Wednesday, October 21, 2015

How the Media Won't Report on John Brennan's E-Mails

Not since the death of Osama bin Laden will the contents of a leading terrorist's e-mails have been subjected to such scrutiny (public, in this case).  Unlike Bin Laden, who led a non-state terrorist organization which in its latter years lacked any significant capacity to inflict damage on its stated enemy, the United States, Brennan is a high-ranking official in the security state that has over time shredded the rights of its own citizens, and heads the CIA, a highly active and destructive terrorist organization that has presided over global campaigns of torture, disappearance, and other crimes against humanity.  Brennan’s organization has repeatedly violated international law and has generated new threats to the public it claims to serve.

Brennan is best known for presiding over a series of terrorist attacks using predator drones that have claimed the lives of thousands of innocent civilians in South Asia, the Middle East, the Horn of Africa, and the Sahel.  The global public will undoubtedly read with interest the contents of his e-mails.  Brennan and other state terrorists in the regime, including past leaders like George W Bush and Dick Cheney, have been protected from prosecution by the failure of their country to sign many international legal accords, and by current President, Barack Obama, who has shielded the security state from scrutiny, while enhancing its capacity to commit acts of terror around the world in the name of the public interest, while failing to disclose how the global war of, on, and by terror relates to the bread and butter issues that occupy the minds of most Americans and other global citizens.

The complicity of many American officials, including a leading presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, in decisions that led to the expansion of state terrorism makes it unlikely that Brennan and his colleagues will face accountability any time soon.  

Monday, October 19, 2015

Media’s Debate Verdict Leaves Unanswered Questions about Clinton’s Record and Journalism

The mainstream media widely hailed former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton as the “winner” of last week’s Democratic presidential primary debate in Las Vegas.  But the way in which they did so illustrates the failure of journalists to do their job, the manner in which celebrity journalism distorts narratives around politics, and the way in which defective journalism lets Hillary Clinton off the hook.

Immediately after the debate it hosted, CNN released a poll showing that 81% of viewers on facebook believed that Bernie Sanders won the debate, while a mere 13% came away convinced that Clinton had won.  Now that’s not necessarily a scientific poll, but CNN’s completely unsubstantiated verdict was far worse journalism:

“Hillary Clinton”, the network declared, under the banner “Winner”, “proved without a doubt Tuesday night why she is the Democratic Party’s presidential frontrunner.  Clinton remained unflappable throughout the debate, showcasing her political experience and her command of the issues—all the while deftly handling criticism of her flip-flops and displaying a humor that put a more human face to her oft-criticized candidacy”.  Their “source” for this verdict, was Obama strategist David Axlerod, who said that Clinton did “very well”.

I remember a high school journalist teacher warning our class about the danger of making big claims based on a single source.  She might have stern words for CNN.

But the network stuck to its message, which I would translate as follows: “If you focus on stage-presence, style, and the ability to pander to an audience, and aren’t bothered by flip-flopping, hypocrisy, and lies, Hillary won the debate.”

If we knew nothing about Hillary Clinton outside of her debate performance, she would come across as a passionate and plausible progressive.  Unfortunately for her, that is not the case.

We know that when Clinton declared herself a foe of the TransPacific Partnership and of the Keystone Pipeline, she was making a flip-flop of epic proportions in the case of the former, and coming clean after years of silence on the latter.  Clinton served in an administration that backed the TPP and deliberated on Keystone endlessly.  For a “progressive who likes to get things done” (one of the lines CNN focused on as representing Clinton’s strengths), she did precious little with her position in the administration to shape policy in a progressive fashion.

Instead, she backed and praised TPP, helping to ensure that it moved swiftly through approval processes, while refusing to comment on Keystone, making no contribution to public debate.

We also heard Clinton get tough on Wall Street.  This is a significant deviation from the work she did while Senator from New York, and marks a departure from her repeated fundraising trips to the likes of Goldman Sachs, during which she was heard to pledge to protect the financial industry from protestors and politicians who complained about pesky things like equality, justice, and strict, accountable regulatory measures.

No journalist questioned her seriously about that hypocrisy or about her claim to have gone to Wall Street and told them to “Cut it out”.  A real journalist might have asked when she made this epic journey, who she spoke to, what she actually said, or how why she was so naïve as to think that an industry renowned for its willingness to break the law and relentlessly test and undermine regulations would knuckle-under when chastised by Senator Clinton. 

No one pointed out Clinton’s inconsistency when she pledged to overhaul our economy to create a healthier and more equal society, but dismissed Bernie Sanders’ call to examine the social contracts and models that exist in other countries to secure citizens more rights, more equality, and more security.

It was left to other candidates rather than the journalists on stage to point out Clinton’s dishonesty in dodging questions about her decision to vote for an illegal, immoral, and ill-judged war in Iraq.  No one called her out for praising pro-democracy protesters in the Arab Spring when her State Department was dragging its feet and defending dictators and autocrats as key to U.S. interests.

And no one called her out for her lie when she described a non-existent process supposedly open to Edward Snowden that could have protected the whistleblower when he exposed the law-breaking and civil liberties violations of the security state she helped to protect and build.

No one asked her to explain her desire for all college students to work 10 hours a week, or to consider why working through college when she was young (when tuition at the country’s best public universities was non-existent) was more plausible then than now.

And no one in the mainstream media has questioned her credentials as a “progressive who likes to get things done”.  Reporters who do actual journalism have concluded that Senator Sanders has actually been quite productive in Congress, something that flies in the face of Clinton’s claims that her record contains more achievements than that of her rival.

Her tenure in the Senate was unremarkable, and she was responsible for no major or even controversial legislation.  She kept her head down, made friends and allies, and prepared for a presidential run, casting some decent, party-line votes along the way, and some catastrophically ill-judged ones on the Iraq war, evidence either of the neo-conservative tendencies that have since manifested themselves, or of laziness and poor judgement. 

Her time there and in the State Department gives the impression of someone angling for higher office who was more interested in using the trappings of high office to stay in the public eye than in using the power of that office to do good.

John Kerry’s energetic stint as Secretary of State has suggested that Clinton was a poor choice for Secretary of State.  She skirted many of the big issues of the day, declining to devote the same public, high-energy, risky commitment to peacemaking that has occupied Kerry.  Whether or not you share his politics or agenda at the State Department, Kerry’s drive and commitment and willingness to put himself out on a limb will make his tenure far more productive and memorable than Clinton’s calculating caution.

It might be a bit daft for Republican presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, a failed CEO who fired thousands of workers, to attack Clinton for not having any significant accomplishments to her name, but I think there is something in that claim.

Clinton’s record is bereft of significant legislative achievements, her tenure at the State Department riddled by misjudgments untampered by any transformation of the role of the U.S. in the world.  And her public life for the last 15 years is untroubled by any stands of principle at times when they mattered. 

Coming out against TPP after you praised it, negotiated it, and helped to ensure its passage isn’t leadership.  Criticizing the Iraq war after you gave the President a blank check to wage it isn’t leadership.  Cautioning Wall Street after spending your Senate tenure supporting its interests isn’t leadership.  Celebrating the Arab Spring after you backed and armed the dictators who slaughtered its revolutionaries isn’t leadership. 

Those are not progressive actions.  There are other words to describe that kind of behavior—hypocrisy, expediency, cowardice, criminality, and peripateticism come to mind—and they are not words that bespeak a person of great accomplishments or a person possessed of great leadership qualities.

Debate moderator Anderson Cooper could have exposed the basic falsity of Clinton’s central claim—that she is a progressive who has got things done—but he was too busy basking in his own moment of celebrity and preparing for his post-debate interview lap, a twisted spectacle in which the faux journalist becomes a celebrity and a story in his own right instead of someone with a job to perform for the sake of the public interest.  

 Fortunately, Hillary Clinton is not the only option for progressive-minded voters.  Bernie Sanders’ debate performance might have lacked “polish”, but the things he said on stage are the same things he has been saying for years.  His concern over economic, racial, and social injustices and inequalities are not the product of an election-year epiphany or lengthy poll-testing.  If he were to become the Democratic Party’s nominee, his message would remain the same during the general election.  If he were to become President, his consistency of rhetoric and his political accomplishments suggest that he would work to carry out the agenda he described on the debate stage.

With Clinton, we have no way of knowing whether her flip-flops mark the end or the beginning of a tortured political journey, marked by back-tracking, policy contortions, and hypocrisy. 

I hope that when the Democratic Party candidates next take to the stage, the journalists in attendance do their jobs, hold them accountable for the things they are saying, and put what they are saying into context so that when we analyze that debate it won’t be about their poise and their polish, but about the extent to which we can depend on the moral and political framework that shapes their policymaking agenda for our country.  

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Senator Sanders, Amateur Hour on Foreign Policy is Over

I’m a proud Bernie Sanders supporter and was thrilled with the way the Senator used last night’s debate to urge voters to back his quest to make our country a more equal, just, and secure place by building a robust welfare state, rolling back state intervention on behalf of the plutocrats, and re-democratizing our political system.
But I would say to Senator Sanders and to his supporters in the Democratic Party and beyond: amateur hour is over when it comes to thinking about the role of the U.S. in the world.  In last night’s debate, the Senator was incoherent, inconsistent, and at times ill-informed when it came to laying out foreign policy views.
His criticism of the war in Iraq was correct, his caution about waging endless wars was well-justified, and his criticism of the security state was well taken.  But those views are irreconcilable with his defense of weaponized drones and aerial bombings (such as those that murdered over 20 people in a Doctors Without Borders hospital), with his attacks on Edward Snowden who blew the whistle on the criminals in the Pentagon and the NSA, and with the general sense he gives that he hasn’t thought for more than five minutes about how to make the world’s citizens safer, the world order fairer, and the world’s working people more prosperous. 
Some of the Senator’s defenders will say that foreign policy issues aren’t traditionally important to voters, and that people want to hear about economics, jobs, and social welfare.  But here are a few reasons that defense isn’t good enough, and in fact insults voters and damages Sanders’ credibility.
Firstly, people like consistency in policy.  That’s one of Sanders’ big appeals for many.  That consistency—in his concern for human rights and welfare, and for equality and justice—should extend to the way he would like the U.S. to treat people in other parts of the world and to the way that he would like the U.S. to interact with countries in other parts of the world.
There is injustice and inequality in the world, and some of this is the fault of the U.S.  Our blank checks to the Israeli government fuel conflict between Israelis and the Palestinians they rule over in an undemocratic fashion.  Our backing for dictators and autocrats generates inequality in the countries those people rule over with U.S. support.  And our use of terror—bombing hospitals and weddings in Afghanistan, scattering weaponry around the world in pursuit of goals that contravene public and humanitarian interest, and our protection of state terrorists who tortured, abducted and murdered—is illegal, immoral, and offensive.
Secondly, Sanders’ ambitious domestic program requires a significant output of resources.  Foreign conflicts, fueled by our disastrous and never-ending War of Terror are damaging our ability to focus on domestic matters. 
Our budget is wildly skewed towards the desires of the Pentagon and the security state, away from the needs of our citizens.  To be able to re-orient our priorities, it is necessary to change the character of our engagement with the international community.
Thirdly, just because voters don’t care about foreign policy doesn’t mean it isn’t important.  We are but one country in a global community comprised largely of nations.  Just as individual states within our country, and individual members of our national community have a responsibility to each other, we have an obligation to interact in a reasonable, legal, and just fashion with other nations around the world.  Moreover, our actions abroad can bring faraway threats home with great alacrity.  Many of these threats would have been easily preventable if the U.S. had a history of behaving like a good, law-abiding neighbor in a community of nations instead of an arrogant, imperial power in a world of global subjects.
Isolationism is not the answer, but rather the fashioning of a more democratic world order that isn’t captured by the interests of the wealthy, that isn’t dominated by the voices of fundamentalists whether they are in the Middle East or the United States, and isn’t governed according to rules that benefit the few at the expense of the many. 
Finally, Sanders’ efforts to transform the U.S. into a social democracy, its energies directed to bettering the welfare of its citizens, requires significant faith in government.  That faith has been relentlessly eroded by the corruption of the Bush/Cheney administration and their illegal conspiracy to wage aggressive war; by Bush and Obama’s misdirection of power to a security state that has little regard for civil rights or the public interest; and by the impunity that successive administrations have promoted when it comes to addressing war crimes and crimes against humanity.
When people think of “Government”, they think not only of Republicans’ mis-use of government to benefit the super-wealthy and of the deliberate inefficiency the GOP has introduced to our national politics.  They also think of an unaccountable, violent security state that seems preoccupied with interests and wars far removed from the daily lives of our citizens. 
For Sanders to restore faith in the capacity of government to do good for people, he must also re-capture it in the sphere of foreign relations from the neo-conservative ideologues, the murderous warmongers, and the corrupt arms industry that have used their power to do much ill in the world. 
For Sanders to achieve his domestic goals, for him to stay true to his social democratic values, and for him to bridge the gap between the foreign and the domestic, it is critical that he and his campaign get their act together.  Voters will not indulge repeated performances of last night’s muddled incoherence when it comes to foreign policy, and the Senator should hold himself to a higher standard, a standard it is necessary to reach for him to deliver on his goals for our country.  Authenticity shouldn’t be an excused for ill-preparedness.

Thoughts on the First Democratic Party Debate

Some thoughts on last night’s debate as it happened (lightly edited for clarity)…

The lead in to the debate sounds like the introduction to a reality tv show, and throughout, Anderson Cooper’s strategy seems to be to minimize the substance and maximize the conflict.  Clearly, he’s uncomfortable with his role as a “serious” journalist…
The candidates are introducing themselves.  Lincoln Chaffee is looking like he wants to vomit, but emphasizes his lack of scandals.
Jim Webb touts his “proven record of accomplishing different things”, and almost forgets one of his daughter’s names.
Martin O’Malley decries the “deep economic justice that threatens to tear our country apart”.
Bernie Sanders launches into an attack on the structural ills of our democracy that have enabled our politics and economics to be captured by elites, taking the energy in the room up a half-dozen notches.
Hillary Clinton tells us about her grandmother, her grandchild, and promised tax cuts for the middle class.
I’m not how important tax cuts for the middle class are.  It seems to me that the important thing is to ensure that the middle class gets enough back for the taxes they and the wealthy pay in the form of free healthcare, free or affordable higher education, parental leave, and a decent wage.
We’re now over five minutes into the debate, and no candidate has threatened to bomb another country, indulged in hate speech, or made racist, misogynistic remarks.  As little regard as I have for some of the people on this stage, they are all a cut above the troglodytes who make up the Republican Party’s field. 
Hillary Clinton is far more polished in her responses than Sanders or the others on stage, unsurprisingly given the machine-like nature of her campaign.  I suspect that Sanders’ performance will illustrate some of the limits of his “showing up and telling it like it is approach,” particularly when the candidates discuss foreign policy.
In answer to a question about her flip-flopping, Hillary Clinton declares, “I have a range of views”.  As the Republicans have learned to their pain with regards to the Benghazi “investigation”, sometimes the truth has a way of surfacing unintentionally.  Hillary is working hard to establish herself as the leading flip-flopper and hypocrite amongst the candidates on stage.
Cooper asks Sanders, “How can any kind of socialist win an election in the United States?”
A better question might be, “How can anyone who supports the kind of job-destroying, dehumanizing, irresponsible capitalism that has defined life in the U.S. during the past 50 years win an election?”
 Sanders’ forceful reply includes what to many Americans will have been an unfamiliar if eye-opening critique of capitalism and the ills it has engendered in our society.  “It is immoral and wrong that [those at the top] own almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%”, Sanders thundered, pointing out that over half of all new income accrues to the top 1%.
Americans are used to being flattered and told how exceptional our country is.  But Sanders is repeatedly asking us to learn from what other countries do, whether when discussing universal healthcare, parental leave, or living wages.  He points out that one of the prime ways in which the U.S. is exceptional amongst nations in much of Europe and Asia is in the extent to which wealth and power have been captured by a plutocracy, and in the ease with which Americans accept the degradation of their democracy, contenting themselves with vapid homilies about American exceptionalism.
Sanders invokes Denmark, Sweden, and Norway as examples to emulate.  Cue applause from the Swede in the house. 
Cooper points out that there are 5-6 million people in Denmark.  He doesn’t point out that Denmark has a democratic, representative political system that has not been captured by the super-rich, or that its ability to generate a much higher standard of living for its average citizen is not based primarily on the number of those citizens, but on the type of contribution it asks those citizens to make.
Cooper attacks Sanders for backing, while mayor of Vermont, the Sandanistas in Nicaragua.  Cooper doesn’t point out that the Sandanistas were the social democratic party that fought the imperial U.S. invasion of that country, and who were undermined by the Contra guerillas and death squads funded by none other than St Ronnie of Reagan (who didn’t recall).
Hillary Clinton pipes up with a shocker, “We are not Denmark!”  Clearly there are benefits to being Secretary of State, not least being able to make announcements like that.
“I love Denmark”, Clinton snaps, “but we are the United States of America…we would be making a great mistake to turn our backs on what built the greatest nation on earth!”
Translation: we have nothing to learn from other countries, even countries whose citizens enjoy much higher standards of living and greater security and liberty.  She doesn’t actually beat her chest and chant “USA! USA!” but you get the idea.
Jim Webb has apparently referred to affirmative action as “state sponsored racism”, and is unfamiliar with the fact that African Americans are not the only group in the U.S. who have experienced systematic discrimination and degradation.  Throughout the night, Webb is giving the impression that he showed up to the wrong debate.
Hillary is strong on gun control, hammering Sanders who his Hillary-esque efforts to explain his past support for fairly indefensible votes.  Sanders is rambling a bit…if he had a thought-out, prepared answer, I’m not seeing it.
If only Hillary had been this strong on gun control abroad, instead of supporting the sale of arms to dictatorships like Saudi Arabia, colonial regimes like Israel, and conflict zones like Libya and Syria. 
Channeling Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton says that it is not acceptable for Russia to take unilateral action in Syria.  To people in much of the world, even those who see Putin’s intervention as dangerous and cynical, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical given the U.S. government’s predilection for unilateral interventions that destabilize the world and kill loads of people.
Chaffee, struggling to hold down his bile and remind us that he is on stage, nails Clinton for her poor decision over Iraq: “There was no real evidence of WMDs…I know because I did my homework”.
As she should, Clinton is being asked to live with a vote that was either an indication of destructive neo-conservative tendencies, or of laziness and sloppy thinking.  I personally agree that a vote for the conflict that led to thousands of deaths of U.S. citizens, killed over 100,000 Iraqis, spread international terrorism to Iraq, and created ISIS should disqualify a candidate for the presidency.  There were plenty of people at the time predicting most of this.
Hillary’s defense is that President Obama “valued my judgment” and made her Secretary of State.  For fans of the President’s foreign policy, this might be a satisfying answer.  For those who have a problem with the escalation of wars, murderous drone strikes, the persecution of whistleblowers, and the protection of state terrorists, torturers, and war criminals, not so much…
Sanders is rambling and incoherent on foreign policy.  It’s really amateur hour, and there is no indication that his social democratic views inform his ideas about international events in the slightest.  Painful to watch.  His campaign needs to get its act together.  This is important stuff.
Web wants World War III, and promises to tell the Chinese government, “You do not own the South China Sea!”
Hillary blames the violence in Libya on the Arab Spring (which she manages to celebrate at the same time), and defends the overthrow of Qaddafi, saying that he had “American blood on his hands”. 
Again, to anyone with a clue, this will sound extraordinarily hypocritical, as under Secretary Clinton’s tenure, the U.S. has the blood of innocent civilians from a dozen countries or more on its hands.
Funny how Hillary can celebrate the Arab Spring, the democratic uprisings that had the potential to change the Middle East, when she was the cabinet member most responsible for hamstringing the U.S. response because of her solidarity with vicious dictators in the region.
Her “realpolitik”, that has caused untold harm to the U.S. never mind people in the Middle East, was responsible for warping and frustrating democratic uprisings in Egypt, Bahrain, Yemen and beyond.
Cooper wants to spend as much time as possible discussing the e-mail “scandal”, but Bernie Sanders shuts it down with a back-handed assist to Clinton, thundering, “The American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails”, both trying to move the conversation on to matters of substance, and implying that Clinton’s candidacy comes with a whole host of distractions.
Hillary Clinton gives a much-need shout-out to early childhood education, the best indicator of subsequent success for children.  It’s a shame that this isn’t something that is well funded or integrated with the rest of the school system. 
Sanders emphasizes infrastructure, the minimum wage, pay equity, a progressive trade policy, free higher education, and a whole host of benefits that are often dismissed as utopian but which are the reality for hundreds of millions of people around the world.
Cooper needles Clinton, asking how she can solve our country’s economic problems when “You and your husband are part of the 1%”.  Once again he misses the point.  The better question would have been, “How can you solve our country’s economic problems when you and your husband have backed policies that benefited the 1%?”
Hillary Clinton has recently flip-flopped on the TransPacific Partnership (the undemocratic trade deal she hoped to broker as Secretary of State) and the Keystone Pipeline.  She declares, in a moment reminiscent of her “I have a range of views”, that “I never took a position on keystone until I took a position on keystone”.
That gutless approach to politics is, of course, what puts many people off Clinton.  This debate has seen her stealing many of Sanders’ lines, but the fact is these newly adopted progressive positions have come after years of triangulation, during which time taking a stand on an issue could have changed policy for the better.
Clinton then tells an awkward story about “hunting for the Chinese” with Obama at a climate summit.  Are we talking “Chinese officials” or literally, all of “the Chinese”.  It’s a small thing, but even Clinton’s language illustrates her nationalistic, simplistic approach to foreign policy.
O’Malley brings up the fact that both he and Sanders would like to break up the big banks that terrorized our economy and received a taxpayer bailout.  Both favour reintroducing Glass-Steagall, the measure that separated risky commercial banking from the everyday banking activities of consumers.
Clinton is opposed to this approach, predictably. 
She defends herself by claiming that she “went to Wall Street and said ‘cut it out’”.  We all know how receptive the plutocrats are to being asked to play by the rules.  Hillary also omits the part where she went back to Wall Street, took loads of their money, and pledge to defend them against criticism from Occupy Wall Street and other critics of their plutocratic rule.
Sanders points out that “going to them and saying, ‘please do the right thing’” doesn’t have a great track record of working, and observed, winning substantial applause, that “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, Wall Street regulates Congress!”
Sanders sketches out his plan for free tuition at public universities, something that used to be reality in states like California until St Ronnie of Regan came along and pursued a vindictive campaign against the University of California.
Hillary responds that she’s “not in favor of making college free for Donald Trump’s kids”.  Clearly, Hillary doesn’t understand some basic things about the social contract.  Traditionally, in democratic societies, adult generations pay—according to their ability to do so—for public welfare for themselves, the elderly, and the young.  Then the next generation steps up and replicates the feat.  And so on. 
So it would be the Donald Trumps of this world who, through their taxes, would be paying for the education of their own children and a great many others, supported by smaller contributions from adult members of the middle- and working-class.  This is a system that worked pretty well in the U.S. until the Donald Trumps of this world decided they didn’t want to live up to their social responsibility, and it is a system that works pretty well in many other countries in the world.
Intent on showing that she’s out of step, Hillary does the “When I was your age” thing, saying, “I worked when I went through college…I think it’s important for everyone to have some part of getting this accomplished”.
In most systems, everyone does have “some part of getting this accomplished” because they pay for taxes that fund education and other public services.
And then this howler from Hillary: “I would like to see students work 10 hours a week”.  As someone who teaches college students, I can say that this is a really bad idea.  It means that students struggle to complete their degree, that they struggle to stay on top of their work, and that they are unable to focus on their education.  I suggest that Clinton talk with students who have to work through college.
If a university education is about encouraging our youth to become keen, critical, focused thinkers, and to master their subject or field of choice, this has to be something they are able to devote themselves to.
On a roll, Clinton defends the Patriot Act, cementing her right-wing foreign policy credentials.  Sanders says that he would “shut down” existing NSA programs that broke the law and violated people’s civil liberties. 
Hillary wants to prosecute Edward Snowden, saying that there would have been a “positive response” to his coming clean as a whistleblower.  Yeah, right.  Given Obama’s record of prosecuting Whistleblowers and harassing journalists?  Disappointingly, Sanders also says that Snowden should face consequences for breaking the law.
Chaffee on the other hand defends Snowden, praising the young man for shedding light on the illegal activities of our security state and the sponsors of state terrorism who run them.  He isn’t given much time, but of all the candidates, Chaffee is the one who comes closest to making a coherent critique of our foreign policy, actually mentioning the U.S. terrorist strike on a Doctors Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan.
Moving on, Sanders connects our ability to deal with climate change to campaign finance, pointing out that the fossil fuel industry has considerable clout in Washington. 
When Sanders mentions paid parental leave, Cooper sneers, “Really, another government program, and on taxpayer money?”
Cooper, Clinton, and the Republicans seem to have a feeble grasp of how social welfare looks.  Everything our government does—from waging war to subsidizing dictators to bailing out banks to “investigating” Benghazi—comes from taxpayer dollars.  I don’t understand what is so outlandish about asking people to devote their taxes to a program that would improve the lives of families, the outlook of children, the health of communities and, in the long run, likely save taxpayer money that is currently spent picking up the pieces of those lives that are broken when people tumble through the gaping holes in our ragged social safety net.
Sanders objects to a mindset that imprisons people for smoking pot while letting CEOs who commit terrible social and economic violence against individuals and the public get off free.
Sanders indicates that unlike Obama, he actually intends to marshal his supporters and use them against the Republican Party and its obstructionism.  Obama calls up his fans during elections, but Sanders intends to use his supporters to generate constant, democratic political pressure to generate change.  This is refreshing.
Hillary Clinton is flip, and declares herself “proud” for making enemies of the Iranians in answer to a weird question from Cooper.
And then the closing statements are in and it is over!
At the level of performance, Clinton is clearly the most polished candidate, and if you were unaware of anything else she has said or done in her life before the mounted the debate stage, she might even begin to be convincing.  But given her political history, the night simply highlighted her hypocrisy and lack of conviction, while demonstrating how her persona and command of her own narrative would make her more than a match for Republicans on the debate stage. 
Sanders, his incoherent babblings about foreign policy aside (something he and his campaign need to fix soon), was focused on economic inequality and injustice.  By embracing the idea behind a social democratic society—that its members can pool their resources and ensure that every individual can live a decent, secure life—he is opening new horizons to American audiences and offering voters the opportunity to ask their government for the kind of commitment that is routine in much of the world.

I hope that in subsequent debates, Sanders can continue to articulate these views and defend the version of democracy that he would like to build in our country.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Sanders' Campaign Shouldn't Stop at the Water's Edge

When Black Lives Matter activists took to the stage to disrupt a speech by U.S. Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, they came in for a great deal of criticism.  Some people were disconcerted by their aggressive tactics, or by the fact that they targeted a candidate already substantially-sympathetic to their goals.  But there is no doubt that their militancy called attention to the systematic discrimination and violence directed in a disproportionate and punishing fashion at African Americans in the United States.

Bernie Sanders, to his credit, began to make racial inequality a specific part of his stump speeches and policymaking, recognizing the importance of race to his already-resonating message about economic inequality and the alternatives to our unequal society.

I wish that people would take the stage at Sander’s rallies to remind the Senator that any social democratic platform, and the promise of equality and justice that it holds out, cannot end at the water’s edge.  In the area of foreign policy, Sander’s campaign is incoherent where not immoral, dismally failing to articulate a sharp and productive critique of the conduct of U.S. foreign policy.  Such a critique is not only urgent to check the atrocities routinely committed by the U.S. abroad and to remove one of the factors destabilizing our world, but essential if our country is to regain the capacity to invest in our public sphere rather than in private profit, often connected to the sale of weapons, ammunition, and technology, and to the disbursal of aid to dictatorial regimes that do business with immoral industries.

On Saturday, the U.S. launched aerial attacks on a Doctor’s Without Borders hospital in Afghanistan, killing 22 people and injuring 37 more.  This illegal attack—the hospital would have been off limits by law even had Taliban fighters been sheltering there—on a place dedicated to healing the ravages of war should be followed by prosecutions.  Those should be directed at the individuals and institutions who perpetrate such crimes and who create the conditions that make their perpetration a matter of routine.

Under Bush and Obama, the U.S. has increasingly waged war from the air, particularly by weaponized drone.  These drones attack their targets based on disposition matrices, probability estimates that make calculations about when to launch a strike based not on guilt or innocence, but on patterns of behavior and appearance. 

The killings perpetrated by this kind of attack, which substitute state-sanctioned murders for legal processes, and are ‘supervised’ by secret courts that eschew transparency, are nothing more than an internationalized form of the profiling-based police killings that Sanders has rightly criticized in the United States.

Here, at home, members of police departments, acculturated to the systematic and casual use of violence, attack community members with often little regard for the proportionality of their responses or the guilt of their victims.  This violence is visited disproportionately on African Americans and Latinos, and has the effect of diminishing trust in institutions and further dividing a country where race and wealth already correlate strongly.

Abroad, our security state embarks on wars, launches drone strikes, and commits acts of barbarism like torture and kidnapping in violation of international law.  Violence is the default response of our security state to international problems, and the reputation of the United States is rightly in tatters, particularly in those parts of the world that have borne the brunt of our murderous interventions.

At home, those state agents who commit murder on our streets often face little or no accountability, this sense of impunity fostered by the deeply-compromised institutions that trained and inculcated a recourse to violence in them.  This impunity will eventually delegitimize those institutions, and has the potential to lead to widespread social breakdown and disorder.

Abroad, those who murder, torture, kidnap, and bomb on behalf of our country have been shielded by a culture of impunity out of a fear that prosecutions could go to the very top, reaching those who have launched illegal wars of aggression.  Our country’s disdain for international law and protection of state terrorists has undermined international fora, courts, and other institutions, leading to an unstable world order, easily exploited by regimes like those in Russia, Syria, Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere, that can point to U.S. terrorism to excuse their own.  Their own behavior further destabilizes the world and pushes us towards a more explosive international break-down.

We back a colonial regime in Israel that is engaged in an immoral and ultimately self-destructive occupation.  We obstruct efforts to regulate the arms trade that fuels and worsens conflicts around the world.  We stand shoulder to shoulder with dictators as they suppress democratic uprisings. 

These transparently immoral activities cause untold hardship around the world.  They also generate security threats against the United States.  And they empower a national security state that spies on its public, shields itself from accountability, erodes civil rights, lies to its elected supervisors, and generates security threats.

Bernie Sanders is casting himself as a transformational candidate, able and willing to overturn conventional wisdom.  He describes himself as a social democrat, invoking an ideology that is based on justice and equality, and which has historically contained a strong internationalist bent, critiquing colonialism and prioritizing solidarity and human welfare against narrow and competitive national interests.

But while his critiques of economic inequality and injustice in the United States have been penetrating, his foreign policy ideas, where they have appeared at all, have seemed calculated to maintain the indefensible status quo, based on a violent and self-destructive American imperialism.  Sanders might eschew large-scale interventions overseas, but he has shown no willingness to take on the security state, to scale back U.S. support for morally-repellent regimes, or to put a halt to our imperial behavior.

Sanders has pledged to make use of drones in his foreign policy, remarking, “Look, drone is a weapon.  When it works badly, it is terrible and it is counterproductive.  When you blow up a facility or a building which kills women and children, you know what?  It’s terrible”.  But not terrible enough to discontinue the use of the technology or to recognize that we need more than isolationism coupled with drone strikes.  Systematic, moral, legal, thought-through global engagement is required.

Sanders is naïve if he believes that he can simply reform procedure and put a halt to drone strikes that go terribly wrong or to bombings like that on the hospital in Afghanistan.  Those drones and their deployment are embedded in the behavior of a security state that is primed to commit violence.  Imperial-style wars—whether ground wars like that waged by Bush in Iraq, massive air-based wars like those launched by Obama, or more limited attacks of the variety Sanders might be imagining—are inescapably violent and indiscriminate because of the premises on which they are waged and the dehumanization of people in other parts of the world on which they are based.

U.S. foreign policy is a behemoth, comprising a bevy of heavily-entrenched interests in government, the private sector, and in regimes around the world.  Slowing and halting, no less turning such a constellation of powerful, violent interests would be a massive undertaking.  It would not occur quickly, and might not happen at all.  But doing so is critical to preventing the world from becoming engulfed in violence, to enabling our government to reorient itself towards the public interest, and to promoting democracy, human rights, and equality around the world.  And Sanders has a populist wind at his back which should not be underestimated.

Social democracy should not end at the water’s edge.  And nor should Sanders’ much-needed critique of what happens when wealth and power—and with them, the ability to coerce and behave violently—accrue in the hands of the unaccountable few.  I hope that in Tuesday’s debate the senator eschews his lazy, uninspired comments about foreign policy, and infuses his international policy with the same moral impetus that has informed his attempts to re-make our politics and economy within the U.S. to serve the welfare of the many.

Coward's Evolving Views on Solidarity at the University of California

Berkeley Mathematics lecturer, Alexander Coward, haslaunched a stinging attack on the calculations that have gone into hisapproaching dismissal, suggesting that at the bottom of his own plight is a dysfunctional department and indeed university culture, where success in teaching by non-senate faculty can shed light on the costs of a higher education system that emphasizes research more than when not at the expense of teaching.

In a passionate e-mail, Coward has sought to “[blow]the whistle” on his department.  In calling attention to the relationship between the production of knowledge, the value assigned to good teaching, and institutional politics, Coward is asking students to think critically about the University community they call home.

That is a good thing, and students have rallied to Coward’s defense, writing letters, posting on facebook and social media, and planning a demonstration to protest his dismissal.  Not knowing much about the background (but having heard stories about the mathematics department at UC Berkeley) to this story, or having heard the institution’s side of the story, I nonetheless very much hope that Coward gets a fair hearing.  Lecturers and other adjunct faculty at UC and beyond are treated as an easily-exploited pool of labor.  They do critical teaching but have none of the protections or benefits that come with tenure or tenure-track status.

What is curious to me, though, is that the same faculty member who is rousing students to his defense, critiquing the institution’s exploitation of labor, and making connections between academic politics and students’ own lives is an individual who became a celebrity on campus and across colleges nationwide for imploring students to do otherwise.

In 2013, University of California service workers and graduate students went on strike, protesting working conditions and asking students to think about how the UC’s treatment of its employees is related to the welfare of its students.

Coward responded to the strike with an e-mail (referenced in his more recent denunciation of the institution) wherein he declared that “whatever the alleged injustices are that are being protested about tomorrow, it is clear that you are not responsible for those things, whatever they are, and I do not think you should be denied an education because of someone else’s right that you are not responsible for.” 

Then, Coward asked students to turn inwards, ignoring their neighbors on campus, the people who provide the support team, in and out of the classroom, for their education experience.  Then, he insisted that they didn’t even need to know the specifics of the issues at stake.  The fact that students were not responsible for them meant that they shouldn’t think about them or take action to protest about them.  Attending one day of class was more important than one day of action dedicated to supporting the institution that created, supported, and sustained classes, departments, and the individuals populating them. 

I don’t know whether Coward has re-thought his ideas about the communal character of a university, and the mutual dependence of all the people in it.  Or perhaps he is advancing a different line of argumentation because a different kind of labor—his own, faculty, etc, instead of service or graduate student—is at stake.  The dissonance is striking, but I hope that Coward gets a fair hearing and benefits from the kind of critical thought and moral action that he once sought to quell when other people’s livelihoods and work were at stake.  And I hope that the fact that he is turning to the university community for support will convince him of the importance of solidarity and communal thinking.