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.

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