Archive for September, 2009

Obama and the GOP “Permanent Campaign”

Elizabeth Drew as an interesting piece today in the New York Review of Books about the problems facing President Obama, and his style so far of governing.

For those not wanting to read the whole article, which also gets into some of the details of health care reform, her basic argument is that Obama is trying to build consensus through pragmatic efforts to compromise while the Republican party is set to try to discredit him and destroy his Presidency in any way possible.   This means Obama has to rely on support from his own party to get things done.   She wonders if this style is effective in such a hyper-polarized country, especially when vile blogs, internet sources and mass media do all it can to try to make insults of Obama a new conventional wisdom.  The birthers come forth as only slightly disguised racists, the neo-conservatives try to spread the idea he is weak and doesn’t lead, and the far right simply pull out old rhetoric about socialism and big government.  The onslaught is fierce, far worse than what President Clinton faced in 1994, and worse than anything the Democrats did against President Bush.   Bush was attacked by the extreme left, but escaped the kind of assault put forth by the Republicans today.  Buoyed by talk radio and uncertainties over the recession, they hope they can, as Senator DeMint said, make this “his Waterloo” and undermine his entire Presidency.

Before turning to Obama’s ability to handle this, the Republican strategy has to be critiqued.  On the one hand, from a purely partisan perspective, it makes sense.  If you don’t like Obama and the Democrats, and you want to weaken their ability to govern despite having large majorities in both houses, you go all out on the offensive.  It doesn’t matter if it’s true, if it’s logical, or if you have an alternative, you try to plant the seeds of doubt.   A couple of days ago I blogged about this, arguing that there is limited efficacy to the politics of rage.  I still believe that to be true, though Drew suggests that considerable damage could be done anyway.

More important is the question of whether the Republican strategy is good for the country.   When I teach Comparative Politics, I argue that democracy is a very difficult system to implement and maintain — hence my early skepticism about trying to spread democracy to Iraq and Afghanistan.   It rests on some fundamental shared cultural norms and values, including toleration of dissent, recognition of the legitimacy of all disagreement, a belief that the country is not in fundamental danger if ones’ opponents come to power, and a willingness to compromise and work with the other side, rather than to see politics as political war.   The war is in the campaign, once the campaign is over, governing involves compromises, deals, and pragmatic problem solving.

By choosing a “permanent campaign,” the Republicans seem to violating a number of those norms, painting Obama out as some kind of dangerous un-American socialist, a threat to the country, and someone with whom they refuse to work.   Even though some, like Louisiana’s Governor Jindal, argue that Congressional Republicans should work with Obama and seek common ground, so far they’ve been in attack mode.   It stinks of racism to many on the left — would they be so vicious against an inside the beltway white Democratic President?

In the past, both Republicans and Democrats played the game more subtly.   The most vicious attacks came from pundits people associated with either the left or the right; the politicians tried to stay above the fray.   Thus pundits would now and then turn on their own side attacking their temerity in fighting for the cause, but that could be useful too.  The rhetorical battle would go on in the press, but in the Capital deals would be made, and compromises sought.

Now the country faces record debts, high deficits, a steep recession, and conundrums abroad in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, South America and elsewhere.  All this is happening when most of the world believes the US is in decline, and no longer as powerful or relevant on the world stage.   Important, but not dominant.   This is perhaps the most important era in American history since the end of WWII.   We are going through a national transformation in the midst of a global transformation.  Shouldn’t the GOP be working with Democrats to influence how the US responds to the crisis?   Isn’t this a time when national interest should trump political posturing?

Obama seems so far to want to be a pragmatic compromiser, surprised by the vehemence of the opposition and the refusal of Republicans to compromise.   He’s been having to mediate disputes within his party, recognizing that the likely compromise he expected (moderate Democrats with moderate Republicans) is in danger because the Republicans are playing hard ball.   Here in Maine, the hope is that Senator Snowe, who has always focused on compromise, cooperation and pragmatic problem solving, might break loose from the grip the right wing has on the GOP right now, perhaps bringing other Republicans with her.

But some question Obama’s pragmatic approach.   If the GOP want to fight a campaign war, shouldn’t Obama take off the gloves and give them one?   Instead of calm, reasonable appearances on lightly watched Sunday morning TV, shouldn’t he get his campaign organization retooled and ready to fight not just about the issue, but take the GOP on head first?   Shouldn’t he push for the most “liberal” health care reform possible, using reconciliation to pass it in the Senate 51-49, and get whatever majority he can in the House?   Shouldn’t he pressure fellow Democrats to follow him or risk punishment down the line?   The Republicans have declared a Machiavellian any means necessary war — shouldn’t he join the fight?

The President is not a party leader, he is the leader for the country.   If Obama gave in to that temptation, it would risk further polarizing the country and making us impotent at a time when very important decisions have to be made.   A country like this doesn’t change directions on a dime, our whole political system is set up to make change difficult and slow.  Obama needs to maintain his kind of pragmatic calm tone, even if the noise might need to get turned up by some of his supporters, especially against the most outlandish of his attackers.

Obama does need to do whatever he can to pass some kind of health care reform, even if it’s through reconciliation.  He has to have results.  The only way to break the Republican slash and burn tactics is to show that they can’t stop his legislation.   The GOP is used to having power, and the shout radio jocks are offering a kind of therapy after the stinging defeat at the hands of Obama and the Democrats last year.   It distracts them from confronting the reality of the poor decisions about Iraq and Afghanistan made in the Bush years, and about questions of economic liberalization caused by the recession.  Anger at Obama is a way to avoid looking inside.

But the GOP must at some point reconsider their policies and positions, come up with ways to confront the current crises while staying true to their principles, and then work to compromise and problem solve.     That ultimately will be necessary to rejuvenate the GOP, and it’s imperative if the US is going to find a way out of the morass of problems we currently face.  No single party has the answers.   We only survive and prosper if we find a way to work together.

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Indian Reservation

I grew up in South Dakota.   I learned early about Indians, and Indian reservations.  Indians were drunks, lazy, not to be trusted, and unmotivated.   In history, they were the enemy, the ones who butchered George Custer at the Little Big Horn, and who lived like savages as the civilized white people settled the country.   The indians, I learned, were subhuman.

To be sure, it wasn’t put in so many words.  That’s the thing about bigotry.   Bigots find rationalizations for their beliefs, and will often try to distance themselves from the obvious implications by finding other causes.  It’s the reservation system, weakness of local governance, or genetic inabilities to deal with alcohol, stress, and the like.  Having driven through both the Rosebud and Pine Ridge reservations in South Dakota, I recall being shocked by the scenes of abject poverty and apparent isolation. 

Pine Ridge is the “poorest county in America,” with some estimates that alcoholism and unemployment are both near 90%.   The reservation has high suicide rates, particularly among teens, and when it made alcohol illegal on the reservation, many people took to buying lysol and mixing it with water.  A cheap and very dangerous high.   Others have compared conditions there with North Korea or other places of utter despair.  But most people don’t even know the problem exists.   This is America, we can afford to spend $1 trillion to fight to “liberate Iraq,” or to bail out the automobile industries.   We can pay cash for clunkers.   But we can’t help the Oglala Sioux, part of the Lakota Nation.

One commone excuse is the claim that we simply can’t interfer.  There is a certain level of sovereignty maintained by the tribe thanks to treaties with the US government.   These treaties are sacred trusts, and they define territory that falls under Sioux jurisdiction.   To be sure, these sacred trusts were easily brushed aside a century ago to take the Black Hills back, once gold was discovered there.   Yet neglect cannot be blamed solely on treaty obligations.   Americans put a lot of time and effort in supporting the Sudanese or Tibetans, but neglect what are arguably human rights violations at home.

The United States has a dirty little secret.  We have genocide in our past.   The US perpetrated a racist holocaust on native peoples that is more profound and damaging to those peoples than anything done by the Nazis or the Hutu Interhamwe in Rwanda.   While the evil of slavery has been openly acknowledged, the invasion, conquest and partial extermination of native Indian tribes has been swept under the rug.   It is treated romantically, games of “cowboys and indians,” with the demise of the Indian tribes and nations seen as inevitable and ultimately proper result of the “civilization” of the North American continent.

We are not in the wrong because we are the descendants of those who either perpetrated this low tech holocaust, or in the case of my great grandparents, imigrated to the US after the deed was done to settle on conquered land.   We are in the wrong when we ignore what happened, pretend like the abuses were “no big deal” and shrug our shoulders at the state of affairs on places like the Pine Ridge Reservation.   In fact, the typical view of the modern American Indian is one of people able to get rich off casinos and the “white man’s vices.”   That’s certainly not the case in South Dakota.

I remember the day all this coalesced in my mind, just how serious the issue was, and how blind we are to our culture woes:  January 17, 1991.  The night before I watched in a state of near shock as reports came in from Iraq that the US was bombing massive sites all over the country, killing thousands because of Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait.  That morning I had to go buy a cord for a Sony Discman I had bought in Germany two years earlier.  The guy behind the counter said “we’re really kicking Saddam’s ass aren’t we.”  I looked at him blankly.  “Yeah, I guess,” I said, with my mind noting that Saddam probably wasn’t suffering, but a lot of civilians were.   It was all abstracted, Iraq, the US, Saddam…the reality of what was happening in human terms was abstracted away or neglected.  To think about what would happen would call into question whether or not we were liberating.  Were we, perhaps, commiting mass murder?

That day I went to see a movie, “Dances With Wolves” starring Kevin Costner.  The film, shot in South Dakota with considerable invovlement from the Oglala Sioux, shows how the advance of the “civilized” whites looked from the Sioux perspective.  The whites were the vile, dirty, disgraceful ones, out of touch with nature, willing to slaughter buffalo for their hides, and contemptuous of the value of life.   The movie itself was fictional, and can be criticized for romanticizing the Indians.  Yet I walked out of there with my eyes open for the first time of how fundamentally blind we are in the West to the misdeeds — some would say evil — done in our name.

We pollute the planet, consume resources, and exploit cheap labor for our comfort.  We tell ourselves we’re civilized, when we immerse ourselves in a materialist lifestyle disconnected from nature and from the spiritual side of life.   Even when the science is overwhelming about things like climate change, we develop cottage industries churning out counter arguments designed to prevent anything from being done.   When one criticizes our excesses, it’s considered anti-American or some kind of socialism.  We create discourses of denial around our misdeeds, pretending we’re the civilized ones, we’re the ones trying to “help” others.  Our culture is based on hypocrisy, and a blindness to the consequences of our ignorance of the meaning of what we’re doing.  We’re fighting a war on nature and on others to support an unsustainable lifestyle, yet we believe we are reflecting humanity’s highest ideals and a way of living and thinking that all aspire too.  We are living the Grand Delusion.

Nowhere is that more evident than when one considers the plight of the Oglala Sioux and other Indian nations still mired in poverty and a loss of their culture.   The blindness we show to the problems they suffer, and the loss they continue to endure is both incredible and unforgivable.   It is symbolic of an ability to live in a state of denial and rationalization.  It’s their fault.  They could choose not to drink.  They could leave the reservation.  A few slogans, and we wash our hands of any responsibility to help those suffering still the impact of the destruction of their culture.

In 1971 the group “Paul Revere and the Raiders” hit the charts with the song “Indian Reservation,” supposedly a lament of a member of the Cherokee nation.  Yet the song itself reinforces the biases.  “They took away our way of life, the tomahawk and the bow and knife…and though I wear a suit and tie, I’m still a red man deep inside.”  That is the problem, we romanticize the loss (‘the tomahawk and the bow and knife’) and pretend that it’s not materially evident today (‘though I wear a suit and tie’).    We need to confront the genocide of our past and make the kinds of reparations to the descendents of the conquered people that the Germans willingly made to the Jews after WWII.

More importantly, we need to start looking at our excesses, actions, and beliefs with a critical eye, and overcome the cultural blindness that causes us to make excuses for our misdeeds, and pretend that somehow we are more virtuous and advanced than others.  That’s a lie.

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The Iran Conundrum

If Iran were not a partial democracy, and if it were ruled by a ruthless dictator who governed with an iron fist, it would still be difficult to figure out how to handle Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons.   The fact that it’s also a society in transition, with a growing and often restless middle class, suggests that the West has to be very careful how to respond to the fear of Iranian nuclear proliferation.

The conundrum is clear: if Iran gets nuclear weapons it will become a regional power capable of upsetting already unstable balances of power in the region, and make it more difficult for Israel to counter groups like Hezbollah.  If, however, military action is undertaken against Iran, it would not only be dangerous, but could threaten to undermine the economic and political stability in the West.  War with Iran is unthinkable; not only is Iran much stronger than either Iraq or Afghanistan were, with much more difficult terrain, but if the past is any guide an attack will push the growing, restless opposition back in step with the leadership.

The best hope is with those middle class dissenters, student and women protesters, and others tired of a regime whose methods have hurt the economy and prevented Iran from having the status in world affairs which it could have.  The fact is that Iran is the regional power, far superior in capacity, resources and population than Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan, and pretty much everyone from Africa to China except Pakistan.  Can a mix of economic and political pressure strike that right balance of damaging the regime but not igniting an anti-American backlash?   Could it even serve to push the regime to give up its alleged arms program (or, if it really doesn’t have one, open up enough to prove it.)?

So far, Obama is showing a level of competence that the past administration did not, at least not until well into President Bush’s second term.   One is to get the international community together on the issue.   Job one is to keep France, Germany and the UK with the US to speak with one voice.  Job two is to get Russia on board.  Russia has aided Iran many times, and has used their ability to thwart US efforts on Iran to pressure the US to finally abandon an unneeded but expensive missile shield plan for Poland and the Czech Republic.   So job one seems to be going well, create an international consensus that won’t crack at the first sign of pressure.  In this Obama is more reminiscent of the first President Bush than his son.

Job two is to craft a policy designed to do the job.   So far, it appears a mix of threatened sanctions — targeted to hurt Iran — combined with a willingness for discussion.   It’s a classic carrot and stick approach, with Iran being given a chance to shift policy while saving face.  This is when foreign policy becomes more art than method, and when it becomes exceedingly important to engage in a personal manner with the other side.

There is no guarantee that even if Obama does everything right, it will work.   But the Iranian Guardian Council — the people who do run the country — are known for Machiavellian ruthlessness, and a sense of rational self-interest.   If it becomes against their interests to continue this policy, they will change.   They will test Obama and the world community to be sure of their resolve.   They will make bombastic statements threatening potential violence in Palestine or threats to the region, hoping to get Obama nervous and willing to back down.  It seemed to work with Bush, whose talk on Iran was always about twenty times worse than his almost non-existent bite.

What Obama has to do is maintain a stable and dogged persistence on Iran, punishing them with economic sanctions that can be maintained by most of the international community in a manner that hurts the Iranian economy and weakens the hold of the hardliners on the country.   He cannot start talking trash. President Bush’s problem was that he talked a lot of trash, but couldn’t follow through.  Thus he pushed allies away, helped the hardliners in Iran rally the people behind them, and was unable to accomplish his goals.

To be sure, military options are all but off the table.   They have to maintain a threat to possibly bomb the site in question, but I think if that’s the main focus, Iran will call that bluff successfully.   The dangers of such a policy, already gamed out, are immense, with the chances of success are minimal.  It could be met with an upsurge of violence in Iraq from Shi’ite militias, Hezbollah pressure against Israel, higher oil prices, and a ‘rally around the flag’ effect in Iran, as even those opposed to Ahmadinejad rally against an American threat.  All that, and it may not succeed in stopping Iran’s efforts.   The focus has to be economic, it must be effective, and Obama has to keep a coalition together on this.  If he can somehow get China on board, that will be a masterstroke.

If Iran gets a nuclear weapon, it risks creating an incentive for Saudi Arabia to get nukes, increases the danger of an Israeli attack on Iraq (which would be even worse than an American bombing), and could further embolden and protect the most vicious Shi’ite terror organizations like Hezbollah.  To be sure, Iran’s Guardian Council isn’t run by lunatics.  They’re not about to launch offensive wars against Israel, who has hundreds of nukes.  Their goal is to expand their position as a regional power, become the most important voice in OPEC, and slowly spread their influence.   Perhaps the most disastrous aspect of the Iraq war was the opening it gave Iran to expand its influence in Iraq.

So far, Obama is playing this well, though the game is in the early stages.   This is one of the trickiest crises any President might face, and one that defies any military solution or magic diplomatic bullet.  It requires resolve, the ability to keep a coalition together, and a clear and effective set of economic sanctions.   If it works, it could set the way for greater changes in Iran in coming years, perhaps increasing the depth and scope of Iran’s currently only partial democracy.   If it fails, then the number of crises the President will face in the region will grow in both quantity and level of danger.

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The Limits of Rage Politics

A couple of days ago I posted my thoughts about the reason for the rage of some on the right, where, coaxed on by talk radio, there have been disrupted town hall meetings (with the left responding in kind, including busing in union folk), and other protests, culminating in a “march on Washington” drawing about 50,000 – 70,000 last week.

A poll out today, however, paints a different picture of the public mood.   The public by a small margin supports Obama’s plan more than it opposes it: 30% to 23%.  Do the math and you see that nearly half of the country falls in the third category — they don’t know enough about it.   Even more, nearly 80%, believe the Republicans do not have an alternative.  And while there are lots of bills out there about health care from the GOP, no clear Republican alternative has been presented cogently to the American people.

And therein lies the conundrum for the GOP and their forceful opposition to President Obama.  Reminiscent of the Democrats against Ronald Reagan back in the 80s, their focus is negative, lacking a positive alternative.  And, so long as the opposition remains angry or emotional, the vast majority — what Nixon called the ‘silent majority’ — will be unlikely to join in that anger.

It’s easy to be in opposition.   Look at the problems Obama is having figuring out what to do in Afghanistan and Iraq.  In opposition the Democrats could be divided on what to do — leave completely, pull out slowly, or simply change the strategy.  Yet they could unite behind the notion that Bush was doing it wrong, and that’s really all they had to do.   Now that Obama has to make the call, anything he does can be criticized by the Republicans, and the Democrats find themselves internally divided.   In the war debate the Democrats had it easy.

In the health care debate, now the Republicans have it easy.   In any major reform there are winners and losers, and you can always find ways to rile up those who might lose, make predictions about things that might go wrong, and dissect the bill for controversies.  No plan for any issue is perfect, there are always ways to tear it apart.  We don’t know the impact of anything until it passes and is in effect for awhile.   So the GOP and pundits on the right can anger people without having to deal with the reality of the health care crisis.  Slogans like “we pay the most because we care the most” (an absurd claim, by the way) can patch over the real and intense problems surrounding health care and insurance.

And that’s OK, to an extent.  That’s politics.   You attack the other side’s plan and try to defeat it.  At a certain point, though, if reality is not taken into account and an alternative isn’t forthcoming, the strategy fails.    The emotion of the moment serves to distract the people from the fact that the Democrats have won the last two elections because people were not happy with the status quo.   To the extent that the GOP is defending the status quo, the emotion will be short lived, and won’t turn into actual support.

Therein lies the limits of rage politics.   It can grab headlines, but it rarely has breadth.   Even if it fuels skepticism, without a positive alternative, it won’t help the GOP build true support.    Yet the obvious solution — to come up with an alternative — is difficult.

Any real alternative that addresses the problems will itself be vulnerable to the kinds of attacks being made now against Obama.   It will also have to acknowledge problems that have no easy answer.    Moreover, to have any chance of success there would have to be compromises with the other side, and it’s hard to mix sincere negotiation and compromise with emotion and rage.

At this point, Republicans believe they are hurting Obama and some have publicly proclaimed a desire to “destroy” his Presidency.   The politics of rage always creates the impression to those participating that their views are far more widely shared than they really are.   For instance, protesters against the Iraq war had massive levels of rage and anger in 2004.  It was not enough to defeat President Bush.   He lost in 2008 not because of the rage, but because of a mass dissatisfaction with the status quo, and the belief that Obama offered a positive, hopeful alternative.  The Democrats gained in 2006 because Iraq was in flames and the President’s policies had completely failed.

Moreover, rage politics wears out quickly.   Those caught up in it fantasize that it could spread into some civil war or mass movement (remember Timothy McVeigh?), but people move on quickly.  If some health care reform is passed, a new issue will capture people’s attention.   Except for the absolute true believers, rage politics is a fad, unsustainable as everyday life problems mount.

At base rage politics relies on a belief that the “other side” is somehow of ill intent or with nefarious purpose.   Against Bush it was symbolized by the neo-con’s supposed devotion to Israel, or the desire to pad the profits of oil companies or corporations like Halliburton.   These are fascists, wanting to destroy the American dream and pad the pockets of corporate America.  Against Obama it’s symbolized by larger government spending, a belief that he’s trying to radically alter the country and bring in socialism and weaken our values.    And while there are certainly individuals who are corrupt and devious, most of the time it’s just different people with different ideas about what is best for the country.   Most people on all sides of these issues are sincere in their intent to do the right thing.

Therefore, while the politics of rage has only limited strength, and ultimately must give way to a more positive message in order to succeed, if engaged in for too long or too much vehemence, can undercut the shared social and cultural norms that allow us to make compromises to pragmatically solve the problems we face.    Perhaps in the first year of the Obama administration, with the world looking vastly different than even a couple years ago, rage from those upset about the direction of the country is forgivable and understandable.   Ultimately, though, we have compromise and work together too.

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The Westfailure System

Susan Strange, a British political scientist, is one of the more important analysts of the international political economy in the 20th century.   She died in 1998 at the age of 75, having presented some of the most cogent and powerful analyses of the changing nature of the global political economy.  I saw her speak once  back in early 1983 at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies Bologna, Italy center, where I was working on my MA.   She talked about the debt crisis and the dangers inherent in the globalization of capital.

In 1999 an article by Strange appeared, published posthumously, called “The Westfailure system.”  It is a play on the term scholars use to describe the international political system — the Westphalian system.   In 1648 the thirty years war, and 130 years of wars surrounding the reformation, was ended with the Treaty of Westphalia.   That treaty created a new political unit: the sovereign territorial state.   For scholars of international relations, this is where the modern state system began.   In 1625 Hugo Grotius had applied the notion of “sovereignty” (until then describing religious authority) to territorial units, suggesting a new kind of international legal set up.   It worked.  The church was able to relinquish power without having to give up its claim that God was the source of legitimate power, and the “sovereigns” — leaders of the territorial units — could exercise internal control of their land.

In her article, Strange heralds the collapse of this system, noting that by the late 20th century it had proven unable to solve three problems:

“First, there is the major failure to manage and control the financial system—witness the Asian turmoil of 1997. Second, there is the failure to act for the protection of the environment. Third, there is a failure to preserve a socio[hyphen]economic balance between the rich and powerful and the poor and weak.”

Strange’s second and third issues — the environment and the gap between the rich and poor — seemed at the time to be rather obvious.   Global warming was already an issue, and it was clear that globalization of capital, meaning the ability of capital to go wherever labor or resources were cheapest, and regulations the most permissive, made it far easier to pollute and exploit.      The rise of sweat shops and inhumane treatment of workers so we can have cheaper stuff and sustain our consumer life styles had already become a major issue by the late 90s.   This can and does lead to violence and terrorism.

But the first thing on her list struck some people as odd — failure to manage and control the global financial system?  As the world economy grew in the decade after Strange’s article, it was easy to dismiss her pessimism.  Concern that states were losing their power to regulate big money was a constant refrain in Strange’s work, especially after the early eighties debt crisis.   She was being needlessly alarmist, many thought.

Her argument was more specific than just the global financial system.  She was especially concerned about global credit markets, and the risk that unrestrained speculation could create bubbles that, when burst, might cause a major economic crisis.   In short, Strange saw the current crisis in advance, both in terms of massive speculation, but also how global markets allowed states to get out of balance, including high debt levels in the US (perhaps over $50 trillion of debt overall) and unsustainable current accounts deficit (mostly trade).   

I believe Strange’s pessimism about the Westphalian system of sovereign states is accurate.   More precisely, the sovereign state never really took hold in much of the third world.   Lacking true “nations,” throughout Africa ethnic groups have competed for power, with the state an artifical colonial construct.  You go into government because that’s where the bribes are, and the power to enrich yourself or your ethnic group.  Few really focus on the people of the state.  Throughout Africa the state has already failed.  

In places with an already strong sense of identity (including some multi-ethnic states) the state has fared better.  However, rarely has a true democracy took hold, rarely have the people been able to hold those with power accountable.  Asian and Latin American states are a mixed bag, but in general states have seemed to be dysfunctional at truly promoting human and individual rights, or supporting broad development.   Usually they ‘follow the money.’

The “sovereign state” was a European creation, but even in Europe states grew to the point that competition and rivalry lead to massive world wars.   States were large enough to centralize the power to engage and rationalize mass violence, including the European conquest of most of the world in the 19th century (which is why the world got ‘sovereign states’ as its new political organization).   As states centralized power in the 20th century, they became capable of massive destruction and violence, murdering tens of millions in Germany and the USSR, making decisions leading to famines such as the one that killed 30 million in China, or rationalizing horrific regimes, such as the genocidal Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. 

After WWII, Europe slowly moved away from the sovereign state as the central actor, towards a confederal arrangement based on free trade, a focus on human rights, and a distrust of the abuse of power.  The EU has certainly been better for the Europeans than their previous state system was, but still suffers one major flaw: it follows the money.  Tyrants no longer control politics, but large corporate actors do.   The hope is that public opinion, democracy, and the new culture of human rights can keep the EU stable — but that’s more a cultural hope, than one based on the institutions.

In the US so much power is centralized that most Americans see the state as unresponsive.  Hence you get the emotion driven blog and talk radio world on the right, and the kind of ‘movement’ mentality behind Obama on the left.  The state itself is weakening due to a weaker sense of social solidarity, and a sensationalized media coverage that seeks scandal over substance.  Behind it all, big money still dominates, a kind of corporate socialism that encompasses both the GOP and the Democrats.

So maybe, the state is failing as a unit of governance.   Maybe it’s becoming obsolete due to globalization.   But governance always exists, so if the state fails, then some different kind of organization will replace it.   It’s not clear what that could be in an era as complex and uncertain as this.   Don’t get me wrong — this isn’t something that will happen overnight, or even over a short decade or two.  But the era of the dominance of the sovereign nation state may be ending, and may in fact already be on its deathbed in the world outside the West.

We’ve come to see sovereign nation states as the natural and obvious way to organize politics, even though they have such a history of war and oppression.   Once something is seen as natural, it’s hard to look at it critically, or question whether or not it is sustainable.   The state might not be.  But what could replace it?  What should?  The ability to successfully deal with that question might determine whether or not the next century can be stable and prosperous.

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Racism, Obama and Change

The race issue in America is often bizarre.   President Carter and a few others insinuate that racism may be a reason for the style of opposition Obama is getting from the right.   Interestingly, these comments got much less play in the mainstream media or by Democrats than they did from the right.   The right loves to play the race card against the Democrats.  It’s an odd card though — it’s a “they are calling us racists just for opposing the President” card.

Obviously, opposition exists for every President, and any claim that all or much of the opposition to Obama is based on racism is absurd on its face.  To the extent the right can make it seem like that’s what is being done, they have an effective bit of rhetoric.   It’s no wonder they will trumpet, repeat, and comment on these statements over and over.  Drudge makes it a headline, talk radio is all over it, you’d think that this was a major argument from the left.  Of course, most on the left don’t mention race, and Obama and Biden have both dismissed it as a primary cause for opposition.

So what does it mean?  Is race a factor?

Obama was elected by a large margin of victory, and has enjoyed high levels of popularity.   He still has approval ratings over 50%, even as he governs in a recession with efforts to make substantive changes in major policy areas.   To me, this suggests that race is actually receding in importance in the US.   Presidents Clinton and Reagan, governing in economic downturns experienced steep drops in popularity in their first two years in office.  In 1982 many Democrats thought Reagan would be easy to defeat in 1984 — he was inexperienced and couldn’t lead.   In 1994 President Clinton lost his Democratic majority after spending all his political capital on a debate over health care.   When nothing passed, he looked ineffectual and weak.   Obama has also taken on the health care issue and while faring better than Clinton so far (he at least has a real chance to pass something), he has also been hard.

Does that mean that Joe Wilson of South Carolina, the guy who heckled Obama during his Congressional address, doesn’t look at Obama differently because of race?   I don’t know.  There are individuals who are still rather racist.   Maybe it did play a part in his outburst.   But he and others would oppose anyone trying to pass the policies Obama is pursuing.

So what about the level of anger and rage amongst the opposition — surely that might be because Obama is black?   Perhaps a bit, but I think the major cause is because Obama wants to bring real change in a context where the world itself is going through a transformation — a world in motion.

On the radio today I caught five minutes of Glenn Beck arguing that global warming was a conspiracy designed to de-develop the US and render it impotent, creating a global transfer of wealth to the third world.   The claim was positively Goebbelsesque, a wild conspiracy theory stated with conviction and a sense of certitude.   That kind of appeal to emotion is becoming more common on the right, as suddenly it looks like the country is moving in a direction opposite to what they expected, making it seem they are losing their country to “socialism.”

Now, global warming is a complex issue, both in terms of its cause and how to respond.  But I know scientists, including some here at UMF, whose views are shaped by the science, not politics, and who are very concerned about their children and the future of humanity in a world going through climate change.   Maybe the plans putting forth to combat it are misguided — that can and should be debated — but an emotional charge that it’s some kind of cultural treason, a conspiracy to destroy the US and prop up the poor…I mean, come on!

To the extent that kind of thing gets taken seriously, people will get angry and ready to brush aside the civility and sense of common purpose that has united Americans in the past.  And given the changes taking place, more people than ever are drawn to the likes of Beck and Limbaugh who are saying what so many people feel in their gut, expressing fear that the America they knew is becoming something strange:  too many Mexicans, an “un-American” President (witness the ‘birthers’), the spread of gay marriage, and now plans for “socialized” medicine.   Many are truly angry, and that anger comes from fear — fear that they are losing control, that the country is becoming something different than the America they thought they knew.

The country is in an economic crisis, and there are demographic, political and economic changes taking place.  There are military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan that seem to be going poorly, and there are still threats of terrorism.  The country is going through a real trial, with no clear answer of what to do.    America is in transition to something, and right now Obama represents what many see as a change in a wrong and threatening direction.   Anger is a common reaction to fear.

So what to do?   It’s almost less a political question than a social-psychological one.   How can the country accept that some kind of change is necessary, and forge a path based on mutual compromise and some shared principles?    Is our choice that of either dashing the hopes of Obama’s supporters, or feeding the anger of his critics?   Or is there a middle ground?

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Learning to Live

Sunday Ryan had his first soccer game.  It was only the second Sunday of soccer, and it started horribly.  You see, Ryan doesn’t understand the game at all.  He doesn’t know the positions, and in the first ‘practice’ they only went through some skill exercises.  He was there with other first graders, plus second and third graders who had played before.  They started him at forward, and when the game began he just stood there, unsure what to do as his teammate ran into the other side’s defense with no one to pass the ball to.   Some other kids were also unclear on what was happening, but Ryan’s lack of movement was obvious, so everyone started yelling, “Ryan, go help him, Ryan, go to the ball.”  It must have sounded as if we were mad at him because he suddenly looked forlorn, and went to the edge of the field, crying.   He was under pressure, but didn’t know what he was supposed to do.

My first reaction was to head over there, but I waited awhile and let the coaches — high school soccer players — talk to him.  I thought it was important to let him deal and talk with them awhile.   Sometimes that works best.  In this case, though, it was clear it wasn’t working, so I came over.  I took Ryan aside, and he told me in no uncertain terms that soccer was over for him.  He wanted to go home, he hates the game, and he was stubborn about it.  I talked with him awhile, and finally got him to agree to at least stay and watch the game.  I told the coaches to use their best judgment on getting him back in, and explained he didn’t understand what was happening and was overwhelmed.  I apologized for not preparing him better, and they assured me that a lot of kids were in the same boat — Ryan’s game just got off to a rough start.

I went back, chatted with other parents, and watched as Ryan sat there, alone and quiet at first, but then he started to talk to the other kids, who were trying to be helpful.   I saw the coaches quietly explain things to him, allowing him to take it in without pressure.  In the third quarter (they play four ten minute quarters), Ryan got on a green jersey to play goalie.  Apparently, that wasn’t as intimidating, he more easily understood his task.  Luckily his team was better (they won 1-0, but outplayed the other team the whole game), so Ryan didn’t get much action.  At one point though the other team penetrated the defenses and got a shot off.  Ryan was standing close to the goal and caught it — with the ball almost going over the line.  I was very relieved it hadn’t, since I didn’t want him to think he had a save only to be told it wasn’t!  He had to get some confidence!  He then threw the ball down in front of him, which was a mistake.

Luckily, the girl on the other team who was standing by the ball was in Ryan’s boat — she wasn’t sure what to do.  A hot shot third grader would have zipped it into the goal, but the other team’s coaches had to start yelling to the girl to shoot.  She did, but Ryan realized what was happening by then, and he easily stopped the shot.   Now, his confidence was back.  Then in the forth quarter he was out there playing halfback.

Now, Ryan is naturally athletic, big and fast for his age.  He was able, despite his lack of soccer skills, to get the ball, take it down field a time or two, and be in the middle of things.   He was having fun, giving me the thumbs up signal as I (and friends who had witnessed his ordeal) sent out positive reinforcement.   After the game, he yelled “I love soccer!”  I thanked the coaches, and felt exhilarated.    The game started out so bad, but ended on such a high note.

I think the way this played itself out is a microcosm of what happens in life all the time.   That kind of being in a new situation, in front of people, with pressure, and not knowing what to do is immensely difficult for anyone.  I felt so sorry for him.

But I didn’t want to swoop in and intervene right away, something like this also creates the opportunity for learning.  I think it was right to first give the coaches a chance, and then not to linger after I did intervene and tried to give him confidence.     I just let him know it was alright if he made mistakes, or even if he didn’t play at all.  I made it clear I’d really be happy if he at least tried, that trying was important.  I then left it to the coaches.

Confidence is important.    How often in life is it so that our own anxieties and worries are due to lack of confidence that we can control a situation?   Instead of crying and getting reassurance and patience, we adults remain stoic, push ourselves into action, and often make mistakes because deep down we think we can’t do it.   Or sometimes we simply find an excuse to back down.    But the only way to acquire confidence is to take small steps, get encouragement and support, and then have results.   We can do that on our own, but it’s easier with the helps of others, whether one is six years old or 66.

Fear is the trap.  Ryan’s problem was fear — fear that he was going to fail and look bad, that he couldn’t do this.  That fear caused him to be ready to give up.   Once I had a student who was afraid of giving public presentations, and had managed to get out of them in high school by claiming she’d have anxiety attacks.  I told her fine — as long as she got a note from our learning assistance center that she had a learning disability and needed an alternative assignment, she could do something else.  Of course, she didn’t really have a disability, she was just scared.   She wanted me to call her parents, or even her high school guidance counselor.  I didn’t give in.  I called on her in class and tried to give her confidence that she could speak up effectively, and told her that even if she failed in her presentation, she’d get considerable credit for just trying.   She ultimately gave the complete 10 minute talk, shaking the whole time, constantly sipping water due to her dry mouth, but  making it through.  By her senior year, she gave superb and confident presentations.

To me, his hour and a half soccer experience was a microcosm of the kinds of struggles we humans face every day.  Life, it seems to me, would be so much easier if, with understanding, we supported each other, worked together to build confidence, overcome fear, and solve problems.

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