Monday, May 23, 2016

An Involuntary War President?

Cartoon by Tjeerd Royaards

Any day, every day, is a good day to write a letter to the people who report and analyze the news.

The piece of "news analysis" that inspired this letter (which I suggest is closer to a publicity release on behalf of the administration) can be read by clicking here.


Kevin Liptak
CNN Washington Bureau
820 First St NE
Washington DC 20002

Dear sir,

I do not yet concede that it is a vain wish or forlorn hope that we can read qualitative and critical coverage of elected power, right up to the presidency, and so today I write on your report dated today of President Obama's visits to Japan and Vietnam and the context you provided.

It is accurate to describe Obama as "an involuntary war president" only to a degree. He inherited wars that he did not initiate; he also inherited a geopolitical philosophy that perpetuates war, a system of diplomatic relations that facilitates economic activity in which companies yield profit via war or military dominance. While this historical state of international relations is not of Barack Obama's own design, and conceding that it could not be undone by one sitting president, this man's place in history is as a participant, not a critic, and so there is a reasonable argument to be made that his participation in, and indeed escalation of war in certain respects (take drone warfare for example, the undeclared and footloose prosecution of war on spontaneous targets), is not "involuntary" at all and to describe it as such fabricates an innocence that is not real.

President Obama was only three years old at the time of the Tonkin resolution, as you report, but Kissinger lives and his view of U.S. power has prevailed over presidents since Nixon, including Obama. You report positively that "the President is working to move past the scars of war to develop deeper economic, diplomatic, and even military ties." That is certainly a statement that would please the press secretary - it has an historical cadence that stops short of the moral problem. Those ties you describe are interrelated with the "scars of war" - the President cannot move past the legacy of our previous wars, and neither can the country, until we begin probing the logic of our foreign policy. Those ties are the architecture - but we need to ask what kind of houses we are building with them.

While it is fine, as Ben Rhodes states, to "look squarely at history, to have a dialogue about history," and I certainly concur with him as far as he goes, we must also look squarely at policy as history in progress. Otherwise we cannot evade being imprisoned by the past, as Rhodes put it. This is where you have a role to play. What do we mean when we speak of healing or moving past the scars of war? Can you not ask whether we mean progress toward a world where human beings do not wage wars of aggression for strategic advantage, and do not use trade and monetary policies to subjugate the peoples of other countries for profit? Can we not ask candidly whether the "healing" is simply a pivot to newly negotiated terms in economic relations, to business carrying on, even if those strategic alliances lend our solidarity and protection to regimes that wage wars of aggression, such as Saudi Arabia; even if we continue, as we have, our involvement in undermining and overthrowing democratically elected governments elsewhere and embracing oppressive new regimes that are friendlier to amoral financial interests?

These questions are less welcome by the administration, naturally; and what of it? How many people really want to retire and look back knowing that had a platform for questioning power on behalf of the people and on behalf of history, and opted instead to be pleasant and function as a publicist instead?


Monday, April 25, 2016

It Wasn't the Macbeth Curse, It Was Bad Maintenance

Photo by our friend Teresa Ortiz

Here is this week's edition of the "Desert Sage" column I write for the Deming Headlight.  It is sometimes excluded from the online edition, as it was this week, so in order to share it I am posting it here.


Anyone who has spent time with theatre folk knows that you do not say "Macbeth" in a theatre. Antiquated superstition holds that if one utters the name of Shakespeare's Scottish king, disaster will befall whatever show is in production there.

Theatrical superstitions are a communal bond for actors and spectators, a vestige of the theatre's link to ritual and magic. The mind is a peculiar and mysterious force, and superstitions draw power not from magic but by a community lending them credibility. If an ensemble even halfway believes their show is cursed, they start having more accidents. When people change their behavior over something that isn't real, in a certain sense that thing becomes real. This is why even skeptical people generally don't test their luck by uttering "Macbeth" in a theatre. The social stigma is strong even among highly rational people.

The Macbeth curse is easy to avoid, at least. It's not a word that accidentally crops up in typical conversation. Thus I feel reasonably confident that no one uttered the name of that doomed king at Deming's Pit Park on April 16, where Las Cruces musician Randy Granger and I gave a public performance at Deming's beautiful open-air theatre. The Deming wind was high and icy that afternoon, yet 50 people turned out with coats, blankets, and lawn chairs to enjoy a rare theatrical performance in the Pit Park stadium. At the curtain call, Granger praised the audience, comparing them to sports fans.

The stadium, dedicated in 2007, is Deming's great underused asset. Its official seating capacity is 1,000, not including the covered pavilion area which has itself been used as an event venue. The simple concrete structure with metallic canopies has decent acoustics (with the nearby interstate creating surprisingly little interference) and has ample power for sound and light equipment. Its location at Pit Park, on Country Club Road across the street from Starmax, is easy to find and located near restaurants and hotels. Its potential as a center for music festivals, political and other community events, programming that might draw travelers for extended visits to Deming has barely been explored. Instead, it sits locked up behind chain-link most days of the year; and, inevitably, the asset is beginning to deteriorate.

That deterioration, rather than a magical curse, explains the terrifying crash we heard shortly before that Saturday performance. One of the theatre's lighting fixtures had dropped from the canopy to the seating area, a 10-pound missile of aluminum and glass that landed just a few feet from my 5 year old son. Upon inspection, the flimsy ring binding the lamp to the ceiling fixture had given way to metal fatigue - simply twisting off in the wind. Two electrical wires had been bearing the weight of the lamp. When those give way, watch out below.

Accidents happen; but when I looked up, I noticed the "stumps" where several lamps clearly had fallen previously. This indicated (as a maintenance officer for the city admitted to me the following week) that the city was aware of this hazard, yet were allowing public events in there anyway.

As it happened, a member of Deming's city council, Victor Cruz, who has been a proponent of using the stadium for more events, was present and within hours he had alerted Mayor Benny Jasso and City Administrator Aaron Sera.

Public safety is not a matter for wishes or magic. Let's make the repairs, keep the space in safe condition, and put it to good use. Letting it rot is a terrible waste.

Sunday, April 10, 2016

Choosing a President Is Not Guesswork

A theatre colleague on social media reposted this blog about the Sanders-Clinton primary contest entitled "I'm With Her...I Guess" and asked her friends what they thought. 

So I read it and thought about it and as I have read many pieces like this one in various media, here's what I think.

After patting Sanders on the head ("I like irascible New York Jewish liberals, and I would be one if one could choose such a thing"), writer Elie Mistal dismisses the entire range of people who support Sanders with a funny joke:

Bernie’s support comes from educated white males, young white women, Ta-Nehisi Coates, and the Screen Actors Guild. That’s not a political revolution, that’s the check out line at Whole Foods.  

Okay, that's funny.  However, it distorts the scope and range of Sanders support and ignores the substance of his campaign and the people who have arrived at considered decisions to support him. One could craft similar jokes about Hillary Clinton and her following that do the same thing.

But in context it doesn't seem to be meant simply as a silly joke. Mistal treats this as a fact on which she is basing (perhaps rationalizing) her decision to go with the more familiar brand of politician. The desire to go with someone familiar and clearly competent for the office, along with the excitement of finally electing a woman to the presidency, would be quite understandable. It does not sufficiently explain why someone feels the need to publicly support the kind of agenda Sanders wants to pursue in office, while finding reasons to support the candidate whose record in politics demonstrates an unambiguous opposition to that agenda. She also dismisses Sanders on terms that has nothing to do with the substance of his policy proposals, preferring to joke about him clapping his hands to make Tinkerbell live, in contrast to Clinton saying, "It's time to grow up."

And that's a well-worn trope, isn't it? Grow up. Stop believing the world can be any different; stop believing you can change the system. Being an adult means accepting that you can only vote for a candidate you despise less than the other one; being an adult means lowering your best expectations and submitting to a system you know to be unjust. Growing up means voting against your best judgment and your self-interest. Growing up means ridiculing your own conscience, your own ethical judgment, and your own political imagination. Is that what it means to "grow up?" Some of us beg to differ, as we think growing up means taking responsibility for our choices.

I experience the Democratic primary as an onlooker. New Mexico will not vote in its party primaries until June, and even then I am not permitted to vote, as I am not a Democrat and New Mexico is a closed primary state. I watch with interest in part because these are two figures who have been around a long time, and I have been paying attention to both of them. 

Hillary Clinton, along with her husband and people like Al Gore, Joe Biden, Harry Reid, and more, were leaders of the "Third Way" movement that overtook liberal parties in Europe and the Democratic Party in the US in the nineties. They called themselves "New Democrats." It was a fundamental and deliberate shift away from New Deal/Great Society manifesti in favor of a collaboration with corporate capital, an embrace of militarism, and "tough on crime" policies that built a billion dollar private prison industry and incarcerated masses of people. On policy, looking past rhetoric, this is the agenda she pursued as a United States Senator and as Secretary of State (including our endorsement of the coup in Honduras, against the judgment of everyone else in the OAS) and the inhumane response to the subsequent refugee wave.

The author of this article is making the case that she'll support Hillary Clinton as a "flawed candidate." If I subject Hillary Clinton's record - on policy, leaving aside rhetoric and persona - to an ethical analysis I cannot construct her as a "flawed candidate," but as a highly successful candidate representing terrible and inhumane policies. I do not observe evidence that she has had a fundamental change of worldview, beyond some rhetorical concessions to the national mood. Intriguingly, the author insists that "Hillary Clinton is the only candidate with a reasonable plan" but doesn't weigh the substance of either candidate's plan.

For the middle-aged onlooker, it is amusing to watch the objection emerge in this campaign that Sanders's policy agenda is impractical because it would be difficult to pass in Congress (true) and that it would have to be modified for real world numbers (also true). It was only in 2008 that Barack Obama ran on a very ambitious plan to reform health insurance, which many said was a third rail in politics that could go nowhere. Hillary Clinton herself mocked the plan in similar terms: the numbers don't work, it would be opposed in Congress and by industry, etc., etc. And that wasn't false. That plan did have to change (mostly for the worse), there was opposition in Congress, there was fierce opposition from the private insurance industry, and the Affordable Care Act eventually became law. And that plan that Hillary Clinton once said could not work, is now what Hillary Clinton says represents the best we can do. That's politics!

A presidential candidate does not need to be "economist in chief." The Sanders proposals would require adjustment and if Congress took them up what would emerge would be different in detail from the campaign manifesto. That's normal. Sanders isn't clapping his hands for Tinkerbell. Some version of these proposals can in fact be implemented to the greater good - and have been implemented elsewhere in the world. Their value as proposals is to change the conversation about policy and what we want policy to achieve. To say "the numbers don't work" buries the lede, which is that the "numbers" fundamentally don't work in our system as it is.

Arguments like the one presented in Mistal's blog piece don't impress me very much because it's not about policy or ethics, or even the recent history of this political party. There is a substantive argument to be had about the "New Deal" approach versus the "Third Way" embodied by the Clintons. There are arguments we need to engage constructively about war; about how we extract resources and produce energy; about education, criminal justice, and economics. Instead, we get articles like this. "Grow up," we are scolded: Stop believing change is possible. Or desirable.

This kind of thinking dominates our political discourse (and little else is modeled in our popular media) which is why I would bet Hillary Clinton will be elected president, and she will work with Democrats to push the kind of policies she has pushed for historically. Educated guesses about the consequences of those policies look pretty grim to me. Speaking for myself, I am unable ethically to cast a ballot for this person. I will be told that the Republican candidate will likely be worse, and I can agree that that statement is true, but it does not follow that I should jettison my ethical analysis and vote for an imperialist. I'm not trying to persuade you to agree with me, but presenting why an article like this seems unconvincing to me. Supporting someone like Hillary Clinton because "I guess" does not strike me as a consistent or rigorous decision on which to determine the fate of human beings who will live or die as a consequence of policy.

For further consideration...

Friday, April 08, 2016

Love All Who Seek Truth

"We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it." - Aquinas.

Snarly attacks and actual criticism are different things. One requires a bit more study and care than the other. The other is easier and perhaps more entertaining, which might be one reason that even campaigns that start off well regularly devolve into personal viciousness. Insults get the best applause lines. And sadly, pundits don't model discourse as they should.

Bernie bros. Hillaritarians."Qualified, not qualified." The competitiveness obscures the importance of building something together. Some feel this can be done within the existing dominant party; some are not so sure; but there remains the sense that bridges must be built.

The perennial problem is dismissing the humanity of other people. What sort of society can people with such a habit ever build?

Monday, April 04, 2016

The Music of Theatre Dojo

Please enjoy this seven-minute featurette about the creative process of Randy Granger, the resident musician-storyteller of the Theatre Dojo project. Highly watchable despite, shall we say, desperately inexpensive camera equipment and my reliance on free editing software.

Also, if you haven't already, please visit Theatre Dojo's snazzy website!

Sunday, March 27, 2016

But...but... NO. The Duopoly Must Be Opposed.

"Orthrus," by Jin-Rikkun

In case you missed it in the comments on the previous post, Quid wrote:

Ah, but the key is... if it is Hilary vs. Trump, how do you vote? Or Hilary vs Cruz? Not the first time I've been confronted with only voting against someone, not voting for someone. 

I respond:

I have never submitted to pressure to restrict my vote only to candidates of the major parties. I understand (and do not need any readers to explain it to me again) the logic behind strategic voting, but it is not the only rationale for voting and it is not mine.

The very first presidential election in which I was old enough to participate was 1992. (I missed 1988 by two months.) My major party choices were President George H.W. Bush, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton (representing the Democratic Party's lurch to the right for strategic purposes), and the independent candidate Ross Perot. None of these candidates were speaking about militarism and the profitable industry we make of war, the damage our constant wars do to human life and to the environment that sustains us. The only candidate talking about that was J. Quinn Brisben, the Socialist Party's candidate, and so, voting in New York City where write-in ballots were counted, I wrote him in.

So if the major parties offer us the choice of Trump versus Hillary Clinton, then the major parties simply show us once again they don't deserve their hegemony. We are utterly foolish in allowing these two parties to be the only governing parties (perhaps even in allowing parties at all, but that's a more complex question), and I for one refuse to buy into it. The sanest and most humanitarian platform for the executive branch of the federal government, without Bernie Sanders as a candidate and arguably even with him, is that of Jill Stein and the Green Party, and I would vote for that candidate, donate to that candidate, and speak on behalf of that platform with conviction. I won't vote for the violent nationalist who lacks a high school level understanding of civics much less policy, and I won't vote for the amoral neoliberal warmonger following the agony of Iraq, Libya, and Honduras, all of which (and more) bear the scar of her sociopathic judgment in which triumph alone is good. No, if the major parties suggest to me that my only viable choices are madness or empire, I will say, "You are wrong. I vote for sanity and decency."

And woe to the fool who tries to shout at me about the dire consequences of my vote without holding themselves accountable for endorsing madness or empire. They should better join me in voting for the good (which might lead them to support a different candidate than the one I support, which is splendid) and fighting a system that seeks to monopolize power on behalf of corrupt institutions.

Otherwise, as far as I am concerned, they are not "voting against the worse of two evils," they are participating voluntarily in the sordor. I don't call such a vote "strategic" (since it works to our undoing), nor wise; I call it capitulation, I call it weakness, and having exercised my own franchise responsibly, I push back on the righteous "strategic voter" and the duopoly.

Sunday, March 13, 2016

The Qualifications of a President

What are the "qualifications" of a President of the United States? This question came up first in a letter I received yesterday (to which I wrote a lengthy reply by hand) and then in a Facebook post with someone I know, and like, who supports Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination but is already declaring his support for Hillary Clinton if (I would say when) she prevails.

So between the letter I wrote and the response I wrote on Facebook, here for my blog are some thoughts on the qualifications of a president. 

Sometimes people like to analogize this process as a lengthy job interview before the American public. However, I've been involved in hiring people in the private sector. It tends to be a much more rigorous and orderly process than a general election. A few people compare a candidate's experience and skill set to a written job description, assess the candidate's job history and temperament for the tasks required by the job, and make a decision. Electing a president is not like this at all.

Did you know that at the Constitutional Convention there was a serious proposal that the Constitution should establish a minimum net worth as a qualification for being president? Otherwise the founders had little to say about the minimum qualifications. A person who could win an election presumably was sufficiently well connected, knowledgeable, or able to assemble advisers to help him. There is still a belief among many (rich and poor alike) that a wealthy person is better suited to lead the country. We are a plutocratic culture. 

The essential qualification is the ability to win an election. Most presidents have been personally wealthy, or wealthy enough to persuade high level donors that they "get it" and will be a spokesman for what we call "national interests." This candidate must, at the same time, persuade enough people that they are not wholly in the thrall of wealthy interests, so they can win popular votes as well as electoral votes.

This is why Barack Obama won in 2008. Hillary Clinton had a much more extensive resume. I doubt anyone rivals her working knowledge of government. Obama was also a fresh entrant to the leader class, unlike Clinton. But Obama won the confidence of Wall Street at the same time that he wooed the masses with his "yes we can" campaign. His populism was convincing enough for the public, but the donor class never feared for his ideology; and he had no record to contradict his populist message, which is a major problem for Hillary Clinton. Winning a presidential election is not and never has been about your knowledge or expertise. It's been about your ability to win the hearts of the masses while assuring capitalists that you will be good for them. That's what makes you "electable." 

Among Republicans, I have been feeling tender for my friend Jonathan Funke (a middle school classmate!), a principled Republican who has been campaigning for Governor John Kasich of Ohio. 
Kasich is certainly qualified intellectually to hold the presidency, has the most actual policy experience in both federal and state government, and in the nominating process was frankly the most seasoned and capable person on a stage crowded with clowns, sleaze-bags, and know-nothings. Kasich is said to be a very good campaigner in a room, but television hasn't taken much interest in him since the week he announced his candidacy. "Not his moment," as the saying goes. 

Bernie Sanders is hated by much of Wall Street as well as the Democratic Party organization, which does not want to alienate Wall Street support. They will, I think, stifle his insurgency in the end. 

We are not supposed to pay attention to third party candidates, even though sometimes these candidates are eminently qualified for the job. In 2008, the year a first-term Senator won the presidency, the Libertarian Party ran Bob Barr as its presidential candidate. Barr had been a federal prosecutor and served four terms in the House of Representatives as a Republican. That same year, the Green Party ran Cynthia McKinney, who had also served several terms in the House (as a Democrat). Both of these third party candidates had more "experience" in federal government than the Democratic nominee, but they were running outside the duopoly, which hobbled their ability to raise money for a national campaign and also marginalized them in the eyes of the media and the populace. We are well trained to believe that only the Democratic and Republican candidates are worth our consideration. (And structurally, third-party candidates face enormous obstacles - by design. This is not a democracy.) Journalists will occasionally call on Gary Johnson or maybe even Jill Stein to get an amusing quote, but they won't take them seriously.

So, by the standard discussed here, Hillary Clinton is certainly "electable." Her biggest challenge, honestly, is to distract enough people from actually looking at her record critically. Examining her record exposes her governing ideology, which contradicts her populist message. For those who have been paying attention, it is awfully hard to reconcile her words with the policies she has stood for in the past. Lately she has been calling for love and kindness. I think of what she did in Honduras and I see neither. I try to think of a single war or act of U.S. military aggression that she has opposed and can't think of one. Love and kindness might be an effective campaign theme to use against a Trump candidacy; but you won't find much of it in her policy record. The business of governing the American empire is not a matter of "love and kindness," but talking that way wins votes. ("Yes we can!") She seems to have maintained a hold on demographic groups that, if you look at policies, owe her no thanks. When she slips up (as when she praised the Reagan legacy on AIDS, a legacy that was actually deeply harmful and worthy of opprobrium), she's very good at recovering and changing the subject.

I don't have doubts about Hillary Clinton's ability to win the election - to attract the money she would need and to persuade enough of the public to vote for her despite her record. She will have to do it without my vote. I've been following Honduras since the coup, a bit of business in which she was actively involved as Secretary of State, the reign of terror that persists there and the refugee crisis (many of whom are being turned away and deported as they seek asylum, which is their international right). Love and kindness. We all of course live in the aftermath of Iraq - and Clinton's Iraq vote was not a "mistake." TPP will almost certainly pass - and Clinton may be publicly against it now, but she lent her expertise and influence heavily to shaping that treaty and the donor class has no illusions about her continuing to support it as president. Like Obama, industry understands she will talk about climate change but will not require radical action that curtails industry profit-taking. And I have more concerns, but it would just belabor my point. My own ethics prevent me from casting a vote for her. 

Alas, ethics has almost nothing to do with how a president gets elected.