertime. 

There are not too many things that I like about big cities.  But one of them is that in such large urban areas, people tend to move with a sense of purpose.  Whether or not they really do have to be somewhere urgently, urbanites tend to go about their business expeditiously (although the northern side of Kenyatta Avenue is notorious for pedestrian jams).  You might think that this is a small thing, but slow, aimless, chaotic movement preys on my mind.  For some disquisitions on the trials of life as a pedestrian, see here and here.  Also here.  And yes, you might as well look at this too, and this while you’re at it.  [Some people might call this preoccupation a deranged obsession.  I prefer to think of myself as an eminently-reasonable individual looking out for the rights of the much put-upon pedestrian classes.] 

Dedan Kimathi scowls...
There is a new peril in Nairobi which threatens pedestrians these days.  On the way from the airport, the taxi driver pointed out new traffic lights on the Uhuru Highway (they are also scattered throughout town), which count down in red and green to regulate traffic and let drivers and pedestrians know how much time they have before they must stop.  Nobody seemed to be paying them the slightest heed, so I wasn’t worried.

The next day, however, when I was walking to work, they were working like a dream.  In addition to creating massive backlogs, they actually make it much slower getting around on foot because the moving traffic gets a lot faster, meaning that it’s harder to cross safely through moving traffic.  The next day, however, they were no longer working, and cheerfully functional chaos was restored.  However, they have since begun operating once again.  They sound like a nice idea, but they give the illusion of order where none might exist.  A pedestrian crossing on a green might suppose that they will be safe, but then some car will come zooming through the intersection irrespective of the red light they face.  Because they only work intermittently, and because even when they are working they are only respected intermittently, I reckon they’ll create a certain kind of complacency.  There is actually a lot more consideration and care taken in the slow-moving chaos. 

I’ve only been doing minimal work in the archives, perhaps because I have various looming deadlines regarding matters of life and death.  But also because I was reminded of how much work in the archives can get to you when, a couple of nights ago I had a dream featuring Sandiford Njovu.  Understand, I’ve never met Sandiford Njovu, and the man presumably no longer inhabits the land of the living.  He was a game guard in Zambia in the 1950s, and he appears periodically in the archival record.  And now, my dreams too, it seems. 

Jomo Kenyatta broods...
One week-end afternoon I took advantage of some sunny weather to ride the elevator to the helipad atop the Kenyatta International Conference Centre, one of Nairobi’s tallest buildings.  The weather was beautiful that particular day, and the views across the city (as far as the Ngong Hills in one direction) were amazing.  The city centre is dominated by skyscrapers, with a handful of older, colonial-era edifices buried down around their trunks.  But there is plenty of greenery in Nairobi, from the Uhuru Park to the Arboretum and the land surrounding State House.

From that vantage point you get a bird’s eye view of the city, but miss some of the historical monuments which are scattered around its lower reaches.  On Kenyatta Avenue, a Cenotaph commemorating the war dead stands near the monument to the Askaris who served as colonial levies during Britain’s imperial wars.

...and Tom Mboya beams.
Dedan Kimathi scowls in central Nairobi—and I don’t blame him...he’s been stuck in front of the Hilton Hotel, perhaps the perfect symbol of everything he fought against and died for in the course of the independence struggle against British capital and colonialism.

Stunningly tacky in gold, surrounded by pink flamingos that look like they were pilfered from someone’s front garden, Tom Mboya looks cheerful as he appears to instruct young Kenyans of the value of responsible drinking. 

Jomo Kenyatta, the country’s first president, broods in front of the Supreme Court as befits the authoritarian character of his rule, which casts a shadow over recent Kenyan history and for many tarnishes the reputation of his son, the current president, because of the family’s incredible, and allegedly ill-gotten wealth.  Uhuru Kenyatta doesn’t need this filial assist, being a grown-up who's got himself indicted for crimes against humanity at the Hague entirely on his own account.    

The country is undertaking some political reconstruction these days, with new levels of government having been added by the new constitution passed to much fanfare in 2010.  Some of this reconfiguration requires actual construction, and work on a new Senate chamber which will stand alongside the existing parliament building is underway.  While doing these renovations, they might as well add some padded walls.

[It is a testament to the open political atmosphere and media freedom in Kenya that I feel (rightfully, I hope!) confident that writing that last sentence will not get me into trouble... I would never, for example, write anything of the sort about the Zambian government, at least not whilst in Zambia!]

Kenyan politicians, with their knack for getting to the heart of the matter, have been debating who gets to fly flags on their official vehicles.  Former Prime Minister Raila Odinga, with his razor-sharp focus on the national good, has spent his post-premiership so far accusing the government of keeping him out of the VIP lounge at the airport, and has this week been complaining that he doesn’t have enough official vehicles for his security retinue.

An endangered white rhino was shot in the Nairobi National Park this week, literally under the nose of the state apparatus.  Businessmen, an MP, and a governor have already been linked to an international poaching ring.  The involvement of the latter is a considerable achievement, given that the political position has only existed since the election in March and some of its holders have already managed to get involved with illegal rackets.  The Nation’s tireless cartoonist, Gado, sardonically suggested that the President take the accused with him when he visits China (assumed rightly or wrongly to have a hand in the poaching, the professions of its diplomats aside).

Parliament, with Uhuru Park behind
For many Kenyans, official incompetence was summed up last week when a fair-sized chunk of the international airport went up in flames (literally).  Rumours abounded...  Disgruntled duty-free merchants had started the blaze.  No, it was the work of a smuggling ring, trying to dispose of immigration records.  Others, noting that the fire started in the small hours of the fifteenth anniversary of the U.S. embassy bombing, were determined to sniff out a terrorist link (and the FBI and Mossad were called in).  For all we know, it could have been an accident, but the fact that a small, localised fire got out of control because the fire department was out of engines and water is understandably seen as an outrage by the long-suffering public. 

But in spite of the traffic and official malaise, I reflected this morning as I headed into town deploying all of the street-crossing techniques I’ve honed over several years of visiting Nairobi—ducking, dodging, rolling (not really!), shamelessly using my fellow pedestrians as cover—that I’m much luckier than the people shuttled ‘round in the bazillion safari cars, who see Nairobi as a blur and never set foot in the city that defines life for its millions of inhabitants.

What the Debate about the BART Strike Tells us about Labour in our Society

I have not been following the debates about a BART strike in the Bay Area as carefully as I would have liked from Zambia, but a recent headline caught my eye.  It seems that Mark Desaulnier, a Democratic State Senator in California, is considering a bill that would make strikes by BART workers illegal.  

I can understand the frustration of commuters with the prospect of struggling to get to work, but I can also understand the frustration of workers who are not paid in line with the cost of living.  Further restricting the rights of organised labour to flex its muscles in the interests of its membership is the wrong answer in an economic and political climate in which the working and middle classes are being turned against one another while the gap between them and those at the top of our society widens. 

There’s been a rush in the media to portray BART workers as greedy, but a good article from Mother Jones puts their demands into some perspective—in the context of increases in the cost of living and in healthcare costs.  The other component of workers’ demands—about safety issues—hardly seems gratuitous. 

The extent to which communitarianism, solidarity, and the underlying principles of organised labour (sometimes, it is true, undermined by highly-centralised union organisation) are no longer a part of our politics has been very apparent from the criticisms greeting the strike.

People complain that strike action would be “disruptive”, as though this is somehow outrageous.  But what, at the end of the day, would be the point of a strike action which allowed people to go about their business as though nothing untoward had occurred?  The idea behind a strike is for one group of people to point out what they see as an injustice within the system in which they operate.  To do so, they seek to demonstrate the value of their labour by withholding it, thereby making the case to their community and/or their political representatives that their needs and interests should be taken seriously.  That community and those representatives then weigh up the value of that labour as measured against the costs of a strike action, debate the merits of demands, and ideally contextualise them within their economic environment.  Not every strike will succeed, but creating a condition in which workers cannot even make their case to the public sets a dangerous precedent (the evisceration of private sector unions and the concomitant tumble in the welfare of most of our country’s workforce is a good illustration of the perils in restricting labour rights).

Commentators attack BART workers for demanding salaries in line with the cost of living, arguing that these workers already make more than average, the suggestion being that they should content themselves with living a lesser quality of life.  To me, the more logical conclusion in the context of our very wealthy society—wherein that wealth is distributed in a grossly inequitable manner—would be for other people to organise themselves along similar lines in order that they, too, might be in a position to ask that they be paid a living wage. 

People talk about an era of limits and the need for people to tighten their belts, but tellingly, within our political discourse, restrictions always begin with those who have little to spare, even as corporate profits head for the stratosphere and the personal incomes of executives and other elites climb relentlessly.  The actions of even a small group of transport workers demonstrates the frailty of the myths underpinning the drive for austerity in Washington, D.C., and help to explain why those actions are so harshly condemned.

The strong reaction by so many Bay Area residents against the disruption of the strike is also a telling indicator about the importance of just one form of labour to the functioning of our society.  BART workers are not alone in performing labour which is, in addition to being essential, under-valued by those who make use of it.  In fact many of the things which make our day-to-day lives functional and pleasant, between the time we get up in the morning and go to sleep at night, stem from the labour of people who are likely to be underpaid and under-acknowledged.  We don’t always see the people whose labour makes the morning commute, the lunch-break, the clean workplace bathroom, the empty trash cans, or the evening trip home possible.  But their labour is no less essential to our lives for its social invisibility. 

A just economic system would reward those people (that is, probably anyone reading this) by providing them with the means to live a decent quality of life.  Ours, on the other hand, unleashes savage attacks on unionised labour in the hopes that depressing their wages and quality of life will create a trickle-down effect in the workforce, lowering expectations about the rights and wages and welfare to which members of our society are entitled. 

Labour could use some reforming.  It could bear to be made more democratic.  It could stand to be more self-conscious of the context in which it operates.  But the relentless and increasingly vituperative attacks on organised labour in our society belie what unionisation brought the American workforce.  Thanks to strike action in our nation’s history, people enjoy an eight-hour day, a 40-hour week, overtime pay, week-ends, health benefits, workplace safety regulations, unemployment benefits, collective bargaining, rights of appeal against arbitrary dismissal, a minimum wage, and social security.

This is a part of our country’s history that has not always been taught at schools and universities.  And the triumph—however short-lived—of labour in the United States is something that the Republican Party and its corporate handlers are keen to excise from our schools’ textbooks, not coincidentally at the very moment when they are seeking to roll back so many of these rights.  Their motivation is transparent: as they embark on a drive to enthrone capital and bind the workforce to its avaricious needs, they want to kill off the memory of another kind of society, in which workers from different parts of the country, in different industries, doing different sorts of work, were able to combine their efforts to demand that they be treated as full members of society, whose labour was valued, and whose rights to live a decent life were respected.

It is an ugly state of affairs when people who would benefit from greater collective action within the workforce, and a more equitable distribution of wealth within our society, have been conditioned to attack their fellow workers, and refuse to even contemplate the value of the sort of collective action responsible for the quality of life—even if diminished—that most of us enjoy.