The Orville, and Criticism as Intolerance

During the fall of 2017 I noted some online disagreements about the quality of the most recent Star Trek franchise, Discovery, and the overtly campy alternative, the Orville. I have not watched Discovery as of this writing, so I will not comment on it nor compare the Orville to it. But since I have been back in the U.S. I did just watch the first season of the Orville, and I really enjoyed it. The tone certainly reflects Seth MacFarlane’s humor on Family Guy. It is considerably racier, cruder, and more irreverent than Star Trek, but there is no mistaking that it is an homage to Star Trek. And even though the Orville mocks itself, it seems very respectful of the series that inspires it. Most of ‘the aliens’ are actors in simple prosthetic make-up, and they all speak English. The point, from a world-building point of view, is that the focus of the show is human relationships, not speculative science. Given the quality of the CG effects for exterior shots and the portrayal of one protoplasmid alien crewmember, the choice of humanoid ‘aliens’ for the rest of the cast and guests is very explicit.

The Orville references Roddenberry’s concepts in the same way that the film Galaxy Quest does. In fact, it feels like a serialized adaptation of Galaxy Quest—and other Trekkie-produced fan fiction such as Starship Exeter (outing myself as a committed nerd here, yes; but those are my credentials for making this commentary). Not only is The Orville derivative; not only does it declare its own awareness of its source of inspiration; it says pretty clearly: “We will use this established genre and world in the way Roddenberry intended. We will use it to make strong commentary about present-day prejudices and cultural issues.” The official Trek franchise has done that, especially in the shows Deep Space Nine and Voyager, and from what I can tell from reviews, social commentary on our own present plays a major role in the new Discovery series as well.

One major improvement MacFarlane has made on the ‘orthodox’ Trek formula is that he uses a lot of humor to avoid making the storytelling feel like pedantic moralizing. This comic-ironic-melodramatic tone was first demonstrated in this genre in the film Galaxy Quest. Furthermore, MacFarlane uses humor to open the space to explore emotionally painful situations. For example, the dysfunctional relationship of the captain and his first officer/ex-wife is initially reminiscent of the Honeymooners, or the Taggart/DeMarco relationship in Galaxy Quest. But as the series progresses, it becomes clear how devoted Grayson is to Mercer. Her devotion can be interpreted simply as a heartbroken relationship. But I see a much more interesting dimension to her character: the shame and atonement of a soldier who is devastated by the taint of being regarded as a betrayer. MacFarlane’s Captain Mercer is a more blank everyman; but it is the character he wrote for Adrianne Palicki (who plays his ex and First Officer Grayson) who has much more depth and dramatic internal tension.

Several of the episodes revolve around difficult issues of parenting, both for Bortus and Dr. Finn. The most disturbing sequence in the season was the portrayal of Dr Finn’s “mama bear” reaction to being separated from her sons. She kills her captor/protector, Drogen, in cold blood to get back to her children. After she escapes, she encounters precisely the dangers Drogen had warned her about: biological contamination and deranged survivors. Drogen’s motives for locking up Dr. Finn are never clearly revealed. Perhaps his intentions were not entirely honorable; but it becomes clear that he was entirely truthful in what he actually did say. It therefore becomes a little troubling that Dr. Finn never indicates any regrets or second thoughts about having killed him.

In the next scene, a horde of zombie-like infected survivors approach the crashed shuttle where she is tending to her younger son. Dr. Finn hands a weapon to her older, adolescent-age son and gives him terse advice about taking a “wide stance” to stabilize himself as he fires. The whole sequence has the emotional brutality of another likely dramatic inspiration: Firefly. Maybe that weapon was set to stun, but when a ship arrives to rescue them, the heavy-weapons fire it uses to drive off ‘the natives’ is clearly lethal. My main criticism is that I would like to see the emotional consequences of that scenario explored much more. There are questions of colonialism and deeply asymmetrical conflict, which shapes a lot of the reality I live with in Kabul. But I was impressed that MacFarlane would go that dark in a series that seemed to start off as a satirical comedy. The mixture of sarcastic, ironic humor and very serious melodrama is not completely new with this show (Firefly and Galaxy Quest both did this), but it is a relatively new narrative form that seems to enable unexpected room for emotional depth in a teleplay drama.

What surprised me most, however, was the extremely negative reaction of official critics towards the show. Variety, Vox, and Indiewire condemned the show in ways that were so skewed I wondered whether these critics have ulterior motives they are ashamed to reveal.

First, they each criticized the show for being derivative. That is a strange criticism, since The Orville clearly admits that it is derivative, and uses that tongue-in-cheek stance as a central theme. The criticism itself seems absurd; but it also suggests that the critics share an assumption that I find much more disturbing. These critics implicitly assert that we are not allowed to build on previous storytelling. They are insinuating the ultimate monopolistic privilege: that the creative work of previous storytellers is not just copyrighted, but trade-marked—a perpetual condition of lock-out from anyone else building on prior work.

That aspiration for perpetual monopoly exclusion is exactly why I object to the Disney Corporation’s efforts to extend copyrights in perpetuity. Rather than protect their own specific portrayal of Mickey Mouse, Snow White, Belle, and the Beast as corporate trade-marks (a reasonable use of existing intellectual property law), Disney has successfully lobbied Congress to grossly extend copyright protections solely for the sake of protecting their old films. This is especially perverse because most of the stories they use are based on Grimms’ collection and the works of Hans Christian Andersen, which are available precisely because their copyrights have expired.

The original intention of copyright was to give the creator monopoly rights to revenue for a limited time: seven or 14 years. Monopoly profits to the creator were balanced against the encouragement of cultural development, by limiting the duration of copyright, to allow future storytellers to continue to build on prior creativity in exactly the way storytellers did before the existence of copyright. Since the original Star Trek series is now 50 years old, MacFarlane should not even have to avoid using exactly the same terms that were used in Roddenberry’s teleplay a half-century ago. The problem is not derivation—the problem is the opposite: the culturally stifling intellectual property restrictions which these ‘critics’ seem to advocate. Whose side are the critics on?

Second, each of these critics portrays the show as ‘culturally regressive’ especially because the captain is a white male. I recommend that you actually watch the episodes and then look at what the critics omitted and insinuated. Is the captain a white male who is slightly thick and probably less qualified than both his First Officer and (as we later discover) his navigator? Yes; and the show’s own writing is very clear on that point. Not only is it a comic device, but by now it should raise the question for the viewer about white male privilege. That is the point of dramatic irony—the viewer knowing more than the characters in the drama. Do the critics have so little respect for viewers that they think this irony will be lost on the viewers? Wait—have you never worked for a privileged white man whom you clearly feel does not deserve the pay, authority, and status he has as your boss? I think the only people who could miss the irony of this situation are people who themselves are so privileged that they have not had to work under a boss. We even know that First Officer Grayson was instrumental in putting Mercer in the Captain’s chair, and she later plays the same role of advocating for the promotion of the navigator (LaMarr). Again, she is the more interesting character, and she is exemplary in showing how to work in an organization, specifically as an XO. Compare her to Saul Tigh on Battlestar Galactica, or Will Riker on The Next Generation; she is a model of competence and leadership within her chain of command. Is she recognized for this? Yes, explicitly by her ex, the captain.

And when it comes to gender politics, I am completely at a loss as to how The Orville is regressive. Bortus’s male-male marriage to Klyden is one of the few things that is not played for laughs. Furthermore, there is a scene where Captain Mercer invites another male to rejoin him in bed. Later, when he discovers that his desires were manipulated with pheromones, he is irritated by the deception but not in any way ashamed of his own bisexuality. How is this ‘regressive’? If anything, it clarifies the point that sexuality is completely distinct from the issues that really disturb him: deception and betrayal.

I am not alone in my confusion about the hostility of critics towards this show. The Variety review allows readers’ comments, and the tone of those responses is very similar to my perception. Why the hostility? The Orville is interesting because it is both goofball and occasionally very dramatic. No one is claiming this is high art. No one is claiming this is original world-building. Quite the opposite: it is not original world-building; it is cultural commentary wrapped in satire wrapped in explicit homage. If that is too many layers of irony for you, then you are not going to like most of the creative work of the early twenty-first century, because this is the hallmark of this moment.

As for the critics, I worry—their snobbish condescension seems not only disproportionate, but really off-base and either tone-deaf or intentionally perverse. Are they skewed by their own social-media echo-chamber, their own elitist social bubble? Do they want to prematurely kill off another interesting social commentary show, as happened to the original Star Trek series and Firefly? A side-by-side viewing of Orville episodes with how critics characterize the series undermines the critics’ credibility, in a time when I would like to see much more support of shows that have a diverse cast (as the Orville does) and challenges many gender and sexual stereotypes (which the Orville does) without being heavy-handed and pedantic (which the Orville successfully avoids through self-deprecating humor). As for great drama? Go back and watch all the original Star Trek teleplays. A few were great: most especially the heart-breaking “Let that be your last battlefield.” But most of them were pretty cheesy, as were most of the Next Generation teleplays. And if a critic thinks that is heresy—if they imply that previous creative works cannot be criticized and must never be emulated, imitated, or satirized—isn’t that critic revealing their own fundamental incompetence at their professed job?

The Wikipedia article on the Orville has separate sections for “critical response” and “audience response” because official critics panned the show (19% approval ratings) and viewers really enjoyed it (90%+ approval ratings). Maybe viewers like crass, vulgar satire; I admit I hope the intrepid crew of the Orville encounter an archvillain based on Stewie, or a sentient, martini-drinking canine species based on Brian. But far more so, I hope the show uses the light touch of humor to gain access to more painful and sensitive emotional issues of human relationships.

And more clowns. They really are scary.

Thinking ahead for the next U.S. Administration

Oprah Winfrey as President;

Kamala Harris or Anita Hill as Attorney General (the other as Vice President);

Bernie Sanders as Secretary of Labor;

Tammy Duckworth as Secretary of Defense;

Elizabeth Warren as Secretary of Treasury;

Sherman Alexie, Secretary of Interior;

Michael Pollan, Secretary of Agriculture;

Bill McKibben, Secretary of Energy;

Michelle Obama as Secretary of State or Director of NSA or any post she wants;

Neil deGrasse Tyson as Science Advisor and Director of NASA;

George Takei as Ambassador to the U.N;

…who else for the Dream Team?

Trump through a post-colonial lens

Left-leaning journalism in the U.S. has settled into a consistent hostility towards the U.S. president. This blog posting was provoked by a Fresh Air interview of Evan Osnos, who astutely tracks the way that Xi Jinping of China is quietly taking over a geopolitical leadership role from Donald Trump. I don’t disagree with the details—I dislike Trump’s personalization of the office of the president and corresponding damage to the dignity and authority of that office. But I think we need to view the consequences of his actions from a different long-run perspective: the preferences of the American people.

Despite what Trump himself seems to think about the U.S. presidency, it is not all about him. Liberal journalists shudder at the thought that so many Americans voted for him. Not a majority, but close enough to tip the Electoral College in his favor; very much like George W. Bush. I would like us to consider that pro-Trump vote much more seriously, as a vote against empire.

The word ‘empire’ used to freak out Americans. Our attitude about empire was encapsulated in the original Star Wars movies, in which the Imperials were Brits, and they were the bad guys. It aligned with our founding myth of the American Revolution against the British Empire. By myth I don’t mean that it was untrue; I mean that it is a belief that frames our way of seeing ourselves. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warned us about the danger of imperialism to the souls of Americans:

And as I ponder the madness of Vietnam and search within myself for ways to understand and respond to compassion my mind goes constantly to the people of that peninsula. I speak now not of the soldiers of each side, not of the junta in Saigon, but simply of the people who have been living under the curse of war for almost three continuous decades now. I think of them too because it is clear to me that there will be no meaningful solution there until some attempt is made to know them and hear their broken cries.

They must see Americans as strange liberators. The Vietnamese people proclaimed their own independence in 1945 after a combined French and Japanese occupation, and before the Communist revolution in China. They were led by Ho Chi Minh. Even though they quoted the American Declaration of Independence in their own document of freedom, we refused to recognize them. Instead, we decided to support France in its reconquest of her former colony.

Our government felt then that the Vietnamese people were not “ready” for independence, and we again fell victim to the deadly Western arrogance that has poisoned the international atmosphere for so long. With that tragic decision we rejected a revolutionary government seeking self-determination, and a government that had been established not by China (for whom the Vietnamese have no great love) but by clearly indigenous forces that included some Communists. For the peasants this new government meant real land reform, one of the most important needs in their lives.

For nine years following 1945 we denied the people of Vietnam the right of independence. For nine years we vigorously supported the French in their abortive effort to recolonize Vietnam.

Before the end of the war we were meeting eighty percent of the French war costs. Even before the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu, they began to despair of the reckless action, but we did not. We encouraged them with our huge financial and military supplies to continue the war even after they had lost the will. Soon we would be paying almost the full costs of this tragic attempt at recolonization.

After the French were defeated it looked as if independence and land reform would come again through the Geneva agreements. But instead there came the United States, determined that Ho should not unify the temporarily divided nation, and the peasants watched again as we supported one of the most vicious modern dictators—our chosen man, Premier Diem. The peasants watched and cringed as Diem ruthlessly routed out all opposition, supported their extortionist landlords and refused even to discuss reunification with the north. The peasants watched as all this was presided over by U.S. influence and then by increasing numbers of U.S. troops who came to help quell the insurgency that Diem’s methods had aroused. When Diem was overthrown they may have been happy, but the long line of military dictatorships seemed to offer no real change—especially in terms of their need for land and peace.

I highly, highly recommend reading the entire speech that King delivered on April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.” I believe it cost him his life. I believe it was not a coincidence that he was assassinated exactly one year later to the day. At that time Americans were not ready to see our interventionism as imperialist. In the beginning of the speech—which made me weep as I re-read it—King makes it clear how he came to understand the suffering of Vietnamese in Southeast Asia though the suffering of black Americans in southwest Georgia. It is a political positionality we need to consider very carefully. What might look like support for democracy from the American privileged side, might look like something very different on the un-privileged receiving end of the policies.

Post-colonial theory emerged in 1978, with Edward Said’s publishing of Orientalism. It was a moment of perhaps the lowest Western colonial commitment in more than 500 years. Not only had the U.S. withdrawn from Vietnam, but the recent “Carnation Revolution” in Portugal led to the decolonization of Angola, Mozambique, and East Timor. In hindsight, maybe the theory should have been called something like “colonial critique,” because the “post-” was a little optimistic and premature. However, the theory is a very useful lens for looking at geopolitics in a different, long-run perspective. Unfortunately, most post-colonial theorists have marginalized themselves politically by focusing on highbrow literary criticism. I think they miss Said’s point: when he looked at French Orientalist paintings and literature he was looking at popular culture of the time. To understand the way that Americans see the world, it is useful to look at their reactions to the not-so-highbrow works of Lucasfilm.

Only under George W. Bush did Americans begin to recognize and generally accept that we were being imperialist. This again was reflected in our reinterpretation of our position in relation to Star Wars, with memes in which the Stormtroopers are seen as cops who just had a job to do, and were slaughtered wholesale by rebel terrorists in the destruction of both Death Stars. Adam Driver, the actor currently playing the role of Darth Vader’s grandson, even raised this issue in an interview before the release of the latest Star Wars (Episode 8). We see the most famous of all current stormtroopers take off his helmet, and he is a black man. He is our protagonist. He rejects his forced conscription as a stormtrooper, but his former comrades are not entirely wrong when they call him a traitor. We disagree with the stormtroopers in the current films, but they are humans; we can see ourselves in them at least a little.

But how are Americans really imperialist? Even when we occupy countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq, Americans seem to want to ensure the maximum amount of local sovereignty. We even do that to a fault. In Iraq, the Bush team hastily set up a winner-takes-all voting system which essentially handed national domination to Shi’ite Arabs from the southeastern part of that country. We alienated the Sunni minorities: Kurds to the north, who eventually rejected American advice and declared independence in 2017—and Sunni Arabs in the western part of Iraq, who became the sympathetic base to ISIS. L. Paul Bremer’s version of “make Iraq sovereign again as fast as possible” has had some ugly long-term consequences. It was naïve politics, but it revealed the degree to which the U.S. really did not want to call Iraq a U.S. colony, or territory, or protectorate.

So is the U.S. really imperialist?

Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri argued (in 2000, so before George W. Bush’s presidency) that the U.S. benefited from global political and trade relations in many of the ways that Industrial-Era empires used to, in the ‘classic’ 1870-1945 era of European colonialism. In contrast to the Europeans, the U.S. could allow substantial sovereignty at the local level and still strike free trade deals; it could allow disagreements up to an extent, but contain them through occasional military interventions, as well as mutually-beneficial trade, aid, and military-cooperation projects. So Hardt and Negri didn’t argue that the U.S. was overtly, intentionally imperialist; but that it enjoyed benefits comparable to a global empire nonetheless.

However this ‘global engagement’ policy of the U.S. bothers many American voters, especially since the Cold War is formally over. It is worth remembering that before the Cold War, American conservatives were strongly isolationist. Opposition to immigration produced substantial restrictions on immigration in 1924; the U.S. failed to support the League of Nations; and Republicans were opposed to getting involved in the growing conflicts in Europe and East Asia from 1935 to 1941. This isolationism returned as soon as the Cold War was over. Since 1992, Republicans have been arguing for reduced involvement in international affairs. First, a reduction of contributions to the U.N.; then a withdrawal from the International Criminal Court, just as it was forming in 2001; most recently in withdrawal from UNESCO, the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, and the Paris Climate Accords. U.S. Liberals might not see these as imperialist policies; and I don’t think they were intended to be. But the effect is troubling. At minimum, these commitments were ‘international entanglements’ that many Americans regarded as distracting from a focus on domestic economic policy.

In 2009 I reviewed the campaign debates of George W. Bush and Al Gore from the fall of 2000. In those debates, Gore clearly portrayed himself as the internationalist, and W portrayed himself as domestically focused. Rather than rely on anecdotes and partisan diatribe, let us review the actual source material. Here is an extended quote of George W, on October 11, 2000:

MODERATOR: Should the people of the world look at the United States, Governor, and say, should they fear us, should they welcome our involvement, should they see us as a friend, everybody in the world? How would you project us around the world, as president?

BUSH: Well, I think they ought to look at us as a country that understands freedom where it doesn’t matter who you are or how you’re raised or where you’re from, that you can succeed. I don’t think they’ll look at us with envy. It really depends upon how our nation conducts itself in foreign policy. If we’re an arrogant nation, they’ll resent us. If we’re a humble nation, but strong, they’ll welcome us. And it’s — our nation stands alone right now in the world in terms of power, and that’s why we have to be humble. And yet project strength in a way that promotes freedom. So I don’t think they ought to look at us in any way other than what we are. We’re a freedom-loving nation and if we’re an arrogant nation they’ll view us that way, but if we’re a humble nation they’ll respect us.


MODERATOR: Sure, absolutely, sure. —Somalia.

BUSH: Started off as a humanitarian mission and it changed into a nation-building mission, and that’s where the mission went wrong. The mission was changed. And as a result, our nation paid a price. And so I don’t think our troops ought to be used for what’s called nation-building. I think our troops ought to be used to fight and win war. I think our troops ought to be used to help overthrow the dictator when it’s in our best interests. But in this case it was a nation-building exercise, and same with Haiti. I wouldn’t have supported either…

I’m worried about over-committing our military around the world. I want to be judicious in its use. You mentioned Haiti. I wouldn’t have sent troops to Haiti. I didn’t think it was a mission worthwhile. It was a nation building mission, and it was not very successful. It cost us billions, a couple billions of dollars, and I’m not so sure democracy is any better off in Haiti than it was before.

In retrospect, it is ironic that W committed so many troops to an ill-defined, open-ended “War on Terror” in Afghanistan and Iraq. That policy decision irritated the American voting public for precisely the reasons that Bush himself explained so clearly as a candidate in 2000. But again, I don’t want to focus on that president for what he did later. I looked at those speeches to see why almost a majority of Americans voted for Bush in 2000 rather than Gore; and why a largely overlapping body of voters elected Barack Obama in 2008.

A major campaign promise of Barack Obama was to get the U.S. out of Iraq. He was one of the few national politicians who had never supported that invasion and occupation, and he objected to its open-ended, vague mission. In other words, Bush and Obama’s campaign arguments overlapped because both candidates wanted to reduce the “foreign entanglements” of the U.S. Furthermore, among presidential candidates in 2007-2008, Obama was the furthest outside of being an embedded politician. In that sense, there is also a strong overlap between the reasons people voted for Obama in 2008 and why so many voted for Trump in 2016. Based on voting behavior, Americans are extremely dissatisfied with U.S. foreign policy, and the culture of “establishment” politics.

Put succinctly: when presented with the opportunity to vote against American empire, Americans will do so emphatically and repeatedly. Despite real and continuing racism in the U.S., Americans will vote for a black man if he makes a persuasive argument that he will reduce foreign entanglements. Americans will also vote for a clearly unqualified and offensive billionaire if he makes convincing arguments against foreign entanglements. In 2016 and 2017, American political analysts focused on the deep political divisions among Americans. I think—a Obama argued in 2007—that this is a distraction. Commentators on the left and right focus too much on the man who was elected, and not enough on explaining American electoral behavior. I think if we pay more attention to the voters, we will find that the key common ingredient is that Americans really, really, really don’t want to be an empire.

Trump said many contradictory things while campaigning, and has not been consistent on his campaign promises. But I got a sense that Hilary Clinton was in trouble in June of 2016 when Trump started talking about reducing American foreign involvements, and Clinton countered by being the internationalist. And as unpredictable as Trump may be, here is one place where he is consistent: he is indeed reducing American foreign entanglements.

Back in the interview which provoked this blog post, Gross and Osnos point out that, as the U.S. withdraws and leaves a vacuum in many international arenas, China is happily and quietly moving in to assume those roles. Using the same post-colonial perspective, it is worth noting that China does not have the same cultural squeamishness about empire that Americans have. The Chinese certainly did not like being colonized by foreigners. They called Europeans barbarians, and call Japanese “sea pirates.” But that is not a categorical opposition to imperialism, and the Chinese are quite proud of their own imperial history. A close read of San Guo YanYi (Romance of the Three Kingdoms) gives a good sense of Chinese cultural sensibilities regarding empire. In that story, trouble begins as the Han Empire falls apart, and trouble ends as the Jin Emperor restores order and peace.

San Guo YanYi is one of the Four Classics of Chinese literature, and it is actively endorsed by the current government of the Peoples Republic. The story was filmed in a beautiful, 94-episode television production in 2010. I highly recommend it. But given the themes of the story, and the timing of that production, it is worth pondering whether Chinese political leaders see the present as something akin to the end of that hundred-year episode of political strife portrayed in the story. Both the leaders and the people of China may be very happy for China to return to being the zhong guo—the “central county” on the world stage.

Meanwhile, Americans need to get better clarity about our own internal politics and how we want to position our country in the global political economy of the 21st century. It will help if we recognize the shared, deep-seated American opposition to empire, beyond the caustic partisanship of current public discourse. We also need to get beyond that distraction in order to pay more attention to what is happening outside of the U.S. Unlike Americans, the Chinese political leadership seems like they will be much more comfortable assuming a role of global domination. Since Americans dislike the role so much, we need to get clarity about how we will position ourselves in a world where another country takes over that role. I am not hearing anybody framing geopolitical discourse this way in the U.S. right now, but the time is upon us.

The Future of English

Today the Chronicle Vitae listserve sent a link to Nina Handler’s article, “Facing My Own Extinction.” In the article she described the dim prospects for English as an academic discipline, and questions the ability (and utility) of her and her colleagues adapting to a changing world in which English disappears as a scholarly discipline.

I am not sure if I can offer encouragement. However, I remember the same grim mood in Geography at Berkeley in the late 1980s, as the University of Chicago program shut down. At my graduation in 1988, Alan Pred questioned the future of Geography as a discipline. A few years later, the rise of online maps and GIS provided a solid economic base for the discipline, and a wider recognition of it. A decade later, the global public became alarmed about climate change, a topic we had been studying as geographers for decades. So: no further worries about Geography as a discipline. It has certainly changed, but the core interests are still taught within the discipline.

What about English?

I do not know the field as an insider, so much of what I see from the outside might seem like very disturbing change. But here are some thoughts:

1. Since the end of the Cold War, the question about which would be the global language was settled: it would be English. In the subsequent 25 years, the number of people who speak English as a second language has become considerably greater than people who speak it as their native tongue. I believe this demographic shift in speakers will also change who defines the language, and how. Already, many of my colleagues remark that the nature of English is that it is easy to make yourself understood, even if your English is very bad. However, total fluency is nearly impossible for someone who did not grow up with the language. This differs from other languages with precise grammatical rules, where it is hard to learn initially, but once you are fluent, you are fluent. How will this characteristic of English affect the way it evolves over the 21st century?

2. Within academia (I am in planning), the role of poesis has become much more important as we try to make sense of difficult problems in race/gender/class injustices, and in the linguistic process of policy formation. We are not following Worf, but we are sensitized to the fact that the phrasing of policy questions, let alone policies, can foreclose certain voices and avenues of inquiry. Words matter very much in public policy.

3. We are figuring out interfaces with machines, and this affects language in several ways. First, a programmer once remarked to me that the Electrical Engineering and Computer Science major at Berkeley was mis-designed. He did not need to learn Electrical Engineering. He needed to learn comparative linguistics, to better understand the nature of syntactical structures in Perl versus Python, and languages such as Fortran and C. This is more linguistics than English per se, but it is related.

None of these comments may provide comfort to Dr. Handler, because they are not about the emotional depth and nuances of English Literature and 19th-century poetry in particular. I must say that I have heard this same lamentation among my Afghan colleagues: to learn Farsi is to learn poetry; and they grieve that young Afghans do not learn Firdawsi, Sa’adi, Rumi. And then they break into recitation and it is mesmerizing. So I have witnessed the same grief, worldwide. Perhaps, if we pay attention to shifts in venue and context, we may continue to find the unexpected places and moments when poesis is truly embraced.

The Consequences of Conservatism

Over the past several days I have been researching National Urban Policies very intensively, as I work with a team of Afghan planners to develop the National Urban Policy for Afghanistan.

During that research I came across documentation of the national urban policy of the United States. If you are American, you might even be surprised that we have a national urban policy. It is US Code Title 42, Chapter 59, Part A, Sections 4502 and 4503. Section 4503, the “National Urban Policy Report,” specifies the data gathering and reporting procedures. This legislation was passed by the U.S. Congress in 1993, before Newt Gingrich and his cohort of conservatives was elected into a conservative majority. The reporting mechanism was repealed in 2000, shortly after George W. Bush was elected. So it is there on paper, but it is a dead law.

In practice, the closest Americans ever came to an actual national urban policy was the Housing Act of 1949 (Truman 1949, Sapotiche 2010). Harry Truman tried to get this passed by Congress in 1945, but the banking lobby and their conservative legislators opposed the original draft. Four years later, a compromise was struck, in which conservatives added provisions for urban renewal to the Act (Hoffman 2000). Bankers wanted the slum-clearance provision in order to do precisely what critics later condemned the Act for: “urban renewal meant Negro Removal” from the center-cities, where bankers wanted to invest in urban development (Bristol 1991). It was still called the Housing Act, but under the Eisenhower administration about 1/10th of the estimated needed public housing was built, and far more inexpensive housing was destroyed under the conservative Urban Renewal provision of the law (Caro 1974, Hoffman 2000). Once the harm of slum-clearance became apparent, conservatives then blamed the federal government for its top-down approach. In The Federal Bulldozer, Martin Anderson (1964) laid out the arguments conservatives would use against government programs even before President Johnson’s Great Society programs were enacted. Housing got linked with urban renewal because conservatives had succeeded in incorporating urban renewal into the same Act.

I am researching this while in Kabul. Where it has become very cold. And I am reminded that tens, if not hundreds of thousands of Americans are now facing another winter outside, because of the seventy-year resistance of conservatives towards building sufficient social housing, and then obeying their banking lobby, allowing speculative “sub-prime” mortgages to create a cascade of foreclosures and evictions. This opposition dates straight back to the defeat of Truman’s initial Housing Act of 1945, and the track record is unbroken since.

Winter is Coming. And Americans are sleeping outside or in their cars.
It made me think of how to design a cheap but long-term shelter that humans can live in, perhaps even inside their own house after the heat has been cut off.

In honor of the cynical, destructive conservative legacy I have just researched, I have named this home design “The Consequences of Conservatism.” The design is a type of dome tent, but it has a separate inner layer (yellow), connected to the outer shell (green) by baffles at each corner. The fly (blue) is designed to shed rain, block sun, and enable ventilation. It is not lightweight like a backpacking tent. It could even be made of cotton cloth, such as used clothing stitched together. I recommend plastic sheeting, though, because of both the fire-hazard and the lack of ventilation. With a double-walled tent, you can insulate it by stuffing crumpled paper between the layers. I did not detail how to access the space between the dome-shells, but I think the best solution is to leave a 30cm X 30cm hole at the top of both shells of the dome, where the arched PVC poles cross. This will also allow more ventilation, and the fly will prevent rain from getting in. Block the hole with rags as necessary on extremely cold nights. The insulation should be changed seasonally (at least), because it will mildew. The main source of moisture will be the humans living and continuing to breathe (thank God) inside the home. I recommend placing the home on freight-pallets, to elevate it off the ground.

If a police officer seizes your home and destroys it, please:
1. Do not resist arrest. Police officers will use that as a pretext for justifying the destruction of your home.
2. Take as many pictures or video as possible of the destruction. Find a university student to share them with. Actually, find one beforehand and start getting organized.
3. You have the right to know the name of the officers who are seizing and destroying your home.
You should also know that they are almost certainly responding to a complaint from a homeowner, who is a conservative.

When George W. Bush was elected(?) in 2000, his de-funding of affordable housing programs disrupted my career building public housing in the United States. I was only able to build 193 units, which is pretty pitiful considering the shortfall of need in San Francisco alone at the time. Hopefully I will do better here in Afghanistan, working on housing, upgrading, and planning policy with Afghan colleagues.

Meanwhile, I give this home design back to my fellow Americans.

This design is copylefted. That means:
1. Anyone has the right to use the design, for free.
2. No-one has the right to charge money for the design, or impose intellectual property rights (copyright) on the design. It will be forever free.
3. As the designer, I ask that you call it “the Consequences of Conservatism,” and check the last seventy years of history to find out why you no longer live in a building.
And if someone starts a confrontation arguing that conservatives helped middle class and poorer people, please ask them to cite verified sources for such a claim, not hearsay anecdotes.

If you are religious in any way, please consider making one of these homes and leaving it outside for someone to take and use to survive this winter. If I have time I will try to lay out a sewing pattern. However most people who have any experience sewing can probably work out the detailing pretty quickly. I recommend against including a full fabric bottom. Straps in an “X” pattern to retain tension at the corners will be enough, and ventilation is important. There are a few ways to attach that little center post to hold the fly up off the top of the dome. I suggest leaving out at least 3 of 1.5″ diameter hose-clamps and letting the user be creative about it.

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, I think of this as another set of instructions for how to survive a winter in America. The fable (and perhaps truth) of the original Thanksgiving is that it was a Feast of the Eucharist of the Pilgrims at Massachusetts Bay, thanking the local Native Americans for teaching them how to survive the winter. I honor the generosity of the Native Americans who shared their knowledge with hapless English arrivals. It is worth noting that many of those tribes still exist in New England; they were not (completely) wiped out by English colonizers. Rather than the unfortunate conflicts that would come later, I invite you to remember their original welcoming generosity, first and foremost.

Anderson, Martin. 1964. The Federal Bulldozer. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Bristol, Kate. 1991. “The Pruitt-Igoe Myth.” Journal of Architectural Education. vol. 44(3), pp. 163-171.
Caro, Robert. 1974. The Power Broker. New York: Vintage Press, p. 1014.
Hoffman, Alexander von. 2000. “A Study in Contradictions: The Origins and Legacy of the Housing Act of 1949.” Housing Policy Debate, vol. 11 (2) pp.299-325.
Sapotiche, Joshua. 2010. “The Evolution of National Urban Policy: Congressional Agendas, Presidential Power, and Public Opinion.” Washington, D.C.: Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.
Truman, Harry. 1949. “Statement of the President upon Signing the Housing Act of 1949.”
U.S.C. Title 42, Chapter 59, Part A, §§ 4502 & 4503 as Amended.

Planning ethics exam from the School of Life

Okay planners, here is a ethical practice question that I have been asked. I have written this as a planning-practice exam essay. Instructions for submitting your responses are at the end of this page.

Suppose you have been appointed as planning director for a city. You care about the people of the city, and you have a chance to do some real good, by establishing tenure-security for a lot of very poor households. And you get to shape the direction of your city’s growth.

However a gangster has built a mansion in the middle of a park in the center of the city.

At this point, just doing your job requires some courage: you are required, by Afghan law, to report this planning violation to the city mayor and the provincial governor. As planning director, you submit your official letter describing this violation to the mayor and the governor.

The mayor summons the gangster into the city hall. He says to the gangster: “You violated the plan of the city. I have an official letter from the Planning Director, which describes your violation in detail. How much did your house cost to build?”

“One hundred thousand dollars.” [Three storeys, curved balconies, wrought-iron railings, decorative cornices, the whole works]

The mayor says: “You need to pay me USD $5,000 or I will send out the police to seize the house and demolish it.”

The gangster pays the $5,000. A few weeks later you find out that the mayor is not going to send out the police. The gangster and his mansion are going to remain in the middle of the city park.

At this point, you have made a formal declaration that the mansion is a violation of the city plan. Your name and signature are on formal documents, which are now kept in the files of several public offices. And the violation is pretty blatant. Any visiting government official from Kabul will notice the private mansion in the central city park. Furthermore, the gangster and his retinue now get to enjoy the publicly-maintained green area around his mansion.

If you allow this obvious violation to remain, you could be prosecuted by the Attorney General for gross dereliction of duty. The Attorney General could accuse you of taking a bribe to allow this intentional violation of the city plan. However, your friends and allies within the city all advise you not to speak publicly about this issue, because the mayor controls the police, and maybe you will be pulled over in a remote area and some unfortunate incident will leave you dead. (You have already moved your family out of the city, so at least they are not in danger). Furthermore, the chances of prosecution are low. This sort of violation is happening in at least half the cities of Afghanistan.

What do you do?

Your friends know you are courageous enough to speak out. In fact they warned you about it after a reception at city hall where you started talking about the mansion. However, you are about to get a neighborhood legalized, so that almost 600 families will finally get official approval of the right to stay in the neighborhood they built as squatters. So your friends want to make sure that the squatters get security, and you are the key person who can get that approval from the mayor.

Please submit your written responses to pietro at calogero dot us, in PDF or .DOCX format by 10:00 PM on Friday, November 17. You may include public events and dialogue as ways to explain your response. But please make sure that these hypothetical events, characters, and conversations are believable in this real world. You may cite references. Your response will be evaluated based on the pragmatism and believability of your answer.

Responses will be kept strictly confidential (in an encrypted file with a self-erase trigger) to protect all of us from undesirable confrontations.

November 8: Notes from Kabul

1. Journalists as superheroes

The staff at Shamshad TV deserve the 2017 Global Prize for Courageousness from the Committee to Protect Journalists. Please look up CPJ and donate if you can, especially if you care about freedom of the press. American journalists are belittled and disparaged by the Trump administration for not selecting the facts that he thinks they should report about him. He and his followers show a certain lack of respect for the intention and value of the First Amendment. A free (and critical) press has served Americans better than voting itself as a way to keep government accountable and answerable to the people it governs. So I have profound admiration for journalists who maintain a critical stance in places where it is really dangerous to do reporting! When the reporter came back on air, with bandaged hand, to describe the ISIL attack on his own station, that is what I call a Moment of Awesomeness.

2. Finding balance in the 2nd Amendment

A week after I arrived in Kabul in 2007 there was a brutal massacre at Virgina Tech. A few weeks after I arrived in Kabul this time, 10.5 years later, there was a brutal massacre in Las Vegas. And now there has been another one in Texas. So while I am in Kabul and people are worried about me, I am worried about–and praying for–Americans who are suffering from random violence. I get the intention of the Second Amendment; in the previous paragraph I pointed out the need to keep the government answerable to the people. So when it says ‘A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State,’ it is pretty clear that the Amendment-pushers were arguing for the continued right to bear arms to fulfill our right–and indeed our obligation–to overthrow tyrannical government if necessary. The 2nd Amendment does not state, nor does it imply, that the right to bear arms was for the propose of personal self-defense against criminals.

This line of thinking does not lead to any specific policy solutions. Just trying to get clarity on a tragic situation. Many gun-safety ideas also cannot address another ongoing tragedy: 2/3 of gun-related deaths in the U.S. right now are suicides. No safety protocol, no technical fix is going to prevent the licensed owner of a gun from using it on themselves. So policy in this area is going to be really difficult, and the NRA is really crippling our ability to think this through carefully and respectfully.

3. Respectful discourse?

My UC Berkeley alumni newsletter arrived today in my email box (yeah, the postage to Kabul would have been special). In it, one piece is about how Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute, asks Berkeley to invite more conservative speakers to come, and encourage discussion across ideological lines in the spirit of actual free speech and critical scholarship.

I love the intention. I have not heard a conservative ask to be respectfully listened to in years. I have been told how wrong I am for not being conservative. I have been condescended to for decades. And frankly, I have been treated much better than people who are not male, not straight, and not white–in other words, at least 85% of my fellow Californians–who are told by conservatives that they do not deserve a voice in US politics, and do not deserve a right to be listened to.

So before even asking to be listened to by someone like me, I would like to see conservative thinkers address a Service Employees International Union meeting of custodial workers. Any request to be listened to would need to be reciprocated by readiness to listen to a group of people who, like most Americans, are a lovely variety of skin-complexions and a full spectrum of life-experiences. I would absolutely attend that meeting, and I would work in good faith to keep it respectful on all sides. I would even use some of my white privilege to persuade the conservative from bolting for the exit the moment they start listening to something that rattles their worldview a bit. Getting your worldview rattled is healthy for the brain! It encourages good cranial circulation. I recommend it. Feminism and queer theory have taught me some valuable perspective on white privilege: we cannot help how we are born; but we can work towards justice from whatever starting point we are given. We all have that power, even if it manifests in very different ways based on the very unequal starting points we begin with in a very unequal society.

Two hours from now I am going to make an appeal for policy reform that will promote economic investment in cities in Afghanistan. To get to this moment, I could not be an American conservative. The sneering condescension I have personally experienced for decades from conservatives? That kind of attitude would not enable me to listen. It would not put me in a position to work with the Islamic Republic. I have to start from a position of skepticism, of doubt, and curiosity: how do Afghans see the world now? What assumptions am I working with? Any policy reform needs to be very selective, but even so, institutional reform can be jarring. I have been invited to this task, and it is deeply humbling. And I need to figure out how to promote economic growth in a society under the most extreme duress and long-term trauma.

What can governments do to promote actual economic growth? Demonstrate to people–especially the poorest people–that their rights are respected and protected. We want to promote all sorts of investment; cash and labor and time and effort and care. All of it. The guy who decides to set up a neighborhood bakery rather than saving up his cash to emigrate. The policy environment that promotes those little, small-scale investments also creates a culture in which larger-scale investors might build a factory. If a broad swath of the population feels the government is supporting and protecting them, those are also fundamental preconditions for the kind of eccentric creative environment where innovations emerge. And that is the highest-value economic growth engine in the world today. It is not coincidental that a metropolis that actively promotes racial and gender diversity is home to the highest-value companies in the world. So I can draw some lessons from San Francisco for policy in Kabul, if I listen carefully and respectfully to both cities. Not all policies will translate, which becomes clear through listening.

But I have also listened to American conservatives, even as they sneer down their noses at me. I have heard a lot of normative declarations about The Way the World Ought To Be, from people in positions of privilege where they do not need to listen too carefully to the way the world actually is, at the moment. I, too, am a proponent of change. Though I am preemptively dismissed as someone who ‘opposes business’ and ‘opposes economic growth’, I am actually extremely in favor of it, as are my ‘Liberal feminist’ peers. The fact that I think sustained growth requires some broad distribution of income, some major reinvestment of profits into infrastructure and education, is dismissed preemptively and with extreme prejudice.

Rather than rigid mottoes, I will pay much more attention when I hear good questions: What balance of regulation and permissiveness promotes the most economic growth? How does that balance need to change over time and in different contexts? What is the best way to promote (or just permit) a rich ecology of small businesses to flourish? What is the most effective way to publicly invest tax revenue? How do we design the combination of taxes to reflect the returns-of-service appropriate to each form of payment? How do we use the inevitable, and perpetual irritation of tax-payment to promote both participatory government and effective answerability? We can’t even get to these questions in an American political climate in which conservatives still feel that all government is inherently the problem.

Rethinking planning through Kabuli lenses

Yesterday a bomb went off near where I work in Kabul. For security reasons, I need to be vague on the details of my relationship to events here; that is one reason I have not posted in the last two months. However one colleague’s reaction to the bombing made me think about something we should all consider.

“It was probably a magnet bomb,” he speculated. We may not find out, because security forces here also withhold details about attacks; details that might inform terrorists in ways they find useful. So this reflection is not about the attack, but about the discourse in Kabul and what it reveals about life, insurgency, and class politics. “Someone sees a big car, with black plates. Stuck in traffic, They know the car belongs to someone important because of the government plates. So they stick a bomb to the rear bumper, and…” he gestured with his hands to show an explosion.

I know about those cars. Land Rover SUVs, or Lincoln Navigators or some other grotesque equivalent. Tinted windows. Pointedly aggressive driving. Never yield for pedestrians or smaller cars. This, in a country where my management-level government colleagues have not been paid in five months. This, in a country where malnutrition is obvious in all sorts of ways. It has gotten colder in Kabul. So once again, I smelled that nasty pungency of burning plastic. In a house nearby, someone has gathered up plastic trash and is burning it in their house, probably to keep their children warm. Balancing whatever longer-term respiratory health hazards come from inhaling plastic-smoke against the more immediate and tangible dangers of hypothermia.

So in a city like this, where the inequalities are flaunted so bluntly, who needs an organized Islamist insurgency to provoke violence? The violence is already here, in a continuous way: it is the rich attacking the poor, depriving them of both dignity and the means to keep their children safe.

Kabul is one of the best teachers I have ever had. It explains the nature of the modern, 21st-century world with a raw clarity that is concealed and buffered in North American cities. Yes, this is modernity. Yes, this is the 21st century; indeed conditions of Kabul are the direct byproduct of late 20th-century Cold War geopolitics. You can’t find a more Global City than Kabul. So it is worth taking a close look at what it reveals.

One thing it reveals is an unpleasant re-think about urban planning ethics. For those of you who are not planners: our profession took a strong social-justice turn in the 1960s. We mark it with the publication of Paul Davidoff’s “Advocacy and Pluralism in Planning,” published in 1965. One of the most cherished awards in our American Collegiate Schools of Planning association is the Davidoff Award, in his honor. So planners may still be technocratic nerds in some ways, but we are deeply invested in the idea of social justice. And for those of us who read Davidoff alongside Machiavelli, there is the added logic that when planners are seen as doing good, they add credibility to the regime. It promotes stability, along with promotion of “heath, safety, morals, and the general welfare,” as our legal record affirms.

As a planner, I am more consciously pro-system and pro-government than the vast majority of Americans. But unconsciously, maybe my fellow citizens are propping up aspects of the American regime that are deeply toxic: we are letting the rich get away with harming us in some deeply profound ways. We let them write laws that profit them, and block laws that would protect the rest of us from their predations. There is still not substantive legislation to protect us from the sub-prime lending/speculative hijinks that trashed the US economy starting in 2007. We need to think hard about our willingness to protect and apologize for our billionaires.

How does this tie to Kabul? The elites in those SUVs got their money from us. We set up this racket. As another Afghan colleague reflected, “When the U.S. said they were going to move on Afghanistan, the leaders of the United Islamic Front [we call them the “Northern Alliance”] were terrified that they would be arrested as war criminals for what they had done,” referring to the bloody civil war of the early 1990s that had only been suppressed by the arrival of the Taliban. “Instead, the Americans welcomed them with pallets of money.” Not briefcases. Freight pallets. Thus the Bush regime set up one of the most corrupt governments in the world—an official ranking of the Karzai regime by Transparency International some ten years ago. Ashraf Ghani—and thousands of ethical, dedicated Afghans under him—are trying to undo that damage, but habits have become ingrained. Commanders careening around Kabul with no regard for human life are a persistent, daily reminder to the rest of us that there are still thugs in high places here.

There is another connection, though, which makes this more relevant to an American context. We got involved in Afghanistan because of a criminal attack that was hyped up into being called an Act of War. By definition, that was a stretch, because al Qaeda was not a government and not even claiming to be one. It was in fact a movement led by a billionaire. So one way of interpreting 9/11 is that it was an attack on Americans by a very rich person, from a very rich family. The known facts are even weirder than speculations about other explanations. The woman who coordinated the flight of the bin Laden family out of Texas on the afternoon of September 11th was my student. She described what it was like to arrange the only civilian flight over the United States on that afternoon. The bin Laden family was protected from potential angry reprisals and perhaps embarrassing questions from a Senate committee. Billionaires were protected. Bush even shifted focus away from bin Laden towards the distraction of Iraq for the better part of a decade. Maybe I infer too much there; but there is no secret to the predominant guess—for a decade—that Osama was sheltering in Pakistan.

So here is the problem for a planner: since Davidoff and the ‘social justice turn’ in planning back in 1965, we have focused on helping the poor. Community planning, in the U.S., does not mean helping the whole community (as it does, I discovered, in Thailand). Community planning for American planners means helping the poor, the disadvantaged. Which is a charity model of social justice, and it only holds up if we accept the (rather patronizing) assumption that the rich mean well. That those with more feel an ethical need to help those who are less fortunate. This ethical position also does something less obvious: it shifts the planner’s attention away from looking too closely at the behavior of the rich. I was, for many years, concerned about the plight of minorities and underrepresented people in the U.S., and pointedly indifferent to the rich, who do not need the systemic help of planners. Since they can take care of themselves, I did not pay much attention to those who are much closer to my class-position (at least I have an education on a par with theirs) but above me. For planners as a whole, this has been a costly mistake.

From a systemic point of view, the financial crisis of 2007- was another attack upon Americans by the very rich. It did not have the spectacular drama of jets hitting buildings. But on a month-to-month basis of making millions of Americans wonder which bills they could pay, it did deeper systemic harm. And it was brutally violent in the way that only a family who were foreclosed out of their home can fully understand. And it was damaging enough to institutional systems that planners need to rethink our position in the 21st century very carefully.

Americans based at the U.S. Embassy in Kabul are not allowed out of the Embassy except under extraordinarily rare circumstances. They arrive at Kabul International Airport and are flown by helicopters (Blackhawks or Chinooks, flown in pairs) to the U.S. Embassy. The rotor-thump of those choppers wakes me up each morning. The American Embassy squats as a massive fortified complex in the middle of Kabul, blocking traffic and the commerce of a very vulnerable population who have to squeak around it and wait in congested traffic every day, because there are no alternative routes to the downtown adjacent to the Embassy complex. In unguarded moments, Afghan colleagues have dropped their usual graciousness towards me and intimated how much they resent the behavior of the Americans in Kabul. Rich people flying overhead. Not touching ground, not contributing to the city in any tangible way. Floating balloons with surveillance cameras, to catch high-resolution images of people and behaviors that they do not understand, because they have practically no interface with the actual urban population of the city.

It would be easy to flatten ‘those Americans’ into caricatures. But they went to the same schools I went to. These are my fellow countrymen. But they—we—are operating with a set of assumptions that I find increasingly untenable. What kind of system are we protecting? What promise do we hold out to Afghans? That they should become like us? What does that mean? A people who apologize for the misbehavior of billionaires?

Planners, almost by definition, are not revolutionaries. Since we are the system, we are perhaps constitutionally incapable of advocating the overthrow of the system. Furthermore, as pragmatists, we generally get the sense that idealistic government overthrows mostly kill the poor, no matter what the other outcomes are. So we are, at most, radical revisionists. Based on what I am seeing through lenses granted by Kabul, we as planners need to think about how to protect ourselves and human populations as a whole from the predations of the very rich. We often plan for ‘urban resilience’ as recovery from natural disasters. But how do we protect the cities we are responsible for from real-estate speculation and resultant gentrification? From the sumping of middle-class salaries by people who spend it on 400-foot yachts and personal jets? Paul Davidoff did not prepare us for this. We have a very different set of problems we need to tackle.

Silver lining of a very dark stormcloud

These days I work in China, so in winter I only have 4 weeks to spend with my family in California. These four weeks are overshadowed by the transition to a disastrous new American presidency. The first policies being imposed don’t even seem to favor conservatives; they seem primarily intended to aggrieve Americans who believe in equal rights, social justice, environmental protection, and respect for scientific research.

However there is also good news in this disaster. I am seeing Americans my age and younger becoming mobilized on a par with Tunisians and Egyptians! What I hope is that we can move forward, not just against the current buffoon-in-chief. Here are a few policies I hope for:

  • Equal rights for women. Equal pay, reproductive choice, and comprehensive free childcare so that those who choose to have children are not punished economically.
  • Equal rights for black men. At the very least, the right not to be killed arbitrarily by police officers with impunity. Equal indictment and sentencing for crimes. Equal punishment in school for the same offenses as whites. Equal investment in education. Release from incarceration for as many as quickly as possible, and restoration of rights to those whose were stripped by racially-skewed sentencing.
  • Desegregation. Laissez-faire markets are not just disastrous for sustained economic growth. Laissez-faire also enables residential sorting, which means US residential segregation has continued to increase non-stop since 1910. US communities are now far more segregated by race and class than they were during the 1950s. To prevent segregation-through-gentrification, we may need to partially socialize urban residential property. Or, at minimum, detach urban land-values from financial market speculators.
  • Public healthcare. Here is the business rationale: an entrepreneur is much more likely to take risks and face business-failure if she does not fear that she will lose health-coverage for herself and her children. For small business-owners, national healthcare would lift a massive paperwork burden.
  • Revisit Native American rights. The Five Civilized Tribes have claims to northern Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia; the Lakota have claim to an area about the size of South Dakota. The United States will have far more moral authority in foreign-policy negotiations if we display the moral courage to honor the treaties we have broken in the past. What would it mean for mineral-rights in the Black Hills and oil-rights in Oklahoma? That is for respective Native American councils to decide.
  • Restore the Constitution. The rights and governmental constraints in the Constitution apply to all people under US jurisdiction and control. Guantanamo Bay Prison remains a violation of the 5th, 6th, and 8th Amendments. Furthermore, we should never accept any suspension of any part of the Constitution during times of emergency. The Constitution was written during an emergency, and intended to govern even during times of warfare. We should never accept intimidation (‘terrorizing’) as a pretext for even a partial suspension of the Constitution again.

We knew that the election and re-election of Barack Obama did not mean that America had evolved past racism. Continued incidents of police brutality are only the most obvious indicator of persistent prejudice. White brutality needs to be addressed; but basic economic inequality is probably even more serious as a problem. As Martin Luther King Jr. once asked, what does it matter if a black man wins the right to sit at a lunch counter with his fellow Americans if he cannot afford the food on the menu? Achieving equal opportunity is a much more difficult task than landing a man on the moon. As a metric of achievement, America will deserve far more credit a thousand years from now if we eliminate the income-gap by race in this country.

In fact, this is a vision for America: a nation that strives for equality of opportunity. A nation that defends the right of all people to pursue happiness and fulfillment in their own terms. A nation tat defends that right not just for current citizens, but equally for all people who come to the US and seek to become Americans. A nation that defends that right for peoples who were brought here by force, or annexed into the country by force, or compelled to come as refugees—as well as those who have come seeking their fortune.

Furthermore, this vision of a land of opportunity is compatible with a vision of a land that cares for its own. Equal access to education, healthcare, and infrastructure. Freedom of opportunity does mean allowing risk-takers to fail; but if the consequences of failure are too disastrous, reasonable Americans will become risk-averse. If there is a firm, bottom-line platform to stand on, many more Americans would be willing to ‘push off’ from that baseline to do more; and that baseline also provides the educated, healthy pool of employees who can grow businesses. That business-healthy environment is the ‘return on the social investment’ of tax-expenditures. We need to tax-to-invest, and invest in the types of underlying social and infrastructure conditions which individual firms cannot provide. “Tax-and-spend” is a deceptively incomplete expression; we need to understand tax-expenditures as investments, so that tax-burden is weighed in relation to tax-investments.

Why blog about these long-term political economy issues in a moment of acute crisis?

Because politics is the art of shaping the public narrative. We need the phraseology to win over swing voters. Because our current very unhappy president will not be in office forever, and his are not the only policies that need to be resisted, redirected, or overturned. Because two pieces of advice from Barack Obama still pertain: (1) Don’t get caught up in the distractions, and (2) No individual, not even the president, can define the path of the United States. If we want change, we must push for that collectively. So: pushing back against the policies of a malicious president is a good place to start, and to learn how to push collectively. But we have goals that lie well beyond the scope of this specific moment. If we can learn to push collectively for those, then the current president’s efforts will not only be completely undone, but also truly erased under a much deeper shift in a humane direction.

ISIS and some reckoning about Bush’s invasion of Iraq

Liberals never collectively said ‘I told you so’ about the invasion of Iraq in 2003. We should have. As it turns out, that story is not over. The post-occupancy analysis made it very clear that Hussein was bluffing, And that George W. Bush’s pressure to find some excuse to invade Iraq caused intelligence analysts to see what he wanted to see. Furthermore, there was no relationship between Hussein and Islamist terrorists.

In 2014, I was disturbed to hear that ISIS had taken over Mosul (I wrote about it in this blog in June 2014). I was disturbed that ISIS had gained control over both oilfields and oil pipelines; and therefore a steady stream of revenue. I was also disturbed that the Iraqi national forces gave up the fight so easily. President Bush spent more than 100 billion US tax dollars from 2003-2008 to rebuild an Iraqi Army. But clearly this ‘post-Ba’ath’ army had little commitment to really defend Iraq as a whole nation. They took off their uniforms, abandoned their M16s and humvees, and hitched rides back to Baghdad. When Republicans complain about wasteful government spending of hard-earned American tax dollars, I think the Iraqi army’s rout at Mosul in 2014 is the worst case I have ever heard of. It is also a reminder that warfare is always a political process. If the troops do not believe in the political arguments of their side, they will lose no matter how well-armed they might be.

Martin Luther King Jr. made this argument in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech on April 4, 1967. The ARVN (South Vietnamese military) seemed uncommitted to the cause of defending their US-allied military dictatorship against the North Vietnamese communists. If they didn’t want to defend South Vietnam then what was America doing there? And wouldn’t it be better to spend those tax-dollars on education and jobs for poorer Americans? King was a committed pacifist, because he understood the nature of political conflict and the limited effectiveness of violence. Today, a president who spouts racist and sexist remarks—a president who promotes violence through his words—should consider how quickly he is eroding his own authority to role at home, and defend his country from outside threats.

ISIS is a present threat to US security, and to the security of our allies. They are also fascists, and I believe that Americans are committed to opposing fascism on principle. But to oppose them means a political struggle above all else. To rephrase Clausewitz, military operations are a subset of politics, and military force should be used as a subset of a political process—and only when combat does not strengthen the political cause of the opposition. The failure in Mosul shows the serious limitations of using an army when they do not believe in the political cause of the people who pay them. So before ‘bombing the crap out of ISIS’ we need to understand them, and how to fight them on their turf.

Here is one example. ISIS is known for posting videos of their activities. They overlay praise-music with video footage of them dynamiting Shi’ite shrines. It is forbidden in Islam to destroy places and icons that are being actively revered by people of other faiths. So ISIS’s destruction of actively-used Shi’ite shrines is haram (forbidden by Islamic law). ISIS’s claim to credibility is that they are the ‘true’ Islamic government. To attack their credibility, we need to challenge them on Islamic terms. That means the foreign-policy wing of the US government needs to understand Islam well enough to wage the political war through Shari’a jurisprudential arguments. We cannot defeat this intolerant threat if Americans are perceived as being similarly intolerant. Trump’s bigoted tone weakens our position against ISIS.

Bigotry makes America politically clumsy. We missed and badly misinterpreted an opportunity with the Taliban sixteen years ago. Westerners still make the mistake of thinking that the destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was “senseless.” I don’t agree with the “sense” that the Taliban argued at the time, but it was definitely sensible and profoundly different from ISIS today. Before destroying the Buddhas the Taliban argued that 1) Buddhists had not been revering the statues at Bamiyan for decades, so it was legal to remove them. But more importantly: 2) a German historical agency had just offered to spend more than $100 million to restore the statues. Meanwhile, no international agency had offered help with the serious famine which had set in in Afghanistan by 1999. The Taliban were appalled by this prioritization of art-preservation over the preservation of human life, and they wanted to call international attention to this hypocrisy. Unfortunately the international reaction remains under-(hypo)critical of this event. I read the Taliban’s arguments in the New York Times. This was not classified information, not hard to find. In some very important ways, the Taliban destruction of the Buddha statues at Bamiyan was the opposite of the ISIS destruction of Christian, Shi’ite, and Yazidi sites in Iraq. The Taliban were arguing for the importance of human life over the veneration of objects. ISIS, on the other hand, is committing genocide in a distinctly fascistic way. The US government could still use the 16-year-old Taliban arguments not just to condemn ISIS as un-Islamic, but to recruit the Taliban and perhaps even some al Qaeda factions to work with us against ISIS. If we simplistically dismiss the Taliban as ‘the bad guys,’ then we are being politically clumsy.

A fourth disturbing thing about ISIS. One of the videos they posted in 2014 shows them stopping a car at one of their checkpoints. While one ISIS guard is at the car, another checks the driver’s identification cards against information he has in a laptop. Based on whatever he finds on the laptop, the ISIS guards take the man out of the car and shoot him. What did ISIS indicate by posting this video? 1) they are brutal. No surprise there. 2) they seem to have an extensive Iraqi government database, and the ability to use it in the field. 3) they are organized ans systematic.

Later in 2014 I read that one of the major groups that came together to form ISIS was the government workers whom L. Paul Bremer dismissed in 2003 during his “de-Ba’athification program” in Iraq. I would have doubted that analysis if I had not seen that ISIS video; because actual Ba’athists were supposed to be committed secularists. That is why there was virtually no possibility that Hussein’s Ba’athinst government would have had anything to do with al Qaeda in 2001 or earlier. However, perhaps after the defeat of Hussein, and being thrown out of government, and living as unemployed people in an occupied country for a decade, maybe some former Iraqi civil servants and soldiers have decided that a Sunni Islamic militant path is the only effective way to fight the US backed, Shi’ite-partisan government in Baghdad. ISIS does in fact share two ideological traits with the Ba’athists: pan-Arabism, and anti-colonialism. But is this what happened? If we are going to fight ISIS politically, US intelligence analysts better understand this sequence of events with great clarity, and US political leaders need to heed the actual events, no matter how unexpected.

It is clear that ISIS is very organized, as if it is made up of people who are used to working in an organized government. Unlike the Taliban, who started out as vigilantes fighting corruption, or al Qaeda, who started out as adventurers seeking to overthrow the Saudi kingdom, ISIS has sought to be recognized as a government from the beginning. This makes sense especially if a fairly large fraction of ISIS is former government workers, who know how to operate a regime, maintain an identity-card database, and secure oil-facilities to maintain a revenue-flow.

I am not saying that the Bush Administration deliberately created ISIS. But there is very strong evidence that the Bush Administration inadvertently created ISIS by overthrowing Hussein and indiscriminately firing people from the Iraqi government and military who were somehow associated with the Ba’ath Party.

Now let us return to the winter of 2002-2003. Tens of thousands of Americans in San Francisco alone demonstrated against an imminent Bush invasion of Iraq. Worldwide, twenty million were demonstrating against an Iraqi invasion in the first weekends of March 2003. At the time we lived near downtown San Francisco, and the drone of aircraft overhead was constant for three months as ‘Homeland Security’ monitored demonstrators rather than focusing on actual security-threats. Unlike Vietnam, these were tens of thousands of people protesting before any war had begun. Part of my concern was that a war in Iraq would divert attention away from the actual security threat of al Qaeda. That also turned out to be correct. Al Qaeda continued to attack in Bali, Spain, Turkey, and Britain in over the next seven years. Only when the Obama Administration came in and turned attention back to al Qaeda did the US manage to reduce that security threat.

So I say this to Republicans who want to dismiss us Liberals as ‘special interest groups’ (that is a verbatim quote of George W. Bush’s reaction to the pre-invasion anti-war protests). We were right. Stop sneering at us. I have heard for years about Liberals being condescending; but in fact we did not sneer at Republicans for the mistake of Iraq. We grieved. We counted the dead, when Republicans refused to do so. Eventually Republicans themselves decided Iraq was a waste; now I am not sure if Republicans are willing to collect the tax-dollars necessary to care for America’s wounded veterans (and definitely not for the Iraqis whom we have harmed). Liberals are dismissed and sneered at for studying obscure subjects (like Islamic political thought) and objecting to warfare as a first option, rather than as a last resort within a larger political conflict. Rather than sneer at us, I invite Republicans to have the courage of humility; the courage to listen this time.