Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Dishonest Voter Guides Tarnish Elections, Diminish Democracy

It’s election season in California (the primary election is on 3 June), and so the state’s newspapers are falling over each other to endorse Governor Jerry Brown in glowing terms.  In the past, candidates could ‘cross-file’, in effort to register and win in the primaries of both paries.  In the absence of a credible GOP challenger, and thanks to his own right-wing politics, Brown could almost replicate the trick pulled off by the likes of Earl Warren.

The other features of election season are the dirty tricks in play.  In 2012, the morning of the election, the story broke that the Koch Brothers were using ‘dark money’ organisations to pour funds into supporting measures designed to strip workers of rights and protections and defeating measures designed to provide funding to the education sector after decades of cuts.
Today when I checked my mail I got something called the “Independent Voter Guide”.  It came to me from an outfit called “Voter Guide Slate Cards”, which operates out of Long Beach.  Its seal looks official, bearing an outline of our beautiful state, with blue and red colours, designed to illustrate its “independent” nature.
It endorses Jerry Brown for Governor, Derek Cressman for Secretary of State, Betty Yee for Controller, John Chiang for Treasurer, Kamala Harris for Attorney General, Tom Torlakson for Superintendent of Public Instruction, and other local officials. 
I vote primarily for Democratic and Green candidates, avoiding the foaming, anti-social fundamentalists who dominate the GOP as well as right-wing Democrats like Jerry Brown who shred our safety net and public services under the cover of promoting “fiscal responsibility”.  So although I certainly don’t agree with all of their recommendations, I would not by and large quibble with their slant.
What I object to, however, is the impression that the mailer attempts to convey: that it is “independent”, or that these recommendations are somehow neutral.  In reality, that is not the case.
In print so small it strains my eyes, the mailer notes that “Appearance is paid for and authorized by each candidate and ballot measure designated by an *”.  It appears that Cressman, Yee, and Karen Monroe (a candidate for County Superintendent of Schools) all paid to be on the mailer, positioning themselves alongside popular Democrats to boost their chances by giving the appearance that they have the endorsement of some independent organization.
The three of these candidates (along with Torlakson) have larger blurbs about their accomplishments on the back page of the mailer. 
Last month, a group paid to have Voter Guide Slate Cards include endorsements on a “Republican” version of the guide (I’m a registered Independent, explaining why I got this version) of individuals who were not Republican candidates.  Now no one would love to see the sociopathic fundamentalists in the extremist California GOP get their comeuppance more than I would.  But there is a basic level of dishonesty in this practice that diminishes the quality of debate and misleads voters.  And candidates from both parties pull these dishonest stunts, using profiteering political consultants.
In 2010, the Calitics blog reported that a similar mailer attributed the same quote endorsing candidates to different people on different mailers.  This is apparently a comparatively cheap way for candidates—particularly those farther “down” the ticket, I would imagine—to secure the backing or at least attention of voters, provided they have the money to pay for a mailer.
The creator of my “independent” guide is Voter Guide Slate Cards, which boasts on its website that it has been “Delivering Winning Results Since 1986” and lists its e-mail as jerry@voterguideslatecards.com  The website proudly announces that it is “now taking reservations for the 2014 elections.  The following guides will be published: Democratic Voter Guide; Republican Voter Guide; Independent Voter Guide (for mixed party households and decline to state voters)”.  “For 25 years”, VGSC explains, the group “has been influencing elections through its direct mail program”. 
It’s a big business, given that during “each major election cycle, VGSC distributes slate cards to millions of households in California and counts among its paying clients over 4,000 candidates and ballot measures…VGSC has proven to be tremendously influential in local races in which advertising dollars are limited and voter participation can be 50% less than better known top-of-the-ticket offices….Voters statewide”, they add, being commendably open about their dishonesty, “recognize our familiar graphic design used for 25 years”. 
Our politics are impoverished enough as it is today.  Candidates from the two major parties represent but a sliver of the options that should be available to citizens of a democratic society.  But the entry of so much money into our political structure effectively squeezes out the views of those who do not have the resources to purchase access to voters.
Turnout is already very low in primary elections.  And tragically, it continues to remain low even as primaries assume greater importance: in California these elections now weed out all but the top two candidates, ensuring that alternative viewpoints—Greens and Libertarians, for example—are not even available as options on the November ballot.

So it is all the more depressing to think about the number of people who will be influenced by moneyed interests and the candidates with the power—thanks, by and large, to moneyed interests—to buy voters’ attention.  Californians should turn out to vote next week, and they should do so having taken some time to familiarize themselves with candidates and initiatives by consulting a variety of sources, and not simply the dishonest mailers masquerading as disinterested guides. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

An Opportunity to Acknowledge the Folly of War

Passed three days after September 11, 2001, the Authorization for Use of Military Force provided the President of the United States with the ability to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons, in order to prevent any future acts of international terrorism against the United States by such nations, organizations or persons”.
This was strikingly broad language that opened the door to an endless and ill-defined war in Afghanistan, which has since been expanded to Pakistan.  In the hands of a criminal, lying Bush administration, it opened the door to an illegal war of aggression in Iraq, which killed over a hundred thousand people, destroyed the country’s institutions and infrastructure, and transplanted Al Qaeda to a place where it had hitherto not existed.
Subsequently, this language has led to the indiscriminate use of drones to murder U.S. and foreign citizens without due process.  It has the United States fighting shadow wars in Somalia, Yemen, and other parts of Africa and the Middle East that our security state won’t even tell us about.  It helped to lay the groundwork for torture, abductions, rendition, and a host of other activities all associated with our War of Terror, none of which have made our country safer in the long-term, and most of which have visited horrific forms of barbarism on the people of other countries.
Incredibly, out of the more than five hundred members of Congress across both houses and both parties, only a single voice was raised in protest of the decision to grant the President such far-reaching powers.  The dissenting voice was Congresswoman Barbara Lee from the Bay Area, who delivered her dissent in a measured and tearful tone and voice that earned her “death threats, accusations of treason, and for a time…24-hour protection from the Capitol police”. 
In other words, our representatives, almost down to an individual, thought that just three days after an attack on the United States they possessed all of the information they needed in order to decide that the best thing to do was to abdicate their responsibility to safeguard the public interest and instead grant the President the power to wage war whenever, wherever, and however he saw fit. 
There were no questions, there were no qualifications, and there was no sense that perhaps meeting violence with violence, and acting on emotion rather than analysis, could be dangerous.
There was no interest in calibrating a response to the attacks based on any understanding of their motive.  There was no thought given as to what it might mean to launch a war unhinged from our professed values and un-moored from the restraints characteristically placed on the use of military violence by the state.
Twelve days after the attacks on New York and Washington, D.C., Barbara Lee explained her vote in Congress, arguing that to vote yes would have been to write a “blank check to the president to attack anyone involved in the Sept. 11 events—anywhere, in any country, without regard to our nation’s long term foreign policy, economic, and national security interests, and without time limits…..The Congress”, she maintained, “should have waited for the facts to be presented and then acted with fuller knowledge of the consequences of our action”.
On the day she opposed the bill, Lee pleaded that “some of us must urge the use of restraint.  Our country is in a state of mourning.  Some of us must say, let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today so that this does not spiral out of control”.  She closed her brief remarks by quoting a clergyman who had urged that “as we act, let us not become the evil that we deplore”. 
Nearly as many U.S. citizens have died in Afghanistan as were killed on 9/11.  Far more U.S. citizens were killed in Iraq than during the 9/11 attacks, without even counting the military contractors.  And well over 100,000 people have been killed in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, and other, un-acknowledged fronts of the War of Terror that has brought so little in terms of security, peace, or happiness to our country or any other part of the world.

Our military, at the behest of bloodthirsty neocons and with the backing of our supine representatives, has whirled through these countries with no regard for the transformations that bombing campaigns, kidnappings, torture prisons, or use of mercenaries will wreak on the lives of the people who we bomb, conquer, and leave to pick up their shattered lives.
We have deployed force with no regard for how it will contribute to terrorism that is driven by discontent, alienation, and the economic struggles of youth around the globe who feel that violence is their best way out.
Today, a few members of Congress are laying the ground for the repeal of the Authorization for Use of Military Force.  Repeal would not undo any of the damage that our precipitate and thoughtless actions unleashed on the world.  It would not mark a significant shift in the outlook of the executive branch or likely, in the conduct of our foreign policy.
But it would suggest that we might be—over a decade on—beginning to learn from our folly, and that we understand that writing blank checks for the use of violence is not a moral, appropriate, or productive way of governing our relations with our fellow global citizens.

Friday, May 16, 2014

Obama Administration Looks to Cut International Education Fund

The discussion is about the Fulbright Program, an enterprise that dates from an alto ether more optimistic, communitarian, and high-minded era, but which today faces cuts from the U.S. government.  One of a bevy of programs created after the Second World War, the program is described on the State Department website as the “flagship international educational exchange program sponsored by the U.S. government and is designed to increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and the people of other countries”.
Today, a whole generation of children in the United States has grown up under a government that believes that it can kill its way out of any problem, and that the blunt instrument of the U.S. military is all that is needed to make the U.S. safe and the world peaceful.  Our country increasingly seems committed to creating a global wilderness that it can then call a peace.
The Fulbright program, funded by the U.S. government as well as foreign governments and some private sources, provides for educational exchanges.  American students can go abroad on programs of study and research, and academics and professionals can use the program for research and teaching purposes abroad.  Foreign students and researchers in turn come to the United States to study. 
The program is a prestigious one (I applied at the end of my undergraduate studies without success), and I’ve met many Fulbright scholars over the years who do wonderful work across many fields. 
There have been many international efforts over the years to bring people from different nations together in pursuit of common problems, or at least to initiate conversations about those problems.  I live at an International House, an institution representative of one such effort.
Many of these efforts focus on the bonds between cultural and economic elites, operating under the assumption that if such people can understand one another, all will be well.  That we live in an age dominated by a global plutocracy suggests some obvious faults with such a model. 
The Fulbright is a more meritocratic version of this model, and one that focuses on education rather than social networking amongst elites.  Participants, who number over 300,000, “do research, provide technical assistance, and serve as English teaching assistants, usually in underserved communities with limited access to native speakers of English”. 
I obviously don’t have any idea what the Obama Administration is thinking when it suggests $30 million in cuts to a program which is so obviously beneficial in its transmission and creation of knowledge, its contribution to global dialogue, and its promotion of a more humane side of the U.S. than our jingoistic foreign policy.
One critic of the cuts pointed out not only what a small amount of money (representing a fair-sized chunk of Fulbright’s budget) the cut is to the federal government, and how necessary a dose of internationalism is to a country in which “only about 1% of American college students ever study abroad.  Fewer than 20% speak more than one language—a figure that includes immigrants for whom English comes second or third”. 
The same critic noted that divestment from the Fulbright will be accompanied by a shift of funding toward more militaristic and client-based programs “whose aim is to identify and cultivate the locals we can do business with in countries that may or may not welcome our outreach, or our handpicked young leaders either”. 
Fulbright creates open and unconditional dialogue with no strings attached, away from the supervision of people pushing the nationalist agendas that have wreaked no end of havoc on the world.  This dialogue often centres on common aspirations and problems.  The replacement model will likely consist of one-way directives from Washington to those prepared to sing from its hymnbook. 
Too often our country seems paranoid, close-minded, and incapable of understanding the perspectives of our fellow global citizens.  We are not alone, by any means, in possessing these characteristics, but because we remain a powerful country, critical to the functioning of any rational world order, our character and behavior matter a great deal.  And so when our paranoia and close-mindedness generates violence, uncertainty, and inequity in the world, no one stands to gain.

The Fulbright program is a small thing, but one that has the potential to go a long way toward putting people in contact with each other.  That the Obama administration—confronted by bloat in a war machine that seems incapable of acting in the public or global interest—would decide to cut a program that could not but do good, even if it is a small good, says much about its priorities, and much about why our international order is broken. 

Nigeria and Kenya Must Balance Citizens' Demands for Action with the Need for Civic Unity

Africa has been in the news for much of the past couple of weeks because of the kidnapping of a group of students in Nigeria by Boko Haram, a militant fundamentalist group which shares with fellow religious fundamentalists around the world dissatisfaction with many of the elements of modern life.  However, Boko Haram goes farther than most, having embraced a campaign of terror directed at both civilians and government personnel across the country from its base in the north.

The group has been buoyed by historic divisions between north and south, religious and cultural divides, and the failure of the Nigerian government to deliver on its promises to beleaguered citizens even as the country’s wealth is sucked out of southern oilfields by multinationals that employ private armies to protect their oceanic oil platforms.

But if the violence that Boko Haram is unleashing on Nigeria is partially a result of the government’s failure to tame corruption and use a redistribution of wealth to head off fundamentalism, it also exposes the lack of trust that Nigerian citizens have in their state.  It is arguably the case that the government’s response to Boko Haram has been hamstrung by the lack of trust in the military, an institution with a history of meddling in the country’s politics, which have suffered from a number of coups, as well as a cataclysmic civil war, since independence.

The government’s response to Boko Haram’s attacks on schools (which per its name it sees as egregious examples of “Westernisation” and modernity) has been anemic, ineffective, or nonexistent, depending on who you ask.  International social media campaigns and a vocal Nigerian civil society have put increasing pressure on the government to act.

But there are reasons to beware of the action which could result from this pressure from citizens to do something—anything—to combat the group which is striking at the country’s youth with seeming impunity in places—schools—where they should be safe.

Earlier today in Kenya, what police are calling IED’s exploded in Nairobi, killing around 12 people and injuring scores more. For several years now Kenya’s cities have been increasingly besieged by Al Shabaab (presumed to be responsible for the latest bombing), a group affiliated with Al Qaeda that operates in the Horn of Africa and south.  Its power in Somalia was shaken when in 2011 the Kenyan government launched Operation Linda Nchi, an effort to secure its northern borders which took the form of its military crossing the border to engage Al Shabaab in Somalia.

Kenya was joined by Ethiopia, and received assistance from the United States.  The firepower the two countries brought to bear was much greater than anything Al Shabaab could muster.  But even as the formal operation wound down and the Kenyan forces were folded under the command of an African Union mission, the weakness of their position was exposed.

Not only was the Kenyan military accused by Somalis of abuse and atrocities, but Al Shabaab took the fight to Kenya’s cities, with bombs and grenade attacks in cities in the north, Nairobi, and the coast.  Those attacks have become increasingly regular, and are shaking Kenya’s civil society to its core.  In my visits over the past several years, Nairobi is increasingly on edge, with ever more security measures in place.  The attack on the Westgate Mall in an affluent neighbourhood drew international attention to a terror campaign that had been going on for a couple of years by that point.

But it is not just Kenyans’ sense of security which has been threatened by the impunity with which Al Shabaab seems to operate.  Their sense of community is equally fragile.  There are many Somalis living in Kenya—some for generations—and this community has become the focus of security efforts, which typically come in the form of massive sweeps through Somali neighbourhoods after each bombing.

The profiling, the sweeps, and the harrowing interrogations which follow are splitting Kenya and are at odds with the language of unity deployed by the government.  But the security measures which seem so repressive to Kenyan Somalis stem from the demand by Kenya’s citizenry that the government take some kind of action to reduce the sense of insecurity that Al Shabaab has created.

I would argue that the Kenyan security services are in danger of becoming Al Shabaab’s best recruitment tool as their measures create the very divisions that the group describes as existing in Kenyan society as a subsidiary gripe to its promotion of fundamentalism (the organisations name invokes “the youth”, the demographic group already most marginalized within both Kenya and Nigeria).  As the United States has always found, meeting terror with terror can legitimate the very organization whose goals a state power seeks to defeat. 

If Nigeria follows Kenya’s lead in using massive military force, and with targeting entire communities, it will be in danger of facing an even more deadly threat to its abilities not only to maintain order, but to even maintain a sense that “Nigeria” is a worthwhile civic project for its citizens. 

The United States faces its own challenges in responding to these events in Africa.  On the one hand, the urgency of the situation in Nigeria, in which schoolchildren effectively become hostages within their own country, seems to demand action.  On the other, a foreign military presence, however small, could prove inflammatory and counterproductive.

There is also the temptation for the United States to absorb groups like Boko Haram and Al Shabaab into the global War of Terror it wages with more violence than thought (and Al Shabaab is already a target of U.S. military operations).  Some in the U.S. government have claimed that the two groups are seeking to merge, by way of advocating for a stronger military response. 

The claim has been countered by others who contend that the aims of both groups remain essentially local, and that the best way to create a real threat to the United States, and to link the two would be to take military action on the false-supposition that they are part of a wider conspiracy against the United States.  This is a view to which I would hope that most people are receptive after we saw what happened when we acted on the Bush administration’s lies equating Al Qaeda with the Saddam Hussein regime, with the result that our own military intervention transplanted Al Qaeda to Iraq.

The governments of both Nigeria and Kenya face an unenviable position.  Certain security measures are clearly in order in the short term to protect their countries’ citizens.  But the line between proportionate and effective action, and action which could create a crisis of greater and more serious proportions is one which is easy to cross, particularly when a panicky government is being egged on by a xenophobic or irate citizenry. 

The root causes of both insurgencies are social, cultural, and economic, and the solutions will ultimately have to be of the same character.  But because any solutions will take time both to reason out no less implement, the Kenyan and Nigerian governments are forced to deal with questions not only of proportion, but of time, and must balance these against one another.

My own hope is that those governments can learn from one another’s experiences and those of other nations and resist the temptation to meet violent force with their own indiscriminate force in a way which will fracture their national communities.  But this will necessitate much introspection not only on the part of authorities, but of citizens and communities in both countries.