Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Danger in Obama's Anti-ISIS Allies

As though refusing to admit that President Bush could have out-done him when it comes to the waging of a series of terroristic wars abroad in the service of phantom “national security” goals, President Obama has launched his version of a war in Iraq—and Syria.  To be sure, the Islamic State, the target of the U.S. military, is a brutal and destabilizing force in the Middle East, and the horrified global reaction to its onslaught on existing states and particularly minorities within those states speaks in part to the fact that we don’t have good models for how to contend with non-state actors behaving in this dangerous fashion.
But if we are in search of a rational response to ISIS that is likely to prove productive, I think that we can rest assured that the President’s bombing campaign and arming of Syrian “rebels” is probably going to be inadequate.
Middle Eastern leaders cut from a variety of cloths seem comparatively unified in their fear of ISIS at the moment—although some of that fear might be posturing, in the knowledge that it distracts from their own butchery, as in the case of Assad, in Syria, or the Israeli government—and we can hope that many of their citizens and subjects feel similar loathing.
But the fact remains that U.S. bombing campaigns, never quite as clean and precise as our rogue security services would have us believe, have a way of serving the cause of their targets in the long term even if their violence might cause momentary dismay.  An attack by outsiders—particularly when those outsiders have a history of launching brutal wars of aggression—has a way of rallying disparate elements of any society. 
And an attack by Obama’s patchwork coalition lacks the imprimatur associated with a proper police or military action undertaken with more global consensus under the aegis of the United Nations.  That such a consensus is so difficult to secure is in itself, of course, a testament to the devotion with which the U.S, the USSR, China, Britain, and France work to sabotage the legitimacy and logistical capabilities of the United Nations, by way of reserving power to themselves.
But let’s think about this coalition that the President has assembled.  It includes Britain, the former colonial power in Iraq, and our key ally in our bloody imperial misadventures.  Several other European countries are involved, and Australia and Canada are preparing to participate.
But the Obama administration has been particularly concerned to trumpet the participation of allies variously described as “Arab” or “Muslim” by way of showing that we’re all in it together to defeat ISIS.  These include Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the United Arab Emirates.
Call me a cynic, but to me this coalition represents part of the problem.  These are not nice governments.  They are not democracies.  They are not states that rule with the consent or participation of their people.  On the contrary, they are regimes that have worked hard to undermine the Arab Spring and other manifestations of democratic feeling in the Middle East.  Their rule, and our complicity in it, helped to spawn Al Qaeda and its ilk, the actions of which are given legitimacy by their excoriations of the machinations of these monarchies.
It is no coincidence that Al Qaeda and ISIS alike emphasise their charity and concern for the people of the regimes they attack.  This is designed to position them, however wrongly in most eyes, as a counter to the irresponsible, bloated, monarchic police states against which they contend.
The military forces of these despots might be of use in the short term when it comes to halting ISIS.  But my fear is that in the long term what looks too much like an imperial war involving all the wrong actors will serve to buoy, if not ISIS, then whatever nihilistic, fundamentalist movement inevitably replaces it when the political, social, and economic grievances of people in the region go unanswered by the “authorities”.
To be sure, there are no easy answers to this conundrum.  But it’s striking how little debate has occurred about the proper course of action in the United States.  It was left to the comedians to ask some serious questions: John Oliver poignantly questioned the rationale behind using drones, and Jon Stewart skewered the lack of debate in the United States over military action, and the outlandish claims of Republicans that ISIS will “kill us all”. 
As a nation we clearly have a problem of perspective and imagination when our reaction to any threat is to launch the drones and bombs.  The actions of ISIS might be reprehensible, but their existence demands explanation and suggests that there are factors behind their emergence that will not be answered by any number of missiles launched by the U.S. and its authoritarian allies.  And there are people living in countries who have been attacked by the United States who will wonder why ISIS’ rampage falls into one category, when the extrajudicial killings of the Obama administration, or the murderous war of “Shock and Awe” waged by the Bush administration fall into another.

Our response to this latest threat to peace in our world should cause us to take a long, hard look at our “friends”, and also at our own significant role in the violence and destabilization that spawned ISIS. 

Jerry Brown's Hostility Toward Transparency at the California State University

Yesterday, the Sacramento Bee ran a story about Brown’s decision to sign a bill allowing select California Community Colleges to grant Bachelor’s degrees, as part of a push to increase the numbers of Californians with access to higher education given the shortage of skilled labour in the state.
I have my thoughts about CCCs offering BAs, but I was most interested in an aside in the story about Brown's veto of legislation which "would have required CSU to share performance data from online courses with its faculty academic senate".  Brown has been no friend of open government, and online courses—which as a rule have abysmal retention rates, sometimes in the single digits—are a pet project of his because of their potential for cost-cutting (he's not so concerned about their potential for short-changing, it seems). 
Faculty members are the people offering these courses.  They are the people charged with ensuring that students get a good education.  And the Faculty Senate is their representative body, which should have the tools to assess the work of its members and the policies of the University, the largest system in the country.
The Bee reported Brown as saying, “I am aware of the deep concerns that the sponsor of the bill expressed regarding online courses.  These courses, however, could play an important role in helping to reduce the bottleneck that too often prevents students from graduating on time.  This is one of the reasons I believe that we should not unduly limit the introduction of online courses in the Cal State system”.
On its face, that is an extraordinary statement. 
It is an admission of the fact that there is something troubling in the data that legislators believe faculty representatives should be allowed to see, but which the Governor wishes to hide from them.
It is an admission that if that data were released, the Governor fears that it would limit the introduction of online courses at CSU.
And it is an admission that, building on the previous two, Governor Brown is not really concerned with the quality of students’ education, but rather with pushing them through the system.
There are other barriers to students’ abilities to get through university in a timely fashion. 
Obscenely high tuition—which means the virtual privatization of California’s universities—forces students to take loans or else work long hours, decreasing the time they can devote to their studies.
Jerry Brown has created the conditions that generate these tuition increases, recently equating increased public funding for UC with a “bailout”.  It’s probably news to California’s debt-burdened students that they’re in the same camp with Wall Street plutocrats!
By refusing to fund CSU and UC properly, Brown has allowed the campuses to re-cast themselves as corporate entities, providing services to students who can afford them under the guidance of over-paid and under-performing administrators (at least based on the ability of those administrators to do good for their students and the state).
Brown also just vetoed proposed increases of funding for the two systems, citing overly-rosy property tax estimates.  Brown was more than happy to cite those estimates—which some warned from the beginning were off-base—when trumpeting his mythical “California Comeback”, and is now happy to use their re-working to justify denying funding to the state’s preeminent public institutions.
On the subject of property tax, not only was Brown’s laziness in the 1970s responsible for Prop 13 (which removed discretion when it comes to the use of property taxes as a stabilizing revenue stream and instituted the undemocratic supermajority rules, of which his current austerity drive is an inevitable consequence); he has refused to use his third term to address the inequities in a property tax structure which treats corporate property owners and homeowners the same way.
The charge-sheet against Governor Jerry Brown is a lengthy one.  His approach to higher education is based on unaccountability, on forcing students through the system without heed for the quality of the education they receive, and on the reduction of public funding for public institutions so that he can run on what sounds very much like a right-wing platform.
California’s universities, their students, and their faculty deserve far better.  And so does the state, the future of which depends on its ability to re-tool its economy and public sphere to address the inequality which has come to define too many Californians’ lives.

Monday, September 29, 2014

European History, Day 10

Last Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV we tackled the French Revolution.  If you’re thinking that zipping through arguably one of the most important events of the last four hundred years—an event many historians use to mark the beginning of “modern” history—in just over an hour sounds absurd, you’re correct!
And to add to the absurdity, the first part of class was spent on an exercise getting students to think about how to combine primary and secondary sources with an aim to asking good historical questions of an appropriate scale for a research project they might do for a class like ours.  Each of six groups of students was given a different source, along with the “master list” of all six sources.  They had to determine whether their source was “primary” or “secondary”, what its “takeaway” was, how it fit with the other six sources, what research questions they could ask based on this grouping of sources, and what kind of additional information or source material they would need to be successful in their research.
We reconvened as a class and discussed their ideas.  Only time will tell if it was worth sacrificing some of the little time we had to deal with the French Revolution, but I enjoyed hearing students thoughts develop as they scrutinized the sources.
Being even more pressed for time than before, we talked our way through the French Revolution in lieu of lecture, using the five short texts the students had read.  These allowed us to discuss the organization of French society and politics before the Revolution, identify key grievances of revolutionaries, discuss the rhetoric those revolutionaries deployed as they took power (and compare and contrast it to the language of the U.S. constitution), and discuss the limitations of the Revolution.
Students seemed most interested in material from Olympe de Gouges, a feminist critic of a “Declaration of Rights of Man and Citizen” which left women out; and Maximilien Robespierre, whose discussion of “terror” and “virtue” marked a turning point of the Revolution.  This sparked an interesting discussion about the balance between “liberty” and “order” which was just getting going when the clock called time on class.
Hopefully we’ll be able to return to the discussion in the coming days and weeks.

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Yellowstone Wolves Should Provoke Thought About Our Own Interconnectedness

In science classes at school I always loved those diagrams that showed interconnectedness in ecosystems or habitats, and how moving one animal or plant out of the equation could lead to other, unanticipated changes.  A friend posted a link to a video the other day that does a very nice job of illustrating the role of wolves in shaping populations, habitats, and ecosystems in Yellowstone National Park. 
It illustrates how the reintroduction of these predators has transformed prey populations, increased the diversity of other species, “restored” denuded habitats and, as the title suggests, changed the course of a river.
The role of wolves in shaping the Yellowstone ecosystem is an old one that has been well-documented for the last hundred odd years.  Alston Chase has a most interesting book titled Playing God in Yellowstone: the Destruction of America’s First National Park that walks readers through an earlier episode of management folly, wherein ill-informed park managers and hunters destroyed the park’s predators with an aim to increasing the elk population.
The result was a fundamentally-altered habitat that led to cataclysmic die-offs of elk well beyond anything wolves could have ever caused.  In contrast to this earlier disaster, the reintroduction of wolves in the last two decades—despite the controversy they inevitably spark amongst their human neighbors—has so far been to all appearances a boon for the park ecosystem.
A friend who watched the video commented, how nice it would be if the benefits of interconnectedness that were demonstrated in the natural world could be applied to our understandings of human societies.  Because poverty, inequality, environmental degradation, and corrosion of our institutions and politics are not problems which remain isolated.

Eventually, in one way or another, no one will be free from their effects, and understanding that we are members of connected communities rather than disaffected individuals could go a long way toward curing our ills. 

Saturday, September 27, 2014

Jerry Brown's Tax Pledge Antics

In 2010, California gubernatorial candidate Jerry Brown missed an opportunity.  Brown could have run on a platform of political reform, with a promise to address California’s dangerous democratic deficit.  Or he could have run while sponsoring a series of reform-minded initiatives, designed to create a situation in which he could have got his first term off to a productive start.  Or, he could have run on an idealistic progressive platform designed to create electoral coat-tails for other Democrats with an eye toward capturing supermajorities in the Senate and Assembly.

Instead, Brown ran on a very simple, very stupid pledge.  He would not, he pledged, ever attempt to raise taxes without the approval of voters.  He was prepared, in other words, to abandon his role as governor, and ask legislators to give up all of their discretion, and operate on a two-year budget cycle subject not to the structured deliberations of elected representatives or an integrated direct democracy process designed to function alongside existing institutions.  No, Brown’s pledge means that California operates on two-year cycles that are governed according to who can muster up the most corporate dollars for ad-buys and propaganda. 

Like the economic fundamentalists of the Republican Party who governed the state from the minority (thanks to undemocratic supermajority requirements imposed by Proposition 13, passed under Brown’s watch in 1978) having pledged away the use of their grey cells to Howard Jarvis, Brown dispensed with the discretion associated with good policymaking.  In a conventional political system, good economic times could lead to higher taxes to invest in public services.  In difficult times, a measure of redistribution might be necessary.  In light of demographic stabilization, tax cuts might be in order.  But Brown’s pledge-based ballot-box budgeting does away with this discretion.

The result was two years of the worst austerity this state has seen during which Brown, eager to prove his “fiscal responsibility”, pillaged our public services for “savings” which came at a tremendous social and economic cost to the working class, students, children, the elderly, the sick, the homeless, and those with no voice in our society.

Relying on an initiative to pass Prop 30, an inadequate band-aid, set a dangerous precedent.  It sent the message that it was good politics—even if bad policy, and horrifically immoral—for politicians to abdicate responsibility and pass the buck to a fickle public which exercises its democratic rights in a piecemeal fashion which puts the initiative system structurally at odds with our representative system.

Now Brown is running for Governor again, and the Sacramento Bee reported that “Brown declined to say Friday if he will maintain the pledge he made in 2010 not to raise taxes without a public vote” in his fourth term.   Brown’s response, which focused on the water bond and rainy day fund initiatives he is pushing suggested that additional revenue for California’s still-beleaguered public sphere was not a priority.  Indeed, the idea of a mandated rainy day fund operates on the misguided premise that even in hard times like these, when schools and universities have a long way to go before they recover, it makes sense to redirect any surplus funds to a rainy-day fund rather than to people who are struggling amidst an on-going social and economic downpour.

While Brown’s refusal to commit himself to another silly, debilitating pledge will undoubtedly frustrate some of his critics, his refusal to address California’s democratic deficit—and the damage that such pledges do to the state given the structural inadequacies of its institutions—is even more frustrating. 

Commentators have praised Brown’s accomplishments, ignoring his two-year punitive assault on the public sphere, which has now been followed by two years of neglect or unhelpful devolution.  But they also ignore the fact that those accomplishments Brown has managed to wring out of our system are due to a unique set of circumstances which are unlikely to be replicated with any future governor, all but ensuring that in a post-Brown California we will return to an even greater state of gridlock absent any efforts at political reform.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

European History, Day 9

A more human representation of Baartman than the caricatures which defined her image in the 19th century.
Our lecture last Thursday in European History Since 1648 at UNLV explored the Enlightenment as it had long been assessed by historians and its own philosophes: as associated with reason, with rational government, with the accumulation of knowledge, with the ordering of that knowledge, and with ideas of liberty of thought and action.
Today we explored some of the harsher realities of the Enlightenment: the limits of its applicability and the violence that its desire for order and hierarchy could inflict on human beings when its claims about universality passed them over.
We watched Zola Maseko’s film, The Life and Times of Sara Baartman.  The eponymous historical figure was a young Khoisan woman abducted in South Africa and transported to London, where she was exhibited as a “freak” to European audiences, gaining renown as the “Hottentot Venus”, a not-quite-human creature in the eyes of onlookers.
Baartman eventually arrived in Paris where she was the subject of prurient “scientific” examination.  Even in death her tormentors did not leave her in peace: her body was dismembered and her genitalia—part of what Enlightened Europeans believed defined her inhumanity—and skeleton were displayed in the Musee de l’Homme.
The film is sobering, but at its conclusion the class had a thoughtful conversation about how features of the Enlightenment permitted or even encouraged the demarcation of difference and the dehumanization that Sarah Baartman’s experience illustrates so tragically.  Students also drew some parallels with some of the ways in which people are objectified or enslaved today, along both gendered and racial lines.

On Thursday we will begin exploring the first of two revolutions that shook Europe’s political and ideological foundations during the late-eighteenth century.