Olympic Hurdles: Let the Protests Begin

•April 10, 2008 • 4 Comments

The gift, presented by the Chinese government, of a global stage for human rights protesters to highlight their cause, would be admirable if it were not unintentional. Advocates of the ‘Free Tibet’ and ‘Save Darfur’ campaigns can hardly believe the opportunity that has been handed to them. It is almost as if the Chinese government are bizarrely inviting dissent upon themselves, like a stubborn old man only willing to concede on his own peculiar terms. But what we have seen so far has been anything but China’s terms.

Despite Chinese intentions, or rather because of them, the scenes of farce that have thus far greeted the torch on its aptly named ‘journey of harmony’ tour have come in about two parts absurdity and one part free speech repression. In London last Sunday, police were ordering protesters to remove t-shirts with political slogans and also confiscating Tibetan flags. Meanwhile, the torch was negotiated through the city by a former children’s television presenter surrounded by a small band of elite Chinese anti-terror officers. The show must go on I guess.

This, obviously, was not how it was supposed to be. This was to be China’s year of goodwill, its statement of progress to the world but the world has not been remiss in documenting China’s domestic repression and its support of foreign genocide in Darfur. The short-sightedness with which Beijing has viewed global opinion is illustrated by how strongly its expectations of the ‘journey of harmony’ were confounded in Athens, London, Paris and, now, San Francisco.

We all knew that we would be seeing some kind of organized demonstration against the Chinese in their Olympic year, but by touring the torch (a practice inaugurated by no less a tyrant than Hitler), the Chinese have all but provided demonstrators a time, a place and best of all: unbridled media coverage. All the seminars on activism and organizing recently in vogue could be made redundant for the next few months by a government only too willing to provide a free ‘Activism 101’ tour.

And for all those who are quick to support or attend these rallies there are others who either believe that sport is no arena for political statements, such as many of San Francisco’s Chinatown residents, or, in fact, see no point in protesting at all. Amongst the editorials excoriating China’s human rights record yesterday, I found two pieces that articulated these opposing views to the protesters.

The first I read was an article in the Washington Post by Chinese-American actor Joan Chen. She argues that despite China’s worrying human rights record, much progress is being made and anyway,

Let’s celebrate the Olympics for what the Games are meant to be — a bridge for friendship, not a playground for politics.”

The argument that sport should never mix with politics, that sport essentially operates in a vacuum morally superior to the murky world of politics, is a popular one but also one that has no cognizance of the real world we live in. If the Olympics were taking place in a vacuum, then that point might be acceptable, but the fact remains that it is China who is hosting the games, and with China invariably follows its image as authoritarian oppressor. Unfortunately for sports lovers, China’s record and the Olympics cannot be not mutually exclusive. To ask people to suspend their disbelief for the brief period of the Games in the hope that sporting solidarity will bridge division, and then afterwards resume admonishing China for its conduct, amounts to nothing more than a perfect exercise in hypocrisy.

At best sport is nothing more than symbolism. And although symbolism is a powerful tool, which is why the Chinese are so invested in hosting the Olympics, the symbolism of sport rarely has impact unless there is some political influence, and even then that impact is often anticlimactic. The 1996 South African Rugby World Cup and Jesse Owens’ four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics are classic reminders that the hope and euphoria engendered by sporting achievements struggle to translate into real world change. Those who believe that the healing quality of the Olympics will influence Chinese officials are sorely mistaken. There have been truly momentous sporting occasions throughout the previous century, such as when German and English soldiers played soccer together on Christmas Day during the First World War, or when Luz Long, the German long jumper, helped Jesse Owens to win gold at Long’s own expense, before Hitler in Berlin. But no sporting event has ever ushered in a change of heart from any government.

For the average person to ignore China’s policies out of ignorance is sad, but ignoring them out of reverence for Olympic glory would be tragic.

The other article I found discouraging protesters from taking to the streets, albeit implicitly, came from Tim Rutten in the LA Times. His point was simple: don’t bother, it won’t work because it never has before. He cites numerous examples and actually logically follows on from my own argument: that sport rarely achieves anything outside of its own domain and so it goes for protesting sport too.

The problem with Rutten’s argument is that he fails to distinguish between people protesting on the streets and government boycotts. He uses Jimmy Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics as the standard bearer for the ultimate sporting protest, as if it were the natural culmination of street demonstrations.

What Rutten fails to see is that of paramount importance for protesters is not the boycotting of the Olympics – which would only be a symbolic gesture, and there he is correct – but rather the raising of consciousness and pressure on China to observe human rights. Whereas Carter’s boycott was one of principle, the current demonstrators seek to achieve more than just sticking to their values. They seek to put China’s policies at the forefront of global opinion, reducing the Olympic Games to what they really are: entertainment.

It is important to understand that these recent protests have not been directed at the Olympics; the Games have merely provided a platform for people to demonstrate against China. So when Rutten suggests that it is futile to use the Olympics as a soapbox he misses the point.

During the run up to the Iraq War, did the unprecedented size of the protests prevent catastrophe in Iraq? No. But have they severely tarnished the US reputation abroad, and consequently impacted US foreign relations? Did they raise the conciousness of otherwise apathetic people? The answer is a resounding yes.

For the demonstrator in the street, the importance of protesting is, of course, the cause of the protest itself. But on a higher level, the opportunity to use one’s voice is exactly what defines our liberty. It galvanizes civic participation and enriches our democracy. And when the capacity to exercise that right is diminished by external forces, the fervency with which people desire to express that right, rises.

If the impassioned protests in Europe, and now California, have served to highlight anything it is that this sad irony is utterly lost on the Chinese government.

A Question of Consistency

•March 30, 2008 • Leave a Comment

I have a very close friend who, rather than label himself a conservative, prefers to say that he identifies with conservative positions. I too refuse to accept a label, but, unlike my friend, I identify more with the progressive outlook. By refusing to cede our values to a doctrine we gladly retain our independence in the true spirit of democracy, but that isn’t to say that we don’t hold our opposing views rather vigorously either. Indeed we are very passionate about our opinions and are excited to express them but, more importantly, we are also excited to hear them countered.

Trying to avoid knee-jerk reactions, we tend to stay on our high horse and pledge our allegiance to critical thinking. Instead of arguing at each other we are fascinated by the responses and we are open to persuasion which often makes for an enlightening experience.

And I use the words ‘fascinating’ and ‘enlightening’ not as exaggerations but because I have always been encouraged to shudder at the mere mention of the right wing bogeyman and to regard the right as unenlightened. It is a sad state of affairs that we are still quicker to demonize and stereotype the opposition than we are to engage them in debate. However, it is very easy to act like a dog when you are treated like a dog, and even easier when both political parties actively seek to foster the animosity.

Far too often avowed progressives espouse the patronizing stance that maybe someday those poor conservatives shall see the light and be as altruistic as us. This is both an offense to intelligent Republicans and a total distortion of the left. We need only look to the current collision course set by the Democratic nomination process to see that there are battles as intense and full of animosity between gender and race as there are between the left and right.

However, while the left has informally nurtured these beliefs through its own sub-cultures the right has been far more professional and effective in diminishing the quality of political discourse by funding think tanks to advance its agenda and frame issues. The aggressive movement within the far-right of the Republican party to paint the left as educated elites, and by extension, slyly portray the true republican as patriotic and proudly uneducated (epitomized in popular culture by the 911 inspired Alan Jackson hit “Where were you when the world stopped turning?”, that contained the immortal lines “I watch CNN, but I’m not sure if I can tell you the difference between Iraq and Iran.”), has been especially disastrous.

By pushing this position as aggressively as they have the right has achieved two important outcomes.

On a superficial level the far-right’s efforts has severely dumbed down the political debate in this country, dissolving nuance from an issue and thereby making polarization easier. But more consequential is that further polarization of right and left has created a political arena where arguments cannot be debated like for like. It is less an uneven playing field and more that one team is playing on a diamond and four bases and the other a 90 yard field marked by 10 yard increments. Just think of the positions taken by left and right on immigration.

More often than not we hear simple statements of ideology disguised as a response whereas what we all need to be doing is actually responding to the argument. But the divide is so wide and entrenched that is often too difficult to even listen to what the other has to say. So when George Lakoff tells progressives that they have to frame the debate to advance a progressive agenda because that is what the right has been doing for years he is wrong. The reason why progressives have not been successful in advancing their values is not because it is deficient in putting its agenda across effectively, it is that they have not responded to the argument adequately.

My friend and I are acutely aware of this stalemate, as are many Americans. We see that for every Rush Limbaugh there is an Amy Goodman and so we are determined to take advantage of our friendship and mine as much from each other during the brief and infrequent visits we have together as we can.

The last time we spoke, which was just over a month ago, curiously we came to an almost complete agreement on a the thorniest of thorny issues, Iraq. And though we came to our conclusions via our respective conservative and progressive values our position was anchored in the idea of consistency.

We very rarely talk about the reasons for waging war in Iraq, but our conclusion as to how to proceed is solidly agreed: we act according to what the Iraqis require and not current political trends. That is, we commit to what we promised and stay in Iraq until our presence would cease to maintain security for Iraqi civilians, or stability has been achieved and can be maintained by the Iraqi government. Neither of these have been met thus far.

Lets make no bones about it, Iraq is a quagmire. This past week saw its fifth anniversary, the tally of American military dead reach 4000, and Moktada al Sadr’s previously dormant Mahdi army rise violently in reaction to provocation from the government and then fill the void left behind by the British in Basra. And that really isn’t to begin touching the surface of the quagmire. These are simply indications and manifestations of a very complex situation. There are numerous elements that are impacting Iraq and the debate on Iraq, from the dubious reasons that first precipitated the war and the ensuing incompetence with which it was waged to historical sectarian enmity and competing influences in form of Iran, Shiite militiamen and al Qaeda. All this makes for discerning what Iraqis want a very difficult task, but the disarmingly simple question being asked in current national debate might actually help guide us i.e should we stay or should we go?

If we consider American interests only, it is possible that it might make sense to leave. But if we also consider Iraqi interests we need to ask an additional question: which course of action would be most detrimental to the Iraqi people?

Pulling out immediately would be disastrous for Iraq and its hope for stability. If there is one thing that al Sadr’s militia demonstrated last week it was that a void left by the British could be easily filled and so too it would likely follow for the US. Although al Sadr was carelessly provoked by the Maliki government (who, it appears, was attempting to win political capital ahead of elections), the backlash from al Sadr’s army blatantly illustrated the problems that would face Iraq nationally if we suddenly exited. Any aspirations for democracy would quickly vanish.

By leaving Iraq and dismissing the political and security needs of its citizens we invite sectarian gangs to fill the vacuum and fight it out for dominance. At best al Sadr wins and fashions a government in the theocratic model of Iran and at worst we have another Somalia: a lawless society corralled by the barrel of a gun.

It is true that in order to maintain troop levels in Iraq we would have to continue the hemorrhaging of the federal budget and more importantly risk American lives, but in a society that has come to remove ourselves from the consequences of our actions it might be time to start making some sacrifices.

My friend feels that this is consistent with the very American maxim of personal responsibility.

My opinion is one that follows quite naturally from my initial disgust and protestation to the war. Essentially, I don’t believe we should make the same mistake twice i.e. take an irresponsible course of action guided by political agenda that would ultimately result in large-scale suffering. A democratic president who would arrogantly remove forces from Iraq to acquiesce to anti-war sentiment, although not as destructive in its scale, would be as equally irresponsible as Bush’s ideological driven war.

Given the current situation in Iraq, where the surge has undoubtedly helped curb violence, thus providing room for political progress, (although Iraqi law-makers have been remiss to take up the opportunity), it is clear that we owe Iraqis – Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds alike – our support in helping to forge more space for dialogue. And this is where the common ground of personal responsibility comes into play. We are ultimately responsible for the future stability and security of Iraq. We cannot pry ourselves away from the Bush administration’s disastrous policies by prying ourselves from Iraq.

By doing so this should offend both left and right respectively, that is, if we are to be consistent in our values.

Offended? Me?

•March 16, 2008 • 1 Comment

By now it has become commonplace to accept that we are vulnerable to the way in which certain issues are framed by the news media. Not in the sense that we eat up whatever is spoon-fed to us but rather we follow the agenda being advanced. More in the way of accepting the direction than the information. Whether the agenda is mostly set according to an ideology of the powerful or reflects the popular consensus (as I believe for the most part), this notion is as widely spun as it is cliche. But in the interest of context allow me a paragraph to exhaust the cliche just a little a further.

Many of us, when we hear a news item, do not have time to ask ourselves if it was ‘framed’ in a way that guides us to a conclusion we might not otherwise have taken, and so are apt to accept it for what it’s worth. As constituents of a passive audience, whenever a news-item is well put together and demonstrates features that match our criteria for news presentation we tend to take it at face value. Even those of us who like to dig a little more and seek out a variety of news sources are susceptible when presented with the angle we like.

So, like everyone else who first saw and heard the headlines regarding Obama’s ‘controversial pastor’ and his comments, my immediate reaction was something along the lines of ‘if Obama wants to be sitting in the Oval Office this time next year he’s going to have to reject this nut. Shit, he’d better denounce him too.” And this was the general play made by the media; to pressure Obama into dismissing his pastor, which I went along with.

That was until I watched coverage from Fox News the other day and they played the now infamous footage of Jeremiah Wright but not without a short preamble warning that it could be offensive to some viewers, obviously designed to set the tone. If people were not already offended about something they sure were now, we just needed the requisite footage to fill the frame. The shock and awe on the faces of the Fox reporters and anchors was incredible. I thought somebody was going to break down and cry at one point.

Here’s a list of some of the more controversial things Mr Wright has said:

i) “God Damn America”. In reference to the building of bigger prisons and the three strikes law.

ii) That 9/11 was the “chickens coming home to roost.”

iii) “The government lied about inventing the HIV virus as a means of genocide against people of color. The government lied.”

iv) “Hillary was never called a nigger”.

Now, these comments have been in circulation for some time and some of them were indeed reported in the New York Times last year so for what reason they came up this week (there’s not another primary for five weeks), no-one seems to know. But the question that sprung to mind after watching the footage was how is it that these comments are being reacted to either like they are the most vile utterances one could spew forth or, like mine, that Obama had better move fast to disassociate himself? Had I been ushered into believing this was the ranting of a madman?

No doubt many Americans upon hearing the words ‘God damn America’, recoil in personal offense and regard the pastor as an America hater. Now I am not about to try and argue whether the man hates America or not but to put forth the more controversial question, what is it exactly that is so wrong with this man hating America and why should we be so offended?

Lets have a little candor here, this man was a victim of America and not some abstract notion of America either, the very real Federal Government. Wright was born in 1941. That’s twenty three years before the passing of the Civil Rights Act and twenty four before the Voting Rights Act. In sum Wright grew up, spending his formative years in a country where the government was not only complicit in marginalizing people on the basis of their skin color but was actively seeking to achieve it through its institutions.

To me the idea that the government would invent HIV is utterly ridiculous and irrational. However, to a man who witnessed his national government – a government designed to represent him – implement a system of disenfranchisement with the institution of slavery as its precursor, and watched from afar how local government in the South was complicit in lynchings it might just seem possible to such a man that it invented HIV too i.e. ‘if the government is capable of x what is to say it isn’t capable of y?’

It could of course be argued that he should be proud to live in a country that recognized the injustices of segregation and that, in turn, dismantled it. There perhaps should be pride in a system that has allowed for the freedom for black people to assert themselves in a way they never had done before and that has provided new opportunities.

If we subscribe to this idea, that, in essence, the majority of black people now grow up facing similar obstacles as every other American we are sorely mistaken.

Dissolving the legal apparatus that facilitated segregation will not and did not level the playing field it merely served to make the difference more opaque. To open the doors of opportunity it must be agreed that education is key. But how are children meant to receive a decent education when they attend schools unable to meet standards because the school districts that provide the funds are poverty stricken – a direct legacy of unadulterated racism. And now that the culture of diluting school integration policies has entered the Supreme Court the future looks even bleaker for young black children’s access to an eduction worthy of their neighbors a few miles away.

Admittedly it is not just black people whose opportunities are limited by poverty in the US. There are all kinds of demographic groups who suffer with this blight, including low-skilled immigrants and the rural white, but if the situation you were born into is one solely the result of an inherited burden because of your skin color then I think bitterness can be expected and justified.

However, unlike the “God damn America” quote the invocation of 9/11 is far more controversial and arguably more offensive. Though, I would assert it is only offensive in that it lacked sensitivity to the families of the victims. The comment was ill-timed and crudely put, but nonetheless congruent with the 9/11 commission and the CIA notion of blowback; the idea that unintended consequences occur as a result of past actions.

Let me make it clear, terrorism in any form is abhorrent but to affect offense when it is suggested that September 11th was a direct or indirect result of US involvement in the Middle East is to deny reality and, moreover, unhelpful in attempting to prevent further terrorist atrocities.

In 1953 the US deposed of the democratically elected leader of Iran, Mohammed Mossadegh, and installed the Shah who ruled as a tyrannical dictator until 1979, the reason being that he planned to nationalize the country’s oil reserves. During this time the Shah was more than happy to provide the West with a steady stream of oil while suppressing any dissent through secret police and torture. It would also do us well to remind ourselves on the twentieth anniversary of the Halabja massacre in Iraq who it was exactly that enabled Saddam Hussein to launch an offensive that killed up to 5000 people. This is not to mention the propping up of a theocracy in Saudi Arabia that regularly flouts basic human rights standards and also the subsidizing of Israel’s military offensives into Palestine.

The 9/11 attacks are unjustifiable. They were heinous acts that should rightly be condemned. But our grief should not compromise sensible analysis. The attacks were not just the work of madmen, they were the work of madmen who saw the US as an enemy.

However, I don’t think that it was the pastor’s main intention to point out the obvious in his sermon. Indeed, it is clear, if you watch the video, that he was highlighting something altogether different; the disparity between the reverence for the victims of 9/11 and that for the victims of slavery and entrenched racism in the deep south.

I’ll admit this is a connection I have never considered but then again I am not a black man in his sixties.

To counter the pastor’s implication one might say that the horror of slavery and subsequent lynchings are widely acknowledged as being an abomination on this country’s history. Even the word ‘nigger’ is tantamount to the ultimate offense where it cannot be uttered on public broadcasting.

However, to give some perspective to Wright’s argument – that those killed during slavery and Jim Crow do not receive due attention – I’d like to point out that whereas there is a museum and memorial adjacent to the National Mall in Washington devoted to the Holocaust in Europe there is no such memorial commemorating Afro-Americans who were killed by racism on US soil.

This is the lens through which Jeremiah Wright sees his country, and this is where the popular consensus fails. We are deaf to opinions from outside of the norm and blind to the perspective of others because they are so far beyond our own personal experience. We are not just talking in different contexts we talking about different universes. We push to the margins opinions that seem irrational to us yet seem utterly real to others. And so when these arguments enter the popular consciousness we react viscerally and with standard horror. This man is a hateful racist we say. This is inflammatory we say without even attempting to understand from where those opinions might stem. There is judgment without consideration.

We should welcome the most controversial opinions if only to refute them with sensible debate.

The ridicule that we were encouraged to feel this week by the news media should be nothing compared to our amazement that there aren’t more angry black people out there.

Would A Rose By Any Other Name Smell As Sweet?

•March 9, 2008 • 6 Comments

How much weight can the definition of one word carry? Well, when that word is marriage and its meaning vigorously disputed, a hell of a lot.

Should marriage exclusively be between a man and a woman or simply between oneself and a person of one’s choosing, irrespective of gender? Is it for the purpose of intimacy and procreation or only intimacy? These are questions, by now, probably etched into the mind of anyone with even a passing interest in the institution of marriage. The corresponding answers are pregnant with fears on both side of the coin and in just under 90 days the California Supreme Court will give us their answers, and likely allay the fears of one of those sides.

Last Tuesday the court heard the oral arguments (which you can watch here), from opposing parties, including the State of California (arguing to uphold the ban on same-sex marriage), and the City and County of San Francisco (one of the plaintiffs). This is the latest and most significant round of a legal battle that began four years ago when the court invalidated an order by Mayor Gavin Newsom allowing same sex marriage in San Francisco. To say the decision is eagerly awaited would be something of an understatement; as well as possibly allowing homosexual couples to marry the result may also herald a major row between the California electorate and its judiciary arm of government.

In California, gone are the days of “are homosexual couples suitable parents?” or “should homosexual couples, in a committed relationship, be afforded the same rights as married heterosexual couples?” Currently gay and lesbian couples can access the same tangible state rights as married couples, such as property rights and adoption rights, but only under the banner of a ‘civil union’ and not a marriage, (although federal law still prohibits some rights being afforded under the Defense of Marriage Act signed by none other than Bill Clinton). In this sense the argument is rooted in the question of whether limited access to the symbolism of marriage alone translates as an affront to equality. Put simply, does the State, by withholding the label, discriminate against homosexuals?

Some no doubt sense more than a whiff of ‘separate but equal’ here and I absolutely agree. Lets recall that the grounds for ‘separate but equal’ under the Jim Crow laws were that blacks had access to the same quality of services as whites but denied affirmation of equality, the very same ethos presently denying gays and lesbians the right to be judged as married.

It could of course be argued that because – unlike blacks during Jim Crow – gay and lesbian couples do have equivalent services and rights they shouldn’t be complaining: that whereas Jim Crow served to marginalize blacks the current California laws actually empower gays and lesbians. And in fact this was the line of argument that Senior Assistant GeneraAttorney General Christopher Krueger adopted when the plaintiffs cited a decision from the court in 1948 striking down a ban on inter-racial marriage.

Perez v. Sharp
held that marriage is a fundamental right and should not be withheld on the basis of prejudice. What we can take from the Perez decision then is that marriage previously had been restricted because of prejudice and prejudice only. It doesn’t take a leap of the imagination to substitute that reasoning for the current situation.

However, in defending the current status-quo Krueger argued that in Perez “there was marriage or nothing”, implying that gays and lesbians have far more than nothing, they have equal rights. But this is a weak argument as Krueger skirts around the meaning of Perez: that marriage is a fundamental right presumably bearing all of its entitlements to its holders including the label. Moreover, I believe that, contrary to Krueger’s opinion, it is because gays and lesbians are afforded the same rights as heterosexual couples that we should use the word marriage. The old adage should prove true: If a bird looks like a duck, swims like a duck and quacks like a duck, then it’s probably a duck.

Now, despite the congruency of this analogy, the acceptance of recognizing the Perez case as a precedent would have a huge impact beyond the realm of marriage and raises some difficult questions for the justices. The decision will have significant import not only for gays and lesbians but also for California law and government. In addition to the law having to recognize sexual orientation as a classification in the same regard as race and gender for the first time, the quandary at the forefront of the justices’ minds is the decision of whether or not to overturn the will of the Californian people.

In 2000, under prop.22, Californians overwhelmingly voted to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman. The purpose of which was three-fold. First it re-affirmed a change of wording in the California Civil Code, which was calibrated, tellingly, only in 1977. It also served as a referendum on gay marriage and gave voice to the majority of Californians who believe gay marriage should be banned. Most importantly though, it took advantage of the unique power of initiatives in California, making it very difficult to overturn.

In order to overturn an initiative in California you can do one of three things: you can take it back to the ballot box, the State Legislature can create a law contrary to the outcome (which legislators did for gay marriage in 2005, only for Schwarzenegger to veto the bill), or if deemed to be unconstitutional, the State Supreme Court can overturn it. This is the conundrum before the justices. If the governor and the popular majority have stamped their authority on the subject, shouldn’t they too respect those opinions?

The palpability of this problem was evident in Tuesday’s arguments prompting more than one judge to comment on the evolution of equality, a concept based on the idea that everyone will come around eventually and thus encouraging judicial restraint. Justice Werdegar articulated this view most simply:

“Why is this the moment of truth as opposed to 10 years from now?” Werdegar asked.

Although not inextricably, this idea is tied to the heavy boot of tradition; society is not quite ready for such a significant paradigm shift because of the entrenched traditional values of the majority.

Krueger argued as such saying that, “it’s not irrational to maintain the definition of marriage that has stood the test of time.”

Although courts are often deferential to tradition, majority opinion and the legislature, the judiciary ‘s obligation is to adhere to the constitution and intervene when the other institutions have failed to provide equal protection for a particular group. The question for the court then is not whether or not we should wait for the political process to resolve the issue, as it eventually will, but it is whether there is a need for constitutional protection. The answer is undoubtedly yes just as it was in Perez v. Sharp.

In her argument against deferring to the concept of the evolution of equality San Francisco Chief Deputy City Attorney Therese M. Stewart said it best:

“The concept of equality does evolve, but just because society doesn’t see something as unequal until a given time, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t always unequal or unjust. It just means we were blind to it.”

I wonder how blind we will be come June.

What Happens In The US Stays In The US

•February 28, 2008 • Leave a Comment

When traveling overseas it is not uncommon to hear criticism of American foreign policy usually framed by the war in Iraq and Guantanamo Bay. It has, in fact, become so common place that in addition to seeing Americans harassed over their government’s policies I have witnessed Americans actively going out of their way, pre-emptively, to apologize for their nation’s foreign adventures before somebody has the opportunity to attack them (more than a little ironic).

Within the context of Bush’s tenure it would be tempting to assume this is a recent phenomenon. It isn’t. Baby-boomers will often recount stories from their traveling heyday in Europe of telling hosts that they were Canadian so as to avoid confrontation. The actions of the Bush administration, instead of creating this situation, has only cemented the fierce criticism to the point where it has now become standard practice to portray American political discourse as uniquely insular informing not just foreign policy but also areas such as trade and the environment.

Whilst there is an element of hypocrisy from the international community, especially from Europe – whose Common Agricultural Policy is as great a beacon for protectionism and insularity as it gets – and whilst it is also fair to say that it is somewhat counter-intuitive for the US to balance its interests with those of others there is a valid point to be made. The point is that the accusation of an insular American perspective runs much deeper than mere policy making; it is less to do with trade based protectionism and more in line with ideas-based protectionism. It is rooted in the the idea of self-interest and the image of the free individual, free from constraints as applied to the US in the form of trade agreements, UN resolutions or environmental regulation.

Though it would be tempting to attribute this notion exclusively to the Right due its brash and blatant disdain for international considerations, as epitomized by former UN ambassador John Bolton (watch this video for his opinions on the UN), the perspective is just as warmly embraced, albeit far more subtly, by the the Democratic Party. Throughout the presidential race there has been a concern expressed by leading Democratic candidates over America losing its place in the world. However this concern has little to do with empathy for others and more with the loss of respect for its leadership. America is worried it no longer wields the same power as it did. It is the idea that the USA will only join others on its own terms that has led to this loss of leadership and is the basis for the accusation of arrogance and hubris that foreign critics so love to throw around.

Nowhere is it more apparent (or, arguably, more detrimental), than in the national discussion on illegal immigration. Talk of strengthening our borders, amnesty and xenophobia totally misses the point and obscures the debate.

So far in the current presidential race the issues of Nafta and immigration have been regarded as separate domestic concerns. When discussing the free trade treaty the two Democratic candidates talk about protecting American jobs. That’s a fair point but not once have they even alluded to the effect Nafta has had upon illegal immigration. The most that has been offered has been Obama’s intention to help create more jobs across the border.

There is obviously a lot more to it than that. If Obama is truly committed to creating jobs across the border he must first come to terms with the destructive effects Nafta has had upon the Mexican economy.

The North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect January 1st 1994 and in order for Mexico to prepare for its implementation, Nafta required that programs for small farms such as low-interest loans and subsidies be dropped. It also required that Mexico’s quota system for corn imports be replaced with tariffs, which were to be phased out over fifteen years. (The tariffs were in fact eliminated after only three). Because of these conditions cheap US corn swamped the Mexican market and put 1.5 million farm workers out of a job. The manufacturing sector fared little better as workers watched their average daily wage drop from five dollars to four.

Within the boundaries of the current debate the correlation between Nafta and illegal immigration goes utterly unrecognized. According to the Pew Hispanic Center, since the inception of Nafta, the number of unauthorized migrants living in the US has risen from 4.5 million to over 12 million while the number of immigrants entering the country illegally each year rose from 0.4 million to 0.9 million. More than three quarters of that number were born in Latin America with a large proportion being Mexican. Now, because Nafta has been around for over ten years one might be forgiven for assuming the problem would eventually settle and immigration figures plateau. Maybe then we could be justified in talking walls and amnesty. Well, actually no.

Since the dawn of Nafta Mexican industrial users of corn, such as syrup processors and Mexico’s rapidly growing livestock sector, have become heavily dependent on yellow corn from the US (to the point where Mexico requires 8.5m tons of yellow corn but only produces1.5m). That’s the same yellow corn necessary for ethanol production in the US whose demand has soared in recent years.

The sizable subsidies for ethanol producers in the US – 51 cents per gallon – has spurred the incipient industry to new heights where the amount of corn currently used for ethanol in the US is 18-20% of the total crop.

So when US corn prices rose by 80% at the end of 2006 it shouldn’t have come as much of a surprise when it caused industrial users in Mexico to look for a quick substitute elsewhere. The Mexican white corn sector (from which poor Mexicans depend for the daily staple – tortillas), was the likely source, causing the price of tortillas to quadruple in some places, and intensifying hardship no end upon the 40% of Mexican’s who are impoverished. It shouldn’t take too much thought to conclude that the North might be a probable destination to help alleviate that poverty.

Barack Obama has made clear that he is a big fan of ethanol as a viable alternative to imported oil. This has major consequences for corn prices, the use of yellow corn in Mexico and ultimately illegal immigration.

Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama have failed to take the opportunity to connect the dots serving only to contribute to the protraction of the immigration crisis and perpetuate the notion that America acts alone without concern for its actions.

Myopic is not the word for this lack of insight; the candidates are clearly intelligent people and must be aware of the knock on effects of such policy positions. Whether it is for fear of Mid-West corn farmers (as I suspect), or not, this attitude is inconsistent with American ideals by ignoring responsibility for the suffering of others as a result of one’s own actions. The real irony though is that it is self-interest that has led to this self-defeating situation.

The immigration debate has been and continues to head down a very dangerous path for it doesn’t just concern the problem of a huge underclass taking root in America it extends to all aspects of US policy. When you ignore the consequences of your actions they have a way of coming back to haunt you. The CIA call it ‘blowback’ but what it really comes down to is a principle shared all across the political spectrum and that is personal responsibility.

When Life Imitates Sport

•February 18, 2008 • Leave a Comment

The unique sense of euphoria and disappointment that sport can so easily elicit in us, can also sometimes surface in other arenas, that is, arenas not named after telecommunications companies or office supply chain stores. This week provided two such examples where those feelings trespassed into the arena of US politics, one narrative of disappointment and one euphoric. However, both demonstrated a distinct lack of that keystone of sport around which sporting euphoria and disappointment supposedly revolve: fairness.

In fact, in one of those narratives it was more than just sporting disappointment that made the cross-over, it was the sport itself.

Roger Clemens, one of baseball’s pre-eminant names, dominated congressional proceedings on Wednesday and the news headlines the rest of the week.

Some of us who are less accustomed to the inner workings and hierarchy of major league baseball may have been forgiven for thinking that MLB was just another government agency like the FDA or EPA and that Republicans who decry the Democrats’ penchant for big government might be on to something.

The whole thing furtively planted itself amongst important matters of Congress as if it were normal for Henry Waxman’s House Oversight and Government Reform Committee to act as adjudicator to a baseball star and his former trainer both claiming it was they who was telling the truth and not the other. I guess this is less life imitating sport but rather politics imitating Judge Judy.

Somewhere in the collective consciousness there was a question rattling around and making a nuisance of itself: why was Congress actually devoting time to steroid use in baseball?. Really. Why? Couldn’t this kind of thing have been dealt with elsewhere? If indeed there was a case for perjury couldn’t the courts have dealt with it? Well I guess it isn’t that obvious to me how baseball is sewn so inextricably into the fabric of the nation’s soul that of course Congress would prioritize the issue over the war, the recession, failed immigration reform, healthcare reform etc. Or so the argument would go.

Flippancy aside, those people scratching their heads, including ardent baseball fans, are well within their rights to question Congress and Waxman for pursuing the hearing in the first place and thus wasting tax dollars and public time on an issue so out of step with nation’s concerns.

Asking whether or not it is fair for athletes to achieve their highest potential through performance enhancing drugs is a worthwhile debate but inviting that debate of sporting fairness onto the front pages via the halls of Congress runs roughshod all over the mandate that voters gave Democrats in 2006. It has proven yet again how capable the Democratic led Congress has been in avoiding confrontation on real issues.

Now, while Clemens took the front pages the back page op-eds started to augment a virulent blogosphere argument best represented by the insidious phrase ‘Obama’s cult of personality‘. There were other ancillary labels too like ‘messianic’ or ‘revivalist’, each seeking to portray Obama as a cult leader who deliberately stokes the coals of the religious-like fervor of his supporters to profit off their blind allegiance to his thin veneer of hope.

The aim of this argument is to render the sheer size and enthusiasm of Obama’s crowds as negatives, and it has a particular potency amongst progressive Democrats and independents. It appeals to the same line of thinking I have heard for many years from progressives who lament the news media for treating elections like sporting events. They assert that covering elections as sporting events encourages the electorate to act like sports fans and react as such when their candidate wins or loses and not like the responsible citizens they should be.

Many would argue that the worlds of sport and politics are mutually exclusive and should remain so. They argue that emotion or enthusiastic fervor has no place in a sphere that was designed to be conducted through rational debate.

True, debate should be undertaken rationally; legislative and executive decisions should be approached with critical thinking but that is not to say that emotional reactions to those decisions aren’t valid. Quite the contrary in fact. I would argue that we wouldn’t be human in the truest sense unless we didn’t react to decisions like going to war or cutting social programs with some modicum of emotion. In this sense then, isn’t our emotional reaction to political outcomes more justified than sporting ones?

There is also a glaring omission in the ‘cult of personality’ argument. It is crucial to acknowledge that the ‘race’ to the presidency is one inherently focussed on an individual and as such the derision or celebration of that one person is inescapable. As a matter of fact, for much of the American electorate the presidential election is only about the individual, irrespective of which party they represent. This is the nature of executive office, it is the individual who is running the store and under scrutiny and not the party. It should therefore be expected that supporters of popular candidates will react to their candidate with occasional zeal. A presidential election only allows room enough for a single person to best represent one’s political principles.

If we are to accept these two arguments as givens we should then also accept that if much of the electorate believe the nation to be in dire straits and in urgent need of change their enthusiastic behavior for a presidential candidate, who they feel can deliver them from that situation, is a rational reaction i.e. the degree to which a person emotionally reacts to politics is dependent on the degree of urgency they feel.

The cult of personality is applied much in the same vein as Newt Gingrich’s and Frank Luntz’s renaming of the inheritance tax as the ‘death tax’. It is sophistry at its best, designed to characterize Obama as a smooth-talker with no substance. This simply isn’t true (as I have detailed in earlier blogs), and what’s more, not fair, but when did that ever enter into the lexicon of politics.

Speaking of Super Tuesday

•February 4, 2008 • 1 Comment

Spoiler Alert: The words Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton appear in this entry.

Now I don’t want this blog to develop into a pro-Barack Obama blog or one just devoted to the primaries. I do actually intend to write on a number of different topics in the future. However, since it’s just one day before the big one I couldn’t help but feel obliged to write on the subject one more time.

In speaking with many different people over the course of the past month or two I have noticed a distinct difference in enthusiasm between Obama supporters and Clinton supporters.

The recurring sentiment that I’ve heard from Clinton supporters has been “I’ll support whoever wins but I’ll be voting Clinton”. Then when asked why, the two major factors most often cited are experience and electability. In comparison, Obama supporters make it clear that their candidate rides a wave of fervent belief in his campaign.

Before addressing the enthusiasm deficit between the candidates I’d briefly like to add to the debate on those two issues.

I have written a number e-mails to friends attempting to rebut these points especially the experience factor which I feel is bordering on the specious side of things. Aside from the more common Abe Lincoln and JFK counter arguments, which inadvertently accept the inexperience assertion, I would argue that Obama’s ‘experience’ is comparable in length to Hillary Clinton and moreover, a richer one. He has had more legislative experience than his counterpart and his ‘experience’ includes time as a civil rights lawyer, community organizer and time on the senate foreign relations committee.

Even so I still think that to argue on experience is misleading; surely it is the record of a candidate that should be studied with more scrutiny and here is where Barack Obama has the edge on Clinton. Her votes on Iraq and Kyl-Liberman have been much publicized, and are, in themselves demonstrative of her hawkish position on foreign policy, conflicting with her perceived progressive values. (It is not my intention here to demonize Clinton but to highlight very real differences), Obama on the other hand has frequently shown a consistency on positions such as government transparency, nuclear weapons and has said he would engage in direct discourse with enemies of the US.

On electability I heard an interesting piece on NPR this morning citing a recent poll that suggests Obama is polling higher than Clinton in a hypothetical election against John McCain. This is important to consider because as much as it is disappointing (but not unbelievable), we have to recognize the amount of friends we have and the people out there who have an instant visceral dislike for Clinton. With the possible candidacy of McCain on the horizon that dislike might transform McCain into a viable alternative for moderates.

Okay, to the main gist of this entry. The enthusiasm and commitment with which I have met in all the Obama supporters I have come across has been undeniable and probably no doubt off-putting for many an undecided voter. In fact one of my good friends said over the phone yesterday that all the ‘young people’ are putting him off voting Obama. Although my friend was being more than a little facetious he articulated a common cynical strain of reaction to popular movements e.g “I liked him when he first came out”. I also have to admit that when asked to chant and clap to innocuous phrases I feel more than a little awkward and usually wish for someone to utter a sentence consisting of more than three or four syllables. However, there is a reason for this enthusiasm other than Obama’s unprecedented candidacy or his good looks. Obama has definitely tapped into a national collective consciousness that demands to be recognized and included in politics. Especially amongst younger generations who see a gaping chasm between themselves and Washington, and to whom politics has meant local or issue based politics, it is a powerful message that Obama carries. And as I mentioned earlier Obama backs up the optimism he generates with a solid record and impressive policy proposals.

In short Hillary Clinton does not. Clinton is masterful on the minutiae of issues, much has been made of her policy wonkishness and she has weathered the Republican attack machine. These are good, strong points in her favor on experience and electability but she doesn’t arouse the nation’s imagination and moreover willingness to become engaged in national debate like Barack Obama.

Okay, I think that’s it for blogging on Obama, at least until November that is.