Sunday, February 28, 2016

Hunger Games

I just read about a state university in Chicago that sent layoff notices to all 900 of its employees, including all administrators and full-time faculty.  It turns out that the school is among 57 public universities and colleges in Illinois that have not received funding in eight months due to a Republican governor tying passage of his $36 billion budget to changes in collective bargaining rights for public employees and worker compensation, business-friendly moves he says will help turn around the state’s flagging economy. If the legislature refuses to sign on to his changes, the governor wants lawmakers to let him make $3.5 billion in spending cuts in any way he chooses.

Let that sink in for a moment. An entire university being shuttered and a whole state university system being held hostage for the sake of depriving citizens their rights to freely associate and collectively bargain, all so capital can more freely advance its interests. You want higher education? Well, then you must capitulate to capital's imperatives. Then, when you emerge from your education saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student debt that may never be forgiven, the minimum wage service economy will receive you with its cold embrace and you can live in your parent's basements. Oh, and the staff and full-time professors who worked at Chicago State? They'll work there once again, but at a fraction of the rate they once labored for. They'll live in basements too. The itinerant administrative class will land on its feet as it always does, as will the bankers and rest of our financial masters--"the smartest guys in the room."

We are presently witnessing the systematic dismantling of all public services necessary to a decent, flourishing society. After every scrap of profit has been clawed out of the system the oligarchs will retreat behind tall walls manned by private security and let the rest of us fight for survival in a new war of all against all. This is not the Hunger Games. There are some nations in the developing south for whom this is the model for their actually-existing social order, not a Hollywood fantasy. A brutal model that serves only the distant and isolated few, and which consigns the rest to debt, penury, and hopelessness. The reality is good sight less glamorous than anything you might see in the dark on the silver screen. In reality, it's no game at all.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

HRC and the Hermetically Sealed Box

Let me start with all my cards face-up on the table.

HRC, like all women (and especially women in American politics) has been and continues to be the target of sexist attacks. She has been and continues to be especially vilified by a Republican party which seems to have wholly internalized the idea that it is the only party that represents American ideals, and so any candidate who challenges them is to be destroyed without pity. Given this baptism by fire HRC has become a formidably smart, tough, and able politician, and is a strong candidate to be our next president.

Nevertheless, I will be voting for her opponent in the primary, and I urge others to do the same.

The reason I am supporting HRC's opponent is very simple: she is too close to Wall Street and the other monied interests that are destroying our democracy. Her opponent is running against this vast, powerful, and interconnected system of interests and actually running quite well against it, all things considered.

It's hard for me to imagine any reasonable person acquainted with our politics denying this is a serious problem. My view is that when a presidential candidate comes along who unambiguously names this problem and vows to address it you owe him or her your vote. We can never change this corrupt system if we constantly vote for candidates who refuse to challenge it. It really is as simple as that.

And yet . . .

Not long ago former president Bill Clinton was campaigning for HRC in New Hampshire. He accused his wife's opponent of focusing too much on big banks and the economy. Then the former president--one of the most skillful politicians of our generation--said the following:
Hillary's opponent has a different view. It's a hermetically sealed box. It's very effective. The system is rigged against you by the big banks, and both parties are in the thrall of the big banks. Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn't possibly be president.
Take a moment to let the full force of the utterly tone-deaf quality of this statement wash over you. 

First, there is the unambiguous ridiculing of the notion that our politics has been thoroughly corrupted by big money. Yet this "notion" is fact, and one that no serious person denies. But that last sentence . . . let's savor its bitter, arrogant, mocking tone again: 
Anybody who takes money from Goldman Sachs couldn't possibly be president.
We would do well to ask ourselves what a person like Bill Clinton would have to believe to utter such a sentiment? 

We might imagine they had utterly forgotten about the financial collapse of 2008 and the role that banks like Goldman Sachs had in bringing that catastrophe about. We might conjure up the notion that they are completely comfortable with the revolving door that exists between government and industry, and the increasing oligarchical character of our politics. We might imagine they have somehow lost all empathy for the slow death our our middle class, and are now simply unmoved by the enormous upwards transfer of wealth that has occurred in this country. We might even suppose they think we should simply elect the head of Goldman Sachs to the presidency since for all intents and purposes the nation's economy has been run for the exclusive benefit of its corporate class and other members of the 1% over the last thirty years, and so who better to be its steward?

And yet the HRC camp is seriously flummoxed as to why it's having such a hard time running against a life-long self-identifying democratic socialist in these primaries? 

We should at this point ask the obvious question: who are the ones living in the hermetically sealed box?

That's really it, isn't it? The Clintons and the rest of the titans of the donor class are completely clueless as to how a socialist could have any political appeal in these United States. And the only way they could be this clueless is that the reality they now walk in is completely divorced from the reality of the other 99% of the country's inhabitants.

The Rolling Stone's very excellent Matt Taibbi nicely captured this disconnect in a recent article that begins with Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein lamenting the apparently unfathomable popular discontent with Wall Street, as manifested by the Sanders candidacy. "This has the potential to be a dangerous moment," Blankfein darkly intones, and then goes on to suggest that the widespread animus toward his kind is completely causeless and irrational, a mysterious but collective mood swing in the national psyche.

But the most relevant bit of the article relates the quandary faced by the president of Warburg Pincus Timothy Geithner when he was treasury secretary under Obama and faced widespread discontent with the taxpayer bailouts he engineered to make the Blankfeins of the world whole again. On Geithner's account he sought advice from the former president Clinton, who counseled him that he ought not to take the public anger too hard. "You could take Lloyd Blankfein in an alley and slit his throat, and it would satisfy them for about two days," Clinton said. "Then the blood lust would rise again."

And so there you have it. The millions of people who had the economic foundations of their lives destroyed by Wall Street fraud don't have legitimate grievances; they're just mindless beasts whose blood lust must be sated.

Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein and HRC
In light of all this is it any wonder that the Clintons would believe there is nothing at all unseemly about a presidential candidate taking enormous speaking fees from the criminal element of the financial sector? HRC and her husband have raked in literally millions of dollars giving speeches to some of the nation's most reckless bankers, with HRC taking in $675,000 from Goldman Sachs for three speeches alone. When confronted with this HRC has insisted she can't be bought even while she refuses to release the transcripts of the speeches in question. But during a weak but honest moment at a New Hampshire town hall meeting, she lamely admitted she took whatever Goldman Sachs was willing to pay.

Well, that more or less says it all, doesn't it? And doesn't it also explain why HRC's good friend and benefactor Lloyd Blankfein made no mention of her as part of this "dangerous" political moment?

This is not to say that there is any direct and dirty quid pro quo for any of these payments. No, it only works that way in situations where political corruption is illegal. When you legalize such corruption as we have under the euphemism "campaign finance," the effect is far more subtle. The money buys access for your new well-off "friends" whom you carefully refer to in public as your "constituents," and eventually by dint of social proximity their views and values become your own, as their "donations" slowly elevate you to similar heights. Imagine the exhilaration of the Clintons, who escaped the small time hothouse politics of Arkansas to scale the heights of power to cavort among the kingmakers! Of course the Clintons are not unique; the capital is awash with people like them. All of them slowly sucked into the box of corruption and then hermetically sealed in. In this warm and comfortable box one can no longer "feel the pain" of the people (in the former president's saccharine phrase), or barely even hear their cries of distress.

Of course when you emerge from the box to ask for the votes of the people outside it a great deal of filthy lucre is stuck to you. And since politics is a dirty business, in such a situation you have no choice but to dirty up your opponent, in this case a crusty little democratic socialist from Vermont. The problem for HRC and her supporters, however, is that the good senator from Vermont is officially a political independent who only caucuses with Democrats and so could hardly be further removed from the corrupting heights of DC politics. As a general rule, Wall Street bankers don't cozy up to unapologetic democratic socialists, and neither do the representatives of big oil, big pharma, etc.

So a good amount of the dirt thrown hasn't left much of a mark on Mr. Sanders. In many cases it's actually been pretty pathetic; an inconsistent vote here, a misspoken phrase there, some campaign official somewhere didn't get an FEC report in on time. Then there are the vague allegations that Sanders is insufficiently sensitive to racial matters, though the record shows he has been consistent in his support for racial equality throughout his political life. The really big gun surrogates are now being rolled out: the venerable John Lewis has pronounced Sanders MIA during the civil rights era despite the contrary testimony of the historical record; Paul Krugman has deemed Sanders's economic policies unrealistic despite the fact that they are realities in many parts of Europe; and on and on. There's even a ridiculous smear that holds that Sanders supporters are uniquely rude--only Sanders supporters, mind you--and so voters should punish the candidate accordingly.

I've run across my fair share of, shall we say, passionate HRC supporters who have said some things that could be considered quite rude. Madeleine Albright's warning that there is a special place in hell for women who don't help other women immediately comes to mind, or Gloria Steinem's condescending remark that young women are flocking to Sanders's campaign because they're boy crazy. Younger women quickly and loudly rejected the idea that they should vote their vaginas, and both statements were eventually walked back. Profoundly stupid statements both, but I wouldn't hold them against HRC the candidate. This is politics. People get involved and get excited. This is the rough and tumble of the democratic process we claim to celebrate.

I will say, however, and with great fear and trembling, that it seems with female HRC supporters of a certain age a whiff of entitlement floats in the air. The thinking seems to be, "Look, we wanted HRC eight years ago. We didn't get her. We supported Obama. You owe us. And this time we won't be denied."

Of course it will sound condescending when I say yes, a woman president is long overdue. But need the first woman president be one who has shown she's just as corruptible as any of her male predecessors? Would that really be a bright day for the women's movement? Especially when the phenomenal Elizabeth Warren stands in the wings?

Before you launch your slings and arrows, stay your hands for a moment. The conventional wisdom since Sanders's defeat in the Nevada caucus (53%-47%) says that identity politics will spell the end for his campaign, as African-American voters there stuck with Clinton. Apparently this signifies that the Sanders campaign is too white (or whiter than HRC's?)--whatever that means--and that John Lewis's disappointing slander of Sanders's civil rights record was deployed to good effect. Those of a certain age will recognize the cynical strategy deemed Clintonoid "triangulation." It's really just a more refined version of "divide and conquer."*

I should bring this all to an end by saying that despite my severe misgivings about HRC as a candidate I will work mightily to elect her president should she indeed win the nomination, and I strongly urge all other Sanders supporters to do the same. A Republican presidency, given the current dysfunctional state of that party, would be a catastrophe. Though a President Clinton would give no more than lip service to Wall Street reform, her veto pen would protect what remains of women's tattered reproductive rights and keep the more savage impulses of the GOP at bay.

But this year I will look back on my primary vote with fond memories, as one of those rare votes that wasn't cast for the sake of choosing the lesser of two evils. If casting a vote outside the hermetically sealed box cannot at this time bring about the possibility of the real, systemic, political change we so desperately need, perhaps it will at least sustain my soul until it can.

*The legal scholar Michelle Alexander has created an excellent catalog of the wages of "triangulation" and what it has cost the African-American community.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

A Uniquely American Fallacy?

I wonder if this is a uniquely American fallacy--the assumption that great wealth equals great intelligence. Of course some smart people make lots of money because of their smarts, but certainly not nearly always. In fact, 80% of new business startups fail. Yet the great deference shown to business people in the US is striking, and not just in matters of commerce. And out of this fawning deference comes a sense of entitlement. And from that: oligarchy.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

On Well-Fortified Silos

To be accused of "silo-thinking" among academicians is to be accused of closed mindedness. The thought behind the accusation goes this way: the various disciplines are like towering pillars of knowledge that have been erected alongside each other. Each tower is isolated from the next. There is no communication, community, or intercourse between the inhabitants of each tower. This fosters an unhealthy insularity that fragments the whole of human knowledge and distorts our perceptions. It is said that we must "get beyond" these silos in the name of a more healthy "interdisciplinarity" that will restore the wholeness of the world.

Who could object to this worthy goal? It's completely unobjectionable, and in fact desirable. Except some of the more extremist holders of this view go so far as to say we should tear down the silos! Raze them to the ground! We must do this, we are told, because disciplinary "expertise" makes us myopic, if it doesn't blind us altogether. Down with the towers of established knowledge, and off with the heads of anyone who defends them!

But the extremists can't really mean this. To destroy the silos altogether would be to say they've not helped us to see farther into the domains they tower over, and to drill down more deeply into their respective areas of knowledge. Are the silo-destroyers really saying we should forgo the accumulated insights generated by each? After all, whether we call it interdisciplinarity or multidisciplinarity or what have you, note that disciplinarity remains intact. Isn't the call for interdisciplinarity really a call for a great conversation among the various tower-dwellers in the name of a more cohesive community of knowledge? Isn't it a call for us to venture outside our towers to communicate with other knowledge-seekers as informed by our various disciplines? Wouldn't such a conversation have the potential to set off sparks that could better illuminate the shadows between the silos? But to destroy the silos altogether? Wouldn't that be to reduce all of human human knowledge to a dark and barren valley of Babel?

An extremist view hardly to be taken seriously--so enough. However, the more subtle, the more insidious way the accusation of "silo-thinking" is expressed takes the following form, and is predicated on the idea that not all silos are equal. 

Let us imagine some historians knocking on the door of the mathematics silo:

"Who is it?" ask the barricaded mathematicians.

"We're historians. We'd like to come in and do some interdisciplinary work."

"None of you are mathematicians and we have the integrity of our discipline to think of. No thank you! Run along now!"

Now imagine mathematicians knocking on the door of the history silo:

"Hello! Historians! It is us, the mathematicians! We have an idea for developing a course on the history of mathematics, and we'd like to teach it. What do you think?"

"Well, you know, knowing the history of your own discipline is one thing, but understanding what history itself is and how history is made . . ."

"What? Oh--you historians and your close minded silo-thinking! You unilateralist cabal!"

One thing I've noticed is that those protesting the loudest about "silo-thinking" do so from the tallest and most well-fortified silos. And those shouting are in essence telling those down below in the shorter silos that they really don't deserve to have a silo at all.

In sum, the accusation of "silo-thinking" is often deployed as a Trojan horse against the humanities.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Last White Male Privilege?

Some announced the arrival of a "post-racial" society after the election of Barack Obama. Clearly these voices were mistaken. I strongly suspect we'll be much closer to that day when armed white men are violently dispatched by the law with as much ruthless efficiency as are unarmed black males.

Since the advent of miniaturized video technology decent people have looked on with horror at a seemingly unending stream of digitized recordings of white lawmen gunning down black men, teenagers, and even children with extreme prejudice. The victims have been shot while surrendering or otherwise complying with police instructions, while walking away or retreating from police, while sitting in a car or laying on the ground in submission, and so on. In many instances the victims are either unarmed or armed with far less lethal weapons (a knife, a toy gun, etc.), and oftentimes they had been identified to police beforehand as being drunk or mentally disturbed.

No matter. Being black-when-crazy, black-when-driving, black-when-walking, black-when-complying, black-when-a-child, black-when-breathing: all are apparently seen by many officers as sufficient grounds for the immediate and overwhelming application of lethal force. No one knows how bad this problem is, because there is no reliable national database of how many citizens are shot by police each year. So we are forced to speculate. One oft-cited study claims that young black men are more than 21 times more likely to be shot by police.*

By way of contrast, the very same video technology records the extreme deference with which officers approach white men with guns, up to and including assault rifles. In tape after tape, police approach with extreme courtesy, weapons holstered, hands contritely folded, and politely inquire as to why the white man is carrying a long gun in public. Almost invariably, the reason given, clumsily delivered in the argot of a street corner lawyer, boils down to this: "Second Amendment." After a few more desultory questions the officers then typically withdraw quietly, usually wishing the citizen a "nice day."

It almost doesn't bear mentioning that such an exchange is literally impossible to picture if we imagine the citizen a black male identically armed. Anything less than almost impossibly instantaneous compliance with the hoarsely shouted orders of the lawmen would quickly result in his death or grave injury. Black males, it seems, don't have the same recourse to the Second Amendment; in fact, one could be forgiven if it is not mistaken as a license for white men to shoot unarmed black men for sport.

Even in instances when an armed white citizen is manifestly menacing the public with his constitutionally-protected weapon in an unquestionably illegal fashion, the police response is, shall we say, restrained. The armed white man, sometimes drunk or otherwise mentally incapacitated, is surrounded, but instead of force patient negotiation is applied. Officers try to "establish a dialogue" with the man; he is cajoled and gently persuaded to lay down his weapon; it's stressed how important it is to "avoid bloodshed" and work towards a "reasonable and peaceful" way out of the crisis. Again, it almost doesn't bear mentioning that such a circumstance would be lethal for a black man. To state the fact bluntly: it's pretty damn hard for an armed white man to get shot by the law in this country.

Bring in Exhibit A--the Bundy "militia." The background is well known to those paying attention. In April 2014 the Nevadan Cliven Bundy faced down the federal government in a dispute over grazing rights with the assistance of several armed white men aiming sniper rifles directly at federal employees until they withdrew; to date, none of the participants have been charged with a crime, much less seen the inside of a courtroom or a jail cell. Now, almost two years later, Bundy's son Ammon, along with a group of armed white men preaching violent insurrection, has illegally occupied a patch of federal land in Oregon since the beginning of last month. For almost a month the occupiers were allowed to travel freely through the loose perimeter law enforcement had set up around their encampment. They were allowed to go into town to purchase needed supplies, to attend meetings to rally support for their cause, and to run other errands. For almost a month, the law indulged the occupiers imagined grievances and repeatedly attempted to negotiate a peaceful surrender--to no avail.

Finally, last week several of the occupiers were arrested during one of their periodic outings. However, one vehicle fled the scene with police in hot pursuit. After their truck tried to run a roadblock of state troopers, one of the occupiers, one Robert "LaVoy" Finicum, exited the vehicle. On my viewing of the FBI's video, Finicum initially raises his hands in surrender but by my count his hands appear to move toward his waistband three times, where he kept his trusty Colt .45. Only then was he shot dead by officers.

I want to repeat that for affect: Finicum appeared to reach for his gun three times before lethal force was applied.

Compare this to the many black men who often never even got one chance at their empty waistbands, if their hands even moved in that direction at all.

Again: it's pretty damn hard for armed white men to get shot by the law in this country, but frightfully easy for unarmed black men.

Also of note is the restrained response of law enforcement to a clearly illegal armed takeover of federal land, as compared to the highly militarized and aggressive response to unarmed citizens protesting the suspicious deaths of black men at the hands of police in places like Baltimore and Ferguson, MO.

Apparently, white men with guns have serious grievances that must be taken seriously; protesting black people without guns are an intolerable threat to public order, regardless of their claimed grievances.

And did I mention that as of this writing the land in Oregon is still being illegally occupied?

Extreme prejudice versus extreme deference.

Of course the point of all this is not that police should treat white men as violently as they do black men. The point is that they should treat black men with as much deference as they do white men, all other things being equal. This would be more in keeping with the idea that the law should be enforced with as much consistency as possible, and with their traditional role as peace officers--as opposed to escalating violence and arbitrarily dealing death.

This would be the reasonable response to the situation. But as I suggested at the start, perhaps the best we can hope for, given the vicious vortex that forms where violence, racism, and the unholy cult of the gun meet in American culture, is that a day will come when white men will be summarily executed as frequently and with as much regularity as black men. The wanton slaughter of black men might be the last white male privilege, and once it is gone we'll have achieved a perverse sort of parity. This would count as progress in race relations in this demented nation of ours.

*However, there is no doubt that most grand juries refuse to indict officers who have shot black males in questionable circumstances.