Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Countdown to the Debate in Vegas

You could get whiplash on UNLV's campus today as the university hosts the third and final presidential debate.  There are a lot of shiny--and odd--objects around, and an upbeat if slightly carnival atmosphere.
I arrive at campus before the crowds, and was working from a cafe between 7 and 9.  Michael Steele, former RNC chair, rushed through, looking a bit forlorn when no one wanted to shake his hand our take a selfie.  One student recognized him outside, and Steele happily paused for a photo.
State senator and Congressional candidate Reuben Kihuen was the next to swing through the student union on some errand or other.
CNN and MSNBC have large stages set up on campus.  MSNBC did a short interview with UNLV President Len Jessup in the morning, to a backdrop of cheering students and administrators giving a "rebel" cheer. Securing an event of this size and significance is a major coup for UNLV, and comes near the launch of a medical school and a dodgy stadium deal that brought state leadership to campus.
Crowds of Trump and Clinton supporters filled the amphitheater by the MSNBC stage, where Clinton supporters dominated.  Over at CNN, the Trump supporters were more numerous and more boisterous.  
I saw a lonely but exceptionally committed Jill Stein supporter, and wondered if he could have made a bigger impression in a state where his candidate was actually on the ballot.
Nigel Farage popped up at the CNN stage at some point.  Nigel is a bit like a rat: having gnawed through the hull of the HMS Britannia, he jumped ship and is now hard at work trying to introduce chaos in another country.  
Wolf Blitzer was also prowling campus.  My eyes drooped just watching him, but even he drew a mini-crowd.
Security was light yesterday, but today there were large teams of law enforcement standing by the crowds, with lengths of plastic handcuffs at their sides.  
Like most such events, this one brought people out of the woodwork.  This morning, there was a woman riding around on a golf cart screaming "Kitty Kats for Trump!" and this afternoon, a woman tried to give me a copy of a book with George Washington's face on the cover that purported to explain the inner workings of the Trump mind.  I'm not into the horror genre, so I gave it a gentle pass.
I got a tour of the C-Span bus, and then retreated to the peace and quiet of the history department to write a talk about politics in 1960s southern Africa, which seems very removed from this madness.
I'm watching the debate from the comfort and security of home, but on my walk home I was passed by a truck bearing a large billboard that read, "Don't Grope.  Vote!  Paid for by Republicans for Clinton."

Debate Time at UNLV

In Spring of this year, Joe Biden came to the University of Nevada, Las Vegas to discuss his campaign to prevent sexual assaults on campus.  Six months later, the university is hosting one of the world’s highest profile and most unrepentant sexual predators on campus as one of the two leading presidential candidates.  
Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton will have their final debate this evening on the public university campus in southern Nevada, within a few minutes of the Las Vegas Strip.  
Our campus looks nicer than ever this week, reminding me of Nairobi citizens grousing that the city only gets a makeover when a U.S. President comes to visit.  Lawns are clipped, trees are trimmed, and campus buildings are bedecked by signs bearing the new campus slogan, “Daring.  Different.  Diverse” (the cynic in me wonders how much the university paid consultants to devise that).
“Different,” is certainly one word to describe a university administration that recently expended significant effort lobbying the state to use rare public funds to subsidize a casino for a billionaire, when said university, along with schools, infrastructure, and social welfare are woefully neglected.
“Daring,” on the other hand, might describe those members of the campus community who braved the streets surrounding campus, after seven week’s worth of e-mails warning us that we faced a veritable apocalypse if we came to campus because of the intense security and media presence on campus.
UNLV is certainly a “Diverse” of the most diverse in the nation.  But the shuttering of parking lots and the closure of most classes on Tuesday and Wednesday means that visitors will see only a small slice of our student body.
But the University is hoping that it can use its hosting of this major political event to draw attention to its place in Nevada society, the research of its faculty, the diversity of its students, and its aspirations toward “Top Tier” status (never mind that top tier status probably requires a different kind of political economy than the sociopathy that seems to define Nevada for this relative newcomer to the state).
The debate will be held in the celebrated Thomas & Mack arena, which holds nearly 20,000 seats.  It’s my understanding that only around a thousand of those seats will hold attendees at the debate, and that only about 70 tickets were available to UNLV students via a lottery.  Faculty, staff, and alumni missed out altogether.
The Thomas & Mack complex is ringed by giant containers and heavy-duty fences, plus a kind of demilitarized zone, presumably to protect Las Vegans and the UNLV community from the dangerous circus animals performing there on Wednesday.  
Hosting the debate created a range of interesting opportunities for teaching this semester, and I’m proud to be a member of a department that embraced these wholeheartedly.  Colleagues are teaching classes on election issues in historical perspective: ten faculty are contributing in their respective areas of expertise, ranging from foreign policy to fashion, from immigration to climate change.  Another colleague is teaching a version of the same class focusing on issues of race, class, and gender.  Others are offering courses on the history of presidential elections, and on women in politics.  Students are fortunate to have such great offerings available.
The downsides of the security and media presence--the closure of parking lots--has greater implications for UNLV than for other campuses with more residents.  Largely a commuter campus, UNLV is basically off limits to the majority of its students for the first few days of this week.  This means that rather than being an exercise in community-building, the debate has simply seen most students get kicked off campus.
For those on campus, the debate does offer some insight into the world surrounding presidential campaigns.  Students in class Monday were discussing watching the movements of secret service across rooftops in preparation for the week.  I overheard a conversation in the library cafe today from a group of students who were tracking Anderson Cooper’s movements with military precision in the hope of getting autographs.
MSNBC and CNN have large stages on campus from which they are broadcasting.  Leaving work yesterday, I stopped off at an amphitheater near the MSNBC stage to watch Chris Matthews interview a wriggling Michael Steele and a confident Dina Titus, the congresswoman who represents our part of the valley.  Garry Trudeau took his turn in the hot-seat in front of Matthews, who answers his own questions and interrupts his guests mid-sentence.
Matthews reeled away from the stage, followed by a small group of students.  He obligingly signed t-shirts and posed for photos, looking a bit bemused by it all.  
Today is the big day, and it remains to be seen whether the debate will surpass the low bar set by the first two in terms of introducing actual content and policy to a race dominated by Donald Trump’s racism and sexism, and Hillary Clinton’s evasiveness.  UNLV students and the Las Vegas community would undoubtedly like to hear more about student loans, climate change, financial regulation, environmental protection, social welfare, and gun control.
For those dissatisfied by the impoverished nature of American politics, UNLV has helpfully designated a “public expression area.” Free speech, we have been told, is available just off campus, near the Double Down Saloon...provided your organization has completed the relevant registration forms.  *Late and or incomplete applications will not be considered.
Bureaucrats, as you can see, don’t do irony.
The Commission on Presidential Debates is notoriously touchy about partisanship.  This august body, which styles itself as “nonpartisan,” is of course controlled by the Republican and Democratic parties.  Some countries have independent bodies, comprised of civil servants and experts, to deal with election matters.  In the land that fancies itself the birthplace of democracy, we don’t have much time for experts.  We prefer our politics sans content and our democracy without the complications that rational, representative systems of democracy create.
UNLV has plenty of bunting out for the barbarians, and Wright Hall, home to the history department, is no exception.  I was pleased that the CPD, despite its penchant for awkward even-handedness, resisted the temptation to bedeck buildings with fascist insignia or Confederate battle flags, given Trump’s apparently consensual romance with various forms of white supremacy (we won’t mention UNLV’s own brush with Confederate-related controversy here).  
After a slow Monday, Tuesday’s arrival of the media personalities marked an uptick in the campus atmosphere.  Even some administrators were swept up in the excitement, and I spotted a group of them taking selfies next to the CNN stage.  

Hosting the debate is supposed to represent UNLV’s “arrival” as a more robust and better-known institution.  The growing crowds and media hordes on campus are a testament to the significance of the debate.  How it affects UNLV remains to be seen.  

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Las Vegas' Stadium Scandal in the Making

On Tuesday, Nevada’s state Senate had an opportunity to prove its mettle.  Called into a special session by Governor Brian Sandoval, the legislature is considering the question of whether to divert public funds to the tune of $750 million to fund the construction of a stadium for the Raiders.  Those public funds would comprise a plurality of the money to fund the stadium, with Las Vegas mogul Sheldon Adelson, a key mover behind the stadium and the public subsidy putting up $650 million, and the Raiders contributing $500 million.
Senators had the opportunity to vote down this subsidy for Adelson’s project.  The billionaire can afford to build the stadium on his own, and our representatives should have known better than to allow Adelson’s urban vanity project to divert badly needed public funds.
But instead, a bipartisan group of legislators, including Democratic minority leader Aaron Ford, voted for the subsidy.
I’ve only lived for a couple of years in Nevada.  But it only took a few months to realize that even in a country with broadly sociopathic politics, Nevada stands out by the extent of its commitment to advancing the desires of the few rather than the needs of the many.
Proponents of the stadium argue that the project represents important investment in infrastructure that will create jobs.
But if Nevada’s public is being asked to invest its public funds—in this case derived from room taxes—in infrastructure and development, that infrastructure and development should benefit our citizens and community.
One good option would be investment in a woefully overstretched school system, with its overcrowded classrooms and under-staffed school sites.  We have a population that is growing in size and in demographic complexity, and our schools need the infrastructure and personnel to address that reality.  New classrooms, improved sites, increased salaries for teaching and support staff, and increased capacity to offer pre-K education could all go a long way toward improving the experiences and outlook of our state’s children.
Another good option would be investment in our underfunded universities.  Higher education took a devastating body blow during the recession, and has yet to recover.  UNLV has aspirations to become a “top tier” university, but top tier universities generally flourish in states that place high value on funding universities and creating environments that attract a skilled workforce.  Investment in hiring, campus infrastructure, academic centers, the medical school, tuition reduction, salary increases, and research funding could yield big benefits for our higher education sector, and the students and communities these public institutions serve.
We could also consider investment in decrepit transit infrastructure.  Modern, reliable, efficient transit could improve the lives of commuters of all backgrounds and classes, while contributing to lowering emissions and decreasing the need for expanding road capacity, parking lots, and other features of sprawl.  If Las Vegas aspires to become a great 21st century city, state legislators should invest in light rail—to serve residents, not only tourists—and an expanded and more reliable bus network.
But “infrastructure” doesn’t simply refer to the construction of buildings or rail lines.  Our state should also invest in social infrastructure to allow people to live more secure, stable, prosperous, healthy, and rich lives.  Investment in education at all levels is crucial.  But we need to also remember that “welfare”—a dirty word for many Americans—simply refers to well-being.  Welfare states around the world are those states that put at their heart a commitment to economic and social, as well as political equality.  They ensure that all of their citizens can rest secure in knowing that they will not lack for basic needs.
There are a range of welfare mechanisms dealing with income, health, employment, insurance, housing, childcare, and leave that could be created, enhanced, or expanded.  Our country and this state have a history of repudiating the idea that we bear collective responsibility for our political decisions and investments, and consequently, for each other.  But charity is a poor and inadequate substitute for taking collective ownership of our political economy, and ensuring that it works for all Nevadans.
I can see the allure of a shiny new stadium for Las Vegas.  But when the hypothetical fans disperse and go home to their real world, we Las Vegans and Nevadans must continue to live in this one.  And so when we make collective investments, we should invest in things that benefit us widely, and that address the gaps in wealth and power that define our city and our state.
We should assist our beleaguered schools, give aid to our underfunded universities, shore up our neglected transit infrastructure, and infuse our threadbare social safety net with the investments required to make Nevada a better place.  Our legislature has real work to do.  Sheldon Adelson can build his own stadium, on his own time and with his own dime.

Monday, October 10, 2016

Trump's Debate

Donald Trump created an unprecedented spectacle last night on stage at the second presidential debate.  He used the opening minutes of the debate to stake out his position as an unrepentant sexual predator seeking an office that possesses not only the functions of a nation's chief executive, but the cultural and political symbolism that makes its occupant a role model for our country.
Donald Trump has been caught on video describing how he sexually harassed and sexually assaulted woman.  We have heard him describe in great detail how his fame offers him immunity from the sanction that would normally be associated with the sexual and psychological violence he metes out.  We have heard him describe women as objects rather than human beings.
But when Trump appeared on stage and was predictably pressed on his awful words, he opened with the argument that because he would be tough on ISIS, we shouldn't care about his violent, predatory behavior.  He had the temerity to suggest that we can't have both a president who will combat ISIS and a president who will respect women.  He suggested that when American voters weigh what is at stake in this election, waging war on a terrorist organization that can't offer more than pinpricks against our country is more important than the safety, security, well-being, and respect owed to a full half of our nation's citizens.  
Trump made it crystal clear that as president he would foster a culture of impunity for sexual predators.  He claimed that he had engaged in "locker room" talk, as though that is an excuse, as though when American men go into lockers they routinely talk about their histories of abuse and harassment.  He suggested both that words don't matter--imagine the comfort his words gave to other predators and the dismay they provoked in most human beings--and that certain kinds of horrific, abusive, demeaning talk and actions are acceptable if they take place in certain locations.
I felt almost physically sick listening to Trump blow off questions about his predatory language.  I cannot even begin to imagine what this debate must have felt like to any woman who has ever experienced harassment or assault.  How must they have felt listening to and watching a man model the behavior of predators, while also modeling for other men how to weasel your way out of your violent behavior, and win applause from an audience while you’re about it.
Trump's misogyny was accompanied by the inconsistencies that have dogged his campaign.  He was unable to articulate anything resembling a policy when questioned about his healthcare plan.  He couldn't explain how "extreme vetting" was different from the aggressive vetting to which prospective entrants to our nation are already subjected.  And he simultaneously accused Hillary Clinton of spending her entire political life doing nothing but talking, and laid the blame for all of our country's ills at her feet (it’s own form of sexism).
Trump's abusive language and style was not directed uniformly at women on the basis of their gender.  An American Muslim stood up and asked Trump what he thought about the rising Islamophobia in the United States.  Trump, who more than anyone else has made Islamophobia acceptable, claimed that he thought the bigotry he unleashed was a shame, said that we can’t tolerate political correctness (i.e. constitutionally protected rights), and then promptly blamed his questioner for the actions of terrorists.
Trump has used his campaign to put a big, yellow asterisk next to the citizenship of Muslims, Latinos, and women in our society.  In each of these instances he has made clear that members of specific communities do not enjoy unqualified access to the rights and attributes of full citizens.
Trump has suggested that American Muslims be singled out by identity cards or other documents, and has appeared to make their citizenship conditional on their ability to turn in terrorists.
Trump has questioned the humanity of Latinos, migrants or otherwise, and has questioned our ability to serve in positions of civic responsibility because of our race.
Trump has made it clear that whatever other rights they might enjoy, women should be punished if they seek to exercise control over their bodies.  He has expressed his belief that women should not enjoy safety and security from the violence and insecurity created when Trump and his fellow predators are allowed to roam with impunity.  
Commentators were quick to express dismay at Trump's threat to jail Clinton, but this joins a long line of statements which suggest that the fascist predator does not understand or appreciate democratic politics.  He has repeatedly insinuated--Trump is very good at insinuation when he makes the effort--that his supporters should shoot Hillary Clinton.  He and his campaign have threatened to manufacture a constitutional crisis or unleash a bloodbath if he loses the election.
Much of Hillary Clinton's turn on the stage last night--a mere one minute off from that taken by Trump, in spite of his pathetic whingeing--was comprised of platitudes.
Normally, I would find her issuance of these bromides intensely annoying.  But last night I did not.  Normally, platitudes are annoying because they are statements of the obvious and a substitute for policy discussions.  We can generally assume that candidates are committed to the common good, or to some version of the public interest, or can be trusted to behave with a certain level of decency.  But this election is different.
It has actually become reassuring, and powerful to hear this much-maligned woman say things that we can no longer take for granted in the face of vicious, stomach-turning, gut-wrenching attacks by Trump on the fibre of our country's being.  Even as Trump called her a “devil,” stalked around her, twitching, snarling, spitting, and snorting, like some beast called up from the bowels to remind us of our nation’s sinister history, Clinton’s firm repetition of core values of tolerance and respect took on a tremendous significance.
If after the last fifteen months you are supporting Donald Trump, you are not simply supporting the "conservative choice."  You are not simply supporting right-wing Supreme Court Justices.  You are not only supporting an "anti-establishment" candidate (who has of course benefited all his life from growing up in the establishment).  You are not simply supporting a “tell-it-like-it-is” candidate who lies with every breath.
You are supporting a moral wreck of a political party that lined up in support of a monstrous candidate.  Republicans like John McCain sat unmoved for months while Trump trashed our fellow citizens, and have only now jumped ship, rate-like, as their instinct for self-preservation kicks in.  Mike Pence, Trump's running mate, declared himself "proud" to stand alongside the fascist predator.  And Paul Ryan told the public that he would no longer campaign for Trump, but is still endorsing the monster his racist, irresponsible party helped to create.
You are supporting an Islamophobic racist, who does not understand the guarantees the Constitution makes to people when it confers citizenship and protects freedoms of thought and worship.
You are supporting an unrepentant sexual predator who believes men should be able to assault and harass women with impunity and who is not afraid to admit as much on national television.  
You are supporting a man who has declared his willingness to unleash the dogs of civil strife in our country through his relentless, wicked efforts to dredge up the foulest part of our inner being.  

I hope that you will recognize that this election is about more than delivering a slap in the face to the “status quo.”  It is a test of whether a nation with particular characteristics is able to endure flirtation with fascism, a dance with a dictator, and a tryst with Trump and everything he represents.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Mike Pence is a Dangerous Vice Presidential Candidate

Mike Pence is a dangerous moron.  And no, in this case, I’m not referring to the Governor of Indiana’s fairy-tale economic fundamentalism, or his sinister religious zealotry that has led him to assault the civil rights of LGBTQ Americans and suggest that they be subjected to violent and dehumanizing “conversion therapy.”
I’m not even referring to the ability he demonstrated during the recent Vice Presidential debate to dodge the question of why he’s willing to stand alongside a fascist who has threatened political violence, attacked the civil rights of Latinos and American Muslims, demeaned African Americans, insulted women, and threatened reporters.
In this case, I’m referring to the foreign policy views he expressed while debating Tim Kaine.  The moderator repeatedly asked the two Vice Presidential candidates about the threat posed by ISIS.  Instead of articulating a policy, Pence did his best to portray Hillary Clinton as responsible for ISIS.  He repeatedly cited the Obama administration’s inability to negotiate what he regarded as a very necessary status of forces agreement that would have left a significant U.S. troop presence in Iraq.
Pence also explained the rise of ISIS by claiming the organization was “conjured up out of the desert.”  That sort of mystic, fatalistic language that substitutes an Orientalist reading of landscape and culture for analysis of causation explains how Pence could be so badly wrong about both what caused ISIS and about the relationship between U.S. power and the success of the terrorist organization.  It also suggests that Pence is fundamentally incapable of understanding the historical roots of global troubles, or the relationship between those two savants, Cause and Effect.
It is perhaps understandable how a man who launched his political career with racist advertising and who is an unrepentant supporter of George W Bush’s murderously destructive war on Iraq could get foreign policy so very wrong.
Pence suggested on national television that ISIS was somehow “conjured up out of the desert.”  The historical record suggests that the U.S. war of aggression against Iraq might have had a little something to do with the rise of ISIS.
Intelligence officials—as revealed by the British Chilcot Report—warned Western governments that invading Iraq would make western publics less safe from terrorism, provide a shot in the arm to Al Qaeda and similar organizations, and could lead to an intractable civil war in Iraq.  But Bush pushed for that war anyway, and his Vice President lied to the public about the threat posed by Iraq.
The U.S. invasion of Iraq destroyed the country’s infrastructure, wiped out the institutions central to holding the state and its citizens together, and ushered in a period of chaos and bloodshed.  The U.S. occupation created the predictable power vacuum that led to the proliferation of terrorism, and also sparked an anti-occupation insurgency, that terrorists were able to use to acquire legitimacy, organization, and recruits.  These were foreseeable and widely-predicted outcomes of the invasion Pence supported and has continued to defend.
Pence’s idea that prolonging this disastrous occupation—disastrous in its violent principles, its conception, and its execution—through a status of forces agreement would have “solved” Iraq is one of the more absurd claims I have heard about international policy during a very absurd election season.
If we can understand that invasion and destruction by an occupying army helped to spark and insurgency and empower ISIS, we can hopefully also understand that prolonging that occupation would be more likely to exacerbate the problem than solve it.  Iraqis did not regard the U.S. military as a force for good in their country; it was understandably seen as an occupying army.  If we followed Pence’s advice, we would likely have given ISIS an even firmer standing within sections of Iraqi society, and increased its legitimacy in the region by allowing itself to claim the mantle of anti-imperialism.
Some simple-minded pundits celebrated Pence’s performance and suggested it left him well-placed for a presidential bid in 2020.  But if you actually listened to what Pence said, rather than focusing on his demeanor and expression, you’d realize that we’re talking about a religious bigot with savage views about the rights of gay and lesbian Americans.  We’re talking about a man who preaches economic fundamentalism of the sort that has repeatedly crippled our country’s economy.  And we’re talking about a man who doesn’t have even a modicum of understanding of international policy or of the implications of his votes in Congress on international policy.
Far from being the adult in the Oval Office beside his unhinged boss, Pence would be an ignorant and malicious presence, providing bad advice, and offering religious justifications for the cruelty of Trump’s economic, social, and international policies.  His choice to align himself with the fascist Donald Trump simply cements what should be obvious: Pence is unfit to govern.