Thursday, March 11, 2010

Disregarding history

Hearings have occurred over the past two days at the State Board of Education regarding statewide social studies curriculum. The elected board members have the authority to amend and alter educational standards as they see fit, which has thrown them into the spotlight in the past for good reason. The Texas Observer has a pretty thorough live blogging for those with extra time, but for those who missed it, here are a few highlights:
  • Salvadoran peace activist and priest Oscar Romero was removed from curriculum. Former Israeli prime minister Golda Meir was added, leading to an opposing vote on the basis that “they just voted to remove someone of Hispanic heritage” to which board member Terri Leo responded, “Well, we're adding a Jewish woman.”

  • Students must now “explain three reasons why socialist central economic planning collapsed in competition with free markets at the end of the 20th century.” True for maybe Czechoslovakia, but untrue for Europe's relatively stable and prosperous social democracies.

  • The scholastic BCE and CE have been replaced by the antiquated AD and BC.

  • Students no longer must explain “Enlightenment ideas” but must explain writings of that era. Budding theocrat John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas – two religious leaders – have been added to the roster of thinkers of the Enlightenment. This is part of the board's effort to undermine the influence of Enlightenment ideals on the founding fathers and play up Judeo-Christian influence.

  • “The student understands the importance of the expression of different points of view in a democratic republic,” has been changed to “analyze the importance of the First Amendment rights to petition, assembly, speech, and press, and the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms.” This was done specifically to emphasize the importance of gun ownership as an element of good citizenship.

This is not the first time this year the board has made changes to social studies educational standards. In January, the SBOE changed all references of American “imperialism” to American “expansionism,” among other lamentable changes, ignoring that the two are not entirely synonymous. While practices such as Manifest Destiny were expansionist as well as imperialist, the fact that at one point in the early 20th century the U.S. dictated the foreign relations of Cuba, ran Haiti's finances and colonized the Philippines is a pretty thorough indictment of American imperialism.

In other news, the Montrose Land Defense Coaltion has amended its goals to reflect a broader purpose, abandoning the park idea and instead seeking “a development solution for this valuable tract that will best benefit businesses and the communities that surround it.” It's more practical, but it's vague and open-ended. Its unlikely such a movement will make appreciable success with such a nebulous purpose, although the presentation on its website proposed by unnamed architects is appealing. The city certainly doesn't have the funds laying around to make any appreciable contribution – indeed, the very construction of the University line, arguably the light rail system's linchpin – is now in doubt.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Kuperman's Sudanese spin machine

Alan J. Kuperman is perhaps one of the most disingenuous scholars to grace the editorial pages of The New York Times in the past few years. What can we expect, after all, from an academic who uses car and banking insurance as simile in regards to genocide?

His argument to bomb Iran has already been thoroughly demolished, but his 2006 piece on Darfur warrants briefly revisiting. The gist of Kuperman's argument is that Darfuri rebel groups, reluctant to sign peace accords with the Khartoum regime, have propagated needless violence by refusing to lay down arms. Other nations, Kuperman supposes, shouldn't give indication that they'd ever intervene on behalf of such groups, in order to discourage rebels like those in Darfur from taking up arms in the first place. His incendiary claim that the Save Darfur movement has emboldened the rebels to sacrifice their own civilians is used as further evidence but presented without support. Blatantly ignoring Carl Sagan's maxim that “extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” Kuperman's editorial is mostly an ill-informed missive against Darfuri victims:

“Darfur was never the simplistic morality tale purveyed by the news media and humanitarian organizations. The region's blacks, painted as long-suffering victims, actually were the oppressors less than two decades ago — denying Arab nomads access to grazing areas essential to their survival. Violence was initiated not by Arab militias but by the black rebels who in 2003 attacked police and military installations.


America, born in revolution, has a soft spot for rebels who claim to be freedom fighters, including those in Darfur. But to reduce genocidal violence, we must withhold support for the cynical provocations of militants who bear little resemblance to our founders.”

Kuperman's ultimate thesis resides in his “moral hazard hypothesis.” Chiefly, according to Kuperman, marginalized groups have been willing to engage in armed rebellion and sacrifice their civilian populaces to entice foreign – presumably Western-backed – intervention, which results in genocide against the rebelling population. It's a morose and cynical thesis, and one he frequently trots out while bending the very fabric of history.

Although he is correct asserting that the rebel groups are poorly misunderstood in the West, Kuperman evidently falls victim to ignorance himself. As part of his disinformation campaign, he fires a cheap salvo by claiming that today's victims were yesterday's oppressors while failing to provide much-needed context. While in past decades tribal skirmishes had made life difficult for some “Arabs” (a term often used for political enemies in Sudan among non-Arabs), these were likely the result of numerous external factors, including desertification and rampant water shortages. Territorial disputes over resources were rife preceding the conflict and further exacerbated by a government-led Arabization campaign in place since the 1970s.

Kuperman presents the 2003 uprising, which began with the occupation of Gulu by about 300 rebel fighters, in a vacuum. In reality, it was the culmination of years of systemic oppression against ethnic Fur, Masalit and Zaghawa tribe members. To complicate matters, Khartoum engaged in a regional power restructuring throughout the 1990s that stripped powers from the Masalit hereditary chief, appointed northern Arabs with Arabization-driven agendas into positions of power in Darfur and routinely jailed and tortured Masalit community members. Such state-led oppression led to the authorship of the Black Book, a work of 15 Darfuri political activists drawing upon sensitive state records and published in 2000, alleging that Sudan intended to keep Darfur economically disadvantaged through government measures – a claim that has since vindicated by Oxford economist Alex Cobham. Nor does Kuperman mention that the notorious janjaweed militia existed before the Darfur rebellion even began. Sudanese civil administrators operating from Khartoum were fielding the proxy militias as early as 1996, even recruiting and arming 20,000 volunteers from neighboring Chad. These militias looted Fur and Masalit farms and villages throughout the 90s, forcing tribes to create self-defense militias – the very militias that would evolve into the Darfuri rebel groups of the 1990s.

Ultimately he urges the U.S. rescind any support – material or otherwise – toward groups that allegedly sacrifice their own people for political ends. This is a fair supposition on its face, but one that bears no relation to either Darfur or other genocides, and instead allocates blame on the victims themselves. The rebellion was a direct result of Sudanese government oppression, and the genocide was undertaken directly by Sudanese state agents and their malicious proxies as a method of further eroding Darfur tribal groups. To ignore the root causes of the issue is to misconstrue the issue itself. Kuperman is right suggesting Darfuri rebels bear little resemblance to America's founding fathers, because the tyranny they faced paled in comparison to the systemic terror imposed on the Fur and Masalit during the late 1990s and early 2000s in western Sudan that gave birth to the Darfur rebellion.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Building woes

The legacy of the Wilshire Village apartments speaks volumes about Houston building practices. Constructed in 1940, the art deco-derived garden apartments opened for business in the heart of a soon-to-be-defunct streetcar suburb lurching toward inner-city status. As time passed, the apartments slowly fell into disrepair while the surrounding neighborhood gradually hemorrhaged its structures and residents and swapped them for new. The demolition of Wilshire Village last year, following a series of convoluted business dealings (including a possible allegation by the owner that his paid tenants were squatters), surprised few. Its destruction marked the passing of a slightly spooky New Deal-inspired neighborhood icon, which was the home of my newlywed grandparent's first apartment as well as the last Federal Housing Administration-backed site.

Rumors have swirled for years whether the lot will give way to a residential high-rise, a grocery store or some other development. News that H-E-B is closing a deal to put in a grocery store – directly across from a long-standing Fiesta – has generated little goodwill in the community, some members of which have banded together to form the Montrose Land Defense Coalition. The Coalition would rather see a park in its stead, a sympathetic but ultimately untenable position. The property, valued at a minimum of $11 million but likely worth in excess of $20 million, would cost the city nearly 1 percent of its fiscal year 2010 general funds solely for the land purchase. Menil, Mandell and Dunlavy parks are close by, and the money would be better invested in literacy programs for the Fondren or Gulfton areas than they would in greening an area that's already relatively green.

The Coalition would benefit from jettisoning the park idea entirely. Although H-E-B is in its closing stages, greater awareness could generate a more competitive bidding atmosphere over the tract. Virtually any other development – short of a high-rise – would be more beneficial for area traffic and infrastructure. A commercial plot or mixed-use lot would increase the walkability of the area, which will be served by the Mandell stop of the planned University Line. Montrose residents are rightly concerned about the neighborhood's creeping gentrification, but we'll likely see this story repeated time and again until Houston enacts concrete zoning laws and pursues historical preservation measures endowed with some real teeth.

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Hunting Central Asia's phantoms

The U.S. is set to open a $5.5 million anti-terror training facility in Kyrgyzstan's Batken province, Eurasianet reports. The center, which will match a similar, extant Russian effort, is a continuation of American policy in supporting the Central Asian state in its crusade against perceived terrorist threats. Yet aid should not have an exclusively anti-terrorist purpose. If conditions in Kyrgyzstan are to improve and terror threats are to be stymied, infrastructure development and government transparency must be focal points.

Kyrgyz President Kurmanbek Bakiev raised the specter of an Islamic insurrection following a series of small-scale clashes last year. Tajikistan witnessed similar problems in 2009, although the violence is a far cry from the scale reached during the height of the Islamic Movement in Uzbekistan's raids of the early 2000s. Bakiev, however, must not take a page from Uzbekistan's Islam Karimov's playbook. Karimov, worried about the expansion of the IMU, engaged in an anti-opposition campaign that jailed anyone remotely too Islamic, including members of Hizb ut-Tahir, an international secret society devoted toward establishing a global Sunni caliphate through nonviolent means. Veteran Pakistani journalist Ahmed Rashid speculated that had Islamic movements been allowed in Uzbekistan's political mainstream instead of actively persecuted, there would have been less room for armed Islamic opposition to be legitimized.

There are signs Bakiev, who was initially hailed as a democratic reformer in the wake of the Tulip Revolutin, may already be doing this. Bakiev has used this specter in part to increase his control over state security apparatuses, while restructuring the government to afford him the power to dissolve parliament as necessary. These have coincided with a spate of violence previously unseen in the republic. Journalists and opposition members have become victims of brutal attacks, some of which have proven fatal. Of recent note is the case of Gennady Pavyluk, an ethnic Russian Kyrgyz journalist who was thrown from the sixth floor of an apartment building in neighboring Kazakhstan.

For its part, the proposed base opening represents no shift in U.S. policy. When Russia's bribes threatened the closure of the Manas Air Base, Obama wrote Bakiev a letter praising his contributions to the war on terror – yet his own domestic abuses are seldom mentioned by the U.S. administration. While State Department officials have acknowledged some human-rights violations, the government has taken few active steps in denouncing them. Even so, pressuring Bakiev to change course through incentives with strings attached would likely just push the nation more toward the Russian sphere of influence.

To complicate matters, the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 forced a politically rooted realignment of irrigation channels and power grids in the former Soviet republics, leading to the rapid desertification of the Aral Sea in the 1990s and creating power struggles that have left swaths of people periodically in the dark. Energy woes and water scarcity, compounded by endemic corruption and a lack of basic education and healthcare, could lead to serious destabilization in neighboring Tajikistan, a conclusion recently reached by the International Crisis Group and the Centre for Eastern Studies in Warsaw.

Kyrgyzstan must be prepared to deal with an influx of refugees across its porously bordered Ferghana Valley should that occur, while simultaneously shielding its own populace from the possibility of state failure. Doing this will require constructive foreign aid, government openness and infrastructure improvement, all of which will continue to elude the Central Asian republic should it keep chasing ghosts, be they among its urban civil society or in its rural mosques.

For the benefit of Kyrgyzstan and regional security, international efforts must be made to focus on civilian aid and infrastructure improvement. The U.S. must focus less on countering Russian defensive contributions tit-for-tat, and instead on distributing to Kyrgyzstan the medical, educational and utility-repair and construction resources necessary to ensure a stable civil society. Such improvements will elevate the standard of living while undermining Islamist recruiting clarions. Any long-lasting, significant effort will require government initiative and support. Bakiev must allow for the proliferation of peaceful Islam, which has experienced a noted resurgence in the Central Asian republics since the fall of the Iron Curtain. The democratic entrance of the Islamic Renaissance Party in the political dialog of Tajikistan should be evidence of Islam's possible integration into politics – yet it took a vicious civil war to illustrate this to the Tajik opposition. Hopefully Bakiev will not continue wielding such a heavy hand in coming years, lest his policies provide the breeding ground for an inchoate insurrection.