One Day I’ll Be Thankful for a Welfare State

In a recent column about empathy, Nick Kristof responded to terrible critics of his call for people to take care of one another:

A reader named Keith reflected a coruscating chorus when he protested: “If kids are going hungry, it is because of the parents not upholding their responsibilities.”

[…]

After a recent column about an uninsured man who delayed seeing a doctor about a condition that turned out to be colon cancer, many readers noted that he is a lifelong smoker and said he had it coming.

“What kind of a lame brain doofus is this guy?” one reader asked. “And like it’s our fault that he couldn’t afford to have himself checked out?

This isn’t new. People who don’t want to help each other and don’t feel like they have to really like to blame others for their circumstances. But then Kristof kind of allows it, in defense of the children:

Let’s acknowledge one point made by these modern social Darwinists: It’s true that some people in poverty do suffer in part because of irresponsible behavior, from abuse of narcotics to criminality to laziness at school or jobs. But remember also that many of today’s poor are small children who have done nothing wrong.

Some 45 percent of food stamp recipients are children, for example. Do we really think that kids should go hungry if they have criminal parents? Should a little boy not get a curved spine treated properly because his dad is a deadbeat? Should a girl not be able to go to preschool because her mom is an alcoholic?

He takes it as a given that some adults are to blame for their bad decisions, and chooses to guilt-trip the assholes by pointing to the children that are the innocent victims of their parents’ choices. Nevermind that A. poor adults make the same kinds of bad decisions as middle class and rich adults, they just don’t have a personal safety net, and B. adults who need help deserve it – no matter what the reason, just like children.

When rich and even middle-class, especially white, people enjoy privileges that are invisible to them but incredibly apparent to everyone else, it demands that everyone else receive the help that they deserve. In my city, if you’re caught doing drugs in one part of town you’ll probably get a reprimand, maybe get sent to rehab, if you get caught on the other side of town you’ll probably meet the carceral state up close. Being injured or sick when you’re rich is still a terrible thing to be, but at least you can get treatment while the uninsured are merely kept alive. Missing in all of this is that the middle-class and rich get government help all of the time: income tax credits, quality education for their children, well-maintained highways – things that are meant for everybody but really don’t benefit those who don’t have much of an income, who send their children to under-funded schools due to property tax inequity, who take the bus for an hour to work. A proper safety net is the only way to help these people, and that’s what we should be doing.

Why Samantha Power is Speaking at Fourth Estate

Tonight, newly confirmed U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power will give the keynote address at Invisible Children’s Fourth Estate Summit. The summit is the second or third* such conference hosted by IC to bring together young leaders to learn more about the LRA conflict in particular, but also to learn about and discuss activism, development, justice, and trendy ways to change lives. The keynote will be Power’s first speech since assuming the role of ambassador to the UN.

Some people are a little surprised that this will be Power’s first event. But, regardless of whether it was booked before or after her nomination, her attendance at the conference representing the government is very appropriate. Her book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide has been cited by a lot of activists as a call to action and a blueprint for what the U.S. government’s role in preventing and responding to mass atrocities should look like. In the book, citing how the U.S. failed to intervene when genocide occurred in the past, Power advocates for increased humanitarian intervention through engaged diplomatic efforts and military action.

While her call for intervention is not without criticism, Power’s advocacy for U.S. involvement in stemming and preventing mass atrocities has been central to groups like Invisible Children, Enough, and Save Darfur, groups that have led grassroots movements to bring attention to and take action to stop human rights abuses. In addition to making films about the LRA and running education, employment, and sanitation programs in Uganda, IC is also behind the years-long advocacy push for U.S. action to bring leaders of the LRA to justice. This is why it’s no surprise that Invisible Children would want Samantha Power to speak at their summit.

But why would the U.S. Mission to the UN send its highest official to the conference, and for her first official speech at that? Again, while this might seem surprising at first, it actually makes all sorts of sense. Invisible Children has been the central figure in the campaign to get the U.S. government to take action on the LRA conflict. There are several groups trying to shed light on the LRA’s actions, but IC has pretty much been in the driver’s seat of the effort to urge U.S. action since around 2007 or 2009. The May 2010 passage of the LRA Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act was the most widely co-sponsored Africa-related bill in modern U.S. legislative history. And in October of 2011 President Obama sent 100 military advisers to help track down Kony.

This is all to say that Invisible Children is a powerful player in helping advocate for policy decisions. But IC has also played into the broader U.S. policy in the region. President Museveni of Uganda has been a pretty bad leader recently, but the War on Terror gave both Presidents Bush and Obama reason to lend him financial support and military assistance as part of the trend in which we support autocrats for being tough on terrorists. Uganda is one of the main contributors to the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, where they are fighting al Shabaab. Museveni has been a long-time opponent of Sudan’s Omar al Bashir. And this is on top of Museveni’s fight against the LRA, whom were labeled terrorists by both the U.S. and Ugandan governments in the early 2000s. Because of all of this, Museveni needs U.S. support – rigged elections and brutal crackdowns on protests be damned. And so, by mustering a grassroots movement of thousands of millenials to call for the U.S. to commit to helping stop the LRA, IC helps the Obama administration explain why Museveni deserves millions of dollars of military aid.

And that brings us to today, when an advocate of U.S. humanitarian intervention and a person who has been in the center of Obama’s foreign policy decision-making will speak to 1500 youth that helped call for intervention in central Africa that supported an autocrat. There are good and bad things that arise from such parallel work between an advocacy group and the government, from effectively getting aid money to development agencies and raising awareness of the effects of displacement to further militarizing an already dangerous region. But, as IC’s activism in the U.S. and their protection programs in DRC and CAR continue to support and shape U.S. policy, the relationship between the two will remain like that.


* This is the second Fourth Estate conference – the first was in 2011. I attended a conference in 2007 that was a sort of precursor to Fourth Estate, in which 200 IC supporters also learned about the LRA, discussed activism, justice, world-changing, etc.

Against Teach for America

I’ve never been a big fan of Teach for America, and in the last few years I’ve grown to downright hate the organization. And yet, I’ve never actually explicated about it on this, my more enduring venting platform. Now seems like the time, though, as a conference called Free Minds, Free People is organizing against TFA this summer. This is happening despite TFA’s broad popularity among education “reformers” and neoliberal bureaucrats that would love nothing more than to break teachers’ unions and privatize the education sector. Can you tell a rant is forming?

None of this is groundbreaking opinion if you’ve been paying attention to the education scene. Governments at all levels are tightening their purses when it comes to education, and public schools are doing what they can to continue teaching the students entrusted to them. And by doing what they can I mean by and large students are being funneled into giant classrooms where they’re being prepared for the next standardized test. Social studies took the brunt of the class size increases while English, math, and more recently science absorbed the standardized testing aspect. But right now the English classrooms and science labs are growing too, and there’s perennial talk of state-standardized social studies exams. And as this continues across the country, some states are working hard to shut down teachers’ unions and shuttering schools. Only now are we finally seeing resistance, but even this is a little defense against an onslaught of government and business efforts to radically alter education for the worse.

Enter Teach for America. Plucking college graduates from across the country, TFA throws them into a summer preparation course before placing them in some of the toughest communities in the country to serve students in dire need of a quality education. Instead, students on the margins are being taught by brand new, untested and unqualified teachers who have only committed to two years of teaching before they move on to graduate school in fields only tangentially related to education like administration, psychology, or business. The aim of the organization is to concentrate not on actually helping students in need but instead on providing top college graduates with experience before they move on to other fields.

Take, for example, a statistic my friend (a former TFA-er) told me: Teach for America has the same number of staff tasked with recruiting at Columbia University as it does tasked with organizing teacher placement for all of the New York City area. That number is two. You could also take this professor’s widely-shared reasoning for why he refuses to let TFA recruit in his classroom:

Never, in its recruiting literature, has Teach for America described teaching as the most valuable professional choice that an idealistic, socially-conscious person can make.  Nor do they encourage the brightest students to make teaching their permanent career; indeed, the organization goes out of its way to make joining TFA seem a like a great pathway to success in other, higher-paying professions.

Three years ago, a TFA recruiter plastered the Fordham campus with flyers that said “Learn how joining TFA can help you gain admission to Stanford Business School.”  The message of that flyer was “use teaching in high-poverty areas a stepping stone to a career in business.”  It was not only profoundly disrespectful to every person who chooses to commit their life to the teaching profession, it advocated using students in high-poverty areas as guinea pigs for an experiment in “resume-padding” for ambitious young people.

Treating youth in need as stepping stones to graduate school is but one of the major flaws with TFA. TFA’s woefully inadequate preparation for its teachers and tremendous lack of support for them is exacerbated by the fact that the two-year volunteers crowd out qualified teachers who are looking for work and create cracks in the fragile labor system that is teaching. I studied for four years and spent over 1000 hours teaching – including a semester in my own classroom – just to gain the experience and tools needed to be a good teacher, and even then I knew I had several years to go before I would be able to say that I excelled at the job. I’m desperate to get back in the classroom now solely because I want to continue that climb. But if I were to join TFA, I would be out the door and onto the next professional achievement outside the classroom before I could even get the hang of taking attendance. That is, of course, if I were accepted by TFA, which is notorious for rejecting people who want to be teachers and accepting future leaders in business and administration.

One former TFA-er reflected on the statistics of TFA teachers versus new, credentialed, trained teachers:

 Compare the performance of Teach For America corps members to another cohort: credentialed, non-TFA corps members. The same study indicates that novice TFA teachers actually perform significantly less well in reading and math than credentialed beginning teachers at the same schools. Keep in mind that to “perform significantly less well” as a teacher is quite literally to have a group of 10, 100, or even 200 students learn less than they would had you not been their teacher.

If you’re interested, you can read others’ thoughts on TFA here and here. While I think he gives a little too much credit to TFA, this former participanstill advocates for shuttering the program, citing the experience at his school:

The other problem is the wasted investment a school makes in a teacher who leaves after just a few years. Sadly, I’m a poster child for this. I remember my last day at my school in Colorado, as I made the rounds saying goodbye to veteran teachers, my friends and colleagues who had provided me such crucial support and mentorship. As I talked of my plans for law school in Chicago, and they bade me best wishes, I felt an overwhelming wave of guilt. Their time and energy spent making me a better teacher – and I was massively better on that day compared to my first – was for naught. The previous summer I had spent a week of training, paid for by my school, to learn to teach pre–Advanced Placement classes. I taught the class for a year; presumably, I thought, someone else would have to receive the same training – or, worse, someone else would not receive the same training. All that work on classroom management and understanding of the curriculum, all the support in connecting with students and writing lesson – it would all have to begin again with a new teacher. (Indeed, my replacement apparently had a nervous breakdown and quit after a few months. She was replaced by a long-term substitute who one of my former colleagues must write lesson plans for.)

This teacher goes on to inspect the budget of TFA and it reflects what was mentioned above: 40% of TFA money doesn’t even show up in the classroom. Keep in mind that a number of school districts hire TFA teachers instead of experienced, certified teachers who want to be teachers. As cities like Chicago move towards mass closings of schools and cities like Philadelphia privatize their school districts, and teachers that remain employed in the schools that remain open find themselves saddled with excess work that stresses the system to its breaking point, TFA is breaking apart teachers – the only group still working to actually educate students. It’s efforts like this, aimed at keeping needy students in the margins in order to benefit elite future business and law school students while our school systems crumble, that tears me up. Teaching is my absolute passion, and I’m sitting here watching the whole education system torn down by TFA, by high-stakes testing, by No Child Left Behind, by Race to the Top, by reformers, by administrators, by governments. But these groups and objects have operated all as one. As Andrew Hartman explains, in a brilliant look at TFA:

TFA, suitably representative of the liberal education reform more generally, underwrites, intentionally or not, the conservative assumptions of the education reform movement: that teacher’s unions serve as barriers to quality education; that testing is the best way to assess quality education; that educating poor children is best done by institutionalizing them; that meritocracy is an end-in-itself; that social class is an unimportant variable in education reform; that education policy is best made by evading politics proper; and that faith in public school teachers is misplaced.

[…]

Successful charter schools, [TFA founder Wendy] Kopp maintains, also stop at nothing to remove bad teachers from the classroom. This is why charter schools are the preferred mechanism for delivery of education reform: as defined by Kopp, charter schools are “public schools empowered with flexibility over decision making in exchange for accountability for results.” And yet, “results,” or rather, academic improvement, act more like a fig leaf, especially in light of numerous recent studies that show charter schools, taken on the whole, actually do a worse job of educating students than regular public schools. Rather, crushing teacher’s unions—the real meaning behind Kopp’s “flexibility” euphemism—has become the ultimate end of the education reform movement. This cannot be emphasized enough: the precipitous growth of charter schools and the TFA insurgency are part and parcel precisely because both cohere with the larger push to marginalize teacher’s unions.

[…]

From its origins, the TFA-led movement to improve the teacher force has aligned itself with efforts to expand the role of high-stakes standardized testing in education. TFA insurgents, including Kopp and Rhee, maintain that, even if imperfect, standardized tests are the best means by which to quantify accountability. Prior to the enactment of Bush’s bipartisan No Child Left Behind in 2001, high-stakes standardized testing was mostly limited to college-entrance exams such as the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). But since then, the high-stakes testing movement has blown up: with increasing frequency, student scores on standardized exams are tied to teacher, school, and district evaluations, upon which rewards and punishments are meted out. Obama’s “Race to the Top” policy—the brainchild of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, the former “CEO” of Chicago Public Schools—further codifies high-stakes testing by allocating scarce federal resources to those states most aggressively implementing these so-called accountability measures. The multi-billion dollar testing industry—dominated by a few large corporations that specialize in the making and scoring of standardized tests—has become an entrenched interest, a powerful component of a growing education-industrial complex.

Teach for America. High-stakes testing. Charter schools. Union-busting. School-closing. It’s all part of the same, terrible effort to throw our education system in the trash, and I’m glad to see more people resisting. With the economy making its slow climb out of the recession, many states are gaining or expecting surpluses. Schools are right to demand that this money go into education and not into privatizing more of our public goods. Teachers are organizing, and hopefully it isn’t too little, too late. The fight’s just starting, but – with hope – we can save our schools.

Violent in America

It’s been a while since Daryl Johnson, the analyst at Homeland Security tried to raise the alarm about right-wing violent extremism (and then lost his job amid Republican outcry). And it’s only been a few months since a study connected to Westpoint drew the connections between various right-wing groups and the use of violence (also criticized by the Republican Party). And yet, we have to observe recent evidence:

The head of the Colorado Department of Corrections was shot dead at his front door by a White Supremacist parolee who was later killed in a shootout with Texas police. And the Kaufman County, Texas, district attorney and his wife were just murdered, and a lot of people are linking it to the assistant district attorney’s murder in January after an investigation into the Aryan Brotherhood was opened.

Hayes Brown recently pointed out a study that showed that right-wing extremists are “highly engaged” with the Republican Party on Twitter, citing a report’s findings that the GOP could engage with these extremists in an effort to discourage violence. Instead, every time a study makes the connection between far-right groups and violence, Republicans say that they ought to be concentrating on Muslim extremists abroad rather than right-wing shootings at Sikh temples, attacks at abortion clinics, and targeted killings of law enforcement officials.

Compare this to the majority of liberals and even progressives that decry left-wing anarchist and animal rights violence. Even a single broken window at Occupy Oakland was shunned by a majority of liberals. Meanwhile, conservatives are working to discourage action on actual violence by actual extremists in their camp.

Latin America’s Exception, From the Torture Network to the ICC

About a week ago, Greg Grandin wrote a piece about the CIA’s extensive torture network, noting that, among the 54 countries involved, Latin America was completely absent. The article is a really great read and sheds light on why the region didn’t render itself part of the massive anti-terror network. The history of U.S.-Latin America relations is, of course, a dubious one. Grandin cites Cold War involvement as well as economic failures brought about by neoliberalism as setting the stage, and both the Iraq War and the U.S.’s aggressive post-9/11 militarization as informing the Latin American response to Washington’s requests. He cites several WikiLeaks cables regarding Brazil’s effort to prevent U.S. expansion into South America:

[The cable] went on to report that Lula’s government considered the whole system Washington had set up at Guantánamo (and around the world) to be a mockery of international law. “All attempts to discuss this issue” with Brazilian officials, the cable concluded, “were flatly refused or accepted begrudgingly.”

In addition, Brazil refused to cooperate with the Bush administration’s efforts to create a Western Hemisphere-wide version of the Patriot Act. It stonewalled, for example, about agreeing to revise its legal code in a way that would lower the standard of evidence needed to prove conspiracy, while widening the definition of what criminal conspiracy entailed.

It’s really fascinating to look at the reasons that Brazil and other South American countries might be wary of what the U.S. is trying to use them for. This is also evident in the context of the International Criminal Court. Every single country in South America – and almost all of Central America – are members of the ICC, despite U.S. efforts to prevent such membership in the Court’s early years.

When George W. Bush entered office, he quickly set out to cripple the ICC before it was even officially created. He and like-minded senators targeted the ICC and tried to discourage states from signing the Rome Statute, the founding treaty behind the Court. They passed laws like the American Service-Members’ Protection Act, which barred U.S. cooperation with the Court and prevented military aid and training from going to countries that joined the Court. The White House also set about signing Bilateral Immunity Agreements (BIAs, also called Article 98 agreements) with countries establishing that they would not extradite American citizens to the Court. If states joined the ICC but didn’t sign BIAs, they would no longer receive aid.

The Bush administration worked hard to either isolate the ICC or cripple it by preventing jurisdiction over U.S. citizens. The response wasn’t what conservatives had hoped. By October of 2005, 54 countries had denounced BIAs (pdf), including a number of Latin American countries. While countries around the world issues such statements, Latin American countries had much more to lose in aid dollars, and yet they still refused to cooperate with the U.S. attempt to derail international justice. Ecuador lost more in aid funds than any other country in the world, and Peru and Uruguay both lost over a million dollars, in 2004, with threats of more in years to come.

In 2005, General Bantz Craddock of SOUTHCOM testified before a House committee (pdf) that he was unable to work with 11 countries in his region, and that these countries were turning elsewhere for training and aid, causing severe damage to U.S. influence. Losing its sphere of influence in it’s own backyard, the U.S. eventually backed down, allowing aid to flow into these countries in order to reestablish military support, but apparently not enough to marshal admission into the CIA torture network. It’s not crazy to assume that holding aid hostage for U.S. gains in the early 2000s played a role when it came to trying to build anti-terrorist laws and programs in the region.

What Can We Do?

Yesterday, in light of recent events, my friend Adam and I engaged in a thorough conversation over what the next step is in changing the national discourse on gun control. The truth is that I have no idea. I figured I’d lead with that before writing this post. I’ve never worked on any gun control issue, and I’m not even that well-read on the issue. But I have a lot of thoughts on it, because it’s something that enters my thoughts pretty often.

When looking at the recent history of gun violence and massacres in the United States, it’s hard to parse out a strategy or narrative that’s deals solely with guns. The perceived importance of guns is tied up with our Constitution’s Second Amendment, and any conversation about preventing such tragic events must include talk of access to, funding for, and reduced stigma of mental healthcare and increased support for victims of domestic violence. And when you talk about political or legal solutions to gun proliferation, you involve the political system, the powerful gun lobby, and the ideologues of the Republican Party along with unequal state laws, a Supreme Court that strikes down bans, and a Democratic Party scared to use its strength.

So, eschewing the question of when it’s right to talk about gun control, I ask: what will be done? We can’t really accept that nothing will be done, even though a lot of us have reluctantly muttered the question “how many more times will this have to happen before we do something about it?” at least a few times in the past week, month, year, or decade. But if we refuse the idea that nothing will be done, if we decide that something will be done, what will that something be?

A relative of mine recently tried to take advantage of some gun sales at a hunting store in Arizona, and the guns had all sold out almost immediately. When my dad asked him why, the relative reiterated the fear that Obama will be banning all guns any day now, so a lot of Republicans are getting them while they can. Nevermind the fact that Obama hasn’t had the gumption to do anything when it comes to gun violence, and has actually helped facilitate the militarizing of a host of countries around the world. What do we do about gun control when people are already hoarding weaponry to face both the apocalypse and the specter of a government crackdown on guns, both of which are completely unfounded?

It will be a long and arduous campaign to shift the cultural mindset. The NRA and similar organizations have always had a tight grip on the lawmakers of this country, and they have also fostered a deep love for guns among the citizenry. The recent radical turn of the Republican Party has only exacerbated this as more and more people feel tied to their right to bear arms. There’s no easy way to reverse this trend, but a long and committed campaign could slowly chip away at the power of firearms.

It is, of course, my dream that I could live in an America where there is either a full gun ban or something close.  But that’s all it is. It’s a dream, and it will remain that way. After all, yesterday’s tragedy, and many gun-related tragedies, was carried out by legal weapons. But there has to be some argument that, if killing sprees and this easy while ostensibly following the law, maybe we should change the law. The fight against gun violence and mass killings needs to start locally, and it needs to start with conversation.

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Only Nixon, Only Reagan – International Treaties and the Presidency

A lot of people have been lamenting the US Senate’s failure on Wednesday to ratify the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by a vote of 61-38 (treaties need 67 votes to be ratified), and rightly so. There is virtually no reason not to ratify the treaty, and many GOP senators even went back on promises at the last minute by voting no. It’s really terrible that the United States is so unwilling to ratify international conventions, many of which are great treaties, on the absurd fear of losing all American sovereignty (or whatever it is they’ve convinced themselves).

But the fact is, we shouldn’t be surprised. The Unites States is the only country other than Somalia that hasn’t ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. And we’re in the minority of non-ratifiers for a host of other conventions and treaties, from landmine bans to climate change protocols to international justice. The next time the U.S. signs onto anything like this, it will be because a Republican President wants to.

Sometimes people look at me with a bit of skepticism on that point, but it’s true. In an only-Nixon-could-go-to-China way, only a Republican president could twist the arms of enough GOP senators to vote alongside Dems, who for the most part already support such measures. The only reason the U.S. ever signed onto the Genocide Convention was because Ronald Reagan accidentally visited a Nazi cemetery (and didn’t visit any concentration camps) on a trip to Germany. To solve the controversy, he pushed for the Genocide Convention’s passage and voila. That is almost the only route for America to sign anything.

So we just need the next GOP President to fuck up on an issue, I guess.

African Studies and Militarization

Last month, an article by David Wiley, “Militarizing Africa and African Studies and the U.S. Africanist Response,” [gated] appeared in African Studies Review. It’s an important look at what Africanist scholars face in an increasingly militarized field. The piece examines how area studies programs initially developed during the Cold War (for a quick look at that, read this) and how many scholars dealt with attempts to militarize their field. He discusses how there were some scholars in all area studies who were involved in policy-making, but that many were critical of American interventionist policies. Africanists were actually late to the game in this, Wiley explains, but once they did organize against U.S. foreign involvement, (in the 70s, in Angola and South Africa), it was strong and resolute.

Africanists had a lot to criticize in U.S. Africa policy, from backing dictators to arming rebels to assassinating democratically elected leaders. In an effort to gain favor, the Defense Intelligence Agency offered four Title VI universities (there are 11 universities with African Studies programs that receive funds from the Department of Education, among other Title VI centers for other areas) large amounts of funds to work with the government, an offer which they refused. Beyond that, the directors of all of the Title VI National Resource Centers for Africa voted not to apply for or accept any military or intelligence funding in 1982, and in 2008 reaffirmed that position, stating that:

We believe that the long-term interests of the people of the U.S. are best served by this separation between academic and military and defense establishments. Indeed, in the climate of the post–Cold War years in Africa and the security concerns after 9/11/2001, we believe that it is a patriotic policy to make this separation. This separation ensures that U.S. students and faculty researchers can maintain close ties with African researchers and affiliation with and access to African institutions without question or bias. Such separation, we believe, can produce the knowledge and understanding of Africa that serves the broad interests of the people of the United States as well as our partners in Africa.

At the same time, the Association of African Studies Programs also voted to reject military and intelligence funding for programs, and argued that no scholar or program should accept funding from those sources. But while these acts of independence began in the midst of the Cold War, and were reaffirmed in the context of U.S. involvement in the Global War on Terror and in Iraq, things have shifted in the last few years. With AFRICOM coming onto the field with it’s whole-of-government approach, Africanists have faced a growing threat in the militarization of academic scholarship. Wiley gives a long list of examples of AFRICOM’s actions on the ground:

  • Establishing Camp Lemonier in Djibouti as the base for AFRICOM and allied military units, in addition to ~2000 personnel in Stuttgart, Molesworth, and MacDill AFB
  • Establishing the Social Science Research Council in Stuttgart and supporting the Socio-Cultural Research and Advisory Team to provide troops with cultural knowledge.
  • Creating an AFRICOM liason unit at AU headquarters in Ethiopia
  • Building a CIA operations base in Somalia with prison, planes, and counterterrorism training for Somali intelligence agents.
  • Establishing bases in Seychelles, Djibouti, and Ethiopia for drones.
  • Expanding intelligence operations with private contractors.
  • Expanding U.S. Special Operations teams in countries without government permission (apparently based on a 2010 directive by Gen. Petraeus.
  • Training hundreds of African military officers at conferences.
  • Mounting AFRICOM-led operations in Libya and Somalia
  • Providing 100 troops to work with Central African armies in an anti-LRA campaign.
  • Increasing the number of army personnel stationed in Africa by 3000 in Central Africa, Mali, and Somalia.

In addition to all of this, AFRICOM’s whole-of-government approach has included engaging in both diplomatic and development work on top of traditional military duties. While some hail this as a more integrated approach, it also blurs the lines between military and non-military actors. As a result, State Department officials and USAID personnel, and even non-governmental aid workers, are being viewed as part of America’s military involvement in Africa.

While this was all occurring in Africa, in the United States the field of African Studies has faced a similarly forceful push of militarization. Wiley notes an “unprecedented surge of funding for studying Africa and African languages in the DOD, in intelligence agencies, and in military-focused higher education institutions.” He also estimates that “funding for the study of Africa in U.S. security agencies now exceeds that of American universities probably by a factor of fifty, perhaps more,” despite the fact that universities offer more languages and better instruction. On top of all of this, DoD also sponsors three programs to fund the study of Africa in civilian institutions: the National Security Education Program, the Minerva Research Initiative, and Human Terrain Systems (I worked briefly on a Minerva project while I was a fellow at ASU’s Center for the Study of Religion and Conflict, and wrote about it and Human Terrain Teams here).

All of these programs are well-funded projects of the Defense Department, while the U.S. Department of Education cut 46% of Title VI area studies centers (including the 11 Africa universities), with the government favoring area and language study programs run by DoD. In addition to this, the Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Disseration Abroad and Faculty Research Abroad programs were suspended in 2011 and the Summer Cooperative African Language Institute was cancelled in 2012. With non-military funding opportunities shrinking, scholars (and students) are facing a dilemma in how to acquire funds to carry out research and teaching.

In this time of austerity, especially at public universities, there is a growing sense that civilian agency funding is collapsing and military and intelligence funding increasingly is the “only game in town.” As a result, two university African centers and linguists in two other universities that have Title VI Africa centers (with the dissent of their African center faculty), have taken funding for African language instruction programs from the DOD’s NSEP.

Africanist scholars are beginning to fall under the control of the military as DoD-funded projects dictate what they study, where they do research, and what questions they ask. From here, things will only get worse. Title VI universities are already worried about Foreign Language and Area Studies funding suffering even more egregious cuts (FLAS grants arrive in three-year packages, and the current round of funding expires next summer), and other sources of funding will also be disappearing if Congress continues to cut funding (one needs only to peruse the Department of Education grants site to see how many programs have been suspended or cancelled). Wiley paints a sad picture of where area studies programs stand now, and the possible future we might find ourselves in. If the military controls more and more funding for higher education, our colleges, scholars, and students will have less options. As DoD annexes the social sciences and humanities, will the leading African Studies programs in the country be able to maintain their independence from military control? Or will all researchers and students trying to work in the region be following the army’s orders?

Silencing Propaganda: When Art and Speech Become Violent

Last week, my history class discussed the death of Thami Mnyele, a South African anti-apartheid activist and artist who was killed in an attack by South African forces in Botswana. Mnyele, the subject of a biography by Diana Wylie (which was our reading for class), was a South African artist whose works went from emotional depictions of oppression under Apartheid to campaign posters as a part of the Medu Art Ensemble. He was also an anti-apartheid activist influenced by Black Consciousness and was a part of the ANC’s militant wing. Despite not being a high-level ANC leader, Mnyele was killed as a part of South Africa’s famous raid on Gaborone in 1985, when South African soldiers crossed into Botswana in the middle of the night to attack a number of ANC safe houses.

My professor told us to ignore his militant side and asked what it meant to consider whether or not his murder was legal. What it meant to even think about saying it was okay to go across borders to kill an activist. I pointed out that it gives credence to South Africa’s argument that propaganda is violent. But I didn’t say that because I thought the government was wrong – propaganda can definitely be just as violent as a gun or a bomb – words and images have power. I was merely pointing out that contemplating whether or not crossing borders to kill activists is okay implies that it could be. But I suppose the real question is, at what point is it okay to silence that speech? And back to my professor’s point, what does it mean to consider that as an option?

Looking at Mnyele’s art (Wylie’s book is replete with images), my mind kept coming back to Aaron Bady’s recent ruminations on free speech and its place in America. In looking for the line between speech and violence, he argues:

My point is not that any of this is or isn’t legitimate; some forms of speech are odious, and if the state has a right to prohibit, criminalize, and punish “violence,” then criminalizing speech is just one of those things it’s going to do, and does. But the difference between behaviors which are prohibited and those which are protected has nothing to do with the red line between speech and violence, and never has, because  no such line exists.

We’ve been dealing with this a lot, be it freedom to camp in parks as expression or right to post other people’s photographs online. To what extent is expression or speech or art okay, and to what extent does it need to be silenced by censorship, arrest, or even murder? At what point is shooting up an Obama campaign sign or tweeting that #AGoodJew is #ADeadJew something that must be stopped? And at the more extreme end, at what point does anti-state speech warrant assassination? Mnyele was clearly an enemy of the South African government – he was actively opposed to its rule, and worked against it – militarily, yes, but primarily through art and recruitment. Similarly, Anwar al-Awlaki was allegedly involved in planning some terror attacks, but his true value to al Qaeda lie in his ability to preach and recruit for the cause; Samir Khan was an editor for a magazine published by al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. Like Mnyele, neither were high level operatives, but both were effective recruiters through propaganda. Both were American citizens killed by a drone strike in Yemen without due process, solely because of the threat their speech possessed.

In light of the drone strike, the questions mentioned before have been flipped around. Because Apartheid = Bad, and America = Good, al Awlaki’s death is made to seem okay. Instead, people are left to debate what it means to even consider that killing him was wrong. People who raise his rights as an American citizen and point to his low-threat position in militant operations are shunned in the name of national security. “But he was al Qaeda.” But what does it mean to consider that this killing is okay? Again, it means that you’re giving credence to the state’s assertion that preaching and publishing warrants death. And again, it’s not that recruiting through speech and expression can’t have negative effects – it’s that we haven’t been able to find the point at which it’s okay (and as a result, find the point at which it’s not okay) to silence our opposition. And this is because, perhaps like the line between speech and violence – it doesn’t exist. The state will always weild its right to crack down on its enemies, we just have to wait and see who falls into what category. The government will decide who falls into the category threatening enough to put a name on a list. That’s how Mnyele was targeted, and that’s how Khan and al Awlaki were targeted.

But because that wasn’t enough, al-Awlaki’s 16-year-old son would be killed two weeks later, and when asked how he could justify the killing, Press Secretary Gibbs explained, “I would suggest that you should have a far more responsible father if they are truly concerned about the well being of their children.” It’s not just the threat level that goes into determining if you deserve to live or die. It seems, in some cases, your lineage is enough to warrant your guilt, and therefore your assassination – but we already knew that.

Voting as a Right

There has been a lot of talk around what some would call liberals’ obligation to vote for Barack Obama this November, followed by a lot of critiques from a marginalized Left. Between his pension for drone strikes and his slow pace on gay rights and immigrant rights, on top of his utter failure to take any sort of stand for far-left ideals, I can see why a lot of people on the Left don’t want to cast that vote. While a vote for Obama can act as a vote against the Republican Party, just how much do we reward Democrats for being slightly less terrible than Republicans? I’m intrigued by this debate, but it’s not what this post is about.

Long ago the idea of voting as a privilege was cast off, with the franchise extended to a number of minority groups. But the remnants of that idea, the idea that only the elite are blessed with the vote, still remain. Many Americans have the opportunity to vote now, but that opportunity is limited in a host of ways, including voter ID laws and disinformation campaigns aimed at confusing voters. In a country where the vote takes place on a work day, with inflexible hours, and rigid rules regarding absentee voting and polling places, it is far easier for the privileged to vote.

It is this fact that leads many to feel obligated to vote, despite the weary mantra that our votes don’t count (and between the electoral college and big-donor-funded candidates, a lot of these votes don’t). That we have the opportunity to vote means that we need to use that opportunity. To be American is to vote.

But democracy doesn’t end with casting a ballot. That’s just where it begins. If your fed up with the two parties, then there’s a lot that you can do beyond just voting for the lesser evil. And in a first-passed-the-post system, I’m certainly not talking about voting for a third party. But if you can’t stomach voting for Obama, particularly if you live in a state not listed as a gradient on polling maps, I don’t care what you do. I hope you’ll still vote in your local and state elections, because that is where tons of liberal reform could actually happen (seriously, foster those ideas in your community). And I hope you go beyond the simple act of voting and decide to take on the act of organizing for change outside the electoral system. The fact of the matter is, voting is a right – and that’s all it is. To be American is to have the right to choose who you vote for – and to choose whether or not you want to vote at all.

We have the right to vote for whomever we want, and that right should matter. Voting should play a role in choosing effective leaders, and it should serve as a voice for what we want to see in our government. To that end, choosing not to vote isn’t surrendering that voice – it’s shouting something entirely different. It’s a protest of a rigged system, and it’s a protest of a party that isn’t listening.