Monday, June 30, 2014

Nevada Students are Right to Critique Clinton's Shameless Profiteering

Hillary Clinton has never hidden her close relationship with the country’s plutocrats.  This relationship has been best encapsulated by her participation in the speaking industry, something that, together with her husband’s efforts, has earned the Clintons tens of millions of dollars.

It was while speaking at an exclusive event to Goldman Sachs employees that Clinton dismissed Occupy Wall Street and its message about the danger of inequality as “unproductive and indeed foolish”.  Clinton was paid $200,000 to offer her endorsement of plutocracy, and perhaps it was the fact that she has been spending so much time in the company of the 1% that caused her to bemoan her poverty in 2001 during a recent book tour, explaining the travails of having to pay off the mortgages for several “houses”.   
Whatever the cause of her abject failure to understand what it means to be poor, Hillary Clinton is showing that she is willing to take money not just from the wealthiest people in the country, but also from public institutions.
CNN recently reported that Hillary Clinton was being paid $225,000 to speak at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas in the fall.  Students, who will be subjected to a 17% tuition increase at that public university, were understandably perturbed, and “are asking the former secretary of state to return the speaking fee”.
UNLV’s response is reminiscent of that made by California’s universities to criticisms of outrageous levels of executive compensation: that the fact that the quarter million dollars has been sourced from “private donations” makes it all okay.
But for me, that’s not an answer that satisfies.  It becomes a question of priorities.  If the University is capable of raising large sums of money privately, should that money be spent on paying already spectacularly wealthy celebrity politicians to come and deliver homilies, or should it automatically be put towards offsetting the burdens that the states are putting on students?  Should it be used to raise the University’s profile, and thereby solicit more donations (which could be interpreted as an admission that the University is prepared to abandon a public model of funding), or should it be invested in the people who ought to be the University’s prime constituency: those who study and work there?
These priorities affect the public standing of public universities.  UNLV might gain some coverage and attract some donations by playing host to a leading neoconservative, neoliberal politician who might very well be President in just over two years’ time.  But Nevada voters are likely to remember the next time they are asked to pay into the public university system that the priorities of the university’s leadership does not match the community’s priorities for its students. 
The money which UNLV is prepared to pay Clinton could cover the tuition of about 40 students for the 2014-15 year.  That’s nothing to sniff at when student debt is now the most significant source of debt for the public outside of mortgages.  What does smell distinctly fishy is the notion that public institutions should be funneling money to people who are ostensibly public servants for things like speeches.
Clinton is trying to quiet her critics by pointing out that fact the quarter million dollars will not go straight to her wallet.  Instead, it will be directed to the Clintons’ self-promoting Foundation which allows them to hobnob with celebrities and world leader even when they hold no democratic power

I’m not sure that the defenses offered by either UNLV or the Clinton camp are reassuring.  They do convince me, however, that elites in our society—whether university administrators or would-be presidential candidates from the 1%--have yet to comprehend how offensive and damaging their casual disregard for the welfare of the public is, particularly when the people offended by their actions are on the margins of our society: indebted students, the poor or homeless, the sick and uninsured, or those whose rights are in the balance.  They convince me that we need to demand a different kind of conduct in public, which reflects a different, more communitarian set of values. 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Zambia Through the Pages of History

My internal clock is telling me that I should be in Zambia this time of year, toiling happily away at the National Archives in Lusaka, one of the more pleasant places I’ve done historical research.

Because for a variety of reasons I am not in Lusaka, I am having to content myself by skimming through some files about the decolonization process in Zambia and reading a few books about the country’s history.  There are three on my desk at the moment.  One is something of a classic, and the other two are more recent works of historical scholarship.
Robert Rotberg’s The Rise of Nationalism in Central Africa: the Making of Malawi and Zambia, 1873-1964 is one of the earlier texts out there on nationalism in African history.  Published just a year after Zambia won its independence, the book argues for early origins to what would only later emerge as full-blown nationalism in the sense that we know it.
The next is Susan Williams’ Who Killed Hammarskjöld? The UN, the Cold War and White Supremacy in Africa.  Williams’ investigations into the plane crash in Northern Rhodesia (then Zambia) which killed Dag Hammarskjöld as the UN Secretary-General sought to mediate a war in the Congo brings to light a number of troubling inconsistencies surrounding earlier narratives of and investigations into the ‘accident’.  Enough so that readers are left with little opportunity but to believe that some group of individuals committed murder in Northern Zambia.  Williams’ archival travails further suggest that even if the United States and Britain did not connive in Hammarskjöld’s death, they have likely been complicit in hiding evidence that would shed light on the mystery. 
That this drama played out in Zambia, then still a British colony, is a reminder of the lengths to which opponents of liberation movements were prepared to go to ensure the maintenance of colonial and corporate power (often twinned) on the continent in the face of demands for independence, democracy, and majority rule.
Hugh Macmillan’s The Lusaka Years: The ANC in Exile in Zambia takes this narrative past Zambian independence to the formative years during which South Africa’s primary liberation group, the African National Congress, used the Zambian capital as its headquarters in exile. 
I’m only just beginning this book, but I look forward to reading about how the highways and byways of Lusaka, a city I’ve grown to enjoy during my stays there, moulded and were themselves shaped by the continent’s most fabled liberation organization.  Zambia’s first president, Kenneth Kaunda, who is today one of very few living leaders from the immediate years after independence, was of the view that his own country could never be truly free so long as it was threatened by the Rhodesian regime which had illegally declared its independence from Britain, and by the apartheid government in South Africa which pursued an aggressive policy of social, economic, and political destabilization against countries on its border as it sought to sustain its brand of colonialism in a world which was increasingly rejecting colonialism as a model of social organization. 
It was against this backdrop that the ANC set up shop in Lusaka, alongside groups from Southwest Africa, Rhodesia, and Mozambique.  Macmillan is not simply describing what the ANC did in Lusaka, but contributing to debates about how the experience of exile shaped the ANC, the governing party in South Africa since 1994.
I’ll list a few other summer reads I’ve enjoyed (sadly only non-fiction to this point), and hope that you’ll add some recommendations of your own:
David Unger, The Emergency State: America’s Pursuit of Absolute Security at All Costs.
Luke Harding, The Snowden Files: The Inside Story of the World’s Most Wanted Man.
Raymond Jonas, The Battle of Adwa: African Victory in the Age of Empire.
Elizabeth Warren,  A Fighting Chance.

Jerry Brown Confuses "Ideas" With "Problems"

It must be hard to be told as a politician that there is virtually nothing you can do to improve your chances of winning an election for a major office.  The real kicker would be pollsters and pundits indicating that your opponent could die and still triumph at the polls.

Such is the lot of Neel Kashkari, memorably described by Matt Taibbi as “The 35 year-old dingbat from Goldman someone put in charge of handing out $700 billion bailout dollars”.  After that brief but wildly successful career serving the welfare of the same plutocratic interest that tanked the economy in the first place, Kashkari got it into his head that he would make a good Governor of California.  Residents of the Golden State are inclined to disagree, favouring incumbent Jerry Brown by over twenty points.  It’s early in the campaign, but given the unpopularity of the GOP’s economic fundamentalism and its long and troubled reign over the state vis-à-vis undemocratic supermajority rules, voters are unlikely to experience a serious change of heart.

And some pundits suspect that even if Jerry Brown keeled over after a campaign rally (not that he’s likely to have to hold many of those), “there’s a good chance that most voters would pick a dead Brown (and, by extension, a live Gavin Newsom) over a live Kashkari”. 

It’s a pity that this insipid right-wing establishment candidate, who has nothing of interest to say about the public good that his party has spent the last couple of decades trashing, is the only challenger Jerry Brown will face in November.  Because Brown himself represents right-wing conventional wisdom about how to manage the economy at the expense of the individuals who comprise our society.

And Jerry Brown is also very confused. 

The same night that he won nearly 55% of the vote in a field of 15 candidates, 35 points ahead of the closest competitor, Brown was asked about a policy agenda for the election and the next four years.  The governor was typically dismissive, sniffing as he dismissed the premise behind the reporter’s question.

“It’s not just proposing new ideas”, the Governor replied (beginning around the 3:20 mark), “We’ve got a lot of ideas.  Now we gotta make them work.  We have problems about water and the drought, we have issues of public safety and the courts telling us we have to reduce our prison population.  We have a lot of low-income families that need healthcare and also need special help when it comes to school.  So all of that is already embodied in law, but I want to go up and down the state making sure we can operationalize it”.

I remember a college history professor enjoining our class never to use a vague pronoun like “it” when something more concrete and identifiable could do a better job of explaining your argument or premise to the reader, advice I do my best to practice and pass on to my students.  Of course, she was assuming that clarity was our ambition in communicating, and it’s a good job she never had Jerry Brown in the classroom.

Because the Governor’s statement is astonishing.  Not only are we unsure as to what the “it” at the end of the sentence actually refers, there is a basic confusion between “ideas” and “problems”, which most people will agree are not the same thing.  The confusion is more than grammatical, and will prove fatal to California if voters do not demand greater clarity from the Governor.

The idea that we have good solutions—“embodied in law”—to our problems with natural resource allocation, chronic poverty, underemployment, the impoverishment of our education sphere, our broken prison system, and our mangled political structure is risible.  The notion that all we need is for Jerry Brown to don his hard hat and swing up and down the state looking over municipalities’ shoulders to make sure all is in good working order is absurd.

Unlike my history teacher, Jerry Brown is not interested in clarity.  Most of his political career has been based around triangulation and obfuscation.  He overwhelms the press with juicy quotes and enough homilies to fill miles of column inches, counting on them not to notice that he has provided them with information either totally void of content or else with content that is entirely inaccurate or contradictory, as in this case.

The confusion of “ideas” with “problems”, and the total absence of “solutions”, fits with Brown’s cynical view of his role as Governor.  He sees his task as being to manage rather than mend our crippled state, his diagnosis having convinced him that our ills are of a chronic and incurable variety.  This conveniently lets the Governor off the hook, and fits in with his strategy of ballot-box budgeting, where he lazily passes the buck to voters without making any structural adjustments to integrate the approach with our system’s already-strained use of direct democracy.

Brown’s GOP rival is unlikely to have any interest or luck in holding the Governor to account for these faults, and so it will fall to those members of our society most affected or offended by Brown’s neglect of the poor, the young, the sick, or the weak to pressure him into doing his job.  But further responsibility rests with the media which has spent the last five years giving the Governor a free pass.  Journalists should start subjecting the Governor’s program of crippling austerity to greater scrutiny, and they could start by questioning his claim that we don’t need new policies or ideas to reclaim our state for the public. 

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Hillary Clinton Reinterprets the Arab Spring

The last time I tried to write a critical post of the former Secretary of State, my computer crashed…crackpot conspiracy theorists could have a field day with that!

There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of the manner in which the Obama Administration handled the Arab Spring, a series of popular democratic uprisings against authoritarian and undemocratic regimes across the Middle East.
Many condemned the administration for waffling over its support of majoritarian, always initially peaceful, idealistic protesters.  You could be understandably frustrated with the fact that for too long the administration allowed arms deals, the whispers of the sadists in the security state, and long U.S. alliances with brutal dictatorial leaders to stand in the way of popular protesters who spoke the language of democracy both fluently and passionately, and who looked to the U.S. as an example.
From both a moral and practical standpoint, the administration lost out by standing by the dictators for too long, both because those dictators felt more free to use violence against protester when they knew they had the tacit support of the U.S. and because, when democracy won the day in many cases, people remembered that the U.S. had refused to support their cause—a cause which we like to claim as our own.
In other cases, the U.S. stood mute as authoritarian, fundamentalist monarchies like Saudi Arabia helped dictators in neighbouring states like Bahrain put down protests with dramatic violence.
So while there are many reasons to be displeased with the response of the U.S. to these democratic risings—which when they grew ugly often did so because of violence which could have been avoided if the U.S. had sided with people against their rulers—then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is being creative in her criticisms of the administration.
According to the Guardian, Clinton “includes herself among an old guard of cautious realists such as vice-President Joe Biden, national security adviser Tom Donilon and defense secretary Robert Gates who were at odds with a younger generation of White House aides ‘swept up in the drama and idealism of the moment’”.
The paper described how “[Clinton] pushed for Hosni Mubarak to transition power to his successor but was overruled by President Barack Obama”.  The final decision to withdraw support from Mubarak was one of the good calls by the otherwise paralysed President, trapped as he was between the demands of most Egyptian citizens on the one hand and the anti-democratic, pro-authoritarian Congressional GOP and key cabinet officers like Clinton.
Allowing Mubarak—a brutal dictator in control of a vicious secret police—to set the terms of the transition would have made a mockery of democracy.  The Guardian cites as potential evidence for Clinton’s claim “the turbulent path [Egypt] has taken since Mubarak stepped down amid violent street protests more than three years ago”.  But that turbulence is partly a product of the refusal of Egypt’s military—armed and backed by the United States—to respect the results of the election that followed Mubarak’s ouster, and the military’s deliberate generation of violence and uncertainty.
What I think Clinton and the Guardian are trying to say, but are struggling with, is that the former Senator and Secretary of State, while in office, was a good friend to and strong advocate for vicious dictators and murderous thugs, and worked to undermine the success of the organic and democratic uprisings that shook much of the Middle East during the Arab Spring. 
Clinton is trying to explain, in that special, mangled way that she and her husband have when working overtime to re-write the record, that all of her rhetoric about human rights and democracy is so much rubbish as compared to her substantive record, according to which she is one of the foremost advocates of the foreign policy conventional wisdom which has for so long dominated our country.  That conventional wisdom has locked the U.S. and much of the world in a ceaseless and unproductive cycle of violence and pitifully pits the citizens of our country against people in other nations who want, far more often than not, nothing more than to aspire to the same kinds of rights and representation that we take for granted at home.

When her memoir comes out next week we will undoubtedly learn more about the contradictions and hypocrisy at the heart of Clinton’s political machinations on behalf of wealth and power around the world.  But this episode makes clear that if the Secretary of State had her way, the Arab Spring would never have come and that the Middle East would remain even more firmly in the wintry grip of the region’s “Good Old Boys”, a group of degenerate autocrats who maintain their power to a large degree thanks to moral and material support from the United States, once the arsenal of democracy, today the arms bazaar for the world’s ruthless regimes.