Thursday, December 17, 2009

Obama is the Champion of What?

That President Obama has some of his lowest poll numbers yet this morning is not the sky falling. Many presidents experience similar numbers in their first years. The troubling number is that more respondents are now against the health care bill than for it. These numbers do not represent a conservative fantasy of everyone rallying to the side of the Teabaggers. The low numbers in general, but particularly the numbers on the health care legislation, reflect the fact that the president has lost the left. When the public option is not in, when expansion of Medicare is not in, there ceases to be enough real reform to make the bill seem worthwhile. This is a mistake: even a watered-down package of legislation would be a step in an incremental move in the right direction.

But that's not what I want to write about today. I want to stick with this issue of where the progressive left is with Obama. Granting that even just a few points of the poll number slippage is owing to left-leaning opponents of the final bill pulling off, the overall numbers are still close enough that that would make a big difference. At a minimum it's certain that the president would have some number higher than what he's got now if he had the Democratic base galvanized, which he does not, and that that number wouldn't be so bad relative to other administrations. Bottom line: this White House would be doing better politically if it were further to the left. The current failure is to be not radical enough.

Demographics are on the Democrats' side, and the country is coming off of a long conservative cycle. Democrats and liberal voters felt that they'd been being beat up on by the Republicans for a long time. They wanted someone who was more pugalistic, a fighter. That was the energy that Howard Dean tapped into. The electorate in general is not as doctrinaire as the various chattering classes. Ronald Reagan wasn't elected in 1980 by a nation won over to conservative philosophy, he was elected by a nation that wanted to change the channel. He presented real change (of the kind he favored) as just that, a change (what the public wanted).

That was a time when voters were realigning themselves, and now is also such a time. There are insurgent currents on the right with which progressives might make common cause. It is the (much smaller) left, after all, that has forever been opposed to corporate dictat, or to wanton environmental destruction, or to massive military operations conducted globally, in perpetuity. But these are also preoccupations of the populist, Christian, middle class element of Republican voters who are so restive today. Obama at his most politically successful could be stripping those voters away like a bear getting at the honey.

But he's not doing that right now because he is coming off as just another yes man to corporate interests and just another yes man to the Pentagon. We know what he said during the campaign: health care for all, and an end to the two wars. That's what he envisioned, he said so time and again. So it was somebody else who told him that he couldn't do public health insurance, and it was somebody else who told him he couldn't withdraw US combat troops from South Asia. Who's your daddy, Barack?

Peggy Noonan, of whom I am not a fan notwithstanding her fine Irishness, did say something on MSNBC this morning that struck me as maybe uncomfortably true: she pointed out that in her experience as a columnist, most national political leaders have die-hard adherents who will angrily rally, showering hostile e-mails on any pundit who lobs criticisms at their champion. She said she didn't see that fierce core of Obama supporters.

A champion must be a champion to some people, but a champion must also be a champion of some cause. With Reagan people felt that they knew what he stood for. They weren't necessarily as committed to conservatism as he was, or even very committed at all. It was the trust that he created by a sense that he was grounded, that he would always move in a predictable direction that was governed by his own judgement come what may. Obama needs to project that aura of leadership now. A leader has to be leading somewhere. This president will see his fortunes rise when he moves to the left, as counter-intuitive as that may sound to some. You heard it here eighty-zillionth.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Obama in China

Watching early reports on President Obama's visit to China this morning, two thoughts:

1) The Chinese are clearly enjoying their ongoing rollout as a premier world power (I don't like "superpower," it's a debased usage like "supermodel"). As in so many other areas, the Chinese understand the role the US plays in this. A visit by the American head of state is still different from a visit by any other leader. Obama is the right kind of American politician to handle that: he knows how to gain by giving, something the previous administration had no instinct for at all.

There is also a palpable sense that both sides realize that if they can somehow develop a working partnership they can be twice as strong as either can alone ("Chimerica"), leavened by underlying doubts on both sides about the ultimate intentions of the other. Economically, for example, although China may have a strategic advantage because of their truly awesome reserve of US dollars, they could only do serious damage to the US by beggaring themselves. Obama's political style is salutary here: he can make it easier to get concessions (floating the yuan, enforcing copyrights, stopping underselling) by helping the Chinese save face (an all-important factor in Chinese diplomacy).

2) The Bush-Cheney administration was committed to maintaining the security status quo along the Pacific Rim: dozens of bases and a nuclear armada right in China's face. This Pax Americana is no longer tenable politically or financially. With the end of the Cold War (a work in progress) the US must find a way to stand down as the global gendarme or go broke. This is easier said than done.

There are three options: a) Try to maintain the status quo. I take that to be a clear non-starter; not even our allies in the region want that. b) Solve all the regional security problems (insure Japanese security, reunify the Korean Peninsula, peacefully settle the issue of Taiwanese status, etc.). That option is a dream, equally obviously. 3) Have the Chinese, the Japanese, and the Russians handle regional security.

Notice that my critique is not primarily of the big bad USA. It is the Asian powers, on my view, including liberal parties in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, who make free use of anti-American rhetoric, but who have thus far been far from willing to put their money where their mouths are. Only China (perhaps with help from Russia) can deal with North Korea. They don't want to because of the expense. They would like to send the bill to the Japanese and the Americans. China's "Middle Kingdom" intransigent style of diplomacy has also achieved exactly nothing towards resolving relations with Taiwan. Thus even Bill Clinton had to continue the saber-rattling policy of sending nuclear-armed carrier groups into the Taiwan Strait when China's hawkish generals would indulge in one of their periodic rounds of threats, and Obama will too. The Chinese need to do better than that if they want the Americans to go home. I hope they do, because most Americans want the Americans to go home too. I certainly do.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Did You Hear About Glenn Beck and the Chinese Communists?

I confess that I've never actually sat down and watched Glenn Beck's show on Fox. I'd watch a show if only for the purpose of writing this post, but G. and Sophia wouldn't stand for it. From plenty of sampling in the media I had a pretty good idea that conspiracy rhetoric was a big part of the schtick. You know, where you draw the sinister and shadowy connections. So I hopped on over to YouTube to have a look and sure enough I found evidence that this was a theme.

Well, "big deal," right? Except that Glenn Beck works for the Australian Rupert Murdoch, who owns Fox. Mr. Murdoch owns Star TV, the biggest station out of Hong Kong, and he works closely with the government of the People's Republic of China. These deals are of Chinese government influence over content on his channels in exchange for access for Mr. Murdoch to the $50 billion advertising revenue of Chinese state-owned TV. (Here is an Esquire magazine article on the topic with lots of good links, although it embarrassingly repeats over and over the error that Murdoch is "an American businessman"). In fairness to Rupert Murdoch he has publicly asked the Chinese government to open up to the world's media. Those who know him smile and say he wants the money. Glenn Beck works for the same people who produce television news for the Chinese Communist Party. Literal fact.

All paranoia aside, it may be that Mr. Murdoch's worst crime here in North America is his hugely successful "Fleet Street"-ization of American TV news, turning it into a tabloid media more familiar in the UK and Australia, patently biased, patently exploitative. The counter-argument is that it's good that we know what we're watching. And Glenn Beck is nothing, after all, compared with what people are going through in Central Asia.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Obama's Nobel Four Days Later

The surprise awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama was Friday 10th, four days ago, so now there has been enough time to inventory some arguments/reactions to the Nobel Committee's action.

The Norwegians may not be alone in perhaps sincerely believing that for a black man to win the presidency of the United States is grounds for a Nobel in and of itself. This may be exactly right so far as I can see, although the Europeans do have an alarmingly cartoonish perception of American multiracial society.

People were quick to interpret the award as a slap at Bush, both those who applauded such a snub and those who resented it. I think that's maybe overestimating Bush's importance at this point, and I doubt that the Committee's intentions were primarily spiteful. Perhaps some were thinking of European anti-Americanism and the Atlantic community, so to the extent Bush is a factor in that he's a factor (there is probably some truth in all the views of the award).

Bush may also indirectly factor into the sense that the Europeans (and make no mistake, the Nobel reflects European opinion quite specifically if it reflects world opinion at all) see the US as an older, somewhat maladjusted colleague who needs lots of stroking; there is a palpable sense of hopefulness in the comments of European leaders that perhaps the Prize will inspire the Americans to do good instead of evil.

There is an interesting question as to what sort of function the Nobel Peace Prize is to serve. "What sort," as a precise function is indefinable. The Prize is predicated, for one thing, on the idea that the members of the committee themselves are enlightened promoters of peace. In practice this is unavoidably political. Why have such an award at all if no good is to be done with it? Thus the award has grown forward-looking, an act of potential influence as much as of retrospective appreciation.

This was the principal emphasis of Obama's own remarks Friday morning. "This award must be shared with everyone who strives for justice and dignity," he said, thus directing public opinion to the Committee's intentions and beliefs as distinct from his own. It was a West Wing kind of moment as the White House managed to put together an effectively classy response to something very big that had been thrown over the transom before breakfast that morning.

As to that, politically it's an overall plus for Obama notwithstanding that it is an eyebrow-raiser. It really is extraordinary to see the Norwegian Nobel Committee throw its weight behind an American president. It's an illustration of how quickly the Europeans could rally back with the Americans if the Americans were doing good things. And there is no doubt that in the long run the Prize increases the individual's personal stature (Theodore Roosevelt, Desmond Tutu, Rigoberta Menchu).

But let's be cynics and assume that the Europeans are more interested in manipulation than seduction. The idea is that having the Prize makes it harder for Obama to exercise American military power. I think that's overstated. In fact one could make an argument that increasing his authority this way makes it easier for him to do what he likes, war or peace.

Specifically it has been said that the Committee wants to discourage an American attack on Iran. That could be given the provinciality of the Norwegians: they may be under the impression that an American attack on Iran remains possible (after 9/11 a Frenchman fulminated to me that the Americans might bomb targets in France).

The really pressing issue, and the one that just possibly (although I doubt it) swayed the Committee to throw the Prize to Obama at the last minute, is Afghanistan. I'm a Democratic Party loyalist and a big fan of Obama, but let's talk turkey for a minute here. The Democratic candidate always has a problem signaling toughness on foreign policy in campaigns against the Republicans. In 2008 Obama had the advantage that the Iraq war was extremely unpopular. He needed to run against that war but avoid coming across as too dovish. So he ran saying that he would prosecute the war in Afghanistan and go after Osama bin-Laden. Now his generals want 60,000 more troops.

The war in Afghanistan is a mistake. Al-Qaeda is operating in Pakistan, and elsewhere. Afghanistan cannot be pacified (ask the Russians, the British, the Mogols, Alexander...). The central government is, as Lincoln would say, "highly metaphysical," as most of the country is governed by regional chieftains. This is indeed a defining moment. The US needs to get out now. That, like health care reform, will only happen with real leadership from President Obama. He can only prove his strength by withdrawal. That's how he can earn his Nobel Peace Prize.

Meanwhile I'd love to be a fly on the wall when he talks to Al Gore about getting the Prize. Inevitably Gore will tease him that he doesn't have an Oscar, but I think Obama has a plan: if he fixes the college football playoff season, and he's working on that right now, I think he would be a cinch for the Espy. Take that, Al Gore!

Thursday, September 10, 2009

We've Got "Death Panels" Right Now

That's right. Bureaucrats deciding who will live and who will die, with an eye on the budget. A recent article in the Los Angeles Times, not exactly known for its left-wing sympathies, reports that HMOs in the state deny on average one out of five claims. I'd suggest reconsidering if you're insured by PacifiCare: they reject 40% of all claims by their livestock - er, I mean clients. Cigna's a little better: they only refuse care to one out of three people who need it (remember these claims are only filed after a sick or injured person sees a physician).

Of course it's not surprising that the present system includes assiduously working, merciless "death panels": the current system is a for profit system. The private bureaucrat isn't trying to conserve budget money, they're trying to make profit money. According to Republicans, that's alright: if you've involved yourself in a business exchange and the other person turns out to get to kill you so he can make some more money, that's the free enterprise system at work. Private "death panels" (that are hard at it every day, right now) are acceptable.

Meanwhile, one of the several health care reform legislative packages includes (among many other things) the provision that, by request of the patient, public option-insured patients could receive end-of-life counseling. This would be, for example, advice about wills, about hospices, and so forth. A study published in the August 18th issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association found that such counseling improved both the quality of life and the longevity of terminally ill patients (and this study was, surprisingly enough, reported without criticism by Fox News, which has degenerated along with the Republican Party itself into hysterical reaction; I guess Mr. Murdoch's people can't stay on top of everything).

It might be useful to point out to your conservative friends that we have "death panels" right now, and that the president is trying to get rid of them.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Puerto Rico and the "Public Option"

The phrase "health care reform" actually covers several different, interrelated problems. All of the problems are essentially financial. One problem is the high cost of medicine in the US, a consequence of unbridled capital-driven medicine. This will be hard to fix. The health insurance industry and the pharmaceutical industry are wealthy and powerful, and they will not go down without a fight. The "single payer" option is basically nationalization of health care. It would wipe out these for-profit industries. I support single-payer because a) I think health care is a civil right and b) the present system appears to be unsustainable. However 1) it does not look to me that single payer is politically feasible and 2) after all even us liberals must agree that such a radical change would put us well into the realm of unforeseen consequences and as a matter of fact I really hate bureaucracy: I hate it so much that I actually know how to spell it. If we are to have single payer, it will come at the end of a process that will take years.

However much of the borderline-hysterical opposition to health care reform is confusing two things: "single payer" and "public option." These are completely different issues. I believe that we will end up with some sort of public option in the US as a result of the push for reform that we are seeing now. But public option isn't anything like socializing health care. Public option is an entitlement program for people who cannot afford health insurance. It is an attempt to address the problem of over 40 million people, mostly women and children, who have no health insurance in the US today.

I live in Puerto Rico, and we've already got the public option here - we've had it for years. It's called La Reforma. Anyone can go on La Reforma who wants to, there are no income qualifications or anything like that. It is strictly a matter of choice. In fact even a state employee like me (I'm a professor at the state university) isn't on La Reforma. We've got Triple S, recently changed from Blue Cross. Our paycheck deductions vary depending on which of a couple of different options we choose. It's pretty good coverage that includes prescriptions, dentistry and even psychiatry. In other words, my family's health insurance is just like that of most of you states-side readers. As professional people we don't have anything to do with La Reforma.

Of course the public option could conceivably be competitive, just like the U.S. Post Office has been a competitive carrier for most of our lives. There was a junior professor here a few years ago, a young and single man who was living on a shoestring, and he actually took his chances with La Reforma in order to save the money in his paycheck. Like I said, anyone can choose it, rich or poor. But a parent or a middle-aged person or most of us would prefer better coverage. It's not about us. It's about the poor.

La Reforma is on the scruffy side. You can "choose" your doctor, but only from the list of doctors who accept the plan. That's no different from my family's private coverage, it's just that fewer doctors accept the public plan. There is a myth of "choice": we don't have a big problem, but we do encounter doctors and other health service providers from time to time who don't accept our plan. We get our meds at Walgreen's; Walgreen's doesn't accept La Reforma. Scruffy doctors, scruffy pharmacies, health care that's not as complete and not as high-quality as that of a family with employer insurance or private insurance. But better than no insurance at all. That's what the "public option" is: a minimal medical safety net for the poor. It's an absolute scandal that the US doesn't have it.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

US Imperialism, Chinese Imperialism

It is usually the case that ethnic and religious conflict turns out under analysis to be economic and political conflict. The oppression of one group by another almost always has to do primarily with profit and control, and these are the issues that push ordinary people to the point of violence. This is the case with the recent rise of ethnic violence in far-western China. Han Chinese are migrating into Tibet and Xinjaing, with predictable push-back from the native populations. The migration is essentially economic, including many examples of the classic story of the young man seeking economic opportunities far from home. However this migration has been greatly augmented by Chinese government settlement policy. Although China's economy continues to grow, a drop-off in exports has led to sharp rises in unemployment. In order to avoid unrest in Chinese areas, the western regions are being used as a safety-valve to redistribute idled workers. China also wants to firm up control of Xinjiang as it plans to develop oil and gas pipelines from central Asia and exploit other important natural resources in the region.

What warrants some critical attention is 1) the Chinese government's role in settling Han Chinese in these areas as a matter of policy, 2) the Chinese government's refusal to accept responsibility for the consequences of these policies in favor of anti-Western demagoguery, and 3) the problem that ordinary Chinese, at home and abroad, have in overcoming a centuries-old mindset formed by foreign exploitation in order to grow up and accept the responsibilities of a great power.

It is clear that we are living through an epochal time in Chinese history. All Chinese, as well as the Chinese government, must understand that this means that China and the Chinese will be coming under much more criticism in the years to come, both internally and externally. A thicker skin will have to be developed. Americans (like me) are exceedingly familiar with this phenomenon. The most basic fact of life pertinent to this discussion is that the strong person can bear to hear criticism, the weak person cannot. There is no clearer proof of weakness and insecurity (not to mention wrongfulness) than an inability to confront criticism from others.

The specific problem confronting the Chinese government is ethnic violence in Tibet and Xinjiang. These two regions together constitute far-western China. Neither area has historically been inhabited by Han Chinese. They are ethnically, linguistically, religiously and historically non-Chinese areas. I will discuss Tibet, where China's crimes are much graver, in future posts. Chinese conquests, native revolts, and reconquests date back about 250 years in Xinjain ("Uyghuiristan," more accurately). A little bit of historical background helps one gain a sense of the situation, but I will keep it brief.

The first Chinese invasions of East Turkistan, or Uyghuristan, occured in the mid-1700s. Then as now Chinese policy was frankly expansionist, and Chinese settlements were built on conquered Uigher lands in the late 1700s. However China lost control of Uyghuristan through a series of revolts in the early 1800s and for most of the 19th century the country was under Uigher rule. In a scenario common throughout the Far East for centuries (and to this day), the Chinese minority was the focus of native hostility as they tended to be successful merchants and to resist cultural and linguistic assimilation (similar to traditional perceptions of Indians in East Africa and Jews in Central Europe). In 1863 there was a genocidal anti-Chinese rampage that killed over 7,000 Chinese. China reconquered Uyghuristan in 1877 and the new province was given the name "Xinjiang" (meaning "new frontier") for the first time in 1884. However after the fall of the Qing dynasty in the early 20th century Uigher leaders reasserted themselves, effectively triangulating with the Russians who have long contested this region with the Chinese. The East Turkestan Republic was declared in 1933.

In 1943 a Chinese Communist delegation visited the country, but fearing a plot the government ordered all Chinese communists killed; Mao Zedong's brother Mao Zemin was one of the victims. The Red Army defeated the forces of the Eastern Turkestan Republic in 1949. Maoist attempts at cultural genocide of the Uighers in the 1960s (part of "The Great Leap Forward") led to massive Uigher refugee flows into Soviet-controlled areas in 1962. In recent years there have been significant ethnic riots, with large but uncertain numbers of deaths, in 1990 and again in 1997, when police roundups during the Muslim holiday of Ramadan led to a series of riots and bombings. The East Turkestan Independence Movement (ETIM) has existed for many years but suffered a severe setback after 9/11 when the US government accepted and cooperated with the Chinese description of Uigher nationalists as "terrorists." In fact a number of Uighers were held for years at Guantanamo Bay.

The present disturbance originated in Urumqi, the largest city in Uyghuristan, which has been part of the enormous Chinese construction boom of recent years and which subsequently now has an Han Chinese ethnic majority. Apparently stories about ethnic violence among workers in China's Guangdong province led to an outburst of Uigher-on-Han attacks in the city, followed by counter-attacks by gangs of Hans. The government admits to approximately 200 deaths, but has worked hard to cut off internet and other communication access to the area. Journalists have been allowed to interview Han victims in hospitals, but not Uighers. Uigher sources, predictably, claim that China has understated the extent of Uigher casualties.

Another city to watch, though, is Kashgar, the center of Uygher culture. Here cultural genocide on a scale approaching the destruction of the culture of Tibet is occurring while you read these words. The old city, the world's best-preserved example of traditional Central Asian "Silk Road" Muslim culture, as well as the center of contemporary Uygher culture, is being bulldozed away. A small Disneyland-style area will be preserved for tourism. Meanwhile aggressive settlement, far exceeding anything the Israelis have done in Palestine, will insure that the Uygher culture is exterminated forever. Kashgar is closed to outside communication, foreigners found there are driven to the airport and sent away, local people found with foreigners face imprisonment and possibly death.

Finally, there is the issue of Chinese demagoguery in response to criticism of Chinese imperialism in Muslim areas. The Chinese government (I draw a sharp distinction between the Chinese government and the Chinese people) has for years blamed unrest in Uygheristan on local nationalists, using the familiar language of "terrorism." Now, however, the perception that there is a conflict between China and Uygheristan must be downplayed, so there is a return to blaming sinister foreigners (read the US and the "West") for the "problems." Just as in the US, this propaganda is primrily aimed at a domestic audience, as no outside observer would agree that anyone other than the Chinese government itself is responsible for cultural genocide and ethnic settlement in Uygheristan. How ironic that the rationale given for foreign plots is that the area is rich in resources and the likely route of energy pipelines: that is the reason that China is destroying Uygheristan!

The US is guilty of the same hypocrisy in Iraq and the Middle East in general: if you are going to go to violence in order to assure your access to valuable resources, perhaps each power has as much right as another to struggle for survival in this way. But it is better to have the real motives on the surface, in the discussion. In Iraq and Uygheristan, the issue is oil. National governments will continue to practice the diplomatic and rhetorical dark arts, but ordinary people can be expected to rise above their provincial sympathies and try to see things clearly. Too many Americans are not up to this challenge, but the problem is worse among Chinese.

Monday, July 13, 2009

Republican Misrepresentation of Sotomayor's Role in "Ricci vs. DeStefano"

There isn't much chance that Judge Sonia Sotomayor will not be confirmed later this month as the next Supreme Court Justice, the first latino/a (and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx no less) to go on the Court. So I'm just going to focus here on something that is very important about what we're watching this week whether she is confirmed or not, and that is the way the right wing (and to that extent the media) are misrepresenting the actual facts about Judge Sotomayor's ruling on Ricci vs. DeStefano. There has been some reporting that this issue will be the focus of Republican criticism.

Remember as we review the facts of Judge Sotomayor's participation in that case that most Senate Republicans understand that the perception that Republicans are attacking Sotomayor because she is a latina is political poison for the Party. The only big electoral state the Republicans carried in 2008 was Texas: everyone can do the math.

Listen to the Republicans this week. They will be implying (sometimes baldly stating) that Judge Sotomayor endorsed reverse discrimination in the Ricci case. The Ricci case, they will loudly state, is the proof that Judge Sotomayor is a reactionary affirmative action reverse racist. Here are the facts:

1) Both sides in the original situation appealed to the same legislation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. The Civil Service Board of the City of New Haven invalidated the results of the firefighter's promotion exam because the Board was worried that they might be sued under Title VII. Ironically, the firefighters who had passed the exam (17 whites and 1 latino) then sued the City under that very law, Title VII. Two things to notice: a) Both sides appealed to the same law. This was not a dispute about the constitutionality of the law. b) The Civil Rights Act is legislation that was passed by Congress. Any judicial proceeding affirming the right of the City to act under its interpretation of the Act is affirming the constitutionality of a law passed by the legislative branch. Nothing more, nothing less.

2) The 18 firefighters' case was heard in Federal District Court by Judge Janet Bond Arterton, a Clinton appointee. She ruled against the firefighters in a "summary judgement." That is, she ruled that there was not sufficient reason for the Courts to overturn a decision of the City. Again, this is basic everyday "constructionist" jurisprudence, of the kind conservatives support. No policy-making, and upholding the authority of the elected lawmakers.

3) This is the most important detail, I think: the case next went to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. There is was heard by a three-judge panel. The presiding judge, that is the judge that wrote the opinion, was Judge Rosemary Pooler. The third judge was Robert David Sack. Pooler wrote what is called a per curiam decision all of eight sentences long. Such decisions are anonymous and unanimous, and are used by courts where there may be disagreement among the judges but a collective view that it is not worth fighting it out. So Sotomayor played, relatively speaking, a very small role in this case. The Second Circuit simply upheld Judge Arterton's ruling, which simply stated that the City's Board had been acting properly within its understanding of the law. Sotomayor did not write this ruling, and it is an anonymous and unanimous ruling. She sat on a three-judge panel that was presided over by someone else. That's it.

4) The Supreme Court ordered a review of this case certiorari, meaning it exercised its authority to instruct the Circuit Court to send the case up for review. That is, the Supreme Court intervened in the process to cause a case to go up to the Court that otherwise would have come to an end. The Court ruled in favor of the firefighters on June 29th, along the expected 5-4 ideological lines.

Remember the gist of these facts as you listen to the Republicans all week telling us that Ricci vs. DeStefano is proof that Sotomayor is biased and an activist. It is sheer distortion. Get a better sense of Sotomayor here, for example, or here.

(Here and here are two earlier posts tagged Sotomayor.)

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

Chavez and Honduras

First of all, let me join the chorus and say that Honduras (or rather, the Honduran political and military elite) ought to bow to international opinion and to today's resolution from the Organization of American States and reinstate ousted President Manuel Zelaya. President Zelaya was not acting outside of the constitution when he pushed for a referendum on amending the Honduran constitution to allow him to run for reelection (and to presumably propose other amendments as well).

However I am blogging today to lament the political tone-deafness of the left, who quickly fell into a by-the-numbers, knee-jerk reaction of blaming perfidious Yanqui for the coup, led by the patently demagogic Hugo Chavez, who, by the way, is as responsible for this coup as anyone. President Zelaya won the 2005 Honduran presidential election by 4%, the smallest margin of victory in Honduran electoral history. Difficulties in delivering his (admittedly progressive and supportable) efforts to reform the Honduran economy have led to erosion in his standing in recent polls. It is, in fact, improbable, given the available numbers, that President Zelaya would succeed in being reelected even if he had the constitutional right to run (which, remember, he does not). Nor was the Honduran Supreme Court's decision to overrule his firing of the country's military chief and his insistence on going ahead with the referendum unconstitutional, whatever names one wishes to call the members of the Court.

So where do I go on all of this? Zelaya ought to have appreciated that politics is the art of the possible, that his election had been a good thing, and to continue to work for progressive transformation of Honduran politics and economics. But instead he fell too much under the influence of Hugo Chavez, who probably put the situation over the tipping point when he sent a plane full of ballots and other election materials to Honduras, alarming many people beyond the right-wing elite. Chavez was so intent on cultivating another example of his Castroist formula for moving a country towards one-party rule that he pushed Zelaya to go too far too fast. It was obvious to anyone paying attention that Zelaya did not have the popular or the institutional support for this kind of maneuver.

If you want to keep repeating what you've been chanting since your momma taught you the mantra while you were in your crib, that this is all the fault of perfidious Yanqui, that's an easy thing to do. You know the words to the song. But if you want to be part of building an independent, culturally and politically distinct Latin America you might try listening to some other tunes. I acknowledge Castro's motives and his good heart. But the economic failure of his revolution is at least as much the fault of his centralist policies as the bloqueo, which meanwhile serves the Cuban Communist Party's political interests immeasurably: there would be no Cuban Communist Party today if not for the bloqueo. Chavez, meanwhile, is a demagogue, a racist, and a war-monger. So let me ask you, my lefty reader (the only kind I have): are you helping to advance progressive evolution in Latin America? Or are you just pleasuring yourself?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"Say the Magic Words" on Iran

Responding to Republican criticisms of President Obama's response to the political crisis in Iran, and demands that the president get "tougher" or "lead" the international response, Democratic Indiana Senator Evan Bayh wondered on Chris Matthews' Hardball show last night, "What are the magic words that would satisfy them?" (the Republicans). (And although Bayh is well to the right of me and I don't agree with much of what he says, a good example of the American discussion is this surprisingly sophisticated discussion during his appearance on Fox News Sunday.) This is an excellent question on several levels.

First, just asking the question draws attention to a fundamental reality: there is nothing much more than rhetoric that anyone outside of Iran can offer. Military action is unthinkable; I'm assuming we don't need to spend much time discussing that. Economic and diplomatic sanctions of various kinds have been in place for many years, and tightening them (or even maintaining them as they are) is a bad idea for two reasons: they make things worse for ordinary Iranis who are already in difficult economic straits (this election was largely fought out over domestic economic policy, not foreign policy), and sanctions and other punitive actions change the subject from an internal Irani political struggle to a struggle with hostile outside powers: exactly the kind of narrative change that the hard-liners want.

Which leads to the second level of meaning of Bayh's question about "magic words": to whom would President Obama be speaking when he uttered these mysterious words that would satisfy his conservative critics in the US? To the Iranian regime? That would just be handing them ammunition for their demagoguery. To the Iranian people? Do US conservatives want the president to egg them on into more dangerous territory, without any ability to back them up? That has happened before. To the international community? The Europeans a) have made it clear that they are tired of, and hostile towards, US domination of international security politics and b) very badly need to prove to the world, to the US, and to themselves that they can indeed provide a real alternative to the US on security problems and get real results, and the US badly needs for them to develop this capacity as well.

So that leaves the president talking to the US. More precisely, the Republicans would like to get into a political football game with the administration and see if they can score some points. So they are appealing to the US public: "See, the Democratic president isn't tough enough. He's weak in his response to the crisis in Iran." This is their inevitable position, because their only goal is to regain political power. And that means that there are no magic words that would satisfy them. This is the card that they have to play, and they have to play it.

What Obama needs to do is not speak to the Iranians or to "the world," he needs to educate the American people. His speech in Cairo was truly extraordinary in any number of ways (showing respect for the Koran, for example), but one of the most important things he did was to simply state publicly that the US had helped to engineer the 1953 coup that ousted the democratically-elected Mohammed Moseddeq and installed "Shah" Reza Pahlevi, who ruled autocratically and without democratic process until the Islamic revolution of 1979. All this because Mosaddeq dared to challenge the monopoly of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, the British government's largest financial asset at the time. By simply acknowledging these events, President Obama probably did, in fact, contribute to the atmosphere of transformation now welling up from the young population of Iran. The Republicans, in their belligerence and willful obtuseness towards history, would push the Iranian mindset back to 1979; Obama is 2009.

An irony is that speaking in Cairo, with a speech that was listened to closely across the Muslim world, a large part of Obama's audience was already well aware of the Cold War history of US and British excesses in the region. But it is in the US that this needs to be understood, not just for reasons of principle, but for the very urgent practical reason that it explains the need for US reticence on current events in Iran. Any perception that the US is actively meddling in the events happening there now will play straight into the hands of the hard-liners. Obama understands this. Who are worse: the Republicans who don't understand this because they don't bother to know our history, or the Republicans who understand this perfectly well?

The tricky part for an American president is that he must never appear to be anything less than completely patriotic, making explicit lectures about past errors and misdeeds difficult. But I think that Obama should just lay it all out there. The Republican Party assumes that Americans are idiots (just the way they like it). What happens when one assumes that they're smart? I teach students for a living and I can answer that question: assume people are smart and they quickly reveal themselves to be just that.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Sarah Palin is a Demagogue

A demagogue is someone who appeals to people's sense of victimization or to their simple prejudices in order to motivate them with feelings of anger, outrage or spite. In ancient Greece (the source of the word: demos, people, and agogos, leading), entrenched aristocracies were frequently overthrown by demagogues, the sense of the word at that time being "organizers of the common people." Greek conventional wisdom, however, took a negative view of this progression, as typically demogogues emerged as tyrants, meaning rulers who were governed by no law other than their own beliefs and desires.

Today the word demagogue means someone who capitalizes on the resentments or passions of some group of people, usually including the sense that the demagogue is exaggerating or misstating the facts, in order to use the target group as a means to power. Eva Peron, who represented herself as a common Argentine woman as opposed to the local Latin oligarchy, is one modern example of a demagogue. The most striking example of demagoguery in the 20th century was Hitler's use of the Jews, who he portrayed as sinister manipulators and not "authentic" or "pure" Germans, to focus and thus control and direct anger and violence that had in fact built up as a result of German defeats in World War I. Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez are contemporary examples of demagogues: they are able to blame the United States for the sufferings of their own people and as an external threat that necessitates authoritarian rule.

Sarah Palin is a demagogue. Her rhetoric is strikingly consistent: she is a common person from humble origins (a victimized woman who may help herself to feminist rhetoric when convenient), motivated by a higher law than secular laws (Christianity), and angry and indignant about elite and less purely American forces that are active in sinister plans to deprive the volk of their political autonomy.

I don't think that Palin will ever again be on a national political ticket because I just don't think she's got the right stuff, and so I wasn't much interested in discussing her further, but the other night I saw on TV an extraordinary scene of protesters in front of David Letterman's studio in New York and I felt compelled to take a couple of minutes to spell this out. These people were whipped up into a frenzy. The history of demagogic success is full of tales of broad swathes of national populations who thought "it can't happen here." Sarah Palin understands as well as everyone else that Letterman was not referring to her fourteen-year-old daughter (I'm not going to bother with the ritual "His joke was tasteless but..." caveats). Without any doubt she despises feminists (by the way) behind closed doors as part of the Godless liberal left. She has no compunction about using her children and her family as chessmen in her rhetorical machinations. She saw an opportunity to demagogue an issue and she took it.

She traffics in anger, resentment, innuendo, exaggeration, provocation and distortion. She presided over political rallies where members of the crowd called the Democratic candidate a traitor, a terrorist, a communist, a Muslim, an Arab, a monkey and a nigger, routinely calling for his murder well within her earshot, and only took steps to clean up the perceptions of these rallies when it became politically necessary (in fact she scarcely bothered: it was McCain who took conspicuous steps to clean things up). She is a vicious, dangerous person. That is a plain fact.

Friday, June 5, 2009

The Sotomayor Discussion on the Island

Some of my North American friends have asked me about the reaction to President Obama's nomination of Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. I'm surprised that there has been such a muted reaction here on the island: not as much press coverage as I would have expected, and so far not a single Puerto Rican friend or colleague has mentioned it. Puerto Ricans have mixed feelings, not all of them attractive to contemplate. Sotomayor was born and raised in the Bronx: this means that a lot of the locals don't consider her to be a "real" Puerto Rican. This alienation between the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live on the island and the approximately 4 million Puerto Ricans who live in the States has deep roots.

The initial large waves of immigration occurred during the Great Depression and during and after World War II, and many of these migrants were from the poorer and blacker sectors of the society. Puerto Ricans, who have a very complex genetic heritage and a society that is, relative to most societies worldwide, not very racist, nonetheless have deeply conflicted feelings about their African heritage. In the Caribbean racism takes the form of "whiter than, blacker than," rather than the one-or-the-other mythology of the North. So the islanders, many of whom are more similar in identity to middle-class people from other Latin American countries than they are to the US urban underclass, often look down on the "Nuyoricans." Depressingly, it is not hard to find people who say "She's not Puerto Rican."

Then there is the "status" issue, that is, the question of the formal relationship between Puerto Rico and the US. Many nationalists feel that Puerto Rican participation in US institutions is part of a creeping assimilation (the pejorative term here is "annexation"). These elements resisted the conducting of presidential primaries by the US parties here last year, primaries that I saw as a very positive development: the tension is between a farther-off goal of Puerto Rican independence (something I am not against and that I predict will eventually occur) and the nearer-term effort to enfranchise Puerto Ricans, who are US citizens but second-class ones who have no senators or congressmen, nor the right to vote for the president (this includes me, by the way: as an island resident, my civil status is exactly the same as all other residents). This while more than one out of ten US soldiers overseas is Puerto Rican: I take that to be an outrage against the US Constitution.

Finally there is an intensely willful insularity among islanders, a manifestation of the deeply ingrained instinct to passive resistance that has evolved over centuries of colonial domination. Ask a Puerto Rican on the street who the Vice-President is and the odds are high that they will have no idea. A paradox of Puerto Rican politics is that the lower the socio-economic status, the more likely that the individual will favor statehood: Uncle Sam protects them from the oligarchic Spaniards; and at the same time the lower classes are more likely not to speak English and to understand very little about US institutions and political life. (The haute bourgeois Puerto Rican professors at the university, who actively work to prevent the students from becoming proficient in English, are almost universally fluent English speakers themselves).

So all in all, I have to report that the reaction is distinctly depressing, considering that Sotomayor's mother was born in Lajas, an area on the southwest coast about a half-hour's drive from where I'm sitting, and that Sonia Sotomayor herself is a native Spanish speaker whose father never learned to speak English. But the circumstances of Puerto Rican political life are both tragic and complex. The marginalized are always turned against each other.

There is some good news to report, however, at least good from a Democratic partisan perspective. In yesterday's El Nuevo Dia, one of the biggest papers on the island (maybe the biggest) and one that could fairly be described as center-right politically, I found an article on page 20 (I'm always on the lookout for any Sotomayor coverage). "Espadas en alto por Sotomayor" was the headline: "Swords raised for Sotomayor." It was a short piece consisting of interviews with two Puerto Rican politicians.

The first was Ramon Luis Rivera, the alcalde of Bayamon, a large municipio that comprises part of the greater San Juan metropolitan area and that consists mostly of large, dense working-class neighborhoods (five of my mother-in-law's six sisters live there). Puerto Rico is divided into 78 municipios, which are a cross between cities and states: "alcalde" translates literally as "mayor," and the head of state of the island is called the governor, but the alcalde is a sort of mini-governor of a geographical region, usually centered around a city of the same name. Bayamon is one of the largest municipios on the island in terms of population and is as I said part of the San Juan urban area, making Sr. Rivera the political equivalent of somewhere between mayor of Newark and governor of New Jersey.

Rivera has been affiliated for many years with the US Republican Party. Many higher-level island politicians affiliate with one or the other US parties, for reasons of political expediancy. But the discussion in the US about the nomination of Sotomayor is turning him around. "Me han sorprendido declaraciones fuera de lugar de varios lideres republicanos": "I have been surprised by the statements coming from various Republican leaders." He singled out comments by Newt Gingrich and Rush Limbaugh, who have both accused Sotomayor of being a racist. "Sotomayor no solo tiene todas las calificaciones de su capacidad juridica y profesional, sino que tambien le daria un balance filosofico al Tribunal Supremo de Estados Unidos": "Sotomayor not only has all the judicial and professional qualifications, but she will also give philosophical balance to the Supreme Court." Exactly the point that the right-wing Republicans are attacking. He goes on to mention Republican opposition to President Obama's stimulus plans, and unlike the Sotomayor nomination, the issue of stimulus money is on the lips of Puerto Ricans everywhere one goes. The economic situation here is much more desperate than in the States. He concludes that he has been a Republican "hasta ahora," but now he has "la carpeta abierta," that is, the issue is open.

The other politician mentioned in this article was Jose Enrique "Quiquito" Melendez, like Rivera a member of the Partido Nuevo Progresista Popular, the pro-statehood party that is generally viewed as the most conservative party (although that is another complicated discussion; some of the PNP's leaders are affiliated with the Democrats, and their main rival the PPD, the "Populares," also represents some conservative elements such as the Catholic vote etc.: a discussion for another time). Melendez is the PNP's candidate for an upcoming Puerto Rican Senate vacancy, and he was recently dispatched to Washington to meet with the (extremely conservative) Republican senators Don Young of Alaska and Dan Burton of Indiana, who is certainly one of the most right-wing senators today. The original agenda was the legislation on yet another plebiscite on statehood sponsered by Young and Burton, but Melendez also raised the issue of the Sotomayor nomination, urging the Republicans to support it.
His reaction to that conversation was along the same lines as the comments by Rivera: "El Partido Republicano no puede ponerle trabas innecesarias a una candidata que tiene todas las calificaciones": "The Republican Party cannot put unnecessary conditions on a candidate who has all of the qualifications."

The reason all of this is significant is that Luis Fortuno, the young and recently-elected governor, has been very clear about his ideological allegiance to the Republican Party as well as to statehood. Now, however, he is scrambling to deal with a budget in free-fall, quite possibly ruining his chances of re-election by announcing over the past two weeks that he will cut the public payroll by some 30,000 people, and sending out last Monday the first 7,816 dismissal slips in the mail: the kind of thing that is the kiss of death in Puerto Rico's traditional patronage politics. To reform and rehabilitate Puerto Rico's finances he will need every ounce of help he can get from Democratic-controlled Washington. Now the Sotomayor nomination is throwing a major wrench into his plans: perceived Republican prejudice may pull the domestic political rug out from under him.

Thanks a lot, Newt and Rush.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Talking Points For Defending Sotomayor

When despairing of the inane political football games that Supreme Court nominations too often become, we might take some consolation (cold comfort, I admit) in the fact that it has always been so, and in fact if anything 19th Century Court politics were even rougher than they are today. It's also likely that Sonia Sotomayor's nomination will go through; it's hard to see how the Republicans could stop it. Still, we will now have an interlude of fussing and fighting and it's useful to try to pull out the most salient talking points.

Those points are not, I don't think, the most obvious ones. The obvious points are as follows:

1) Obama continues to follow a recent trend started by Clinton and, after initially stumbling with his arrogant attempt to appoint an old crony, Harriet Miers, hewn to by Bush in his appointments of Roberts and Alito: appoint extremely accomplished jurors. This is definitely a good idea as the corpus of law only grows more complex and simply larger with each passing year. In the case of Sotomayor, we have a jurist who graduated summa cum laude from Princeton, was an editor of the Yale Law Review, worked for the legendary Manhattan District Attorney Robert Morgenthau, and has now served eleven years as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City.

2) Democrats and liberals like myself also have nothing to complain about: we have the first Latino/a nominee in the history of the Supreme Court - and a Puerto Rican from the Bronx, no less! That's maybe the best part. A woman diagnosed with diabetes at a young age, raised by a single mother. Not only that, but she is most famous (until now) for ending the baseball strike in 1995 coming down on the side of the players, thus avoiding what would have been the first cancellation of the World Series in 90 years. Her overall record is liberal but hardly "activist" (as her attackers will begin shouting on cable today), with plenty of examples of ruling against liberal outcomes on the basis of constitutional law.

But here are three points to keep especially "on-message" as the right wing tries to tar Judge Sotomayor: a) She was a prosecutor in Manhattan for six years. b) She was recommended by Daniel Patrick Moynihan, but the President who actually appointed her was George H. W. Bush, and most importantly c) as a Judge on the Couirt of Appeals in New York City, most of her rulings have not concerned "social" issues. She has been working most of this time on complex cases involving the financial and banking industries as well as communications technology, just the kinds of cases that are likely to come before the Court in the next few years. These are the things one might want to mention in public debate with the dittohead troglodytes.

Friday, May 22, 2009

New Democratic Senators Hall of Shame

Twenty-nine Democratic Senators voted in October 2002 in favor of House Joint Resolution 114, "To authorize the use of United States Armed Forces against Iraq." In subsequent years as the war proved to be long, bloody and expensive, as we learned that there were no "weapons of mass destruction," and above all as the war became exceedingly unpopular with the public, there was plenty of weaseling and squirming and rationalizing about that vote. Democrats among the 29 have basically two lines: first, they were misled about the facts, and second, they respected the president's executive prerogatives.

Yesterday we saw a breathtaking buckling under by Senate Democrats who were stampeded by absurd rhetoric about "releasing terrorists on to the streets of America," exacerbated by overblown accounts of former detainees returning to the struggle and a general demonizing of all of the 200-odd men still held in Guantanamo. Stampeded, that is, by spurious and exaggerated claims that many of them undoubtedly knew to be so. Forty-eight Democrats voted for Amendment 1133 which stripped $80 million of funding to close Guantanamo from House Resolution 2346 which, by the way, authorized $91.3 billion for more war funding.

But the cravenness of this isn't even what bugs me most. It was the other half of the original 29 pro-war Democrats' rationalization that I'm thinking about today. "Hey," they said, "we supported the Republican president. We gave him what he wanted. We got in line like good soldiers." So I'm wondering: was there something about first-term President George W. Bush that inspired such institutional loyalty, such faith in the executive's good intentions, that first-term President Barack Obama lacks? And there are sixteen Democratic Senators who I would particularly like to hear answer that question: the 16 who were among the 29 Democratic senators who voted to authorize the war in 2002, and were also among the 48 Democratic senators who voted yesterday to deny President Obama funds to close Guantanamo.

Here, in alphabetical order, is the Gang of Sixteen: Democrats who gave Bush what he wanted to make the mess (basically because they were politically cowardly and willfully obtuse) and refused to give Obama what he needs to clean the mess up (basically because they are politically cowardly and willfully obtuse):

Baucus, MT
Bayh, IN
Cartwell, WA
Carper, DE
Dodd, CT
Dorgan, ND
Feinstein, CA
Johnson, SD
Kerry, MA
Kohl, WI
Landrieu, LA
Lincoln, AR
Nelson, FL
Nelson, NE
Reid, NV
Schumer, NY

Some of them are very prominent, some of them talk a pretty good game - all of them should be ashamed.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Is David Corn Eddie Munster?

I always figured Marilyn would be the successful one! Seriously though, David Corn, the Washington Bureau Chief of Mother Jones Magazine and a writer for the excellent CQPolitics, as well as the co-author with Michael Isikoff of the just-out-in-paperback Hubris: The Inside Story of Spin, Scandal, and the Selling of the Iraq War, has been doing great TV work lately and you can count me as a fan.

But I still say he looks like Eddie Munster.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Moment of Truth for Republicans on Abortion

For the record, my own position on abortion is "safe, legal, and available to all," that last clause referring to my opposition to cutting federal funds to hospitals where abortions are performed even when medical professionals recommend the procedure. But a winning phrase from the Clinton years is "safe, legal, and rare." And Democrats have an effective strategy for reducing the number of unwanted pregnancies: real (as in explicit) sex education, and access to birth control including condoms (the only method that also prevents the spread of STDs) and the "morning after" pill. The public is smart: a concerted sex education effort and access to birth control will certainly reduce the frequency of abortion and any common-sense person can see that.

The Republicans, meanwhile, have a self-contradictory position: they want to outlaw abortion, but they also oppose sex education and making condoms and other forms of birth control available to young people. For some reason (and Lord knows I'm not the one to ask) Republicans are against sex. And since they are against sex they are against knowledge (education) about sex and even against safe sex (sex with condoms and other forms of birth control). But they are also against abortion. That's the contradiction, at least from a public health-policy perspective.

The Democrats can absolutely wipe the floor with the Republicans on this one, but we need to understand that the audience is the broad, centrist public and the message needs to go out on point and relentless: explicit sex education and access to birth control is the most efficient strategy for reducing the number of abortions. The empirical facts are a slam dunk on that one. So you say you're anti-abortion? Then we can assume you're in favor of sex education and birth control. Or we can assume you're a hypocrite...CHOOSE.

A Conversation About the Indian Elections and Kashmir

I was thinking about a post on Sunday's landslide victory by the Congress Party in India yesterday when I had this exchange with a good friend, an Indian academic working in the US. She graciously agreed to my posting our conversation, good for me since she knows more than I do!

Indian Friend: Maybe not so exciting as the Obama win but, I hope you agree, ALMOST!
(opened champagne last night)

AB: Yes I've been sketching a possible blog post about the Indian elections this morning. I was disappointed that the NYT coverage did not bother to explain just how reactionary/violent the Bharatiya Janata Party really is, or even remind its readers that the BJP has actually been in power in the recent past. Instead the NYT chose to emphasize the comparatively less important set-back for the Communist-led coalition, spinning this as a public referendum on the need for "economic reform." They're going to make a Noam Chomsky out of me yet. But you know things are bad when the big old, bad old Congress Party are the good guys by miles! Which at this point they are. Anyway, everybody repeat three times: "US-Pakistan alliance bad, US-India alliance good." If you can't remember after three times, chant it again.

IF: Hey Andy,
I think the NYT emphasized the Communist setback because that was indeed a real surprise, whereas the BJP one could certainly be explained, even if it was bigger than expected. What was also not emphasized in the article is that the Congress victory is significant not only as a mandate vis-a-vis the BJP but also vis-a-vis the Kashmir separatists - and I hope that gives Obama (and Clinton) a message not to meddle in that region!

But you know things are bad when the big old, bad old Congress Party are the good guys by miles!

Disagree. Except for the short bad period of Indira Gandhi's obsession with personal power, the Congress has been pretty much on track re secular democracy. And it sure helps to have a Prime Minister who's a PhD in economics!

AB: Don't get me wrong, I've always supported Congress. Has there ever been a choice? As to Kashmir, I'm slightly confused by your comment: granted that both the Islamic militants and, notoriously, the Indian Army have committed many excesses at the expense of the native Kashmiris, it has not been my sense that the Kashmiris themselves are Muslim separatists generally. Do you disagree? If not, expect Congress to resist Islamicist incursions of all kinds, which they will see (more or less correctly on my view) as proxy antagonism from Pakistan. Would you support a fundamentalist Islamic Kashmir aligned with Pakistan? Do you think that Congress would acquiesce to that? I'm not concerned about "terrorist havens" or any of that nonsense, rather about Kashmir itself. Is it your view that the jihadis coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan a more progressive force than the Indians?

IF: Don't get me wrong, I've always supported Congress. Has there ever been a choice?

Yes. Congress's best point has been its secularism. Its bad points have been its attempts to control the judiciary and of course its continuation of dynasty politics. The BJP started, btw, as a party to counter Indira Gandhi's attempts to turn India into a police state in the late 70s, which sprang from her desperate attempts to hang onto power. That's when she declared her infamous Emergency. I was desperate to vote but was underage by 1 month (voting age was then 21). Indira Gandhi's younger son Sanjay was even worse than her. So yes, the BJP was at that time a good choice. After Indira Gandhi's assassination the Congress has not been dominated by any one individual and that, I think, has been what saved it.

As to Kashmir, I'm slightly confused by your comment: granted that both the Islamic militants and, notoriously, the Indian Army have committed many excesses at the expense of the native Kashmiris, it has not been my sense that the Kashmiris themselves are Muslim separatists generally. Do you disagree?

Yes, of course there have been excesses. But until recently it appeared that India was trying to hold on to Kashmir at all costs, because the militants kept demanding a boycott of the elections. However the state elections (last Decmber, when I was there) and last month's national election has shown an overwhelming majority are against separatism. This, I think, should eradicate the militants' goal to romanticize themselves as resistance martyrs. And therefore I think a clear indication that things should start returning to normal. The excesses must be dealt with of course, but if it were a case of an army holding an entire region against its will that would be far greater "justification" for terrorist attacks as well as for Obama's interference.

If not, expect Congress to resist Islamicist incursions of all kinds, which they will see (more or less correctly on my view) as proxy antagonism from Pakistan. Would you support a fundamentalist Islamic Kashmir aligned with Pakistan?

It would be dangerous, but if that's what the people wanted there would be no grounds to oppose it.

Do you think that Congress would acquiesce to that?

No, for several reasons:
1) It's not what the majority wants
2) Even if, hypothetically, the majority had voted that way, this doesn't take into account the sizeable Hindu minority that has fled the valley in the past 19 years.
3) If this were to happen it would set a precedent for all kinds of ethnic break-away regions in India.
4) By insisting on elections, Congress (led by Omar Abdullah, an absolutely excellent candidate - young guy in his mid 30s) basically called the separatists bluff. (There were 2 separatist candidates for the state elections in December).

I'm not concerned about "terrorist havens" or any of that nonsense, rather about Kashmir itself. Is it your view that the jihadis coming in from Pakistan and Afghanistan a more progressive force than the Indians?

I'm not talking about progressive. But certainly one can't FORCE people into democracy. If the majority in Kashmir WANT jihadi rule, what gives India the right to IMPOSE itself on Kashmir? That's why I'm so happy about the Kashmir elections. I'm not saying the Kashmiris want to be part of India necessarily because of democracy. But they do want to cash in on India's economic boom that's for sure. They also know that one of their main economic assets was tourism, and the only way their tourist industry can thrive is under India. There's no way the jihadis are going to encourage "houseboats for honeymooners"! They've really been hurting economically in the past 19 years.

So that's why I'm very very happy about the Kashmir elections. If it had gone the other way, it would have justified the 1990s view that Kashmir was India's Vietnam.

This is how the Kashmiri separatist candidate's defeat was described in Dawn.

Check out CNN-IBN if you get a chance on It is NOT, despite its name, IBN (Indian Business News) a business channel. There ARE other better news channels in India but this seems to be the best one available on Livestation.

Friday, May 8, 2009

A Matter of Perspective

Conservatives have been telling us for years that energy conservation was a silly idea: "You're only going to save maybe 1% of our crude oil consumption that way" they'd scoff at this or that proposal (at lots of proposals: because there are lots of ways to conserve energy!), "It's just a drop in the ocean!" And that was the argument: saving a little is no use, so forget it.

I'm not sure what's supposed to be "conservative" about this attitude. It has no relation to the commonsense frugality of my parents who grew up during the Great Depression, for example. Nor does it resemble the humble traditions of thrift and saving that hardworking immigrants have been bringing to this country for centuries. It is the cynicism of hopelessness, at best, and the cynicism of those who know that their personal interests are served at the expense of others, at worst. The fact is that when billions of barrels of crude oil are being consumed every day, 1/2 of 1 percent, say, translates into an awful lot of oil. With numbers of vast magnitudes the fact that must be realized is that even a small percentage of a very large number is, in real numbers, itself a very large number.

This old argument comes to mind watching the (I would say cynical) reaction of the media to President Obama's announcement of $75 billion dollars of savings in federal spending announced this week. By trimming here and trimming there, closing this office and canceling that order, the White House, busy enough with other things, has announced that they have saved a sum equal to approximately 1/2 of 1 percent of the federal budget. And out come the cynics: "A drop in the ocean," "A political stunt," and so forth. I beg to differ.

Every householder knows that it does indeed make sense to cut out the monthly sushi outing, or hold off on ordering that new CD from Amazon, when pressed with a big mortgage payment, a large credit card debt, college bills and so forth. $500 a year in savings: that's a month's worth of credit card payments, or a month's worth of groceries, or a new piece of furniture. That's real money! And guess what: do what the Obama administration has done three months into its term 199 more times and: no deficit at all. 200: is that so large a number? Meanwhile, lots of folks, apparently, figured for a long time "Hey I owe $12,000 on my credit cards: another 60 bucks for this gizmo doesn't change that situation." That way lies madness. That way lies the impasse at which we have arrived.

So yes, it is a matter of perspective when we're talking about trillions of dollars of deficit spending. But the moral of that has been backwards in the media this week, and I'm not talking about know-nothing Fox, I'm talking about MSNBC, even. The implication of trillions of dollars in debt is not that 1/2 of 1 percent savings is nothing. The moral is that it's a WHOLE LOT. When I save 1/200th of my annual budget, that's good. When Obama saves 1/200th of the annual federal budget, that's not just good, that's great.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Empathy on the Supreme Court

Why not put Bill Clinton on the Supreme Court? Obama and Hillary need to keep him busy, and it's the only box big enough to hold him. Plus he's a notorious empathizer.

Speaking of that, I'm marveling at this week's conservative attack on President Obama, who made the outrageous assertion that he wanted to appoint someone to the Court who might have empathy for ordinary people. Horrors! This is more of the Keystone Kops routine we're seeing from a right wing that is now led by Rush Limbaugh. How great is it to have political opponents who are spending the week declaring themselves to be against empathy? Rhetorical geniuses they are not.

Meanwhile, I'd love to have an interview with Justice Clarence Thomas about all this. He wasn't quite four-square against empathy in his dissent to Virginia vs. Black in 2004, when the court upheld a right to cross-burning under the 1st Amendment. "Those who hate cannot terrorize or intimidate to make their point," he wrote, adding the interesting metaphysical observation that burning a cross was more like burning a house than it was like making a statement; one could, after all, burn down a house to make a point. So how about it, Justice Thomas? For empathy, or against it?

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

John Wilke 1954-2009

My old college buddy John Wilke passed away last Friday at the age of 54. I have known him and his wife Nancy for 31 years. John was a staunch liberal from before the day I met him until the day he passed away. He had a very "straight"-looking demeanor and was always polite and diplomatic, but he was burning with righteous indignation at corporate greed and exploitation when we were students at New College in the 1970s and that spirit carried him through Columbia Journalism School and on to a distinguished career as an investigative reporter. He was a thorn in the side of the mighty; if you were to ask Bill Gates about him you'd get an earful.

John told me he had cancer some months ago, and we had an e-mail conversation about death and dying, but he was never anything but his always positive self. He never said he was dying, he was reflective but never complained. Here are obituaries from his employer of 20 years The Wall Street Journal, his sometime employer The Boston Globe, and The Washington Post.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Two Points About the Torture Debate

Two quick points about the political football game Washington is having this week over the "torture memos."

1) The "debate" about the torture memos and what to do about them is, most unfortunately, a distraction that helps the Republicans, on my view. It allows them to kick up a bunch of gorilla dust (for example, I'm doubting the Cheney people sent someone over to inform Nancy Pelosi that they had waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed 183 times, but you would think that they had from watching cable). Just put it all out there (without cherry-picking either) and walk away, and it will take care of itself.

2) One thing that does make me mad, though, is the way the military just sort of tossed those loser guards from Abu Ghraib and not a single officer even so much as fell on his sword for a sweet pension deal, while we now know (and had every reason to think at the time) that the policy of rough interrogation was coming down from the very top. The attitude of the brass seems to be, "Well those kids weren't our professional torturers, so it's not the same thing." Seems a bit low for all the officers to run off and let those hillbilly kids go down.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Media Cheerleading For the Destruction of Somalia

I posted the YouTube interview (actually Davey D interviewed him) with the Somali-born rapper K'naan below and on Facebook last Tuesday. I was disturbed by the sceptical response it elicited from my mostly educated, mostly liberal readers and Facebook friends, so I did a little more research into K'naan's claims, that I will report below (well, report on the reporting: I'm just a guy in his pajamas). Since then, the media has been devoting a great deal of attention to the tearful homecoming of the American hostages as well, of course, to the heroic conduct of the Navy SEALs who killed three Somali pirates (all aged between 17 and 19), presenting the story in the crowd-pleasing form of the heroic rescue after the terrible ordeal, without so much as a mention of the background of problems for Somalis that puts the piracy in context.

So I was interested this morning when I saw that the NYT had an editorial on the problem, and I turned to it immediately. The NYT is my basic newspaper, and I'm not the sort of cranky, correcter-than-thou lefty, like Noam Chomsky, say, or the late Harold Pinter, who indulge themselves in a blanket rejection of the motives or integrity of the NYT, not that I'm naive (Chomsky has done good work in the past on media coverage of Cambodia, Indonesia and other places). But this morning my old friend the NYT, I'm sorry to say, pushed me too far, and here I am, spending some time this beautiful Saturday morning giving you some background on the situation in Somalia.

Somalia, a failed state ruled mostly by local warlords for years, has the longest coastline of any African country. With no national government with any effective international influence, it has been the site of illegal dumping of waste, mostly from European nations, for many years, including nuclear waste. International organized criminal networks, long involved in the lucrative business of dumping toxic waste illegally, have colluded with private companies in this practice. There is some persuasive documentation that as a result of this abuse of the lawless situation along the Somali coast, local people have suffered various illnesses including birth defects that are associated with pathogens in the environment.

In addition to the illegal dumping, Somali waters are exploited without any compensation to Somalia by international fishing fleets that have not only taken fish that a country with a functioning international presence would be able to harvest with its own native fishing fleets, but have actually fished these waters out of large numbers of commercially desirable fish species through the use of banned equipment such as fine-mesh drag nets.

Another shocker is that the Islamic Courts Union government that was ousted with US support in 2006 had actually successfully curbed the pirates, who quickly got back into business (along with the international mafiosi no doubt) after those evil religious people were thrown out.

All of this needs attention from the media that it is not getting. One of my friends on Facebook, sceptical of K'naan's claims, actually made the argument that if these "pirates" were organized Somali nationalists trying to defend Somalia and to make a point, we would have heard about it in the media, wouldn't we? And that's the point I want to make today: not only are we not being given this essential background to the pirate situation in media coverage, but the media is actively cheerleading us on to forget about the human dimension of the pirates altogether. We hear about the terrible "ordeal" of the "hostages," as if they have been through hell; not one American as been so much as injured by these people. It is also not lost on the Somalis or on many other people that the US media got on this bandwagon only after Americans were seized. These seizures have been happening for years to crewmen from the Philippines, Egypt and other countries without any accompanying orgy of jingoism in the American media. It's really insidious and they're going to make a Chomsky out of me if we don't start getting some background.

And hurrah for K'naan, I've watched the interview twice now and he's getting lots of stuff right, he's really smart. I found out about this when a friend e-mailed me the interview after he found it on Rock Rap Confidential.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Dam Starts Breaking

I was surprised to read in the NYT this morning that the Cuban American National Foundation, which has for many years been the main lobbying vehicle for the anti-Castro Cuban exile community, is now calling for expanded official relations, loosening of travel and remittance restrictions, and increasing business relations. This is particularly striking since the CANF, under the leadership of Jorge Mas Canosa (who died in 1997), was the Cuban equivalent of AIPAC: a lobby capable of single-handedly keeping US policy on a hard-line track. There is no other comparable group in the Cuban exile community. The CANF has not today gone so far as to call for an end to the economic blockade and rescinding of the Helms-Burton Act, but they did in their new proposal acknowledge that the old (ancient: since the early 60s) policy has failed. They can have no illusions that this proposal is a significant step toward full normalization of relations with Cuba.

There is a confluence of circumstances just now that together comprise a real opportunity to get to a Cuba policy that is not insane ("not insane" is a sort of step-one goal for US foreign policy at this point). The Cuban community in the US has changed considerably both through latter-day immigration and the coming of age of the grandchildren of the original exiles: neither group shares the emotional attitude of the 60s generation. US politicians of both parties needed Florida to win the presidency and it was true until recently that the Cuban vote could swing that (one of Bill Clinton's lowest moments was when he signed Helms-Burton). Meanwhile Yankee gradually started to pay attention to the US's own interests: both the US Chamber of Commerce and, believe it or not, the Pentagon have endorsed an end to the blockade for some years now. To top it all off, Bush-Cheney managed to turn Guantanamo Bay into a symbol for one of the darkest episodes in all of US history, tarnishing America's image in the world for years to come. I haven't expected Obama to spend political capital on the Cuban issue, he's got too much on his plate, but there does come a point where it's politically so easy that there's no reason not to make the change.

One last thing, the bad news, I guess, for my liberal-left readers and friends: I've been to Cuba, spent weeks living with faculty (and Party members) from the University of Havana, traveled out to small towns in the interior (where I was the guest of the local military commander, among others), wandered in Havana far from the tourist spots, and my opinion is that the centralized economy of Cuba doesn't work. Cuba is very poor, the quality of life is low, and these conditions cannot all be explained away by blaming the bloqueo. I am not a friend of the Castro government. I would like to see multiparty democracy and markets in Cuba. And you know what would be the most effective way of bringing an end to 50 years of a well-intentioned, patriotic, non-kleptocratic, but utterly failed dictatorship? Full normalization. The Party wouldn't last twelve months.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"...the rest of the world must change as well"

"The United States must change," President Obama told the Europeans, "but the rest of the world must change as well." I thought of that today reading about the latest North Korean missile launch. Readers of this blog know that I strongly support a standing down of the US as global cop, with the concomitant reduction of the size of the US military and its budget, and a general unwinding of the post-WWII "leading role" of the US. But the international community will actually have to do most, not just some, of the work required for this to occur.

For the moment I think we can forget the Europeans so far as helpfulness is concerned. The only thing more precious to the Europeans than their typically chauvinistic and masturbatory anti-Americanism is the fact that the US absolutely handles all military security for the European continent, from the tiniest "mouse that roared" disputes to the largest conflagrations. The Europeans are of no use and will not be of any until they can, at a minimum, handle military security on their own continent; at the moment there is no doubt that they cannot. They have let this go on because the United States indirectly subsidizes European social "safety net" policies by continuing to pay for European military security, and they've kind of got us: what alternative do we have? Let Europe burn? They are rather effectively holding us hostage.

Asia is a different story. The question for today is, what to do about the failed and dangerous state of North Korea? Two stories illustrate the situation pretty thoroughly: First, GOP candidate-in-waiting Newt Gingrich telling Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday yesterday that he would have "disabled" the missile (Newt being Newt, his favored weapon was ray guns. No, it's true. Check for yourself), and second, the continuing reluctance of China, at this point North Korea's de facto patron and protector, to take any strong action because of the problem of paying for huge influxes of economic migrants if the North Korean regime were toppled, a burden they would share with the South Koreans in any event.

There's one more country with a border with North Korea, and that's Russia. Another big story this week was about Russia and China working on the idea of a global currency to replace the US dollar, part of a larger strategic aim to work together to establish real hegemony in Asia (that is, to push the Americans out of Asia).

Say, Russia? Um, China? Here's one American who would like absolutely nothing better than for the US to be out of security commitments in Asia altogether. Heave ho! But, uh, guys? That means you're going to have to deal with it.