Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Letter to NV Senator Dean Heller

Dear Senator Heller,

I am writing with reference to your letter of 17 March 2016 on the subject of President Obama's nominee to the U.S. Supreme Court.

You wrote, "As your U.S. Senator, I have been clear that I believe the American people deserve the opportunity to have their voice heard, and I am ready to proceed once the people make that choice."

As I am sure you are aware, tens of millions of people--a majority of those who cast their votes--made a choice in November of 2012 that for the next four years, President Obama should be in a position to replace vacancies on the Supreme Court.  One of the things voters that year weighed when they went to the polls was the fact that for the next four years--not three, not three years and 10 months, but four--the President they elected would carry out this responsibility.

Could you kindly explain how your decision to refuse to consider the President's nominee until after January of next year is anything other than a slap in the face of millions of people who went to the polls in 2012 with a better understanding of the workings of American democracy than you or your party appear to possess?

Jeff Schauer

Monday, March 21, 2016

Ted Cruz' Churchill Obsession

Ted Cruz is obsessed with Winston Churchill.  The British Prime Minister is a staple of his stump speeches, debate performances, and foreign policy critiques of President Obama.  
George W Bush famously kept a bust of Winston Churchill on his desk.  It no longer adorns the Resolute desk.  Therefore, in Cruz' mind, Obama is alienating other nations and precipitating the decline of American power as we know it.  According to Cruz, the discarding of poor Winston is a symbol of all that is wrong with Obama's view of America.  We know of course that Obama didn't make any decision to return the Churchill bust...it had been loaned for the duration of the Bush Administration. But it's worth considering Cruz' obsession in any case.
We know Churchill as the leader who rallied the British public to resist Nazi aggression in Europe, and indeed his rhetoric instilled a sense of pride in many Britons as they suffered bombing and material hardship during the Second World War.  In other ways, Churchill's leadership was badly wanting, and accounts by his staff and military officials during the era demonstrate the lengths they went to keep Churchill away from serious war planning.
But Churchill represented other things to people beyond the Anglo-American elite.  Born into a political dynasty in the making, Churchill cut his teeth reporting on the butchery of Britain's imperial wars.  Those wars involved concentration camps and the deployment of maxim guns against spears in an effort to strip people of their land and sovereignty.  Churchill entered politics, and in between switching parties over the years, served in a variety of cabinet portfolios, domestic and foreign.
Something of a radical in his early years--participating in the Liberal government's creation of old age pensions and the first iterations of a welfare state--Churchill's conservatism won out in the long run, largely because of his obsession with Empire and its authoritarianism.  He saw the possession of vast overseas territories as key to Britain's might and special place in the world, and resisted all efforts to allow people in those colonies to determine their own futures.
Indeed, in a variety of cabinet posts and from a position of public prominence he advocated and sanctioned the use of spectacular violence against anyone he believed threatened Britain's Empire and global preeminence.
As Home Secretary he dispatched the British army against Welsh miners who sought improved social and material conditions.  He admired the European strongmen of the 1920s and early 1930s, even though he saved his moribund political career by fighting them later on.  He stabbed his wartime deputy in the back in 1945 when he equated his economic program with the Gestapo, ignoring the reality that Clement Attlee's Labour Party had been the strongest and most consistent British opponents of fascism and had been responsible for Churchill's ascendancy to the premiership in 1940.  (The absurd comparison didn't stick, and helped to persuade voters to turn Churchill out of office.)
Churchill discussed Gandhi and other Indians in hideously racist terms and advocated the deployment of drastic and humiliating violence against them.  As a wartime Prime Minister he presided over a man-made famine in Bengal that claimed as many as four million lives, a true demonstration of how little the lives of imperial subjects mattered to their British masters and the version of Empire they defended.
When he returned as Prime Minister in the 1950s, Churchill oversaw the colonial response to the Kenya Land and Freedom Army's fight for liberty in the 1950s.  Under his watch, hundreds of thousands of Kenyans were swept up into concentration camps where the use of torture and other forms of state violence became institutionalized as part of a systematic effort to "rehabilitate" Mau Mau fighters who the state regarded as deranged for attempting to free themselves from British rule.
I would like to think that if President Obama had the ability to weigh in on the Churchill bust in the Oval Office--which we know he did not, Cruz' lies aside--he would have returned it in any case, perhaps citing what Churchill's government did to Kenyans of his father's and grandparents' generation in concentration camps and in daily life under colonial rule.  Victims of British torture and other violence from the 1950s recently had their day in court, and successfully sued the British government for its colonial atrocities.
These and other examples of imperial violence are what many of the world’s people associate with Churchill.  Even to Franklin D Roosevelt, the British Empire and Churchill’s imperial obsessions were a liability and an embarrassment. 
But I understand his appeal for an authoritarian like Cruz, who believes that the state should create economic conditions that benefit elites, and who has advocated carpet bombing Syrian and Iraqi cities, the deliberate mass and indiscriminate killing of people in those areas.  The violence of Cruz’ imperial foreign policy advocacy went even too far for the American military, which distanced itself from the methods he proposed, noting that they would violate U.S. practice and international law

And so when Cruz lies about the Churchill bust, but embraces the man who advocated the killing, humiliation, and disenfranchisement of hundreds of millions of people, he offers a glimpse into the world he would like to create.  It is truly frightening.  

Clinton's Intransigence on Israel

One of the few intelligent things Donald Trump has said during this election cycle was about the role the U.S. can play as a negotiator in international conflict, particularly between the Israeli state and its Palestinian colonies.  Trump mentioned that it’s difficult for the U.S. to work as an honest broker if it commits to the outset to backing everything the Israeli government says or does.  That strikes me as a fairly obvious point.
And yet it earned him excoriation from his rival from the Republican Party and from Hillary Clinton, who now that Marco Rubio has dropped out of the race, is probably the leading neo-conservative candidate for the Presidency.  Trump, Kasich, and Cruz are all crazed when it comes to foreign policy, but Clinton provides some framework for the dangerous neo-conservatism she promotes.
And when it comes to Israel, she has dismissed Trump’s remarks about negotiation out of hand.  “America can’t ever be neutral when it comes to Israel’s security and survival”, she declared, adding for emphasis that “Israel’s security is nonnegotiable….We must repudiate all efforts to malign, isolate, and impugn Israel and the Jewish people.”
That last sentence is key.  No candidate and no advocate of peace says that Israel’s security and survival is up for negotiation.  But when Clinton conflates the actions of the Israeli government with the well-being of Israeli Jews, she is following in the footsteps of right-wing zealots who in both Israel and the United States have sought to tar any critique of Israeli terror and colonialism with the brush of anti-Semitism.
The U.S. gives massive amounts of military and civilian aid to Israel, and does so without reference to the behavior of the colonial regime that occupies territories on its borders and pushes Palestinians into conditions of raw desperation.  It launches colonial-style punitive expeditions into these territories, cuts them off from supplies, and has even attacked international arbitrators and observers with its massive military force.  Its diplomats have demonstrated total contempt for the U.S President, have accused our Secretary of State of abetting terror, and have sought to draw the U.S. into armed conflict with other Middle Eastern states.
The Israeli government commits war crimes and crimes against humanity.  Condemning these actions—which has nothing to do with anti-Semitism, undermining the security of Israeli citizens, etc—is in the interests of the public interest in our country, international law, the rights of Palestinians, and ultimately the security of Israelis. 
And yet Clinton has defended the Israeli state vociferously, even when it commits transparently immoral actions that serve no long-term U.S. or Israeli interests.  If Clinton wants the U.S. to be in a position to serve as an honest broker, she needs to back away from her unconditional embrace of Israeli policy.  She needs to make aid to Israel—like aid to every other country—conditional.  And she should recognize that addressing the material and civic welfare of Palestinians is ultimately the path toward making Israelis more secure.
But as with so much else—Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, etc—Clinton has spurned the focus on the intersections between economics and society and has advocated for or supported violence.  The irony, of course, is that both the United States and Israel fought for independence against colonial authorities.  And yet the narratives of unconditional support and the attacks on what they falsely and dishonestly characterize as anti-Semitism blind them to how their support for colonialism and state terror in the present will breed only uncertainty and more non-state terror for the future.
Clinton’s stupidity and obstinacy on this point cast her as a defender as all that is wrong with U.S. foreign policy: an emphasis on violence; disdain for international law; uneven applicability of human rights; and a refusal to treat the ambitions of so many of our global citizens with the respect and understanding that they deserve. 
While each of the Republican candidates has pledged to commit acts of terror in violation of U.S. and international law and are unfit to hold office, Clinton also represents a threat to the security and moral authority of the U.S., and to the lives and well-being of people around the world. 

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Wishlist for Tonight's Debate

The Democratic candidates--Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton--have another debate tonight.  I’ve been missing some of these over the past months, but from the few that I’ve watched, and the close attention I’ve paid to the candidates’ pronouncement, there are a number of things I wish they would address in the course of the debate.
For Hillary Clinton:
-I wish that Clinton would acknowledge that her flip-flopping on environmental, energy, labor, trade, regulation, and a host of other issues is real and remains a major stumbling block for many voters.  This also makes her a potentially weak candidate in the general election.  I wish she could find some way of saying something convincing about her commitment to pursuing the policies and parameters she has begun discussing in the past several months.
-I would like to hear Clinton say something about how--given the pathological hatred the Republican Party has of her--her proposals stand a better chance than those of Sanders of getting through Congress.  She's been given a free pass by the media when she paints herself as the practical candidate with realistic policies.  Does she anticipate somehow creating massive Democratic majorities, or that GOP opposition will evaporate with her election?  If not, we’re left with two candidates who aren’t likely to accomplish much of substance, but one of whom (Sanders) is likely to continue changing the terms of the debate for the better.
-I would like to see her talk seriously about public higher education, and in serious terms about why she doesn't believe we can create the same opportunities in higher education that her generation enjoyed.  Hint: I don’t want to hear about Donald Trump’s kids.  
For Bernie Sanders:
-I would like Sanders to say something about how he intends to accomplish his policy goals.  I'm less worried about the nitty gritty of the policy--that's something that can be worked out at a later stage, and that will likely change in the face of shifting economic, social, and political realities--than about his capacity to deliver.  How will his revolution work?  How will he harness his support, and build the size of that support base, in order to pursue actual policy change or development?  I support his campaign, but I will admit to being deeply sceptical on this point.
-I am still waiting, months later, to hear Sanders say something coherent or compelling about foreign policy.  He is right in his criticisms of Clinton, and I think he has broadly solid instincts, but that's not enough.  Who are the people he will listen to when trying to craft an alternative to the neocons' murderous and self-destructive foreign policy.  When it comes to international policy, Hillary Clinton and the Republicans are literally a menace.  They threaten our own country’s security and the lives of millions of people around the world.  We need a serious replacement for the poison underpinning their foreign policy.
For both candidates:
-I would like to hear the candidates say something about where the balance of benefits in both short and long term is when it comes to the social infrastructure of our country.  For a long time--partly because of the dysfunction of our government--incremental, piecemeal welfare construction has been the norm.  This hasn’t proved to be very robust or functional over the long term outside of core programs.  Does it make sense--and is our country even capable of--to try to find consensus to do some more serious welfare state-building?
-Both candidates (Sanders with some reservations) have expressed support for the drone programs that have become part and parcel of the American war-making machine.  Do they see any problems with the fact that as of about a year and a half ago the President’s targeted killing program had murdered 1.046 people who were not terrorists or even known to the U.S. government to kill 41 people on that list?  

I have few hopes that the candidates will address any of these issues.  But in tone and substance, the debate will undoubtedly be better than the absurd, unhinged, fascistic pit into which the Republican Party has descended.  

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Bill Clinton and the Arc of History

Bernie Sanders’ four Super Tuesday victories, his wins in Kansas and Nebraska, and his desire to remain in the race until the convention, whether he would arrive there as victor or runner-up, is causing consternation in the Clinton ranks.  Bill Clinton is taking to the stump in a bid to discredit Sanders, and his comments about higher education in the United States tell us something not only about the Clintons’ dangerous misreading of the social contract, but also about how they think that history works.
Clinton, following in the steps of his wife who argued that tuition free public universities amounted to the middle class subsidizing Donald Trump’s children, claimed that Sanders’ plan for subsidizing public higher education (but not Clinton’s) would lead to higher tuition and amounted to an unfair subsidy for the wealthy.  Instead of creating truly public institutions, Clinton argued, we need to subsidize the private sector and tinker around the edges of public universities that are experiencing a de facto privatization process.  The basic dishonesty of the claim is clear when we consider that in the tax structure Sanders would create, it is the Donald Trumps of the world whose outsized wealth would subsidize the middle class, rather than the other way around.  But there is more than that.
Clinton is a member of the “Third Way” leaders across the Anglo-American world who came to power in the 1990s.  This generation of leaders, the most famous other member of which was Tony Blair, were intent on learning lessons from the rise to power of economic fundamentalists in the 1970s and ‘80s.  Those fundamentalists--Reagan and Thatcher among them--had attacked the rights of workers to organize, had savaged the social welfare system, had distributed wealth upwards, and had undermined the basic foundations of the social contract between generations.
The lesson that Clinton and Blair chose to learn was that the changes to the social contract wrought on our society by the fundamentalists (today represented by Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, the entire Republican Party, and a wing of the Democratic Party) were permanent.  They decided that there was no point in looking  back to the period before their rise to power, and that they had to live with and tinker with the hand they had been dealt by history.
In their minds, there was an arc to history, away from Keynesian economics, away from robust public institutions, and away from a political economy dominated by the interests of the working majority.  There were no human hands in these changes, just the force of history.  As standardbearers of progressive parties (once-socialist parties, in the case of Britain’s Blair), they had to tame the “radicals” within their ranks who looked to the past for inspiration, because they otherwise risked electoral defeat when faced with the “new reality” of the more unequal and unjust society the fundamentalists had created.
Under their leadership, political parties that had once fought fiercely for the rights of workers and for the existence of a welfare state decided that the best they could do was to tinker, and to continue dismantling the work of the welfare state and replace it with public-private hybrids, or to embrace privatization altogether.
This is a peculiar reading of how historical change occurs.  Let us take the example of public higher education.  For Americans of Bill and Hillary Clinton’s generation, public higher education was tuition free across many states, including at the best public university system in the world--the University of California.  That changed when Governors like Ronald Reagan saw in disgruntled students an opportunity to attack public institutions.  It happened as a generation of voters that had benefited from the investment of their parents in public institutions decided that they were not interested in making the same investments for the generations that came after them.  It came as one of the two major political parties in the United States, the GOP, was captured by fundamentalists who decided to make “public” and “government” bad words, and used a massive political and propaganda program to open the way to new forms of economic and political exploitation, preying on people’s fears rather than seeking to address their needs and ambitions.  
For Clinton and Blair and other “Third Way” acolytes, they could either ride or be buried by the “forces” of history that propelled us relentlessly away from strong, public, democratic institutions and processes towards exploitative, private, unequal politics and institutions.  Reality of course is that change occurs when individuals and interests think and say and do specific things.
If we--as an aggregate of individuals and interests--decide to continue down the path the fundamentalists charted from the late-1970s onwards, we can do so through our thoughts and words and actions.  But if we want to use our thoughts and words and actions to create new conditions and to revisit the terms of the social contract that Clinton’s generation violated when they kicked away the ladder they had climbed to success, we can do so.  There are no “rules” to history that say that there is no path toward fairer, stronger public institutions.  There are only roadblocks, in the form of ideologues like Trump, Rubio and Cruz, cynics like the Clintons, and interests like the massive banks and corporations.  

So when the likes of Bill and Hillary Clinton deploy dishonest, cynical rhetoric to make people afraid of creating the same kind of system that earlier generations benefited from, not only are they re-writing history and being very dishonest while they are about it.  They are also denying agency to our state, our society, and to the individual voters that comprise it.  In a way, this is the condescending argument behind the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party that have shown so little understanding of the frustration and ambition of our country’s left and of the public at large.