Sunday, March 30, 2014

If Not Hillary, Who? How About Elizabeth Warren?

Hillary Clinton’s juggernaut presidential campaign might be unannounced.  But Democrats of all political stripes are flocking to her bandwagon to proclaim the former First Lady, Senator, and Secretary of State the inevitable candidate for the Democratic Party.  It would be foolhardy, they argue, for anyone else to challenge Clinton.  Many women in particular see in Clinton a strong role-model, someone who has broken barriers in a misogynistic and patriarchal political arena, and who has spoken out on the need for gender equality not just in the United States, but around the world.

The question got cheers and praise, not least from Clinton herself.

But when I read the question, I thought something quite different.  I thought of someone like Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who is neither a warmongering neoconservative nor a neoliberal in thrall to the 1% who dismissed the Occupy Wall Street movement as “foolish”.

The contrast is startling.

On the one hand we have a politician who rubber-stamped an obviously illegal and immoral war being sold by gibbering right-wing fundamentalists, recanted support for said war when she ran for higher office, but has subsequently re-stated her support in private for a textbook war of aggression which killed hundreds of thousands of people.  As a Senator, Hillary Clinton was a major backer of the financial sector, even when it demanded punitive bankruptcy laws which targeted the vulnerable middle and working class.

As Secretary of State, Clinton was a formidable advocate for expanding the War of Terror and escalating a purposeless U.S. war in Afghanistan, Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and North Africa.  She set herself up as perhaps the foremost apologist for a gaggle of dictators across the Middle East, some of whom were toppled during the Arab Spring, others of whom weathered this democratic storm by relying on military and political muscle provided by the United States. 

Just as she found herself on the side of reactionaries abroad, Hillary Clinton is now allying herself unashamedly with the people who are refusing to contribute to the common good and who shamelessly equate being asked to pay their taxes with being taken to the gas chambers in Nazi Germany. 

In public, Clinton has a practised populist line.  But it sounds a little feeble knowing that she has embraced the political order ushered in by court decisions like Citizens United, which make big money rather than citizen power the arbiter of elections.  Clinton’s most critical constituency is on Wall Street, and she has gone to great lengths to reassure donors there that she has no time for a progressive approach to public policy which foregrounds the issue of economic inequality. 

Instead, she will devote herself to looking after the interests of those whose financial support puts her in high office.  The Occupy Wall Street movement and the progressives in her own party are irritants, barking about small matters like inequality when something much bigger is on the line...Clinton’s presidential ambitions.

In stark contrast, Elizabeth Warren has been standing up for people left behind by the political consensus which Hillary Clinton embodies.  While Hillary Clinton made her mark by lining up behind a popular, patriotic war, Elizabeth Warren is making hers by arguing for what is in the United States an unpopular cause: the use of democratically-elected institutions to regulate moneyed interests, to intervene in the economy to protect the working class, to create a framework to improve the life of the public, and to put the basic welfare of the few before the riches of the many.

Warren has been startlingly consistent in making the case for reform of our financial sector, our economic framework, and our democracy.  Clinton has been startlingly wrong in making the case for elites, in advocating for terror, and for contributing to the disintegration of democracy at home and abroad. 

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

In her decade-plus bid for the presidency, Hillary Clinton has been conspicuously quiet when it comes to articulating progressive views about war and peace; about economic equality; and about the health of our democracy.  And if her tilts at high office give her bursts of progressivism, her actions have been consistently those of a bloodthirsty neocon prepared to do the bidding of the security state and financial sector as needed.

She is not a good role model for anyone in our country, and represents a violent, retrograde version of politics, one which has for too long dragged our country and its citizens down.

Elizabeth Warren, in contrast, articulates and represents a positive, progressive vision of the relationship between citizens, their state, and society.  She is optimistic about the capacity of our nation to flourish if it invests in its now-downtrodden majority, and is unafraid to confront those interests and individuals which are an impediment as we strive to make better lives for ourselves and our neighbours.  I think that makes Warren worthy of our support.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

When Tuition Came to the University of California

Last week, the Regents of the University of California announced that they will contemplate a tuition increase for already-beleaguered students in the country’s preeminent institution of higher education.  At such a moment it is interesting to look back at the moment when the first tuition bills were levelled at students attending the hitherto-free University, which by the 1960s had already become one of the foremost institutions of learning in the country.  This is a somewhat longer piece on the historical context for the introduction of tuition at the University of California.
The University of California's greatest proponent...

The backdrop to the introduction of tuition was the restive campus of the 1960s.  Berkeley had its first brush with the right-wing politics engendered by the Cold War when faculty resisted being forced to sign a loyalty oath in the 1950s.  Nor was “riotous” behaviour new on campus.  From its inception, the campus had been subjected to regular and frequently destructive outbursts by the economically privileged students who initially dominated the student body.  John Kenneth Galbraith recalled that the sound he most associated of the Berkeley of the 1930s was “the most evocative and nostalgic of all the sounds of an aristocracy at play, the crash of breaking glass” (52).

But it was the series of politically-charged protests of the 1960s, rather than the outbursts by earlier politically-apathetic students, which rocked the state.  The socially- and economically-conservative state elite only began to worry about the University when students at Berkeley began to criticise restrictions on free speech, protest the Vietnam War, and question the conservatism of the culture from which they emerged.

California Governor Pat Brown and University of California President Clark Kerr—both men fervent believers in a grand vision of California and its Universities—adopted a liberal, paternalistic attitude toward the students.  They sought to bring them gently to heel while respecting the just nature of many of their demands, and also made an effort to shield them from those in the state who, shocked at being criticised, wanted the police unleashed on students.

Because in questioning market forces and U.S. policy abroad, students had made powerful enemies.  J Edgar Hoover of the FBI sent his spies to the University of California, where they sought to smear students and undermine the administration.  In its investigation into widespread abuses by the FBI and other agencies through its COINTELPRO programme, the U.S. Senate concluded that “too many people have been spied upon by too many government agencies and to [sic] much information has been collected”. 

...and the man who used its degradation as a stepping stone to high office
The report continued, “The Government has often undertaken the secret surveillance of citizens on the basis of their political beliefs, even when those beliefs posed no threat of violence or illegal acts on behalf of a hostile foreign power....Groups and individuals have been harassed and disrupted because of their political views and their lifestyle.  Investigations have been based upon vague standards whose breadth made excessive collection inevitable.  Unsavory and vicious tactics have been employed—including anonymous attempts to break up marriages, disrupt meetings, ostracize persons from their professions, and provoke target groups into rivalries that might result in deaths” (Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans 5). 

Clark Kerr, predisposed to a gently inoffensive liberalism particularly infuriated Hoover.  When President Lyndon Johnson wanted to make Kerr the Secretary of Health and Human Services, Hoover ordered his agents to concoct a series of baseless allegations about Kerr’s nonexistent “Communist” connections in the background check, leading to the termination of the President’s offer.  Specifically, Hoover “[included] damaging allegations against Kerr—without telling Johnson that the bureau had investigated each of the charges and found them baseless” (Rosenfeld 230).

But Hoover could only do so much damage from the shadows and, determined to crush the campus, backed Ronald Reagan in his gubernatorial bid, covering up the activities of the candidate’s son and hiding Reagan’s illegal omission of former affiliation with then-proscribed political groups, an omission which constituted a felony by the newly-elected Governor (Rosenfeld 299, 362-64).

Ronald Reagan launched a 1966 gubernatorial campaign against Pat Brown pledging to crack down on the “beatniks, radicals, and filthy speech advocates”.  Untroubled by fact-checks, Reagan’s campaign spouted a series of lies about the decline of the campus in the same year that admissions and applicants rose with the University’s national reputation (Rosenfeld 336).  He chose the University as his target after being told by Spencer and Roberts, a “firm of Republican political advisers”, that “he would have to run from the right in his efforts to get the Republican nomination [and] the right was where the money was.  Reagan then asked Spencer and Roberts what issues he should pursue” to get a lock on the political right, and their pollsters listed “welfare queens”, “mental health malingerers”, and the “student revolt at Berkeley”.  Reagan’s political advisor later told Kerr that “Reagan knew very little about the University of California and had no animus against it” (Kerr 288-9). 

Reagan cynical use of the University as a punching-bag for his campaign found new life with his proposal to introduce tuition for the first time.  Having used a well-honed PR machine, oiled by falsehoods churned out by the FBI and a former CIA Director, to convince Californians that political expression at their University was dangerous, Reagan tapped into the manufactured anger of voters.  In a dishonest campaign built around getting people of the same class to resent one another—a common theme of Reagan’s politics—he swept Brown from office.

Then as now, California was a wealthy stage, with no shortage of resources on which to draw for the support of its public institutions.  But Reagan, insisting that “we just simply have a shortage of dollars”, whined that he was “tempted to suggest a cut in the University’s approximately $700,000-a-year public relations budget since it would seem a good share of it is being spent publicizing me”. 

Reagan mulishly argued that loans were a good substitute for free tuition, and claimed that UC policy of only admitting the top 12% of students somehow meant that introducing tuition would not introduce a barrier to poorer students.  But his earlier remarks had made it crystal clear what the introduction of tuition was actually about.  “It is no denial of academic freedom”, he proclaimed, “to provide this education within a framework of reasonable rules and regulations.  Nor is it a violation of individual rights to require obedience to these rules and regulations or to insist that those unwilling to abide by them should get their education elsewhere.  It does not constitute political interference with intellectual freedom for the taxpaying citizens—who support the college and university systems—to ask that, in addition to teaching, they build character on accepted moral and ethical standards”.

Those “moral and ethical standards” mandated that students cease their political criticisms.  And it failed to take account of the moral gains associated with civil disobedience elsewhere in the country, although these gains were unlikely to move Reagan, a staunch opponent of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.  Knowing that students were unlikely to give in to these attempts to curb their civil liberties, Reagan supplemented his demand for tuition and launched a punitive attack on the University, demanding a devastating 20%  reduction in funding at the very moment that the University was expanding its mission on behalf of the state. 

The man who would claim to have faced down the Soviets then dodged the UC’s President, repeatedly standing Kerr up although he took time to meet with the FBI from the bed of his gubernatorial mansion to plot Kerr’s ouster (Rosenfeld 369-371).  At a special committee meeting, Reagan disclaimed any knowledge of why the University needed money for research or expansion, saying that it “should be taking the bottom 12.5 percent; that it should be taking ‘the Mexicans’” (Kerr 298). 

Reagan convened a Regent’s meeting at which he engineered the firing of Kerr, although he scuttled out of the building before the President re-entered to be informed of his dismissal.  At a press conference later, Reagan tried out various lies on reporters, first claiming that he had not attended the meeting and then claiming that Kerr had demanded a vote of confidence and lost (Rosenfeld 375; Kerr 307, 312).  Some Regents had sided with Reagan in the hopes that removing Kerr would satisfy the new Governor’s vindictive campaign against the University and cause him to retract his threats of cuts and tuition.  But they underestimated the mean-spirited nature of Reagan’s scorched-earth politics. 

Reagan “thrust the governor’s office into areas traditionally left to campus officials, such as monitoring student activities, checking teachers’ classroom conduct, and screening faculty appointments....he continued his campaign practice of making broad charges of campus misconduct, heightening public outrage, damaging morale on the campus, and generally undermining support for the institution....He complained about ‘subsidising intellectual curiosity’, and his auditors suggested the university sell its rare books to generate state revenue”.  Outlandishly, Reagan blamed Berkeley students for Robert Kennedy’s assassination (Rosenfeld 379, 416).

Reagan’s attacks on the campus, and the deployment of the National Guard led to violent backlashes by students and Bay Area political groups, backlashes which were possible because the FBI had armed these groups in the hopes of generating violence which would serve as a pretext for escalation on their end.  Police shot passersby with buckshot, and then lied about it.  On Reagan’s orders they sprayed a powerful CS gas from helicopters flying above the Campanile, and told the media it was more benign CN gas.  Reagan grew increasingly unhinged, shouting at faculty in meetings, and snarling that “We seem to be getting down to the situation that occurs between two nations—of who started the war”, adding that “once the dogs of war have been unleashed you must expect things will happen” (445, 463, 464).

In 1970, the Governor got his wish, and the first tuition was introduced.  In 1980, undergraduates were paying $719 per year.  Five years later it was over $1,200.  By 1991 it had nearly doubled, and in the year 2000 students were paying around $3,400 per year.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Clark Kerr gave a press conference as he left the Regents meeting at which he had been so summarily dismissed.  There, he argued that “the best investment that any society makes is in the education of its young people, and this shouldn’t basically be looked upon myopically as a ‘cost’; it should be looked upon as the best investment that any society can make.  The strength of the society is the quality of its people and their skills and their leadership.  So I hope that there are no tuition barriers in this University.  I regret that I am no longer in a position to help lead the battle against tuition.  I am sure that many others will take my place in this battle.  Perhaps because of this development this afternoon it may become more difficult for those who favour tuition, as a matter of fact to impose it, because I think that where I stood in my opposition there will stand thousands” (Kerr 320).

Today, students subjected to unimaginably high tuition have no powerful advocate in the UC President’s office, the occupants of which have recently seen the police return with brutal force to the Berkeley and Davis campuses when students protested the growing inequality on campuses associated with high tuition; inequities which are a microcosm of our nation’s ills (in the first ten years of the twenty-first century, Californian universities paid $6.5 billion in interest to financial institutions, Eaton 4).  Students have had to stand largely alone when making the case against tuition, and they have been unable to halt its steady rise.

We have another governor—ironically the son of UC’s biggest gubernatorial booster—who is using Reagan’s strategy by casting himself as the man to discipline the wayward University, refusing to restore state funding and referring to money to UC as a “bailout”. 

In the 1960s, students flexed their muscles, but did so at a time of general prosperity when their subjection to a remorseless market logic was a distinguishing feature of their class, and at a moment when they were locked in a generational culture war with their parents and grandparents.  Today, the country at large is experiencing the economic ills once only associated with economically marginal groups like students.  In resisting tuition increases today, students could connect their struggle against tuition with the struggle of most American citizens for a livelihood in the face of aggression by wealthy elites. 

Students did as much briefly in 2011, and I hope that now, when confronted by a hostile Governor, a cynical Board of Regents, and a troubled public, they can act as the conscience of California and help us to remember why public institutions and the public good, rather than “fiscal conservatism” should be at the heart of our political debate.


Clark Kerr, The Gold and the Blue: A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949-1967 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2013).

Charlie Eaton and Brian Stewart, “Wall Street & California’s Student Debt Crisis” (Berkeley: Center on Culture, Organizations and Politics). 

John Kenneth Galbraith, “Berkeley in the Thirties”, in Danielle La France, ed. Berkeley!  A Literary Tribute (Berkeley: Heyday Books, 1997).

Seth Rosenfeld, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals, and Reagan’s Rise to Power (New York: Picador, 2013). 

United States Senate, 94th Congress, 2nd Session.  Intelligence Activities and the Rights of Americans, Book II: Final Report of the Select Committee to Study Governmental Operations with respect to the Intelligence Activities (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1976).

UC Regents Threaten California's Students With Tuition Increase

California’s Pollyanna Governor, Jerry Brown, has been trumpeting the Golden State’s “comeback” for a year now.  Brown, you will recall, subjected the state to a punishing round of cuts to its public sphere for two years before voters passed a modest, temporary, and inadequate tax increase in the form of Prop 30. 

Prop 30 amounted to a band-aid slapped on a gaping, festering wound, inflicted over a series of decades on some of the state’s most critical institutions by an increasingly indifferent public and a fundamentalist Republican Party which ruled the state unaccountably from the sidelines by virtue of the minority rule enshrined by Prop 13.

California’s preeminent public institution, the University of California, perhaps made the mistake of taking Governor Brown at his word when he declared that California is in a revitalised mode.  The UC thought this might mean that the state would begin to live up to its responsibilities and restore the funding that had been stripped steadily away over a period of decades.

That process of divestment from the UC began under Ronald Reagan who, at the precise moment that California was asking UC to do more complicated things for the state, took a punitive approach to the University because of the opposition to his program which it represented.  And it has continued, albeit at different rates, ever since.

After a particularly severe set of fee increases between 2009 and 2011 (over one summer, alone, fees jumped 32%), under pressure from a restive student body and a concerned, Democrat-dominated legislature, UC froze tuition.  But that tuition more than doubled since I entered UC as an undergraduate in 2004.  The bulk of that increase occurred since the most dramatic increases began in 2009.

The result has been an increasingly indebted student body, members of which are increasingly working longer hours outside of school to make ends meet while paying higher fees and high costs of living.  Longer working hours prevent students from completing on time, and divestment has also contributed to a reduction of course offerings, which makes it even more difficult for students to access the courses they require to graduate.

The University of California is already public in name only, given the massive burden it imposes on would-be students and their families, California’s public having shrugged off their communal responsibility for the education of our young citizens.  That public designation remains important because it shields students from further, more open abuse by UC.

But the future of UC as a public institution of any sort is clearly unsustainable absent a reinvestment by the state.  And to their credit, some of UC’s leadership, as well as a small but impassioned number of students across the ten-campus system, are actively seeking a restoration of funding, reminding California what a truly public University system contributes in economic, social, and moral terms to our state.

But state funding for the coming year falls short of what the University had requested, and the UC Regents, a corporate-minded body which handed out obscene administrative raises even as it hiked tuition, are contemplating a fee-increase as an answer to the Governor’s refusal to offer a substantial restoration of funding to the beleaguered University.

Indeed, last year Governor Brown crudely threatened to force-feed UC a “reality sandwich” in the form of a “gigantic tuition increase”.  Our penny-pinching Governor has always been more of a Tea Partier than a progressive given his prioritisation of budgets over people’s livelihoods. 

But Brown’s behaviour and rhetoric has been stunningly regressive even by his standards.  He characterised the restoration of public funding to UC as the equivalent of a bailout, equating students who are on the ropes with millionaire bankers who crashed our economy, and suggesting that public institutions charged with the education of our youth are no different from private, for-profit financial institutions. 

It feels absurd having to say so, but these are drastically different groups of people.  Bankers were already wealthy people who had broken or manipulated the law in a way which did great harm to our society and our economy.  People were rightly outraged when they asked for and received bailout money which in many cases was used to fashion golden parachutes on which they drifted upwards to the economic stratosphere.  

Students, on the other hand, are a socially and economically fragile group, and are simply asking for the State of California to live up to its responsibility by funding UC at a rate that at least begins to limp back towards its former levels. 

At a time when job prospects and security are increasingly poor, and at a time when UC research and UC graduates are increasingly critical to the growing sectors of the state’s economy, the University administration should not under any circumstances be asking students to pay higher tuition, a move which will only further degrade UC’s public character and the experience of students therein.  Similarly, Californians should not be ducking their responsibility as a community by leaving the maintenance to one of their most important institutions to individual students and their families.

The idea of a tuition increase at a time of economic uncertainty and hardship for many Californians is insulting, and the Regents and the Governor go down this deeply irresponsible road at their peril.  I hope that UC students and faculty will take strong action, supported by the wider state community, to deter the Regents and the Governor from contributing to the growth of inequality in California. 

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Rand Paul: He Can't Walk and Chew Gum, and Shouldn't Be President

Kentucky Senator Rand Paul gave a talk at the International House at UC Berkeley this afternoon.  I got the news too late to get a ticket, but Paul used the opportunity to discuss his particular take on “freedom”, the most abused word in American English.  Talking about “freedom” for Paul usually means launching a slightly unhinged attack on “Government”.

Normally, Paul’s critique is a sweeping one which involves every facet of the federal government’s functions.  At Berkeley, however, he was trying to restrict his remarks to cover the activities of the military-intelligence complex, by way of planting seeds and being dishonest about the nature of his overarching argument.  Paul has long been a critic, albeit a half-hearted one, of the activities of the NSA, the CIA, and other law-breaking agencies which spy on citizens, subvert efforts by Congress to regulate them, and engage in torture, rendition, disappearances, and murder.

The dragnet-like approach of the NSA, which sweeps constitutional rights aside as it hoovers citizens’ information irrespective of any case against them, is immoral and illegal.  Worse still, the executive branch now routinely orders military action without Congressional approval, and also instructs on the murder of people without any transparent legal process.

Paul is correct to critique these things, although his critique is a deeply cynical one.  He famously filibustered an Obama administration appointee, pretending that he was standing on some great point of principle.  It turned out that once Paul was assured that the President was not preparing to use drones to kill U.S. citizens in the U.S., his duty as a Protector of Freedom was finished.  As far as he cares, the rest of the world can go to heaven or hell on the end of a predator drone, and it’s none of his concern.

So on the one hand, one arm of one branch of our government (the military-intelligence apparatus) does things which are wrong and illegal.

On the other, our government does some pretty useful things.  It pays public safety officers, and it takes charge of schools.  The existence of public schools mean that every child can attend school free at the point of entry, irrespective of their background.  We used to operate public universities in the same manner.  The government provides parks and libraries in our community, undertakes the repair of infrastructure, and maintains minimum standards and wages for the workplace which have improved beyond measure the lives of working people.  It also enacts regulations designed to keep water sanitary, food safe, and air clean.   It is charged with keeping monopolies from forming.

Confronted by the reality that “government” does a bunch of things, some of which are good, and some of which are bad, most thinking people with the public interest at heart would probably say, “Golly, why don’t we continue to have government do the things it does well, and make it stop doing the things it does wrong!”  We could strengthen those agencies or arms of government which act in the public interest and enhance the quality of life of citizens, and put a halt to the violence and lawbreaking associated with the military-intelligence complex.

But Rand Paul’s argument is, at its essence, that we can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.  There are admittedly more words involved—and perhaps fewer thoughts—but that’s what it amounts to.

Because Paul would have us not only halt the activities of the CIA, NSA, and our military, but also withdraw government from virtually every sphere of social life, effectively shutting down the public sphere.  He says the result would be “freedom”.  Evidence suggests otherwise.

In the absence of a democratically-elected authority, capable of ruling in the public interest, the people who tend to call the shots are those who are powerful.  And in our world, power means money.  Most of us don’t have much in the way of disposable income.  And we’d have far, far less in a system where we were all on our own and had no way of pooling common resources. 

The result is that the overwhelming majority of our population would be, at a stroke, written out of the political process.  Sure, we could still vote.  But in Paul’s world, our representatives wouldn’t be allowed to do anything useful, because the private sector would be taking care of things.  This means that insurance industries would run the healthcare sector, polluters and extractors would take care of energy and environmental policy, the banks would run the economy, big business would manage the workplace, and the arms industry would govern our relations with the rest of the world. 

In the U.S., because of our weak public sphere, we have a pretty good idea what a moderated version of this world would look like: it’s the one that crashed our economy, made us dependent on harmful fossil fuels, got us into wars abroad, stripped away workers’ rights, and gave us the highest medical costs and poorest healthcare in the developed world.  Now imagine how bad things could get if there were no checks whatsoever on these interests.

So why is Rand Paul pretending that we are incapable of distinguishing good from bad?  Why is he selling this lie that “government” is inherently one of the world’s Bad Things, and is incapable of helping people when most of us benefit from public services and collective investments on a daily basis?  Why must we not only strip the CIA of its right to murder people, but also the ability of other sectors of government to do things which help people to survive and succeed?

One conclusion would be that Paul is stupid.  This is clearly not the case, although he obviously hopes that many of his potential supporters are.

Another interpretation is that he is working out of malice, and that his concern for civil liberties is simply for show.  It could be argued that he is mostly interested in advancing a right-wing economic agenda, backed by a combination of hardcore ideologues and the Koch Empire and its ilk.  Paul, remember, is the man who would repeal the Civil Rights Act because it prevented businesses from discriminating, and is okay with our fellow global citizens being murdered by the intelligence agencies he purports to abhor. 

At the end of the day, what use are civil liberties which exist only on paper, unenforceable because the government is too weak to enforce them after power has been ceded to the plutocrats? 

Paul’s “freedoms” are of a very hollow sort.  So long as you stay in the United States, you won’t be killed by a drone or have your e-mail read.  You probably won’t pay taxes.  But you’ll also be free to get sick and not afford to see a doctor.  You’ll be free to get mugged by economic gangsters, and pushed to the ground, kicked, and not ever get back on your feet.  You’ll be free to be priced out of an education.  You’ll be free to struggle and fail if you and your family don’t have personal resources.  You’ll be free to be exploited by your employer, because there will be no rules, and no floor for the labour market.  You’ll be free to drink whatever water Big Ag thinks is safe.  And you’ll be free to be unemployed and find neither sympathy nor support from your society.

Rand Paul sees a happy ending somewhere, amidst all of these freedoms.  I see a man who is pretending that we are incapable of creating a sophisticated society which looks after its own while behaving morally and respecting the rights of citizens. 

Rand Paul might not be able to walk and chew gum at the same time.  But I’m pretty sure the rest of us can.  Which seems as good an argument as any for writing this manipulative cynic out of the running when it comes to selecting national leaders.

Rand Paul Brings Crazy to Berkeley

A certain kind of American likes to grumble about Berkeley.  As likely as not, the whiner has never set foot on the campus, or at least not since the 1970s.  The typical whiner thinks the flagship University of California campus is populated by radicals and socialists and hippies.  They think the campus is dominated by subversive minorities.  They think that students spend all of their time protesting and none of it studying.

If such malcontents had spent any time on the campus recently, they would of course know that it’s populated largely by middle-class and affluent students who have no time for anything other than their studies.  After all, many students tell themselves as they shut their eyes to the transformations taking place at their University, they’re paying $15,000 a year for the pleasure of being here, so they have no time for silly causes like social and economic justice.

The only thing crazy about Berkeley these days is the way in which so many students seem to be able to dispense with sleep altogether to pull marathon library sessions while working as research assistants and holding down part-time jobs off campus, while being an active member of a club or fraternity or sorority.

The campus retains its share of, shall we say quirky individuals.  Some of them haven’t left since the ‘60s and ‘70s.  Others are more recent arrivals.  They represent a particular brand of campus crazy.  But come this afternoon, they’re all going to be upstaged dramatically as a professional crackpot descends on campus peddling his wares.

I refer, of course, to Senator Rand Paul, the Kentuckyan who is doing the rounds to drum up support for his inevitable 2016 presidential bid.  He will be speaking at the Chevron Auditorium at the International House.

Paul is known for his libertarian leanings, and for his almost comical obsession with “Benghazi-gate”, the non-scandal surrounding the neoconservative, neoliberal Hillary Clinton.  Paul has marginally more charm than some of his GOP compatriots—Ted Cruz, for example—and can explain kindly, almost gently, why we need to shred our society and abandon the weakest and poorest amongst our number to the vagaries of the holy market.  He makes inequality, downward social engineering, and care for the plutocrats sound like a mission from God, or in his case, from the crackpot libertarian Ayn Rand, who may or may not be his namesake.

Paul is the kind of politician who, when he talks about cutting waste, actually means cutting things like food stamps, which are critical to the survival of people kept at the bottom of our economic ladder by the trickle-down economics embraced by the political right.  Paul is the kind of politician who is convinced that a balanced budget is an end in itself, and a far more important one than the material well-being of our country’s citizens. 

Paul was applauded by critics of our terroristic national security apparatus when he filibustered President Obama’s appointment to head the CIA because he claimed to be worried about the use of drones to murder people without due legal process.  It turns out that Paul only cared about the lives of non-combatant U.S. citizens on U.S. soil, not any actual larger legal or moral question.  He ended his filibuster abruptly, turning his back on those maimed and abused by American terror in other circumstances, and the families of all of those murdered.  Paul has also supported the maintenance of U.S. military forces abroad, a central feature of the militaristic foreign policy of which he pretends to be sceptical. 

Paul combines his economic fundamentalism and amoral foreign policy views with increasingly outlandish social views.  He believes that even when women are raped they should have no rights to an abortion.  He has outlandish views on landmark civil rights legislation which suggest that property rights and racial discrimination are more important than the civil rights of citizens.

Paul summed up his lunacy the night that he was elected to the Senate.  Then, he claimed that “There are no rich, there are no poor, there are no middle class [in America].  We are all interconnected in this economy”.  Paul’s father, famous for his indictment of U.S. war-making abroad, at least had the guts to ask Americans how they would feel if their country was set upon, blitzed, and occupied by imperialist invaders.  Of course, Ron Paul was equally famous for telling a moderator at a GOP debate that society should let an uninsured individual die, because people’s poverty, and the structural inequality against which they vie, is their own fault.  It is in this advocacy of social irresponsibility that Rand Paul most emulates his father.

Paul represents a chillingly amoral approach to foreign policy, and a distressingly immoral view of social relations in civil society.  When Paul arrives in places like Berkeley, he presents himself as the apostle of a new, revelatory, emancipatory political message, claiming that we must “embrace liberty in both the economic and the personal sphere”.  If any of Paul’s ideas do sound novel, it’s likely because we haven’t heard them in rather a long time, since they were rightfully buried during the nineteenth century.

The social and economic ethic that the Senator from Kentucky sells like snake oil is little different from that espoused by Gilded Age plutocrats in the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  These people found in ideas like the “free market” and “individual responsibility” some useful platitudes for disguising economic plunder, the accumulation of wealth at the expense of others, and the construction of a grossly uneven playing field in the language of “liberty”. 

In Paul’s world, when people fail it is because they make bad economic choices, and not because the system is rigged to allow other people to exploit their weakness.  In Paul’s world, inequality is okay, and even virtuous, because it reflects the inscrutable but unassailable wisdom of some divine invisible hand which knows people are worthy of reward.  It’s entirely coincidental, of course, that the Virtuous, in Paul’s world, have all given loads of money to those who write the laws to rig the economy in their favour. 

In visiting Berkeley and playing up his opposition to the security state, Paul is really playing a longer game.  He is trying to take a series of examples of overreach by rogue intelligence agencies—agencies most widely empowered by supposedly “liberty”-loving right-wingers—as an argument for why government can’t be trusted to do anything.

Never mind that the Post Office, schools, fire departments, the police, the people who fight to keep water safe to drink, food safe to eat, and air safe to breathe, all do a pretty decent job provided we give them adequate resources.  And never mind that when the economy crashes it’s inevitably the result of the public sphere giving in to private interest and allowing the economy to be run by Paul’s plutocratic backers.  Paul and his libertarian colleagues, well aware that they are running on a lie when they contend that government can’t work in people’s interest, have instead embraced the methods of sabotage and have done everything in their power to ensure that governance breaks down and fails people.

Paul is hoping to capitalise on the cynicism of a young generation, and its disenchantment with the political process to convince them to abandon their faith in collective efforts and invest it instead in a predatory class of self-interested affluent interests who don’t care in the slightest for the welfare of the public.  Paul is, in other words, preaching a set of values diametrically opposed to those generally associated with a socially-conscious student body at UC Berkeley.

His bad advice doesn’t come free.  Paul gets $1,200 in room rentals, a $1,000 honoraria, $500 in airfare, and a $35 box of chocolates.  Not a bad haul for someone trying to convince people to act against self-interest and community interest.  And who could say ‘no’ to a free trip to California, where the weather’s surely better than either Kentucky or Washington, D.C.?