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Issue LIII – Dispatch from Austin: Pass the Biscuits, Perry

8 Aug

While the world waits with baited breath whether ex-Democrat Rick Perry decides to throw his cowboy hat into the ring for president, those familiar with his Aggie antics roll their eyes.  Much ink will be spilled over his “record” as a career politician.  Starting out as a conservative Democrat representing West Texas in the 1980s in the state legislature, Rick Perry switched parties in 1989 to run against the populist Jim Hightower for agriculture commissioner.  In a dirty campaign advised by Karl Rove, Perry narrowly defeated this hero of the liberal wing of the Democratic Party by focusing on agriculture issues like, you know, Hightower’s endorsement of Jesse Jackson and stance against a flag burning constitutional amendment.

In 1998, Perry narrowly won a race to be the first Republican Lieutenant Governor of Texas of the 20th century.  In this position (widely believed to the be most powerful job in Texas), Rick Perry’s oh-so-lucky timing got him into the governor’s mansion when then-Governor George W. Bush resigned to become President.  Slick Rick’s never looked back since and has defeated every opponent to his governorship since.  Rick Perry is now the longest serving governor in Texas history having been in office since 2000.  He won’t leave until at leastJanuary 2015.

Counter-narrative to the “Texas Economy”
Rick Perry’s claim to fame is that the Texas economy has low taxes and little regulation of business.  Being so business-friendly has made it successful his boosters claim.  This is not really a new development though.  The business lobby has always controlled Austin and focused on making it “bidness” friendly.  Our poor rankings in health, environment, and education honestly pre-date Perry (or even Bush) so it is not fair to blame those problems on Rick Perry.  The fact that he has never tried to fix Texas’s widespread poverty and lack of social services is his fault.

But honestly, Texas is (or was) booming relative to the rest of the nation.  Can Perry’s blathering about a “Texas Century” or the Economist’s praise of us being the “New California” have any merit?  There is something to see, but perhaps not for the reasons conservatives like to think.  Honestly, a lot of it had to do with the 1980s, industrial policy, high taxes, regulation, and good luck.

Let’s start with the housing crisis.  Anyone who was around in the 1980s remembers that Texas in the 1980s was in a depression.  Oil prices plummeted when the Middle East began exporting oil back to the United States.  High gas prices had led investors to splurge in real estate and oil speculation.  Many of those companies (like Bush’s oil company) drilled dry wells and/or busted when cheaper, foreign oil started flowing in.  Of course, the banks that loaned money to these real estate and oil companies all went bust.  As a consequence, every local bank in Texas went bust or had to be bailed out by the FDIC except for Frost Bank.  With Texan James Baker running the White House in the Reagan/Bush administration, he covered up the huge disaster that was the savings and loan scandal of the 1980s (which was worst in Texas).  Many people (professional or otherwise) lost their shirts.

How does that relate to today?  So many bankers lost out on the 1980s and early 1990s that they didn’t make as many stupid loans as bankers in other states.  Also Texas’s farmer-written constitution forbids many types of loans and has lots of regulations on home loans that other states don’t have.  Texas also has very high property taxes relative to the value of the property because it has no income tax.  Texas property taxes are three times that of California’s.  You are less likely to speculate on property when you have to pay thousands of dollars a year in property tax.

Let’s not forget oil prices were doing well and compared to the rest of the nation Texas maintained an industrial base.  Texas exports more than any other state in the nation by far.  It also benefits from high tech sectors in Dallas and Austin, and a large military presence throughout the state.  Houston also has another federal government spending projected called NASA.

So what made the Texas economy do so well recently?  Dumb shit luck and cheap houses is probably the best guess anyone can make.  Again, Rick Perry was at the right place at the right time.  But he did nothing to continue that success by focusing on, say, education.  Which brings us to his most glaring failure.

War on Higher Education

     People have been saying for years that Texas needs to focus on improving education, increasing its Tier 1 colleges, and increasing the number of minorities going to college.  And actually, surprisingly, Texas public schools were improving steadily over the last twenty years.  The key failure of the school system is actually the very high poverty rate of children in Texas.

Perhaps that can be excused, but more fascinating is Rick Perry’s “war on higher education.”  Perry graduated from Texas A&M and is the first Aggie governor of Texas.  Ordinarily you would think the second most important university in the state would be happy with that fact, but Aggieland is not pleased at all with their first governor.

Rick Perry wants to destroy tenure at Texas universities using the different board of regents for each system.  He wants them to operate like businesses and evaluate each professor by how much “productivity” they have.  Through his control of the A&M board of regents, he is pushing through a loopy evaluation system created by a for-profit college owner, Jeff Sandefer.  He focuses on “seven breakthrough solutions” to improve higher education by de-emphasizing research and increasing the number of large classes.  Although he has never been on the board of regents of any university, Sandefer is the most important man in higher education because Perry listens to him, and Perry controls the regents.  It also helps he has donated $300,000 to Perry as well.  Defense of the autonomy of higher education and research are coming from the UT System’s Bill Powers and Francisco Cigarroa, and an alliance of Aggies and Longhorns has been struck to fight Perry’s attacks on research.

But the politicization of the boards of regents and higher education has a long pedigree in this state.   The University of Texas at Austin has always been a very political campus.  For a decade, LBJ buddy and regent Frank Erwin dominated the campus and hired and fired deans on a whim.  He sacked every single university president in the system except for Truman Blocker at UT Medical Branch.  He separated the college of arts and sciences into the College of Liberal Arts and College of Natural Sciences over the objections of the faculty and Dean Silber.  He fired Silber who moved on to become president of Boston University.

 

       Rick Perry also fires anyone who disagrees with him.  In 2009, he fired several university regents who were supporting Kay Bailey Hutchison over himself in the Republican primary.  The boards need a cleaning out for sure, but he only cleans them out when they turn against them.

Honestly, Rick Perry’s attacks on academic freedom are reminiscent of the first student protest that ever occurred in Austin.  In the 1930s, a cartoonish conservative radio talk show host named W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel got elected governor with his radio and country-western band.  Ol’ Pappy “pass the biscuits” O’Daniel stacked the Board of Regents with right-wing no-nothing hacks.  These hacks were upset about all the “liberal” and “atheist” professors running around the University of Texas.  They particularly did not like that  who were upset that the state university had pro-New Deal economics professors.

The Board handed then-President Homer Rainey a notice that he needed to fire these professors.  President Rainey declined to and told the faculty that he was being pushed to fire tenured professors illegally.  They supported Rainey, and then the board fired Rainey and fired the New Deal economics professors too.  This lead to UT being reprimanded by most academic accreditation boards and the American Association of University Professors for almost a decade.  This will probably happen again if the current path is not altered.

Can a state that only has two public Tier 1 universities really afford to have them kicked out of the American Association of Universities?  Should the state really try to kill research at a university system that invented cardiac stents?  What is the long term purpose of this “reform” of education that Perry promotes?  Rick Perry doesn’t understand that slogans against “lazy professors” won’t fix the fact that he deregulated college tuition and underfunded K-12 and colleges.  In a state that has succeeded by stealing other states’ brainpower, he does not recognize that a new, high-tech economy comes from more Tier 1 colleges not less.  He succeeds by making us dumber.

Of course, we don’t have to make that mistake when he decides to run for president.  Spread the word about Perry’s attacks on universities.

 

Links
Washington Post – Rick Perry wages an assault on university establishment
Texas Coalition for Excellence in Higher Education – A group to defend UT and A&M’s research

Issue LII: Dispatch from Canada – Conservative Nation?

14 Jun

Last week, a page in the House of Commons lost her job for holding a sign during the Canadian equivalent of a State of the Union address.  Bridgette DePape’s red sign simply said, “Stop Harper.”

Harper being Stephen Harper, the recently re-elected Conservative Prime Minister of Canada.  Last month, the Conservative Party won a crushing victory in the federal election against the Liberal Party, the socialist New Democratic Party, and the separatist Bloc Quebecois.  After years of a minority government in which no party had a majority in the House of Commons, Stephen Harper finally achieved his dream of a full Conservative majority in Parliament.  Unbridled from having to please three parties to the left of the Conservatives to win votes, he is free to achieve all he wants.

But what does the Conservative Party want?  The present-day Conservative Party formed out a merger of two right of center parties in 2003: the Progressive Conservative Party and the western Canadian Alliance.  This “unite the Right” movement decreased vote splitting among conservative voters.  Previously the Conservatives played the Washington Generals to the Liberal Party’s Harlem Globetrotters.  For pretty much the entire 20th century, the Liberal Party ruled Canada with only a few accidental Progressive Conservative victories.  In the 1993 election, for example, the Progressive Conservative majority lost all of its seats but two.

Stephen Harper represents Calgary, Alberta and originally came from the Canadian Alliance.  Alberta can be roughly compared to Texas: large, conservative, cowboy, and full of oil.  By elevating an Albertan to the highest office in the land, Canadians have brought some Texas-style politics to Ottawa.  The agenda is disturbingly Republican.

Increased military spending, more prisons, longer prison sentences for nonviolent drug crimes, further developing the tar sands of Alberta (possibly the world’s dirtiest form of oil), cuts to health and social spending, tax cuts for corporations, ending public financing of elections, and relaxing gun control laws are all part of the government’s program.  Military spending for jets has been criticized as being too costly with deliberate lowballing of costs to Parliament.  My friend here also complained that Statistics Canada would get a budget cut and they would throw out the long-form census and replace with a short one with minimal information about demography.  American conservatives floated such an idea in the United States, but not even Bush would go through with such a plan.

At the Copenhagen climate conference in 2010, climate change campaigners complained that Canada and not the United States fought the hardest against a climate change treaty.  Alberta’s pursuit of tar sands fossil fuel means that Canada will produce high levels of green house gases.  Harper won’t let his home province kill its golden goose.

Michael Ignatieff, the latest of many hapless Liberal leaders, got slammed by Harper’s American-style attack ads.  The academic, who spent much of his life in England and Massachusetts, got nailed as an out of touch intellectual professor “just visiting” Canada for his political career.  This Swift Boating of a John Kerry-like figure not only lost the Liberal Party the election, but Ignatieff failed to even win his seat in Parliament.  Dirty games in and outside of Parliament suggest an Americanization of Canadian politics.

But is the death of Liberal Canada overdone?  Anyone who looks at the numbers will tell you that the Conservative Party won less than 40% of all votes but got 54% of seats in Parliament.  First past the post electoral systems do not work well when you have multiple parties like Canada does now.  The combined vote of the New Democrats and Liberals came to 49.5% but only 44% of seats.  Many suggest a left of center merger between the Liberals and the New Democrats like the Conservatives did in 2003.  With a more effective opposition leader in New Democrat Jack Layton, Stephen Harper may get a tougher rival than with Michael Ignatieff.

Absolute power leads to overreach then failure.  Liberal Canada’s best hopes depend on Stephen Harper mistaking Canada for America.

Links

Toronto StarLetter from the page who got fired

Issue XLIXc : Other Peoples’ Thinking

6 Apr

Jorge Luis Borges once wrote about Averroes or Abul Walid Mahommed Ibn Achmed, a Moorish philosopher in 12th century Spain.  This Andalusian Muslim polymath wrote about medicine, Islam, Islamic law, psychology, music and more.  This outrageously smart man once wrote commentaries in Arabic about Aristotle but (according to Borges) struggled over the two words comedy and tragedy.

Averroes could not translate these words.  He could not explain them.  And he could not fathom what these two words meant in the context of his Muslim culture.  The Moors told stories.  They did not have theaters, and they did not have plays.  The Islamic storytelling culture centered around a single speaker telling a story (involving as many characters as needed) without a need for fake swords, fake deaths, and imagined actors.  As a man unable to step out of his cultural context, he failed at his task of commenting on Aristotle’s opinions on theater.

Are we similarly unable to step out of our cultural contexts when thinking about other societies?  How can we avoid being like Averroes?  What are some different ways of thinking?  Let’s contrast the logic of different people.

Backwards Bolivians
The indigenous of South America are now more influential at any point since the fall of the Incans.  However the logic of indigenous peoples have quite different concepts of the world, society, and less of a concept of the individual.  Mother Earth is the goddess Pachamama (often conflated with the Virgin Mary) and use of coca leaves is sacred among the Quechua and the Aymara people.  The indigenous respect the wisdom of tribal elders and emphasize community unity (not an uncommon trait in African tribes).

Aymarans have a particularly unique view of time.  To the Aymara, the past is in front of them and the future is behind them.  Coming from a culture where respecting elders and the past is paramount, this makes sense.  Aymara emphasize what has been seen, either by themselves, their elders, or their elders’ elders.  Thus the past is something that has been seen, and everyone knows something you see is in front of you.  As we all know, the future is a mystery and we cannot see it.  Thus the future is behind the Aymara, not in front.  American or European concepts of “progress” might be difficult to explain to these Bolivian highlanders.

Bolivian social movements have another “backwards” approach to leadership and government compared to Americans.  Americans elect leaders and put them on a God-like pedestal.  They then complain to them and about them when they do not fix our problems.  Bolivian indigenous do things the opposite way.

Their concept is to “lead by obeying.”  This means that leaders do not just boss and manage the people around. Instead leaders must obey the wills of the people.  The people and social movements are the real leaders, not politicians.  A collective of the people will make a decision (say, nationalize the natural gas) through consensus and seeking out everyone’s opinion (not just those who show up to the meeting).  The “official leaders” (i.e. politicians) don’t lead by pushing their own way around, they must obey the collective decision of the people.  Leaders lead by obeying the people.  If the leader does not obey, they must be held to account by a tribal or collective council and explain their actions.  If they continue to disrespect the will of the people, they can be recalled immediately.  This makes the concept of constitutional “four year terms” irrelevant to the indigenous.  If some leader is not obeying the people, his/her term ends the minute the people decide it is.

Bolivian President Evo Morales came from these social movements, leading the coca leaf growers union.  His current unpopularity comes from his disconnecting himself from the social movement and being inaccessible to the people, refusing to consult with the social movements, and following conventional “bossy” ways of political and economic leadership.  His pursuit of great macroeconomic figures and “growth” to impress foreigners is irrelevant to them.  The people come first, not statistics.  A recent letter from the movements to Evo Morales from the grassroots leaders pointed out that being indigenous is about the mind not the skin:

We would like to finish by saying something that an Aymara elder said: The indigenous are not defined by physical traits, nor language, nor last name, nor culture. The indigenous come from an attitude of generosity, of respect, of reciprocity, transparency, of listening to others.


Perhaps we can learn from these forms of leadership and governance too.

Understanding Indians
Two decades ago, A.K. Ramunajan wrote an influential essay called “Is there an Indian way of Thinking?”  This enlightening article explains succinctly the differences between Western and Indian Hindu thought.
Logic and morality, Ramunajan argued, depends on context in India (“context-sensitive”).  Logic and rules and morality are universal in the West and are “context-free.”  It goes back to the ancient texts of both civilizations.  The Torah has the Ten Commandments which categorically forbids worshiping graven images or killing (no exceptions!).  Hinduism’s many texts have no such blanket statements.  “Can I kill my family,” asked Arjuna to Krishna in the Mahabharata.  Krishna said he could because his cause was just and his duty (dharma) was to fight as a soldier.  Different castes have different ethics and orientations; Brahmins are to be wise and scholarly while the Kshatriyas like Arjuna are to be brave.  Our answer, it seems, tends to be “it depends.”

Different punishments applied to different people in India.  The Laws of Manu had no Golden Rule.  The same crime received different punishments depending on the criminal’s caste.  Your morality, ethics and compassion extended not to everyone in your area but to your particular community and friends.  Only with the coming of British rule and the beginning of a British-educated elite (Nehru, Gandhi, the Congress Party) did ideas of universal law and freedom take hold.  But even then it never took hold over the minds of the masses.

This leads to interesting situations for outsiders.  A true Indian (say on a train or movie theater) will be superficially rude and crude to strangers.  He’ll jump the queue, push you around, hassle the employees and never hold the door open for you.  A Westernized one would do none of these things.  However, should you make the true Indian’s acquaintance (and you enter his sphere of community and friends) it will be he who treats you best when you visit his home.  He will feed you, take you places, and pull strings for you.  Which matters more?  The superficially small gestures or the real acts of kindness when help is needed?

To make it even more confusing, Indians may compartmentalize their multiple ways of thinking.  This makes Indians look inconsistent or hypocritical, but it might be something a bit more subtle.  Hinduism survived for thousands of years by adopting other religions’ gods and practices, always absorbing yet another way of thinking without throwing out the old one.  Ramunajan’s own father taught astronomy and mathematics while still entertaining pandits and astrologers.  How could an astronomer give horoscopes to people on the side?  This inconsistency puzzled him until he realized he applied a different mentality to each field.  A scientific mind for science and a religious mind for religion.  Or perhaps he would say what my grandfather’s classmate once told me , “Sometimes it is important not to be too scientific.”

This may explain Indians lack of rule-following yet tolerance for the ways of others (“that’s just what ____ people do!”).  We accept the tendencies of others as long as we don’t have to follow it.  Perhaps it’s not the worst way to deal with others.

Issue L: Wisconsin and La Follette’s Shadow

26 Mar

William Greider once wrote that the animating impulse behind the Republican Party in the George W. Bush era was to roll back the twentieth century’s progress on the environment, worker’s rights, civil rights, and the New Deal.  Perhaps no place better represents this fight to undo progress than the state of Wisconsin.

The Badger State looms large in the history of the American Progressive Movement.  Wisconsin’s most important governor, Robert M. La Follette, was a fiery populist who fought for the working man and against corporate power.  His followers nicknamed him “Fighting Bob” for his struggles against a bipartisan political system corrupted by railroad money.  He started out as an unremarkable politician in the late 1800s, serving as a Republican in Congress.  After he lost the 1890 election, the establishment offered this former farmer a bribe to fix a court case.  La Follette refused and began a 10 year people’s campaign against the political system, railroads, and the lumber companies that controlled the state.  Once elected governor in 1900, La Follette began a system of reforms copied across America.

His accomplishments included the invention of primaries for party nominations.  La Follette’s idea intended to break the control of party bosses.  In education, he invented the “Wisconsin Idea,” a highly influential idea in the history of American higher education.  The idea brought the University of Wisconsin into close contact with the real world: government professors advised city planners, agriculture professors taught farmers, and engineering departments improved manufacturing.  This public service function of higher education is uniquely an American idea.  Governor La Follette also broke up the monopolies in the state, made corporations pay their fair share in taxes, and protected the forests and small farmers.  He also strongly supported women’s suffrage and opposed the Ku Klux Klan.  Many of the ideas came from German immigrants who brought the ideas of worker’s compensation and disability insurance from Otto von Bismark’s social welfare system.  Wisconsin started the nation’s first worker’s compensation system.

When the people of Wisconsin sent him to Washington as a senator in 1906, they intended for him to become the ambassador of Wisconsin reform ideas to the rest of America.  A fiery orator, he opposed the corporate takeover of Washington.  He derided Theodore Roosevelt as too weak on the Progressive cause and ran against him in the 1912 Republican primary as the stronger champion of reform.  Senator La Follette was the original antiwar and anti-imperialist politician, opposing the United States entry into World War I.   The senator argued strenuously against this war of imperialism on behalf of big business and the corporate oligarchy in a filibuster.  In fact, the Senate had to invent the cloture rule to end his filibuster.  A man of extremely strong principle, he defended the rights of Socialists being imprisoned for their beliefs like Eugene Debs and criticized Congress’s refusal to seat Socialist congressmen.

After such brave and unpopular stands, you would think the old man would retire.  He instead ran for re-election to take on the war profiteering companies that benefited from World War I; he won by the largest landslide in Wiconsin history.  After two party hacks were nominated by the Republicans and Democrats for president, La Follette ran as a third party candidate in 1924 for president.  Senator La Follette called for the abolition of child labor, defense of freedom of speech, nationalization of the railroads, municipal ownership of power companies, and a national referendum before the nation went to war.  Exhortations to vote for the “lesser of two evils” prevailed, and the Republican corporate hack Calvin Coolidge won the election in a landslide.  The election had the lowest turnout in American history which suggests that millions of people were discouraged from voting for the man they believed in.  La Follette died the following year; before he died he warned America that the unjust Treaty of Versailles would cause another world war and that rising bank and farm failures in the 1920s would lead to a financial crisis.

La Follette stood for everything great and good in America.  Everything cowardly scoundrels like Glenn Beck denigrate on a nightly basis in the comfort of their New York studios.  Progressives like La Follette stood for America when America wouldn’t stand for itself in its darkest days of pro-war hysteria.

Wisconsin politicians since then love to pay tribute to the great man.  The recently defeated Senator Russ Feingold admired La Follette and followed his principles when in office, voting against the Iraq War and the Patriot Act.  But these days, gee, they just don’t make them like they used to.

Governor Scott Walker represents the antithesis of everything Robert La Follette ever stood for.  He hates the unions and the working class.  He cut taxes for big corporations and planned to sell off the public power plants in no bid contracts.  Walker has cut into  environmental regulation while serving as the errand boy for Koch Industries and their pro-pollution far-right agenda against the people.  The Koch brothers, the top Tea Party financiers in America, make billions off of American taxpayers by mining on public lands and eating up biofuel subsidies.  They are the type of monopolists La Follette and the Progressive Party were born to fight.

In fact, unlike past governors, he refused to be sworn in near the bust of Robert La Follette in the state capitol.  Governor Walker likes his unpopular stand in this collective bargaining battle, but he is not standing up on deep principle or on on behalf of the little people who have no voice.  He’s too busy fighting to end kindergarten for four year olds.

In short, Scott Walker wants a Wisconsin without Robert La Follette.  The people of Wisconsin have decided they want a Wisconsin without Scott Walker.

Links

Wisconsin Historical Society – “Career of Robert La Follette

Fighting Bob – “About Robert La Follette

Issue XLIXb: Diversity is in the mind, not in the skin

18 Mar

In order to help us remake our mental map of the world, we need to understand different ways of thinking and of seeing the world, with different geographies and realities.  True diversity is in the mind, not in the skin.  But before we can reconceptualize East and West, we need recognize who the pretenders are.

What it does not look like

Jorge Luis Borges famously questioned literary nationalism in his speech “The Argentine Writer and Tradition.”  Argentinean writers were fascinated with uncovering the true, indigenous tradition of Argentina by relying on the local gaucho (cowboy) oral tradition.  They would write stories in what they thought was the strongest rural gaucho dialect possible.  Whoever used the most country (i.e. hick) language was the best storyteller and the most “Argentinean.”

Borges did not criticize relying on the local gaucho tradition.  He may even prefer it to the unreasonable love of literature from their former colonizer, Spain.  But does fetishization of the local idiosyncrasies really make one Argentinean?  Is piling on local flavor really making you a local?  Or does it make you a tourist?

Borges pointed out that in the Koran there is no mention of camels.

“I believe if there were any doubt as to the authenticity of Koran, this absence of camels would be sufficient to prove it is an Arabian work.  It was by Mohammed, and Mohammed, as an Arab, and no reason to know that camels were especially Arabian; for him they were a part of reality, he had no reason to emphasize them; on the other hand, the first thing a falsifier, a tourist, an Arab nationalist would do is to have a surfeit of camels, caravans of camels, on every page; but Mohammed, as an Arab was unconcerned: he knew he could be an Arab without camels.  I think we Argentines can emulate Mohammed, can believe in the possibility of being Argentine without abounding in local color.”

Similarly, the Buenos Aires intelligentsia misrepresented the gaucho tradition by overemphasizing differences and overdoing their manners of speech.  They were caricaturing and fetishizing the gaucho like a foreigner would.  A real gaucho would not talk like that, and a real Argentine would not get away with such a parody of their tradition.

Is this some old, irrelevant speech from a country most of us have ever visited?  Not really.  Think about other situations.  Do hip hop artists overemphasize the violence of the ghetto, the hardness of their life, the desperation of the ‘hood, and the ghetto-ness of their slang?  Would someone from the inner city really talk like that or are these artists outsiders (or selling to outsiders)?  Who is more authentic?  The people really in the ‘hood just live the life, not rap about it.

The same can apply to Indian writing in English.  Do Indian writers always emphasize mangos and spicy chutney in their stories? Is the pushiness and coziness of family life being told or implicitly accepted?  Are these Anglicized urban Indians selling to outsiders or are they telling it like it is to those who instinctually live it without question?  In the real India, rural India, the stories are always known in advance but are told over and over again with different spins or emphases.

George W. Bush was born in Connecticut and after a few years in Midland public schools went to boarding school in Massachusetts and then to Yale and Harvard.  When he ran for Congress in the 1970s, he lost to a good ol’ boy from Texas Tech who emphasized Bush’s blue blood Yankee roots.  A distant relative of the Queen of England does not poll too well in West Texas.  After Bush’s loss, he decided to never be out-Texaned by anyone again.  He emphasized his (slight) Midland roots, and he even bought a ranch with no cattle the year before he decided to run for president.  Bush’s walking and talking parody of Texas was marketing for the non-Texans while he did what he could for the New England country club class he was born to serve.

How do you know when something is real then?  There are many George W. Bush’s playing on their movie set ranches, pretending to be something they are not to outsiders and gullible locals.

The truly authentic will exude their diversity in how they act and think.  You don’t see Obama sporting beach clothing and talking about how much he likes to surf.  He exudes the Hawaiian cool attitude and relaxed nature in his every move.

But what are diverse ways of thinking?  The next report will discuss some different ways of thinking in the world.

Issue XLIXa: Reconceptualizing East and West [a series]

13 Mar

When Sultan Mehmet captured Constantinople and ended a Western empire that lasted 1,123 years and 18 days, he walked into the desolate palace and found ruins.  The Byzantine Empire outlasted the Roman Empire for centuries, and it had now met its end by the Turkish Muslim king who began the Ottoman Empire.

As the sultan stepped into the Palace of the Emperors, he whispered these immortal lines in Persian:

The spider weaves the curtains in the palace of the Caesars; the owl calls the watches in the towers of Afrasiab.

Given the recent events in the Middle East, perhaps the West should feel as irrelevant and defeated as the old Byzantines.  History’s movers and shakers now populate the East and not the West.  For the first time in maybe centuries, events and ideas in the East inspire history in the West.

Madison, Wisconsin is a strange place to imagine would be where the globalization of ideas began to reverse its direction.  Cairo’s protests inspired massive resistance in Wisconsin.  Al Jazeera (which spread the seeds of revolution) received surprising praise for its substantial and serious news coverage (especially compared to American news) from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.  The export of ideas and ideologies (or at least the credit for them) has flowed from West to East for decades if not centuries.  The current of ideas, backed up like the Aswan Dam, just burst through from East to West and (like the Nile) from the global South to North.  The West is stuck and in decline.  If it is to remain relevant, it needs to copy the best of the other side’s ideas.

The old ways of teaching history and conceiving of the world do not give us the appropriate language to speak intelligently about this new world.  Mehmet even changed the name of Constantinople to Istanbul so we may need a new map to this world as in his world.

How can we find this language?  Where do we begin?  How do we re-conceptualize East and West?  The following Bhatany Report series will seek to answer these questions and re-orient our Eurocentric understanding of the world.  First, we will challenge certain orthodoxies on the origins of ideas.  Then we will challenge the idea that increasing diversity in employment, politics, and power will increase a diversity of the mind.  And finally the Bhatany Report will explain how and why we can fix our own mental maps.

Issue XLVIII: On Mubarak

13 Feb

“An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come.” – Victor Hugo

They say that when President Gamal Abdel Nasser died in 1970, he only had seventy Egyptian pounds in his bank account.  The founder of modern Egypt died a poor man.  A common man to the last.

Nasser overthrew the last king of Egypt and founded the modern republic of Egypt.  He promoted a secular and socialist vision for the Middle East.  A future without kings, without religious fundamentalism, and without colonial oppression from the West or Israel.  He promoted Arab nationalism and a Middle East that united all the Arabic speaking people into one Arab nation.

The general was a towering figure in the world and founded the Non-Aligned Movement with other greats of that era: Nehru in India, Sukarno in Indonesia, Tito in Yugoslavia.  A world without nuclear weapons and a Third World that refused to take sides in the Cold War.

When Nasser died, people carried his picture in the streets for days and wept.

When Hosni Mubarak boards that eventual flight to Saudi Arabia (where all former Muslim dictators retire to), he will leave as probably the most hated man in the Middle East.  A man who willingly traded Egypt’s independence for American military aid.  An American and Israeli puppet who would fence in his fellow Arabs in Gaza to starve under Israel’s siege.  A man who intended to put his son into the presidential palace, re-introducing monarchy to Egypt.  And a man who controls 40 to 75 billion dollars in a nation where about half the people live on $2 or less a day.  A man whose own interior minister was responsible for terrorist attacks on the Coptic Christian community.  This torturer-and-thief terrorized the populace with his police and goons and spies.

They say that when the protests began in Egypt, Mubarak didn’t understand what the problem was.  That there was bread riots, unemployment, and horrible Cairo traffic.  “Traffic?  What traffic?  I never see any traffic,” he said.  Mubarak didn’t know that his police cleared all the streets of Cairo when his motorcade rolled about town.  A man who doesn’t know there is traffic in Cairo won’t die with seventy pounds in his bank account.

No one will weep when Mubarak dies in London or Riyadh.  In a way, his rule is disappointing not so much because he was that much worse than any other Arab dictator but because his petty, venal state was unworthy of Egypt.  A new pan-Arab movement may soon sweep the globe.  Nasser’s dream may soon come true with the departure of Mubarak, a man unfit to even sit in Gamal Abdel Nasser’s chair.

Issue XLVII: Healthcare Reform goes Local

21 Jan

The House of Representatives has passed its two page repeal of Obama’s Affordable Care Act.  It’s a pointless stunt, and the Republicans will fight tooth and nail to undermine Obama’s very mild and actually quite Republican (for 1994) health care plan. I’m not a lawyer, but I suspect the court cases challenging health care reform will not go anywhere either.

But if you want to be a member of the fast class and not part of the ponderous “conventional wisdom” train of thought, I am going to scoop you on the big news in health care reform in 2011 before it even happens.  The most exciting places to watch for real health care reform will be Sacramento, California and Montpelier, Vermont.  Why?

When Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor of California, the California legislature twice passed single payer health care bills.  This would have created a single insurance system like Medicare in Canada and have done away with the private health insurance companies.  With a new Democratic governor, there is a much higher chance that this bill will be signed by Governor Jerry Brown.  In his 1992 run for president, he supported single payer health care unlike his more conservative opponent, Bill Clinton.

Given California’s budget crisis and Jerry Brown’s rightward turn, perhaps the better contender for healthcare reform will be the tiny state of Vermont.  The Green Mountain state is not very impressed with Obama’s milquetoast health care reform because it doesn’t have any real cost controls.  Vermont also has a real third party, the Progressive Party, which unabashedly supports single payer health care and has won elections to the statehouse.  Locally, they can push the Democrats to the left.

Vermont’s Governor Shumlin won his primary and election as a staunch advocate of single payer health care.  The state already has universal health care for children because of Howard Dean.  It’s main insurance company is Blue Cross (75% of the market share) and is nonprofit.  A small state like Vermont may not have powerful special interests and has an insurance industry that is apathetic to the bill.  But does Shumlin and the Legislature really mean it?

William Hsiao, a Harvard health economist, designed Taiwan’s single payer system in the 1990s.  Right now he is drafting a proposal to create a single payer solution in Vermont.  Because this a state project, it will be hard to integrate Medicare and Medicaid into the plan.  However he has come up with some different plans for the state to enact.  Shumlin is on board and means it.

It’s not unreasonable to think that California or Vermont’s experience will lead to the rest of the country to single payer health care.  If insurance mandates are unconstitutional, government insurance is the only solution.  Canada’s Medicare system began in a single rural province, Saskatchewan, by a democratic socialist government.  It then spread to the rest of the nation.

So whenever you watch the theatrics in Washington, remember that the real health care reforms will not come from anywhere close to Capitol Hill.

 

Stateline – “In Vermont, Single Payer in a single state

Issue XVLI: Manufacturing Beauty in the South and South Asia

15 Dec

The following was a paper I wrote for a film class I took about skin diseases and the movies.

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The Red Fort in old Delhi is a complete world away from the red hills of Georgia to the inexperienced observer.  Yet both places are epicenters in the manufacture of image.  Both are where foreign concepts of beauty were imported through colonialism and slavery and came to dominate the concept of beauty for both the South and South Asia.  The essay will seek to link how European ideals of beauty, skin, and hair came to dominate both the Indian and African-American mind.

Good Hair?

Chris Rock’s 2010 documentary, Good Hair: Sit Back and Relax, explores the black hair care industry from the perspective of a concerned father and a naïve man on the street.  As a black man, what should he tell his two daughters about their hair and whether it is good or bad?  When and what should they do with their hair when they become old enough to go to the hair salon?  Over the next 96 minutes, he visits the Atlanta black hair care convention and learns about the massive beauty industry that has been built around African-American hair.  He concludes that everyone benefits from the black hair business but black people themselves.    

African-Americans represent only 12% of all Americans but represent 70% of all hair care and salon sales.  However, this $9 billion industry benefits white-owned cosmetic firms, enriches Indian temples and Hollywood wholesalers, and deprives black women (and the men that support them) of disposable income that could be spent on education, housing, or food.  Chris Rock speaks to actresses who routinely spend $1,000 a month (minimum) on weaves alone.  Black men speak painfully about how they have to support black women’s salon and straightening habits to the tune of hundreds or thousands of dollars per month and dozens of hours lost annually to beauty salons.  Chris Rock pointedly refers to this spending to being worse than a crack-cocaine addiction.

Rock’s concern for his children is not as unique as one might think.  Sesame Street recently aired a song called “I Love My Hair.”  This song features a black muppet singing about how much she loves her naturally curly black hair and why she does not need to go to the salon to get her hair done.  The muppet also lists all the different things she can do with her hair that other types of hair cannot do.  This song and paean to black hair was actually composed by a Caucasian man who had adopted a black child, and he was concerned about her self-image and what she thought was “good hair.”  Media outlets reported that many black women cried when seeing this song and wrote letters to Sesame Street about how they wish they could have seen such a positive image of black hair when growing up.

The concept of “good hair” has deep roots in black history, and Rock omits some very relevant history and politics in his documentary.  Few know that the first female self-made millionaire was black.  Even fewer know that that Madam C.J. Walker made her fortune from selling black beauty products.  It was also common in her time to sell skin-whiteners to African-Americans so that they could better fit into the mainstream concept of good skin tone.  It is ironic that in the 21st century, another poor black woman from the South, Oprah Winfrey, has become the richest woman in America because her media empire is supported by cosmetic and beauty advertising.

Political and religious objections to “good hair” were absent in Rock’s documentary.  Part of the Black Power Movement in the 1960s emphasized natural black hair and afros to show that the Black Panthers would not submit to the white world’s concept of beauty.  But even before the Panthers were the hair styles of Rastafarians in Jamaica in the 1920s.  Influenced by Marcus Garvey in New York, they created a religion with a black god who lived on Earth in Ethiopia.  They worshiped Emperor Haile Selassie and proclaimed that dreadlocks were the appropriate way to display your faith and non-conformity with the white world and the Babylon of non-believers.  Hair, it seems, is a statement of pride, power, and ethnicity.

Bollywood and Beyond

When Chris Rock visits Tirupati to see where weaves bought in America come from, it represents one of the few interactions between African-Americans and Indians on film.  Interestingly, Indians and the Indian film industry have their own hang ups about good hair and skin and bring with it its attendant politics.

India’s roots in the skin color debate are ancient.  Historians claim (with some controversy) that Aryans, an Indo-European nomadic people, invaded and/or migrated to northern India around 1500 B.C.E.  They displaced the native Dravidians into South India.  The ones who stayed in the north were bound into the lower rungs of the Hindu caste system.  It is well-known that higher caste Brahmins are lighter-skinned while the lowest castes and untouchables remain dark-skinned.  Brahmins and other high castes proclaim their Aryan descent.

Another important development in the history of India that associated lighter skin color with power and prestige were the Muslim and then British occupations of India.  Starting the 1200s, Muslims of Turkish and Persian descent began incursions into India that resulted in the Delhi Sultanate that ruled India for centuries.  These sultans, nawabs, nizams, and emirs emphasized their Middle Eastern descent and married within their ethnicity (as opposed to darker skinned Indian Muslim converts).  To this day, they remain a distinct community that does not mix or marry with outsiders.  Hyderabadi Muslimus, for example, live within the old city walls of Hyderabad and speak Urdu and not Telegu which the darker-skinned Hindus speak outside.  The coming of the British Raj in 1857 continued many of the customs and traditions of the former Mughal Court with local maharajas paying tribute to Queen Victoria instead of the former sultan.

When film-making came to India during the British era, it was only natural that the pre-existing power structure of beauty would come to dominate the Indian film industry.  Particularly after Partition, the Bombay film industry (Bollywood) has been dominated by fair-skinned North Indians from Sindh and Punjab.  The biggest actors and actresses are always tall and fair-skinned in Hindi movies.  Actor Saif Ali Khan, for example, is literally the child of royalty (his father was a Nawab and his mother an actress).  Actor Shah Rukh Khan caused considerable consternation when he started promoting a skin lightener for men (Srivastava 2010) despite the fact that such products contain bleach and harm the skin.  The “fairness industry” has a considerable market in a nation of 1 billion people.         This idealization of European and Middle Eastern concepts of beauty has also made Indian models competitive in international beauty pageants.  The superstar actress Aishwarya Rai began her acting career after winning the 1994 Miss World competition, for example.

However, the Indian film industry is not homogenous.  Focusing on Bollywood films ignores the regional film industries of India.  Each state has a film industry that makes movies in the vernacular language of that state.  The biggest regional film industry is the Tamil film industry in the South Indian state of Tamil Nadu.

Tamils are Dravidians who have a very separate history from the rest of India with their separate classical period and their own ancient language separate from Northern India’s Vedic period and Sanskrit language.  Tamil Nadu also has its own political parties, the DMK and AIDMK, which began from a nationalist movement during the Tamil Renaissance of the late 1800s.  The Tamil nationalist movement emphasized the linguistic unity of all Tamils and fought against the imposition of imperialistic “Aryan culture” from the North.  The Hindi language and the caste system were viciously attacked as being alien impositions on Tamil society.  Anti-brahmin and anti-caste movements led to a polity that rejected the idea of a fair-skinned high caste elite ruling over the majority of lower caste Tamils.  Vigorous anti-Hindi protests after Independence led Tamil Nadu to stop the teaching of Hindi as a compulsory subject (reducing the demand for Hindi movies).  Many of these protest movements were led by Tamil stage actors and playwrights.  The current chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M Karunanidhi, is a playwright and has been in and out of office for decades.

Unsurprisingly, Tamil cinema has different conventions than Bollywood.  Actresses are   darker in complexion and rounder in the waist than in Hindi films.  The current king of Tamil movies is “Superstar Rajnikanth”, the second-richest actor in Asia (Hendrix 2010).  He is not attractive, tall, or slim.  Rajnikanth is not even Tamil.  He is rather average, and that is the magic behind his appeal.  Superstar Rajnikanth is a man of the people, a very Indian man who will not compromise his Indian-ness to appeal to outsiders.  This former bus conductor shows great style in his films but is utterly relatable to his audience by his ordinariness.  Rajnikanth is a hero for a people who respect themselves and their body image.

Conclusion

This essay has shown the popular concept of beauty is intricately wound up in the power structure of the society one lives in and even more directly by those who control the local media.  Chris Rock’s journey to South India in the movie Good Hair raises interesting cross-cultural comparisons between South India and the South.  But what is Rock’s solution?  What is his message?  Does he have a consistent idea?  I believe he does.

Chris Rock has been criticized for his vulgarities and racist language.  He has been pilloried for his offensive stand-up routines by conservative pundits.  However, one critic astutely pointed out that a closer reading of his message would find that he is actually rather conservative in his opinions about the needs and solutions for the black community (Swanburg 2005).  He once complained that money going into expensive tire rims would be better invested in stocks.  Misplaced priorities and wasted money are problems intrinsic to the black community, not imposed from outside.

Good Hair makes more sense in this vein.  His favorite topic of frivolous spending by the black community has moved from hip hop accessories to something even more basic: their hair.  As one interviewee pointed out in the movie, the black community is wearing its oppression on its head every day of the week it puts on relaxant and weaves.  How can a community let outsiders make billions of dollars off of their hair?  And if the black community cannot address its own hair, how can it hope address the even bigger issues?  Where does it begin the fight when blacks themselves discriminate against African-Americans with natural hair?

It begins at home.  The solution begins in self-respect and empowerment and in the ability for people of all ethnicities to love themselves and not what the television tells them to love.  Mental colonization is perhaps the most insidious of all colonialisms visited upon people of color.  What the Black Panthers and the Tamil nationalist movement taught the world is that it is only with self-awareness and organized campaigns of empowerment and self-respect (like Afro pride, Tamil heritage pride) can a community resolve its inner contradictions and confidently face the world outside.  And it is only when a people feel proud of themselves that they will ever see someone like themselves in the movies.

References

Hendrix, Grady.  “SUPERSTAR Rajnikanth: The biggest movie star you’ve probably never heard of.”  Slate: September 27, 2010.

Srivastava, Arunima.  “Addicted to fairness creams? Not Fair.”  Times of India: November 18, 2010.

Swanburg, John.  “Chris Rock: the William F-ing Buckley of stand-up.”  Slate: February 24, 2005.

Issue XLIV: Confederacy of Dunces: The Economics “Profession”

11 Nov

 Much of what is said to be sound economics is what is sound economically for the reasonably affluent – John Kenneth Galbraith

     On a visit to the London School of Economics two years ago, Queen Elizabeth II asked the a group of economists, “Why did no one see this financial crisis coming?”  The answer to this very man-on-the-street question stumped the economists.  A year later, they came up with an answer for Her Majesty.  “A failure of collective imagination” and a “psychology of denial” prevented the smartest guys in the room from forseeing that housing bubbles can pop, and pop hard.

      That’s all well and good, but the question elides and evades the question of systemic blindspots that self-appointed bigwigs have.  Economics is now a highly consequential field of inquiry, and its failures can have world-altering consequences that make medicine’s oversights look comically small.  Today’s report will dig under the unexamined hood of the economics “profession.”  
 
 Ignoring political economy
      
Economics was originally called political economy in the days of Marx and Smith.  That’s because economics does not occur in a political or social vacuum, and usually the economy of a country is more determined by the society, geography, and government it is superimposed over than the “natural laws” professors theorize about.  Supposedly brilliant economist Jeffrey Sachs never considered the importance of geography in developing a country until after he got his PhD and he visited Bolivia, a poor landlocked country, in the 1980s.  Apparently, economists aren’t trained to consider little things like mountain ranges and oceans.
       In the developing world, that means the World Bank and International Monetary Fund handing out “one size fits all” economic advice to countries with vastly different countries.  When Jeffrey Sachs gave shock therapy to Eastern Europe and Russia after the end of communism, he promptly destroyed and impoverished millions of lives with his puritanical free market alchemy.  When Russia sold off its crown jewels of communist industries (oil, mining, and steel), an oligarchy connected to Boris Yeltsin swindled their way into the Forbes 500 while people without food or paychecks for months in the 1990s.  It was probably the biggest financial fraud in the history of the world until the 2008 financial crisis, and it paid for a lot of mansions in London’s West End. 
      Closer to home, the economists are mostly ignoring the American financial oligarchy focusing on how particular models or theories failed to predict “systemic risk.”  They focus on their theorems and formulas and express suprise.  Meanwhile the slow and steady development of a rapacious and disconnected elite has been ocurring since the 1980s, and the political, social, and economic consequences of having such an elite are just beginning to play out.  Venezuela had such an elite and a sham “two party” democracy in the pre-Chavez era that never touched the real concentrations of power in society.  Ignoring the Latin Americanization of American politics demonstrates that the field ignores grittier realities of the world we live in.  But why do they fail to address this very political failure of political economy?
 
Academic Economics = Corruption
     Why do economists ignore what J.K. Galbraith’s son calls “The Predator State?”  Economists don’t understand the unseemly symbiosis between corporation and state because they themselves sit at the middle of that intersection and charge a hefty toll.  Nontheless, no one has really called out the economists in front of Congress and tarred and feathered them.
     Until now.  A new documentary called Inside Job focuses on the numerous conflicts of interest in the economics profession.  Unlike medicine or science, economists are not required to disclose their conflicts of interests.  Some professors expressed great faith in the Icelandic banking system after being paid by Iceland’s banks.  Another academic consulted for AIG got $6 million and promoted deregulation.  And, of course, Lawrence Summers (the ultimate conflict of interest machine) made millions on Wall Street after promoting deregulation and ending limits and bank sizes as Treasury Secretary.  Next time you read an op-ed by a famous economics professor, be skeptical!    
      Pointing out that Marx and Keynes have said that capitalism is inherently unstable doesn’t win may friends at the Chamber of Commerce.
 
 
 
New York Post – “Fire Geithner