Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Lessons from Another Election

Conventional wisdom has it that Bernie Sanders is too radical for the U.S. electorate.  Pundits and many voters contend that social democracy is somehow incompatible with the “American way”.  Presumably the “American way” those commentators fantasize about is different from the reality in the U.S. today: chronic poverty, under- and un-employment, economic and social uncertainty, poor access to shared public services, and degraded civil rights in the face of a predatory corporate class and over-mighty national security apparatus.
But Sanders and the 2016 election remind me of another historic election in which the signs were there for all to read, but wherein much of the media and the conventional thinking about voters that it represented completely misjudged public opinion.  In 1945 in Britain, voters opted for a complete over-haul of the country’s social and economic contract.  With their votes, they created a new consensus about politics and economics that dominated for 30 years and remains the foundation for Britain’s state and society.
As Americans know, Winston Churchill was the Conservative Prime Minister who led Britain through war at the head of a coalition government dominated by his party.  More than any other figure, he came to personify Britain’s fight against Nazism and its perseverance in the face of aerial bombardment and isolation within Europe.
And yet in 1945, ten years after the last election had been held, Churchill and his party were turned out of office.  Led by Clement Attlee, Churchill’s deputy during the Second World War, the Labour Party won over three million votes more than the Conservatives, which translated into over 60% of the seats in the House of Commons. 
Labour was a party dedicated to the protection of the working class, to the creation of a full-employment economy, to the nationalization of key industries and services, and to the creation of a robust safety net.  The Labour Party ran on a strong social democratic platform that marked a dramatic deviation from the liberalism that had predominated in British politics and society since the middle of the nineteenth century. 
Labour won not just with the support of the poor, but also with the backing of large sectors of the armed forces.  And they won in the face of a nasty conservative campaign in which Churchill warned voters that his war-time deputy, a World War I veteran, famous for his mind mannerisms, would imitate the “Gestapo” in his politics.
At the end of the First World War, the British government had promised to make Britain a country “fit for heroes to live in”.  But the following two decades saw a retreat from the managed economy that had emerged during war-time and an unwillingness to re-build society along more social democratic lines.
Veterans of the First World War experienced widespread hardship as the Liberal and Conservative parties stuck to a liberal orthodoxy that argued that the market would sort things out of its own accord, refused to engage constructively with organized labor, and expanded Britain’s overseas empire.  The Conservative Party proved unwilling to confront the fascist powers that emerged on continental Europe, used their proximity to big business and to news magnates to castigate their political opponents, and pursued a relentless policy of dividing society against itself by way of isolating unions and other leftists calling for social and economic change, all in the face of a global depression and the large scale unemployment that followed.
During the Second World War, the cabinet commissioned a post-war planning document that became known as the “Beveridge Report”.  Published in 1942, the document called for cohesive social and economic policy to wage war not only against Hitler, but also the “evils” confronting British society in the form of poverty, ill-health, unemployment, and insecurity, recognizing the threats these posed to British citizens. 
The dry, technical, but revolutionary Beveridge Report became an instant bestseller, and the British public and the Labour Party came to believe that the post-war world must be very different from the world characterized by class hierarchy and economic inequality that had defined British life. 
The desire for change on the part of the British public was fuelled by mistrust of the Conservatives for their foreign policy blunders and refusal to acknowledge the cruelty of the “free” market towards the working class.  It was further advanced by a lengthy war, which inflicted widespread hardship while promoting an ideal of national solidarity and mistrust of traditional elites.  And it accompanied growing unease with British imperialism, the ills and injustice of which confronted British soldiers serving in the colonies and alongside soldiers from those colonies in large numbers.
In spite of the best efforts of the media and the political right, the public refused to respond to scaremongering and, led by yet-to-be-demobilized veterans, voted in large numbers for Labour, giving the party a mandate to pursue sweeping social and economic changes.
While other European countries would ultimately create more far-reaching variants of the welfare state and the social contract it represents, there is probably no other case in which a single election created in such a short period of time such a profound shift in the political-economy of a nation. 
The transformative politics of the British Labour Party in the 1940s, and the pundits’ surprise over what the public regarded as an obvious and common sense pivot from the uncaring liberalism of the interwar years should serve as a cautionary tale to a media wedded to the inevitability of Clinton’s victory—wedded as she is to a stultifying status quo.  It should also serve as an inspiration to those who would like to see wholesale change in the economic and social realm in the U.S., and a reminder that other publics in democratic societies have embraced without fear the kind of shift offered by the likes of Bernie Sanders.
The fortunes of Britain’s welfare state can offer other lessons for the U.S. should it embrace such change.  Organized labor in Britain remained adversarial towards the state, eschewing the large-scale bargaining that characterized relations in the Scandinavian welfare model.  When unions were portrayed by the right as exercising undemocratic influence, they became scapegoats for an economy made frail by vibrations in a global oil market.  And although Britain’s Labour Party committed itself to a gradual winding down of Empire, Britain’s political elite never confronted the reality that the country could not afford both an expansive welfare state that protected the public welfare, and also a costly and unjust imperial foreign policy.
But life in Britain would never be the same after Labour’s victory in 1945.  Even the strongest assaults of the Thatcher and Major governments on gains British voters made for themselves in that July poll, in a tumultuous world still at war, have only altered the peaceful revolution staged by British citizens. 
The work of Attlee and the Labour Party was a testament to the power of that revolution: public healthcare, free at the point of use; sickness and unemployment benefits; the construction of housing for the poor; family allowances; the expansion of workers’ rights and fairer wages; the overhaul of an antiquated criminal justice system; free secondary education and the expansion of the university system; the nationalization of key services and some industries; and a recognition that the state, a democratic institution, should have a hand in managing an economy hitherto run by unaccountable industries and elites.  The wellness indices of the British public rose steadily after 1945, a testament to the power of social welfare. 
Britain’s welfare state and the fortunes of its public have changed over time, and are today under threat.  But the election of 1945 made it inconceivable that the British public would any longer be led tamely by the nose and made to believe that their interests aligned with irresponsible elites’ interests.  It is long overdue for the American electorate to realize that such a peaceful revolution is not beyond our means, but rather within our grasp, and that such a revolution, for the public good, requires the repudiation not only of the toxic and demagogic political right, but also of those in the media and the Democratic Party who urge us to embrace neo-liberal economics rather than the social democracy that has made life so much better for so many around the world. 

The American electorate should look past the bluster, cruelty, and injustice of the Republican Party, and the economic timidity and international hubris of Hillary Clinton, and give the ideas for which Bernie Sanders argues a hearing and a chance.  Voters around the world since 1945 have taken social democracy seriously, and their lives have been the better for it.    

Thursday, December 17, 2015

My holiday: relaxation and research

Zambia's first president, Kenneth Kaunda
Tuesday night I attended the winter commencement at UNLV, and it was nice to see students and their families celebrating the end of an important journey.  On a more immediate level, commencement marked the end of the semester, and a break from teaching-related duties (although syllabus planning will be on my mind during the holiday).
The winter “holiday” will involve a week-and-a-half excursion to California.  But it’s also an opportunity to get some work done.  One of my more exciting tasks this break will be to put together some new archival material and write a conference paper based on that material.
Most historians take in at least a conference or two each year, either to present their own research or to moderate panels of scholars with a similar interest.  One of my favorite conferences is the Pacific Coast Conference in British Studies, a vibrant, regional conference that, as the name suggests, consists of people studying Britain and its relation to the world and its empire.
Nearly three years ago, while looking for references to corruption in the Kenyan wildlife sector in the 1960s and 1970s in the National Archives of Britain, I stumbled across some records that caught my eye.  I took some notes and set them aside, and am only now having the opportunity to re-visit them.

One of the terms that historians of empire discuss is “neo-colonialism.”  The assumption behind the term, which is generally applied to the period after the 1950s and ‘60s (the decades when most European colonies in Asia and Africa won their independence), is that the end to formal colonialism didn’t mark the end of colonial relationships.  [For example, the U.S. does not possess a territorial empire, but it uses various military and economic tools to project its power across large swathes of the world.]  Historians have discussed how in economic, political, social, and cultural terms former colonial powers—Britain, France, Belgium, the Netherlands—continued to exert degrees of influence in their former colonies.

I intend to write about how in Zambia, a British colony that became an independent nation in 1964, the process of decolonization and the nature of neo-colonialism was shaped by a series of negotiations with the British government: negotiations about the sale of arms from Britain to Zambia; negotiations about security and responsibility in light of the emergence of a white supremacist state on Zambia’s southern border; and negotiations within the Zambian state about limiting the influence of expatriates within the government and its institutions.

The paper is provisionally titled “Mammon and Mars on the Zambezi: Decolonizing Zambia during UDI,” and I am hoping for a productive break to sort through archival material and begin writing!  

Monday, December 14, 2015

The Republican Party Threatens our Republic

Commentators across the political spectrum have expressed dismay at Donald Trump’s call for Muslims to be banned from entering the United States.  Some of his GOP colleagues, together with public opinion on the left, and much of the media have condemned him for moving beyond the pale of political commentary.  In distancing themselves from Trump and his open bigotry, some members of the Republican Party have declared that Trump doesn’t represent their party or their views.
Would it were so that Trump was some kind of deranged outlier within his party.  The trouble is, he’s is just screaming, red in the face, hateful spittle defacing the country he would like to lead, the exact same bile that his Republican colleagues have communicated for years, using variants on the dog whistle that defines their politics of hate and division.  On Tuesday, at the GOP’s debate, we’ll see this hatred on full display, albeit expressed with varying degrees of transparency by different candidates.
Trump may have gone bigger than any of them with this particular policy prescription, but a quick look at the utterances of Republican Party politicians demonstrates that he is well within the mainstream.  It should also illustrate that Trump in particular and the Republican Party more broadly, represents a threat to our country’s values, its well-being, and to the lives and livelihoods of our citizens and people around the world.  They menace our laws; they threaten religious, racial, and other groups within our society.  And their language has become increasingly contemptible and incendiary.
Trump, for example, completely reversed crime statistics to incite racial animosity.  His supporters seem untroubled by the fact that his campaign told a bald-faced lie about crime in the United States, designed to foster race-based anger.  What matters is that his lie fit the pattern of misrepresentation featured on FOX and other propaganda organs. 
Trump and his colleagues have demonized and attacked Latinos in the United States for months.  They have defined Latino migrants as “illegals”, ignoring their humanity.  Trump’s rhetoric, imitated to various degrees by his competitors, has incited violence against Latinos, encouraging his supporters to embrace a toxic form of ethnic nationalism.
Ben Carson, neurosurgeon extraordinaire, compared refugees fleeing a conflict partly of the U.S.’s own making, to “rabid dogs”, demonstrating an incredible degree of ignorance, hate, and bigotry. 
Jeb Bush, who has gone to great pains to portray himself as more humane than Trump, urged voters to embrace religious tests that fly in the face of the Constitution and of the idea of universal humanity by only admitting refugees who are Christian.  He was joined by Ted Cruz, who seems to believe that people should sort themselves into societies based on their religion, repudiating key components of our Constitution as well as the diversity that is a central characteristic of our own society.  Lest we think that his religious bigotry is a novel feature of Republican Party rhetoric, we should recall that Newt Gingrich argued in the last election cycle that only Christians should be allowed to teach in U.S. schools.
Donald Trump, of course, has a diverse array of targets for his bigotry, and took time off from inciting hatred against Muslims and Latinos by mocking a New York Times reporter with a physical disability, later claiming—untruthfully—not to know the reporter in question.  The juvenile (but no less hateful) spectacle of Trump’s mockery alone should leave no question about his unsuitability to lead our country.
Republicans have drawn cheers from their base by relentlessly attacking the media.  When journalists had the temerity to do their job by asking tough questions about Republican politicians’ economic platforms, the candidates threw a fit, refusing to submit their programs to further scrutiny.  Republicans, led by Ted Cruz (who compared Obama to Hitler for passing healthcare reform) claimed that Democrats got easier treatment, but this is a claim easily disproven, illustrating how journalists—who if they do their job are the single greatest threat to the party of sociopaths—are a useful foil for right-wing candidates. 
Republicans have shown an utter disregard for the threat of climate change, repeatedly mocking the President and Democrats for joining the national security establishment in acknowledging the injustice, instability, hardship, and destruction that is likely to result in the long-term from climate change. 
Carly Fiorina, Donald Trump, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, and John Kasich have all called for the reinstitution of torture, illegal by U.S. and international law, embracing the savagery of the Bush presidency without recalling how the methods of that administration generated hatred and terrorism around the world.  Trump, who is apparently very unfamiliar with key principles of justice (the need for evidence to prove guilt), argued that even “if [waterboarding] doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway”. 
Chris Christie, Donald Trump, and others have attacked the President and Democrats for backing Black Lives Matters protestors, who are calling attention to the dysfunctional, destructive, and ultimately counterproductive culture in policing that has led to the injury or death of a disproportionate number of African Americans.  Trump has indicated his support for vigilante violence directed at black protestors. 
Donald Trump has called for a registry of American Muslims, a special form of ID for American Muslims, and his supporters have shouted calls for ethnic cleansing at his rallies, while a Nevada Assemblywoman declared her desire to murder terrorists and refugees alike. 
Reaffirming his disregard for justice, the law, and human life, Donald Trump called for the families of terrorists to be murdered in a kind of barbaric scorched earth quest for vengeance. 
Donald Trump lied about having seen thousands of American Muslims celebrating 9/11 in yet another bid to incite hatred and provoke divisions, doing ISIS’ recruiting work for the organization he would ostensibly like to destroy. 
In the face of repeated mass killings in the U.S, Republicans have uniformly asked our citizenry to resign itself to living in a climate of terror (foreign and domestic), violence, fear, and threats.  Gun regulations aren’t a silver-bullet—indeed, the hate speech and promotion of vigilante violence by the political right is an important contributor to violence in our society—but they would certainly help.  But they find no backing from a party that offers prayers rather than action to the families of slaughtered citizens. 
And perhaps indicative of their wholesale embrace of ignorance, bigotry, and small-mindedness, Republicans launch attacks on higher education in general, and the humanities and social sciences in particular.  In other words, institutions that bring people of diverse backgrounds together are a threat to their program.  Institutions and fields of study that promote empirical study, rigorous thought, respect for the truth, respect for humanity, and knowledge of human history, the human condition, and of human difference offend the sensibilities of this increasingly fascist party.
 The broader political party has tied its hands and abdicated the use of its senses as its members have pledged oaths to their backers, signing destructive climate and tax pledges that commit them to sabotaging federal and state government.
This is a party that has ceased to contribute in any meaningful or decent way to public life in our country and has, instead, dedicated itself to perpetrating social violence while inciting physical violence.  The candidates who will be on stage Tuesday have no shame and have no business running for office.  They represent a cynical, toxic approach to politics that seeks to un-do the civic bonds that characterize democratic society.  They deserve our scorn and their party deserves wholesale destruction at the polls.  The alternative is increasingly too frightening to contemplate.   

End of the Semester

I don’t often write about work, but the semester at UNLV is currently winding down, and so it seems like an appropriate moment for some reflection.  I had intended to offer running commentary on my two classes this semester—European History Since 1648 and Comparative Environmental History—but my schedule got the better of my best intentions.  Next semester, I will have another shot at providing updates, this time for Europe Since 1914 and Modern Africa. 

In European History Since 1648 we made it to the present, ending with a discussion of economic, social, political, and cultural dilemmas of modern Europe, our conversation turning to the problems of migration that are very current in the U.S. 

In Comparative Environmental History we ended the semester with a better (speaking for myself at least!) sense of the strands of thought that inform environmental movements, as well as with a better appreciation for this important and relatively recent sub-field in the historical discipline. 

For anyone interested in following along next semester, the following will be the texts that guide our conversations in the two classes:

European history:
Konrad Jarausch, Out of Ashes: A New History of Europe in the Twentieth Century
Vera Brittain, Testament of Youth
Sheila Fitzpatrick, The Russian Revolution
Ngugi wa Thiong’o, A Grain of Wheat
Timothy Garton Ash, The Magic Lantern: The Revolution of ‘89 Witnessed, Warsaw, Budapest, Berlin, and Prague
Joan Scott, The Politics of the Veil
African history:
Trevor Getz, Cosmopolitan Africa, c. 1700-1875
Ibn Battuta, Ibn Battuta in Black Africa
Trevor Getz, Abina and the Important Men, a Graphic History  
Shula Marks, Not Either an Experimental Doll
Tsitsi Dangarembga, Nervous Conditions

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Nevada Republican Michele Fiore enters the lists for ISIS

More than any facet of its twisted theology, more than its mastery of modern technology, more than the paralysis of global and international institutions, and more than its initial string of successes on the battlefield, the words and actions of the likes of Nevada Assembly member Michele Fiore are the most powerful propaganda tool in the hands of ISIS.

Fiore, known for a Christmas card of her gun-toting family and her support for guns on university campuses, recently had the following to say about refugees fleeing Syria's civil war: "What, are you kidding me? I’m about to fly to Paris and shoot ‘em [refugees] in the head myself. I am not OK with Syrian refugees. I’m not OK with terrorists. I’m OK with putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and end their miserable life. I'm good with that."

Fiore's embrace of and rationalization of vigilante violence is in itself despicable.  But her equation of refugees with ISIS terrorists represents a contemptible level of ignorance and bigotry, offensive to her constituents in Las Vegas and insulting to our state.  

Refugees from Syria are fleeing a civil war that has been compounded by the power of ISIS, a multi-national terrorist organization and army that emerged in part out of the consequences of the ill-judged imperial foreign policy endorsed by Fiore's party.  Those refugees are increasingly powerless and vulnerable, in legal limbo, in unfamiliar territory, and the U.S. has moral and legal obligations to render them assistance, both because of our rhetorical commitment to human rights, but also because we contributed to creating the conditions that have destroyed their home and their livelihoods.

Attacking displaced people who are seeking refuge from violence is irresponsible and immoral.  Expressing a desire to murder them, to "putting them down, blacking them out, just put a piece of brass in their ocular cavity and ending their miserable life" is something far worse.  It represents a savage disregard for humanity, a twisted embrace of violence, and a call to arms for the ignorant to see such violence as the antidote to national and global troubles.

Our society seems to be plagued by violence.  Mass shootings abound.  They are inspired by a range of agendas, but enabled by the political cowardice and morel decrepitude of the political right, which asks us to live with the reality of regular, casual violence in schools, cinemas, streets, and workplaces.  

Is it any wonder that so many Americans turn to violence when we live in a culture wherein it is possible for an elected representative of an ostensibly mainstream political party to think it appropriate to publicly advocate for the murder of individuals and families fleeing civil war and terrorism.  

It is also little wonder that ISIS is continually able to recruit people to its perverse ranks.  

Its targets for recruitment are twofold: firstly, residents of the Middle East who have seen dictators and autocrats enrich themselves at the expense of ordinary citizens, spurning human rights, casualizing violence, and creating situations of desperation, deprivation, fear, and uncertainty.  They live in a region characterized by violent intervention by the U.S. and other western and regional powers whose words and actions suggest that they have little regard for the lives of Middle Easterners.  ISIS is competing for recruits in a vacuum.  Neither the dictators who have dominated the region nor the U.S., which has alternately backed and warred on those dictators, offer anything in the way of hope for the material conditions in which people live day to day.  Our only "answers" to the violence that despoils Middle Easterners' countries involve more violence, and pay little regard to the material conditions in which people live.

ISIS has also sought to recruit or at least influence Muslim citizens and migrants in Europe and the U.S. Evidence has demonstrated time and again that one reason for their success is the alienation that these groups of citizens and migrants experience: economic, social, cultural, and political.  Mis-characterized as uniformly radical, attacked for their faith, regarded with suspicion by their neighbors, their elected representatives, and the press, many Muslim citizens in the U.S. and Europe live in a climate of unease.

ISIS preys on that fear, and will use the sick words of Fiore and others to demonstrate why those fears are justified (Trump, Carson, Cruz, Bush, and a host of other hateful demagogues provide ample evidence on their own).  And they will make the argument, again and again, that their violence represents an answer to the violence that Fiore is advocating.  They will cite Fiore's desire to murder refugees and terrorists alike as evidence that the values and institutions associated with democratic, theoretically tolerant societies are flawed and hostile to the world's Muslims.  Fiore's hate-speech, and the ignorance it represents is a gift to ISIS.

Our country can weather the threats posed by ISIS.  Our institutions are sufficiently robust to counter the overwhelming majority of attacks and to out-last with ease the depraved organization.  I'm not sure, however, that we can survive the xenophobia, vigilantism, hate-mongering, lawlessness, and barbarism advocated by Fiore and her ilk.  Our country's well-being rests on an always-tenuous consensus about the value of diversity, the importance of civic institutions, and the imposition of checks on state- and individual-violence.  

Fiore and others represent a very real danger to that consensus, act as a form of life-support for ISIS, and ultimately pose a far more existential threat to our country than any terrorist organization.  The methods of barbarism she would have us adopt demonstrate an utter disregard for the humanity of refugees, a full-throated embrace of religious bigotry, and a truly sadistic advocacy of violence.