Tag Archives: class warfare

Happy international women’s day

TW: sexism, racist criminalization, domestic violence, cissexist violence, class warfare

March Eighth has been traditionally celebrated as International Women’s Day in central and eastern Europe as it was originally put forward as a policy by German activist, Clara Zetkin, in 1911. It seems fitting to look at the ways gender intersects with the rest of US politics on this day. There’s so many different ways of doing that that it could be the exclusive subject of this blog and there would still be more to say. I highly recommend checking out Fannie’s Room for more commentary on gender politics in the US (and to a lesser extent, the world at large).

In addition to her excellent commentary, there’s one other argument that I can’t help but feel needs to be made, to pull back what I called “the unreality” of politics in the US on Wednesday: that there are at least three women in the US who are political prisoners.

I’ve written previously about Marissa Alexander, a Black woman who fired a warning shot at her abusive and threatening husband in her home in a state with one of the now notorious “Stand your ground” laws, but has since been sentenced to twenty years in prison (if she had accepted a plea bargain, it would have become three). Joy Reid over at The Grio long ago documented the extremely complex knots the state prosecutor has tied herself up in for publicly avoiding the concurrent Zimmerman case while prosecuting Alexander. This week the petition for her pardon on the White House’s petitions’ page expired without adequate signatures to force a response from the Obama Administration.

On the same day, it was announced that Cece McDonald, another Black woman, who is transgender, had been moved from one Minnesota prison to another. Her claims that she was killed a drunk attacker in self defense after one of his friends smashed a bottle on her face and they had otherwise begun hitting her apparently weren’t heard by the justice system, and so she was imprisoned. Her supporters have treated this transfer as good news, however, as it makes it easier for her family to visit her.

Tanya McDowell at sentencing
(Tanya McDowell as she was being sentenced in March 2012, from here.)

We’re also approaching the one year anniversary of the sentencing of Tanya McDowell, yet another Black woman, who took advantage of the fact that as a homeless person she had no effective address to enroll her son in one of the more favorable school districts in the territory within which they lived. She has been in prison for one year now, with four more to be served.

All three of these women are in prison for acts of either self defense or protecting their friends and family. In Alexander’s case, there are actual laws in the jurisdiction she was in that theoretically should have protected her. For McDonald, there are portions of federal law that should have been applied in order to understand her position. It’s not even clear how the “crime” that McDowell committed even remotely justifies a five year prison sentence.

It seems impossible to understand the events of their convictions and sentencing outside of a context of women’s (especially transgender women’s) testimony being treated as innately suspect and their status as Black individuals “proving” their criminality. In other words, it’s difficult to perceive of them as simply prisoners and not prisoners whose fates are intimately and intractably political in nature.

The United States is a country that doesn’t believe it has political prisoners. But perhaps that’s part of our unreality.

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The Rohingya World is on fire too

TW: ethnic cleansing, genocide, nativism, class warfare, erasure

Amy Chua’s World on Fire, first published in 2002, quickly captured the imagination of a wide swathe of the media and has continued to be a subtle force in political analysis since then. From the almost establishment liberal press to the moderate and internationalist conservatives, a consensus emerged that for all its faults, the book was quite an insightful examination of the trials many developing countries faced. With economic globalization, the prior decade had seen something of a race to the bottom as markets “reformed” or “opened” around the world. As post-Cold War democratization began to speed up and seemed poised to accelerate given Bush’s lofty language of a plan to democratize the Middle East, ethnic competition within electoral contexts had increased. Her idea that the class war and ethnic electoral competition in many places could collapse into a single, potentially very violent struggle seemed not particularly unreasonable, even if she presumed a certain model of a given less developed country.

The Guardian hailed that conception of the world’s poorer nations, actually, as it noted-

“Her starting point is that in many developing countries a small – often very small – ethnic minority enjoys hugely disproportionate economic power. As she points out, this is not true in the west: on the contrary, we are accustomed to small ethnic minorities occupying exactly the opposite situation, a very disadvantaged economic position.”

If you accustom yourself with those other countries, primarily defined by what they aren’t (in this case, “Western”), you’ll quickly realize the illusion at play here. The assumption is that demographically large ethnic groups are typically impoverished, which is unsurprising given that we’re talking about less wealthy countries. Likewise, small ethnic minorities may install themselves as a type of local elite, which isn’t terribly surprising given many of the examples Chua turns to are either former colonizers (as the Whites of Latin America and much of Southern Africa are) or colonial-era managerial classes who were empowered by colonial rule. Missing from the mental diagram however are those who are both outnumbered and impoverished. That’s apparently a concern exclusive to the “West”.

Al Jazeera for quite some time has been among the few international news outlets to pay much attention to one particular set of events in Myanmar. As others, including this blog, focused on the geopolitical ramifications of Myanmar’s warming relations with the US and complex relationship with China or the possibility of democratization, Al Jazeera has covered the plight of the Muslim Rohingya minority, mainly isolated in the coastal western districts of Myanmar, along its border with Bangladesh. They have been effectively stripped of their legal rights and branded as illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, although many were born in Myanmar, and had ancestors living in Myanmar prior to colonization even. Bangladesh similarly denies them citizenship, leaving them essentially a stateless people. Without a political entity to appeal to, they have been recently subject to campaigns of violence, which left many of them homeless, if not injured or killed. A few experts on the issue have started using the word “genocide” as local authorities have started implementing punitive measures for every birth in the community.

(Remains of Rohingya villages burned down during anti-Rohingya riots in October. From here.)

Apparently the struggles of groups like the Rohingya are invisible to Chua’s analysis. They don’t have the demographic numbers to swing a national election in Myanmar, assuming they were even granted suffrage. But that isn’t compensated for the kind of opulence displayed in the mansions that Chua visits through the course of her book. Instead, they have neither political nor economic power, so they apparently don’t even register for her and her many fans. Yet, for the moment at least, they still exist.

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Are charters the new mortgage market?

In the wake of the 2012 elections in the US, much of the media has been grappling with two major issues that must be understood: how did Obama and the Democrats win and where do the Republicans go from here? There’s a variety of answers to both, but there’s two key explanations that are striking if you pair them side by side.

Among the apparent causes for various progressive victories is that Republicans and conservatives overestimated their chance at winning, and didn’t invest their electoral resources very intelligently as a result. As part of analyzing that, in a recent interview with author Chrystia Freeland in the Washington Post, Ezra Klein chillingly notes:

“These folks, too, are purportedly very data focused, very good at assimilating new information. So I find it genuinely scary that neither Romney nor his super-rich backers had any idea he was going to lose. All the polls, all the models, all the betting markets said he was likely to lose. How did a group of people who, in their jobs, have to be willing to read and respond to disappointing data convince themselves to ignore every piece of data we had?”

Ms Freeland was promoting her new worrisome book.

So there’s the first worrisome problem right off the bat: there is a class of people in US society who are at once highly valued as financial analysts or something similar and yet, many of them do not seem to be able to analyze things, financially or otherwise. This is part of how the markets could so idiotically pour investment into patently toxic mortgages (causing the most recent recession), clearly overvalued homes (causing the housing bubble), and obviously worthless internet stock (causing the one before that). A sizable percentage of the financier class who are supposed to be intelligently running things seem to be doing anything but making the correct calls. That same poor ability to analyze reality or predict consequences reared its head politically on election day, when that group overwhelmingly anticipated a Romney victory, in spite of all evidence otherwise.

Chrystia Freeland eerily replies that it’s worse than that. Large parts of that socio-economic class aren’t merely convinced of their awesomeness at their jobs, but also believe that the perks of their position are more than personal but part of the greater good. She explains-

“They’re convinced that it just so happens that their self-interest coincides perfectly with the collective interest. That’s where you get this idea of the ‘job creators’. The view is that to seek a low tax environment or less regulation, that’s not special pleading for yourself, it’s not transactional politics. It’s that this set of rules is the most conducive to economic growth for everybody. It will grow the pie. Now, it also happens to be an incredibly convenient way of thinking. If you’ve developed an ideology that what’s good for you personally also happens to be good for everyone else, that’s quite wonderful because there’s no moral tension.”

So, if we’re going to keep the tab running here’s the situation we’re in. There’s a group of powerful people. Many of them are making decisions which notably have negative long term repercussions. But it’s alright, supposedly, because they should know what they’re doing. They’re the group of powerful people after all. Likewise, if their short term decisions result in personal gain, that’s only because their personal gain conveniently always coincides with the best of all possible worlds. Really, they’re doing this for everyone.

Now, momentarily put on hold that idea of social organization which has led us to where we are today politically, economically, and socially. It’s worth asking what the Republican Party’s various members are proposing as the road forward after their obvious loss earlier this month. Their answers obviously vary, but one of the major candidates for the next presidential run, former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, has been running for years now on education reform. Doesn’t that sound bipartisan, forward-thinking, and nice?

But like almost everything proposed by Republicans the more you look the gift horse in the mouth, the more like a nightmarish ghoul it looks. As Reuters has reported, the fundamental mechanics of what he’s done in Florida and is now proposing on a national-scale look suspiciously similar to the disastrous No Child Left Behind policies of the early Bush years. Likewise, the improvement in test schools looks to mostly have been a short term fluke due to rising property tax returns from ballooning real estate sales, after which the state’s schools were left high and dry (and test scores began to drop again as funding declined). The only people who seem to have done well under these circumstances are the small number of for-profit charters who turned tidy profits under the new policies. But don’t worry, Jeb Bush is still insisted that we can apply this law on a national scale with no serious negative impacts.

In short, the new way forward for the Republican Party looks remarkably similar to the exact same organizational philosophy that’s impoverished this country by locking up investment in foolish gamble after foolish gamble (whether purely business or political in nature). But it made someone at the top money, so it’s still worth pursuing. It’s worth noting that similar policies are being implemented in Michigan. I only hope the United States as a whole figures out how this story ends before Jeb Bush can decide that for us.

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Wars, wars, wars…

In the immortal lyrics of Janelle Monáe, “this is a cold war, do you know what you’re fighting for?” Do you know what districting solutions your parties have come up with? Mother Jones has some answers that might surprise you.

(A comparison of proportions of party vote and electoral outcomes.)

When you’re done working out what’s going on there, look over New York Magazine’s recent piece on how the class war maps to the electoral wars. Guess who won on the seventh? Money loses as long as we’re one-person-one-vote, even if there’s a little skewing going on, as you can see above.

Beside that, it’s clear that the war between the parties is also about what’s real. John McCain would have you know that Iran-Contra was as innocent as a newborn babe, unlike some theoretical conspiracy surrounding Benghazi. Because apparently by “no one died”, McCain meant that no one White died. Apparently, this is part of the new “friendlier” Republican Party’s message – denial of mass atrocities on the American taxpayers’ dime. At least they’re no longer arguing that the massacres were just and right?

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Learning from history

TW: class warfare, forced relocation

After decades of horrendous environmental policies, Chinese protests based in the city of Ningbo against reckless industrial expansion seem to have reached critical mass and have become capable of shutting down questionable projects. While China didn’t have to go through its own Bhopal Disaster to reach this point, it’s obvious that an environmental price in quality and length of life has been paid by some of the country’s citizens.

57.54% of Ningbo Area waters are severely pollutedMarshes surrounding Ningbo, China
(Although a majority of the surrounding marine environments have been determined to be “severely polluted”, they are not significantly increasing in size, and the area appears relatively healthy. Right image from here, left from here.)

The most recent aid flotilla to the Gaza Strip went on the PR offensive before being seized by Israeli officials. One of the founders of the group that had organized the current effort provided an interview before reaching Gazan waters which specified their goals, their cargo, and responded to multiple likely accusations to justify the seizure of the flotilla. With the famous Turkish flotilla having been subjected to provably false allegations by Israeli officials, this was probably a good way of heading off another such round of “he said, she said” discussion on the aid group.

In Mumbai, there’s the beginning of political organization within the majority of the city’s population which dwells in places labeled as “slums”. Facing forced relocation by the government to make way for urban development, some of the communities in the city are protesting for investment in existing communities, rather than displacement of the poor. Although some areas’ populations have already been forcibly removed and replaced with upper scale housing developments, the political movement is largely anticipatory at this stage. As a result they’re more on their toes than comparable movements in South Africa, which have largely responded to existing mass evictions in working to prevent further displacement or ease transitions.

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What else to watch for on Tuesday

TW: sexism, heterosexism, class warfare, sexual assault

It might not seem to be the case, given my past coverage of the election next week, but with five days to go it has to be said: this election is much bigger than a presidential race. And I don’t just mean that the ramifications of the presidential race will extend to every corner of society and well into the future (which is always true), but that there are a variety of local races that will conclude on Tuesday that have national importance. Here’s a quick run-down of the key issues as far as I can see, most of which are getting little air time compared to the presidential races.

1. The Future is Joaquín Castro

In Texas’ 20th congressional district, Joaquín Castro, currently a state representative of an overlapping area, reminds many people of a pre-presidential Barack Obama. In his first run for a federal office, we’ll have a bit of a test to see if he can pull off a similarly impressive landslide even for a relatively Democratic urban district. The bar has been set very high, so it’ll be interesting to see how well this rising star of the Democratic Party does. To beat Obama’s record, he’ll have to garner more than 73 percent of his districts votes. He actually beat that percentage while running for his current office in 2010, so it’s not out of the question though.

2. The California Three

If you’re at all familiar with California, you realize that the idea of it as uniformly liberal and Democratic is actually unfounded. As Five Thirty Eight pointed out last month, the state is starkly divided between progressive coastal cities and very conservative inland populations. In the wake of overhauling the districts’ boundaries, both parties are now scrambling for a small number of contested seat falling between the generally Democratic coast and largely Republican interior. Three races – in the seventh, tenth, and forty-first congressional districts – show a concerted effort by Democrats to offer progressive policies to historically marginalized inland populations and push inward. The respective Democratic candidates are Ami Bera, José Hérnandez, and Mark Takano – all the sons of immigrants with a specific favorite issue to push.

Five Thirty Eight counties of California
(Five Thirty Eight’s electoral graph of California’s counties)

Bera is second only to Barack Obama in demanding for his daughters and wife to have equal ability to participate in US politics, and he has unleashed a fierce ad campaign over the Republican incumbent’s support for stricter regulations on access to abortion even in cases of sexual assault. Hérnandez, the son of farm workers who became an astronaut, has emphasized the need for equal access to education as the route he used and others need to escape systemic poverty. Mark Takano has stressed the need for substantive LGBT* rights and environmental regulations. Each of these candidates touch on other major issues as well, including the ones favored by other members of the “California Three”. Individually and as a unit they present a strong case for social reform to traditionally more centrist or conservative parts of California. It’ll be interesting to see what sort of in roads they hopefully make.

3. A Nation-Wide Rebuke of the Tea Party?

Throughout the country, there’s a bit of a backlash brewing against the more conservative members of the Republican Party, promising to make several local races rather interesting. In Senate races, Elizabeth Warren’s challenge to Massachusetts Senator Scott Brown, who has managed to annoy seemingly every large but marginalized social group, seems to embody this on the national stage. Likewise, in Pennsylvania and Tennessee House races, Kathy Boockvar and Eric Stewart are challenging Representatives Mike Fitzpatrick and Scott DesJarlais, respectively, in part over their misogynistic conduct. Fitzpatrick has managed to incite a backlash against him because of his terrible policies, while DesJarlais is under fire for arranging for his mistress to have an abortion after she became pregnant (in spite of being vehemently opposed to elective abortions as policy).

Other races, however, are less of a reaction to existing policy or hypocrisy, and seemingly more about anticipation of future political decisions by further “right” politicians. In Nebraska, the competition between Republican Deb Fischer and Democrat Bob Kerrey has tightened considerably, seemingly as Fischer has drawn criticism even without having held the office yet. Similarly, Texan Representative Lamar Smith faced primary challenges and now a potential third party spoiler over his sponsorship of SOPA and support for PIPA which could allow Democrat Candace Duval to pull ahead. Neither bill became law of course, but the backlash he’s received for his key involvement with drafting both threatens his chance of reelection. Likewise, we can hope that Republican candidate Richard Mourdock’s insensitive comments on sexual assault will cost him the position of Indiana Senator, although with it so close to the election, it might not have time to move public perception and support towards Democratic candidate Joe Donnelly.

All of these races have the potential for frankly dangerous incumbents who support restricting many or all Americans’ freedoms to be replaced by much more progressive Senators and Representatives.

4. Democratic Incumbents in “Middle America”

Of course, this election isn’t just about struggling to overcome sexist, heterosexist, cissexist, racist, and classist political ideologies, but also retain positions held by reformers against reactionary challengers. In Ohio, Senator Sherrod Brown is fighting to hold onto his seat against challenger Josh Mandel, whose stance on economic issues is at this point well known to the working Ohioan families he would represent. In Missouri, Senator Claire McCaskill is facing off against challenger Todd Akin, who is now nationally known as the “legitimate rape” guy. The controversy even has its own Wikipedia page. Whether these two candidates can retain their positions will directly impact the Senate’s capacity to create policies that challenge class inequality and sexism.

5. The Future of Marriage

In addition to competition between candidates in various states, four different state propositions that will be tested on Tuesday will check current political attitudes towards same-sex marriage. In Maryland, Maine, and Washington, voters will have the option to legally sanction same-sex marriages at the local level, while Minnesota voters will have to decide whether to amend their state constitution to ban same-sex marriages. This is an interesting test to see what difference is made by the four years separating next Tuesday from California’s proposition 8, the now public support of same-sex marriage by the sitting president, and numerous public heel-face-turns on the issue. In light of those changes, it’s also an interesting test of Nate Silver’s past predictions of public sentiment on the issue.

6. Two Visions of California

I’ve written before about one Californian proposition on the ballot next week that would be historic, but there’s another one as well. Proposition 37 would be the first major effort to install mandatory labeling of genetically modified foods and food additives, which would place a new check on the biotechnology industry’s power. In contrast, Proposition 32 would  harshly restrict labor unions’ main political strategies, while leaving corporate political powers largely unrestricted. California has a choice between leading the rest of the United States towards a better model of corporate regulation or following the failed model of Wisconsin that’s been promoted by Arizonan donors.

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Climate change and the class war are nearly engaged at this point

TW: the class war, colonialism, international inequality, pandemic diseases, food insecurity

You’ve probably heard about how Hurricane Sandy has now damaged much of the Mid-Atlantic US coast on a scale unprecedented since modern innovations in meteorology. A small but consistent number of reports have talked about whether, like Katrina, global warming can be seen as a contributing factor in the increased danger to Americans posed by hurricanes. Less frequently, has it been noted that the capacity of the storm to disrupt people’s daily lives including their ability to participate in the upcoming election is uneven. Not only was the damage geographically concentrated, but the impact disproportionately falls on less powerful socio-economic classes. As one opinion piece before the storm hit warned, “If the storm were to make it harder for lower income Americans to participate in the election than middle and upper income Americans (eg, by knocking out public transportation), then we would expect this to hurt the vote for Obama.”

Even scarcer still has been any sort of analysis of how global-warming-enhanced severe weather might unequally impact people on a global scale, where living standards are even more divergent.

(One of the “tent cities” that sprang up after the 2010 earthquake in Port-au-Prince experiencing flooding as a result of Hurricane Sandy. Originally from here.)

Just as global warming has been connected with more dangerous hurricanes for a while now, the connections between class and vulnerability to climate change have a lengthy history of theorization. At what point though, do we declare a seeming connection? When a hurricane threatens Haïti with starvation and cholera? When dengue fever seasons in India are longer and more severe? It seems impossible to pinpoint the exact turning point where poverty and colonialism give way to climate change and neo-colonialism. It’s often been said that a widespread political response to global warming won’t be produced until after a critical mass of climatological instability is reached. But what if the reality’s more insidious than that? What if we don’t even recognize climatological instability because our attentions are held elsewhere? Or we gloss over climatological processes as a contributing factor to crises?

Are international inequality and global warming tag teaming us already?

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The binders full of women are surprisingly illuminating

TW: class warfare, racism, sexism, anti-democratic politics

I was completely nonplussed by the way Romney’s comments last week about “binders full of women” translated into at times hilarious political discussion of how his turn of phrase dehumanized women and failed to substantively respond to the question that elicited it (which was about gendered wage discrimination). It also has the additional punch of being a complete misrepresentation of Romney’s record as governor. What I was surprised over, however, is that Romney’s response has been read as nothing more than a failed attempt at pandering to women without losing the sexist vote, while it seems quite obvious that it was his honest thoughts on the issue. His candidacy might actually believe that what he touted as a solution is actually a solution, which tells us a shocking amount about what Romney understands the US political system to be.

The original question asked by Katherine Fenton, which was directed at the President, was – “In what new ways do you intend to rectify the inequalities in the workplace, specifically regarding females making only 72 percent of what their male counterparts earn?” The moderator later extended the question to Romney, saying only, “Governor Romney, pay equity for women.” Somehow Romney took that question and immediately responded with statements like:

I went to my [gubernatorial] staff, and I said, how come all the people for these jobs are — are all [of them filled by] men? They said, well, these are the people that have the qualifications. And I said, well, gosh, can’t we — can’t we find some — some women that are also qualified [for Massachusetts cabinet positions]?

(If you missed the debate, you can read the transcript of it in full here.)

Why did Romney instantly reframe the question in terms of only employment and not wages, as it had been stated? The initial question was utterly unambiguous, with Fenton specifying that the comparison was with “male counterparts” and not between female non-cabinet members and male cabinet members (or any similar group). The moderator and Obama, who spoke on the issue before Romney, didn’t stray from the topic of wages  at all. Romney came up with this permutation all on his own, and it’s indicative of his outlook on employment and wages. One of the central arguments of Romney’s campaign is that he would reduce unemployment. When he bothers to explain it, many are skeptical about his claims, but what’s clear is that they fit into a broader prioritization by the Republican Party. The argument has been made before – the party isn’t opposed to low unemployment, provided wages are low. Their goal isn’t economic stability through employment as much as creating cheap labor.

Beyond the broader issue of prioritizing nominal employment over feasible employment, he also steered the conversation away from an obviously beneficial regulation of the private sector. In the past, attempting to be a rising star in the party, Rand Paul has publicly opposed certain sections of the  Civil Rights Act of 1964 (CRA). After all, requiring private enterprise to racially integrate had the effect of allegedly “diminishing individual liberty” of those businesses. According to Rand Paul the right to equal participation in society by people of color is prioritized lower than private property rights. Paul was invited to be a speaker at the Republican National Convention this year, which was organized by Romney’s campaign. Perhaps Romney agrees with him, and is uncomfortable discussing the ways our political and legal system has judged it in the common welfare of the nation to restrict discrimination by private entities. It’s potentially easier for him to discuss what government can and has done to address inequalities than what government has required of others to reach the same goal.

It’s not only a convenient way of advancing class warfare and avoiding the politics of social justice, but also an argument tailored to ignore sexism specifically. Romney’s statement joins a chorus of others which insist that the gender gap isn’t produced by misogynistic opinions on women’s work, but because women just aren’t as invested in working outside of the home or some similar pop psychology excuse. This fails to acknowledge the studies that time after time have found that even when controlling for similar disposition, family life, work ethic, hours on the job, and similar excuses, the vast majority of the gap doesn’t disappear. One of the biggest factors in predicting a person’s hourly wage other than their race or gender, however is the overall gender composition of their field. The bias against paying female employees appears to be so strong, it impacts entire industries. In failing to acknowledge these facts, which Fenton raised in her question, Romney has shored up the baseless rebuttal that women’s choices are the cause of the gender gap.

In addition to the many policy questions Romney’s shifting of the question raises, it also brought up a procedural one: what would his government do? Whether because of doubts about the veracity of the gender gap or because of moral qualms about interfering in business, Romney seems reluctant to propose any sort of anti-discrimination statute that applies to private industry. That leaves only public positions for reform. Likewise, he is famously unconcerned with the lives of the working class or poor, so he has to back the issue away from wage gaps and towards general “employment”. Almost every component of the original question has to change for Romney to be able to even remotely address it – but he still does that instead of challenging the larger discussion. Why? Assuming he’s not lying or too cowardly to disagree even politely in a “townhall” debate, he still sees a point in his ineffectual, largely unrelated policy change. The broader systemic change that is required to actually try to respond to the question is out of bounds – so Romney has instead proposed a largely empty gesture. His argument for the presidency is that he can be a largely insubstantial moral example. Why is that familiar?

Pyle Illustration of King Arthur
(Originally from here.)

He won’t compel private businesses to change their ways, but he can offer his administration as an idealization of how things should be. He’s made it quite clear he’s unconcerned by the impact on the poor of essentially giving the modern robber barons carte blanche within their fiefs. The proposed recourse to that isn’t legally challenging it and setting down laws to protect the constantly marginalized poor, women, and ethnic others, but to simply have the right person as the leader above everyone. Somehow, as if by divine mandate, that will fix things. Whether as a moral example to the nobles or a provider to the common people, Romney will somehow circumvent the obvious social problems with this system. In short, Romney is proposing to rule as less of a president and as more of a king.

As a nation, we’ve gotten quite comfortable questioning whether our first Black president’s role was quite as democratic as we would like it to be, but shouldn’t we extend the same analysis to his White challenger? Does Romney view his potential role as one of providing kingly moral guidance or presidential political governance? This issue hasn’t been raised seeming at all in the discussion of the second debate and I doubt it will come up in the third one tonight – but shouldn’t it?

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“Western” media won’t give you everything

TW: islamophobia

If you read only the typical reports and opinion pieces published by major US-based media, you would think that every facet of Egyptian politics revolved around religious social issues. Fox News would tell you that almost every part of Egyptian daily life eventually led back to the word jihad, and ABC News would tell you that the political debates in the country are between democratic Islamists and authoritarian Islamists. Every part of that particular country’s politics apparently has to do with how very Muslim they are (except when they’re non-Muslim in which case it’s how very surrounded by Muslims they are).

The more unusual but still mainstream US-based media, which is to say NBC, and most other “Western” countries’ major media have at least depicting some of the basic political discussion going on in Egypt, but there’s still clear limitations. Both MSNBC and France 24 covered recently elected President Mohamed (sometimes spelled Mursi) Morsi’s speech on Saturday, in which Morsi tried to make the case that he’s fulfilled the campaign promises that he could in his first hundred days in office and is working on the rest. Before we give those media outlets a gold star though, it’s worth noting that neither of their articles actually dive into the details of what the gap between his promises and his effect actually is. MSNBC’s coverage focuses on the seemingly random detail of his failure to cost-effectively subsidize butane cylinders, which much like his speech isn’t adequately contextualized. France 24 doesn’t even touch on any concrete issue, instead focusing on our old friend – the ever nebulous corruption.

This categorical failure to report on at least some of the deeper issues in Egyptian politics is of course nothing new. If you read one of Israel’s leading newspapers, Haaretz, or perhaps listen to one of the best news source in the US about foreign politics, NPR, it would be understandable for you to gain a completely lopsided perspective on Egyptian economics. Haaretz unabashedly reported that the political revolution threatened to “cause a profound economic crisis” in Egypt and potentially in neighboring countries as well (hint, hint). NPR’s report, while copping that not everything was rosy under ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, likewise presented the revolution as having untethered a now free-falling economy. Lost in all this reporting, naturally, were the clear arguments put forth by economists and political scientists, that “Egypt’s 2011 protests articulated a variety of  political and economic grievances that are deeply interlinked” (on page 5). And that the collapsing stock market (and to a lesser extent other poor economic indicators) was hardly a sudden economic crisis for protesters at least in part motivated by a litany of earlier reversals of fortune under Mubarak:

“[In Egypt] both absolute and relative poverty rates seem to have increased in the past decade. The proportion of the population living below the national poverty line – a measure of relative poverty – rose from 16.7% in 2000 to 22% in 2008, according to the latest available data from the World Bank, over a period when many other emerging  markets reduced poverty […] the proportion of people living on less than US$1 per day rose slightly from 1.8% in 2000 to 2% in 2005 (having previously declined from 4.6% of the population in 1991). Child malnutrition, measured by the proportion of underweight children, also increased slightly between 2005 and 2008, partly reversing improvements made in the 1990s.” (from page 4)

As in many parts of this world this downward slide into poverty has coincided with disintegrating infrastructure and a degraded environment. As Al-Jazeera reported recently, the flawed transportation policy which originated under Mubarak has continued under Morsi, with the government failed to either enforce traffic laws or invest in properly planned roads. The inadequate and poorly-run transportation system is so bad, it’s caused preventable deaths among Egypt’s own security forces. Likewise, the dysfunctional current government has compounded years of ill-advised environmental policies, leading to many residential areas only having access to drinking water that’s industrially polluted, biologically unsanitary, or both.

Injured Egyptian Security Force member being wheeled into the hospitalEgyptian man holding up dull beige water his family and neighbors have taken ill from drinking
(Left, one of the Egyptian Security Force members being wheeled to the hospital following the accident this weekend, originally from here. Right, an Egyptian man holds up the brown water his town had access to in the wake of an epidemic in August, originally from here.)

In a broader context, it’s easier to see how the crisis over butane supplies resonates with the Egyptian public – as it calls into question average Egyptians ability to safely and securely use their own natural resources. Likewise, corruption is not some vague social ill affecting intangible economic values, from investment to zoning, but a daily risk in a country with extremely selectively enforced traffic laws and environmental regulations. “Western” media won’t contextualize this for you. The only way to actually understand the politics of Egypt is through neighboring or local media that are familiar with daily life in the country. To understand some one, you have to listen to them, or at least listen to some one who listened to them.

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“Family Values” need a check

In the past decade or three, the United States has seen massive growth in organizations with “family” in the name. Generally speaking, these groups frequently emphasize the need to protect “the Family”, which is spoken of as if it were a delicate platonic ideal subject to shattering if even modestly questioned. While it’s obvious that I disagree with their working definition for which people constitute families and which don’t, it seems like we should all be able to agree that support for families, platonic or otherwise, is a social good.

It would seem that way, sure, but there’s a point where that sort of logic becomes an apologetic for nepotism (or as some have called it along with associated behaviors, “amoral familialism“). The culture in the US certainly seems to favor family in an abstract sense but there’s some indications that this valuing of family reaches a pathological level that threatens the larger social safety net. No one exemplifies this more than Republican Candidate for President Willard “Mitt” Romney. Our inability to notice this specific flaw in him is a worrisome indicator of our capacity to address the need to balance a valuing of family with protecting and investing in society as a whole.

At least three generations of Romneys
(Mitt Romney, his wife Ann Romney, their three sons and their wives, and 15 grandchildren – originally from here.)

Most reporting on Romney’s seemingly infinite tax scandal has focused on his personal power of deception (in refusing to release the normal number of returns) or the web of professional relationships surrounding his likely lies (namely the role of his lawyers and other legal associates in tightly containing and selectively releasing the information). The few reports on his finances that look at how he seems to have both legally and  “extra-legally” accrued massive funds to pass on to his children typically focus on the technical details. The driving concerns are what financial methods he’s used and what their legal statuses are. In the one thorough explanation of his use of family-oriented tax deductions and loopholes that I’ve found, it was noted:

Romney’s individual retirement account, which he said in a financial statement filed in June is worth between $18.1 million and $87.4 million, may be used to benefit his children […] When beneficiaries inherit an IRA, they are required to take distributions based on IRS tables that use life expectancies. The younger the beneficiary, the less they have to withdraw each year from the account. That can benefit children or grandchildren because assets in the IRA can continue to grow tax-deferred […] Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, proposed in February to require younger beneficiaries who inherit IRAs to pay taxes over five years instead of spreading them over their lifetime, which would raise an estimated $4.6 billion for the Treasury over the next decade. The plan didn’t advance.

If not legally questionable, this practice is at least ethically questionable. As a candidate Romney has equated paying income taxes with social responsibility. Sheltering what is for all intents and purposes his income, so that his children and grandchildren can live in luxury, regardless of the larger social cost, fails his own moral test. It’s a clear sign that just as he has been accused of proposing government by his socio-economic class for his socio-economic class, he prioritizes “people like him” over others. In this case, he wants to shield generations of his family from the “burden” of contributing to the entire rest of the United States in the form of modest taxation.

Tellingly, this is not one of the loopholes that Romney has specified wanting to eliminate to make his proposed tax cuts revenue neutral. Undeniably, Romney is a man who values “the Family”, but when that’s a value placed above all else, there are clear social costs that we need to realize.

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Everyone’s on strike

This was a week of strikes. Throughout Southern California, one of the largest walk-outs by Walmart employees was held yesterday in protest of working conditions. The non-unionized organizers chose to use that tactic, rather than the archetypal, picket-line strike of indefinite length, because it carries much lower risk of participants being terminated. In Israel, the Haaretz newspaper’s staff responded to management announcements of downsizing 100 employees with a general strike yesterday, which might continue today and for following days if negotiations don’t occur. Meanwhile, unemployed and underemployed youth, some of whom were homeless, began some light rioting as well yesterday, creating a bonfire of tires in Hammam-Lif, Tunisia, before being driven off public roads by (not very graphic, but some police violencepolice using tear gas.

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Constitution and Culture

TW: military occupation and political coercion of Afghanistan, Kurdish-Turkish conflicts and violence

Turkey’s recent party elections (which allowed Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to remain the head of the ruling party) and upcoming Presidential Elections (in which Erdoğan seems likely to run) are an interesting and unexamined contrast to the US-led “nation-building” and democratization of Afghanistan. Both nations experienced massive political upheaval throughout the end of the twentieth century. Turkey survived three military coups, and Afghanistan saw its local monarchy succumb to Soviet occupation which in turn degraded into civil war and effective theocratic rule. In the first few years of the twentieth century, however, the US invaded and began occupying Afghanistan while pushing the development of a democratic and constitutional government. In Turkey, Erdoğan, then the mayor of İstanbul, formed the now-governing AK Party and led a comparatively peaceful and mostly electoral democratic transition. In his potential bid for the presidency, a major issue will be the lack of a replacement to the current constitution which was designed under military dictatorship.

While there are clear similarities in the overall political arch of the two countries for the past few decades, there’s a number of clear differences: most obviously, Turkey’s comparative wealth to Afghanistan’s undeniable poverty and Turkey’s endogenous democratization to Afghanistan’s part in Bush’s plan for the Islamic world. Less commonly addressed, I think, is the catch-22 that both nation’s have struggled with in different ways – for Afghanistan to create a constitution with minimal change in the broader culture and for Turkey to repair major problems in the larger political context without substantively challenging the flaws in the existing constitution.

The modern constitution of Afghanistan was adopted by consensus at a large delegate meeting of representatives of various ethnic groups and tribes and political factions, essentially organized by the US government. The political process was primarily shaped by foreign political pressure and domestic elites. Unsurprisingly, it failed to substantively address the underlying causes of terrorism and other violence against the succeeding government. As Sakena Yacoobi, Afghani literacy and women’s rights activist, explained in 2009-

“Many people tell me that Afghanistan should have democracy, but how can a society, a nation, have democracy when the people of that nation don’t know how to read and write? How can you implement a democracy if people don’t know their rights? We have a constitution, but it needs to be implemented. We cannot just talk about democracy. We have to prepare people for democracy.”

The constitution developed in 2003 remained little more than a piece of paper to millions of poor and effectively disenfranchised civilians in Afghanistan. Yacoobi also identifies the major issues that then newly-elected President Obama would need to focus on to actually substantively democratize Afghanistan:

“Peacekeeping is one way to negotiate with [civilians sympathetic to militants], but right now, for maintaining security, I think that troops are needed — but our own troops, not American. If the United States really wants to help stabilize our country, I would tell President Obama that the United States should direct its resources to planning, developing the infrastructure, and providing jobs for the people of Afghanistan and region. If people have enough to eat, a job, money to support their family, then they would not resort to suicide bombing, blowing themselves up and innocent people. Countries need some sort of national security — but most foreign troops are not primarily focused on protecting women and children. Their focus is on beating the enemy, which is very different, and ordinary citizens become collateral damage in the process.”

With stability in Afghanistan increasingly seeming unglued in spite of significant US support and cooperation with local security forces, it seems as though her warning for the course of action the US would need to take should have been heard years earlier under Bush. By the time Obama began implementing such solutions, the country had already politically disintegrated,  not from lack of a constitution but from the lack of a political context that could give such political items actual power.

Guards outside of the Loya Jirga, Afghanistan 2004.Turkish youth federation protesters who would be accused of terrorism

(Left, armed guards outside of the delegate meeting on Afghanistan’s constitution, 2004 – from here. Right, Turkish student protesters holding up a sign saying, “The Youth Federation wants and will get free education” who were charged with membership in a terrorist organization and given months or years in prison – from here.)

The current political problems in Turkey, however, are a sign that democratization that’s locally-arising and focuses on larger political issues and values isn’t necessarily enough to create lasting and effective change, especially when the constitution and legal system remain more or less unchanged. It’s hard to deny the ways the AK Party and Prime Minister Erdoğan specifically have changed political discussion in Turkey – as an even-handed analysis has to admit he’s shut-out a military which historically served as a check against democratic demands. He’s become a human incarnation of the idea that moderate Islam, representative government, and explosive economic development can be effectively combined, changing political discussions throughout the Islamic world.

But while the right to vote is not so precariously dependent on being tolerated by the military, the government has retained confusing and sometimes arbitrary limitations on freedom of speech, some of which were even used against the reformer party that now controls the government. Likewise, freedom from military violence and coercion seems exclusively a benefit that’s been gained by ethnic Turks, as violence between Kurdish separatists and the Turkish military has now reached a fever pitch. Erdoğan has helped significantly change the political culture of Turkey – but only for some and in certain circumstances, and increasingly to personal rather than national benefit. The constitution has been left unchanged since a coup decades ago and consequently gives these failures legal cover. The new system proposed by his government contains a poison pill of sorts, with it giving the presidency that Erdoğan is vying for more executive power. The larger political context of Turkey could only change so much, and the inattention to the problems with its constitution are exacerbating that problem.

The inevitable problem seems to be that constitutional and legal reform is necessary to effective democratization, but that contemporaneous changes to the broader political context and discourse in the country have to be significant. Simultaneously, the development of a substantively democratic culture requires to some degree legal and constitutional protections. We’re dealing with the chicken and the egg here – to focus very hard on only one as in Afghanistan and Turkey destroys the feedback cycle between the two, which might be the only way towards authentically democratic governance.

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Is class consciousness back in style?

Earlier today, Paul Krugman mused on the unexpected reversal of fortunes in the current presidential election. He noted that enthusiasm and unity have been shown on the Democratic side while decidedly lacking among Republicans, a bit of a contradiction of political stereotypes. But furthermore, he recognized a slow but steady shift in public attitudes:

Among other things, while we weren’t looking, social issues became a source of Democratic strength, not weakness — partly because the country has changed, partly because the Democrats have finally worked up the nerve to stand squarely for things like reproductive rights. […] The right is already set up to blame poor Mitt, claiming that he lost because he wasn’t conservative enough. But that’s not what we’re seeing; it looks as if voters are rejecting the right’s whole package, not just the messenger. As I said, not the election anyone was expecting — but a happy surprise for some, and a nasty shock for others.

There’s clear evidence on this point – as majorities of people in the United States now support same-sex marriage  and other progressive policy changes the Republicans oppose. I subtly suggested yesterday that the distinction between “social” and “economic” issues is a bit more fluid that usually acknowledged – economic protection from gender discrimination interacts with social policies towards women who either live independently or only with other women. I think it’s worth looking at issues of economic populism holistically – not just as political and economic issues but also as potential contexts of pop culture. From The Hunger Games to In Time, economic inequality has become a common topic in entertainment in the United States and elsewhere. Suzanne Collins, the author of the original Hunger Games trilogy, clearly called the trend as she planned out the books over the course of 2008 and published the first on September 14, 2008, a day before panic would break out on Wall Street after Lehman Brothers filed for bankruptcy.

For much of the following year, political debate in the United States would focus on class. It’s hard to deny the mingled forces of popular culture and economic populism in the following election. But even afterwards, a focal question at the time was whether deficit reduction (as suggested by the Tea Party protests) or unemployment (as suggested by the President’s and Congress’ stimulus plans) was the  greater danger for the poor and middle class. Ultimately, the discussion between restrained Keynesian approaches from the federal government and ostensibly grassroots protests from deficit-hawk conservatives was joined by the on-going Occupy protests of all forms of economic inequality. In spite of all these clearly economic issues being discussed, the national conversation couldn’t help remarking on the perceived hippie-ness of Occupy and the confederate undertones of the Tea Party. The protests were at once about common cultural values and economic policies. But as these movements’ influence continues to be felt through this election year, economic issues have seemed to be among the most salient of the issues making this election so “ideological” (as Krugman called it).

May 2011 protests in Madrid, Spain. (Photo from here.)

Meanwhile in the rest of the world, austerity policies and subsequent anti-austerity protests spread across Southern Europe, as the economic downturn reached around the world. Spanish and Portuguese protesters (called “los indignados”) marched across much of the Iberian peninsula, through a very perturbed France, and into the center of the European Union’s administration – Brussels, Belgium. Just as in the United States these sorts of protests were highly visible cultural events as much as political statements – with Portugal nominating a protest song to the massively popular Eurovision musical contest. Protests are only growing in intensity in Greece, so it seems clear that demands for retaining or augmenting redistributive economic policies will only get louder, and perhaps more embedded in popular culture.

Even in less directly affected countries throughout the Middle East, poor economic conditions stimulated mass protests. The original Arab Spring, in Tunisia and Egypt, was explicitly a reaction of the combination of economic as well as political malaise. Likewise, there was an explicitly cultural and artistic component to it, from the street art in the Arab world to the few gallery artists whose careers in other countries were launched by it. The protests elicited creative responses the world over, including reactions by Arabs living in other parts of the world [TW – police violence]:

It seems clear: culturally-resonant demands for economic populism are increasing their influence in much of the world, and it shouldn’t be a surprise to see it, along with other factors and issues, driving electoral choices in the United States and elsewhere in the near future.

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Conspiracies everywhere

TW: islamophobia, censorship, class inequality

The past weeks have seen quite a few people discussing whether conspiracies are actually afoot in all sorts of contexts. In Egypt, Hani Shukrallah pointed out that the anti-blasphemy protests in Cairo have forced the Muslim Brotherhood to politically move rightward to appeal to Islamists and have reinforced islamophobic stereotypes of violent Muslims in the United States, Europe, and Israel. He deliberately posits that if a conspiracy is at work, it’s probably not direct cooperation between Islamists and islamophobes, but rather an unhealthy and violent codependency. You should know the drill by now – repressive governments need terrorists to justify them, terrorists need a repressive government to justify them. Replace those two groups with virtually any mutually opposed violent groups. They’re secretly dependent on each other, and preventing conflicts requires identifying that.

Meanwhile, Tom over at The Sound and Noise has pointed out the terrifying “evidence” used to subpoena two different US citizens to grand juries on charges of conspiracy to riot or incite riot: they owned anarchist literature. As he points out:

The implication is that owning ‘anarchist’ literature is enough to indicate to the FBI that one is a criminal – even if that person happens to be a student studying political thought. Or maybe particularly if you are a student – the FBI document [on domestic terrorism] states that anarchists are ‘educated persons of various backgrounds, often students.

This is particularly worrisome on the heels of the Democratic Party having struck several references to civil liberties from their platform this year, essentially moving rightward to the Republican Party’s position.

Furthermore, Kitty Stryker over at Huffington Post has pointed out all of interesting examples of how both the economies of the United States and the United Kingdom are increasingly relying on illegal and unethical means of cheapening labor costs – namely with unpaid internships and welfare-work agreements below legal minimums. The funny coincidence of this being written for Huffington Post is worth a chuckle.

So, everyone hates each other, can get arrested on virtually no evidence, and probably won’t get paid. Have a fun weekend!

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Romney has been one of the neediest of the 47%

TW: vilification of lower income people, corporate welfare

A few days ago, Rachel Maddow excellently pointed out that Republican presidential candidate Romney’s private statements about the 47 percent of US citizens who pay no income taxes were not only a tactical blunder, but were also patently hypocritical, as he hasn’t paid much if anything in income taxes. Maddow predicted that this scandal would pull national discussion back towards his secret tax returns and his history of lying about what earlier returns have said. While she’s been proven right that this has resurrected past attacks on Romney, it’s been ones slightly different from discussions of his returns. For instance, I’ve seen this image start circulating around Facebook in the past days, since Romney’s misstatements were verified as true:

(Originally from here, typos and all.)

Not only does Romney belong the group he maligned, but he’s received an astoundingly larger amount of financial support than the average member of that group.

Of course, this has already elicited a few complaints that the facts here are being misrepresented. I’ve already seen one Facebook comment complaining that this was a falsehood invented and promoted by Vice President Joe Biden, naturally with no evidence provided. The most substantial investigation of the $10 million bailout that I could locate was penned by the previously mentioned Glenn Kessler. In the style of Tom Raum and Calvin Woodward, he complained about the Obama campaign’s explanation of this event on several notes. He argued their video failed to explain that Romney was not at fault for the losses (which they didn’t say anything about), that there was a bailout of Bain and Company not Bain Capital as “implied” (when the sentence before the one he quoted specified that), that Romney minimized the size of the bailout as much as possible (when this is irrelevant), and that the government funds weren’t taken from tax payers (when that also wasn’t stated, only that they were federal funds). So even some one quite sympathetic to the Romney camp couldn’t exactly spin this one.

Bringing us back to the earlier discussion about the dependency of businesses on the government but in a context of economic redistribution actually only strengthens the argument that Romney is hypocritical. The funds for the Bain and Company bailout were in part provided by fees placed on all banks and other financiers (as a fee for federal protection of their funds). If viewed as a tax (like income taxes), Bain and Company under Romney had a negative effective tax rate – essentially what he chided 47 percent of the United States for allegedly having.

To head off any claims about the assistance in the form of welfare or financial aid for students, I’ve looked into those figures as well. Pell Grants’ limits are well known, and at a maximum of $5550 per semester (which is being threatened with being reduced), that works out to roughly 1802 semesters. Welfare is a bit trickier to answer, since it’s more of a collection of programs. The largest is the federal program for Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) which has an assortment of state-based counterparts. According to their own records, in 2006 they together sent out about $9.9 billion in benefits (table TANF 4) to almost 2 million families (table TANF 3), which works out to about $5048.92 per family for the year, which alone would need to be doled out for almost two thousand years to equal the bailout to Bain and Company.

Adding in the Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program (SNAP), the second largest program typically labeled as “welfare”, that only adds a maximum of $668 (page 9) to the monthly benefits for a given household, which is still inadequate to reach $10 million in some three hundred years, as quoted by Think Progress. Clearly, they must have combined smaller additional assistance programs’ maximum benefits into their total, ultimately reaching the figure of 328 years. Most of those programs specialize in helping specific subgroups of lower income people, like the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC), which requires recipients to be pregnant women, nursing women, or women with children under the age of five, or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) which is reserved for the physically disabled and elderly.

Part of this is, of course, illusory – not only are there new restrictions on how long a household can receive financial assistance, but many programs have strictly enforced stipulations on how the funds can be spent (WIC in particular is known for state-specific “restrictions on the types of foods (brands, package sizes etc) that can be purchased” that often seem arbitrary). Effectively, there’s no way for the average family to ever receive the amount of government assistance that Romney received in the 1990s while at Bain and Company. Hopefully that will return as a topic of national discussion given Romney’s clear contempt for poor people with effectively negative tax rates.

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