Out of ICE Into the Fire

Janet Napolitano will leave her post as head of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to become the President of the University of California (UC) system.

This is a change worth pondering.

* * *

Only a decade ago, Americans could not say “homeland” without irony; the word seemed too nationalistic and authoritarian. “Fatherland” and “Motherland” carry that connotation still.

Then came 9/11.   The terror attacks were a godsend for authoritarians.  They enabled institutional changes that leave us more surveilled and less free than before.

The words we use followed suit.

And so, we now find ourselves under the heel of a spanking new and thoroughly monstrous bureaucratic concoction, the Department of Homeland Security.

Reason not the need.  The point was to make the public think that the security of the homeland from terrorist attacks like the ones on 9/11 are the government’s highest priority.

If the Bush-Cheney Administration could get that idea across, then, they hoped, people would feel that the homeland really is insecure – not from looming ecological catastrophes or from the turbulent downward spiral of an overripe capitalist system, but from them, the “other”; from those who “hate our freedom” and are poised to attack.

In a saner world, it would appear obvious on its face that the Fear that Bush and Cheney managed to install is a greater threat to our freedom than Al Qaida or any of its offshoots.   But no matter.  Now that a Communist menace is unavailable, Islamist boogiemen will have to do.

Concern that Communism might win over peoples’ hearts and minds motivated capitalists, and their politicians, to make concessions to social democracy and New Deal liberalism, diminishing inequality and enhancing overall well-being.

Islamism, on the other hand, is a temptation only within marginalized ethnic enclaves, and the fears it raises have no salutary consequences.  Concern that it might win over the hearts and minds of immigrants from historically Muslim countries inspires nothing but nativist animosities and tolerance for repression.

Radical Islamists don’t even provide good pretexts for fattening up the military-industrial complex.  Because President Drone prefers to wage his version of the Bush-Cheney War on Terror by remote control, parts of the high tech sector have prospered under his reign.  But more traditional death merchants are floundering like everybody else.  They are the ones who created the jobs back when military Keynesianism was our “free market” substitute for industrial planning.

Moreover, despite the best efforts of compliant media, the radical Islamist threat is not very credible.  The old Soviet juggernaut could wipe us off the map.  What can Al Qaida and its affiliates do?


How fortunate for our rulers, therefore, that the peoples of the Middle East and South Asia are dark enough and foreign enough to scare God-fearing, true blue Americans to death!  If enough people are scared enough, they can get away with pretty much anything they want.

What they want is to be able to do whatever they deem necessary —  not to assure the homeland’s security, but the security of the titans of finance, commerce and industry (what remains of it) who own them and who believe, not unreasonably, that, in the Age of Obama, the homeland also belongs to them.

* * *

George Bush chose former Pennsylvania governor Tom Ridge to be the first head of the DHS.  It is tempting to say that he made that choice to make himself look good.  In any case, Ridge was too inept for the job.  He will be remembered mainly for color-coding terror levels.

Michael Chertoff took over in Bush’s second term.  He was less risible than his predecessor, but the performance of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), part of the DHS, nearly did him in.  Chertoff’s credibility never recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

Neither, of course, did George Bush’s – not after he famously told FEMA director (and former Judges and Stewards Commissioner for the International Arabian Horse Association) Michael Brown that he,

“Brownie,” was doing “a heck of a job.”

Then came Barack Obama and Janet Napolitano.  In this, as in so many other ways, Obama continued what his predecessors began, but with more finesse.   Napolitano was the perfect woman for the job, a capable administrator with ample law enforcement experience.

By the time she took up the reins, the DHS included some comparatively benign and even useful agencies, not just FEMA but also the Coast Guard and the Secret Service, among others.  It also included some of the most odious federal agencies of the post-9/11 era.

High on the list is ICE, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, the bane of Latino and Asian communities throughout the Land of the Free.  Under Obama and Napolitano, raids on immigrant communities and deportation rates soared.

There is also the TSA, the Transportation Security Administration, the bane of air travelers who dislike being groped by keystone cops and otherwise having their personal space violated.  Most fascisant of all, there is the Customs and Border Protection agency, tasked with militarizing the U.S. – Mexico border.

Before taking over DHS, Napolitano was the Governor of Arizona.  It was her successor, Republican Jan Brewer, who made that state among the most retrograde in the entire United States.  But the seeds have been there since frontier days, and Arizona politics has always been skewed to the right.  As Governor, Napolitano was no outlier; she fit the traditional mold.

Indeed, law enforcement has always been her passion.  Before she became Governor, Napolitano had been Arizona’s Attorney General.  By all accounts, she ran a tight ship.

Reportedly, she would have liked to become the U.S. Attorney General in Obama’s second term.  However, Eric Holder wanted to stay on, and the President wanted that even more than Holder did.

Holder’s first task, upon assuming office, was to assure that Bush era war criminals would not be brought to justice.  Obama called that “looking forward.”  Holder was just as forward looking as his boss.  But that was only the starter.

For criminalizing whistle-blowing and investigative reporting, Holder has proven himself second to none.  And he and Obama are of one mind when it comes to proclaiming the legality of the Administration’s plain violations of international law – like the right of humanitarian asylum and the absolute immunity from prosecution and police interference accorded to sitting heads of state.

Above all, the President values the way Holder protects banksters and too-big-to-fail corporate predators.  Obama is on record for calling some of the worst of them “savvy businessmen.”  This is fine with Holder; he is totally with the program.

And Obama can count on Holder to put a lid on popular resistance movements – from Occupy Wall Street to expressions of rage following the acquittal in Florida of George Zimmerman, the killer of Trayvon Martin.

Like Obama himself and like Bill Clinton, Holder is good at “feeling the pain” of the system’s victims.  Like them too, he is good at doing nothing more to relieve it than throwing a few well chosen words the victims’ way.

After the Zimmerman acquittal, he mouthed off a little about the harm done by stand-your-ground laws like Florida’s.  It was like Barack Obama mouthing off about Israeli settlements in occupied Palestine.  Nothing will come of it.

People involved in anti-racist struggles who are not also abject Obama apologists like Al Sharpton and Melissa Harris-Perry have long understood that this African American Attorney General is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

That is just how Obama likes it.  From his point of view, Holder is a keeper.

And so, with the prospect of taking over at Justice shot, Napolitano decided to accept the California offer.

Starting this September, the chancellors of the campuses at Berkeley, Los Angeles, San Diego, San Francisco, Davis, Irvine, Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and Merced will all report to her.

In numbers of students enrolled, she will head the sixth largest public university system in the United States.  But this hardly reflects the importance of the position she will hold.

This is because there is no other public university system that comes close to containing so many world-class research institutions and highly regarded undergraduate colleges.

If there were a President of the Ivy League, he or she would hold an only slightly more influential post.  But, of course, private universities do not, and never will, comprise an integrated administrative entity.

The University of California is in a class by itself.

* * *

The Department of Homeland Security is huge and its component parts are more diverse than those of any university system.  One might therefore suppose that someone up to the task of running the DHS would be more than capable of running the University of California.

By all accounts, Napolitano was up to the task.

To be sure, much of what the DHS does is objectionable, and the whole is worse than the sum of its parts.  But that really wasn’t Napolitano’s fault; she was only doing her job, “following orders.”

In choosing her, Obama could have done worse.  Given the drift of his presidency, when he nominates a successor, he probably will do worse.

Still, given her prominence in the Obama Administration and her role in some of its most nefarious activities, it is hard not to be glad to see the back of her.

The University of California could do worse too.  They would have done worse had the Regents succumbed to the nonsensical but widespread belief that “savvy businessmen” ought to run everything.

That belief was the one thing Mitt Romney had going for him as he tried to win over “undecided” voters in the 2012 election.  Obviously, not enough of them were convinced.

But plutocrats are usually more amenable to pro-business nostrums than undecided voters, and there are plutocrats aplenty among the UC’s Regents.

Fortunately, for the future of public higher education, they didn’t succumb entirely to their own delusions.

But they did go part of the way – selecting a competent manager with demonstrated skills in law enforcement.   Better that than someone habituated to squeezing profits out of everything that moves, but hardly what the University of California needs.

What do university administrators do?  Presumably, they raise money, but hardly anyone who is not an administrator really knows.  It is one of the mysteries of academic life.

What is clear is that they make a lot of busywork for themselves and each other.  Academics know this because some of it filters down to those who actually do the teaching and research.  They also make sure that they are paid more than anyone else – except, of course, the football coach.

They can also be a force for good, though they rarely are.  In the not too distant past, leaders of prestigious academic institutions would sometimes use their bully pulpits to exert moral leadership – to defend free speech and the right to protest, for example, or affirmative action.

They did so, for the most part, as decent and principled conservatives – real ones, the kind that would be appalled by what passes for conservatism in the Grand Old Party these days.  Many of the best of them were liberal Republicans, a breed that is now all but extinct.

Decent and principled Democrats have not fared much better.  They can still be found in state legislatures, but among the high flyers of the national Party, they are an endangered species.

When they leave office, cabinet Secretaries usually cash in big time on their connections.  The handful of them who circulate back and forth between the government and the academy are perhaps a tad less venal than the ones who go on to become lobbyists — but when it comes to being decent and principled, they are no better than the common lot.

They are, at most, team players, like Donna Shalala, Bill Clinton’s Secretary of Health and Human Services (HHS).  Before “the lure of public service,” as she put it, “called” her away, she was Chancellor of the University of Wisconsin – Madison.  [She was therefore, technically, my boss.]

She left the cabinet after her boss’s second term.  Then she became President of the University of Miami where, as at Wisconsin, she devoted herself mainly to the football team.  And, as if to honor the neoliberal drift of the Clinton years, she distinguished herself too by doing her level best to keep campus workers from organizing.

Like the DHS, HHS is a huge bureaucracy comprised of diverse agencies.  Shalala did well enough running it; at least no one can say she did “a heck of a job.”

But she was largely sidelined on policy matters even before the Clintons’ Hillarycare fiasco set the cause of health care reform back a generation — awaiting the time when genuine reform would be set back again by the Affordable Care Act, President Obama’s “landmark” legislative triumph.

The White House can only focus on a few issues at a time; everything else runs more or less on autopilot.  It can therefore matter who the cabinet secretaries are.  Usually, though, it does not.  They need only be competent enough not to embarrass the President or to hurt him politically.

That was how it was with Shalala and Napolitano.  They both did OK; they both went along to get along.

And that is what the University of California can now expect.

If Napolitano has it in her to do the contemporary equivalent of, say, speaking out courageously for due process rights for Black Panthers, the way Kingman Brewster, President of Yale, did in the late sixties, she has shown no sign of it.

Neither is there any reason to expect Napolitano to exercise anything like visionary leadership in higher education itself.  She is a stranger to the entire operation – except, of course, the campus cops.

Whatever the UC Regents may think, large, multi-faceted bureaucratic conglomerations are not fungible; universities are different.  Their culture is different from the DHS’s or, at least, one would hope so.  Even among themselves, universities differ considerably.

If Napolitano has any inkling of this, it is not clear how she obtained it.  She has a law degree from the University of Virginia, and she boasts that her father was a dean at the University of Arizona’s Medical School.  That’s about it.

She has had no relation at all to the campuses she is about to lead.

However, she does claim to have always had an interest in higher education.  No doubt, she has.  But, then, she is, at best, an enthusiast, not an expert.

Sherry Lansing, the chair of the special committee tasked with finding a new UC system President, announced Napolitano’s appointment.  Lansing used to be the CEO of Paramount Pictures.  Would she have appointed a self-identified movie buff with no “industry” experience to head a major studio?  The question answers itself.

The idea, it seems, is that, because Napolitano has Washington connections, her “being there” will confer blessings upon the UC system — like the body of Oedipus upon his burial site.  Good luck with that.

One would think that the Regents would care more about Sacramento than Washington.  However, they seem unconcerned that Napolitano is as much a stranger to California politics as she is to academic life.  Could they be the last to be looking still to Obama for salvation?

It may be relevant too that one of Napolitano’s prime Washington connections is the senior Senator from California, Dianne Feinstein.

As it happens, Feinstein’s husband, Richard Blum, an investment banker with more money than Croesus, is a California Regent.  No doubt, he supported Napolitano as enthusiastically as his wife supports NSA surveillance.

Still, in a world where Robert Gates could move from the CIA to Texas A&M and then become Secretary of Defense for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama, or where the hapless General Petraeus could be considered for the presidency of Princeton, the Napolitano appointment, however outrageous, is not that anomalous.

It should be noted, though, that Petraeus does at least have a higher degree; and that he got it at the university he wanted to lead.

* * *

Napolitano’s move from the DHS to the UC presidency is bad news for California; the best that can be said for it is that the university system could have done even worse.

But there are always unintended consequences.  In this instance, they could turn out to be welcome.

Were a Republican or a white southern Democrat or even a northern “liberal” turned “moderate” implementing policies like Obama’s, popular indignation would now be flaring up everywhere.  Remember how Lyndon Johnson was despised, and how Hubert Humphrey’s nomination for the presidency in 1968 fractured the Democratic Party.

Yet Obama gets away with murder – and worse.   There seems to be no limit to how much “disappointment” his boosters will tolerate.  In their minds, Republican villainy excuses all.

This is why Obama’s greatest gift to the powers that be is, and always has been, his ability to disable popular opposition.  This is especially invaluable now – as reasons to rebel rise to Vietnam era levels.

Janet Napolitano will not get the same free ride.

Clark Kerr was President of the UC system too; and unlike Napolitano, he actually was a distinguished academic and a liberal Democrat, back in the day when that still meant something.

Today, he is remembered mainly for leading the Forces of Order as the Free Speech Movement erupted in all its glory.  Kerr was a decent and thoughtful man who had the misfortune of being caught between a nascent New Left and the virulent rightwing reaction that made Ronald Reagan Governor of California.

He was also an insightful observer of university culture.  Being a preeminent insider, his view of what university administrators do is especially on point.  According to one of his better-known quips, they deal with “sex for the undergraduates, athletics for the alumni and parking for the faculty.”

Napolitano should take heed.  If she sticks to those issues, she may just get through her next job in one piece.  However if she ventures out on her own, she may just be clueless enough to get into big trouble – like America in Afghanistan and the Middle East.

Sometimes, though, prudence is not enough.  Clark Kerr discovered that to his dismay.

The Free Speech Movement, like the anti-War movement that followed it, saw establishment liberals as the enemy; it took aim at liberalism — from the left.

That made perfect sense: establishment liberals were impeding the civil rights movement as much as they were aiding it, and the Vietnam War was largely their creation.

How pathetic that nowadays one can only long for the liberalism sixties activists once despised!  Democrats today are that much worse.

Be that as it may, for a moment, Kerr became a lightening rod; Napolitano will be a lightening rod too.  The difference is that, as a good Obama Democrat, she will deserve it far more.

The spirit of rebellion is out there; in 2011, as the Occupy movements flourished, it nearly caught on.  In 2013, it need only be ignited.  For that, there is no better place than the campuses of the University of California — the one at Berkeley, above all.  There is no more honorable campus tradition.

It can happen.  An even more noxious Obama Democrat than Napolitano, Rahm Emanuel, is finding that out now in Chicago.  Emanuel’s – and Obama’s — neoliberal austerity politics, shorn of any concern for the wellbeing of anyone but the super-rich, is embattled there.

With workers in Chicago rising, can the campuses at Berkeley and UCLA be far behind?

Remarkably, Obama can still appear in public without being called to shame; without being asked how many kids he killed that day or how many emails and text messages he collected.

It’s a different story, however, with his close associates.

How deliciously ironic it will be if the return of a genuinely transformative, counter-systemic politics is set off by the likes of Janet Napolitano and Rahm Emanuel.

In her case more than his, it is guilt by association.  But the two of them are the best proxies we are likely to get for that still untouchable ruling class flunky who has done so much to stimulate outrage, and to make rebellion justified and necessary.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).