Thursday, October 31, 2013

The Biggest Fairytale: Hillary Clinton's Progressivism

"Give me a break.  This whole thing is the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen”.  That was Bill Clinton in 2008, questioning then-President Obama’s opposition to the war in Iraq.  Clinton was wrong about Obama’s opposition to the war, although the President’s backers should have paid greater heed to his rationale for opposing the illegal war of aggression.
But Bill Clinton’s words take on a greater significance today, as his wife, former-Senator and –Secretary of State Hillary Clinton begins rounding up support for a 2016 White House bid on the basis of the epic fairy tale she is spinning about her supposed progressivism.
Voters learned yesterday that leading Democrats are already working hard to make them irrelevant to the 2016 Democratic Party primary.  ABC reported that “all of the female Democratic senators signed a secret letter to Hillary Rodham Clinton early this year encouraging her to run for President in 2016—a letter that includes the signature of Sen. Elizabeth Warren”.
While this is different from Warren—who would make a far better progressive president than the neoliberal, neoconservative Hillary Clinton—actually endorsing Clinton’s candidacy, it does seem to provide further evidence that there is no one amongst progressives willing to challenge Clinton’s coronation. 
If we examine Hillary Clinton’s record on some of the most critical issues of our time—economic equality, the rights of workers, and the behaviour of the U.S. in the world—we find that Clinton is indeed consistent, but not in the way we would hope.
As a member of the Wal-Mart Board of Directors Clinton was her silence on behalf of the company’s workers as Wal-Mart attacked them and their unions, even when one of her fellow board members said that “labor unions are nothing but blood-sucking parasites living off the productive labor of people who work for a living”. 
In the Senate, Clinton was a consistent advocate...for the financial services whose irresponsible activities helped to sabotage our economy, even when that meant supporting punitive backruptcy legislation which hurt the working class.  She also supported bailouts for financial criminals as working people lost their jobs and were thrown out of homes.
In the Senate, Clinton was a reliable vote...for President Bush’s ill-judged war in Afghanistan, the Republicans’ illegal war of aggression in Iraq, and the strengthening of the military-industrial complex through the Patriot Act, and the civil-liberties grab which followed. 
As Secretary of State, we could count on urge the President to extend the campaign of American terrorism abroad, miring the U.S. in additional conflicts and accepting the immoral logic of meeting terror with terror.  She was also resolute in her defence of kleptocratic dictators against democratic risings. 
It’s telling that when many public figures react to the prospect of a Clinton campaign, they describe Hillary Clinton using words or phrases like “she’s our shot”; “she’s extremely well-prepared”; “she would be a very strong candidate”; “unbelievably accomplished”.  No one says that she would be wonderful for the working class of our country, or that she would be committed to economic equality, or that she is capable of standing up for social democracy.
No one is questioning her credentials.  What we are questioning is why someone as right-wing and immoral as Clinton, whose hands are red with the blood of the victims of America’s imperial wars, and sullied by the dirty work she has done for America’s plutocrats, should be treated by her party as though she has some right to serve as a progressive standard-bearer. 
It is this version of one of the most enduring opportunists in American politics—that Hillary Clinton is a progressive figure who would address the inequality which plagues our polity and the violence which characterises our behaviour abroad—which is the Biggest Fairytale of all. 

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The End of an Unholy Alliance? Dianne Feinstein, the NSA, and our Democracy

A week and a half ago, California Senator Dianne Feinstein denied that the actions of the NSA were intrusive, declaring that they were “not surveillance”.  She wrote that the NSA’s programs were “effective in helping to prevent terrorist plots against the U.S. and our allies”. 

She defended the operations of the secret courts that are charged with exerting oversight, even though some of the judges on those courts have complained that they have neither the resources nor the access to exert proper oversight.  And Feinstein mounted her defence even though the official charged with overseeing the NSA and other intelligence agencies told bald-faced lies to the very members of Congress charged with keeping him honest. 
The Guardian reported that “several experts independent of the intelligence committee have testified, including to Feinstein’s committee, that the collection of phone metadata can provide a detailed and intrusive window into an individual’s life, particularly when matched with other data.  A person’s name, for instance, can easily be derived from their telephone number”.  All of this undermines Feinstein’s claims that intelligence officials couldn’t actually monitor Americans with the technology they use.
Feinstein’s constituents got some insight into her arrogance when she defended her decision to back the President’s now-averted drive to war in Syria even in the face of unrevealed intelligence and an absence of a strategy.  She declared that the public “have not seen what I have seen, or heard what I have heard.  I like to believe that after 20 years that I have some skills in separating the wheat from the chaff”. 
A week later, after increasing revelations about the extent of NSA spying on U.S. allies, Feinstein declared that she was “totally opposed” to such intrusion.  In the space of a week, she went from working hard to watering down legislation which would reform the machinations of our military-intelligence complex to clamouring for a “total review of all intelligence that members of the Senate Intelligence Committee are fully informed as to what is actually being carried out by the intelligence community”. 
Feinstein and her Congressional colleagues were not alone in being kept in the dark, for the White House also appeared blind-sided by the revelations about the surveillance which has apparently been taking place for over a decade.  It was also revealed that the NSA “began testing means to gather location data on cellphones inside the U.S. before informing the secret surveillance court that oversees it”.
Call me cold-hearted, but I am not moved by Feinstein’s injured demeanour.  She is a hypocrite.  She and her Republican colleagues—the architects of much of the security state—have spent the last several years defending the security state against all its critics, explaining that they knew best, and that they could provide oversight.  They, we heard again and again, were the experts who knew exactly what was going on, and anyone who claimed otherwise was imperilling the nation’s security.
Now, Feinstein’s feelings are hurt because she has learned that she was not so special.  The rogue security agencies were just as ready to lie to her as to anyone else.  Remember when National Intelligence Director James Clapper was shown to have lied repeatedly to Congress, it was Feinstein who went to his defence, asserting that “there is no more direct or honest person than Jim Clapper”.
Think for just a moment about the nature of the relationship between the security services and Congress.
After 9/11, agencies which always exist in the shadow and never enjoy the full trust of the public or its representatives because of their ugly, abusive track record, spy an opportunity to expand their power by demanding massive authority in the name of national security.  The Bush Administration, with the aid of the Republican Party and a handful of right-wing Democrats like Feinstein, bully their colleagues into accepting this demand, using the media and the floor of Congress to denounce doubters as “anti-American”.
Once granted these powers, the intelligence agencies go rogue, expanding their actions beyond what was ever contemplated by a quiescent Congress, cowed by the bloviating Bush administration and the foaming right-wing pundits on FOX and other assorted propaganda organs.
The rogue agencies begin lying and withholding information from all members of Congress, and routinely abuse their power.  But they lie to some more than others.  And they work particularly hard to make the members of the Intelligence and other national security committees feel privileged.  They give them classified files (files which nonetheless don’t tell the whole story).  They let those members serve as their ambassadors to the media and the public.  They allow those members to believe they are “experts” who control intelligence, whereas because they are so many suckers, they are actually just acting as a useful front, their democratic legitimacy obscuring the dark deeds that the rogue agencies perform behind closed doors.
They do the same thing with the judges on the secret courts, undoubtedly making them feel privileged by acknowledging the pretence that these judges have the power to rein in their activities, when in fact they withhold information from them.
In time, as the War of Terror for which these rogue agencies advocated goes out of vogue, some members of Congress find their spines and voices, and begin questioning the extent of the agencies’ activities.  The agencies lie, and the members of Congress who they have made to feel special, privileged, and informed, step outraged to their defence, declaring them essential to our campaign of terror abroad in defence of the homeland where the rogue agencies are steadily eroding the liberties they are ostensibly protecting.  These members of Congress themselves begin to distort the record, making inaccurate claims about how domestic spying has thwarted terrorist threats.  They do so feeling confident that they are a part of a noble endeavour to protect our security and certain that they know the bounds of the lies in which they engage.
But then someone like Edward Snowden comes along and blows a hole in their story.  At first the rogue activities he reveals are those on which Senators like Feinstein signed off, and she rallies to the defence of the NSA, assuring the public and her colleagues that she is well-informed and capable of controlling and monitoring the agency (a claim she probably genuinely believed). 
But the latest revelations demonstrate the true state of things: namely, that Clapper and his ilk lied or misled Feinstein and the privileged few just as much as they did the lesser members of Congress, to say nothing of the public, in those name these abuses are carried out.  And now Feinstein is angry and offended.  Not because of the erosion of our civil liberties at home.  She was okay with that.  She knew best, after all.  But because the people she thought were her allies tricked and manipulated to her, and didn’t allow her into the inner recesses of their club.  She is angry that her credulity was rewarded with what she likely regards as a personal betrayal.
This episode demonstrates how inadequate a check on their power it is to allow the rogue intelligence agencies to operate in the dark, given cover by neoconservatives from both political parties.  It demonstrates that we cannot trust the assurances of our legislators because from the exalted vantage-point that is NSA headquarters, they are a part of the same tiresome, unnecessary democratic process, and need to be managed and manipulated rather than informed and updated.
The contempt of the military-intelligence services for the transparency and debate which must characterise the democratic process, and the way in which that contempt began creeping into our elected bodies, should show us that it is time to break the back of this hydra-like security apparatus which has dragged us into colonial wars, fabricated some threats while totally failing to anticipate others, and is debasing our democracy. 
It is shameful that the NSA and its ilk spy on our allies.  It is far more shameful that they also regard the public as an adversary from whom they must hide the truth about their actions even as they distort the manner in which we interact with our fellow global citizens.

It is unlikely that Feinstein and her colleagues will actually recant their support for the security state.  But now that they know that they were betrayed, perhaps they can understand how their constituents feel.  And perhaps we can begin the work of reclaiming our rights, our priorities, and our democracy.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Living with Our Land

It was once common to describe the people who inhabited North America before the coming of the Europeans as “Noble Savages”, who lived in harmony with the wilderness which surrounded them and left the land virtually untouched.  This view was on the one hand a critique of European excesses as they transformed beyond recognition much of the land they inhabited, and simultaneously a rejection of Native Americans as pre-modern peoples who had to fade away as progressive civilisations tilled the land with a more aggressive hand.

We now know, thanks to the work of historians such as Bill Cronon (Changes in the Land), that this picture is inaccurate, and that Native Americans did change their land.  Europeans who arrived in New England assumed that the land they found there was “natural”, and that the people who lived there were savages, incapable of or uninterested in transforming nature.  But the landscapes that Europeans saw were at least in some part the product of human intervention, and were as much “managed” as they were “wild”.
Arthur McEvoy tells a similar story about fisheries in pre-contact California.  McEvoy contends that “Indian hunting and gathering economies apparently could strain their resources enough to damage them”, and cites the extirpation of the sea otter in the Aleutians (and the concomitant re-working of the island chain’s ecology) as an example of the capacity for such transformation (one which would be replicated up and down the California coast with the arrival of Russian and American hunters).  “Similar evidence”, he writes, “exists that some California Indian communities died out because they overharvested their supplies of shellfish”. 
How then, do we reconcile the undoubted ability of Native Americans in California at the time of contact with Europeans to live densely and yet in some balance with physical surroundings that they utilised without overexploiting, with the knowledge that at various points in the more distant past, societies in California crumbled because they abused their environment?
McEvoy argues that we can do so by seeing the social and environmental balance of the societies encountered by Europeans in California as the products of long histories in which people learned to anticipate overuse and critically evaluate and manage their interactions with their ecological surroundings to avoid destructive over-exploitation. 
As McEvoy puts it, “Being an Indian gave no one a special advantage in confronting the problem...In this, Indian fishers differed little from those who followed them”.  But what the communities confronting Europeans did illustrate was that over time any people in any place could arrive at a modus vivendi with an environment which allowed them to satisfy their needs while conserving the integrity of the ecology of which they were part.
It was not a lesson imbibed by European settlers or one taken seriously by our current society.  We live wildly out of balance with our physical surroundings.  We build cities in deserts and drain plains of their water.  We extract various forms of fuel from the earth in shatteringly violent processes, the consequences of which we don’t fully understand.  We put terrible things into our air and water.  We adopt a mentality which suggests that we can have it all without suffering any consequences and live in a kind of permanent arms race against our world instead of working out how to live with it, even if that means tempering our consumption or modifying our lifestyles.
While the people who lived on this land before us—whether from necessity or inclination—responded to the signals their earth sent them, we spurn all such messages and adopt an attitude of antagonism hubris towards our surroundings.  As an infinitely more populous and more consumptive society than those which came before, we don’t have the luxury of failing again and again before we finally find a workable balance.  We have reached a scale where the consequences of our failure will be far more catastrophic and likely insurmountable. 
Therefore, we need to work with greater urgency and with a greater sense of moral as well as scientific purpose and clarity as we seek to harness technology to better develop a means of sustainable existence, whether that lies in something land Aldo Leopold’s land ethic, a culture of accommodation, a revised sense of our needs, or a way of linking social equity to environmental stewardship.  Likely it will require some complicated combination of all of these things. 
We need to begin by being more willing to learn from both the past and from the changes in our land, and to listen to what that past and those changes suggest about how to live in the future.
Arthur McEvoy, “Aboriginal Fisheries” in Carolyn Merchant (ed.), Green Versus Gold: Sources in California’s Environmental History (Covelo, California: Island Press, 1998): 50-55.

The University of California and the 'Black Hand': Janet Napolitano, Upton Sinclair, and California's Students

The head of the world’s most prestigious University system was appointed over the summer.  The Regents of the University of California—the board of which constitutes a political patronage machine for the governor—nominated and appointed Janet Napolitano (Homeland Security Secretary in the federal government) within a week, making a mockery of due process and the community which Napolitano is supposed to serve.
Napolitano will preside over a community comprising nearly 19,000 academic staff, 190,000 other staff, and nearly a quarter million students.  None of these people were considered important enough to be worth consulting in a process which was so lacking in transparency that it might have been the envy of Kim Jong-un!
The Board of Regents failed to present the community with the criteria by which they judged candidates.  The Board of Regents failed to disclose the long-list or short-list of candidates from whom they made their final selection.  The Board of Regents failed to include the community in the process, and it failed to allow the community either the time or means to comment in between their announcement of Napolitano and her confirmation.
The University community was outraged, both by the fact that the Board of Regents made not the slightest pretence at a democratic process, and by the fact that Napolitano was active in upping deportations while serving in the federal government, and will be coming to a state which has chosen to take a much more humane approach to immigrants and their children.  Student governments at UC Berkeley, UC San Diego, and UC Irvine responded by passing votes of no-confidence in Napolitano. 
That Napolitano’s tenure could stink so badly before she’s even done anything is a testimony to the mangled sham of a process by which she was appointed, and the former cabinet secretary and Arizona Governor should have refused to have anything to do with the farce that was her appointment.
The Regents’ obsession with secrecy and their disdain for any kind of open process has weakened Napolitano by making her an essentially illegitimate figure on campuses.  When students at UC Irvine marched in protest of Napolitano earlier today, they were met with a show of force from the campus police which merely drove home the determination of the University of California’s leadership to insulate it from criticism and from the voices of its constituents. 
The New University reported that “only a handful of students from UCI were invited to meet with Napolitano today, including ASUCI President...AGS President, UC Student Regent...and some of the leaders from the Cross Cultural Center’s Umbrella Organizations”.  This is in keeping with the administration’s strategy of using students as props in such meetings, and hand-picking student leaders who already have access to the administration.
Ninety years ago, eleven years before he would run to be the Governor of California, Upton Sinclair published The Goose-Step, an account of higher education in the United States.  Invoking the mafia, Sinclair referred to Berkeley—then dominated by right-wing, imperialist thought; an institution in which the student body was highly-militarised and regressive in its outlook—as the University of the Black Hand.  The Regents, in Sinclair’s words, were the “grand dukes of the plutocracy”, and then ran Berkeley like a “medieval fortress”. 
Today it is on the one hand most conventional to think of the Board of Regents serving the politicians who appoint them.  But Sinclair recognised that the Regents were appointed because of the financial and propaganda services they rendered to the state’s leading political figures.  Today many of the Regents were appointed by Governors whom they backed politically.  The politicians were, in Sinclair’s mind, “nominated by these gentlemen’s newspapers and elected by these gentlemen’s checks”.
Many of the Regents who anointed Napolitano in defiance of the University today are drawn from the profiteering business and financial world of California, a far cry from the civic-minded, communitarian University over which they rule.  Sinclair’s comment about one Regent—that he was “a gentleman whose qualifications to direct the higher education of California were acquired while driving a stage”—ring as true today as they must have nearly a century ago. 
The progressivism and leftism of the city of Berkeley long predates the growth of conscience amongst the University’s students, and in Sinclair’s day, “when the electrical workers went on strike, the mayor of Berkeley smashed the strike with University boys”.  At President Barrows’ urging, students were similarly used to break a seamen’s strike later.  Backed by the Regents, Barrows shut down extension teaching, which sought to broaden those receiving a University of California education beyond the children of the state’s plutocracy. 
Barrows, a practitioner of American imperialism and terrorism in the Philippines, began the militarisation of the University, ensuring that although “twelve thousand students get a free education [they] must pay for it by taking two years of military training”.  Barrows also asserted that “one advantage of having a big university is that you have abundant material from which to select athletic teams”.  Students were bludgeoned into providing financial backing for the support of Memorial Stadium, and “when some of them found that they had not been able to earn money to pay their full subscriptions, they were refused admission to the university; that is, the university refused to accept their registration fees, until the stadium pledges had been paid!”
Members of the UC Regents also dabbled in politics, and the father of H R Haldeman (notorious for his involvement in the scandals of the Nixon administration), one of California’s leading plutocrats, founded the Better America Foundation, which Sinclair described as “a kind of ‘black hand’ society of the rich, a terrorist organization which does not stop short of crime”, working to entrench the interests of the Regents and their associates “for the purpose of keeping California capitalist”.*
It was, then, only comparatively recently that the University of California became associated with progressivism.
Lest we think these bad old days are over, we need only look to the resistance the Board of Regents has mounted to demands that they invest the University’s funds in an ethical manner.  They turned the police on students protesting for divestment from the apartheid regime in South Africa, and today simply ignore those arguing that the University’s money should not be associated with Israeli colonialism. 
At a time when the class of which the Regents are amongst the foremost representatives are raking in record profits and lobbying to have their taxes cut, California is increasingly unable to fund its public institutions and the same Regents are driving up the fees of students to crippling levels, ensuring that those students who emerge into the cruel immoral economy created by the Regents and their fellow representatives of the state’s elite will be heavily indebted and vulnerable.
But there is a critical difference today.  In Sinclair’s day, students marched the “goose-step”, cheering on the imperialist Presidents Wheeler (a proponent of German militarism) and Barrows (a practitioner of American terror).  Rather than seeking common cause with the state’s working citizenry, they allowed themselves to be used by the university’s overseers to attack that citizenry.
Today, students are more aware of the relationship between their own economic plight and that of California.  And as their critique of Napolitano illustrates, they are not willing to accept their plight lying down. 
In its early days, the University of California was designed to provide the intellectual fodder for the plutocrats and magnates who ran California behind closed doors in smoke-filled rooms.  Today, its administrative offices have become retirement chambers for members of the national security apparatus and its governing board is virtually indistinguishable from a corporate boardroom.  But while previous generations of students were proud to be associated with the most reactionary elements of California’s society, today’s generations are actively repudiating any association between the noble endeavour of education and the dirty work of the state’s elites and the undemocratic outlook they bring to our University.
* Upton Sinclair, The Goose-Step: A Study of American Education (New York: AMS Press, 1923): 126-152, 373

Jeb Bush...Dangerous and Deluded

Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush is supposed to be a sensible Republican.  The media, needing a foil for the foaming fundamentalists like Ted Cruz, holds Bush up as an exemplary Republican, willing to break with the GOP’s soulless orthodoxy.  That is an image that Bush would undoubtedly like to cultivate as he mulls over a presidential bid in 2016.
However, a recent speech delivered by Bush (whose bid for the presidency would take the undemocratic notion of a political dynasty to new lows) demonstrated that he, just as much as Ted Cruz, is a dangerous threat to the kind of society we should aspire to create in the United States.  In fact, he’s more dangerous, because he describes the cruel economic and social outlook of the Republican Party with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye, eschewing the hysteria of the Tea Party Caucus.
According to CNN, Bush “decried Washington’s current fiscal path as bogged down with unnecessary bureaucratic regulations laden with policies that benefit the rich while disenfranchising the working-class”.  The problem, we are clearly supposed to believe, is that the inequality of our society is the product of the EPA ensuring that our water, food, and air are safe; or else it stems from the implementation of education standards; or from efforts to enact a minimum wage.  These and other troublesome regulations are standing in the way of the generosity that the plutocracy—always so kind to the Bus family—would unleash on the American worker if only Big Bad Government would get out of the way.  In Bush’s Brain, it has nothing to do with a party who in spite of its loss in multiple elections and the Supreme Court, is sabotaging our “fiscal path”.
Where Bush is right is that a substantial amount of legislation developed over the past 35 years has been designed to benefit corporate America.  Where Bush is a bald-faced hypocrite is in disclaiming responsibility for the catastrophic inequality which resulted from this legislative effort, when in fact his party bears nearly full responsibility, whether because it enacted that legislation directly or because it sabotaged the functioning of our government to force Democrats to follow the right-wing lead. 
After all, it was not the Democratic Party and its allies which pushed the Citizens United case—corporations are people and money is free speech—to the Supreme Court.  It wasn’t the Democratic Party which, after a devastating recession brought on by deliberately deregulated greed and corporate power, continues to advocate for an approach to government which lets plutocrats set the pace at the expense of the country’s working people.
In another example of his delusion, Bush referred to Obamacare as “coercive”, ignoring the obvious aggression inherent in the market forces which allow insurance industries to gouge citizens while determining whether they are worthy of receiving care.  The federal government does have requirements and provisions, but there is a key different between those and the “coercion” of the “market” players like the insurance industry: those of the government are arrived at via a democratic process, and created by elected representatives who should, in theory, have the interests of their constituents at heart, whereas the “coercion” of the market is literally that, and is created by people with an social and ethical interest that does not extend beyond their own bottom line.
With a straight face, Bush claimed that “we should let market forces, not crony capitalism, decide where to invest and how to incentivize it’s [sic] citizens to conserve”.
His ability to make a statement of this kind puts him in the same camp with all the other economic fundamentalists in the Republican Party.  In the theoretical world inhabited by neoclassical economists (where every statement assumes a “perfect world” very unlike our own), the market might be separable from crony capitalism.  But in ours, they are linked inextricably.  The problem of the last few decades is that, by and large, the people who control the market and who are primarily interested in the profits of the 1%, have been driving our economy.  Think of the housing bubble, of the financial crisis, of the student loan crisis, and of the record levels of debt in our country, all encouraged by the interests Bush would have us believe are suffering under a regime of regulation.
Far from encouraging citizens to “conserve”, these deregulated interests have promoted a culture of debt and licentiousness.  They have told us that we can have it all without making any sacrifices.  They have pillaged our planet, ransacked our national economy, degraded our democracy, and claimed all the while that economic inequality, environmental destruction, and the unshackling of corporate power were market-driven necessities.  They began the process of introducing the cruelty of the power-driven “free market” (the biggest fairytale in history) not only into our economic lives, but into our political system, claiming that those with more money deserved a bigger “say” in our national conversation—hence Citizens United.  Now, in a total about-face, lying through their teeth, Bush and his party are claiming that all of the ills for which they were responsible were someone else’s fault.
Led by a range of people—Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Paul Ryan, etc—the architects of “crony capitalism” (as though there could be any other kind) are now trying to save capitalism by re-branding it and re-writing history.  They are not “moderates”.  They are the representatives of a social class and its economic system which are responsible for the inequality and cruelty of our society; for the weakness of the working class; for the destruction of our material environment; for our debt; and for the decline of our democracy.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Who is Hillary Clinton?

The most consistent truism about Hillary Clinton’s not-so-secret campaign for the presidency is that, unlike other potential Democratic candidates, she is a “known quantity”.  She’s been in the public eye, and held such high-profile offices, this argument goes, that the American people know everything there is about Hillary Clinton.  This means, the logic of her supporters goes, that we can trust her.
But the truth is, we don’t know all that much about what Hillary Clinton actually believes.  In fact, her policy positions and pronouncements as they’ve trickled out over the years seem to be primarily defined by what’s politically good for Hillary Clinton at any given moment.
In the Senate she adopted the same approach used by President Obama.  She shied away from tough issues, “kept her head down” and worked hard (as the pundits say), and tried to kiss up to all the powerful players in the Senate and D.C. while offending as few people as possible.  She has no signature legislation to her name, no transformative pronouncements or even efforts on the part of our national economy or security, and will be best remembered for enabling the illegal war of aggression waged by the Bush administration in Iraq.
The reason for this lazy, un-ambitious, and unrevealing approach, I assume, is that Hillary Clinton knew from day-one in the Senate that she was running to be President sooner or later, and didn’t want to establish a significant record that could be used against her.  She didn’t want to step on the toes of any of the powerbrokers in D.C., even if we all know that those toes could use some real stomping.
Her turn in the Senate was followed by a presidential primary campaign which will be better remembered for its aggression, nastiness, and constant pandering—all of which revealed nothing about Clinton’s agenda, but demonstrated once again that she will do or say anything to win. 
Then came her tenure as Secretary of State.  Clinton won praise for addressing the enduring absence of equality for women across the globe.  But it is telling that one article listing the “top highlights in Hillary Clinton’s Secretary of State Tenure”  came up with the following: people to people diplomacy; the importance of economics; restoring American credibility; diplomacy is national security; and “Texts from Hillary” (the last a series of self-promoting cutesy captions with Clinton using her phone). 
None of those are “accomplishments”, and I’m not sure that a Secretary of State who advocated for an aggressive war of terror in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa really understands that “diplomacy is national security”, or that someone who advocated for militarism and the use of terrorist weapons while backing some vicious regimes and dictators abroad actually did much to restore our country’s credibility.  She presided over the abject failure of the U.S. to support the early wave of the Arab Spring or to repudiate its dictatorial allies as they sought to put down those democratic risings.
And while calling for increased women’s rights abroad is commendable, it is not something which is controversial with the public or where she can point to any actual accomplishments.  Most of Clinton’s tenure consisted of her avoiding the big issues—democratic risings in the Middle East, the issue of Israeli colonialism, the relationship between imperial wars and our national insecurity, global climate change, or the criminal arms trade—and pronouncing on relatively popular and uncontroversial issues without actually achieving much even on these issues.
This has been in stark contrast to John Kerry who—whether or not you agree with him or the specific policy positions for which he is advocating—has been working at a frantic pace to address at least some of these big issues and other U.S. entanglements abroad. 
I think that Clinton’s caution as Secretary of State—in keeping to the debilitating status quo and in ducking the tough issues—stemmed from the same problem which made her such an ineffective Senator: she was preparing for a presidential bid.  She didn’t want to be seen to “fail” on any tough issue, she didn’t want to offend any key interest groups by taking on any controversial issue, and she didn’t want to associate herself with any global democratic movement because she wasn’t sure how it would play at the polls back home. 
And the same will undoubtedly be true during the primary and if she makes it that far, the general election campaigns of 2016.  Hillary Clinton will flip and flop and triangulate across a range of critical issues with the result that when the public is asked to vote on her—with the reassurance that we “know” her and her policy positions—we will have no idea what she stands for.
Clinton’s basic moral cowardice, lust for power, and pathetic opportunism have meant that even in her long career, she has accomplished strikingly little of significance on behalf of her supposed constituents, while steadfastly advancing the career of her primary constituent—Hillary Clinton.
Last week in Buffalo, Clinton remarked on prospective 2016 candidates (engaging in the sham that she is not yet a candidate), saying “I’m not as interested in what the candidate looks like as what the candidate stands for and what the candidate really believes needs to be the agenda for America’s future”.
Well, members of the public share that interest, given how little we know about what, if anything, Hillary Clinton actually stands for and believes other than her own political advancement.
The other thing that we absolutely know about the Clintons is that they are ruthless when it comes to dispensing with opposition.  This backfired when Bill Clinton launched dog-whistle attacks on President Obama during the last Democratic primaries.  But now they are trying to create the impression that Hillary Clinton’s candidacy is an unstoppable juggernaut and that anyone—journalist, potential administrative employee, legislator, activist—who wants to participate in the politics of the Democratic Party needs to shut up and get out of the way of her candidacy or risk winding up on the “outside” of the Clinton cabal.
In ensuring that information which would be in the public interest is not widely publicised, the Clintons are working to ensure that the public doesn’t really learn about Hillary Clinton’s tortured record and hollow legacy, lest too many people find themselves wondering what she really stands for. 
It’s a real irony that the candidate who has spent the most time in the public eye is the one who has the most to explain about who she is, what she believes, and why the public should close their eyes to her destructive, self-interested, and opportunistic behaviour.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Third Rail, Broken Rail, or Cow on the Tracks? California, Prop 13, and Jerry Brown

When political commentators reach for a cliché to describe California’s infamous Proposition 13—a 1978 measure which imposes supermajority requirements on funding, restricts our ability to tap property taxes, and centralises many governmental responsibilities while making giveaways to wealthy real-estate and corporate interests—they talk about the measure as the “Third Rail” of California politics. 
But wouldn’t it be more accurate to refer to Proposition 13 as the “Broken Rail” of California’s politics?  After all, it is representative of the divide between political rhetoric and reality in the Golden State; it symbolises the gap between legislators’ capabilities and their constituents’ expectations; it signifies the now-hollow nature of a once-populist direct democracy system which has been effectively captured by our plutocracy; and it embodies the gridlock built into our system of governance.
But if neither “Third Rail” nor “Broken Rail” quite capture Prop 13, we might think of it as a big, fat cow on the tracks, tended and protected by wealthy special interests.  Its presence, indefensible and yet, we are told by those with the money, also essential, prevents us from having an intelligent conversation about what we’d like our state to look like, let alone from making any serious progress in reimagining our failing state.
California has been for the last five years at least, in the grip of extraordinary pessimism.  If someone suggests that there is a better way or a brighter future, they are dismissed as deluded utopians, out of touch with the harsh and necessary “realities” of the present day.  We have, in other words, been conditioned to accept failure.
While the immediate source of this acceptance lies in the manner in which the state Republican Party spent years using its minority position in a state governed by supermajority laws to sabotage not just government, but governance, the deeper causes could be traced at least back to Ronald Reagan’s election as governor in 1966 when he overthrew the “can-do”, “think-big” attitude of Governor Pat Brown by waging a campaign that encouraged people to mistrust government and to see their relationship with their political structure as adversarial rather than cooperative.  For all of the sweeping rhetoric he brought to high office, Ronald Reagan perfected the art of appealing to all that was small, base, and resentful in people, and made an art of stoking grievances to coast to offices which he used to generate further inequality.
If we remember that right-wing philosophy is that government can’t work, and if we understand that most of the time, government and public institutions work pretty well, we can understand why the GOP would want to create a climate of fear and mistrust, and why engineering failures of government works to their advantage.  This is a party, after all, which has dedicated and rededicated itself to the destruction and sabotage of our state and national institutions, proving time and again that it has no interest in furthering the advancement of those political units which we call “society” or “community”.
The fact that we are encouraged to mistrust the motives of everyone else in society, and to think of ourselves as besieged individuals rather than members of a community, means that there is a “throw the bums” out mentality in California, which substitutes indiscriminate anger for a critical analysis of the condition in which we find ourselves.  Because in California, we the people have been the primary contributors towards creating a system in which our legislators can’t do their jobs effectively.  We are possessed of a tendency, described by Barry Keene, to “tie the hands of legislative representatives by initiatives, then complain that legislators are acting as if their hands are tied, then punish them by tying their hands tighter”.*
Some reformist groups, representing technocratic elites who think that democratic institutions are a nuisance to be confined and limited, have put forward reform initiatives which are dangerous not only for their piecemeal character (piecemeal reform and a failure to evaluate the “big picture” is why we are in such a degraded situation) but for their contempt of democratic culture and process.  Today we have a Governor who has the credibility with his constituents and the knowledge of the machinery and personnel of state government to address many of these problems.
But Jerry Brown is no ordinary governor.  He has made an art of what he calls “creative inaction” and what one former electoral opponent called “sitting on your ass”.  Rather than spend his twilight political years regenerating our state, Brown is coasting on platitudes and applying band-aids to the festering, self-inflicted wounds from which California suffers.  Sacramento Bee columnist Dan Walters opined that “maybe in an intellectual way [Brown] understands [that things have to change], but I don’t think he has the guts to do it”.  And commentator Peter Schrag might have been even closer to the mark when he wrote, “Frankly, I don’t think he cares all taht much about making California into a great state again.....He doesn’t like big institutions.  A great state was his father’s thing”.**
I fear that they are right, and that we are in danger of having to wait for the end of Brown’s misrule until January of 2019 for an opportunity to get any central leadership on the question of political reform.  But I cling to the hope that Brown might use his likely re-election bid next year to launch a program of reform.  If he needs some inspiration, he could read some of his own inaugural speeches from his first eight years as governor. 
In 1979, Brown declared that “the people know that something is profoundly wrong when 75% of government spending decisions are automatically decided by past formulas and not present lawmakers”.  He was referring to inflexible property tax rates, but Prop 13 enshrined just another, ultimately more destructive version of the same, and is but one of a host of spending mandates written into an overburdened constitution.  It is a situation that Brown should act upon. 
In the same speech, Brown wrote that “Government, as exemplar and teacher, must manifest a self-discipline that spreads across the other institutions in our society, so that we can begin to work for the future, not just consume the present”.  But if our government is supposed to represent the morals and ambitions of our society, it should share not just the self-discipline and critical thinking that ought to characterise our individual behaviours, but the compassion, flexibility, and kindness which I imagine—and hope—that most of us would want to find in any human community.
That is, our government should concern itself not just with enforcing artificial economic theories and balancing budgets, but should ensure that our society has the necessary tools at its disposal to care for and look after its members, to ensure that the next generation of our society has the protections and opportunities that it needs to prosper and develop, and that each generation can decide its own path and not be bound by what Thomas Paine called “governing beyond the grave...the most ridiculous and insolent of all tyrannies”.***
But until he begins to work to convince Californians that our democracy is in need of a serious overhaul, the Governor is weighing down our state with his overweening personal ambitions and lack of the same for the place he purports to govern.  As much as Prop 13 (which his “creative inaction” helped to make a reality), Jerry Brown has become an institution of California’s politics: a Third Rail, a Broken Rail, or a Cow on the Tracks...a seemingly-immovable obstacle to reform and progress in a state which needs a healthy dose of both.
* In R Jeffrey Lustig, Remaking California: Reclaiming the Public Good, 224.
** Chuck McFadden, Trailblazer: a Biography of Jerry Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 68, 162, 170-171.
*** Thomas Paine, Rights of Man. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

How do you "Negotiate" with Nuts?

If you need further proof that the leadership of the Republican Party is living in another universe, it has been reported that one member of the GOP’s House leadership team told the President during shutdown negotiations, “I cannot even stand to look at you”.
Aside from the breathtaking contempt of the remark, it demonstrates something about the spirit in which the Republican Party approached the “negotiating” table, perhaps better characterised as the “hostage room”.
During the shutdown, we heard daily from Republican Party leaders—including, I have not the slightest doubt, the individual who made these remarks—about how the President was refusing to negotiate, or wasn’t spending enough time in conversation with the GOP. 
But how, at the end of the day, would we expect the President to negotiate with people who quite literally hate him, and viscerally so?  How could he have a serious conversation negotiating with people who believe that he is illegitimate after he beat them in two elections, after his party won more votes in Senate and House elections, and after a right-wing Supreme Court upheld the signature piece of legislation that the GOP was making the centrepiece of their sabotage bid?
How do you “negotiate” with people whose version of negotiation involves you giving up everything you have and doing what they tell you, even after you’ve beaten them in the voting booth and the court room?  How can you negotiate with people for whose destructive legislative ambitions there is no democratic route to victory, and whose trump card is their willingness to engineer a breakdown of governance, a national default, and to trash our democracy?  How do you negotiate with people for whom national failure and a scorched earth society represents “success”? 
I for one am thankful that the President kept fairly steady in the face of this band of thugs, and only wish that he’d demonstrated a little more spine early on in order to signal to the brutes who run the twenty-first century Republican Party that they can’t get away with this sort of behaviour.   


By way of an update, there is considerable dispute over whether Durbin's claim is factual, with the White House disputing the accuracy of the exchange and Durbin sticking by his claim.  While the particular incident does not change the appallingly destructive behaviour of the GOP, it would be reprehensible if Durbin was following the pitiful lead set by Harry Reid who appeared to invent claims about Mitt Romney's tax returns when the facts were already sufficient indictment of the presidential candidate's plutocratic worldview.   

What remains unchanged if Durbin turns out to have gone to the quote factory is the serial irresponsibility, contempt for process, and active campaign of sabotage waged by the GOP.