Tag Archives: economic inequality

Simone Zimmerman – how the Sanders campaign clarified their message

Trigger warning: Israel/Palestine conflict, antisemitism, islamophobia, racism

The Sanders campaign caught a significant amount of flack this weekend for his trip to Rome to meet with Pope Francis. Just in terms of the optics – the deference it suggested to an institution wracked recently and historically by criticism, particularly over its role in socio-economic inequalities – the meeting clashed with Sanders’ primary political message of the need for a popular voice in more spheres of life. Or did it?

A second scandal of sorts for his campaign broke earlier last week, and called into question whether Sanders’ campaign is about social and economic justice anymore. In short, what transpired was that his campaign hired a young Jewish activist, Simone Zimmerman, only to “suspend” her mere hours later over comments unearthed from her personal Facebook dating back to the spring of 2015. Angered over Israeli military policies, she typed this out, addressing then and current Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:

Bibi Netanyahu is an arrogant, deceptive, cynical, manipulative asshole. He is the embodiment of the ugliest national hubris and the tone-deafness toward the international community. Fuck you, Bibi, for daring to insist that you legitimately represent even a fraction of the Jews in this world, for your consistent fear-mongering, for pushing Israel, in word and deed, farther and farther away from the international community, and most importantly, for trying to derail the potentially historic diplomatic deal with Iran and thus trying to distract the world from the fact that you sanctioned the murder of over 2,000 people this summer, that a brutal military occupation of millions more continues under your watch, and that you are spending time and money on ridiculous campaign opportunities like this instead of actually working to address the real needs of your own people.

Netanyahu insulted our President but also much worse. He does not speak for me as a Jew, an American, and as a thinking person. #BibiDoesntSpeakForMe

She later modified it to cut out the swearing, saying instead “Shame on you”. The Sanders campaign is not just any campaign, and the decision to suspend Zimmerman over this discovered comment uniquely calls into question their political vision and policy prescriptions. In this race, his rhetoric has often been accused of being one note, with his emphasis on not only economic inequality but the need to reform the political process to limit campaign contributions. That is an important political question, and Sanders himself has spoken about the haunting questions is raises about whether we still live under a truly democratic system.

It’s also a loftily abstract issue in politics, that the average person contends with directly only once in a few years. A more every day issue of freedom of speech, tied into the reality of insurgent campaigns like Sanders, is whether people with less can be coerced into particular statements or political silence. In the age of the internet this has leaped from an issue about bosses demanding their employees take off the bumper sticker on their car, to now the ability of employers to fire or punish their employees over literally anything traceable to them online – like a Facebook post, even before it was edited. Sanders just made a statement about where he stands on the more colloquial experience average people have with the intersection of economic and political power.

Setting aside the issue of freedom speech, this speaks to the thorny place Sanders finds himself in terms of outreach towards Jewish communities. Reminiscent of the liberal if not socialist Zionism of a bygone era of Jewish politics, he has limited appeal to more modern Zionist circles. Given his policies on Israel, however, anti-Zionist Jewish activists, like Zimmerman, have historically found themselves in even greater dissonance with him. His choice to hire Zimmerman, in fact, was seen as a sign of changing ideas about which Jewish circles require outreach and what that would typically sound like.

2016-04-18_0746(From a New York rally held the year before, credit to Martyna Starosta.)

By pivoting back into staffing decisions in line with a more traditionally Zionist Jewish politics, the Sanders campaign has echoed what I’ve noted in their politics for months now: a focus on whittling down what the supposed political revolution will be about. Reparations have been declared as outside the purview of economic injustice, now implicit criticism of Zionism is beyond a similar pale. This is a facet of his political organization that’s increasingly hard to ignore.

In fact, one of the heralds of this moment in which Sanders’ revolutionary politics shrank back is eerily relevant. In one of the year’s first Democratic debates, Sanders spoke about the economic and political elites in Qatar and Saudi Arabia as if they not only were representative of the broader population, but also as ultimately responsible for resolving problems in entirely other states just in the same larger region of the world.

Now, he’s suspended a staffer, over her declaring that the head of a state in that part of the world, who claimed to speak for her, was not truly representing her. Sanders’ previous discussion of the region acted as if someone like Zimmerman, a person categorized on paper by certain ethnic or national words like “Qataris” or “Saudis” or “Jews,” was not meaningfully different from most others roped together with those words.

He sure showed her with a suspension.

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A limited socialism

Trigger Warning: racism, slavery, lynching

Earlier this week, I noted that Bernie Sanders’ socialism quite abruptly runs aground when applied to some groups peripheral to a lot of his politics. The reality of poverty in the Middle East is something his political view of the world apparently can’t accept, and so he had to essentially deny the reality that the United States is the wealthier nation in almost every respect when interacting with even resource-rich countries like Qatar or Saudi Arabia.

Over the course of this week, a strange domestic cousin to this apparently has come out as a part of what is driving down support for Sanders within many Black political circles. I just wanted to briefly point to what struck me as vital explanations of how Sanders’ comes across on this issue. The always fascinating Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote on Sanders’ statements about reparations:

This is the “class first” approach, originating in the myth that racism and socialism are necessarily incompatible. But raising the minimum wage doesn’t really address the fact that black men without criminal records have about the same shot at low-wage work as white men with them; nor can making college free address the wage gap between black and white graduates. […] Sanders’s anti-racist moderation points to a candidate who is not merely against reparations, but one who doesn’t actually understand the argument. To briefly restate it, from 1619 until at least the late 1960s, American institutions, businesses, associations, and governments—federal, state, and local—repeatedly plundered black communities. Their methods included everything from land-theft, to red-lining, to disenfranchisement, to convict-lease labor, to lynching, to enslavement, to the vending of children. So large was this plunder that America, as we know it today, is simply unimaginable without it. […] judged by his platform, Sanders should be directly confronted and asked why his political imagination is so active against plutocracy, but so limited against white supremacy. Jim Crow and its legacy were not merely problems of disproportionate poverty. Why should black voters support a candidate who does not recognize this?

I think Imani Gandy quite succinctly wrapped up the issue on twitter a day later:

Much of the presidential campaign so far has been about parsing the ways in which Donald Trump wants to redirect economic redistribution towards certain (implicitly, White) communities. Bernie Sanders’ radical language for himself and his ideas has helped him avoid a similar examination so far, but it’s worth checking to see in what ways he hopes to address the social, economic, and political inequalities felt by people of color.

His treatment so far of those unique experiences as simply more common in communities of color is stopping short of directly addressing them. If that’s the level of consideration his political philosophy has for people of color, it doesn’t really sound like it exists for them.

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Economic justice… for whom?

It’s one of the familiar just so stories about US politics that’s become crystal clear in recent decades. The Democrats want to maintain or even expand programs designed to provide economic resources and benefits to people with less. Republicans want to shrink or dismantle those types of programs. One party for workers, one party for the “1%”, so the story goes.

Even the candidates who look like exceptions – like Donald Trump with his promises to maintain social security and medicare – tend to ultimately reveal policy ideas that firmly locate them in the political party that they’ve already embraced (Trump, for example, thinks “wages [are] too high” – an implicit criticism of current minimum wage standards).

More interesting, I think, than those less easily categorized oddballs are the terms on which the debate between these two camps is being held. Economic redistribution and inequality are actually somewhat lofty, vague even, concepts. How to measure, to quantify them is an open question. The language tends to be like that in what I’ve linked above – a discussion focused on easily indexed numerical statistics: wages, entitlements, inflation, productivity, unionization.

That’s not a wrongheaded way of talking about who wins and who loses in the US economy, but it’s just one way of doing that. Unfortunately, it’s a way shaped by, and sometimes specifically for, articulating a particular group’s economic grievances. One of the easiest ways of seeing that is in terms of communities with large numbers of undocumented people – for whom income taxes are a murky territory and benefits exist in a similarly unclear limbo.

For largely Latin@ agrarian worker communities, how do you quantify being an exception to environmental regulations? For the far broader set of populations at risk of being targeted with detention or even deportation, how can that not be among other things an economic threat – both held over you by your boss and your landlord but also just ominously lurking outside your home, endangering everything you have.

2016-01-04_1015.pngLeft, 2012 chlorpyrifos use in the western US, from here. Right, a heatmap of Latin@s in the western US made using the 2010 census, from here.

The Bernie Sanders campaign has recently sought to highlight a difference between their candidate and Trump. Sanders is a meaningful, redistributive choice. Trump is manipulating some of those hoping for greater economic opportunity, without any intention to deliver on it. In order to prove that, the Sanders campaign has latched on to Trump’s comments on wages.

Why was that necessary? Trump has already spoken to a more wild set of economic policies designed to hoard resources for some. That’s one of the things inherent in his promise to deport millions of people. That is economic injustice, and it’s important to ask why it hasn’t been considered that by the largely non-Latin@ mainstream media or presented as that by the redistribution-centered campaign of Bernie Sanders.

Is the economic populism advanced by Sanders and tolerated within major media really for everyone? Whose concerns does it speak to? Whose concerns does it barely register?

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Arabs: surprisingly non-identical

The New York Times has really suffered from some decline in recent years – look no further than Ben Hubbard and Rick Gladstone’s recent reporting on the developing crisis in Egypt. It’s rich in generalizations from the region to Egypt and from Egypt to the region. The real core of their point seems to have been:

It is clear that the region’s old status quo, dominated by imperious rulers who fixed elections, ruled by fiat and quashed dissent, has been fundamentally damaged, if not overthrown, in the three years since the outbreak of the uprisings optimistically known as the Arab Spring. […] What is unclear, however, is the replacement model. Most of the uprisings have devolved into bitter struggles, as a mix of political powers battle over the rules of participation, the relationship between the military and the government, the role of religion in public life and what it means to be a citizen, not a subject.

The strangeness to the article’s argument is underneath it’s waffling examination of the futility or effectiveness of the Arab Spring and its subsequent results. The odd framing of it rests in this way of considering the whole Arab world, which reduces it down into a singular political experience, an “Arab politics” of sorts. While dynamic in that it admits that political upheaval has happened, it creates a sense of profound continuity in that it presents the dysfunction found in several Arab states as a comparatively stagnant trait. Arab people are consequently in this view tied together and tied to the past century’s politics.

But are those assumptions warranted? As yesterday’s coverage by Egypt-based media outlets showed, Christian minorities in Egypt have played a very dynamic role in first tentatively supporting the revolution and now tentatively supporting the counter-revolution (in response to seemingly unorganized so far anti-Christian violence). This stands in contrast with the situation in Syria and Tunisia, actually, where Christians have respectively long had a much closer relationship with the state power structures for many decades and are a significantly smaller part of the population.

2013-08-15_1821
(Tunisia is the darkest green value with nearly exclusively Sunni Muslim population. Egypt is a notably lighter green with approximately 10 percent of its population being Christian. Syria has even larger non-Muslim minorities and is also, unlike Egypt’s and Syria’s, very divided between Sunni and Shia Muslim populations.)

In fact, Tunisia’s internal issues can be fairly easily summarized as being two overlapping conflicts – one over how to fix the ailing economy and another over what degree of islamist political influence is ideal. While economic issues are common to the region (and rooted largely in common difficulties with unemployment, rising utilities costs, and housing), the particulars of the religious population of those three Arab-majority nations is reflected in what social fault lines exist (both among Muslims and between them and other religious groups).

Properly understanding those unique aspects to various predominantly Arab countries is central to evaluating their different conflicts as well as built on a way of talking about the Arab world (which by most estimates is significantly larger than the United States in population) that doesn’t reduce it to a singular set of conditions. That’s what the New York Times did yesterday, however, and its readers understanding of what’s happening in all of those countries potentially suffered for it.

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The unraveling of Turkey

TW: violence against protesters

In the past few days, the assorted efforts by the Turkish government to silence and even kill protesters in Istanbul and increasingly in other parts of the country have gained a certain degree of visibility internationally. With minimal coverage coming from within Turkey itself, however, the original protests and even the motivations behind the on-going protests has become somewhat obscured behind the idea of an autocratic and islamist-friendly government repressing its citizens because that’s just what happens in that part of the world. What few reports have spread out of the Turkish media blackout of the protests suggest that something far more complicated has happened. As Turkish writer and activist Defne Suman wrote:

Four days ago a group of people who did not belong to any specific organization or ideology got together in Istanbul’s Gezi Park. Among them there were many of my friends and students.  Their reason was simple: To prevent and protest the upcoming demolishing of the park for the sake of building yet another shopping mall at very center of the city. There are numerous shopping malls in Istanbul, at least one in every neighborhood! The tearing down of the trees was supposed to begin early Thursday morning. People went to the park with their blankets, books and children. They put their tents down and spent the night under the trees.  Early in the morning when the bulldozers started to pull the hundred-year-old trees out of the ground, they stood up against them to stop the operation.

They did nothing other than standing in front of the machines.

No newspaper, no television channel was there to report the protest. It was a complete media black out.

But the police arrived with water cannon vehicles and pepper spray.  They chased the crowds out of the park.

In the evening the number of protesters multiplied. So did the number of police forces around the park. Meanwhile local government of Istanbul shut down all the ways leading up to Taksim square where the Gezi Park is located. The metro was shut down, ferries were cancelled, roads were blocked.

Yet more and more people made their way up to the center of the city by walking.

They came from all around Istanbul. They came from all different backgrounds, different ideologies, different religions. They all gathered to prevent the demolition of something bigger than the park:

The right to live as honorable citizens of this country.

They gathered and marched. Police chased them with pepper spray and tear gas and drove their tanks over people who offered the police food in return. Two young people were run over by the tanks and were killed. Another young woman, a friend of mine, was hit in the head by one of the incoming tear gas canisters. The police were shooting them straight into the crowd.  After a three hour operation she is still in Intensive Care Unit and in  very critical condition. As I write this we don’t know if she is going to make it. This blog is dedicated to her.

There’s more details and information over at her post, but there’s a clear image of the evolution of this protest movement into a larger protest against the broader dynamics of the Turkish political system. In a very explicit since, this is the beginning of the transfer of earlier economic protests and concerns (over either broader economic questions or the best public use of Taksim Square) into a political protest over general democratic and social norms.


(Protesters and police in Turkey confronting each other on the streets of Istanbul, from here.)

I honestly don’t know where Turkey on the whole is heading, but that many of the inadequately addressed problems within the larger political system are coming to a header.

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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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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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