Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The many faces of The Newt Who Would Be King

Or, a week in the life of Newt Gingrich*
Sunday:  “Oh Callista”, I call as I rise from my slumber and position my splendid self at the edge of the bed.  I’m momentarily uneasy, and think, “Is it ‘Callista’?  I do so have trouble keeping them straight”.  But she wanders in, radiant in the pastel that makes her look so lovely on-screen productions (I’ll win an Oscar if not the Presidency), apparently happy enough, so I must have got it right.  “Yes Newty-Pie?” she croons. 
“Callista”, I declare.  “I think I should like to be King.  I mean President.  The country is being led downhill by a man who might be a Christian but could be a Muslim; who might have been born in Hawai’i but could have been educated in an Indonesian terrorist camp.  I don’t know what we are coming to.  Shall I run?”  “Of course, Newt”, she replies, which was a great comfort to me, because I had already decided to run, and if she had demurred, I should have divorced her or sent her on a pheasant shoot with Dick Cheney.  “Well, that’s settled” I proclaim.  “Let us pray for victory”.
Monday:  I send an e-mail to my subjects—I mean, supporters—confiding in them (and through them in the mainstream, leftist, radical media) my intention to become Master of the Universe—I mean, President.  I receive touching support from an elderly farmer in Iowa, who declares that Obama is the Anti-Christ, and that I am the man sent down to God by earth to rescue my country.
The critically-minded academic in me is on the verge of pointing out that someone on Social Security, working for a government-subsidised industry might not be the best person to rage against Obama’s secular socialist machine politics, but I send the unworthy thought to an early death and thank the good man for his wishes.
Tuesday:  Today I thought I’d go for the Elder Statesman mien.  The mainstream, leftist, radical, fascist media is assembled at a designated meeting point, fawning over the prospect of my triumphant return to government.  “Ignorance”, I declare, from the podium, “is the night of the mind, but a night without moon and star”.  I pull my cloak around me and sweep off the stage.  I can hear them murmuring, wondering what it all means.  I’ll have them eating out of my hand before this is done!
I’ve just fallen asleep when the phone rings.  “Yes?” I mutter grumpily.  “Newt?”  “Yes”.  “I have a proposal for you”.  “Who is this?” I ask, confused.  “Never mind that”, the voice, which sounds vaguely familiar, cuts in.  “What’s important is that I’ve got some great properties you might be interested in, and they can be yours, with a not insubstantial bonus, if you’re prepared to drop out of the race”.  “Preposterous!” I shout, waking Callista.  “You’ll regret, this, Gingrich” the voice snarls before hanging up.  I lie awake, trying to place him.  Could it have been Donald Trump?
Wednesday:  I signal to an assistant.  “It’s time to hit Obama on foreign policy.  Get me the name of one of these Far Eastern intellectuals.  You know the kind...looks like one of these terrorist fellows against whom we’ll be prosecuting the Long War, but is actually an upstanding citizen”.  “I know just the man, Mr Gingrich” he replies.  “Dinesh D’Souza”.  “Is he an Arab?” what’s her name asks.  “Not exactly, but he should do”.  “What’s the long war, dear?” she inquires (what is her name?  Jackie?).  “Oh, I don’t know...just sounded rather grand.  But now that you mention that, I kinda like the sound of that”.
Thursday:  I’m feeling professorial today.  I deliver a lengthy lecture on Lee’s strategy against Hooker at the Battle of Chancellorville, and reporters leave looking confused.  “Did that go poorly?” I ask an aide.  “Not your best, sir.  We must have confused your Historical Society Lecture notes with the ‘Why-the-Environment-is-a-Communist-Plot’ speech papers”.    
I give the correct speech at an event later in the day.  “Mr Gingrich, sir”, a reporter from the mainstream, leftist, radical, fascist, Muslim media asks, “Does President Obama love America?”  I pretend to think for a moment, pausing, head raised, forefinger resting lightly on my chin, my best side towards them as the flashbulbs go.  “Well you’d have to ask him, wouldn’t you?” I reply silkily.  The pens scribble across the notepads.
It’s ridiculously late when the phone rings tonight.  “Do you realise what time it is?” I groan.  “It’s just after 10 pm” a woman on the other line says.  “It is not!” I groan, reaching for the alarm clock, sure it’s at least a few hours ahead of that.  “It is so!” she insists, “Doncha know that Dancing with the Stars just ended?”  “I can promise you it’s not 10pm” I say, less politely.  “Well, in Alaska it is!” “Sarah?” I ask, incredulously.  “No”, she says, sounding flustered, “it’s, er, uhm, Ann Coulter!  I was just hoping you could do us all a favour and drop out of the race.  Y’know, maybe be Vice-President or sumthin’ like that?”  “Get lost!”
Friday:  I go to an event.  The audience are a bunch of men in black suits with sunglasses.  I am somewhat confused.  “Are they blind?” I ask an aide.  “Am I giving the welfare speech?  I only have a copy of the ‘Obama-is-a-radical-racist-Kenyan’ speech”.  He assures me that I have the correct speech, and that these gentlemen merely wish to remain discrete.

I launch into my speech, starting with Obama.  "What if [Obama] is so outside our comprehension, that only if you understand Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior, can you begin to piece together [his actions]?  This is a person who is fundamentally out of touch with how the world works, who happened to have played a wonderful con, as a result of which he is now president.  I think he worked very hard at being a person who is normal, reasonable, moderate, bipartisan, transparent, accommodating--none of which was true.  In the Alinsky tradition, he was being the person he needed to be in order to achieve the position he needed to achieve.  He was authentically dishonest".  Applause, and I move onto the best bit.

"This ideological wing of Islam is irreconcilable because it does not accept freedom of conscience [...] Because this war is at its core an ideological war, it is most accurate to think of and identify this war against the Irreconcilable Wing of Islam as the "Long War" [...] The Long War might only last 50-70 years.  Yet, it will probably last much longer".
Rapturous applause.  “Why are they clapping?” I ask an aide.  “I would have thought that solemn nodding would have been more in order”.  “These aren’t members of the public, Mr Gingrich”, he explains, “they’re defence contractors”.  “Oh”.
I seem to be getting the cold shoulder from Callista tonight.  Maybe it was me accidentally calling her ‘Marianne’ this morning over my scrambled eggs.  That was ever such a long time ago, and it could have been worse...I could have called her Jackie--and that was an even longer time ago!
The phone rings.  “Make it fast”, Callista snaps from across the bed.  “Who is it?” I bark.  “It’s, I mean, no-one!”  “What do you want?”  “I was hoping we could declare a truce” Mitt says.  “I won’t mention the divorces and you won’t mention my Mormonism”.  “Deal!” I say, generously, also eager to cut the conversation short so as to not incur Castilla’s ire on this particular subject.  “What about a supplementary truce”, Mitt continues.  “You won’t mention Massachusetts’ healthcare system, and I won’t—”  “You mean Romneycare?  Fat chance!” I laugh, and hang up.
Saturday:  “Oh honey”, I call, playing it safe just in case the memory slips up again.  “Yes, Newty-Pie?” she calls back.  Forgiven.  One does peculiar things when driven to distraction by love of country.
I go to another event in the afternoon.  A heckler, who is probably also a member of the mainstream, leftist, radical, fascist, Muslim, atheist media, calls out, “How can you call Obama weak on foreign policy when he’s bombing Libya?”  “What a silly question”, I sneer.  “He’s got a nuclear arsenal at his disposal, and he’s using conventional weapons!  The man is clearly a gutless anti-American!”  That ought to shut the doubters up!
“But Mr Gingrich, sir”, one of the little swine comes back, “Although you were initially for the no-fly zone, you’ve recently declared yourself against it...could you explain your position at the moment”.  “I’m sorry”, I say snootily, “your microphone doesn’t seem to be working”.
The phone rings just after dinner.  “No Barack, I will not drop out!” I shout into the receiver.  “Calm down Newt”, the voice—not Barack’s—says.  “How much did Trump offer you?”  “What?!” I say indignantly.  “Well I’ll double it”, he says firmly.  “I need Michelle Bachmann to win the nomination so that I can enter the fray as the rational third force, competing against a witless buffoon and a socialist”.  “Well, I don’t need your money!” I say, my face contorting with anger.  “Because even if I don’t become President, I’ll be the next Spielberg!”
“That’s right, my Newty-Pie” says Callista after I’ve hung up.

*Needless to say, this is purely an imaginary exercise on the part of the author, who would not want to be confused with Newt Gingrich—indeed, would take mortal offence at any such confusion.  I am sure that there is a much more sensitive and complex explanation for The Newt’s moral and political triangulation than the rank hypocrisy that I would hypothesise. 

A Californian conundrum

On the same day that negotiations on California’s budget broke down, the legislature passed a bill to keep California at the forefront of the nation’s slow move towards large-scale sustainable energy use. 

The stalled budget talks mean that it will be more difficult for Governor Jerry Brown to place his budget fix—which relies on damaging cuts to the public sector and the temporary maintenance of current tax levels—on a ballot before voters later this year.  This raises the spectre of an ugly slog before voters are even able to decide whether to accept the budget.  And bad as Brown’s proposals are—they would both push people out of work and hurt people who depend on state-provided social services—they are nothing to what the Republicans would wreak on California should they prove able to press their agenda, from their extreme minority position, on the state.

Several state Republican Party politicians used the fact that Brown needs their votes for the absurd supermajority that California law requires to place a measure on the ballot to blackmail the democratic political process.  They issued a list of demands that would have to be met before they would be willing to vote to place the budget before the public. 

Republicans’ demands would have exacerbated the budget deficit by granting a corporate tax-break, crippled the flexibility of California’s government to adapt to circumstances by instituting a spending cap, eroded teachers’ and workers’ rights by carelessly re-writing seniority rules, and entrenched short-termism by preventing the possibility of extending current tax rates for five years—a reasonable amount of time given the state’s economic difficulties.

Brown is probably right to break off negotiations.  The Republicans here, as in Congress, are not interested in an accord.  They have an inexhaustible, and tangentially-relevant at best list of demands that they will continue to make come what may.  Their strategy is to repudiate constructive governance altogether, and to replace that with a state of moral anarchy in which social bonds between people are steadily replaced by cynical economic relationships which privilege the powerful and wealthy.

And the comments that people leave on stories about California’s political paralysis never cease to amaze me.  I’m hardly one to defend politicians as a breed, but too many people clearly possess a desperately feeble grasp of how our system works, ascribing to politicians, as they do, the power to drag the state out of its enfeebled situation.  Yet these same people have reserved for themselves the right to veto—incredibly inconsistently—the remedies that politicians proscribe. 

We expect the Governor and legislature to deal with the budget, and yet are part of a political process which is premised on engaged, informed and critical participation. 

The other side of the story is a more heartening one.  Senate Bill X 1 2, passed by Senate and Assembly, raises the percentage of electricity that private and public utilities would be required to obtain from renewable sources from 20 to 33.  Californians, in our comparative receptiveness (in a national context) to renewable energy and emissions restrictions (under fire at the federal level), in their protection of our coastline, in the historic commitment to the preservation of natural spaces, and in our cultural nurturing of the environmentalism that emerged in the 1970s and has become one of the most powerful grassroots forces in national politics, are possessed of an environmental idealism.

This environmental idealism is mirrored by our political structure.  I have very little time for those who suggest that the version of democracy in place in California is somehow inherently dysfunctional because it involves a greater degree of political participation and responsibility on the part of the public than we are accustomed to.

But this does take us back to the conundrum posed by these two events, occurring side-by-side: the budget mess and the progressive environmentalism.  We are faced in California by a gap between the high-minded idealism of our political structure and the apathetic materialism of our political culture.  Our democracy calls for a commitment to informed participation; our culture resents being asked to take the short trip to the ballot.  Our democracy asks that we think of each other as a community within a moral economy; our culture demands a calculus based on individualism within a market economy.

What is missing are forums, institutions and frameworks for bridging that gap and engendering a the democratic culture that our democratic system requires.  To close the space between our aspirations and our inadequacies, we need both to add to and reform our political structure, something in which neither our elected representatives nor we, the public, have much interest in doing.

Monday, March 28, 2011

The Crossing--and reflections

I am a nervous traveller.  No matter how short the journey, I agonise over plans, timing and the like.  Heading down to the train station last week for a few days’ trip up north was no exception.  I’m sure I looked anxious to anyone else who was down at Amtrak, just as it was beginning to get light.  I pace, I check the time, I check my ticket, and then repeat.  It was with a sense of relief that I boarded the train to Sacramento.

As the train wound around through Richmond towards Martinez, it passed through a battered industrial forest, reminiscent of some of Cormac McCarthy’s post-apocalyptic landscapes from The Road.  There were the old piers that simply disappeared into the water, first the planks rotting away, then only remnants of wooden uprights, decaying in the water remaining.  And there were the decrepit sugar mills, built in an era when industrialists, however minor or local, took pride in the grandeur of their undertaking.  Elegant brick structures, now showing more signs of wear than of activity, they loomed over the train as it made its way out toward the water.

McCarthy was on my mind because I was reading the second of his border trilogy novels, The Crossing.  Unlike The Road, this story is set in a world that is very much alive, though no less morally fraught for it.  Billy Parham rides up into the New Mexico mountains on a winter morning.  Mountains, which rose up “blinding white in the sun.  They looked new born out of the hand of some improvident god who’d perhaps not even puzzled out a use for them”. 

As in all of McCarthy’s landscapes, violence lurks beneath the majestic and virtuous-seeming surface of the landscape.  Nevertheless, there is something in particular about civilisation (embodied here by Billy Parham’s journey into Mexico) that bodes ill for the character of people’s relations to each other.  Perhaps it is the lack of space, the proximity of people? 

Across the strait on the train, the sun was higher in the sky, and the mothball fleet, anchored in the delta, cut an impressive figure against the light clouds through which the sun strove to burst.  The wetlands extended some miles alongside the tracks to the north of the bay.  The fields were flooded, and the stalks of reeds and grass that pushed up through the shallow waters were brown.  The fields were mostly empty.  Two Canadian Geese had built a nest amid one field, and one of them stood atop it, staring across the open landscape.  In one stretch of flooded field, an armchair floated out in the centre, perhaps not long for the terrestrial world, but surely carrying some story with it.

Then the train made its way across the causeway toward Sacramento.  The river, swollen by days of rain and the freeing up of the lakes was up around the causeway, turning the valley into the “great inland sea” that the engineers of the last century sought to tame.  The water was a grey-brown colour, and out in the middle of the vast expanse, stretching for miles in either direction, it looked almost placid.  But then, around what days ago had been a hillock, a stand of trees, or a battered-looking telephone pole, water surged powerfully, coursing along its route as a reminder that our ability to manage that thing we call “Nature” is tenuous.
I met my dad at Sacramento, and we headed up the valley, which gradually rose as we neared Redding, before we veered east into the foothills, passing out of the small towns to wind our way among ranges that slope up into hills that funnel stock along the valley, keeping them close to the creek that pushes its way through the fields, in which you can see a drift of wild hogs or a herd of elk in the mornings, their breath forming a hovering silvery cloud above them if it’s cold enough.  Today there was only a Bald Eagle, perched above the river.

I once had a dream of riding through this landscape and seeing the hills, which turn brown and dusty in the summer before the green begins creeping back with the winter rains, covered with houses, tract homes, and lined with paved roads.  I’m possessed, as many of us must be, of the same kind of nostalgia for another time and another world.  But it was a world, McCarthy reminds us, that might never have been.  The reverence attached to history is a thing men feel.  One could even say that what endows any thing with significance is solely the history in which it has participated”.  These meditations, sprinkled throughout The Crossing, lull the reader into a reflexive mood before disaster strikes. 
At home, the next morning, avoiding the driving rain which turned periodically to hail and beat an irregular rhythm on the tin room, I returned to The Crossing

The most haunting and gut-wrenching 100 pages I’ve ever read later, we are looking down at a she-wolf, brought over the border into Mexico in one of life’s “doomed enterprises”, “alone in the pit and she was a sorry thing to see.  She’d returned to the stake and crouched by it but her head lay in the dirt and her tongue lolled in the dirt and her fur was matted with dirt and blood and the yellow eyes looked at nothing at all.  She had been fighting for almost two hours and she had fought in casts of two the better part of all the dogs brought to the feria”. 

When Billy leaves the pit, his journey seems to be at an end, but in other respects the story is just beginning.  But I needed a respite from the tension that had built up, and the horror in seeing the wolf reduced on the pages before me to the wreck in the pit from the wolves who ran “on the plain harrying the antelope and the antelope moved like phantoms in the snow and circled and wheeled and the dry powder blew about them in the cold moonlight and their breath smoked palely in the cold as if they burned with some inner fire and the wolves twisted and leapt in a silence such that they seemed of another world [...] Loping and twisting.  Dancing.  Tunnelling their noses in the snow.  Loping and running and rising by twos in a standing dance and running on again”, Billy able to “feel the presence of their knowing that was electric in the air”.
Outside it was snowing, and the dog periodically got up from her spot by the door to come across the floor and sleep on my feet.  Until she got too warm nearby the wood stove and wandered back to her mat, nails clicking on the hardwood floor. 

Why is it that McCarthy’s novel is book-ended by episodes—for it is in a series of such scenes, powerfully vivid, that The Crossing unfolds—involving animals: the wolf, a horse, a dog.  Picking my way along the bank of the creek that cuts below our house and into the large acreage owned by a logging company that abuts us, I wondered how ideas about nature and the sentience of animals holds such power over us.  What has made the environmental movement the most successful grassroots campaign over the last 50 years in the U.S. (with an even longer history)?  Why do people write in droves about the immoral culling of elephants in South Africa and yet debate the merits of intervention in a Libya, a Rwanda, a Sudan on cost-benefit grounds? 
Do the wide-open spaces—often much more shaped by human habitation than we’d care to admit—speak to a different side of us?  A better side?  That’s what many of us would like to assume.  But McCarthy is not so sure.  Because although a gypsy along Billy Parham’s way assured him “that the way of the road was the rule for all upon it...that on the road there were no special cases”, Parham’s experiences hardly seem to bear this out.  Unless it is from a misunderstanding, a wilful misreading—in the aid of maintaining faith of some kind?—of what those rules might be.

 On the way back to Berkeley I put these complications out of my mind--something we seem to have no end of capacity for doing.  I enjoyed the drive up the snowy dirt road to the paved road, passing through forests and fields, cows and horses standing stock still in the open as heavy white flakes drifted down around them.  Down the foothills across the ranges.  Wild pigs rooted amongst sparse live oak trees across the creek, untroubled by our passing.  Two bald eagles maintained watch over the water running in the creek, through the deep ditch it has cut over the years.  And a herd of elk, some 40 strong, grazed amidst the cattle, as unworried by their presence as by the wooden fence posts and stretched barbed-wire, neither of which could hold them in or keep them out. 

Friday, March 25, 2011

Citizens beware...

The Republican Party is apparently on the hunt for anyone who dares to look into their shady backers.  Their most recent target is American environmental historian Bill Cronon, best known for his pioneering books, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England and Nature's Metropolis: Chicago and the Great West

Cronon's sin?

To go on the offensive in the pages of the New York Times and on his blog, "Scholar as Citizen", against what he sees as the sheer unreasoning radical nature of today's Republican Party.  Their ideology, he rightly notes, would seem totally out of character to their supporters before what Cronon identifies as their 1964 turnaround and their class war against the middle- and working-classes. In other words, this isn't your grandmother's Republican Party.  And Scott Walker, in assaulting organised labour in Wisconsin, a bedrock of our democracy, isn't your grandmother's Republican politician.

Cronon's article is worth reading and his blog worth following.  Both because much of his analysis seems to be spot on, and because it will be interesting to see if the Republican Party and its backers continue this strategy of working to undermine any party who questions their logic, methods and proponents.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Intervention in Libya

I woke up this morning and, on reading the news, got some sense of how American military leaders and policymakers are responding to the fourth war that the U.S. is now fighting in Libya.  Admiral Mullen suggested that a no-fly zone is now in place in Libya, though of course the remit of the UN-backed coalition extends beyond a no-fly zone.  Senator Lindsey Graham criticised Obama with the following bit of rank hypocrisy: “We used to relish leading the free world, now it’s almost like leading the free world is an inconvenience [...] I think the president has caveated this way too much, it’s almost like it’s a nuisance”.  Graham’s mental carapace is apparently unscathed by the aftershocks of U.S. wars in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

I actually feel like Obama has done a reasonably good job in this case.  Unlike Graham, he understands that military action led too obviously by the U.S. could backfire and consolidate Qaddafi’s grip on power.  And he has never been as pliant where Libya was concerned as with other dictatorships in the region.

I do actually agree with John McCain, who said that Obama probably waited too long before moving to intervene.  But if McCain was right on the timing, his intervention also manifested that particular brand of bonkers on which the Republican Party has a near-monopoly.  “I have great confidence”, the Senator proclaimed, “in our capabilities that the most mightiest nation in the world is now matched up against a third-rate or fourth-rate power”. 

It’s when you hear people spouting this kind of tripe, which not only smacks of the sorriest type of jingoism, but which demonstrates not an iota of understanding of what this military intervention is supposed to achieve, that you wonder whether Qaddafi is the only crazy one in the room.

I suspect that there are a couple of reasons why it took Obama so long to decide on a UN-backed intervention.  In the first place, the White House and State Department had developed a rather silly model of an “Arab Spring” to understand what was happening in North Africa and the Middle East.  While their loose doctrine was commendably restrained, and exhibited an understanding that successful movements for democracy can only be internally generated, it also made some mistakes.  It decided that a series of events that were connected (Egypt, Tunisia, Bahrain, Libya) were all part of the same process.  They ignored local contingencies and different national histories and conditions.  So it took some time to them to realise that Libya was playing out differently, and that the conditions created by Qaddafi’s intransigence and brutality might require a different kind of action on the part of the international community.

Secondly, Obama very wisely decided that if a military intervention was to take place, it needed to do so with wide backing.  Hence the arduous negotiations to prevent a Security Council veto and get the Arab League on-side.  And the delay also meant that the character of military operations would have to go beyond the implementation of a no-fly zone because the extra days had allowed Qaddafi to arrive at the edge of Benghazi.  This in turn undoubtedly required further negotiations.

But the coalition is already fraying.  The Arab League, which backed military action that went well beyond a no-fly zone is suddenly saying that “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone”.  This is disingenuous: what the Arab League backed, and what the UN authorised, was different from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone.  As with most U.S.-led military interventions, one gets the feel that more could be done to avert civilian casualties, but if you call for military intervention (and remember, it was the Arab League, not Obama who made that call), you can’t then criticise that intervention because it takes the form you requested and expect to have a leg to stand on.

Countries are also taking part in the intervention for a variety of reasons.  David Cameron needs his Margaret Thatcher moment...his polls at home are plunging as people come to grips with the impact that his brutal cuts to social services are having on their daily lives.  There’s nothing like a foreign war to boost poll ratings, as the Iron Lady herself found when, almost certain of losing the election that was to come in 1983 or 1984, she got a massive boost at the polls from the Falklands War. 

Nicholas Sarkozy is in a similar position.  Lagging in opinion polls ahead of next year’s election, he needs to redeem himself in the eyes of voters.  He also needs to recapture French influence in North Africa after his government was humiliatingly caught attempting to help the repressive Tunisian government put a stop to protests earlier this year.  More even than Britain, France behaves with a keen sense of neo-colonial hubris in the Sudan and Sahel regions of Africa—a legacy of Charles DeGaulle’s 1960 ultimatum to French African colonies.

But opposition to intervention, much of it very legitimate, is cohering in the U.S. and British public spheres.  But this opposition often takes a peculiar character.  It’s funny how a certain breed of critic on the left is able to main, sans irony, a monopoly on good intentions.  It’s inconceivable to them that any of the governments they are accustomed to criticising could do anything worthy.

They hold this view, in some cases, because they view the world as one made up of interlocking systems, dictated by an unalterable political-economic logic, in which one class behaves in X manner because that is in its interest, and the other behaves in Y manner because that is in its interest.  It is much more difficult and dissatisfying to explain a world in which people behave inconsistently and what we see as irrationally.  But people are difficult and dissatisfying beings who, I believe, are certainly capable of holding ideologically inconsistent positions.

I can understand the reluctance of China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India to commit to or to sanction a military intervention.  But an abstention is a curiously amoral position to take, particularly by a group of countries who seek to make a claim on international influence.  It effectively demonstrates subscription to the doctrine of ‘Power without Responsibility’. 

If these countries, which aspire to regional as well as global leadership, really find something objectionable about the intervention in Libya (and there are lots of very good reasons to find the attack by the U.S., Britain and France morally hazardous), they should have done whatever they could to stop it.  Instead, they are trying to have their cake and eat it, irrespective of what the consequences of a divided and halting international intervention might be for Libyans. 

As someone who is strongly opposed to the U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, the intervention in Libya is a real conundrum.  Arguments about national sovereignty ring hollowly coming from Russia and China (who find the doctrine useful for suppressing dissent at home), and fly in the face of the very idea of humanitarianism and human rights. 

The blanket argument that “the West” should never undertake any intervention again—even a humanitarian one—in the Middle East or North Africa is equally problematic.  We're talking about an international community haunted by the memory of Rwanda that has no other model than the military for situations like this where time is of the essence (this itself is a serious problem). But what would another model look like? And if non-intervention is to become the watchword, what is it we are acceding to? Some kind of religious/communal right of self-determination?  If so, human rights human rights go out the window, particularly when Libya’s neighbours (who would presumably be expected to intervene) are largely authoritarian (and yes, hypocritically propped up by the U.S. and its allies).

We should see, as a beginning to working through these inconsistencies and hypocrisies, a commitment from countries taking part in the military intervention, and all of those who authorised the intervention (tacitly or otherwise—therefore including China, Russia, Brazil, Germany and India) to prevent companies from their nations making money in Libya’s energy sector once the dust settles and a new government, whatever its stripe and however long it takes to emerge, is in place. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Why the 'Federal University at Berkeley' is a bad idea

UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau’s remarks last month on the transformation of Berkeley from a “state-supported” university to a “state-located” one went under-reported despite their huge significance, not only for Berkeley, but for the remainder of California’s public education system, as well as for debates about the virtues of public institutions.  The remarks reflected the shift in the balance of funding at Berkeley, which has seen federal money, student fees and philanthropy grow in importance even as California has increasingly turned its back on the nation’s premiere public university system.  This shift, Birgeneau suggested will necessitate a re-evaluation “of what our role is both in the state and nationally”.

I think that the shift to the Federal University at Berkeley is something which would appeal to some of the campus’ defenders, who would see it as a surer way of preserving Berkeley’s public character, given the Obama administration’s support for science and education, and the unwillingness of California’s public to deliver the coherent message to an embattled legislature which would allow representatives to fund the university properly.

But I think, tempting a vision though it might be, that it is a bad idea.  I want to say up-front that this is not a knee-jerk reaction on my part to anything that comes out of the campus administration’s mouth, though I will confess to being no fan of Chancellor Birgeneau.  His handling of police violence and protest at Berkeley has been nauseating, but I think that he, unlike Mark Yudof, Richard Blum and others, is genuinely committed to preserving something of Berkeley’s character.  I don’t think that he is a competent administrator, assuming that part of an administrator’s task is to lobby forcefully and successfully on behalf of his or her institution.  And I think (though this might seem a strange accusation to make) that Birgeneau is too loyal to Berkeley, in the sense that he sees it as a singular institution, disconnected from the University of California. 

So my views on Birgeneau aside, I have serious problems with the Federal University at Berkeley idea.  Firstly, its contribution to the debate about public institutions in California would be deleterious.  The transfer of responsibility to the federal government would be a victory of sorts for the likes of Jerry Brown, who is doing all that he can to transfer the state’s responsibilities to its citizens out of California’s hands, either to the local or federal level. 

The message to people would be, that when an institution is in trouble, it can be foisted off onto a different level of government and, when responsibility is granted to the federal government, the institution in question becomes increasingly removed from people’s lives, as does the question of funding, and the revenue raising that is required to sustain that funding.  I fear that a federal university would be further abstracted from the services it provides, and people would be even less inclined to favour funding it than they are in the case of a state university.

But there are lots of practical reasons to oppose such a shift.  Berkeley would lose its local character and mission for one thing.  Presumably Eligibility in the Local Context would be difficult to sustain at the federal level.  If Californians were competing with a nationwide pool, far fewer would attend Berkeley, and far fewer lower income students from our state and our communities would have access to a top-tier university.  Simply by expanding the population and geography from which students are drawn would undermine what Birgeneau himself identified as one of the key components of Berkeley’s public character: its commitment to admitting large numbers of low-income students and first-time college attendees. 

UC has many excellent programs that are aimed at getting information out to students from ‘non-traditional’ backgrounds at the local level.  I can personally attest to the importance and real value of such programs (UC Davis’ north state ETS, in my case).  Some of these programs are already federally funded, but their in-state efficacy would, again, be undermined if they were suddenly looking at an application pool from a swathe of 50 states rather than a small sector of California.

I am also amazed that Birgeneau would be willing to make Berkeley vulnerable to any dependence on federal funding.  I understand that the sciences in particular, and higher education more generally, is in a better place than it has been for years under the Obama administration, but that there has been such a markedly positive shift should remind us of something...  This hospitable federal climate was preceded by eight years of small-minded, anti-intellectual, anti-public, anti-science rhetoric and action. 

I shudder to think of the fate of a federally-funded university with Berkeley’s reputation for open-mindedness, commitment to the fostering of a critical public, and embrace of scientific advance should a Republican-controlled House of Representatives be complemented by a Republican-run Senate, and perhaps a Republican President.  What these downright malevolent and destructive people are doing to NPR, the EPA and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau should give us a clue. 

But I can guarantee that the glee with which they are dismantling the institutions that protect the weak, keep corporate excess in check, and provide quality programming to the public is nothing compared to the fury that would characterise their assault on a university—a symbol of everything that the people who are waging class warfare on behalf of their corporate paymasters find detestable.  Nothing threatens the far Right and its attack on society so much as the constant production of a cohort of people trained to question everything they hear and see forensically, who have been trained in an institution that holds onto the value of collective moral action. 

And if the Federal University at Berkeley would gain a new set of enemies, it would lose some of its staunchest supporters.  The UC, CSU and CCC systems have the support that they do in California’s legislature because so many of those legislators, particularly those representing California’s traditional ethnic minorities, came up through the system.  They are proof-positive of the system’s ability to draw in non-traditional students.  But there is even more to it than that. 

Unlike the top private universities, who cream off the top minority students (often in larger percentages, but crucially, in smaller numbers than public universities), the public universities are not in the business of acculturating and co-opting their students into some dominant political-economic class.  The character, composition and politics of California’s public universities are shaped as much by their students as the other way around.  There are no grand traditions to draw upon, no appeal to a lineage of claims on national authority, in keeping with the aversion to memory and disdain for history that cultural commentators have identified as part of California’s heritage.

Another point stems, indirectly, from the contribution of California’s public higher education system to the creation of a generation of Mexican-American, African-American and Asian-American legislators.  I say indirectly because another of my concern is for the fate of the humanities.  The people who are singing the praises of the Obama administration are primarily located in the sciences.  Without a doubt, higher education in general is more in favour these days.  But as Obama’s school reforms demonstrate, there is a strong utilitarian bent to that favour, and even as things stand today on Berkeley’s campus, the sciences appear immune to the cuts that are sweeping the rest of the campus, at least from those of us located at geographical and hierarchical lower elevations.

This is a gap which would grow if we depended on federal funding.  Look to Britain, where Education Secretaries representing an ostensibly progressive-minded party dismissed humanities subjects as irrelevant, and consulted industry to get input on which degrees are the most valuable to sustaining corporate bottom-lines.  Or look to the federal departments funding research.  The most compelling dissertations in the world on liberal imperialism, the politics of wildlife, Scott’s Waverly, French cultural imperialism or the U.S. general strikes of the 1940s would never get federal funding from the departments of energy and defence, the mainstay of Berkeley’s labs.

And the fate of the ‘Studies’ departments would be even more certainly terminal.  Republicans, and some Democrats, love to poke fun at African American Studies, Chicano/Latino Studies, as the preserve of left-wing post-modern crazies who are farther removed from the real world than men on Mars (odd coming from people for whom Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh are apostles of reason, but never mind that...).  But theirs is a nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the past, which ignores the real need that there was for such departments in days when migrant and minority communities were even more violently and forcefully discriminated against than they are today.

The generation of genuinely progressive legislators in California’s Assembly and State Senate are a testament in many respects to the empowering work of such departments, and though their narratives might occasionally verge on the insular and myopic today, there remains much work to be done when it comes to achieving racial, social and economic equality, and surely such departments have much to contribute.

Still another danger of the Federal University at Berkeley is that it would become ever-more a research institution.  Berkeley would not be a fraction of what it is today as a public institution without its undergraduate population.  And yet although Birgeneau can point to federal funds that put undergraduates in his lab, a university whose raison d’ĂȘtre increasingly became the production of useful knowledge would have less and less time for the education of some 20,000 undergraduate students, who are today central to Berkeley’s character and mission. 

There are those who complain (often having arrived from private universities) that undergraduates at Berkeley get a totally inadequate education because of the large class size, but I would strongly dissent.  I was no less captivated by amazing lectures my first year as an undergraduate at the University of California because the class included 450 students.  I have since sat in on lectures at Berkeley and find it as much the case.  Students have access to small courses in their later years, to seminar-style discussion sections painstakingly thought-out, often in collaboration between professors and graduate students, to the office hours held by frequently eager faculty (some of whom roam the corridors in search of nervous first and second year students to engage with), and to a range of student- and institution-led organisations, the breadth of which dwarfs anything on offer at smaller private universities.

The utilitarian beast into which a federal university would almost certainly morph—for it would be constantly forced to defend itself against a legislature far less progressive than California’s own—would have little time for Berkeley’s breadth requirements, for the humanities more broadly, and for the University of California’s historic commitment to the maintenance of a critical public.

The final argument regards Berkeley’s place in the context of California’s larger system of public higher education.  Berkeley is part of the University of California.  That should count for something.  If a principle behind this university system is a kind of communal (California) solidarity, jumping ship would be the wrong thing to do.  The rationale behind California’s three-tier higher education system is beautiful.

And here, perhaps, I should declare an interest.  I’ve been in California’s public education system for 20 years.  My entire undergraduate and graduate experience has been at the University of California.  I come, socioeconomically and ethnically, from a ‘non-traditional’ background.  I come from a part of the state that sends precious few of its high schoolers to higher education of any kind. 

Perhaps the nation’s greatest ever public effort, the waging of the Second World War, brought one set of grandparents to California.  They spent one winter in San Francisco and never looked East again.  Great-grandparents fled a revolution in Mexico and arrived in California early in the last century.  They found work with the railroad and security in private-sector unions, now long gone thanks to attacks from the political Right.  And when a young migrant from El Salvador married their daughter, they welcomed him into the Bay Area’s Mexican-American community and he too joined them in working with the railroad and serving his union.

Because of an historically contingent, chance set of happenings, this state has been my home, and the University of California, for the last seven years, my home away from home.  Every life chance anyone in my family has had has come from the social and political moral values that underpin institutions like Berkeley, as they once existed, and as they struggle to exist today.

So for me, keeping Berkeley public isn’t about some abstract ideological positioning.  Keeping it grounded in California isn’t a matter of perversity.  It’s not about some beef I have with Birgeneau and Yudof’s administrative style.  It’s personal. 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Berkeley protests...but to what effect?

The e-mail arrived in my inbox at 4.08 pm.  “The campus is dealing with a health and safety issue in Wheeler Hall and the building is closed.  All classes and events scheduled in Wheeler Hall for this afternoon/evening are cancelled until further notice”. 

Now I’ve got used to some pretty surreal e-mail messages from UC Berkeley Chancellor Robert Birgeneau over the years, but this one probably takes the cake.  A “health and safety issue”?  Were we talking flooding?  An outbreak of plague?  Rodent infestation? 

No, it was another protest (on the balcony of Wheeler Hall) against the meteoric rise of fees and tuition at the University of California, particularly over the past few years.  Compounded by California’s deficit (itself the result of a set of political decisions rather than the absence of wealth that it has become Republican reflex to blame), an apathetic student body and public, a recalcitrant administration, and a general disdain for the idea of public good, the university is struggling to retain its public character.

The daunting prospect of paying out over $25,000 per year to live in Berkeley as a UC student will, irrespective of financial aid, turn away many first-in-their-family college attendees.  Departments have been cut, lecturers sacked, staff members lost and library hours restricted.  UC administration has launched a set of reviews which have promised a leaner, meaner university, shorn of ideals and of any commitment to being public in anything other than name.  Suggestions for putting UC finances in order have included closing campuses, having smaller campuses only offer a limited selection of degrees, re-orienting the university away from California, taking more out-of-state students, and relying on on-line coursework.

All of these things compromise the University of California’s public character, its commitment to diversity, to promoting equality, to service to our state.  Any combination of such measures would lead to the deterioration of the quality of education that UC provides.  The actions that have already been taken, because the state has failed to live up to its duty to provide public education to those of its citizens who are qualified at an affordable cost, and those which are being considered, should indeed spark protest, and have done so on numerous occasions over the past two years at Berkeley.

The response to the occupation of the Wheeler balcony is just what we’ve come to expect from UCPD and the campus administration.  First there is the massive escalation of the police presence, so that by the time I returned to Wheeler in the evening, there were upwards of 30 police, in riot gear, assembled around the south entrance of the building.  Other columns of police could be seen moving around inside the building.  Quite an impressive force assembled to deal with eight people on a balcony.

Sometime after five o’clock in the evening, some pinhead from UCPD told the crowd that had gathered on the steps below Wheeler that they were unlawfully assembled.  What the particular grounds for this designation of a crowd are, I don’t know.  But it is outrageous that people should be told when and where they are able to exercise their democratic rights.  It is patently absurd that people should have to ask permission from the police, ostensibly public servants, to gather in a public location, outdoors, on a university campus, to make their political grievances heard. 
UCPD is not only systematically violence-prone in its approach to protests, but has, in each and every instance of student protest at Berkeley over the past two years, structured its response in such a way that it is actively taking sides in a political debate.  That is not the job of the police, but it is how they have chosen to interpret their mandate.  UCPD has, again and again during campus protests, made a conscious choice to shirk their duty—public safety—in favour of restricting students’ rights of protest.

A statement from UCPD's website demonstrates typical obtuseness: “Rights of protest and demonstration are both protected and governed by rules of appropriate time place and manner”.  There is clearly a fundamental, and probably deliberate, misunderstanding of what protest is about.  There is precious little point in protesting on the terms set by the institutions or individuals one is protesting against.  Imagine if civil rights campaigners, suffragettes, anti-apartheid activists, anti-poor law protestors, poll-tax objectors, and the anti-war movement had restricted their protests to the time, place and manner favoured by the institutions, powerbrokers, individuals or regimes they were protesting against.  Theirs would have been futile campaigns one and all.
UCPD has opted to foreclose the only means of protest open to students, who are engaged in an unequal power struggle with a cynical administration.  This is an unfortunate decision, and one which deserves investigation and re-thinking.

The administration summoned, among others, the Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, to dialogue with protestors.  Now questioning the sanity might seem applicable in some respects when rationalising the presence of protestors.  After all, Einstein supposedly said that insanity involves doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.  And the leaders of Berkeley’s protests can hardly be accused of creativity in their tactics (on which more below).

But the move by the administration smacks of contempt and disingenuity.  Treating people who are engaged in legitimate protest, over a matter with serious economic and social implications, as though their actions are aberrant and erratic—deserving of counselling!—is the height of dishonesty.  Yet it serves the purposes of the police and the administration well, for it is in their interest to discredit protestors.

Some will undoubtedly see some conspiracy, a deliberate aligning of interests, on the part of The System, to choke off burgeoning protests through knuckleheaded administrative responses and heavy-handed police tactics.  But that gives far too much credit to Birgeneau and other Berkeley administrators (the Regents, a politically-savvy and connected group of people might be another story altogether—there we see a certain aligning of corporate, economic and social interest).  I look at Birgeneau and his colleagues, however, and see a group of fairly incompetent administrators, hopelessly out of their depth, who couldn’t manoeuvre their way out of the proverbial paper bag, let alone a multi-million dollar deficit. 

The other benighted party in this drama are the protestors themselves.  From the beginning, there have been a group of protest leaders who have first and foremost fancied themselves militant radicals, and who have infused the movement with both a revolutionary zeal and an intolerance for any who deviate from revolutionary dogma.  Intentionally or not, they have cultivated the impression that they are comfortable with their struggle being a futile one.  They have indulged in a “them and us” rhetoric, and thereby alienated anyone prone to critical thinking or amenable to divergent political persuasions.

There are many students on campus who would be sympathetic to protestor’s goals, who are affected by the shambles that are UC’s budget and California’s politics.  But the exclusionary, divisive rhetoric of protest leaders has ensured that their following remains small (and that they remain in control of events).  They have shown a real unwillingness to do any serious thinking about how to mobilise the student body and the state community, or to strategise meaningfully about what the best long-term course of action might be.

They have contented themselves with repeating tired methods, utilising tried-and-failed rhetoric, and re-inventing the wheel on a semesterly basis, without ever attaching it to the cart that is the larger campus community.  They were closest to doing so in the fall of 2009, but the failure of an easy solution to materialise left many dispirited, and the movement without contingency plans. 

It is tragic that the slow erosion of the world’s pre-eminent public university system is going un-acknowledged, except for the passionate, worthy and heartfelt protests of a small group of students, whose valiant efforts are marred by their failure to develop a language that California’s public needs desperately to hear.  The campus and the state, in the context of the threat to public institutions across the whole country, must begin to link up diverse efforts to defend those institutions, and to create a coherent and compelling narrative about their value.  They must do so in the face of apathy on the part of the public, obstructionism on the part of administrators and police, cowardice on the part of elected officials, and a full-throated assault by the Republican Party machine and its corporate paymasters. 

This convergence of interests must occur soon, because time is not on our side.  The mantra of cuts, taken up even by Democrats like Jerry Brown, will take hold of the public’s mind when repeated ad nauseum.  It must be countered by a serious conversation about the idea of public good, the importance of social welfare, and the necessity of strong, public institutions to achieve any measure of equality, and to restore the sense of community that we are in danger of losing irretrievably.  

Coda.  My evening is ending with another e-mail from Birgeneau, 10.19: "Wheeler Hall will be open as usual for normal activities tomorrow, Friday, March 4th".  Well, good to know that's sorted.