Monday, December 26, 2011

2011 Year in Politics

I don't think I'm going out on a limb here to say that 2011 will likely go down as the most significant Year in Politics in my lifetime. Time magazine named "The Protester" as the 2011 Person of the Year. It was an interesting selection, since Time couldn't actually photograph The Protester for their cover. They opted for an imaginative artistic mash-up of many types of protesters' faces instead, because the 2011 Protester was not a person, but rather The People. From Bahrain to Manhattan to Algeria to Wisconsin to Chile to Egypt to UC-Davis to Tunisia, the Protester was legion. Even on my own campus, a small, mostly wealthy and historically apolitical liberal-arts college in Tennessee, I could tell that revolution and solidarity were in the air.

This really was a monumental year. Wars were started and ended. Old leaders fell and new ones arose. The world began conversing in different political vocabularies, imagining different political futures, listening to different political constituents voicing different political concerns. And thanks to Facebook and Twitter and YouTube and a thousand blogs, we could see every exciting and tragic and inspirational and heartbreaking moment happening in every corner of the globe. Even North Korea's corner.

On the other hand, 2011 delivered plenty of garden-variety political shenanigans and buffoonery as well. This year's ridiculous answer to last year's The Rent Is Too Damn High Party is The Taxes Are Too Damn High Party, a.k.a. the Republican Party, which seemed even more hypocritical, culturally tone-deaf, anti-science and "oops"-inclined. In fact, it wouldn't be too difficult to do a whole list of 2011 Year in Politics just focusing on GOP debate gaffes. Alas, these lists are never long enough, never complete or comprehensive, but here's a go at some of the biggest headlines from the 2011 Year in Politics:

Arab Spring

One could make a convincing argument for the claim that most of the other significant political events of 2011 would not have happened if the Arab Spring had not sprung. Protests that began with the cry "Ash-shaʻb yurīd isqāṭ an-niẓām!" in Tunisia last December eventually spawned a great Awakening that spread across countries in the Middle East and North Africa, including Egypt, Bahrain, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, Lebanon, Jordan, Kuwait, Oman and Morocco. Of course, one can't reduce the initiation of a movement of this far-reaching to a single event, but if one could, it would have to be the tragic self-immolation of Tunisian street-vendor Mohamed Bouazizi on 17 December 2010. Harassed and humiliated by local police, Bouazizi took his own life in protest of Tunisia's autocratic regime headed by now-ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Bouazizi's bravery emboldened his fellow Tunisians, those Tunisians' bravery emboldened a region, and that region's bravery emboldened a world.

War Without End, "Ends"
The nearly nine-year U.S. occupation of Iraq came to an end on December 15 with a flag-lowering ceremony. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, in attendance, said that a free and democratic Iraq was worth the cost-- "in blood and treasures"-- that the U.S. paid, though that's hardly a consolation to the families of almost 5,000 servicemen and -women who lost their lives in the Iraq War. Nor is it a consolation to those suffering the brunt of our devastated economy, which hemorrhaged an estimated 3-4 trillion dollars as a result of this war. The last of the troops are scheduled to leave Iraq by December 31, leaving behind what is without doubt an unrecognizable country to most Iraqis. This past semester, I realized that many of my students (ages 18-22) have lived with the U.S. in a state of war with Iraq for over half their lives. They were children when it began; they're adults now. They likely don't remember that "Operation Iraqi Freedom" was initiated under a cover of lies. Then-President George W. Bush declared Iraq "the central front in the War on Terror" after manufacturing false-links between al Qaeda, 9/11 and Iraq. The Iraq War may be over, but the larger War on Terror of which it was a part still looks to be a war without end.

Osama bin Laden Assassinated
"Justice has been done." Those were President Obama's words, part of the dramatic address he delivered to the nation late in the evening on Sunday, May 1, announcing the death of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden after a Navy SEAL team raided his compound, assassinating him. Obama's announcement was just short of ten years after the attacks bin Laden helped orchestrate on September 11, 2001. It had been a hawkish decade of war and fear, which had traumatized and refashioned the American psyche surely as much as the events of 9/11. Despite the fact that almost every news outlet repeated, over and over again, that Obama's announcement was "the most significant," "the most awaited," "the most desired" news story for our country, the on-the-ground reactions were not unanimously in agreement with those evaluations. For some, Osama bin Laden's death represented both justice and closure; for others, it was only a reminder of how costly ("in blood and treasures," to use Panetta's formulation) justice and closure can be. Without question, Osama bin Laden was cruel and murderous, an ideologue whose impact was as far-reaching as it was devastating. But our final treatment of bin Laden-- like our treatment of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, like our treatment of the prisoners at Abu Ghraib, like our treatment of Uday and Qusay Hussein, like our treatment of Yaser Esam Hamdi and like our treatment of Guantanamo bay detainees-- the decision on the part of our President to execute justice outside of the constraints of the rule of law complicates and compromises any satisfaction we might feel in the justice that was done.

G.O.P. Primary Debates Offer a Masterclass in CUH-Razy
I try on this blog, as best as I am able, to not over-inject my analyses with partisan prejudice. But when I look at the Republican Party's 2012 Presidential primary candidates, I can't help but think that they're taking a few of Jesus' beatitudes a bit too literally. (I'm thinking of the fourth, the sixth and the eighth in particular.) Waving the banner of Christian (read: Protestant-capitalist) righteousness, the GOP seems to have dug up every last loony-tune in their ranks and designated him or her a "strong" candidate for President of the United States. It's a good thing that they control the House (though not the Senate) right now, because otherwise there might not be enough Republican politicos in power to pepper-spray the little kid crying that their Emperors are butt-naked. It's really difficult to pick the highlights (or lowlights) from this year's GOP primary debates, they're just too numerous and ridiculous and hilarious and frightening to narrow down. It's also a good thing for Republicans that Obama hasn't brought about enough change people can believe in over the last four years, because even the least of the GOP looks a helluva lot better as a consequence of Obama's underperformance. I won't lie, I'm kind of looking forward to seeing what other madness this group is going to roll out over the next several months. It's like a rubbernecker's dream.

North Korean Supreme Leader, Kim Jong-il, Dies
Just last week, the International Cult of Bad Guys took another hit when North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il died of a heart attack. It's hard to underestimate the repressiveness of Kim Jong-il's regime. He has been almost single-handedly responsible for sealing his country off from the rest of the world for the last three decades. According to Human Rights Watch, North Korea was one of the world's "most oppressive governments," holding up to 200,000 people in brutal prison camps and concentration camps. Under Kim Jong-il's rule, North Koreans were allowed no freedom of press or religion, no representation for political opposition, and no equal education. Because he was also the supreme commander of the fourth-largest standing army in the world (the Korean People's Army), his overthrow has been all but impossible, despite the fact that all reports indicate that South Koreans living under his rule are "some of the world's most brutalized people." Nevertheless, Kim Jong-il's people publicly and dramatically mourned his passing in Pyongyang, though it's unclear how much of their grief was coerced. Kim Jong-il will be succeeded by his third (and favorite) son, Kim Jong-un, while the rest of the world continues to hope that some of the revolutionary spirit that has swept across the Arab world will find its way onto the Korean Peninsula.

Go Ahead! Ask! Tell!
After many years of lobbying, LGBT advocates finally won their fight to repeal the military's longstanding "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy, which forbade gays and lesbians from serving openly in the U.S. Armed Forces. Rick Perry and Mitt Romney notwithstanding, almost everyone else has realized for a long time that this policy was ignorant, prejudicial, unconstitutional and grossly disrespectful to the brave men and women who serve our country. I hate to be cynical about what is definitely a huge step forward for the LGBT movement, but I can't help but think that this particular step was motivated in large part by our country's increasingly desperate need for soldiers. Even still, gay and lesbian soldiers who have been forced to hide (or lie about) their lives and loves deserve this victory, and it's at least one confirmation that Obama really does believe in LGBT equality. (There haven't been many of those confirmations.) Last week, a really heartwarming video went viral of a Navy Second Class Sergeant giving her girlfriend a kiss after returning home. They probably still can't get married, but one step at a time.

Supercommittee Fails To Avert Debt Ceiling Debacle
For most Americans, the real-- perhaps the only-- news story of 2011 was the continuing decline of the U.S. economy. There were several flashpoints in this story over the course of 2011, but those flashes seemed to concentrate in a paparazzi light-show near the end of the year. Back in March, President Obama, Democrats and Republicans came to blows over the 2011 budget. Congress was sharply divided along political lines, and the division of those lines was exacerbated by several freshman Congressional members who had come to office on the back of Tea Party support. They forged a tentative deal in the Spring, but only after severely rattling the stock market and consumer confidence. A few months later, animus flared again--this time on the issue of whether to raise the debt ceiling. Conservatives, including Tea Partiers, argued that Congress should not raise the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling even if it meant the U.S. defaults on its debt. In November, a bipartisan subcommittee (dubbed the Congressional Supercommittee) was charged with getting the long-term federal deficit under control. Instead of a deal, they delivered an EPIC FAIL, demonstrating the inability to compromise that has characterized so much of the work of the 112th U.S. Congress. Lawmakers eventually reached a stopgap deal and averted what many economists said would have propelled another economic crisis. (Republicans agreed to raise the debt limit by up to $2.4 trillion through 2013, in exchange for $1 trillion in spending cuts in 10 years.) But this 13th hour deal was, again, only a temporary fix. Next round coming to a theater near you in February.

99% #Occupy

If 2010 was the year of the Tea Party, 2011 is the year of the Occupy Movement. On September 17, a group of disgruntled New Yorkers set up camp in Zuccotti Park (also called Liberty Park) in the financial district and commenced protesting the gross economic inequality of our nation and our world. The self-described "culturejamming" internet company AdBusters quickly hashtagged the protest #Occupy Wall Street, and most of the major media news outlets began ridiculing them as a bunch of unemployed, dirty hippies. But they stayed, they kept camping, and they grew in number. By early October, #OWS had became a nationwide-- and then a worldwide-- movement, with similar Occupy campsites springing up in almost every major metropolitan area. (As of December, the Occupy Together site lists Occupy sites in over 2500 cities worldwide.) They called themselves the 99%, and they set themselves against the 1%, indicating the concentration of wealth in a sliver of the population. By November, it had become increasingly difficult to dismiss the Occupiers as a fringe movement, as it was beginning to resonate with the millions of Americans put out of their homes by foreclosures or otherwise struggling with inescapable debt. Then, the Occupy Movement moved onto college campuses and captured the imagination of debt-laden and debt-increasing students. When Occupying students at UC-Berkeley and UC-Davis were beaten and pepper-sprayed by police, it seemed that the police/State crackdown on the Occupy Movement had finally, violently, begun. Shortly thereafter, the evictions of OccupyOakland, OccupyPhiladelphia, OccupySanFrancisco and other sites demonstrated for the nation that the full force of the State and the police were decidedly in the service of the 1%. OccupyWallStreet, the original Occupy site and the home base for the movement, temporarily avoided eviction in a standoff with New York Mayor Bloomberg, but were themselves evicted from Zuccotti Park in the wee hours of the morning on November 15. The evictions and police violence have failed to deter the Occupiers, though, and the attention it has brought to the Movement seems to be galvanizing a whole new set of the American public. The class war has begun. We have nothing to lose but our chains.

Those are the highlights for 2011 Year in Politics. Next up is my favorite of the year-end lists: the 2011 Year in Pop Culture!

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