Saturday, August 26, 2017

Summer Reading Highlights

Monday marks the start of the semester after a both productive and enjoyable summer.  Among the many pleasures of the summer was the opportunity to do more reading unrelated to work.  I’m going to share some of my favorites here, and hope that people will comment with some of their own to add to my never-ending list.
On the fiction side I began with The Handmaid’s Tale.  I had been hearing a lot of people discuss the television version, and I decided to read Margaret Atwood’s book of the same name.  It’s a compelling and rather chilling read, inviting readers to contemplate the end point of sexism, misogyny, and patriarchy.
Another novel that felt somehow timely was Chris Mullin’s A Very British Coup, which had me looking over my shoulder as I strolled through London.  The novel revolves around a new Labour Party leader drawn from the left of the party.  His supposedly radical program so disconcerts Britain’s elite, that they mobilize to defend their privileged status.  It’s an understated political thriller from the eighties which still reads well.
My final fiction read of the summer was The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O., co-authored by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland. It concerns a secretive government agency intent on mastering time travel (that’s “diachronic operations” in the novel’s parlance) in order to avert what has come to be understood as the historical disappearance of magic.  It interweaves fantasy and physics (I’d be curious to hear how a physicist would evaluate the authors’ invocation of their epistemology)  I enjoyed the first half or so of the book the most, but on the whole it was actually quite good, and came together better than the various elements of the plot sound as I’m writing it down!
On the non-fiction side, early in the summer I read Naomi Klein’s No is not enough, a trenchant book that not only provides a compelling reading of some broader conditions that led to the rise of Donald Trump, but also the beginning of a blueprint for pushing back and, as importantly, articulating alternative policies and political practices.  Klein’s emphasis is on the intersectional nature of the environmental, social, economic, and political challenges facing our world, reflecting the complex reality of people’s lived experiences and interdependence.  
My experience of David Gessner’s All the Wild that Remains, a mediation on the lives and writings of Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner, was immeasurably enhanced because I read the book in between strolling the rim and trails of the Grand Canyon, while watching a sunset on Lake Powell, and beside the canyons of southern Utah.  Gessner’s book was a pleasure to read, partly autobiographical, partly biographical, partly an homage to the southwest, and partly mediation on the relationship between people and our environments.
Two of my books, fittingly enough since I spent a few weeks of the summer in Sweden, focused on the Nordic region.  Anu Partanen’s The Nordic Theory of Everything is very much a piece of advocacy, directed at Americans who are constantly reminded of our exceptional nature, but who in reality often forget just how much better we could have it.  Partanen describes the social dislocation, cultural alienation, and economic vulnerability she experienced upon moving to the United States, and spends the book pointing out how the Nordic states in general, and often Finland more particularly, address the points of weakness or gaping holes in the American social safety net.  I hear much of this daily from my wife, but what struck me most about the book was what Partanen implicitly identifies as the very liberal underpinnings of the Nordic welfare states.  To her mind, far from being states constructed along rigidly ideological social democratic (never mind socialist) lines, these were states that used the tools of social democracy to achieve a very liberal end: the emancipation of individuals from dependency and uncertainty.  
Dominic Hinde’s A Utopia Like Any Other was a very different sort of book on twentieth century social democracy.  His investigations revolve around how the hegemony (he’s on the fence about the applicability of the term) of the Social Democratic Party in twentieth century Sweden shaped the country’s welfare state, architecture, housing, cultural politics, and more.  In some sense the chapters read more like a fascinating collection of essays.  But at the core of the book’s argument is the idea that there was no Swedish sonderweg that led to the creation of a utopia that faces a surprisingly uncontested (here Hinde identifies the anemic technocracy of the Social Democrats) unmaking (by the liberal Alliance riksdag grouping).  Instead, the construction of this utopia and others--and here Hinde has his native Scotland in mind, but it applies more broadly--is contingent and requires constant political labor.  
Mahmood Mamdani’s When Victims Become Killers deals with the historical roots and contemporary interpretations of the Rwandan genocide.  Mamdani is a brilliant scholar, whose work on colonial governance, the relationship between humanitarian rhetoric and neocolonial practice, and authoritarianism in Uganda, and this work on Rwanda did not disappoint.  I’m not an expert on the Great Lakes region, but I found the book deeply informative and thought-provoking.  Parts of it are theory-heavy and slow-going, but definitely worth it.
Among the regrets and sadnesses I felt when my grandfather died in December was not having asked him often enough about his youth in El Salvador.  It was with that in mind that I picked up Matt Eisenbrandt’s book, Assassination of a Saint, which documents the assassination of San Salvador Archbishop Oscar Romero, and the decades-long quest for even a whiff of justice.  Eisenbrandt’s book is partly about his own work in pursuing one particular strand of that search for truth and justice, and partly about the broader historical and social context.  His description of how El Salvador’s elite and military, with the assistance of the U.S., conspired to strangle anti-authoritarian and social and economic justice movements in the country, was particularly harrowing because it so close to home in many ways.  
Some other fantastic books from the past six months would have to include Peter Kimani’s novel, Dance of the Jakaranda (dealing with race and power in Kenya during and after colonialism); Asne Seierstad’s One of Us (on white supremacy and terror in Norway); Yaa Gyasi’s novel Homegoing (on the powerful cross generational, trans-Atlantic experiences and persistence of a Ghanaian family); and Africanist historian Terence Ranger’s memoir, Writing Revolt (about his time in the 1960s in Southern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe).  

Probably my favorite of the past year, and one to which I’ll return briefly Monday morning on my bus ride to mark the start of the semester, was the third installment of Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s memoirs, Birth of a Dream Weaver.  The book documents Ngugi’s university years, surrounding the moments of independence in East Africa.  The author is a celebrated Kenyan author, and his other memoirs have centered on his childhood in Kenya.  This book, however, revolved around his time at Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda.  It captured beautifully how learning, art and theatre, student politics, and geographical dislocation reflected the transformation of decolonization and independence.  And it was moving because my own fleeting months at Makerere, and the ways in which it captured something timeless about the student experience, something that will undoubtedly permeate the atmosphere on campus beginning Monday.

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A few things I'm excited about reading in the coming months: John Grindrod's Concretopia: a journey around the rebuilding of postwar Britain; Abdulrazak Gurnah's Gravel Heart; Imbolo Mbue's Behold the Dreamers; Deepak Unnikrishnan's Temporary People; Svetlana Alexievich's Secondhand Time; Ibram Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning; and Patrick Barkham's Badgerlands. Plus more.

Monday, August 21, 2017

Under Trump, Afghanistan will again be a proving ground for bad ideas

Mercenary and would-be viceroy Erik Prince.  Credit.
It is becoming something of a ritual for American presidents to declare a new strategy for Afghanistan, as though the fate of another sovereign state can be discussed in the same way as a healthcare bill or some pesky regulation.  After George W Bush forgot about the country that he invaded to such fanfare in 2001, Barack Obama brought it back into the spotlight.  Because he proposed to withdraw from Iraq, he needed a place to prove that he was tough on terror, and Afghanistan fit the bill.
President Obama was outmaneuvered by hawkish Democrats and backstabbing generals whose careers and reputations were on the line, and found himself dispatching increasing numbers of American soldiers to the country.  The farce which followed generated a cast of personalities sufficiently well-known and absurd that they are now the subjects of satirical war films.  
After excoriating politicians of both parties for a) invading Afghanistan; b) abandoning Afghanistan; c) sticking it out in Afghanistan; d) losing in Afghanistan; etc, Donald Trump is continuing this venerable tradition in a war undertaken without any clear goals, as an act of spasmodic revenge, itself as ritualistic as these “re-sets” which have followed.  It is also, I realize, a war old enough such that the children born in 2001 to eighteen-year-old men and women numbering among those who went off to fight for their country, are just two years shy of being able to fight in the same purposeless conflict.
What can we expect from Trump tonight when he announces a new strategy for the war?  His foreign policy views are incoherent but bloody.  Like his twitter-oriented presidency, they involve lashing out angrily at critics and threats, real or imagined.  They involve pitifully and tragically gratuitous displays of violence, like the dropping of the “mother of all bombs” in Afghanistan, or the launching of cruise missiles during dessert against Syrian targets.
His warmaking is shorn of any long-term objectives, and is characteristically clueless about long-term ramifications for global peace or national security, never mind the lives and livelihoods of the people in the target nation.
In the case of Afghanistan, one of the people bending Trump’s ear during the review is Erik Prince, the mercenary whose company Blackwater endangered U.S. soldiers and derailed what passed for strategy under President Bush by massacring Iraqi citizens.  Blackwater closed up shop, but Prince has continued his career as a war profiteer, intervening in conflicts in Africa, providing private security for Middle Eastern regimes, and seeking to build up a private airforce.
Like his sister, Betsy Devos, who runs the Department of Education, and is set on running public education into the ground, Prince subscribes to the simpleton’s belief that anything the state can do, the private sector can do better.  Such views ignore the desirability of democratic processes and accountability, and have little time for an idea as apparently quaint as the public interest.  They are based on deep historical ignorance, which perhaps helps to explain Prince’s vision for the war in Afghanistan.
Prince has recommended that Trump privatize the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan, installing an imperial-style viceroy and leaving it to the private sector to manage a conflict of which the American public has never assumed serious ownership.  Just as Betsy DeVos wants an accountable public entity to abandon our schools and turn them into petri dish for twisted and failed free market ideologues, Prince wants to turn Afghanistan once again into a proving ground.
For George W Bush it was the testing site for the logic of the War of Terror, and Donald Rumsfeld’s chronically short-sighted belief that small, mobile American forces could remake the world in its own image.  For Barack Obama, Afghanistan was sacrificed to prove a point about Iraq.  And if Trump follows Prince’s recommendations, the country will take its turn as an experimental site for the waging of a war shorn of any purpose, fought by mercenaries primarily to enrich a fundamentalist war profiteer.  In addition to the literal crimes Prince’s mercenaries would commit in our name, the real crime would be once again making Afghanistan a casualty of electoral calculations and ideological evangelism.
Prince has invoked the East India Company as a model of the successful privatization of war.  The British East India Company was a private company that terrorized India for two centuries, morphing into a state with its own army, navy, and currency.  It gutted Bengal, once one of the richest regions in the world, for the profit of British investors and merchants, and enmeshed British elites and politicians in a series of scandals that damaged governments, injured public trust in the state, and helped to spark the American Revolution.  The conservative Edmund Burke believed that the East India Company and its practices was a dire threat to British parliamentary democracy.
Before its cruelty sparked an uprising that ended with Indian nationalists being blown from the mouths of cannons and pulled apart by elephants, the Company morphed into a drug running organization, pushing opium on a Chinese public against the will of the Chinese state, and persuading the British government to use its full military might in a war for “free trade”, the operative “freedom” being that to sell drugs wherever the company and its intermediaries wished.  
In other words, the East India Company represented all that Americans and global citizens believe to be toxic in our own world: dangerous entanglements between public and private interest, in which corporate power subverts democracy; the use of military power for private gain; corruption and the growth of inequality within and between nations.  So it makes perfect sense that for someone like Prince (and his sister), Trump looks like a gift from the gods.  
The United States has never been able to make up its mind about the nature of its commitment to Afghanistan.  For the public, it is a reminder of a time and an administration it would sooner forget, a complication.  For the families of slain and wounded veterans, it is a place much more significant, and the gap between their experience and that of the broader public signifies the casual manner in which our country today goes to war.
For successive administrations, the country has become an election-time tool, an ideological test site, and a symbol of the dysfunctional nature of international policymaking.  The country’s fate bears testament to the U.S. desire to transform the world and intervene in other people’s lives, sometimes in accordance with international law, frequently at cross purposes with the same.  And it illustrates the extraordinary gap between that desire and the willingness to commit resources of economy, imagination, law,  and personnel, and to forge the kinds of relationships and make the kinds of commitments to international frameworks and institutions that possess more relevant expertise.

In a sense, Trump has no good options, and he will find a way to make bad options worse.  And all of those who will rightly move to condemn Trump should he increase the American-made chaos, lawlessness, and violence in Afghanistan, should contemplate the extent to which they have offered tacit support to other administrations who have done the same.  To argue as much is not to engage in the politics of false equivalencies.  It is to point out the power of the military and the impoverishment of our imaginations about international policy, and to illustrate threads of continuity that run through our country’s violently intermittent engagement with our fellow global citizens across the past century and more.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Does Dean Heller support neo-Nazis?

Dean Heller is giving support to white supremacists.  That might seem like a bold claim, particularly given Heller’s statements condemning what occurred in Charlottesville, but I stand by the assertion.
The Nevada Independent has just reported that Dean Heller voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, even after spending the electoral cycle distancing himself from his party’s nominee, and claiming he was “99% certain” he would not support Trump.  Not only does that tell us that Heller misled his constituents, performing one of the flip-flops that have come to characterize his rather pitiful tenure.  It also demonstrates that with his actions, Heller has been a consistent supporter of Trump.  He voted for Trump, he backed Trump’s cabinet appointments, he voted for Trump’s plan to strip healthcare from millions of Americans, and is supporting Trump’s toxic, deregulatory agenda.
The past days have made it undeniably clear that Donald Trump is a friend to neo-Nazis and other white supremacists.  Fascists gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting Nazi slogans, waving Nazi and Confederate flags, and spouting anti-Semitism.  It takes deliberate delusion to pretend any longer that “taking back our country” is in the minds of the people who use the term, anything other than a racist, rhetorically genocidal attempt to destroy the social, political, and economic rights of black, Latino, Asian, Muslim, and Jewish Americans.
Trump’s response to the neo-Nazi rally in defence of a Confederate general responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Americans in his defence of a slave-based rogue state, was to say that both sides were responsible.  Then, through gritted teeth, he read a teleprompter statement concluding that actually white supremacists were culpable.  Today, he has returned to his original position, saying that some of the neo-Nazis who demonstrated their goals and their sympathies with Nazi slogans and salutes, were “very fine people.”  In context, it is clear that Trump’s condemnatory comments were forced, and that his real sympathies are with the people who invoked his name as they terrorized the college town.
The white supremacists in question made it clear that Trump had inspired them and provided them with oxygen.  They characterized themselves as carrying out his vision for the country.  Trump leads the Republican Party, so his words and those of his neo-Nazi followers implicate not just the president, but also every Republican officeholder across the country.
Donald Trump’s relationship with white supremacy is not really news.  His campaign was based around a clearly racist narrative of reclaiming the country.  From whom, you ask?  From the Muslims he wanted to ban, the African Americans he wanted to discipline in the “inner cities,” the Latinos from whom he wanted to strip rights, or his political opponents who he coyly suggested might be murdered by his supporters.
Trump has appointed a number of white supremacists and fascists to leading positions in the White House.  Steve Bannon is perhaps the most notorious, but he is given a close run for his money by the KKK-sympathizing Attorney General Jeff Sessions.  It was clear from day-one of his campaign that this was Trump’s base and these were the people with his ear.
But that did not stop Nevada’s Dean Heller from voting for him in November, despite suggesting to his constituents that he would do otherwise.  It did not stop Dean Heller from confirming the known-racist Jeff Sessions to the cabinet.  It did not stop Dean Heller from backing Trump in his legislative efforts.  
Dean Heller may claim to oppose the neo-Nazis and white supremacists who gathered in Charlottesville.  But actions speak far louder than words, and by helping to elect and then enabling their inspiration, their voice, and their own chief enabler, he is supporting their toxic views, disgusting words, and dangerous actions.  And Nevadans will remember.  
We know how toxic ideologies and movements spread.  It requires people accepting features of their platform, while ignoring and disclaiming responsibility for other features.  It requires staying silent, or alternatively, protesting ineffectively while actively offering the kind of support that actually brings people and their ideas to power.  Dean Heller, and every elected official from his party are participating in this process, this normalization.  

Now that it is crystal clear where Trump stands in relation to the neo-Nazi movement in the United States, Republicans cannot credibly disentangle their support for the president from their support for fascism.  Every vote they grant the president, every action they take to frustrate his critics, every contorted cable news defence they mount of his presidency, keeps him in power, sending an unmistakable signal of support to the swastika-bearing, torch-waving, ‘sieg heil’-delivering, slavery-celebrating malevolence that manifested itself in the contorted faces and words of people who are seeking to resurrect the most dangerous ideology of the twentieth century.

Saturday, August 12, 2017

Trump Draws the Ultimate False Equivalency

Donald Trump just drew the ultimate false equivalency, arguing that anti-racist protestors and fascist white supremacists are equally culpable “sides” in the growing hatred in our country.  After white supremacists and fascists bore torches through Charlotteville, Virginia shouting “sieg heil,” preaching anti-Semitism, and defending the spectre of the rebellious, racist confederacy that defended the enslavement of black Americans, protesters met a second march in broad daylight.  
In the ensuing melee, people were injured, and a terrorist used a car to attack anti-racist marchers.  The Virginia governor, the city’s mayor, and other public figures condemned the white supremacists, but Donald Trump tweeted a vague call for unity without singling out the perpetrators of racism, the defenders of a state built on slavery, and the Ku Klux Klan, a prominent domestic terrorist organization.
At a press conference, Trump proceeded to condemn hatred, but made it crystal clear that he viewed this hatred as something that emanated from many sides, encompassing anti-racist demonstrators and torch-bearing fascists alike.
It is extraordinary that there is any constituency in this country outside of the Klan’s meeting rooms that could view this statement with any credibility, or be led to believe that any equivalency could be drawn between these two groups.
One group of people are defending the country’s fundamental legal premise, a premise that is seldom realized in practice, but which has animated debates and progress for over two centuries.  This group of people is arguing that all people should be equal before the law, and should be protected from hatred.  This group of people is arguing that race should have no bearing on whether a person is considered a full member of society.  To me, those ideas seem the fundamental opposite of hatred.  They are a call, a demand, for equality, respect, and justice, things that are fundamental to a healthy society whose members can embrace one another and share in the fruits of their collective labors and investment.  They are a call to replicate in the nation the love and solidarity we associate with strong families and communities.
On the other hand, we have a group of people calling for some kind of torchlit reclamation of their country, invoking the Nazi’s genocidal cry of “blood and soil,” something utterly incompatible with our constitutional and legal framework (understandable given that over half of Republicans would accept the murder of American democracy).  This group of people has resurrected the vile anti-Semitism of interwar Europe (shouting “Jews will not replace us”), talks about “taking back the country,” and deploys not just fascist, but explicitly Nazi salutes, slogans, and frameworks.  
Their very purpose is to create a mythology of white oppression in a country barely escaped from Jim Crow, still hampered by the hierarchy of economic opportunities created by slavery and segregation, and which still has tremendous disparities in the justice system (favorable to white Americans).  They are deploying this mythology in order to argue that some citizens are more equal and deserving than others, and to excuse their demands for violence.  Leading white supremacist David Duke suggested that he and the neo-nazis were rallying to ensure that Trump makes good on his pomises, a clear indication that the fascists see Trump as their candidate, and have been emboldened by his rhetoric and that of the Republican Party, whose members have called for the mass extermination of Muslims and an ethnic nationalist framework for American law and citizenship.  

One of these groups, in other words, is about equality, acceptance, and ultimately love.  The other is about division, inequality, and ultimately extermination.  The fact that the president is so willing to fold them together tells us much about his loyalty to our country’s constitutional framework and the livelihoods and wellbeing of its citizens.  It also tells us that he sees fascists as his allies, his base, and the future of the United States, and believes that Americans writ large are stupid enough to accept as much. That people entertain these false equivalencies are a sign of a dearth of critical thinking skills, respect for evidence, and knowledge of history, and just how dangerous the absence of these civic skills will prove to our country.