Friday, February 23, 2018

The NRA threatens our schools, our democracy, and our future

Thus far, there have been eight school shootings so far in 2018. In 2017, there were 345 mass shootings in our country, some of them at schools. Yesterday, in the wake of the massacre in Parkland, Florida, Wayne LaPierre, the head of the powerful NRA gun lobby, fired a series of rounds at the heart of American democracy, intending to put our political structure--based on principles of democracy, a critical understanding of the past, and a concern for the welfare of all citizens--on life support.

LaPierre’s intervention, made at CPAC, a gathering far-right interests, was extraordinary in a number of ways.

He accused “elites” and “socialists” of undermining Americans’ constitutional rights. They care more about control and more of it,” he argued, claiming that “their goal is to eliminate the second amendment and our firearms freedoms so that they can eradicate all individual freedoms. They hate the NRA, they hate the second amendment, they hate individual freedom.” The “socialist enemy”, according to LaPierre, is a “political disease” spread through our university system.

LaPierre is drawing on decades-old American stereotypes of liberalism by invoking Marxism, socialism, and elitism against individual freedoms. It is first perhaps worth clarifying that the American political spectrum, capacious though it might be in including carnivalesque figures like LaPierre, does not today include socialists and communists. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary platform, would barely qualify to sit on the right-wing of European social democracy, let alone the democratic socialism Sanders himself claimed, and certainly never mind the socialism and communism that LaPierre bleats about.

Socialism and communism are ideologies associated with a political economy advocating an ascendant working class, the eradication of private property and industry, and the common ownership of the means of production. In some ways, these ideologies are highly concerned with individual rights, but see the path toward making them meaningful as taking a very different route than what LaPierre describes. But that aside, they are not ideologies which have any purchase on American politics. All parties to and members of that politics, until the Republican Party’s flirtation with fascism, have been defined by a broad, but fundamentally (and perhaps fundamentally flawed) shared version of liberalism that prioritized civil and political rights over social and economic rights, mounted fierce defences of capitalism, and shied away from social democracy’s efforts to nationalize--literally or through subsidies--the provision of services like healthcare, higher education, and other social benefits.

So what’s behind LaPierre’s abject ignorance and almost comical attempts to distort the meanings of words and concepts? Because he, his arms lobby, and his fascist political backers* are on the defensive, he has to portray people trying to protect children as “elites” or “communists”, thereby making himself more American and more virtuous, leading to the laughable claim that “the NRA does care.”

As a part of the pretence that they care, the NRA and Trump have joined forces to advocate immediately arming a million teachers and transforming schools into armed fortresses. “We must,” LaPierre declared, “immediately harden our schools!”

There are a number of reasons why this approach is not only flawed, but dangerous.

Schools serve a number of purposes in our society. In addition to conveying important content, based on professionally established standards to our children, our public schools are one of just a few kinds of civic institutions in our country that are open to all regardless of background. Schools might be unequal in their access to resources, but the public school ideal is a fundamentally democratic one.

But schools, because they are based on the idea of democratic learning and the importance of collectively as well as individually nurturing, guiding, and empowering our children, should also be spaces devoted to showing children what our world can be. Education prizes words over weapons, reason over paranoia, kindness over cruelty, and excitement about the future over fear of the world.

Children should enter each school day excited, knowing they are arriving in a space devoted to allowing them to learn and play, make friends, experience joy, absent the discrimination, inequities, cruelties, and hardships that they experience in an imperfect world. Children cannot prosper in an atmosphere that valorizes violent struggle, and they cannot learn in an environment defined by fear.

“Hardening” our schools will ensure that imperfection and the presence of violence become naturalized for children. It would be a genuine tragedy to transform schools into armed encampments, where entrance is monitored by grim security officers, where teaching is carried out by armed teachers trained to evaluate their children as potential threats, and where routines revolve around drills designed to ingrain in children that the world is a place defined by violence.

Such a transformation would send the message that “might makes right,” a doctrine designed to enshrine an inequality enforced by violence into the fabric of our society. Such a transformation, in addition to being deeply harmful, would address only symptoms of a far deeper problem.

Part of that problem is that a single amendment--and one that in even the most mulishly literalist reading is qualified by clauses describing a world that no longer exists--has been permitted to transcend the welfare of our society and of the individuals who comprise it. The second amendment has been perverted by an industry that profits from increasing the likelihood of lethal violence in our society. That industry has worked to ensure that Americans do not just have the right to own reasonable firearms in appropriate circumstances--things that can be defined by collective debate and a system of courts--but that we worship and valorize the mass possession of such weapons, including those that serve no other imaginable purpose than to take human life at horrifying rates.

The culture of fear and paranoia the worship of guns has created is one that has delegitimized all efforts to have reasonable conversations about their regulation. Any such conversation is portrayed as an assault on fundamental rights, disregarding the contextual qualifications that courts have attached to other rights (the first amendment, for example). It also inexplicably suggests that the ability for all people to own all guns is more fundamental to individual liberties that the ability to receive medical care when ill, to receive economically and socially empowering education, to support parents in their care for children, to allow workers to define the parameters of their labor, or to live free from fear. Such a notion, though possible in the literal sense through a deliberate and self-interested mis-reading of an 18th century document, is neither morally, logically, or ultimately constitutionally defensible.

The culture LaPierre is seeking to engineer suggests that disagreement in society is best or most fundamentally resolved through violence, promotes the notion that our fellow citizens are innately bad, and discourages empathy by intimating that threats lurk around every corner. The more common it becomes to see people walking in public spaces visibly armed--I have been shocked in Nevada to see people openly carrying guns in the DMV, restaurants, malls, a car dealership--the more it promotes a cycle of fear that leads to cycles of violence.

The more a culture that venerates guns, the more likely people--who are dangerously animated by internal and external factors--are to be able to imagine the gun as a solution to their particular trouble. By prizing such lethal weapons over welfare, we shape in destructive ways the manner in which angry, frightened, or metaphorically cornered people act. Instead of seeking assistance in a culture that prizes compassion and shared responsibility for our troubles, they seek the instrument of the wronged and isolated individual’s false and tragic liberation, and use it to claim the lives of their brothers and sisters, generally as a prelude to their own death.

In promoting this culture, LaPierre advanced the radical and utterly false argument that the second amendment was “not bestowed by man, but granted by God to all Americans at our American birthright.”

It is one thing for people to believe that morality has sources that are spiritual as well as civic. But it is something else, something extraordinary, to make this claim about the origins of our rights. Such a violently ahistorical claim about the origins of our rights would come as news to the people who gave of their lives and labors to create our republic, craft its legal framework, and ensure that our liberties have been expanded to include people initially denied full membership of our society. Both the original architects and ongoing authors would be appalled at the idea that we should think of governance as being removed from the hands of human society and placed into the hands of a divinity, ownership over which can be claimed by skilled and cynical ventriloquists intent on doing harm to the basic principles of our constitution and human decency. We have enhanced our framework to guarantee people equal status before the law; what is to prevent us from doing so again to decrease the centrality of violence to our social order?

Wayne LaPierre’s god, if we take his word for it, whistles at a pitch only audible to cynical profiteers and plunderers, who clamber to power and prosperity over a paranoia of their own deliberate design, and up the mounting pile of bodies that the instruments of their twisted trade scatter in our streets and our schools.

LaPierre’s vision for our country, one apparently shared by his enablers, beneficiaries, and hired thugs in Congress, involves a people in fear of each other and of their government, intent on living a version of liberty that strips their lives of support, community, opportunity, and hope for a genuinely richer life, materially and morally.

The alternative liberties that LaPierre and his hangers-on deride are collective in their fashioning, but no less individualistic in their end goal. What is a liberated individual if not a person who does not have to fear that an illness can bankrupt and kill them? What is a liberated individual if not a person who does not have to fight tooth and nail for time to care for their children and a workplace that respects their humanity, dignity, and inherent worth separate from the arbitrary values that their employers assigned to what they produce? What is a liberated individual if not a person who knows that a political economy outside of their control will not be allowed to destroy their livelihood? What is a liberated person if not someone free to learn, love, labor, dwell, dream, and dare while knowing that the central purpose of the government in which they have placed their trust is to ensure their wellbeing?

It is with these liberties, and not that wielded like a deadly fetish, that we should concern ourselves. In protecting our children and making a better world, we should not allow the NRA and its adherents to define the terms of debate, the meaning of freedom, or the environments in which our society’s children spend formative years of their precious lives.

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* Unlike LaPierrre's description of "socialism", I use the concept of “fascism” in a concrete fashion. Donald Trump’s campaign and politics contain most of the ingredients of fascism: palingenetic nationalism (“make America great again”); ethnic nationalism (using language and advocating policies that define the U.S. as a white, Christian nation); invoking an internal enemy to be vanquished (variously, Latinos, American Muslims, liberals, African Americans); militarism (“bombing the shit out of them”; requesting a military parade); a leadership cult (the centrality of Trump himself to this politics); anti-internationalism (attacks on the UN, NATO); hostility toward democracy (threatening courts, journalists, musing about postponing elections, trying to delegitimize the political process); advocacy of political violence (encouraging violence at rallies, suggesting supporters assassinate his opponent, his campaign threatening a crisis or bloodbath if he lost the election); hostility toward organized labor (packing a cabinet with anti-union members); patrimonialism (nepotistic appointments, using policy to benefit “his” people and harm others).

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Hold down tuition at public institutions to make Nevada different, daring, and diverse

Last month, UNLV hosted a forum offering students the opportunity to comment on proposed 1.8% increases to in-state fees and out-of-state tuition across NSHE (Nevada’s higher education sector). As recommended, 2019 and 2020 would each see a 1.8% increase. Most of the small number of students who attended expressed hostility to the increases, and many suggested that even small increases could be the difference between continuing at UNLV and leaving the university.

Context for the proposed increase is important. NSHE officials operate in a political environment that is often neglectful or dysfunctional. Nevada’s political economy has not historically been conducive to robust public institutions. And by national standards, tuition and fees in Nevada remain low. The latter point was one that administrators were particularly keen to stress. Things at NSHE could be worse, they argued, and their “modest” increases were only tracking unavoidable national trends. There was also a “because we can” element to NSHE’s argument, which was based on national “cost of living” data rather than on the ability to cite any compelling need to increase the burden on students.

Tracking a bad trend is not a good argument. And doubling down on a bad model is particularly self-destructive at a time when growing numbers of Americans are familiarizing themselves with arguments for or examples of systems with reduced or eliminated tuition. Many U.S. public universities were, only a few decades ago, nearly free at the point of entry, supported by taxpayers who recognized the long-term public and private value associated with investing in the education of young people. This truly public model of higher education is also something enjoyed by students in many other countries around the world.

Strong public institutions and frameworks for the delivery of welfare and of guaranteeing social and economic rights are not only more just, in that they help those who need help, diminish the stigma of means-tested welfare, and perform badly needed forms of redistribution in our highly unequal society. They are also more robust. By ensuring that all members of society, across class, racial, geographic, and other boundaries all access precisely the same good for the same cost, and then all contribute to funding our institutions as taxpayers, they ensure that all members of society have something at stake, making public institutions genuinely civic enterprises.

Instead of successfully leveraging the importance of these national conversations and citing the examples of successful cases elsewhere, NSHE is joining other American universities in participating in what scholar Christopher Newfield called the “great mistake”: the slow and harmful privatization of public institutions. On the one hand then, NSHE officials pursue policy recommendations that are partly constrained by the--to all appearances limited--scope of their imaginations, and simultaneously structured by a noncommittal state.

On the other, whatever factors are involved in the decision, raising tuition at a public institution, by whatever amount for whatever constituency over whatever number of years, represents a failure. More specifically, it represents a failure of public policy and an abdication of responsibility by state government, and a failure of advocacy and of mission by university officials.

Officials defended increasing the contributions from students and their families as burden-sharing, but our students already contribute more than previous generations, even as wages stagnate, housing costs rise, and debt increases. They also share doubly in the burden, as taxpayers and as “customers,” a status which degrades the learning experience that in theory should remain at the heart of our institution’s work.

Behind these increases are a set of competing demands and imperatives: the quest for top tier status and the costs associated with a more robust research university, particularly at a time when federal funding for the public research endeavors which drive private development is collapsing; new infrastructure; increasing demands for higher education; upward trending administrative salaries; and the perverse sentiment I’ve heard expressed quietly on campus that too-low tuition could actually hurt universities’ reputations admidst the steady drive to introduce damaging market principles into institutions which should be driven by a different set of motivations. NSHE and the legislature are responsible for reconciling those demands in a manner which does not compromise universities’ public mission and character.

Student critics at the town hall requested increased transparency from NSHE officials. But they should also ask why, in contrast with other moments in the history of public universities, students rather than the public at large are required to shoulder the costs of funding a public good that benefits our entire state community, private and public interests alike. They should ask how the state can reconcile its latent libertarian sensibilities with the demands of a more diverse population that has higher expectations of its public sphere. They should ask why their generation should not enjoy the public support for their future that previous generations did.

Students should pressure legislators, who provide the parameters in which university administrators make decisions about funding. Those administrators make comparatively better or relatively worse arguments about the rationale for their decisions, but students and the state community should realize that a university can only be as public--and therefore, as accessible and affordable--as its legislators and voters are willing to make it. If the most productive focus is likely on public officials, students should continue to dialogue with and confront NSHE administrators, who can choose--as California’s administrators did ten years ago--to embrace rhetoric and practice which makes a return to a more public university unlikely. NSHE Regents are particularly important figures, not just as the figures who will vote on proposed increases. They are also elected officials who will react if they feel pressure, and can pass on their anxieties to legislators.

Many might question why it’s worth making a fuss over such small increases. But when it comes to keeping public institutions public, and resisting the erosion of our civic institutions, momentum counts for a great deal. Processes like privatization and the erosion of the public welfare are generally long and slow and difficult to discern rather than swift and spectacular, and should be resisted at every opportunity.

UNLV’s motto is “different, daring, and diverse.” NSHE and Nevada can prove that we are indeed “different” and “daring” by resisting the ill-advised national trend of shifting the costs of public goods to students. Doing so can contribute toward preserving and increasing the diversity of our universities and colleges. Nevadans can commit to shouldering the burden for students who will later do their bit as taxpayers, and officials could halt or even roll back the costs to students and their families.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Mark Yudof visits UNLV, bringing memories of dark days in California

This week, the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, is hosting two high-profile figures from the education world to whom I have my own institutional connections. The first is Howard Gillman, the Chancellor of my alma mater, the University of California, Irvine. The second is Mark Yudof, the former President of the University of California. Gillman came to UCI some time after I had moved on. But I was a student at Berkeley while Yudof was responsible for leading the world’s best public university system.

Mark Yudof served as system president during the recession. That was a disaster over which he had no control, but his response drove powerful wedges between the university and the state, the university and the public, and the university and its students. I suspect I’m not the only student, faculty member, or staff member from those days who responds viscerally and negatively to his name.

In 2009, responding to a broken state budget, Yudof explained that UC would have to “change the way we do business.” The model adopted by the system under his stewardship revolved around shifting the burden of funding from the public to individuals, transforming students into customers, permanently damaging the integrity of the university, and around the fetishization of an upper cadre of ever-more-lavishly compensated administrators, whose presence was supposedly all that was standing between UC and utter ruin.

Yudof dismally failed to read the state’s political climate, setting UC back by decades in terms of its relationship with the state. The recession proved to be a painful interlude for California as a whole, but UC’s behavior during those years ensured that the very real possibility of renewed state support for UC thereafter was never realized.

Increasing executive salaries gave Governor Jerry Brown, historically hostile to the University of California, just the excuse he needed to force further budget cuts on the institution in an effort at fiscal discipline. So the institution as a whole suffered at the same time that executives did better than ever before, ensuring that state lawmakers and the public at large were unlikely to see the badly-needed recommitment of state funds as a priority given UC’s reputation for handing out raises to executives, none of whose labors seemed to save the UC education from being montetized, the project of learning from being instrumentalized, the labor of teaching from being casualized, or the university itself from being privatized.

Administrative salaries might not have been nearly a sufficiently large line-item to explain the need for higher tuition, but it was certainly the crucial factor in explaining why the university has been unable to recapture significant amounts of funding even when the state is dominated by the previously friendly Democratic Party.

Yudof is probably best-remembered by those of us who called UC our home during those years for an extraordinarily contemptuous interview he gave to the New York Times, wherein he likened the honor of heading a vibrant, diverse, intellectual powerhouse, and the hopes, dreams, careers, and ideals it contained, to “being manager of a cemetery.” There, he swatted away concerns about faculty furloughs by invoking his working class origins, and refused to address whether rising executive salaries played a role in the UC’s crisis, responding to the observation that he made more than the President of the United States by snarkily asking the interviewer whether he’d “throw in Air Force One and the White House.”

Under Yudof, tuition and fees at the University of California rose dramatically, as did executive salaries. Coinciding with the recession, these affronts provoked a considerable student backlash, and thousands of us marched in Berkeley and other campuses. Chancellors responded with a mailed fist, and hundreds of students wore the bruises from truncheons and rubber bullets as vivid evidence of the hostility and contempt that University of California leadership had for the young people in its charge.

Yudof and Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau became loathed by students. Birgeneau for his e-mails, which described protesting students as a “health and safety” problem and blamed the lack of internet technology in Asia for his inability to control the campus crisis, and for the bone-headed contempt for students that film makers captured as he stalked his campus “war room”.

While the breathtaking and savage violence of the response was the responsibility of campus Chancellors, Mark Yudof defended them to the hilt. A famously egregious incident involved UC Davis police spraying unthreatening, seated students point-blank with pepper spray after campus chancellor, Linda Katehi authorized them to deploy force against peaceful protesters.

Yudof had once defended Katehi as one of the “Tom Cruises of the academic world,” a judgment called seriously into question first by a later report which found that Katehi personally “substantially undermined the goal of avoiding a physical confrontation” between students and police, and then by spending tens of thousands of dollars of UC resources scrubbing the internet of negative references to her chancellorship.

In later years we learned that Katehi, bored by her over-$400,000 per year day job, Katehi joined the for-profit DeVry Education Group as a paid board member, and added a paid position at a textbook company, and a board slot at King Abdulaziz University to round out her docket. Yudof might not have been responsible for Katehi’s actions, but during his tenure, he and the UC Regents celebrated the UC’s corporate leadership, and made them virtually untouchable, fostering the culture of arrogance that led to these abuses.

Yudof is speaking at UNLV on the topic of speech, drawing on his years in university leadership and legal expertise. But his presence on campus--at a time when UNLV debates its path to Top Tier and students question the need for tuition increases--should cause our campus community and leadership to reflect on the desirability of slow privatization, the interests and worldviews of administration, and how to maintain and in Nevada’s case improve the relationship with the wider public that ought to be responsible for equipping the university to fulfill its public mission.

In explaining his role to the New York Times, Yudof flippantly remarked, “I smile, I shake hands, I tell jokes.” And time and again, UC’s community of students and educators, and the state with which we sought to rebuild ties, found that the joke was on us.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Adam Laxalt's silly surveys represent dishonest and anti-democratic tendencies

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Perhaps realizing that he will fare poorly against any Democratic challenger if he runs on his serially irresponsible and inconsistent platform for mauling Nevada’s public institutions, public lands, and public welfare, Republican gubernatorial candidate Adam Laxalt is instead turning to the most powerful weapon in any Republican’s arsenal.  How better to distract Republican citizens from the wreckage he wants to make of the schools, healthcare, landscape, and civic infrastructure they share with their Democratic neighbors, than to huff and puff and blow on the dog-whistle?
Laxalt’s tune of choice involves bombarding people on his e-mail list with comically loaded survey questions, asking them if they oppose the federal government killing all babies (I exaggerate, but just barely).  His most recent survey question involves an issue surely weighing on the minds of all Nevadans: NFL players and the First Amendment.  
The question itself asked voters whether they “agree that NFL players should stand for our National Anthem?”  The accompanying text declared that “While the first amendment guarantees our right to free speech, NLF players’ protest is disrespectful to our flag and those who have fought and died to defend our nation.”
I can’t help but think that for most Nevadans, healthcare, education, transit, public services, public lands, and other questions around political-economy probably loom largest in their minds.  But Laxalt’s decision to run this survey question does offer a useful window into his thinking and his campaign.
Laxalt’s basic argument is that NFL players’ protest is offensive to our military.  That claim demonstrates one of two things.  Either Laxalt is seriously dumb (doubtful given his accomplishments) or he is fundamentally dishonest.
As players’ own words, never mind the tens of thousands of words of reporting about their actions have made clear, they are not protesting the U.S. military.  Rather, they are protesting systemic inequalities in the way that police in our country behave toward citizens in our country.  They are protesting how a justice system, far from being blind, sees very vividly in color, a legacy not just of hundreds of years of institutionalized racism, but of denial of the same over the past several decades.
The insistence on maintaining that athletes’ protests are there somehow an insult to the military tells us some things.  It firstly indicates that there is a deep disinclination of both citizens and public figures to listen to protesters to understand their cause.  That Laxalt--deliberately or through ignorance, and unless he is a literal troglodyte it’s certainly the former--chooses to ignore their well-substantiated claims speaks particularly poorly of him, because as state Attorney General it is his responsibility to think long and hard about how law functions and is implemented and experienced by the state’s citizens.
The insistence on lying in this particular way about the basis for athletes’ protests--claiming that they are trying to insult the military--also suggests a toxic mindset about nationalism, patriotism, and the military in our country.  There is a long and pathetic tradition in our country of urging people to “rally ‘round the flag” as a way of distracting from other issues or shutting down other conversations.
There is an equally sordid tradition of trying to claim that the military maintains some kind of monopoly on national symbols and discourse.  The military, like other public institutions, exists to serve the citizens, and any suggestion that we should, voluntarily or otherwise, subordinate our claims on rights to an institution that is for better or worse about coercion, is extremely dangerous and undemocratic.  Flags, anthems, and other symbols of our nation, along with the rights they are supposed to represent, belong first and foremost to citizens, and not to any particular category of people.
The reality is that since 1945 the U.S. military has almost never been deployed in conflict to defend the public interest of the U.S.  Rather, it has been deployed to defend often deeply-flawed national security nostrums, or the power and profits of American companies.  It has been deployed to defend or augment American hegemony, which far from serving the public interest, is often self-defeating and destructive.  These realities do not lessen the individual sacrifices that members of the military have made, but they should caution the public about accepting the claim that the military is wielded in order to defend our rights.  The suggestion that this is true ranks with the disingenuous claim, “They hate us for our freedoms,” a blanket assertion designed to sweep away a century of politics and relationships and entanglements.  
Even if the military did regularly work to protect Americans’ rights, that does not give it and its “supporters” the ability to invoke their work and sacrifice to shut down other conversations.  This is what military officials and the Bush administration sought to do in order to quiet critics as they dispatched American soldiers to kill and be killed in a fruitless, illegal war in Iraq.  If anything demonstrates disrespect for sacrifice, it was and is the decision by these powerful men and women, and others like them, to hide behind the bodies of dead American soldiers to avoid being called to account for their crimes.
So when Adam Laxalt first lies about the purpose of athletes’ protests, and then invokes the military to shut down discussion about the actual reason for those protests, he is showing us that he is fully prepared to participate in a nasty and dangerous tradition that has been used to silence debate, redirect scrutiny, and foreclose opportunities to make our country more just and equal.  It also indicates that as governor he would not take inequities in law enforcement and the law itself seriously, and that he is perfectly happy to subordinate fundamental rights to the basest of political ends.

Nevada politicians support Trump's dangerous Middle East move

Nevada’s Republican senator, Dean Heller, has joined the chorus praising Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and commit to moving the U.S. embassy to that city.  Trump made this announcement in spite of pleas from Palestinian, Middle Eastern, and European leaders who understand that it represents a needless provocation and a dangerous impediment to a just settlement in the region.
Jerusalem is deeply contested territory, and a key part of negotiations between the Israeli colonial state and Palestinian subjects who seek their own independent state.  The U.S. has always played an awkward role as mediator between Israel and its occupied territories given its fulsome support for Israeli colonialism and its willingness to undercut its own negotiating ability by writing blank checks to the Israeli state, thereby offering few incentives for that state to participate in good-faith negotiations.  
Nevada’s senate race should and shall focus largely on where the candidates stand in relation to healthcare, taxation, the basic relationships between citizens and government, and their approach to matters of justice and political-economy.  However, senators also have opportunities to weigh in on and influence international policy, a role that is particularly important given the dysfunction, incompetence, and malice that drive the Trump administration’s approach to the wider world.
In this particular piece of unbridled stupidity, Dean Heller is joined by his would-be Democratic replacement, Congresswoman Jacky Rosen, who has a history of supporting this signally bad policy.  It is incumbent on Heller and Rosen to do what Trump declined to do, and explain how this move makes the slightest strategic, moral, diplomatic, or security sense.  
They should explain how Trump’s decision to offer a calculated slight to Palestinians and their allies in the Middle East is in our public interest.  Allying the U.S. so transparently with one side of a struggle makes us a party to the violence and inequality that has flown from Israel’s colonialism, and will likely imperil American lives.
While recognizing Jerusalem’s status might serve the short-term interests of Benjamin Netanyahu’s ethno-religious nationalism as his scandal-ridden premiership reels at home, this alteration of U.S. policy is unlikely to enhance the long-term security prospects of Israeli citizens.  In fact, because it is such a deliberate provocation, it is likely to do the reverse, giving the lie to the protestations of those in the U.S. who claim that this is about Israel’s best interests.
Finally, rewarding Israel’s bad behavior--colonial policing, the construction of illegal settlements, embracing ethno-religious nationalism--will embolden Israeli securocrats, who are likely to read this move by the Trump administration as an endorsement of their violent excesses.  If they react accordingly, they are likely to further escalate conflict between their state and their occupied territories.  The result will be further insecurity for Israeli citizens and greater violence and deprivation for their colonial subjects, the Palestinians.  Escalation of every kind diminishes the opportunities for a just settlement.  
So Nevada’s incumbent senator and his rival are both demonstrating a signal inability to adopt a reasoned, long-term view about U.S. interests, international peace, and conflict resolution by backing a decision by the Trump administration which runs counter to public interest in the U.S., which will make Israelis less secure, and which will degrade the lives of Palestinians.  
The United States gained its own independence from colonial rule in the eighteenth century.  And while our country has a history of imposing its own rule on indigenous subjects and hemispheric neighbors, its independence struggle nevertheless helped to inspire a wave of anti-colonial nationalist movements in the coming centuries: in Latin America and parts of Europe during the nineteenth century, and in Africa and Asia during the twentieth century.  
Now, in the twenty-first century, colonial rule is largely accepted as a self-evidently unjust and malicious enterprise, generating destruction for the colonized and internal corrosion for the colonizer.  The U.S. government and our representatives do no one any good by defending the indefensible, and this ill-advised decision to appease the Israeli government does nothing more than endanger the prospects of peace, and make the citizens of all parties to negotiation less safe because of the climate of mistrust and injustice it fuels. 

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Can Nevada afford Adam Laxalt's trip to Fantasyland?

Photo by Gage Skidmore
Next year, Nevadans will vote for a new governor.  Term limits keep Republican Brian Sandoval from competing for a third term, and his party is likely to turn to the state’s Attorney General, Adam Laxalt, to be their standard-bearer.  
Sandoval has become a genuinely popular Republican in a Democratic-leaning state.  He won over 70% of the vote in his 2014 re-election (albeit with very low turnout), has proven determined to make the Affordable Healthcare Act work for his state, and has dedicated increased revenue to the state’s embattled education sector.  I probably would not vote for him, but I respect his willingness to bend conservative principles that he clearly values when he recognizes their irreconcilability with what appears to be his genuine care for the welfare of Nevadans.  
Adam Laxalt looks to be a very different kind of Republican.  Whereas Sandoval has proven himself capable of designing rational public policy, Laxalt’s “issues” page looks like something written by a campaign committee for a fantasy world of elves and dragons and libertarians, where moral imperatives and budgeting math never meet, and where there’s something for everyone, for nothing.  (Accessed November 12, 2017.)
Laxalt’s take on the issues that matter most to Nevada voters suggest serial inconsistency, serious irresponsibility when it comes to crafting policy, and have the effect--intended or otherwise--of seriously misleading voters.  The only way voters could take Laxalt seriously is if they either never read his take on the issues, or fail to consider the relationship between his prescriptions for ostensibly separate issues.  
The most glaring and elementary inconsistency involves Laxalt’s commitment to better fund education, and his pledge to not only “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burdens,” but also to “reduce taxes.”  
The state’s largest school district just came through a budget shortage of tens of millions of dollars.  The University of Nevada, Las Vegas is aspiring to “top tier” status, something that requires serious public investment if it is to achieve that status as a public university. Seventy-eight percent of Nevadans’ young children have no opportunities for early childhood education, and providing those opportunities will require public investment.  And many recent improvements to the state’s education system came from the Commerce Tax shepherded through by Sandoval that Laxalt is explicitly promising to roll back.  Per-pupil spending in Nevada is low, and lower still when one considers that it is a state growing in demographic diversity and therefore in complexity.   
In other words, the state will need serious new sources of revenue if it is going to address the education needs of its children and students.  Instead, Laxalt is pledging to cut already-low taxes.
Governor Sandoval has already weighed in on this particular piece of Laxalt irresponsibility, making it clear  to the Nevada Independent that if Laxalt makes good on his promise, he would “irreversibly and permanently harm” the state’s education sector, the children it serves, and the “generational investment” made by the state on his watch.  
Beyond that basic piece of inconsistency--the fantasy economics of raising funds while cutting taxes--Laxalt’s views about education are muddled, perhaps deliberately so given the “have your cake and eat it” streak of irresponsibility defining his campaign.  He opens the “education” section of his issues page by offering his belief “that education is the civil rights issue of this time.”
That’s a bold and powerful statement, and a welcome one in a state and country where people, particularly those on the right, have limited their calls for rights to traditional political rights.  However, if Laxalt actually believes that access to a quality education should be a right, he has a strange way of showing it.  When defending and enshrining rights, serious advocates recognize that you can spare no expense...that is, after all, part of what takes something from being an aspiration to a right.   
In contrast, Laxalt has committed to not only impairing the ability of the democratic state--the guarantor of rights in democratic systems--to enshrine and defend this right, he is also chipping away from day-one at the “right” status of education by advancing its privatization and financialization through the “choice” agenda.  Rights aren’t something you subcontract or balkanize.  They are, ideally, also not something that you devolve (something the federal government recognized in the oversight it long offered the implementation and guarantee of voting rights in southern states).  
The inconsistencies mount.  What Laxalt dismisses as “barriers to job creation” and “unnecessary regulations and licensing requirements” for some people, might prove to be mandates about healthcare or workplace protections (there’s a good case to be made that universal healthcare would reduce varying and unpredictable costs for business owners who are often held responsible for employees’ insurance).  What Laxalt describes as “outsized control” by the federal government that “chokes of opportunities for economic growth and development,” might just be code for destroying the public lands-based outdoor industry that brings jobs and opportunities to a broad swathe of Americans, and replacing it with profit opportunities for elites in the mining and real estate sectors.  As with rights, “local control” over public lands doesn’t translate into more opportunities; merely to less of the oversight to ensure that opportunities are not monopolized by the few and that land remains open to many.  
In the energy sector, Laxalt bemoans the “heavy hand of government [that] is used to try to force particular energy solutions on the entire population,” celebrating instead “more choice and competition.”  But of course both proponents of any form of public control and deference to markets have policy goals to which they aspire.  The question is, do we leave the execution of public policy to the blunt and inefficient hand of a market which has its own interests, or do we do public policy in the public interest?  
Laxalt extends his illogic deeper into his discussion of the relationship between people and their state community.  He simultaneously argues that the state government should “provide quality, essential services, but should refrain from becoming too big, too costly, or too burdensome.”  Most important in his view is the “low tax climate” that supposedly enables “businesses [to] thrive and our families [to] prosper.”  Hardly someone willing to be held hostage to events, changing circumstances, demographics, or political economy, Laxalt has offered a pledge to “oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden, and will also look for ways we can reduce taxes.”
This kind of economic fundamentalism might sit well with the pledge-taking, oath-swearing Republican Party, its members prodded into such positions of inflexibility by anti-tax evangelists and corporate interests.  But it signals to Nevada’s voters that Laxalt isn’t particularly interested in the needs of the state or how those might change over time based on voters’ desires or our relationship to national and global factors.  Like most other Republicans nationwide, Laxalt is eschewing the basic principle of representative government: that we elect thinking, intelligent individuals, able and willing to weigh circumstances against principles and needs.  Instead, he is promising to preside over our political economy as a rubber stamp for the narrow interests that thrive in a low-tax, low-regulation environment characterized by a wasteland of a public sphere.
Nevadans might have a relatively low tax burden.  But for that we have underfunded universities and poorly performing schools that are unable to deliver sufficient opportunities to children.  Our state has insufficient economic diversity, few of the services and resources designed to attract skilled labor from out of state, a threadbare safety net, poor transit, and shaky civic infrastructure.  The wealthy can buy their way to top of the line universities, medical centers, schools, and other civic infrastructure here or out of state, when and as they choose.  But for the rest of us to enjoy infrastructure of a similar quality--we could even borrow a page from Laxalt’s book and describe some of these things as “rights”--we and our wealthy but irresponsible neighbors would have to pool our resources and invest in universally available and accessible public goods and services, something we can’t do if we’re lumbered with a governor who does nothing more than mumble the mantra of his wealthy backers.  
As we look at Laxalt’s “have your cake and eat it” approach to the issues, we’re bound to ask whose interests he will weigh up most carefully when it comes time for something to give.  He has offered voters utterly irreconcilable promises, no sense of the framework he will use or interests he will bear in mind as he makes these choices, and no sense that there is any kind of intellect at work trying to square the various circles he has drawn around himself.  What we do have, however, is a commitment by a Koch-funded SuperPAC to embark on “a million-dollar ad campaign to boost the Republican’s candidacy.”  Sheldon Adelson is also offering his backing to Laxalt.  The support of these interests help us to understand who is most enamored of Laxalt’s candidacy, and which way he’s going to break when his fantasy economic unravel in the face of reality.  
The deregulation of business, finance, and the workplace, and the privatization of education, healthcare, and land, together with the faith-based embrace of a market built by and for elites, has always led to predictably bad consequences for the middle and working classes.  Voters should realize that Laxalt is selling the patently false, but thoroughly recycled Republican idea that you can have it all (“education is the civil rights issue of our time”) without paying for it (“I will oppose all efforts to increase Nevadans’ tax burden”).  His economic fundamentalism has no space for the broadening realization that social and economic rights must take their place alongside civil and political rights if we are interested in building a better world. 

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Steve Bannon illustrates the rot in California's Republican Party

For almost nine years now, the Republican Party has ceased to be a good-faith party to our country’s small-d democratic governance, and has instead become a vehicle for targeted destruction, waging a campaign of sabotage based on a series of lies about our country’s politics, history, and society.  Prominent among those lies, and central to its decision to launch this search and destroy mission into the heart of our democracy, has been the idea that “government doesn’t work.”
The modern Republican Party’s platform involves returning power to unchecked free markets and those who thrive in such dangerous environments.  It involves giving large industries free rein to treat workers as they choose, and rolling back the power of agencies in the hands of a democratic state charged with protecting people not just as consumers, but as living beings who need clean air, healthy water, and safe food.  It involves pushing people into a sick libertarian celebration of the grinding struggles, hardships, cruelties, and uncertainties that come from the refusal to treat healthcare, childcare, higher education, workplace rights, and a host of other spheres of life as involving fundamental social and economic rights.
This re-regulation of power to benefit the already-wealthy and -powerful is deceitfully sold as de-regulation from “government,” which is simultaneously supposed to be grossly incompetent and disturbingly penetrating in its reach.  And this misleading packaging and salesmanship is only possible because the Republican Party has worked day and night since January of 2009 to reduce faith in public life and institutions, thereby bringing by their own hand their lie to life.
Since then, the Republican Party has engineered government shutdowns, held up the work of personnel crucial to the functioning of government departments and our court system, and embraced the work of a national security state that has eroded trust in the federal government, confirming the suspicions they have stoked that the state has an adversarial relationship with individual citizens.  The Republican Party has hamstrung the ability of state officials to deal with climate crises (or even to refer to climate change) and used supermajority rules to starve even progressively-dominated states of the revenue streams necessary to care for citizens.  The Republican Party publicly dedicated itself to the failure of one presidential administration, and threw its weight behind a candidate known to be serially incompetent and openly dedicated to the destruction of our constitutional framework.  
Last week, California Republicans signalled their re-commitment to their guerrilla warfare against our government’s abilities to help people to realize civil and political as well as social and economic rights.  The state’s marginalized party invited Steve Bannon, Donald Trump’s fascist advisor, to speak at their party conference.
Compared to much that we’ve heard from Bannon, Trump, and others in recent months, the speech was dull.  Bannon adopted Trump’s speaking style and was throughout generally, perhaps deliberately, incoherent.  The rambling, wreck of a speech was full of incomplete sentences and uncompleted thoughts, but these are perfect for the innuendo-strewn politics practiced by the far right.  Comically, and disturbingly, Bannon discussed Black, Latino, and Asian Californians with a certainty that none were in the room, and offered a tortured historical narrative to underpin his views.  
But if the speech itself was unremarkable, Bannon’s presence and prominence there was, given all that he and this administration symbolize.  Bannon, an unconstructive bomb throwing troll granted power by his dear leader, is responsible for formally combining economic and ethnic nationalism in Trump and the Republicans’ programs.  These are the two ingredients which when combined yield fascism: a rhetorical commitment to addressing economic grievances and a very real effort to redefine citizenship and the national community along ethno-religious lines.  
Bannon’s call for “open revolt” is a reiteration of his desire to dismantle what he has characterized as the “administrative state,” but which is actually the small-d democratic state: the one which when empowered by idealistic and humane politics can generate prosperity and security and power for middle and working classes.  In the chaos that Bannon’s attack on our government would generate, only the wealthy and powerful could thrive.
Bannon’s presence was a symptom of the intellectual and moral failure of California’s Republican Party, and the extent to which that failure has turned them into a party perpetually circling the toilet drain.  The party’s failures are of the compounding variety.  The unpopularity of their racism, their trickle-down economics, and celebration of inequality has prevented them not just from occupying, but increasingly from seriously contesting, statewide offices.  In the summer primary, which in California pits all candidates from all parties against each other and sends the top-two to a run-off in November, the top Republican vote getter won only 7.8% of the total votes cast.  Between them, the top two Democrats won 58%, with other candidates of the center-left winning between five and seven percent, and other Republicans ranging from .8 to 4.7%.  
In other elections in 2014, Republicans made it onto the November ballot, but a place there for a statewide office is increasingly looking like a career-ender for Republican politicians, so toxic is the combination of ideology and practice they have embraced, both locally and nationally.
Most Republican leaders therefore retreat to their districts, and spend two to four years whipping up hate and spreading a noxious sense of grievance while refusing to participate in constructive governance in Sacramento or Washington, hoping  to advance through the ranks of a party basically reduced to social and economic gangsterism and thuggery, rather than occupy positions of leadership in their state.  
Because these people therefore never expose themselves to California’s full voting public, and therefore never have to think about how to construct a political economy and a moral economy built for all forty million of the state’s citizens (as opposed to the 710,000 who populate an average Californian congressional district, 465,000 in each assembly district, or 930,000 in each senate district).  Aside from San Diego’s mayor, there is no Republican officeholder in California in serious conversation with more than a million voters.  There is no Republican officeholder in California who is in conversation with a population that resembles the state’s broad demographics.  
The California Republican Party is not a good-faith participant in public discourse or in government.  Rather it comprises a group of embittered saboteurs, abusing the hospitality of the rural districts amongst which it shelters, and wrecking the public sphere in those districts to reiterate its self-evidently false claims about democratic governance.
Bannon’s appearance suggested that we will see no changes from California Republicans.  They will content to brood angrily in opposition, trolling the state’s public research universities and spreading intellectual rot in the districts they serve so poorly.  They will continue to use the state’s supermajority rules to frustrate Democrats’ efforts at serious healthcare reform, and stall efforts to reduce tuition at the University of California (even though older Californians attended that institution tuition-free).  They will continue to keep open the wounds inflicted by Prop 13 in 1978, which ensures that California’s budget remains misshapen and its politics remain incapable of more than tinkering.
And California Republicans will continue to provide votes in lock-step for a national party that Trump and Bannon are using to strip Americans of their rights, generate an economics of-by-and-for the 1%, and use chaos as a method for the disruption of efforts by Americans to claim social and economic rights.

Friday, October 13, 2017

California's Voters should Retire Feinstein and Look to a Better Future

This week, California’s long-time senator, Dianne Feinstein, announced her bid for re-election in 2018.  Coverage revolved around how Feinstein polls with Californians, and focused in particular on two issues: whether or not Feinstein’s age will prove to be a liability; and whether she will be challenged from the left of the Democratic Party.
Most of the talk surrounding a challenge from the left dealt with Feinstein’s understated and perhaps dangerously naive approach to dealing with the Trump administration.  As reported by the San Francisco Chronicle, Feinstein only last month declared her hope that Trump “has the ability to learn and change.  And if he does, he can be a good president.  And that’s my hope.”  
Feinstein is undoubtedly trying to strike a different tone from Republicans in 2009 who entered a new Congress rooting for the failure of President Barack Obama.  However, Obama had not campaigned on a platform containing the essential policy and stylistic components of classic fascism, and he did not spend the opening months of his presidency delivering a devastating salvo against Americans’ fundamental civil and political rights while demonstrating horrific disregard for the social and economic welfare of Americans, and engaging in systematic corruption.  In light of these very different circumstances, Feinstein’s hopes sound outright delusional, and unlikely to form a sound basis for a defense of either Californians’ rights or those of the broader American public.
What has been neglected in the ageist focus on Feinstein’s seniority, is the kind of senator she has been.  One of the spaces where Feinstein has carved out significant expertise and sought to establish considerable authority, is in the realm of national security.  There, however, Feinstein has demonstrated systematically and spectacularly bad judgment.  I would argue that this, more than anything, should call into question her fitness to serve Californians.
In 2001, Feinstein offered her support to the dangerously rushed and ill-considered Patriot Act, provisions of which we live with today in part thanks to her 2005 support for the extension of the Act.  Feinstein supported the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan, without requiring that the Bush administration set out clear political goals and commitments, with the result that the U.S. has remained mired in a poorly-defined war for sixteen years.
In 2003, Feinstein supported the illegal war of aggression against Iraq, declining to use her considerable powers in the senate to question the Bush administration’s transparently disingenuous abuse of intelligence, the broader logic of a preventive war, or the refusal to plan for the aftermath of the catastrophic consequence.  If this vote had been an aberration, that would be one thing, but like other neo-conservative Democrats, the vote for Iraq fits a pattern.
This vote was particularly catastrophic because not only did the war in Iraq lead to the deaths of thousands of Americans and at a minimum hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.  It also--as British intelligence warned in 2002 and 2003--led to the proliferation of international terrorism, Iraq’s descent into a civil war with regional ramifications, and ultimately to the emergence of ISIS as a deadly and destabilizing force.
As whistleblower Edward Snowden shed light on the abuses and civil liberties infringements of the U.S. security state in 2013, abuses and infringements enabled in part by Feinstein, the senator defended the head of U.S. national intelligence, even as he was found to have lied repeatedly to her colleagues in the senate about his slow erosion of Americans’ rights and aggrandizement of unchecked power for the security state.  She denied in the face of evidence to the contrary, that the NSA’s activities constituted “spying.”  
Thereafter, Feinstein worked carefully to derail efforts at serious reform of the security state, demonstrating once again that between her constituents and the post-9/11 rogue national security state that emerged under President Bush and continued to flourish under President Obama, her loyalties are with the latter.  Feinstein also made or supported a series of deeply disingenuous claims about the “successes” of the U.S. security state designed to pressure the public and her colleagues into backing away from serious reform.
Feinstein’s support of the security state is particularly significant because of the role of this episode and the subsequent attacks on whistleblowers played in eroding the trust of the public in the state.  In successive elections, disingenuously given their own history, Republicans were successfully able to conflate the mystery of the security state and its well documented abuses, with the broader efforts of the federal government to work for citizens.  Through her support from a position of power in the senate of the Bush administration’s wars, and the Bush-Obama expansion of the security state, Feinstein played a not-insignificant role in facilitating the mistrust in the state that led to the rise of Donald Trump.
Later in 2013 when President Obama contemplated an undefined, unresourced, and uncommitted attack on the Syrian regime, driven by the impulse to “do something, anything!” no matter whether intervention stood any success of helping Syrians, Dianne Feinstein was among those senators trying to influence the president to intervene.  Feinstein sought to bludgeon her colleagues into supporting an attack on Syria by circulating distressing images of gassed citizens, while refusing to ask hard questions of the administration--or answer any herself--about precisely how a muddled series of airstrikes would have halted the depredations of the Syrian regime.
She dismissed the serious reservations of her constituents, remarking condescendingly that “they have not seen what I have seen or heard.”  Nor were they likely to, thanks to her refusal to offer evidence of her claims or a basis for thinking that intervention would work in either the short or long term.  But what constituents could see was the emergence of a pattern wherein their senator could not be trusted to accurately represent intelligence, the activities of the national security state, or to exercise good judgement about those things.  
Nor has Feinstein offered more than the barest indulgence of democracy in her home state, systematically declining to debate primary or general election opponents and long disdaining the town hall and other mechanisms that allow voters to directly interrogate their representatives.  Instead, she and her husband, a former chair of the Regents of the University of California who worked to privatize that institution by stealth, wall their deeply political activities off from public scrutiny.  
Now, the Democratic establishment is stepping to Feinstein’s aid as she faces a challenge from the leader of California’s senate, Kevin de Leon.  Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti recently told a fundraising crowd, with reference to the prospect of a Democratic primary opponent, that “this cannibalistic approach, that somehow we should be at each other’s throats right now...is wrong for Democrats and what California should be doing right now.”  
The political primary, an important layer of democracy in our country that allows voters to influence parties and their ideas, is apparently regarded as a destructive nuisance by leading Democrats as they defend a senator with a track record of putting a rogue security state’s power ahead of the rights and interests of her constituents.  In equating a debate about ideas and direction and policy to “cannibalism,” Garcetti and those who share his mentality are demonstrating deep contempt for Californians and a troubling streak of “we know best” elitism that will rebound in one fashion or another to their deep disadvantage and that of their constituents.  Fear of debate by incumbents in power should always be read as underlining its profound necessity.
Another influential figure from Feinstein’s wing of the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton, wrote in a recent memoir, that the “progressive” approach to welfare, involving piecemeal, targeted reforms, has been proven to be inadequate, both in terms of creating robust and sustainable policy, and in terms of providing the basis for a civic national identity in contrast to the racist one fomented by Trump and his party (Clinton, What Happened, 238).  Clinton acknowledged that as a matter of both opportunity and urgency, the moment has arisen to embrace social democracy in the U.S.  In order for this to occur, California will need to send a senator with a different sensibility and a different ideological commitment to the senate.  
California state senate leader Kevin de Leon needs to think hard about his own approach should he wish to represent California in the senate.  He recently threw his fellow legislative leader in the Assembly under the bus by backing a regularly recycled universal healthcare bill from the ‘90s in California.  Under de Leon’s stewardship, the commendable desire in the senate to develop universal healthcare legislation was not matched by commensurate effort to develop legislation with a firm funding source.  The disinclination to work with the Assembly also indicated a laziness about the hard work of building consensus and harnessing expertise, suggesting that this effort in California was more about show than substance.
De Leon and others should realize the disservice they would have done their cause if they had passed such deeply flawed legislation, the failure of which would then have delivered a national setback to the push for universal healthcare.  The decision of California Democrats to tackle something as massive as healthcare without first dealing with the state’s mangled tax system--a legacy of 1978’s Prop 13 and decades’ of failure to come to grips with its consequences--that would be charged with sustaining the new legislation, is symbolic of the deep cowardice of the state’s elected officials.  
From Governor Jerry Brown (who presided over the failure to head off Prop 13 in 1978) on down, California’s Democrats have refused to understand that they are reduced to ineffectual tinkering unless they tackle the state’s constitution--broken as it has become by Republicans and their financial backers--and the straitjackets it imposes on legislators and their ability to muster serious revenue.  
When Californians vote for a new senator in 2018, I hope that they will ignore the anti-democratic blandishments of the most entrenched Democratic powerbrokers, and leave Senator Feinstein to a retirement more dignified and less violent than her tenure in office.  That tenure has been tragically marked by destructive interventions in the realm of national security that have led to global violence and instability, played a part in the rise of Donald Trump, and have diminished Americans’ civil liberties.  Californians should then ask hard questions of the alternatives.  But they should look hopefully for candidates from the left who understand that social and economic rights should take their place alongside the civil and political rights valued by Americans.  And they should look for candidates who promise to do their best to chart a new direction in U.S. foreign policy that is informed by the same values underpinning the desire to create a more fair and just country.