Three Things to Read this Election Season

I’ve been a terrible custodian of my blog these past few months. To break the silence, and to mark my re-commitment to regular updates, I’d like to share three fantastic essays I’ve been thinking about in recent months. None explicitly addresses the 2012 election campaign — a simultaneously sad and electrifying spectacle that has me hopelessly transfixed — but each speaks in its own way to the America moment, to all the cracks we’ve failed, and will likely keep failing, to fill.

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George Packer, Coming Apart (New Yorker, September 12, 2011)

I missed this essay when it was first published, ten years after the September 11 attacks. More than anything else I’ve read in the past months, Packer’s piece conveys just how thoroughly we’ve squandered the opportunity afforded us that terrible day. Instead of confronting the mounting failures of our major institutions, our political leadership and our cultural establishment have left our democracy to decay. Casting our embrace of  post-9/11 militarism as escapist cover for our growing weaknesses, Packer offers a sober critical frame through which to view the 2012 election.

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Benjamin Kunkel, Forgive Us Our Debts (London Review of Books, May 10, 2012)

In this essay, Kunkel — another self-exiled American here in Buenos Aires — reviews two recent books on debt for the LRB: Paper Promises: Money Debt and the New World Order, by financial journalist Philip Coggan, and Debt: The First 5000 Years, by anarchist anthropologist David Graeber. Though Coggan gets his due, it’s Graber’s book that dominates Kunkel’s essay. (For his sheer ambition, both intellectual and temporal, I don’t see how Graeber couldn’t.) The piece is a tightly crafted and original introduction to a book you *really* should read, and a topic I wish we’d all spend a bit more time thinking about.

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Paul Tough, What Does Obama Really Believe In? (New York Times Magazine, August 15, 2012)

Tough’s well-reported piece takes us to Roseland, the struggling Chicago neighborhood where Obama got his start as a community organizer. A portrait more of deep poverty than of a politician, Tough’s essay is a stark reminder that new approaches to building opportunity for poor children and families have all but disappeared from the political conversation — in fact, the children themselves have, too. Such omissions, Tough shows, have real human consequences.


Kony 2012: Where are the Local Voices?

This is Invisible Children’s video about Joseph Kony and his murderous, child-soldier-fielding militant group, the Lord’s Resistance Army. It’s filled with bleak details about human rights abuses in places that Americans don’t often think about. And, as of today, it’s been viewed on YouTube nearly 80 million times:


One of these YouTube viewings was my own. (If you still haven’t seen Kony 2012 and don’t want to, here’s a nice concise description of the whole affair from the Guardian.) Watching the video, I was struck less by its message (i.e., in the internet age, we can save the world through our awareness alone, and let’s prove it by suddenly caring en masse about the LRA) than by the extent to which the whole 30 minutes felt like one big vanity project. More than just about anyone else — perhaps more than Kony himself — the film centers on one unknown-to-me-before-Sunday narrator/director/principal screen presence, Jason Russell. The photogenic Russell spends an enormous amount of time in front of the camera, and he’s very clearly the hero of his own sleek production. That much is clear from the moment, about 7 minutes into the video, when Russell promises to get the bad guy in an emotional conversation with Jacob, a young boy from Northern Uganda who lost his brother to one of Kony’s attacks. The exchange is a striking illustration of the self-gratifying over-promising that people trained to do human rights fieldwork are told over and over again not to do:

Russell: Jacob, it’s okay.
[Jacob crying.]
Russell, narrating: Everything in my heart told me to do something. And so I made him a promise.
Russell, again to Jacob: We are also going to do everything that we can to stop them.
Jacob: Yes.
Do you hear my words?
Do you know what I mean?
We are, we’re going to stop them. We’re going to stop them.

How to stop them? Share the video, buy some Kony 2012-branded products, and support the good guys (above all, Invisible Children and the Ugandan military) in their efforts to take down the bad.

There are a lot of intelligent ways to frame this video: as a manifestation of a new sort of internet-based activism that has the potential to transform human rights work, as a savvy internet-age marketing tool, as an unacceptable oversimplification of a damningly complex geopolitical situation, as a rebirth of the “white man’s burden” trope in sleek 21st-century guise. (And there is, it must be noted, an eerie resonance in Kipling’s reference to “…new-caught, sullen peoples / Half-devil and half-child.”) Each of these perspectives has been bouncing around the internet this past week, and I suspect that there isn’t much latent demand for me to weigh in on them. But there is one angle that, owing to my interest in transitional justice, I do want to reflect on for a moment: the impact on the halting but critical process of recovery and reconciliation currently underway in Northern Uganda.

Although Kony 2012 tells the black-and-white story of an evil man’s quest to do terrible things to innocent Ugandans, the Lord’s Resistance Army did not in fact arise in the vacuum of a sick man’s mind. It took shape in the late 1980s, part of an ongoing violent struggle between the Acholi-dominated north of the country and the central government, led from 1986 by Yoweri Museveni, who remains in power today. All sides in this conflict (including the Ugandan military) committed horrible abuses, although Kony’s LRA soon earned a reputation as the worst of the worst, and their pillaging of local villages soon lost the group whatever Acholi support it had once had. Yet even as Museveni consolidated his power and the militant group lost any semblance of a political agenda, the LRA continued its attacks in northern Uganda, funded by Sudan in retaliation for Ugandan patronage of the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army in its campaign against Khartoum.

Since a 2006 cease-fire, though, the security situation in Northern Uganda has improved markedly. The International Criminal Court put Kony at the top of its most-wanted list, and the Ugandan military is now in pursuit, aided by a contingent of US military advisors dispatched by President Obama last year. Although Russell’s video implies that Kony is still active in Uganda, in fact new geopolitical realities have pushed him (and his much-reduced band of followers/child conscripts) into less-stable parts of the nearby Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of the Congo, and South Sudan.

Although Kony remains a threat to the region, he is no longer anywhere near the top of the agenda in the video’s area of focus, Northern Uganda, where aid for mutilated and orphaned victims, poverty reduction, disease eradication, and reconciliation are vastly more pressing concerns. Given that several groups are currently working to promote recovery in the wake of horrendous multi-lateral conflict, one wonders how blanketing the world with a no-shades-of-grey video that makes the fighting seem current and the bloodstained Ugandan army an uncomplicated force for good could possibly have a positive impact on transitional justice efforts in the region. Surely the money that Invisible Children is charging for its $30 bracelet-and-poster-filled “Action Kits” could be better spent responding to the actual needs of victims — especially because Invisible Children’s publicity campaign might push Kony deeper into the brush and thus make him more difficult to capture. Perhaps that’s why Ugandan journalist Angelo Izama called the video “misleading” in his sharp takedown, and why residents of the Northern Ugandan town of Lira responded to a local screening with rocks and harsh words:

At the risk of sounding like a curmudgeon, I should clarify — I think it’s wonderful that Western teenagers are responding so favorably to a YouTube video that doesn’t involve singing dogs or baby pandas. And vanity aside, it seems hard to doubt that Invisible Children’s staff and supporters have their hearts in the right place. But Kony 2012 is obviously a campaign that does not take its cues from those it’s aiming to help, one which in its oversimplification-bordering-on-distortion may even set Northern Uganda back. I hope the world’s next humanitarian viral sensation can raise the bar just a little bit.

Cristina Likes Us! (Maybe)

Passing the Casa Rosada on my way to the Subte this past Thursday, I came upon an exhibition of photos by Victor Hugo Bugge, Argentina’s official presidential photographer since 1978 (when military dictator Jorge Rafael Videla held the office). I wasn’t in any particular rush, so I figured I’d pop in for a quick shot of fuzzy Kirchnerista fondness. I made my way down the first row of photographs, taking in the carefully chosen images of Néstor and Cristina Fernández de Kirchner doing what politicians have done since long before Videla — hugging babies, posing beside imposing neoclassical statues:

And doing some excellent things that past presidents didn’t do so often, like standing together with HIJOS, newborns taken from their disappeared parents by Videla and friends, then given away as spoils of war to families favored by the regime:

None of these photos surprised me much — until, that is, I noticed some familiar characters:

Wow, a lot of yanquis here. (And look, it’s Pittsburgh!) Then again, Argentines don’t hate Obama, and his relationship with Cristina seems to be on the mend right now.  And next to Bush, Clinton must have glimmered like a mirage in the Kirchners’ rearview mirror. Maybe, I began to reason, it wasn’t actually so strange to see these two icons of Northern imperialism guarding la presidenta‘s front door.

But HIM?

And again! (This one wasn’t very well received by the photo-viewing public, it seems.)

And strangest of all:

What’s going on here? Is Cristina trying to show a friendlier face to the US? Or to underscore Argentina’s importance on the global stage? And why is Bush in so many photos? Especially that dopey-faced one with Condoleezza Rice — the only photo, I believe, in which neither Cristina nor Néstor made an appearance. They must be messing with us, right?

Casa Rosadology’s a tricky game.

A Much-Needed Kick in the SEC’s Pants

I haven’t written much about US politics lately, but a decision this morning by federal District Court Judge Jed Rakoff has me fired up, and lest it fly under your radar, I’d like to explain why. In the years leading up to 2008, many of the country’s biggest investment and insurance firms developed a chain of interrelated financial products that enabled them to sell ultimately worthless subprime mortgage debt to investors while simultaneously betting against these same investments. In other words, they encouraged their clients to buy products they knew, in the words of one Goldman Sachs executive, to be “shit” and collected large bonuses for doing so. When the bubble burst, investors like the Mississippi state pension plan took a huge hit while the banks (and their bonus-happy bankers) profited.

(It’s ethically bankrupt and, to my eye, transparently illegal practices like this that led me to detest the unmatched influence that “i-banks” and their enablers wield over the undergrads and career services offices of Harvard and other “elite” schools. When my classmates and I went searching for jobs, no career path was more clearly delineated than the one that led right to Goldman’s door. But, crankily, I digress.)

Since long before the US financial crisis of 2008, the Securities and Exchange Commission–the federal entity responsible for enforcing the laws that supposedly govern the sale of securities in the US–has developed the habit of charging investment firms with fraud or negligence and then negotiating settlements with these firms instead of taking them to court. This practice has continued to govern the agency’s pathetic response to the widespread fraud that contributed to our recent crisis–like, for instance, the $550 million fine the SEC negotiated with Goldman Sachs last year.

Settlements like this might sound like a win for the public–firms get bad publicity and have to pay big bucks, and the SEC can avoid committing its limited manpower to an all-out court battle. But in truth, it’s anything but. Hundreds of millions of dollars in fines would be pretty tough for you or me to swallow, but to a monstrously outsized, too-big-to-fail investment firm like Goldman Sachs, these settlements are chump change–the cost of doing (personally lucrative, morally decrepit) business. But much worse is that they enable the firms to pay up without admitting or denying wrongdoing, and because they forgo the public fact-finding of a trial, there’s no evidence for the victims of these terrible practices to use to recover their losses in civil suits. Perhaps this complete lack of accountability is just an unintended byproduct of the SEC’s pursuit of the public interest, but given the notorious revolving door between the commission and the firms it’s supposed to be regulating, I’m hardly convinced.

Excitingly, neither is Judge Jed Rakoff, who just this morning rejected a $285-million version of the Goldman Sachs settlement that the SEC had negotiated with Citigroup. (In this case, investors lost $700 million through Citigroup-designed securities while the bank itself made $160 million betting against them.) Assuming his decision stands, Citigroup will be going to court to face accusations of fraud, and the SEC’s shamefuly toothless enforcement practices will likely change in what I can only hope to be a substantial way.

Rakoff’s decision is rife with deliciously quotable and oh-so-appropriate moral indignation. Decrying the complete lack of accountability inherent in the SEC’s blame-free settlements, Rakoff observes, “Even in our nation, apologists for suppressing or obscuring the truth may always be found. But the S.E.C., of all agencies, has a duty, inherent in its statutory mission, to see that the truth emerges; and if it fails to do so, this Court must not, in the name of deference or convenience, grant judicial enforcement to the agency’s contrivances.” He takes particular aim at the lack of fact-finding, writing, “An application of judicial power that does not rest on facts is worse than mindless, it is inherently dangerous, serves no lawful or moral purpose and is simply an engine of oppression.”

Here here! At a time when the federal agencies and Congressional committees charged with overseeing the finance industry often seem less like genuine counerweights than launching pads for lobbying careers, and the federal courts little more than a rubber stamp, muscular judicial oversight from judges like Rakoff is exactly what we need more of. The days when our government is accountable to the public over the narrow interests of our country’s greediest sector still feel impossibly far in the future, but this decision fills me with hope. Our system of legalized corruption is under attack, and not just from Occupy Wall Street. Somebody needs to buy Jed Rakoff a beer!

Salon Article on Argentina’s Recent Elections

My first piece for Salon, about the skewed coverage of Argentina’s recent election in the U.S. media. Here’s the lede:

When Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, was reelected two weeks ago by the largest margin of any leader since the return of democracy in 1983, even her bitterest opponents had to admit that she’d done something right. Clarín, Buenos Aires’ highest-circulation daily and a strong contender for the title of Kirchner’s enemy No. 1, acknowledged that the president had earned her victory by creating jobs and prosperity. Mauricio Macri, the conservative mayor of Buenos Aires, congratulated Fernández and told reporters, “If things go well for the president, things go well for us.”

But on the pages of America’s leading newspapers, the tone was strikingly less conciliatory….

The full article:

The New York Times Doesn’t Much Like Cristina

It’s been clear for a good while now that Alexei Barrionuevo, the New York Times‘ Southern Cone bureau chief, isn’t a fan of newly reelected Argentine President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner. His reporting on topics from Argentina’s approval of gay marriage to conflicts between the president and the country’s central bank tend to paint Cristina (as she’s universally known here) as a shameless self-promoter whose real achievements are merely incidental to her search for political advantage. Sure, there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticize Cristina, but there’s also ample cause to celebrate her achievements — and Times readers consistently get just the first half of a very complicated story.

Even when set within this context of one-sided reporting, though, Barrionuevo’s article about Cristina’s resounding reelection this past Sunday stands out. Facing a divided opposition and bolstered by Latin America’s highest rate of economic growth, Cristina (whose husband, Néstor, died last November after serving his own presidential term from 2003-2007) won reelection with nearly 54% of the vote, more than three times the share earned by her closest competitor. It’s the widest margin of victory since the return of democracy in 1983, and while Cristina’s critics can choose to blame the results on the weakness of the opposition or on kirchnerismo‘s supposed pandering to the poor, few doubt that the election was free and fair, and a 37% margin would suggest that Cristina has done at least a few things right. Any piece of objective reporting, you’d think, ought at the very least to recognize some of these successes. Yet Barrionuevo’s article, Kirchner Achieves an Easy Victory in Argentina Presidential Election, resolutely does not. Instead, it expounds on the weaknesses of Cristina’s last term and attributes much of her victory to sympathy over Néstor’s death before concluding, in the voice of one of several experts cited in the piece, that a “political reckoning” is in the works. Cristina’s opponents themselves looked more generous in defeat.

Barrionuevo begins by recalling — correctly — that two years ago, Cristina’s re-election prospects looked dicey, the outlook dimmed by conflict with the powerful agricultural sector, increasing inflation, and a number of scandals. (Not mentioned is a temporary slowdown in economic growth.) But in the past two years — and especially since Néstor died — Cristina has experienced an exceptional turnaround, winning reelection by an historic margin. Barrionuevo attributes this revival largely to this year’s economic growth of 8%, so strong that it led voters to overlook “troubling signs” like high inflation and a heavy-handed approach to critics. So far, no real complaints.

But then Barrionuevo’s biases begin to reveal themselves in much more obvious ways. He devotes the bulk of the article to criticism of Cristina’s failings without any mention of her accomplishments in education, poverty reduction, or human rights, and he describes her in unnecessarily harsh terms. (When he says that “with her emotional speeches and designer suits, Mrs. Kirchner appealed to the masses,” one senses that Barrionuevo isn’t complimenting Cristina’s oratory or her fashion sense.)

Much more troubling is Barrionuevo’s refusal to quote any sources with even vaguely flattering things to say about Cristina. One analyst he cites notes that “this election seemed to defy the normal rules of politics,” presumably because of the government’s “corruption and cronyism.” While there is indeed plenty of evidence to warrant these two adjectives (which, for the record, describe just about every government in Argentine history), it seems to me that voters’ willingness to overlook corruption amid record economic growth — and at a time when salary increases are largely keeping pace with real inflation, subsidies have increased, poverty has declined dramatically, and social spending has more than tripled — follows rather than challenges “the normal rules.” Another condemns Argentina’s failure to embrace the sort of macroeconomic policies that favor foreign direct investment; while that’s a legitimate complaint — especially among Argentina’s business class and foreign corporations and governments–the decision to deprioritize long-held debts and, in turn, international investment stands at the heart of the economic “model” that Cristina has touted continuously throughout the campaign, and it evidently didn’t trouble most voters overmuch. A third argues that Argentina’s regional influence has decreased while Brazil’s has increased; I won’t argue with that one. A fourth, already mentioned above, argues that “when the money runs out” due to a predicted economic slowdown next year, “there will be a political reckoning.” This is likely true as well, though it’s worth noting that these predictions are based on probable international developments like lower commodity prices and reduced demand from China and Brazil — and blaming Cristina for these things is like blaming Obama for the European debt crisis.

What’s remarkable isn’t that Barrionuevo cites these sources; for the most part, I don’t even disagree with the points they raise. Instead, it amazes me that Barrionuevo doesn’t quote anyone willing to frame Cristina’s reelection in a more favorable light. There’s certainly no shortage of local political observers who recognize that Néstor and Cristina made life better for a lot of Argentines, and that this might have had something to do with this past Sunday’s results. Even Clarín, arch-enemy of kirchnerismo, was willing to credit decreased unemployment and increases in personal consumption as major factors in Cristina’s victory; the people “voted with their wallets,” one of the paper’s commentators announced. (If you’re curious about the government’s relationship to Clarín, check out this earlier post.)

What emerges from Barrionuevo’s slanted reporting is a narrative that goes something like this: In 2003, Néstor and Cristina set out to establish a political dynasty. Their combative political style and corruption nearly did them in back in 2008-09, but economic growth (driven by high commodity prices, not by an economic model that experts claimed would “collapse” before this year) managed to improve the couple’s political prospects. Then Néstor died, Cristina softened her image, and an ineffective opposition somehow failed to capitalize on the government’s many failings, enabling Cristina to ride a wave of sympathy and economic growth to victory last Sunday. Yet the successes of kirchnerismo ring hollow, and now it’s only a matter of time before all hell breaks loose.

Plenty of people, here and abroad, would agree with this take on the recent Argentine past; lots of others wouldn’t. Barrionuevo’s article would make for a fine op-ed or a piece of what the Times loves to call “news analysis.” But to present this as straight news reporting — it’s what I expect from Rupert Murdoch, not from the New York Times.

Political Complicity Article Goes Live

In case you’re burning with curiosity about the behavior of Argentina’s major Jewish political group during the country’s last dictatorship or craving a reflection on the ways in which the work of German philosopher Karl Jaspers could point us toward a more nuanced approach to the fine gradations of responsibility that define totalitarian social transformation — the final refereed version of the article I’ve spent much of the past two years working on has finally gone up on the International Journal of Transitional Justice’s website. For those wonky, nerdy, or bored enough to be interested, a full HTML version of the article can be found at this address and a pdf can be downloaded from this one. If you do give it a go, let me know what you think!

Full Text: