Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Peak District, or, In Which I Walk Through the Snow and Meet the Grouse, Surviving to Tell the Tale

The upper reaches of the hills...were  blanketed with snow.
In daring the British weather to do its worst I must have offended one or the other of the fates, because when I awoke on the day I was supposed to have my last week-end away in Britain, I was sick.  But having made my travel arrangements, I hurried down, had a quick breakfast at the Pembroke buttery, and then made my way to the train station.  It wasn’t until I was already on the train that I realised that the morning’s meal would be my last at Pembroke (the buttery will have closed up by the time I returned), and that I hadn’t said good-bye to any of the friendly staff who give me a bad time about being the first person at breakfast every day.  In a weird kind of way, I find it sadder leaving people whose everyday kindnesses add to our lives, than leaving friends, likely because there is a good chance that I’ll see the latter again.
The rocky cairns and outcroppings which dotted the frozen world...

But there was no time to reflect further, for I was off on my vacation.  Not, as with other people whose vacation plans I’d been hearing about, to the Greek Islands, to Croatia, to the South of France, or for the more energetically inclined, on the Graduate Parlour’s sponsored trip to the Swiss Alps.  I was heading back to the Peak District which promised to be cold, dark and drizzly, largely because it is close and quiet.  Leaving Sheffield, where the sun was shining, I saw the first bits of snow, and then the train passed through the tunnel before entering Hope Valley, where the sun was most adamantly not shining.  It was a twilight world, though it was not yet two o’clock.  The clouds hung, not particularly low, but incredibly thick, and the upper reaches of the hills that rimmed the valley were blanketed with snow.  The higher of the ‘peaks’ were not even visible thanks to the mist and clouds.
To my everlasting horror, it launched itself into the air...

I made my way up to the hostel and found it deserted when compared to my previous visit.  The 80-odd schoolchildren were replaced by a French couple and me, and I spent the evening re-reading some of the adventures of Sherlock Holmes and planning the morrow’s foray.

I decided that it would be nice to see Kinder Scout in the snow, and so after a hearty breakfast, set off up the valley, through the village of Edale, and began making my way up Jacob’s Ladder.  Here, the gentle flurries of snow suddenly gave way to a kind of miniature hail, made all the more uncomfortable by the fact that the wind was blowing my way.  There was nothing for it but to put my head down and plough forward, hoping that I wouldn’t run into a sheep or another walker (there was no danger of the latter—I didn’t see another soul during my Kinder Scout expedition).  The ascent was steep, but felt worse thanks to my rasping cough that was getting worse. 
...A monstrous bird as large as a Shire horse...

Half-way up the hail ceased and was replaced by giant snowflakes, the pitter-patter of the hailstones on ice or stone walls was exchanged for an awesome silence, broken as I reached the open moor by the howl of the wind.  The snow stopped, and I took advantage of my cleared field of vision to survey my surroundings.  It looked almost like a moonlit night on Kinder Scout, the snow-covered landscape assuming a bluish tint in the darkness.  The depth of the snow varied considerably thanks to the wind which piled it up in 2-3-foot drifts in some places, and in others swept it from the surface of the rocky cairns and outcroppings which dotted the frozen world.
I decided to retrace my steps...

I’d chuckled to myself on the way up at the thought of meeting my nemesis from my previous trip, the Red Grouse.  Neither it nor any other animal was likely to be out on a day as cold and inhospitable as this.  Imagine, then, my consternation when I heard a familiar squawk from ahead of me.  The Grouse emerged from behind a snowbank and uttered a louder, longer cry which translated roughly from the Grouse-ese as “You shall not escape so easily this time, pesky humanoid!  Prepare to meet your doom!”  And to my everlasting horror, it launched itself into the air and came at me in a ferocious aerial attack.  I dropped to one knee and readied a snowball, prepared to fend off its dreadful onslaught at all costs, and it must have read my resolve, for after circling twice, it winged away into the snow. 
The enshrouded Back Tor.

Flushed with victory, I carried on in the surreal landscape, dragging my feet to mark the way back.  The Grouse was not the only animal out, as it happened, and on several occasions, I saw mountain hares, in their white winter coats, dash from behind cairns and bound away across the snow out of sight.  But then I froze, for from behind a boulder rose what must have been the king of the grouse, a monstrous bird as large as a Shire horse.  My earlier assailant had simply been charged with leading me on and was now undoubtedly using its wings to erase my tracks.  I flopped to my knees, prepared to beg for mercy (Sherlock Holmes would not have known what to make of my strange tracks!), but the bird merely regarded me disinterestedly, and then nodded once, as though bidding me on my way.

A deserted-looking farm house.
Gladdened by my inexplicable reprieve, I continued on across Kinder Scout, wondering at the wintry landscape.  But eventually the snow and wind picked up and, having no idea where I was, I decided to retrace my steps before they were extinguished.  Below Kinder Scout, the valley was comparatively calm.  I was just passing through the village of Upper Booth when I was accosted by a deliveryman, struggling through the snow.  He asked me something, but I couldn’t hear, and so motioned for him to repeat himself while I removed my head from its shrouding.  He repeated himself, and I realised that it wasn’t just my concealed ears, but rather his thick accent which prevented my understanding him.  Sheepishly, I asked him to repeat himself again, whereupon he heaved a sigh and asked, pronouncing each word painstakingly, “Do you live around here?” although by that point he knew the answer to his question.  Sadly, I was unable to direct his parcel to the correct farm. 
My traverse followed the course of an old Roman road...

I spent the afternoon walking across the ridge opposite the hostel, ending at the enshrouded Back Tor.  On the slopes down to Castleton, the snow gave way with incredible abruptness to green, grassy fields, as though there was a strict line drawn by the weather gods, beyond which the snow could not trespass. 

More Sherlock Holmes was in order for the evening, before I retired early.  Thankfully, the hostel was so empty that I had my room to myself my entire stay.  This was particularly fortunate, given that my restlessness at night would have driven any bunk-mates insane.  I was constantly coughing, sneezing, tossing and turning, and slept—or so it seemed—in intervals of 15 minutes.  By turns I would awake to find my teeth chattering, and so turn on the heater, only to find myself in a bed of sweat a half-hour later.  More amusingly, I woke myself on several occasions mumbling Watsonian questions to the empty night.

...And reached Winhill Pike
The next day, feeling somewhat restored by a hearty breakfast and not having learned my lesson about the effects of a day in the snow on my constitution, I set out to the east of the valley, making my way along the ridge, the snow coming down more thickly as the path rose.  At one point I passed a deserted-looking farm-house and wondered what it would be like to live above the world like this in the winter-time.  My traverse followed the course of an old Roman road, and reached Winhill Pike, before descending below the tree-line to Ladybower Reservoir which, in stark contrast to the landscape I had just left, was brilliantly sunlit by early-afternoon rays. 
Ladybower Reservoir...was brilliantly sunlit by early-afternoon rays

In the evening I sat up in the common room, reading more Sherlock Holmes and pondering what dreams the night’s stories would give me.  The hostel was more inhabited on this evening, and a group of kids were turned loose by their parents in the common room, where all semblance of order degenerated into a raucous game of “It”, in which my sedentary form on one of the couches appeared to play the role of “Base”, as periodically, one of them would hide behind me while his or her pursuer was deterred by my strangled wheezing and the barrage of germs expelled by periodic fits of coughing.
It was with some sadness that I departed the winter wonderland in the morning, and made my way (no thanks to the vagaries of British Rail, horribly mangled by privatisation) back to Cambridge, where the arduous chore of packing my bags now awaits me.  

Postscript.  After writing this post, I idly googled "red grouse" and "kinder scout", and as you can see from this video, I am not the only person to have had a run-in with this formidable creature, although the videographer seems to have manipulated his video to make the Grouse look much smaller than it is in real life...

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Happy Holidays from UC's Grinches

It was a big morning!  E-mails from both University of California President Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof and Berkeley Chancellor Robert “not non-violence” Birgeneau.  They were doing a kind of good-cop-bad-cop routine, although they hadn’t entirely worked their roles out, and so it was more of a bad-cop-bad-cop routine, in which Yudof broke the news that California Governor Jerry Brown has UC in his sights for the latest round of statewide cuts (the majority of which are hitting education and healthcare services) and Birgeneau mugged you for your spare change.

So if you see a doddery-looking white-haired guy in a Santa suit with a can while you do your Christmas shopping, there’s a fair chance that it will not be a Salvation Army Santa, but rather the Chancellor of the world’s finest public university.  Begging for donations from students, faculty and staff in the face of the state’s disinvestment is, Birgeneau asserts, “bold action”.  Now it’s commendable to give money to Berkeley, and the generosity of students, faculty and staff in giving to Berkeley is a testament to their belief in its ideals at a time when a cadre of administrators in California Hall and at UCOP in Oakland are working to erode its public character.

But when passing the hat around comes to constitute “bold action” in the face of a right-wing attack on public institutions in California, you know that something’s wrong.   Birgeneau is anything but bold: his leadership is uninspired when not outright destructive, and if he has a serious agenda and advocacy strategy when it comes to defending Berkeley, he’s done a good job of hiding it. 

Yudof’s e-mail could basically have been written at any point in the last three years.  It begins, “We are extremely disappointed that UC is faced with yet another significant State budget reduction: the $100 million ‘trigger cut’ just announced.  This additional cut will exacerbate the fiscal challenge the University faces in the current year and place additional stress on the quality of education provided to UC students”.  Not sufficient stress, however, to discourage Yudof, even knowing that these cuts were coming, from asking the compliant Regents to hand out raises to 10 high-flying administrators.  

Yudof acts like it’s a surprise that UC is getting hit by these cuts, when they’ve been hitting the university system with a vengeance for the past few years, and have been decades in the making thanks to the twin legacies of Prop 13 (the creation of a choked-off, undifferentiated property tax system and, worst of all, the introduction of minority rule through supermajority requirements). 

“The University”, Yudof notes, “has consistently objected to additional mid-year cuts”, and “will ask to have this funding restored to UC at the beginning of the next fiscal year”.  That’s nice...I’m sure the chainsaw-wielding brigade that is the modern Republican Party will take as much note of Yudof’s current objections and requests as they have of all the other ones.  And the sympathetic Democratic legislators literally can’t do anything about this, because they are a few members short of the supermajority.  Governor Brown, had he demonstrated an iota of foresight, could have done something about the draconian cuts that public services in California are facing had he run a serious campaign in 2010 and worked from the start to get initiatives on the ballot for either the extension of modest tax increases or more serious measures for political reform in California. 

But instead, Brown, a Democratic governor, found himself in the position of announcing a series of damaging cuts on Tuesday.  These were cuts which he wrote into his own budget through the “trigger cut” mechanism.  According to the LA Times, these cuts will impact schools (and bus services in particular), libraries, prisons and disabled services. 

Oh, but all is not lost.  “We will continue to work closely”, Yudof wrote, “with State officials to develop a long-term revenue plan that will give the University much-needed financial stability”.  Yudof and Birgeneau’s advocacy efforts have yet to yield anything of substance: instead, each year, UC gets hit by another round of cuts and our administrators pledge to redouble their pathetic efforts, which to all appearances consist of going to Sacramento and explaining the importance of UC to Democratic and Republican legislators (who are now investigating police violence on campuses). 

In the case of the former, they are preaching to the choir, some members of which are much more outspoken than either Yudof or Birgeneau in defence of UC.  In the case of the latter, they are pleading with a group of feral political animals who have signed up to a project which prevents them from ever supporting revenue increases that might benefit their constituents and mandates their wholehearted participation in the dismantling of California’s public institutions.  It is no surprise that this model of advocacy is getting UC nowhere in the face of Republican minority rule.  What is surprising is that UC leadership doesn’t seem to have learned that this kind of approach doesn’t work. 

As so many of us have wondered so often before, where does this ineptitude on the part of these supposedly savvy administrators who feel entitled to massive salaries come from?  It can scarcely be attributed to ignorance of California’s political process...all you have to do is read a newspaper and add one plus one to understand that their efforts are doomed to failure in the context of California’s political structure.  It could be put down to abject laziness or a lack of commitment to the University. 

Or it could be, as Yudof and the oligarchic Regents have repeatedly noted, that they see UC’s crisis as an opportunity to “change the way we do business”, and to introduce the remorselessly cruel and anti-public logic of the marketplace into California’s finest and most idealistic institution, a place where there is no place for the mean-spirited, calculating devaluation of the greatest force for the promotion of equality and the fostering of a critical public in our state today.

If they can’t do us the favour of resigning, Yudof and Birgeneau should at least make one of their New Year’s resolutions to get serious about defending the University of California.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Winter in Cambridge

Winter in Cambridge is a little underwhelming.  It doesn’t seem to drop below freezing at all during the day, and only very rarely at night.  It rains less than in the Bay Area, and certainly less than in northern California, and it hasn’t snowed yet (although is promising some flurries in the Hope Valley in the Peak District around the time I’ll be there later this week). 
The most difficult thing is the comes very early, and remains late into the morning.  It’s particularly gloomy around College, which is almost entirely deserted.  Undergraduates have been kicked out, and all but a few grad students have better things to do this time of year.  While I don’t think I’m suffering from Seasonal Affective Disorder, the darkness has made me push back my wake-up time by a good 15 minutes, and poses a serious hazard at the University Library, where they don’t seem to believe in lighting the stairwells.  If they did without in the 14th century, they can deal with it today! appears to be the general sentiment.  Or the stacks.  Well, the stacks are lit by little timers at the end of each aisle that you have to twist.  I’ve been told that one poor soul, unaware of these lights, was seen hovering around the shelves with a lighter, trying to read call numbers!  If the librarians had caught him he would have been put on the rack.  But at least it appears to be heated.  Unlike the Zoological Society library in London, where thanks to malfunctioning ventilation, it was actually colder inside than outside last week.
In light of its general moderateness, I make few sartorial concessions to the weather in Britain.  But this means that people often comment upon my garb (people here change into winter-wear as much for style as for necessity, I suspect)...sometimes the same people, every single day, like the perpetually-jolly guy who runs events out of the office by the buttery who inevitably comments at breakfast, “Still wearing shorts and sandals, eh?”

Today I was walking to the library in the early afternoon after an excellent lunch at which the server sneaked me a double-portion of the vegetarian dish.  I was waiting for a light to change to cross the street when I noticed a group of Chinese tourists who appeared to be dressed for an Everest ascent, lining up not-so-surreptitiously to take pictures of my sandals!  I did a double-take, sure that I was imagining things, but no...  So I glared, but they didn’t stop.  “Hey!” I squawked, “You can’t do that!”  But they were undeterred by my outrage, and I was forced to beat a hasty retreat across the street.  

Somewhere out there, in someone's family albums or facebook profiles, there will be pictures of my sandal-wearing feet in Cambridge...

Cometh the Hour, Cometh The Newt

Steve Lopez is one of two LA Times columnists who I regularly read (the other is George Skelton), and on 11 December he published a touching piece about the struggle that families face when it comes to respecting the wishes of elderly parents and grandparents in failing health.  Lopez illustrated the dilemma by writing movingly about his own family’s experiences with his ageing and ill father.  He mentioned, in passing, that the healthcare system provides incentives for medicating and operating on people beyond what might actually be in the quality-of-life interests of patients.

I can only assume that it was this three-sentence digression that sparked one of the very first comments on the article (since removed), to the effect that if we just got around to shipping “illegals” “back to where they belong”, we wouldn’t have any problems.  I wrote a letter a while back in Berkeley’s campus paper, and it was met with some uninformed comments by people who clearly hadn’t read what I wrote, so I held my nose and responded, genuinely trying to address the issues the commentator was raising, and doing my best to remain civil.  The commenter continued commenting, and I continued responding until, realising that he/she would get nowhere on the facts, the individual in question started ranting about “illegal aliens” and demanded, “When will you finally admit that the time for a gentler, kinder California is over?”

I sometimes try to convince myself that all of the people who write offensive, illogical, off-topic, ill-informed and hurtful comments on newspaper articles must be the same person.  But then I remember that the candidacy of someone like Newt Gingrich (or The Newt Who Would Be King, as I like to call him) is predicated on turning people against each other and on distorting the debate (although in fairness, The Newt is less ridiculous on the question of immigration, given his efforts at outreach to Hispanics).

The Newt has launched vicious attacks on pro-democracy demonstrators in the United States, suggesting that they “get a job right after you take a bath”, and has claimed that only middle-class kids have any experience with work...that poor kids have no work ethic.   

The Newt has been ridiculed for supposedly comparing himself to Winston Churchill and for describing himself as a “transformational figure”. 

There is one thing I think that The Newt must have in common with someone like Churchill, and that is a tremendous sense of self-belief.  Stories abound about Churchill telling school-friends that he would grow up to save Britain.  The Newt seems to think of himself very much in this mould.  Sycophantic commentators have even endorsed his self-image. 

The trouble is that there isn’t a crisis The Newt is interested in addressing.  His approach to our economic misfortunes isn’t’s the brainless panacea that virtually his entire party, from Ron Paul to Mitt Romney have adopted: lower taxes, cut regulation and watch the market do its magic (never mind that the Bush years, which followed this dogma, led directly to the crisis of 2008).  No, Gingrich needs something bigger to tackle, something in keeping with how he sees himself: that is, as a person, a force, of world-historical proportions.

I suspect that if no such crisis were to materialise, he would invent one.  There are already hints of this.  Back when he wondered whether President Obama “[was] so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?”, I went and took a look at  his website.  He had a lengthy section outlining what he chillingly referred to as the “Long War” in which the United States is supposedly already engaged.  The Newt identified “the Irreconcilable wing of Islam” (it turns out that this encompasses all Muslims who have the temerity to question the U.S.) as the Enemy.  This “Irreconcilable wing” was charged with being incapable of “peacefully coexist[ing] with the civilised world”.  The solution?  A “Long War”.  In theory, he wrote, “the Long War might only last 50-70 years.  Yet it will probably last much longer”, given that it is, in his view, “a war of survival”.  Now all of this about the Long War has vanished from his website, and the links no longer lead anywhere, suggesting that The Newt realises that people might think he was slightly bonkers if this all got out. 

Spouting this kind of rubbish is wrongheaded and dangerous, but it shows that Gingrich is not above fabricating and distorting threats to which he can then respond in Churchillian fashion.  His films (does he see his visual homage to Ronald Reagan as the equivalent of Churchill’s biographies of his ancestor, the Duke of Marlborough during the wilderness years?) illustrate his apocalyptic thinking.  He is constantly invoking threats to ‘civilisation’ (language I’ve heard no other politician use), whether those threats are liberal culture, “the irreconcilable wing of Islam”, or secularism.  The latter is a favourite bogey.  The Newt even manages to combine some of his fantastical fears, and has cited his fear that “if we do not decisively win the struggle over the nature of America, by the time [my grandchildren] are my age they will be in a secular atheist country, potentially one dominated by radical Islamists and with no understanding of what it once meant to be an American”.

But The Newt’s fearmongering  and paranoia resurfaces elsewhere, and I find myself suspecting that a President Gingrich (yikes!) would be one sad amphibian indeed if he didn’t find himself faced with a violent struggle for survival.  One of his other great fears is that some Enemy will detonate a nuclear weapon above the United States and plunge us back into the 1860s.  Which is funny, because given what I’d heard from The Newt about poverty and child labour laws, I was under the impression that taking us back to the nineteenth century was his primary policy goal. 

The Newt is fond of invoking his history PhD, and has even claimed that Fannie Mae hired him as an historian rather than as a lobbyist.  Technically, he wasn’t hired as a lobbyist, but everyone knows he wasn’t being paid to read historic documents.  He claimed to be speaking as an historian when he described Palestinians as an “invented” people.  Here again, he is technically correct...all nations and people are invented, Israel as a nation and Americans as a people as much as anyplace or anyone else.  The Newt has also developed a line of thought that suggests that only members of a Judeo-Christian faith should have the right to participate in public life.  He has called publicly for the assassination of foreign scientists and officials, as long as it’s “deniable”. 

You’d have to dig pretty deep (or at least go to Harvard’s history department lounge) to find an historian who approaches the past in such simplistic terms.  The Newt’s approach to criticism is akin to that of Tea Partiers who have a frightening tendency to deal with inconvenient facts by chanting “USA!  USA!  USA!”: he invokes “American Exceptionalism”.  

And when he says all of these things, The Newt smirks like the little boy who knows that he’s technically right if morally wrong, and is entirely okay with that.

But it’s not going to go all his own way.  From a strategic standpoint, the Republicans would be nuts to nominate anyone other than Mitt Romney, and I’m assuming that enough people in the GOP realise this that they are going to do what they can to take The Newt down.  And other candidates are going to give him a rough ride.  In the last debate, Ron Paul lambasted him to his face, while The Newt fixed Paul with an amphibian gaze, as though trying to use his mind powers to shut Paul up. 

One thing I do not understand is how The Newt won his reputation as an intellectual, or as a big thinker.  My pet theory is that he put around an anonymous press release detailing his genius in the ‘90s, and that the press, with its characteristic witlessness, lapped this up.  He survives on his brashness, and maintains his ill-gotten reputation as an ‘intellectual’ through the absence of any check that prevents him from saying patently absurd things, often contradictory (and sometimes so in the same sentence), and generally entirely out of keeping with his character and history. 

In the coming months, The Newt will be scaremongering with a vengeance, doing his best to convince us that the United States is facing a deadly threat from “irreconcilable Islamists”, from disorderly and anti-American demonstrators, from the “secular socialism” that the Obama administration is supposedly selling, and possibly from aliens.  His wife (I’m not even going to get into The Newt’s domestic life) will go around flogging her books that try to act as a corrective to “revisionist and politically correct history” (you know, the kind that mentions slavery and Native Americans and organised labour and civil rights).  The Newt will strut and boast and refer to himself in the third person.  He will remind us in every other sentence that he has a PhD and is an historian.  He will do his best to convince us that he is a Churchillian figure, here to rescue us from some existential threat.  And I suspect that he will wind up looking like a rather pitiful joke.  The alternative is too scary to contemplate.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Happy Birthday Kenya! and Mind that War...

The final 'Yes' rally ahead of the August 2010 referendum on the revised Constitution in Uhuru Park.
Monday is Kenya’s Jamhuri Day...and the 12th marks not only the day that Kenya became a Republic, but that on which, one year earlier, it became independent from Britain in 1963.  Today, 16 months after voting in favour of constitutional reform aimed at overhauling a document seen by many as retaining too much of the bad old days of colonialism and the one-party states of both Jomo Kenyatta and Daniel Arap Moi, Kenya is at war in Somalia and facing uncertainty about the timing of next year’s election.

It’s difficult to know what to think of Kenya’s invasion of Somalia, a military action which looks set to get folded into the broader African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM), a move from which both groups will benefit—AMISOM as a result of having access to Kenya’s military muscle, and the Kenyan Defence Forces from the UN financial support this move would give their endeavour.  Al-Shabab has   My own gloomy tendency is to assume there’s not going to be a happy ending to this, particularly given the fighting that broke out during the week in Mogadishu, thought to have been ‘stabilised’ by military forces loyal to Sheikh Sharif Sheikh Ahmed (although Ban Ki-moon touched down in Mogadishu just days ago). 

When Kenyan soldiers rolled across the border in October, most people appeared surprised.  The U.S. government said it hadn’t been forewarned (although we have precious little reason to take them at their word), and the impression from the speeches and press conferences of Kenyan politicians and military leaders was that this was a somewhat disorganised affair, thrown together from a need to do something, anything that would allow the government to be seen to address the festering situation on the northern border (a region, incidentally, which supported ivory poaching networks in the early part of the twentieth century and was the site of cross-border skirmishes between colonial Game Department officers in Kenya and poachers and traders operating across the border).

But there is other evidence which suggests this is part of a longer-term Kenyan strategy to, if not deliberately divide some future Somali state, at least to clear a border region of al-Shabab fighters and create a buffer zone.  Kenya appears to be giving tacit backing to a devolved model for Somalia, a variant on the Majimboism that Kenya periodically toys with.  It is still unclear whether al-Shabab actually was behind the abductions the Kenyan government cited as its proximate casus belli, so there is room for people to catch the whiff of ulterior motives.

I’ve been hearing from people in Kenya that the government has become increasingly reticent to divulge convincing details about its campaign, although as even the LA Times noted, Major Emmanuel Chirchir has taken to Twitter, a move replicated by al-Shabab in an effort to win the propaganda war.  The Kenyan military has identified al-Shabab’s propaganda offensives as a sign that the organisation is in disarray, and al-Shabab has said much the same of each Kenyan announcement, so one hardly knows what to think.

Kenya’s normally commendably vigorous media have been comparatively mum when it comes to critical investigation of the war.  That might stem from the difficulty of criticising a military action seems to be broadly popular with the public.  It might be a result of the difficulties inherent in actually reaching the front-line to see things first-hand.  Or it might have something to do with the novelty of covering one’s own country at war, adapting to a different kind of reporting, and delivering news in formats that don’t offend a readership that probably tends to think of its armed forces in comparatively uncritical terms (Kenyan journalists, in this regard, are still doing a better job than their British and U.S. counterparts!).

The more cynically minded believe that Mwai Kibaki could use the war to put off the 2012 election (the field of candidates is already plagued by near-constant uncertainty as Uhuru Kenyatta and William Ruto face charges at the Hague, which might leave the field to Prime Minister Raila Odinga and Vice-President Kalonzo Musyoka) already the subject of much wrangling between those who believe that it should take place in August and those who maintain that preparations will not be in place until December...or later...  Makau Mutua reads this dangerous possibility as one of the weaknesses of the Constitution.  I have nothing other than a gut feeling to go on (and that could have more to do with the rare cup of coffee I had at lunch-time...yes, even the girl at the buttery till who monitors my intake and makes sure I only eat the vegetarian meal looked surprised at that), but I don’t see Kibaki trying to hang on at this stage.

Most worrying is what the ongoing war means for Somalis in Somalia, who are of course in a precarious position between three or four military forces—those of Kenya, AMISOM, the ‘official’ Somalian government, and al-Shabab—and for Somalis in Kenya, who are said to be facing persecution

The myth of Kenya as a rock of stability and democracy during the Cold War and beyond holds little water with anyone familiar with the Moi regime or the calculated decision by Kenyan political elites to feed the fires of ethnic conflict in their politicking.  But in the aftermath of the 2010 constitutional referendum, the country was possessed of a real sense of optimism.  Let us hope that the military foray into Somalia will not give Kenyans cause to regret their newfound faith in their institutions. 

California, its University, Prop 13 and the Generations

“Generation has long formed a key theme of Africanist scholarship”, wrote G Thomas Burgess and Andrew Burton in their introduction to Generation Past: Youth in East African History, a volume edited by Burton and Helene Charton-Bigot.  I distinctly remember slapping my forehead and thinking, ‘But naturally historians should think about categories of generation!’ when the subject came up in my first undergraduate African History course...but of course it had never crossed my mind until then, because it hadn’t featured in histories that I had read dealing with other parts of the world.  Generation as a category is widespread in historians’ analysis of Africa’s of my committee members is researching youth and childhood in Kenya; the subject features in Charles Van Onselen’s work on the mines of southern Africa; and it comes up in Lynn Thomas’ discussion of reproductive politics in eastern Africa. 

Just as it has gained purchase in historical and anthropological writing, ‘generation’ as a category should be something that we think about when evaluating our politics.  My dad is always saying how disappointed he is in his generation and in how they approach the world today, but I never thought about that much, and it wasn’t until word began going around in 2009 that the University of California would probably forced into a several-stage tuition/fee hike, that I thought about this at all. 

Because one of the most basic tenets of our social and political system is that there has been a kind of tacit and logical pact between generations.  It works something like this: those generations which are supposed to collectively arrive at some level of economic security are meant to pay back into the common treasury at the higher rate they can afford so that younger, generally less economically-secure and –established generations, can get the same leg-up they (the older generations) had when they were younger and more vulnerable. 

The cycle repeats itself.  And it didn’t have an identifiable beginning: our social welfare system—based on labour rights, public education, healthcare, pensions, environmental protections and regulations, public works, unemployment benefits, etc—has been built over enough years, piece-by-piece, such that no single generation could be credited with ‘starting’ it.  It is a cycle which depends on a common commitment to our society, a stifling of selfishness, and a recognition that it is in everyone’s interests to have a well-educated, democratically-educated, informed and committed citizenry, and that the people who make up our society should have some assurance that when forces outside of their control intervene in their economic lives, there should be a collectively-maintained safety net to keep them from sinking out of sight.

But in 2009, when the University of California announced that undergraduate students would be likely to see steady fee hikes for the foreseeable future (graduate students are largely shielded from these fee hikes, so there’s no self-interest here other than profound disappointment that my UC undergraduate experience, which I treasure, will be increasingly unavailable to people of modest economic backgrounds), it occurred to me just what an earlier generation had done by passing and sustaining Prop 13 in the form that they did.  They effectively tore up the social contract between generations, and called time, stopping the clock on the idea of an intergenerational support cycle.  From the passage of Prop 13 onwards, Californians would have to scramble on a regular basis to reassess their commitment to supposedly universal values; values which, if you believe polling, still have wide support in our state.  But too few people are willingly to back up those values.  It has become structurally impossible to make good on the intergenerational contract due to Prop 13’s restrictions on tapping property tax (particularly that of business) and far more importantly, its enshrinement of minority rule through the supermajority rules.  This means that as a community, we are having an entirely different conversation, far removed morally and substantively, from that which people were having before the 1970s.

I doubt that this voiding of the social contract was the intention of the electorate and the generations which voted in favour of Prop was the product of a more immediate frustration, in some cases by proximate economic need, and perhaps a measure of selfishness (although whether you could say the same for some of the interests that supported its passage is probably a different question).  I suspect that they didn’t think that they were doing something so significant...not thinking seems to be a central characteristic of our ailing democracy in California, where people resent being asked to take responsibility for rights of the direct democracy they so jealously guard, and evince irritation that anyone might expect them to be informed about how the state works (or doesn’t, as the case may be). 

We’ve all seen the statistics which show that Republicans win more votes of 55-and-overs than Democrats, and that the reverse is true amongst under-30s.  But there’s more to it than the voting statistics.  There are some simply stunning statistics out there about the gaps in wealth between the old and the young.  Now as noted above, this gap is partly a product of how careers unfold, and the fact that individuals are going to be able to accumulate more money over their lifetimes.  But when you see how quickly this gap is growing, consider the truly terrible rates of youth unemployment in particular in California (nationwide, depending on how you bracket ‘youth’, this ranges as high as 26%, and discounts those who have given up looking for work), think about how the institutions and social services designed to ameliorate that gap are being eroded, and reflect on the unacceptability of higher taxation to too many Californian voters, the scale of the problem comes into focus.

And then there’s the narrative.  We’ve all heard the ‘Kids these days!’ or ‘When I was your age!’ rants.  Sometimes they’re related jokingly, deliberately hyperbolic in character.  But there’s a darker side to this kind of narrative, because it appears to be catching.  Whenever I read the comments section below articles about higher education in California, I’m appalled at the view of students that many members of the public seem to have.  I’ve had surreal conversations with people who think of university students as lazy, privileged, entitled, and undeserving.  They say things like “Why don’t they get back to the classroom?” when students protest fees.  They say, “If this is what UC is teaching people, it definitely doesn’t deserve public funding”.  Or, “I don’t see why my tax dollars should support these students...I’ve paid my way!” 

My first reaction is anger that people buy this misleading narrative.  I wish that they could sit down with any of the students I teach at Berkeley, who tend to be extraordinarily smart, hard-working and dedicated.  Or that they could talk to any of the kids I’ve worked with in Santa Ana and Berkeley school districts, many of who lack parental, institutional or community support, live very difficult lives, and work incredibly hard.

Not many of the people who I’ve heard say these kinds of things about students are from places where higher education is an almost unattainable abstract, and where physical labour is valued above all else.  Most of them are people who went to UC or CSU or have had some higher education, but who are now in their fifties and above.  They went to UC or its equivalents when it cost about twenty-times less than it does today.  When it was realistic to finish a rigorous degree in four years.  When these institutions were prized by the state and when their value was (even for those who were not attending them) recognised. 

These people sometimes contrast the frustrated, sometimes disorderly-looking protesters with the law-abiding, “hard-working” tea partiers (a majority of whom are very likely retired).  But it’s all too easy to be lawful and orderly and to have an influence when the Koch brothers and their ilk are foursquare behind you (whether you want them there or not). 

The last thing I want to do is pin the blame for our dysfunctional society and politics on any single group.  I wish that people (and I include myself here) across the economic, social, generational and political boards thought a little bit harder about how they fit into our civic project; about how they have benefited from the commitments of others; about what those benefits mean for their obligations towards younger generations; about what the form of democracy that we’re meant to be practising in California demands of us (and about whether it is working); and on a more prosaic level, about what they are voting for, and how what they are voting for fits into a bigger picture.

We need Californian voters to raise their games, to think about what it means to live in civil society and to have obligations to each other, and to renew the contract between generations and between those of different economic means.  Otherwise, our downward spiral looks set to continue, and to divide our society and our state along more lines than ever, to the detriment of us all.