Category Archives: Politics

compassion in the desert

Politics: the US are more divided than ever after the midterm elections. The election of democratic governors, the turn to the center of suburban women and non-whites, the interest shown by young voters, the inexorable demographic changes, nothing seems to shake us free from the grip that radical right wingers have over rural regions and will be likely to retain for quite a few years. Trump adds to the feeling, as he profits at least psychologically from the disunion and from inflaming even further many white, working-class voters. The vote for democratic representatives of all kinds exceeded the vote for republican ones by more than 7% or 11 million votes. Pennsylvania, Iowa, Wisconsin, Michigan, seem to have returned to their democratic sense of direction, but for how long? Will it take a serious economic downturn, conjugated to a foreign crisis, to bring some form of unity? And unity of what kind? On the back of what manufactured enemies? Intellectual work, and especially history of the ancient world, looks like a desperate individual act when faced with this state of affairs. I feel like crawling under a rock.

Yet, the image of my crawling under a rock while the tyrannosauri reges of the world stomp their way over to extinction gives way to landscapes of compassion and humility. Not so timid or foggy landscapes either. All across the land, heroic compassion is at work responding to needs, without recriminations, hurrahs, shouts of victory, flag waving, or claims to have truth on its side. This lived, shared, savvy, crafty empathy finds new, expansive strength over and over again. It becomes the patient, universal answer to the desiccated, warring, egotistic, greedy bands that are raiding the minds, hearts, and pockets of the working and middle classes, while distracting and entertaining them with bile-full bowls of hate and contempt.

justice and peace

In a recent NYT opinion piece, James Baker III recommends that the US government and power brokers suspend moral qualms and take the middle or balanced path about Saudi Arabia. Neither hard-line realism—embodied by Trump, Kushner, or oil circles that Baker has served for so long—nor hard-line idealism—à la Zola or Péguy in the Dreyfus affair—. Let ethically-coated material interests trump the defense of human life, be it that of Yemenites or Khashoggi. What is needed is to keep a steady balance between geo-political interests and the “promotion of America’s values.” According to Baker, the major issues for which there is this purported need to keep to a steady middle course are “Stabilizing global oil markets, combating terrorism and countering Iranian regional adventurism.” These three issues, however, if considered historically, are one single large issue: the protection of economic interests of a war-bound kingdom and its protector, interests which have long been those of US energy companies and that of an over-militarized government. Stabilizing global oil markets means continuing to impose a military-backed distribution of infrastructure and profits via dollar-based contracts rather than payments in a basket of world currencies. No Iranian pipelines to the Indian ocean or to northern India. Enormous wealth and world peace are at stake. Combating terrorism is pushing back against radical religious organizations like the Muslim Brothers whose goals include a redistribution of wealth in their countries and striking a difficult, dangerous path towards social justice. Countering Iranian regional adventurism is code for a policy of military containment of the whole area that was inherited from the UK in the fifties. It was made worse by the elimination of Hussein’s dictatorship in Iraq. The policies defended or tolerated by Baker and others have made things awful for everyone. Appeals to a purportedly shared reasonableness fall on deaf ears today when they come from quarters that helped give shape to the present situation.

The US government’s inclination, under present proto-fascists or earlier, more reasonable leadership, is to continue the customary use of overwhelming force in all areas of life by resuming the development of tactical nuclear weapons and freeing them from any oversight. Alarms were recently sounded by Mikhail Gorbatchev or George Schultz. They beg the US government not to withdraw from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty. Will it?

Thinking about these issues and trying to reach something of a “balance” in daily life becomes more and more difficult as I realize how explosive our hopes for justice and dignity can be. Is it possible to live in peace when so many injustices, however distant and repressed, seem to shape one’s being? Peace is often seen as a natural state and an inherited routine. It can become debased as a claim to be left alone. What we need to do, however, is to begin to make peace and seek justice, a costly, difficult, daily task.

Strike at UCSC

Quick bike ride early this morning to the entrance of UCSC to show support for the strike. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) represents 522 employees at UCSC, about 25,000 employees across the UC system: patient care workers, custodians, dining hall employees, building maintenance workers, loop bus drivers, and more. Some of the issues on which UCOP (UC Office of the President) has refused to budge for a year now are: fair wages, decent retirement, health benefits, staffing levels. Please go to Meranze’s and Newfield’s web page (Remaking the University) for detailed information and messages from the unions. UPTE-CWA (University Professional & Technical Employees-Communication Workers of America) and CNA (California Nurses Association) are organizing sympathy strikes for Tuesday and Wednesday 8-9 May. The strike continues tomorrow, starting at 4am. See you there.

AFSCME strike
AFSCME strike at main entrance of UCSC campus, Monday, May 7, 2018

evangelical

The words “evangelical” and “conservative” are waiting to be reclaimed by many more people than those who pretend to be so. Let the latter lose their disguises and power over imaginations and souls. The first word means “good news” and can be adopted broadly since the story, without the necessity of church of any kind, including our modern mega versions, is about the real costs of fostering life and the recognition of everyone in need as self. The second one means “to save.” It has long been clear that so-called conservatives are all but people who save, in any broad financial or bodily sense, except for their own narrow designs. They are on a radical, destructive reactionary mission and movement the “forwardness” of which alone—completely backward looking—justifies itself. I’m struck by the imaginary and literary aspect of the political question. So much money is invested in using words in a proprietary way. I think part of the present work of resistance demands a renewed, stubborn claim on our vocabulary and thinking. They are our most public goods. Words like “god,” “moral,” “Christian,” and many more need to be acid-cleaned. Let’s get to it.

parking in Santa Cruz

I’ve signed a petition to the Santa Cruz City Council regarding a new parking garage project. In the space for comments I wrote:

Parking garages are behemoth of the past. The advent of intelligent automated transportation, use of adaptable public vehicles, concentration of habitat, all of these and more that you are much more aware of than I am, mean that we don’t need another very expensive, single-use parking garage. What strikes me about parking garages is their lack of adaptability and the weight they put psychologically on the minds and wallets of people, including our children and grandchildren. Nothing else can be done with these expensive constructions than park cars that are going to become part of much more fluid networks. PLEASE, consider the best transportation and public policy management before committing to such a massive, unmovable project.

tax message

I sent the following message re. the tax bill’s last spasms to my representatives, Feinstein and Panetta. Please edit, add, circulate, and send:

I know that you don’t support the tax bill and will do all you can to stop it. It will increase the deficit without obvious economic benefits for the nation. Many corporations have accumulated enormous capital that they are not willing or able to invest productively. They should not be rewarded for removing it from the reach of taxation. Furthermore, adding more capital to this capacity by lowering their tax rate will increase dangerous speculation. The economy is working without it, in part because social net protections have been dangerously eroded and provide much cheaper labor, as well as frustration, fear, and anger, whereas they should be strengthened. PLEASE, do all you can to prevent the Republican party from having the excuse of a deficit that this tax bill will soon put even more deeply in the red, an excuse that will likely be used to try and erode even further the social protections needed for a free, productive, sharing, and peaceful society.

community

This is a comment triggered by the language used in an update on UCSC’s strategic academic planning (EVC M. Tromp’s email of Dec. 1, 2017). Academic planning is a periodic necessity, given demographic changes, scientific evolution, political shifting background, institutional fatigue. No question about that. The language used in the present cyclical exercise is what interests me, specifically the use of the word community that appears at the top of the message, since it is addressed to the UC Santa Cruz community. I take the word “community” to echo a sense of common endeavor and real, practical sharing of work, risk, benefits, in an atmosphere of generous give and take, trust, peace, and respect. It is being used in that sense, I assume, but the insistence on deploying the word everywhere is a correlate of the disappearance at UCSC as elsewhere of the real good denoted by the word. It is now used in all communications because a university like UCSC has effectively become a competing institution of our capitalist world. Like all those other institutions, it still needs to squeeze references to old fashion values in the hope that some juice is left in them (for comparison, think of “fidelity” or “trust”). The logic of development of the school itself and the long-developing hostile political environment—diminished taxes for common, public goods—has done away with the values of “community.” Yet, in a magic gesture not all that appropriate for a scientific institution, it finds itself needing to reach out for the mythic charge of the word and hope for the best. I don’t think that the consultants hired to help with this year’s strategic planning can recharge words like “community” and resurrect its old entangled mojo. Whence then?

banlieues de l’être

Balade le long de la belle rivière Clinton au nord de Troy (MI). De la route qui y mène, je vois d’énormes banlieues aux maisons identiques, entourées de verdure et d’arbres. Deux niveaux de salaire, ce me semble, à la grandeur des maisons et au nombre de portes de garage, ainsi qu’à la surface du lotissement. Ici et là, j’ai un aperçu du régime au-dessus, par exemple de vastes demeures au bord de lacs, ou du régime au-dessous, généralement des parcs de maisons tractées (= mobilhomes) ou des maisons très modestes qui ont précédé ces nouvelles banlieues construites depuis les années soixante-dix aux années quatre-vingt-dix. Difficile de m’imaginer y vivre: où aller à pied à la rencontre d’autres, comment se faire des amis sinon dans les malls ou peut-être les lieux à thèmes religieux ponctuant cet espace énorme depuis le dixième mille au moins jusqu’au quinzième ou seizième. Aller au travail, à l’école, aux magasins, tout est devenu transport au dehors de soi. Plus de “home” où on a le sens de demeurer, de transformer ce qu’on a en ce qu’on peut être, de s’approprier paysage et construction comme étant de soi, au moins partiellement. On est de plus en plus intensément projeté en-deça et au-delà d’un soi introuvable par les outils de communication qui aux services de recherche (Google) ou de “rapprochement” (Facebook) ajoutent raffinement sur raffinement de désirs de présence qu’ils vendent aux plus offrants. La valeur en bourse de ces trafiquants, transporteurs et fomenteurs d’images et de désirs, d’après ce que j’ai lu récemment, est d’environ deux mille milliards de dollars, soit un peu plus de la moitié du budget annuel du gouvernement des États-Unis, ou environ 10% de l’économie du pays (il s’agit de trois grandes compagnies de messagerie et deux d’électronique: Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Alphabet-Google, Facebook).

museum of the bible

On my way to the Annual Conference of the Society of Biblical Literature in Boston, I stopped in Baltimore. Today’s Washington Post carries stories about tomorrow’s opening of the new Museum of the Bible located not far from the Washington Mall. Its location alone near the heart of political and military power is enough to justify a dismissal of its claim to biblical inerrancy. What museum would Jesus have advised the Green family to build with their Hobby Lobby money? Would he have said something like: “Invite politicians and wealthy people at 2,500$ a pop and have a party tonight, do this in my memory?” The inerrancy the museum claims for the Bible is code for the exercise of power over minds and bodies, a nostalgic, rearguard action that actually reinforces the view that the modern American world has of Christianity as one of its cultures. By making a claim on US minds at the center of its political world, its effort to repeat and entrench a master narrative becomes a sorry demonstration of scientific and modern impotence. The reasoning behind the museum is entirely based on the notion of origin and priority of a certain kind of “antiquity” instead of on principle in its logical, critical, scientific sense. By dint of location and timing, it is trapped into a modern version of the Exodus story. In this story, it is not Moses who leads the people into a risky acceptance of a covenant without kings. On the contrary, it is the self-promoting Trump who acts like a pharaoh and calls for a return to the mythic golden age of divinized kingship. Do the supporters of this new museum realize what they are doing? Don’t they see that they are parting the Red Sea on their way back to the country of flesh pots and its gilded pharaohs?

république

Postscriptum by George Bensoussan to his Les territoires perdus de la République where he repeats his cry for help—help for everyone—by everyone, I mean the children, the vast segments of the population that feel abandoned, and even the so-called elites. It took six months for the initial book to be heard, or reviled. In it, he and his collaborators detailed the main reasons they saw for the catastrophic events in France since 2000 or so.

The most important reason, from his point of view, is the long, secular antisemitism found in Maghreb Islam, which became more virulent already at the end of the nineteenth century when Jews chose to be integrated via the schooling system, administration, political identity, and even army. and thereby escaped their fate as “protected minority” within Islam. The root for this is religious: the claim that Islam, after Christianity and Judaism, makes to be the only faith with access to final truths. This antisemitism was worsened by the resentment caused by having lost control of their own affairs and being demeaned and abused by colonial powers. It reached new levels in the French situation especially since the nineties. The author argues in this postscriptum that even without the existence of Israel, this antisemitism would still exist. I don’t disagree completely, but I think it would not have the murderous force it has taken in the past twenty years. The policies of Israel regarding Palestine cannot be factored out. Still, it remains that the author is right to insist that one cannot explain the surge of violence only by the memory of colonialism and the terribly unequal socio-economic situation found in many banlieues.

He sees a number of social factors at work, mixed with cultural aspects. The Maghrebi family and community model has seen paternal and male power diminished and humbled. I would tie these new forms of abasement to the historical humiliation of colonialism and modernist heyday associated with enlightenment and separation of powers. Education in public schools threatens the structure further. Girls may emancipate themselves in all sorts of ways. Integration and rationalism undercut or sap tradition. The return to a more virile, anti-rationalist, original, salafist version of religion and culture is tempting. Add the civic and economic troubles, the absence of jobs, the difficulty in landing one when they exist. Legal, educational, and political institutions lose completely their meaning and are replaced by criminality and violences, including among Muslims themselves (inter-gang and inter-family territorial fights).

Lastly, there has been the silence and avoidance cultivated especially by intellectuals and elites, though perhaps not at the highest level? Out of mauvaise conscience regarding WW II and especially the terrible crimes of colonialism, as well as regarding social inequities? and a cheaply acquired bonne conscience translated by minutes of silence, Shoah reminders and plaques, etc., that become occasions of revolt and insults on the part of angry, radicalized youth. Contempt, or rather mauvaise conscience also regarding the large majority of the rest of the population that has to live with a feeling of losing it. The Front national has become the first “working class” movement in France, no matter Macron’s victory… Elites and middle class avoid having their children in at-risk areas, schools, or jobs.

Dans le brouillard, sous les branches ballantes des séquoias sombres,
j’ai retrouvé la bibliothèque où deux livres m’attendaient:
le rêve mosaïque d’un vieux savant allemand
et le cri d’un juif français sur la faillite de la république.
Les pruniers sont en fleurs dans la cour du Pharaon,
On attend les cerisiers.