Tuesday, November 26, 2013

San Francisco and the New Segregation

San Francisco was once a city famed for its diversity.  Angel Island, in the middle of the city’s bay, was to the West what Ellis Island was to the East.  Home to working class Californians who had their origins not only in the Bay Area and around the state, but from the four corners of the world, San Francisco was also known as the heart of political activism in the Golden State.

In the era of Citizens United, San Francisco remains the city of political capital, but the nature of that capital has changed.  Instead of representing the intellectual investment of its quirky neighbourhoods and the muscle of its labour force, the city’s political contributions are increasingly represented by the financial power of the elite who are increasingly monopolising access to the city by the Bay. 
This has been well illustrated by President Obama’s treatment of the Bay Area.  He regularly swoops into the City, Marin, and Silicon Valley, vacuuming up the cash of the financial and tech elites while avoiding what remains of the working class in the city with the highest median rent in the nation.  He is also practised at dodging those who have sought to be the conscience of leftism in America and who would hold the President’s feet to the fire by asking him to address the inequality which is redefining their city. 
The New York Times recently published a story (“Backlash by the Bay: Tech Riches Alter a City”) describing how the tech industry(capable of producing 1,600 millionaires and precisely nothing of value overnight) is transforming San Francisco.  According to the Times, “income disparities have widened sharply, housing prices have soared and orange construction cranes dot the skyline”, spawning the visible material trappings of an indulgent class, unaware and frankly indifferent of the effects its actions have on others, having convinced itself of its own indispensable, apolitical nature.  “For critics”, the Times went on, “such sights are symbols of a city in danger of losing its diversity—one that artists, families and middle-class workers can no longer afford”.
The city, its moral fibre corrupted by the riches flowing north from Silicon Valley, and the lure of attracting young MBAs who will inexorably price out San Francisco’s working class, is loathe to defend its historical diversity and progressivism, and looks set to buckle before the lucre of the tech and financial sectors.
A mere “14 percent of homes [in San Francisco are] accessible to middle class buyers”, and the median rent is a mind-boggling $3,250 per month for a two-bedroom apartment.  The Times article describes how the newcomers to the city not only drive up the cost of living, but bring with them behaviours which are disrespectful and anti-social, breaking down the bonds that once created solidarity within neighbourhoods.
The Times quoted historian Kevin Starr saying, “There has to be some kind of public support to make sure you don’t just have a city of the very wealthy, but people to make the city run.  You can’t have a city of just rich people.  A city needs restaurant workers, a city needs schoolteachers, a city needs taxi drivers”.
But that is precisely the kind of city San Francisco is becoming.  It is well on its way to becoming an elite enclave, surrounded by a poor labour reservoir which is being pushed further outwards, towards the suburbs and the valley, foreshadowing an era of segregation and economic apartheid.  But whereas apartheid in South Africa were driven by the ideology of a twisted state, this new segregation in the U.S. is being driven by monied interests which have captured the reins of government.  It is the creation of the “free market”, which in reality is anything but free, driven as it is by those with the money to purchase influence in politics. 
Working class citizens, who remain the majority in California, would expect that California’s government, and the governments of cities and counties, would intervene to put a stop to this inequality which is killing communities and transforming social relations.  But those governments have been bought by the very sectors whose behaviour is tearing our society to pieces.
At night, San Francisco loses its soul as the people who labour there get on BART, a bus, a rideshare, or their car, and head home in the hours-long commute that reduces their quality of life, but which is necessary now that they have been turfed out of the city that their labour shapes.  Those are the people who President Obama never sees when he punches in his pin number in the city that functions as his political ATM, and who remain largely invisible to the elite caste who is slowly remaking the city in its own amoral image.
We should all be disturbed by the segregation emerging in San Francisco, because if we fail to react, it represents the logical conclusion of the inequality which is growing as a result of our naive trust in the capacity of capitalism to preserve a moral, equal, just society.  Such a society requires intervention and regulation by a form of democratic politics which is strikingly absent today.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Coward Offers Comfort Rather than Courage at Berkeley

The day before a strike by service employees and graduate students at the University of California last week, Alexander Coward, a Berkeley math lecturer, sent out an e-mail to his students.  

In that e-mail, Coward explained to his students that “whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.
Coward has since said that he didn’t “want to get embroiled in the conflict about how workers are being treated”, admitting that he “[hasn’t] made [himself] an expert about that”.  But refusing to allow this ignorance to deter him, he maintained that “from a practical point of view I’ve made my decision and you should all turn up to class and discussion tomorrow as normal”. 
His e-mail—amounting to an injunction to selfishness and myopia on the part of Berkeley’s students—has caused waves across the internet.  And Berkeley, or more accurately, Berkeley’s administrators, have chosen to use his e-mail as a weapon to wield against the bonds which ought to hold students, faculty, and staff together as members of a community.  By posting a message which clearly tells students that the welfare of workers on their campus is none of their affair on its official facebook page, and publishing it in the alumni magazine, the University has given its official imprimatur to Coward’s e-mail.  Even if he didn’t intend it as a commentary on University politics, it has now become a piece of official propaganda, and its amoral message should be refuted as often as possible.
I wonder who Coward thinks empties the wastebin in his office, or cleans up the debris from the floor of his lecture hall.  Who blows the leaves off of Sproul Plaza?  Who feeds students in the dorms, and tends to them if they have to visit a hospital?  If something breaks down in a building, who fixes that?  Why is one day of his class more important than the welfare of the people who make an education at UC Berkeley possible for students? 
Invoking globalisation and the extent to which our world is interconnected, Coward told students that they would “have to solve some very hard problems, as well as figure out how best to use new technology for good, while at the same time facing human dangers that have haunted humanity throughout history.  Part of the work of your generation is going to be technological, using scientific ideas to serve the interests of society, and part of the work is going to be fundamentally human, tied inexorably with qualities of the human condition—human emotion—that dominate the whole of history”.
In a world as complicated as ours, in which individuals are required to make decisions daily which call upon them to establish and where possible act upon moral premises, treating the University—supposedly the training ground for a virtuous life—as a space where morality oughtn’t to apply seems dispiritingly dangerous.
When the ability of students to access and afford higher education is so inextricably tied up in the political-economy of our society, treating the University and the education it offers there as an ivory tower does a disservice to our institution and the people struggling to live, work, and study here.
In its earlier, less democratic iterations, Universities were torn between serving the interests of their inhabitants and those of society.  The beauty of the public research University in the United States—a model increasingly exported in the latter part of the twentieth century—is that those interests merged.  California’s universities are designed to serve our state and the people living in it, and its students are the future of that state.  Because of this connection, the clean divide invoked by Coward between what we do in the University and what occurs outside its boundaries is imaginary and dangerous.  He is seeking to persuade students that their individual interests as students are somehow more important and more worthy than those of their neighbours, and of other members of the society that they inhabit. 
“Think globally, act locally”, has become something of a cliché associated with discussions about agency in a global world.  And yet it accurately reflects the idea that our actions in one part of the world might have a variety of ramifications elsewhere.  Our futures are tied up with those of our neighbours here and across the globe, and acting in a moral fashion within our communities is the readiest way of taking a stand against the forces which seek to devalue institutions of higher education and the people who labour within them.  
Berkeley has long been known for its activism, radicalism even.  In the 1960s and 1970s, students revolted against an administration which sought to keep politics away from students and to stifle their ability to express themselves at a time when their country was bogged down fighting a colonial war in Southeast Asia and at a time when many of them would be expected to loyally serve the military waging that war.  They made this call for free speech and peace at a moment when our country was locked in a struggle over civil rights.  A second wave occurred in the 1980s when students asserted that the UC Regents should not invest their money in apartheid South Africa.  It took years of direct action, during which campaigners suffered sustained police violence, to force the Regents to follow the moral lead taken by students and divest. 
And since 2009, students have pointed out the relationship between the fallout from the recession, the retreat of the state from the public sphere, and the inexorable rises in student tuition alongside administrative salaries.  The burdens students bear at UC, they have argued, mirror those which the twenty-first century U.S. workforce faces at a time when union rights are stripped away and CEO compensations skyrocket, key indicators of the unconscionable inequality which now characterises our society.
To my mind, those are noble struggles and a noble history.  But it is one which Coward would ask us to sacrifice to a more technocratic version of education which is separated from citizenship and acts of moral courage which benefit others.
The alumni newsletter which praised Coward’s e-mail noted that “many have thanked [Coward] for reminding them of the value of their education”.  A student columnist in the Daily Californian celebrated Coward’s “noble act”, expressing appreciation for his words about “how exceptional he thinks each and every student in his class is”.  The columnist quoted Coward writing, “Do not fall into the trap of thinking that you focusing on your education is a selfish thing.  It’s not a selfish thing.  It’s the most noble thing you could do”. 
The columnist went on to express the belief that “I don’t believe those who didn’t show up to the protest were being passive bystanders.  Just as standing in the rain while chanting for justice is one type of courage, so is showing up to class, determined not to miss anything that might be informative and fighting for your education.  Protesting may be the right thing to do in someone’s book, but learning about derivatives might be the right thing in mine”.
But ultimately, Coward’s Randian message is a comforting one, not a courageous one.  He is articulating Berkeley’s own version of the doctrine of “American Exceptionalism” which characterises our country writ large.  Just as that doctrine—which espouses the absurd notion that the United States is the only country where people work hard, dream big, tackle difficult problems, etc—has become a substitute for thought and action in our country, absolving us of the need to cultivate any capacity for self-criticism, Coward’s injunction to self-absorption encourages Berkeley students to indulge in the conceit that they are unique in their travails, their work ethic, and the importance of their work, such that they can justly ignore what is taking place around them.
And just as “American Exceptionalism” has crippled our country’s ability to actually meet challenges or take seriously our crisis of inequality, the message that Coward is peddling will cripple Berkeley and UC’s ability to meet the challenges which threaten to transform our institutions beyond recognition—and not for the better.
For there is no difference between that logic which increases tuition, drives public disinvestment, and instrumentalises education on the one hand, and that logic which casualises labour, sidelines solidarity, and insists that workers are expendable cogs rather than members of our community. 
Learning about derivatives is important.  But the point that the people were making when they stood in the rain and demonstrated their solidarity in the face of these changes was slightly different.  They were arguing—correctly in my view—that if we don’t combine our efforts to put pressure on the administration and state government, the number of people who will be able to afford to come to our University to learn about derivatives or anything else in an environment which respects intellectual inquiry will be severely circumscribed. 
In a political climate where denial is the order of the day, seeking comfort in homilies which reassure us that we can forge ahead with no thought for the society in which we are embedded is a recipe for disaster.  Facing up to the difficulty of the struggles ahead of us is what requires real courage. 

Thursday, November 21, 2013

"Someone Else's Fight"? Why Yesterday's Strike at the University of California Matters

Yesterday, workers from two unions on University of California campuses were on strike.  One represented campus service workers and employees in UC medical centres.  The other represented graduate student employees.

In such situations, students—whether undergraduates or graduates—are pulled in conflicting directions.  On the one hand, they might wish to show solidarity with other members of their community.  On the other, they feel as though they cannot miss class and the opportunities that come with it.
There is a post doing the rounds on social media, apparently from an instructor to his or her students.  On the one hand, it is a thoughtful explanation of why the instructor (presumably a faculty member) chose to cross the picket-line, and why s/he thought that students should do the same.  There are some good, even powerful, thoughts about the relationship between higher education and the challenges of the future, as well as some interesting self-reflection on a political and social journey of an individual across time.
But it was also a bit sad to me, because it encapsulated some of the thinking, or the way of thinking, which makes our campus community so Balkanised in reaction to the threats it faces from bureaucratic overhauls, state divestment, instrumentalisation, and monetisation, all of which amount to privatisation by stealth.
 “We have 7 class days left until the end of the course”, the instructor wrote to his or her students, “Despite the fact that we’ve made good time and are likely to finish the syllabus with a few lectures in hand for review, class hours are valuable and your education is too important to just cancel a class if we don’t have to”. 
This is an interesting point.  Is one day of a person’s education more important than the opportunity to affect another person’s livelihood?  Is one of seven remaining classes in one semester more important than the opportunity to make a statement about the value of that education to them, a statement which, if made by enough students, might help to ensure that future generations of students also have the opportunity to benefit from such education when the institution which provides that education is under threat? 
The instructor continues, “Whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.
This, too, is interesting.  On the one hand, the instructor makes the point to students that their education is all the more important because of the manner in which our world has grown inextricably interconnected, problems intertwined as much as people.  The students in this class will share with their peers around the world the responsibility for meeting those challenges.  And yet this is accompanied by what is essentially an injunction to selfishness and myopia. 
It doesn’t matter what the injustices are, students are told.  In spite of the fact that they involve your neighbours, concern people who provide the support team for your educational experience, and are taking place on your campus in your community, they are none of your affair.  You don’t even need to know what they are to know that they are nothing to do with you. 
How can you reconcile the notion of globalisation—with its attendant interconnections, ills, and opportunities—with the idea that there is no connection whatsoever between different sectors of the community on a single university campus?
The letter ended on what was supposed to be an uplifting note.  “Society is investing in you”, the instructor wrote, “so that you can help solve the many challenges we are going to face in the coming decades....That is why I am not cancelling class tomorrow.  Your education is really really important, not just to you, but in a far broader and wider reaching way than I think any of you have yet to fully appreciate”.
But there are some problems with that mindset which masquerades as idealism but is really more like abnegation, disassociation, or disengagement.  Society is not, in fact, investing in our students.  If it were, society would be sponsoring their education, instead of requiring students and their parents to do so.  If society was investing in their education, they wouldn’t have to face the prospect of $15,000 per year tuition.  They wouldn’t have to face a wall of debt upon graduation.  And they wouldn’t face an economic climate which threatens even those students graduating from one of the country’s top universities with unemployment or underemployment.  They wouldn’t be receiving their education in overcrowded classrooms at the hands of underpaid graduate students and over-stretched faculty in under-staffed departments while working in under-funded libraries and under-supported labs.
And this is precisely the claim that workers from AFSCME and UAW were making in the strike that this instructor tells students represents “someone else’s fight that you are not responsible for”.  Those workers were making the argument that in order for the University and our society to succeed, there must be investment in the people who live, work, and study on that campus and in that society. 
Not only, as members of a shared community—whether in our University, our town, our state, our country, or our globe—are we all responsible in some fashion for one another.  But the fates of undergraduate students, graduate students, faculty, staff, and perhaps that of our Republic of California, are all bound up in this struggle to persuade our community that the things we do here are important and worthy of collective investment.
One of our former Chancellors, Clark Kerr, wrote about the University as a “City of Intellect”.  And what are cities if not communities?  And no community can survive and flourish if its members live segregated lives, refusing to acknowledge one another when their paths cross, declining to adopt their neighbour’s struggle as their own, and failing to see how if one part of our community becomes embattled, we will necessarily be close behind. 
On crisp cool days like this one, Berkeley sparkles, up on its hill above the San Francisco Bay.  But that literal light is far less important in making our community such a beautiful one than are the bonds which we should embrace rather than repudiate by way of strengthening our community and our ability to provide for all of our members, thereby sustaining its soul and its mission.  

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

University of California Workers Strike for the Future of our Community

The weather was grim, and the rain hadn’t stopped falling since before midday on Tuesday.  But members of AFSCME—a union representing service workers at University of California campuses and medical centres—were undeterred.  On Wednesday, they took to picket lines at Berkeley, joined by members of UAW, the union representing graduate students at the University.  Union members set up picket lines up and down California: in Davis, San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara, Los Angeles, Santa Monica, Riverside, Orange, Irvine, and San Diego.
AFSCME 3299 is striking in protest of what it describes as UC’s “coordinated campaign of illegal intimidation, coercion, and threats against UC Patient Care and Service Workers who participated in a two day walkout back in May over unsafe staffing levels at taxpayer supported UC hospitals”. 

UAW 2865 would normally be prohibited from striking, but because the union’s contract has lapsed amidst negotiations with UC, we voted to authorise the union leadership to join AFSCME in its strike, using the opportunity to air our own grievances against UC. 
Student workers published a report titled Towards Mediocrity: Administrative Management and the Decline of UC Education, lambasting the administration which has created a new, lavishly-paid layer of bureaucrats whose primary responsibility often appear to be manoeuvring the people who do the actual work of teaching, researching, and maintaining the campuses out of their jobs.  This new cadre of administrators have been taking home bonuses at a time when the wages of workers and teachers on campuses have stagnated.  They have engorged themselves on the University at the same time that the tuition of undergraduate students has skyrocketed.
Amongst UAW’s demands are that graduate students get paid competitive wages relative to competitor universities, that UC provide relevant information on hiring to the union, that student-parents receive childcare and dependent medical benefits, and that graduate student researchers are also permitted collective bargaining rights. 
At Berkeley, workers mingled in the rain beneath a sea of umbrella that bobbed in time to the music emanating from under a tarp-bedecked speaker, keeping those on the picket line entertained in between breaking into chants of “Whose University?  Our University!”.  Dutiful undergraduates marched by, eyes on the ground, studiously avoiding those of the people who teach them, feed them, and pick up after them, looking prepared to sell their own mothers rather than miss a class for the health of the institution they call home.
Not all students, of course, have given into the weary apathy which is the understandable default of people being squeezed for $15,000 per year in tuition and fees and contemplating massive debts upon graduation, but as AFSCME and UAW members commandeered the steps of Sproul Hall and threw up banners reading “Students for Dignified Labor”, “Solidarity”, and “Public Education!”, it provided a perfect image of the dilemma confronting students.
Above the union’s banners flapped a schedule of events for the coming “Big Game” against Stanford.  Who, after all, would find the idea of standing in the rain learning about the relationship between the constituent parts of a University and its administration more attractive than watching the school football team get the daylights thumped out of it by the Stanford team?  In his treatise, The Goose-Step: a Study of American Education, Upton Sinclair mocked the militarism and one-upmanship which characterised the sporting culture on Berkeley’s campus in the ‘20s.  He described how, “if Stanford has a stadium, the University of California must have one”, leading the administration to strong-arm students into making “pledges” for the payment of the stadium (Sinclair 373). 
If every student who tuned into the Cal-Stanford game over the week-end devoted a little attention to the administrative mindset and state politics which are mangling our University, they might realise that the nature of the University they cheer on in its sporting endeavours is undergoing serious change.
That change will likely take place too slowly for students to see during their four years at Berkeley (aside from in their rising tuition).  But absent their attention and efforts on behalf of the institution that is struggling to serve them, students will look back and find the University of California a changed and diminished institution: one which neglects to care for its employees, casualises the labour of teaching, turns a place of learning into a market that prices some Californians out, and ceases to be substantially supported by the public which it serves. 
They should take seriously the struggles of campus workers, who are trying to hold the line against these changes, and stand with them as they ask UC and the state to honour their obligations to our community.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Manufacturing Hysteria

I’ve been reading Jay Feldman’s well-written and thoroughly-researched Manufacturing Hysteria: A History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America (New York: Pantheon Books, 2011).  It is a whirlwind history of the twentieth century U.S., but its focus is on some dark moments in our history.

After demonstrating how Red Scares in the aftermath of the First World War were whipped up to break organised labour to the advantage of employers, Feldman discusses how the Bureau of Investigation suppressed intelligence which indicated how it knew that a handful of Italian anarchists were responsible for bombing attacks, giving cover to the politicians who went lying to the country about giant conspiracies, and used this excuse to lay the first stones in the national security apparatus that dominates our country today.
Feldman lays bare the racism and economic opportunism (of the big agricultural growing conglomerates among others) which led to the internment of Japanese Americans on the West Coast.  There were in fact spies living in California, but intelligence operatives already knew who they were, leaving no reason for the tragic round-ups.  The most nauseating quote in this chapter came from California Congressman Leland Ford, who said that because “other loyal Americans are enlisting in the Army and Navy and Air Forces and are willing to give their lives for their country, and if these men are willing to make their contribution to the safety and welfare of the country...it is not asking too much of the Japanese to make theirs in the form of permitting themselves to be placed in concentration camps, although they may be loyal”.*
The saddest story I’ve heard from that episode, however, comes from another source, and concerns Hideo Murata, a World War I Veteran honoured by Monterey County in “heartfelt gratitude, of honor and respect for your loyal and splendid service to the country in the Great World War.  Our flag was assaulted, and you gallantly took up its defence”.  When Murata received his orders to report to a round-up site, he took his own life, the certificate of honorary citizenship which had accompanied the Monterey County award in his hand. **
In a striking parallel to the actions of the NSA today, in the 1950s the CIA began an illegal operation to sort through Americans’ mail.  Feldman chillingly documents a CIA memo which noted that “if the program did come to light [in spite of its illegality] ‘it should be relatively easy to ‘hush up’ the entire affair, or to explain that it consists of legal mail activities conducted the Post Office at the request of authorized Federal Agencies’”.*  That language is eerily similar to that used by the NSA today, which lies about its activities in order to assuage the consciences of the Congressmembers who in turn mischaracterise the NSA’s activities to the public they serve. 
The most terrifying chapter so far is that on Senator Joseph McCarthy, who went from casually uttering an inaccurate statement about his possession of a list of communists in the State Department to constructing a web of lies to save his skin by publicly defaming others and plunging the country into a frothing witch-hunt.  Feldman’s description of McCarthy as “an uncouth...publicity-seeking troublemaker who demonstrated little regard for the Senate’s elaborate conventions of decorum, procedure, and seniority”, and who was avoided by nearly all of his colleages,* could be nearly applied to Ted Cruz today.
It is a depressing account, but there are moments of hope and moral clarity in the service of liberty which from time to time interject themselves into the narrative.  It is worth quoting at length a passage from Edward R. Murrow’s on-air rebuke of McCarthy, accompanied by a serious journalistic investigation which revealed that the Wisconsin Senator’s accusations were based on a series of fabrications.  It is a rebuke which could well be delivered to those in our own political world who trade in hatred, innuendo, racism, and fear for electoral gain:
“The line between investigating and persecuting is a very fine one, and the junior senator from Wisconsin has stepped over it repeatedly.  His primary achievement has been in confusing the public mind, as between the internal and the external threats of Communism.
“We must not confuse dissent with disloyalty.  We must remember always that accusation is not proof and that conviction depends upon evidence and due process of law.
“We will not walk in fear, one of another.  We will not be driven by fear into an age of unreason, and if we dig deep in our history and our doctrine, and remember that we are not descended from fearful men—not from men who feared to write, to speak, to associate and to defend causes that were, for the moment, unpopular.  This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent”.*
* Feldman, Manfuacturing Hysteria: 172, 250, 209, 232.
** Fool’s Paradise: A Carey McWilliams Reader (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 2001): 129.

What saddens me about the attacks on Healthcare Reform

There is no denying that President Obama’s roll-out of the Affordable Care Act online registration platform was a PR disaster, and a headache for those members of the public trying to enrol in the exchange. 
But there is one thing which I believe to be undeniable about the ACA (dubbed “Obamacare” by both supporters and detractors): it represented a good-faith effort by the President and his administration to address a crisis in our country. 
Healthcare in the United States is more expensive, less accessible to all but the very wealthy, and often of a poorer quality than almost anywhere else in the developed world.  It operates on a for-profit basis, something that seems truly unconscionable given that we’re talking literally about matters of life and death.  It is operated not by any public body or institution or even under strong public guidance which has the interests of citizens at its core, but by private interests, heavily influenced by insurance and pharmaceutical industries which have incentives to avoid treating some people while mis-treating others.
And yet despite this good-faith effort to address what is undeniably a serious problem, virtually all of the President’s detractors have attempted to undermine this effort at every turn, to sabotage his reform agenda, and to discredit his administration, attacking the motives of people who I think are making a genuine effort to help people (and make no mistake, ACA will help many Americans). 
There is something a little bit sick, and incredibly dispiriting about these attempts to undermine reform, to say nothing of the glee that right-wingers expressed when the ACA exchange website collapsed.  Instead of trying to improve our healthcare system or give constructive input to reform, there are many people rooting for our government to fail in its efforts to ensure that we have better healthcare. 
How did we come to such a pass?  I don’t think it can be ideology alone, given the conservative nature of ACA and the extent to which it relies on market tools, which should please Republicans.  Surely the same people who promote mandated religious instruction in school, mandates that prevent women from having abortions, or mandates which prevent gay couples from being married can’t be opposed to mandated health insurance, something which in a humane social democracy would benefit everyone, and which if it had the wide support of our elected representatives could be made to work well. 
There seems to be a lot of hate at work.  There is nothing else that I can think of which would explain what are such reflexive, ugly, and ultimately self-defeating attacks on the President and anything he says or does.  That begs another question: what stands behind that hatred?  Has people’s fear of economic uncertainty simply conditioned them to attack the highest authority they can see?  Are people so insulated from different points of view that they derive their news purely from well-paid entertainers who make a living lying and scaring people?  Has the right used latent racism to prevent some people from being able to engage civilly with the Obama administration?  Is social democracy (and admittedly, ACA falls far short of this) really so anathema to people in the U.S.?
These are far bigger question than I can contemplate, but it is a rather tragic situation. 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Jerry Brown Draws Battle Lines with California's Students

Last week was supposed to mark a new beginning for the University of California.  With great pomp, UC Berkeley’s new Chancellor was inaugurated, with speaker after speaker extolling the virtues of the public University and the incalculable worth of the Golden State’s preeminent public institution.  And to great fanfare, new UC President Janet Napolitano went before the UC Regents, promising to ask the state to renew its commitment to UC.  Napolitano also proposed extending the current tuition freeze.
Photo credit

But on the final day of the Board of Regents’ meeting, and a week before several campus unions prepare to strike in protest of the University’s austerity policy, our gaunt, gimlet-eyed Governor drew on his Schwarzenegger-esque rhetorical powers and proposed to give the UC Regents a “reality sandwich”.
“We are on track”, he declared, “for a gigantic tuition increase, or you’re going to have a big financial crisis”.  With these words, Brown drew up his battle lines in his punitive war on California’s students, their families, and future generations, pledging as he did to fight to keep UC drastically under-funded and unaffordable if it refuses to adopt his preferred monetised, market-based, profiteering, instrumentalist approach to education. 
“I don’t have a Nobel Prize”, Brown said in that modest way he has, according to the San Jose Mercury News, “but I know the political climate in California probably better than anybody else”.    He followed up: “The ‘big bad state’ is not going to bail you out at a rate that is different than what we’re doing now”.
There is very clearly one thing that Jerry Brown does not understand, and that is what a public institution is and how it works.  The Governor’s ignorance and cynicism were on full display when he insulted the University and its community by suggesting that state funding amounts to a “bailout”, as though California's students were so many CEOs, clamouring for golden parachutes.
The University of California, like other public institutions, is given a mandate by state government in the name of the state’s citizenry.  That state government then has the responsibility to provide public institutions with the wherewithal and resources to carry out that mandate.  California has failed for many years now to honour its obligations to the University of California and its students.  A paltry 11% of UC’s funds come from state general funds.  For Brown to claim that him doing his job and funding UC constitutes a “bailout” demonstrates just how far out of the mainstream our current governor operates, with his constant injunctions to people to take responsibility while he refuses to do as much himself. 
If he refuses to do his job and support public institutions, he gives ammunition to those who, whether openly or by stealth, would like to privatise the University of California.  If the state will not fund UC, it will make ex-Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s despicable calls for differential tuition across the campuses more palatable.  If the state will not meet its obligations to UC, calls for differential pricing across fields of study will gain traction.  And the people who will suffer from all of this most will be the undergraduate students who, if Birgeneau had his way, would probably pay private-style tuition at Berkeley and UCLA, and would not only have to contemplate going into serious debt to go to college, but would be forced to contend with another level of indebtedness when contemplating the choice of a major.
California has long endured and indulged this governor, who in his earlier tenure eschewed a traditional policy agenda (i.e. one which serves the moral and material welfare of the state’s people) for a policy of “creative inaction” (i.e. one which serves the political welfare of Jerry Brown).  At the time one electoral opponent commented that “creative inaction” amounted to “sitting on your ass”.*  Today, things are no different. 
When running for election in 2010, Brown refused to talk political policy or practise, claiming that “the process is the plan”.  The absence of a process for reinvigorating California’s public sphere makes it dramatically clear that there is no plan.  The Governor promised us that Prop 30 would be a real “fix”, an absurd claim borne out by the fact that he is prepared to countenance forcing a “gigantic tuition increase” on UC, and presumably the California State University. 
Again and again, Jerry Brown has promised voters that salvation is lurking just over the horizon...that if we’re patient, he’ll dazzle us with some incredible solution yanked out of a hat.  In another one of his faux-reflective moments, Brown invoked Aristotle’s poetics, noting that the famous Greek “talks about...three acts: there’s a beginning, there’s a middle and the end...We’re just beginning Act 2...the third act is when it gets good.  The second is when the tension, the protagonist is under tension, the protagonist is under pressure, can he get out of the box he’s in.  That’s always in Act 2.  All right, you wait.  We’re going to get to Act 3 very soon”.
Act 3 has always been just over the horizon for the man who ran for and won his first statewide race in 1970, and has accomplished remarkably little in the intervening years—staying true to his policy of calculated apathy.  But now the end is drawing inexorably nearer.  Brown has a maximum of five years left in office, is in his mid-seventies, and risks antagonising the voters who have long indulged him with his cloying, obfuscating manner.  Moreover, he forgot to tell voters that Act 3 is shaping up to be the culmination of an epic tragedy, wherein one man’s overweening personal ambition and lack of the same for his state, together with his unwillingness to grasp the political nettle and take serious action to rescue our public sphere, leads to the collapse of what remains today the world’s finest university system. 
Political commentators who swooned over Brown in the aftermath of Prop 30’s passage in 2012 described its passage as a personal victory for our embattled Governor.  But they forgot that it wasn’t Brown who made the calls, walked door-to-door, and waved the placards.  Prop 30’s passage relied on the politicisation of a generation of students, who with their families are bearing the cost of decades of divestment by the state from the University. 
In that same election, Democrats won historical supermajorities, propelled to power by the same constituency that voted in large numbers for Prop 30, by the disgust of voters with the scorched earth tactics of Republicans who had long managed to govern the state from the minority, and by the hope that if so empowered, Democrats would use that power to achieve a political breakthrough.  Democrats have refused to use their hard-won supermajority to fund California’s public sphere, and they have refused to address the pressing need for political reform: the absurdity of Prop 13 which means that 35% of the legislature can block taxes and force spending cuts; the disconnect between voter initiatives and the other branches of government; and our overburdened constitution which denies our elected representatives discretion in managing state funds.
The Governor should remember one thing as he performs his calculations about running for re-election next year.  The same people whose efforts put Prop 30 over the line in spite of the dire polls and Californians’ recent tradition of rejecting tax measures can and should sink Brown’s bid for another term as Governor if he pursues his punitive austerity campaign and refuses to address the state’s crisis of governance, democracy, and humanity.  If Californians are going to grant Jerry Brown another act, he needs to find his spine, muster some courage, and spell out what he intends to do for California in his final term and how he intends to do it.  Otherwise, he can leave Sacramento with the same pink slip his failure to govern has forced on so many Californians. 
* In Chuck McFadden, Trailblazer: a Biography of Jerry Brown (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013), 68.

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Hillary’s Senate Hitman Goes After Warren

Elizabeth Warren is the only serious challenger to a Clinton coronation because, unlike the other potential contenders—Joe Biden and a host of cookie-cutter technocrat East Coast governors and senators—Warren has repudiated the toxic centrism which is also the bread and butter of the Clinton Cabal.  Whether in supporting the Iraq War, ramping up the Afghanistan War, buttressing the War of Terror, carrying water for the financial sector, cosying up to corporate interests, Clinton has shown herself unfit to lead a progressive party.
And yet Schumer has the gall to brag about instituting a policy where “we tried to avoid primaries, because primaries are really a killer...It would be great”, he went on, “if Democrats would unite around [Hillary Clinton] early, [if] we not have a primary on the Democratic side and let the Republicans beat the daylights out of each other”.
I can think of nothing more insulting to progressive voters and nothing more typically arrogant of Clinton and her supporters than this effort to transform a democratic primary into a monarchical coronation.  Their efforts to squash debate and keep dissenting opinion out of the party leadership is an affront to democracy, and Schumer should be ashamed of himself.
What use is party discipline if we are talking about a party disciplined to deviate from what should be its core commitment to economic equality and peaceful internationalism?  What use is party discipline if it becomes a way to avoid democratic politics?  A Hillary Clinton presidency would be an utterly pyrrhic victory for progressives. 
But Schumer was onto something when he talked about primaries being “killer”.  They can certainly sink the ambitions of a candidate who has something to fear from public exposure and democratic debate, as Hillary Clinton learned in 2008.  But they also bring out the killer instinct in candidates like Clinton.  A recent New Republic article described the depths to which the Clintons and their Cabal sunk in 2008 in their effort to defeat President Obama.  
“As in 2008, Greater Hillaryland, if not the Clinton campaign itself”, the article predicted, “would quietly work to disqualify Warren as a crazed, countercultural liberal.  A former Obama campaign aide recalls Clintonites planting stories in foreign newspapers, then watching them enter the domestic bloodstream through outlets like The Drudge Report.  This appears to be how Obama’s dubious connection to former Weatherman terrorist Bill Ayers first gained widespread attention.  ‘They were kings of bank-shot press attention’, says the aide.  ‘They were pitching stories domestic outlets would not cover...because the information they were peddling was so toxic’”. 
The fact that Schumer and others are already trying to shut Warren down suggests that her progressivism and ability to talk about social democracy and economic equality would prove to be more than an irritant to the Clinton juggernaut.  It indicates that Warren could be on the verge of a serious political breakthrough that could call into serious question the nasty consensus around the supposed necessity of economic inequality, the alleged virtues of capitalism, and the assumed impossibility of creating a social democratic society in the United States. 
Schumer and other Clinton supporters who would subvert our democracy by trying to deny voters a real choice at the polls should step aside and apologise for their shameless efforts to sabotage the democratic process which we can hope remains capable of addressing our country’s pressing needs. 

Dianne Feinstein Doing What she Does Best...the Bidding of the National Security Apparatus

Unfortunately, my prediction that we might be seeing the beginning of the end of the unholy alliance between a handful of top Congressional leaders and the national security apparatus has been proven very naive.  I thought that the likes of California Senator Dianne Feinstein might have been sufficiently stung by the revelation that the rogue intelligence agencies they had long protected lied not only to the public and to “ordinary” Congressional representatives, but also to those who thought they were part of the magic circle.

Indeed, Feinstein sounded rather distraught when she learned that there was an additional inner ring of spying and lying to which even she was never privy.  But now, perhaps having had a “heart to heart” with Lyin’ James Clapper (Director of National Intelligence), Feinstein is back to doing what she’s always done best...the bidding of the national security industry.
The Guardian describes how Feinstein, chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and a noted neoconservative, is pushing a bill designed to derail serious reform of our rogue intelligence agencies.  According to the Guardian, her bill “would both make permanent a loophole permitting the NSA to search for Americans’ identifying information without a warrant—and, civil libertarians fear, contains an ambiguity that might allow the FBI, the DEA and other law enforcement agencies to do the same thing”.
Feinstein is acting in what is a grand American tradition, recently documented by Jay Feldman in his book Manufacturing Hysteria: a History of Scapegoating, Surveillance, and Secrecy in Modern America (Pantheon, 2011).  Like those who used fearmongering to attack workers, migrants, and political dissenters in the past, Feinstein is working to manipulate evidence to make false claims about spying programs, hoping that the fear that she and others have inculcated in the public will deaden our ability to think critically about the claims she and the military-intelligence complex are making.
It is often asserted that civil liberty and national security sit on opposite ends of a spectrum, and that to move away from one is to move towards the other.  This is the model Feinstein espouses when she asks the public to give up its liberties so that the same security agencies which have told lies, helped to launch illegal wars, and used methods of terror, can amass further power—power which their track record suggests they will very likely misuse.
In reality, the protection of civil liberties, and the transparency which such protection demands, is a far better guarantee of our safety than the casual abdication of our rights and responsibilities that Feinstein relentlessly advocates.  She and the other politicians who carry water for the rogue intelligence agencies would like us to give up our right to so much as know what our security agencies are doing in our name, no less criticise or regulate those actions.  They would like us to take their word for why we must give up our liberties and subject our lives to scrutiny on the premise that the people whose behaviour created a “terrorist” threat in the first place are best suited to managing that threat.
If the actions and the bases for the actions of our national security apparatus—whether domestic spying, kidnapping, torturing, practising rendition, murdering, waging aggressive war—were forced to withstand full public scrutiny, I would like to think that our government would no longer be able to behave in a way that so obviously contravenes the interest of its citizens.  Greater liberty and transparency would, in other words, lead to a more genuine security, in which we would be protected by the character of our republic rather than the dark legions of our empire.
But achieving this kind of security will be an uphill task in the face of relentless opposition from the security agencies which thrive on what Feldman called “manufactured hysteria”, particularly when they are protected by the likes of Dianne Feinstein and her fellow-travellers, themselves a national security threat.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Denial...the California State of Mind

I just began reading a copy of Mark Baldassare’s book, A California State of Mind: the Conflicted Voter in a Changing World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002).  Baldassare’s thesis is that distrust—voters’ distrust of government—is the defining feature of our polity.

“Trust in government”, he writes, “is an attitude reflecting the sum total of experiences and knowledge the public has towards its government institutions and its elected officials at any given time...distrust in government as measured in public opinion surveys is largely a rational response to people’s experiences with government and their interpretation of all the information they are receiving from the media and other sources” (7). 
That seems reasonable, and I’ve only begun reading.  But I’m struck how in his introduction and in his outline of his argument, chapter by chapter, Baldassare treats “the voters” and “government” as two separate things.  This blind spot is particularly egregious given his observation that “in California, the trend was for voters to take decisions about growth away from their local elected officials” (13).  Through the state’s “direct democracy” tools—recalls, referenda, and particularly initiatives—voters have become arguably the state’s most formidable policymakers.
The “California State of Mind” of Baldassare’s title is whatever allows voters to demand that legislators spend money on given projects with one vote while refusing to open their wallets to pay for the project.  It is the unintegrated political complex which allows what is effectively a whole branch of government to make demands of another without granting the second branch the tools to do the job demanded of it. 
In focussing on distrust, Baldassare omits the critical role played by fear in the governance of California.  I’m by no means saying that we need to feel sorry for California’s legislators as individuals, but there is no denying that as a group they have been conditioned by voters to be fearful.  Fearful of embracing the range of possible public policy options around a given issue because of the tendency of voters to aim unconstructive swipes at their efforts.  Fearful of being ambitious in their governance on behalf of our state, because they know voters don’t like to contemplate big projects or serious commitments.  And fearful of being honest about long-term economic, social, and ecological challenges because they have learned the hard way that voters don’t appreciate being told hard truths. 
Baldassare notes that California is a “state where policymaking for the past twenty years has been guided by the political principle ‘smaller is better’” (2).  This tendency, he seems to argue, has been detrimental to the ability of California’s government to tackle the problems which are important to its citizens.  But it is simultaneously a tendency generated by the hammerlock which the voters—through their punishment of politicians as much as their ballot-box constitution-writing—have imposed on Sacramento. 
When Baldassare writes about “Californians’ distrust in government, their perception that the state is unprepared for its future, and their desire to take lawmaking into their own hands” (17), he is describing a culture which was deliberately cultivated by the Republican Party from Reagan’s years as Governor onwards, in which one political party tried to persuade people that government couldn’t work, and that if they were elected, they would make sure that it didn’t.
The story has a particular twist, because over the last hundred years, Californian voters have been some of the foremost architects of a system which makes consistency difficult, discourages determined government, and prohibits political breakthroughs. 
What does it mean when voters don’t trust their political apparatus, but when they are also a critical component of that apparatus?  On the one hand, voters assert themselves at the polls.  On the other, they do so with a distinct lack of confidence and coherence.  It is almost as though we don’t trust ourselves.  Or perhaps, as though we live in fear that we might fail—as we have long argued politicians themselves have—if we tackled the problems which plague our state.
Jerry Brown, our current Governor, has talked about our problems as “conditions” of an inherent variety.  While he is personally well-known for what he calls “creative inaction”, it seems that a similar fatalism has possessed our state when it comes to addressing the balance between ends and means; the education of children and students; our relationship with our land; the durability and sustainability of our infrastructure; even our basic social contract. 
There is a further observation from A California State of Mind which should preoccupy our public officials.  One of his central findings is apparently that people change their priorities—crime, education, budgets, etc—very quickly, leaving decision-makers only very narrow windows for intervention (xi). 
Today, polls suggest that Californians recognise that our political structure is broken, and that it needs an overhaul.  We are increasingly aware that before we can address any economic deficit, there is a democratic deficit which demands our attention.  Our civic and political leadership should move quickly to address this issue while the public is so attuned. 
But it is not enough to demand better of our politicians, who only bear partial responsibility for our ills.  It will be impossible to address the economic equality which is no longer a byproduct, but today a defining feature of our state and our country, if we do not have a democracy equal to the task.  Such a democracy requires that citizens shoulder the responsibility for their own actions, take their participation seriously, and take part in fashioning institutions commensurate with the idealism that should define our community.