Friday, April 25, 2014

News for the Week

Just some of the interesting or important stories I ran across this week.

Former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda preparing to make a broadcast in the early 1960s.  British National Archives
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There was a heartening report in the Fresno Bee that increasing numbers of Californians recognise the value of pre-school, and at least at the polls say that they are willing to fund the level of education which has been shown to be the best predictor of children’s success in life.  The integration of early childhood education into the public school system is long overdue given the importance of the early years of children’s lives and the short shrift currently given to the welfare of young children.

I just hope that Californians are willing to put their money where their mouths are.

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South Africa is preparing for elections in less than two weeks’ time.  Much is being made that this is the first election in which those born after 1994—the year of the country’s first democratic election—will be going to the polls.  While the ANC, the party which led the struggle against apartheid, is likely to win the election, its brand is increasingly tarnished by its inability or unwillingness to combat the grotesque inequality in the country, which is reminiscent of the material conditions under which people lived when the racist National Party ran the country at the barrel of the gun.

The traditional challenge to the ANC had come from the Democratic Alliance, a liberal party based around Cape Town.  The DA was never going to have a breakthrough with the public when it embraced policies well to the right of the ANC, when the electorate was clamouring for the redistribution of wealth.  And so now the challenge is coming from a breakaway, populist ANC faction run by the confrontational Julius Malema, who has embraced, along with economic populism, the language of a new liberation war, using the language of violence against the state, with sadly racialised tones, in much the same way that right-wingers in the U.S. do. 

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This, of course, is reminiscent of Cliven Bundy, the rancher in Nevada who rides around waving the American flag, and yet declines to respect the law, claims that he does not recognise the U.S. government.  This “patriot” assembled a militia rabble to back him up as he articulates a worldview which ranges from treacherous subversion to out-and-out racism.  Imagine what the world would be like if everyone who had a problem with a law—in this case one related to grazing fees—picked up a gun and threatened violence.


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In a few days, former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda will be turning 90.  Kaunda is one of the last of a generation, and with Robert Mugabe is a reminder of the liberation struggles that took place in Southern Africa as countries in the region sought to rid themselves of colonial rule.  Kaunda, embracing “Zambian humanism”, instituted one-party rule until he was forced to allow an election in the early 1990s in which he was ousted.

Now he is regarded as an elder statesman in a very different light from Robert Mugabe, and is remembered fondly across Southern Africa because under his watch, Zambia offered support and sanctuary to liberation groups from across the region.  His support for these anti-colonial movements came at some economic cost as the apartheid government in South Africa sought to cripple its neighbours.

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There is little cause for celebration in the eastern region of Ukraine, where now even international observers have been seized by thugs who most people seem to believe are operating at the behest of the Russian government in its cynical efforts to destabilise the region and use the excuse of protecting Russians abroad to expand its ugly reach.

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International justice exists more often in theory than in practise, but the Marshall Islands is seeking to use the legal mechanisms associated with the International Court of Justice to sue nuclear powers for their abuses of human rights.  The small nation exists in the heart of the Pacific, where many of the great powers—the United States and France in particular—tested many of their weapons of terror and mass destruction with precious regard for the human consequences. 

The case regards the failure of states with weapons of nuclear terror to live up to their treaty obligations, pointing out that “the weapons states are currently in the process of modernising their nuclear weapons, which it portrays as a clear violation of the [Non Proliferation Treaty]”.  Of course, Israel, North Korea, India and Pakistan have not even signed the treaty, adding a layer of complexity to address the potential of these weapons to unleash terror on the world.

This is a particularly poignant story for me, because my first college research paper was written for Professor James Egan’s Peoples of the Pacific anthropology class at UC Irvine on nuclear testing on the Pacific.  Research for that paper involved reading the accounts of many people from islands across the Pacific Ocean whose lives were upended by the games of the nuclear powers.

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As evidence that we have perhaps begun to move beyond the days when deadly weapons were tested without regard for the environmental or social consequences, the Los Angeles Times reported that the California EPA is developing the means to take a far more targeted approach to combating pollution in the state. 

The agency charged with ensuring the safety and health of the public in the face of threats to our air and water supplies is better able to map the location of the worst pollution, which perhaps unsurprisingly corresponds with the presence of some of the poorest and most vulnerable members of our state community, those lacking the means to stick up for themselves. 

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But there is bad news for the quest to cut costly consumption and ease pollution, in that the Koch Empire is launching an assault on efforts to build up solar energy as an alternative to fossil fuel consumption.  The poor little Koch Brothers apparently feel like consumers should compensate them for choosing more efficient and ethical energy sources, and so are lobbying for taxes on homeowners who use solar power or wind turbines. 

The psychopathic hypocrites who are trying to buy elections, re-write science with their hired guns, crush the ability of workers to organise themselves, are now trying to roll back regulations and subsidies which ask states to diversify the source of their power and provide incentives to households and consumers to do so.  It is a sad statement of how our democracy and our energy policy can be driven by the money of a few vested interests, rather than any sense of the public good.

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Finally, citizens in the world’s largest democracy—India—are voting.  The Congress Party, which has dominated the nation’s politics since independence, and which has largely respected the secular nature of the country which contains large populations of Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs, looks likely to lose.

While a populist party based around Delhi is likely to be one beneficiary, the consensus seems to be that big winner will be the Hindu nationalist BJP, which manages to combine rank populism with corporate pandering while being led by a man accused of fostering or else permitting communal violence under his watch in his home state.

Allowing for the massive numbers, huge spaces, and trying logistics, the election takes place over a lengthy period of time, during which the polls are under the watch of the generally well-regarded Election Commission.  While in some countries a disputed election is decided by nine political appointees, other countries like India have credible, independent institutions charged with monitoring elections. 

This was a timely election inasmuch as it coincided with my students reading of Khushwant Singh’s classic novel about partition in India, Train to Pakistan.  The novel tells the story of a village of many faiths, the inhabitants of which lived amicably together until the arbitrary lines drawn by British surveyors at independence, and the obsession with the emerging nations to homogenise their populations led to a catastrophic blood-letting. 

It is a tragic story, but one which in many ways was the story of the twentieth century and could, if we do not take care, continue to define the twenty-first. 

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