Tuesday, November 29, 2011

UC Regents and Administrators are Dead-Weight on Higher Education

I’m starting to run out of words that aren’t four letters long to describe the systematic betrayal of the values and public character of the University of California by its administrative leadership.  I include in this group the likes of UC President Mark Yudof—who will make his greatest contribution to our community the day he packs his bags and leaves, taking with him his appalling attitude and spectacular ineptitude.  I include campus administrators like Berkeley and Davis Chancellors Robert Birgeneau (whose reputation as a cheerful idiot was diminished by his defence of UCPD’s baton charges) and Linda Katehi (who appears to have been about as on top of things at the University of Illinois during the Clout Scandal as Ronald Reagan was during the Contra debacle). 

And I include the Regents, who are political-appointees, part of the Governor’s patronage system, and who are not required be committed to UC’s values...these are men and women who have swum all the days of their lives in the “usual channels”, which Tony Benn once called “the most polluted waterways in the world”. 

Days after Berkeley students and faculty were violently attacked by police, the Regents cancelled their meeting, citing safety concerns.  Their action demonstrated a fear and or mistrust of the students who are supposed to be in their charge, and who ought to be their central constituency.  It showed a disturbing willingness to distance themselves from the realities on campus.  And it showed the disdain for public scrutiny that you would expect from a governing board that is essentially run like a country club.  I could promise the spineless wonders on the Board that the risk to their safety would be far, far less than that to any UC student turning up at a campus demonstration. 

But they reconvened on the 28th of this month, fled in the face of a handful of demonstrators (so much for engagement or accountability), and then voted to raise ten administrative salaries at a time when students are paying twice what they were when I arrived at UC as a freshman in the Fall of 2004.  According to The Bay Citizen, these included “a 9.9 percent increase for Meredith Michaels, vice chancellor of planning and budget at UC Irvine, whose annual salary will increase to $247,275 from $225,000.  Six campus attorneys also received salary increases.  The largest increase, 21.9 percent, went to Steven A Drown, chief campus counsel and associate general counsel at UC Davis.  His yearly salary will rise to $250,000 from $205,045”.

The Bay Citizen went on to report that Yudof defended these raises as necessary “to attract and retain talented employees”.  Yudof and his ilk are a good example of what we get when we bend over backwards to hire “top” people: a bunch of pathetic corporate pinheads who couldn’t care less whether UC retains its commitments to ameliorating inequality of fostering social justice, who haven’t done a single useful thing to oppose the state’s disinvestment or to engage with the public that benefits so much from our university system.  In 2009, Yudof famously praised Linda “pepper spray” Katehi as an example of the administrative elite he called the “Tom Cruises of the academic world”, and every action since has suggested that it is more important to UCOP to build up a cadre of high-earning administrators than to look after the character of the University as it impacts students. 

But Yudof and the campus administrators aren’t alone in promoting this caste of bureaucrats who we pay incredible sums of money to work out the surest and speediest way to dismantle UC as a public institution.  The Regents are equally complicit, and their provenance and behaviour on the Board illustrate the extent to which the rot that people have identified in the corporate world has crept not only into government, but into educational institutions. 

These are people who are in the business of making money.  Not, in most cases, through doing anything particularly worthy or useful, but by moving money around, making it appear and disappear.  They are the high priests of the Market with a capital-M, the biggest faith-based initiative history has ever seen.  They are some of the clowns who the Antipodean savant, Fred Dagg accused of corrupting his beloved New Zealand by “importing Market Economics, the belief that a beautiful day has no value if they can’t sell it”. 

A sketch of the backgrounds of some of these people is illuminating.  One of them comes from Main Street Advisors, a company which “strives to achieve profitable growth through expanded product development, targeted sales and marketing efforts, and a continued commitment to meet clients’ needs”.  Another comes from Varner Brandt, which specialises in “business finance, mergers and acquisitions, business transactions and strategy, real estate development, labor or litigation”.  Still another comes to UC from Pegasus Capital Advisors, a “private equity fund manager that provides creative capital and strategic solutions to middle-market companies across a variety of industries”.  The current Chairwoman was Paramount’s CEO.  Another spent his days at McDonnell Douglas, the now-defunct weapons company.  Then there is the one from the Union Square Investment Company, a group of “financial planning consultants”.  One is from Marcus & Millchap, which boasts of being “the nation’s largest commercial real estate investment service fund”.  Of course there is the chairman of the board of Makar Properties, which deals in “land entitlement, residential development, commercial real estate, hospitality and real estate investment management”.  And someone from California Strategies, LLC, a lobby group.  And the list wouldn’t be complete without the man who founded Blum Capital Partners.  The only details its website offers to those who aren’t “limited partners” (you guessed it, I’m not) is the fact that it is “an investment firm making strategic block, minority and control investments in public and private companies”.  I have not the slightest idea what that means, but intuition tells me it doesn’t have anything to do with higher education. 

They know how to run things all right...they’re exactly the kind of people who ran our country into the ground in 2008, and who have been handsomely rewarded for their services ever since by our blinkered President and the openly corrupt Republican Party, which in the absence of anything that passes for a moral framework, feeds gluttonously on corporate wealth.  They are utterly unrepresentative of California, and their work is largely detached from the human capital and labour which have made our state what it was at its finest.

The model for UC which they seem to be pushing is one with no room for knowledge or learning for its own sake.  It will be a stripped down, ruthless shell, designed to push students through their degrees (which will get increasingly narrower) at a speed that will prohibit their growth as thoughtful citizens or their ability to take advantage of the curiosity which presumably brought them to such a wonderful institution in the first place.

They are people for whom public service is an afterthought, something to cap off a profitable career.  There’s nothing wrong with making money, but it is not an endeavour that equips anyone to govern the world’s finest university system, which is committed to a set of moral values often sharply at deviance with those practised by these people in their business lives.  One of the Regents, Richard Blum—Senator Feinstein’s husband—has been accused of war profiteering and cashing in on his wife’s political influence.  He has also invested heavily in for-profit education.

I’m not convinced that an appointed board is the best way to run a public university (and some years back concrete proposals for the democratisation of the Regents circulated).  But what we need on whatever governing body UC ends up with is a little more partisanship.  Not partisanship in the party-political sense.  But partisanship for UC.  People who can articulate the vision of our university, and who demonstrably share its values.  They, and whomever replaces Yudof (a replacement which I hope come very soon), should do what this group of apathetic administrators have failed to do—use their pulpit, their expertise, and their time and energy to create a movement to fight for the public version of the University of California, to which so many of us owe much. 

UC’s leadership could have a quarter-million volunteers, a huge alumni network, and access to some of the state’s biggest brains if they ever got off their backsides and took the fight to the state in a serious way—the cute little UC4 California messages don’t count.  They could draft a raft of interlinked propositions to overhaul our state’s broken political structure.  They could start the ball rolling for a constitutional convention.  They could design an overhaul of the notoriously fractured system for funding education in the state.  They could re-invigorate the Master Plan and make the case for its value to those Californians who mistakenly view UC as a detached ivory tower reserved solely for the affluent and privileged. 

There are umpteen ways in which a committed Board of Regents, with members who share UC’s values, could make a serious contribution to our University.  Administrators (on campuses and at UCOP) who were neither resigned to nor disposed towards the privatisation and commercialisation of UC could have a similarly dramatic impact if they decided to take a pro-active approach to saving UC from the political structures, state disinvestment, and deliberate commodification of higher education which threaten its historic mission.

But we need a clean slate.  The current Board of Regents have proven themselves uncommitted and incompetent, and the same could be said for the top tier of administrators charged with running UC.  They should go.  And soon, so that the University of California can begin the long hard slog towards regaining its status as California’s preeminent public institution. 

Britain's Necessary Strike

Britain’s public sector workers will be striking tomorrow, 30 November, in the most substantial labour action the country has seen in quite some time.  And the right-wingers are crawling out of the woodwork, the Cabinet Office, No. 10 Downing Street and the pages of the Independent to denounce organised labour (as opposed to the political party, which is not supporting workers) as a bunch of uncooperative, money-grubbing, selfish, unpatriotic drains on society.

Dominic Lawson is leading this charge with a harsh attack on the strike and on public sector workers in the Independent.  Unionised workers are, he contends, the “haves”, and they are battling it out against the “have nots”—you know, the poor little guys in the City.

But step back for a moment, forget all the things you’ve heard about greedy or valorous workers, and think about the logic of the situation.  It is true that many public sector workers are very decently-off.  They have decent wages, they have decent working conditions, they have good pension plans.  And the argument of the economic fundamentalists on the right is that we need to retrench (do we?), and that therefore, public sector workers should be prevented from living decent lives and pulled down to the level of those who are less well-represented.  That way everyone can be miserable, because it clearly wouldn’t make any sense to learn from the gains of public sector workers and to raise the standards for the rest of the workforce.

It is an argument that is designed to divide—to use today’s universal parlance—the 99% against itself.  It is an argument that suggests that we punish those who are smart enough and committed enough to have organised themselves in such a way to protect the value of their labour (and who, unlike the scions of the corporate world, aren't trying to live the high-life, but simply a respectable middle-class existence), deny that protection to others, and deliberately try to lower the living standard instead of implementing the kind of protection that would allow everyone the same quality of pensions, of pay and of working conditions as unionised labour. 

And we all owe organised labour something.  Because without them, there would be no 40-hour week, no eight-hour day, no paid vacation, no pensions, and no recourse to demand better working conditions.  And if Cameron and his government in Britain, and the Republican Party in the U.S. get their way, those protections will be steadily stripped away as organised labour is ground down and the material well-being of the workers it represents reduced.  And if they’re first asking public sector workers to work a few more years, and raising the retirement age, what’s to stop them—all in the name of the national good of course, to shield CEO bonuses and the wealth of the affluent from being tapped into—from asking for a longer work-day or work-week, or from permitting employers to hire and fire arbitrarily (something only the presence of Liberal Democrats in cabinet has prevented the Tories from legislating on)? 

And it is organised labour which helped to change the state’s sense of its purpose—a purpose which is being lost today.  At one point the state unabashedly served the interests of an economic and social elite.  But some experimentation with a little idea called ‘democracy’ convinced people that the state should spend a little more time looking after the welfare of its people and  a little less time waging wars which profited the people at the top or on shackling itself to the interests of commercial elites.  Today, the state is abdicating what in my view should be its primary responsibility, the welfare of its people.  Because I don’t think it’s right that the state should be around primarily to wage wars, which are almost never in the interest of the citizens who populate that nation.  It should be about more than serving the interests of financial and energy lobbies that can buy their way into the halls of power.  Its purpose should be to serve people and do all that it can to assure their well-being, not to extract their labour and use it to serve minority interests.

So what Lawson doesn’t understand (or more likely, doesn’t want to understand), is that tomorrow’s strike isn’t just about the pensions of public sector workers, although those might be the proximate cause.  It is about the role and purpose of government, the rights of people in a democracy, and the ability of those people to find common cause.  Lawson writes, “Within the U.S., those states closest to the European model of high public spending and influential public-sector unions are now facing a pensions crunch of similar severity”.  Unsurprisingly, he cites California as a key example.

Now Lawson’s misreading of the situation might stem from apparently not knowing anything about the example he is citing (i.e. California’s political system), or it might stem from coming at the problem from a particular ideological standpoint.  Because public sector pensions are not what is breaking California.  In the normal course of events, a responsible government, accountable to the public, would not be willing to compromise the well-being of its citizens by trying to undercut their material welfare (this welfare, after all, should be the raison d’ĂȘtre of that state).  It would not try to lower standards of living through cutting healthcare, education, access to public open spaces, regulations on pollutants and other social services.  But California’s legislators, a majority of whom do have the well-being of the workforce as a primary concern, are prevented from taking the logical route because 33 years ago an ill-informed, impatient public tied their hands for the foreseeable future by dramatically cutting back one key revenue stream altogether and preventing an elected majority of representatives from tapping into any of the other sources of revenue that virtually any democratic government anywhere in the world would normally have access to.  (This is why today people are advocating the reform of Prop 13.)

These voters passed control of California’s government and of the state’s purse strings, to a minority of legislators who make their home on the political right.  And voters have been complaining about the results ever since, but in their petulance, have been chronically unwilling to understand that they are part of the problem, and that the terrible system that exists today in California is in part of their making.  In other words, the “pension crisis” is the result of political choice rather than economic necessity.

Similarly, the pension crisis need not be a crisis in Britain if the country were less growth-oriented and more public-oriented, and if it were not governed by economic fundamentalists who see themselves as accountable to the financial privateers in the City and the economic gangsters who comprise the energy lobby.  In other words, David Cameron and George Osborne take their marching orders from the 1%, and Ed Miliband appears to be nice and comfortable on the political fence. 

Lawson’s silly outrage over the “inconvenience” the strike might cause misses the point of industrial action.  It is designed to create inconvenience, and to show workers’ labour is valuable and necessary for society to function.  And a day of “inconvenience” is nothing compared with the damage that the Government would inflict by neutering the public sector, and subordinating the rights and welfare of all workers—not just public sector workers—to the economic thuggery of the top few percent. 

Lawson points to the “gulf” of £74 between public and private sector workers weekly pay (a figure that has been called into question for a number of reasons, not least the salaries of nationalised banks having been included in the public sector for the recently-cited period), as though this is the gap that we should be getting outraged about instead of that between company directors and their employees.  Lawson is like a man who has driven up to the edge of the Grand Canyon, but who is then fixated by the rut his tire made in the ground.

And again, we should be asking ourselves why the solution is to try to take down those who are making decent wages and have decent pension programs, instead of bettering the conditions of those who do not.  We should ask why middle-class public-sector workers should bear all the cost when income inequality in Britain (as in the U.S.) is being exacerbated by a solicitousness for top earners.  We can’t even call it a laissez-faire economic doctrine, because it is very much hands on.  It involves Cameron and Osborne and the Tories in Britain, and the Republican Party and right-wing Democrats in the U.S. making all of the state’s apparatus and legislative power work as hard as possible for the good of those at the top at the expense of the rest of us.

The answer to our social conundrum is not to destroy protective measures for workers, but to expand them.  Unionisation brings considerable benefits to the workforce, and declining unionisation rates have been cited as one of the key causes of stagnating wages and inequality in California (A Portrait of California).   Unionisation has brought benefits to society at large, and the fight of public sector workers tomorrow is one in which all of us have an interest, on both sides of the water.  Because just as the irresponsible financial and energy interests cross over national boundaries, so too do the struggles of the majority.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Meeting Half-Way; Mark Paul on UC's Crisis

Student activists at the University of California have long been conflicted about who to address when protesting the dismantling of our state’s flagship institution.  At Berkeley, where people began taking disinvestment by the state seriously during the summer of 2009, organisers were eager to target Berkeley’s Chancellor (Robert Birgeneau) and UC’s President (Mark Yudof).  Most people who were following the emerging crisis—years in the making—agreed that administrators’ salaries were outrageous and their advocacy efforts half-hearted.  But some of us were also arguing that even if we replaced the politically-appointed Regents, Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof and Robert “not non-violence” Birgeneau, public disinvestment would continue, because the people who control the purse strings are in Sacramento, not California Hall or UCOP offices in Oakland.

I remember turning up at one group’s meeting where people were eagerly discussing strikes and the merits of showering the Chancellor with underwear, blissfully oblivious to the fact that they would be carrying out these actions on a campus where the overwhelming majority of students had no idea that UC was in crisis, and amongst freshmen whose biggest fear was making it through Dwinelle Hall alive, and likely had no idea where UC’s funding was coming from.  Nor did organisers consider that these kinds of decontextualised actions in the hands of a lazy media would play right into the ugly and misleading story that the Republican Party likes to tell about students (that we're all lazy, entitled, wealthy, disconnected and self-absorbed).  Suggestions that we should look at Sacramento, or at least create some kind of context for students were pooh-poohed. 

I don’t know to what extent this was the result of a pathological unwillingness to face the scope of the challenge as opposed to a deliberate strategy of relying on direct action by a few in the face of the ignorance of the many.  But it was frustrating, as each fall, for three years, the same scene played out: protests and a temporary mobilisation of the campus, followed by a lapse in strategic thinking and 11 months of ensuing apathy on the part of most students and faculty.  Campus activists were inflexible in their unwillingness to consider taking the fight to Sacramento, and no one at the state level made any serious effort to reach out to or mobilise students (perhaps we’re seen as an overly volatile and unreliable constituency—but surely part of the reason why students don’t vote in large numbers is that few politicians at the state level are talking about issues we think are important), with the result that no grand coalition for the defence of the Public emerged.

But something changed when, not for the first time UCPD attacked student demonstrators with stunning ferocity, and the Chancellor responded with one of his surreal e-mails praising the police and condemning students and faculty who were beaten (he later explained that he'd been travelling in Asia where, apparently, there is no such thing as e-mail or youtube...).  And then UC Davis police brutally pepper-sprayed peaceful students who later, in a moving moment, delivered a powerful rebuke to their Chancellor.  And then, of course, the UC Regents, made up of affluent businesspeople and technocrats who have shown an alarming eagerness to commodify the education that the University of California is charged with providing to the citizens of our state, cancelled their meeting to avoid meeting protesters face-to-face.

Mark Paul, co-author of California Crackup with Joe Mathews (I know, some of you are sick of hearing me praise this book, but deal with it, or better still, read it), provides the best analysis I’ve seen of why they’re all right...that is, both those who condemn the detached administrative elite and those who argue for vigorously lobbying our legislators and working to change California’s system of governance.  Paul describes how students at UC, as he puts it, “understand something important.  The modern university does not stand apart.  It reproduces the real world, in which the spoils flow almost entirely to the top 1%”.

He has a robust answer for those who say ‘the state has already disinvested, why not go the whole way?’ (“Those state dollars define the ‘public’ character of the university...” and provide some desperately-needed oversight, keeping the ills associated with privatisation temporarily in check).  And his is the most searing (and spot-on) critique of administrators that I’ve seen from anyone: “the peripatetic class of college administrators, flitting about the country, without roots or allegiance to place, chasing the next mid-six-figure payday from the CEO-investor types who infest the governing boards of the nation’s colleges”.

There is nothing more frustrating than being away from Berkeley while all of this is playing out.  But from the e-mail and facebook and twitter chatter that I’ve seen, people on campus are beginning to take a more serious look at UC in the context of California’s structural political problems.  So it is doubly heartening to read a voice of reason like Paul, best-known for his calls for political reform, praise the campus’ advocates.  Maybe the two groups—state-wide reformers and campus critics—are finally realising that theirs is a shared goal: to rescue the idea of the public good in California, and that to do so we need to talk about reforming Prop 13, taking on minority rule and thinking about fair voting systems in addition to debating administrators' salaries, condemning police violence and demanding democracy on University of California campuses.

We are short on time, we need a strategy more sophisticated than Governor Brown’s ‘by the seat of his pants’, one-year-at-a-time ‘solutions’, and we need to continue the difficult task of trying to reach a wider public.  But there are hopeful signs that Californians are beginning to ‘get it’.  The more difficult task is to change poll numbers into democratic action, because given the restrictions Californians have placed on our legislators, action by concerned citizens and public institutions like UC is what it will take to save our state.

Christmas in November. Or, How I Nearly Went Mad.

Thanksgiving is my favourite holiday, hands-down. 

Not just because it involves shovelling copious amounts of meat and potatoes and other assorted delicacies into my mouth (although I’ll admit, this is pretty central to its genius).  Not just because in the Bay Area we eat two Thanksgivings, and always make sure that we cook enough to have a couple of days of leftovers.  Or even because it involves bringing all the family together.  No, I appreciate Thanksgiving because of the sterling work it does at keeping Christmas at bay. 

Not that I have anything at Christmas.  Again, it involves loads of good eating—tamales on Christmas Eve and sauerbraten on Christmas Day.  And it brings family from the four corners of, well, the Bay Area, plus some Texan outliers.  But Christmas is something you ideally start thinking about in mid-December, when the thought that you should be buying a couple of gifts idly flits across your mind.  You can hum along to carols you hear on the radio, enjoy the lights on Telegraph Avenue at night, and then, on the 22nd or 23rd, remember those gifts.  And then before you know it the magical moment of stuffing your face with polvorones and mashed potatoes and ginger bread is upon you.

This ideal situation seldom occurs in the U.S, where retailers conspire to shove the Hallmark version of the holidays down our throats, and where radio DJs barely have the grace to wait ‘til we’ve finished the fourth round of Thanksgiving leftovers before they assail us with jolly tunes that have us all violently twitching inside a week or two. 

But in Britain there is no Thanksgiving (meaning that I have a lot to make up for at the holiday dinner tables), and I found myself passing Somerset House in London a few weeks ago only to see that workers were already putting up the skating rink.  In NovemberEarly November for that matter.  But maybe ice-skating could just be excused as a wintery thing.  Then why the Christmas tree going up right behind the rink?  I was in Oxford for the first day or two of November, and lights were going up over the high street.  And they have now been up over King’s Parade for some time in Cambridge. 

I went down to the National Archives at Kew on Saturday.  It involves 5-6 hours of travel roundtrip from Cambridge, so it’s a journey I avoid making when I can, but the lure of the Kariba Dam (my latest historical obsession) was too great to resist.  Between the underground and the Archives, the neighbourhoods consist of these bucolic, semi-detached suburban homes.  And on heading home for the day, I saw a mother and her children unloading a Christmas Tree from their car.  It’s not even December yet!  Surely it will be dead before the 24th rolls around. 

But I chastised my inner Grinch and thought that I should at least enjoy the sentimental aspects of the holidays.  I had even talked myself round to stopping off at Somerset House to soak up some of the holiday atmosphere (spending an hour going in circles on an ice-rink on one's backside might not be my thing, but it can be entertaining to see other people do it), when the underground train reached Knightsbridge. 

On they piled, in their thousands, at least!  They were dressed to the nines, bedecked with holiday bells, and must have been suffocating under all the coats and hats.  They flailed, yelled, and whipped their Harrods bags around with abandon.  While an Anthropologist of the Armpit might have been right at home, I found myself gasping for breath, trapped between two highly-excited shoppers, buffeted by their purchases, assailed by their over-loud voices.

I staggered out of the tube at King’s Cross, fled to my train, and promptly fell asleep, exhausted by altogether too much holiday spirit.  The man in the seat next to me thoughtfully woke me up at Royston to be sure that this wasn’t my stop.  “Where are you getting off?” he asked.  “Downtown Berkeley”, I slurred as I struggled to regain a proper sense of my surroundings, and he gave me the kind of look I give the guy wearing the feather and skins and carrying the boom-box who sometimes sidles up to people on BART...

I think I’ll write to Andrew Lansley, one of the Cambridge MPs, and see whether he can’t do something useful instead of privatising the NHS, and declare Thanksgiving a British holiday. 

Friday, November 25, 2011

London 2012

The Independent describes how unmanned drones might be used to police London’s Olympic Games, noting that some police forces have already experimented with drones (rather unsuccessfully in the case of the Merseyside force, whose drone fell into the river).

The Games might also feature surface-to-air missiles and helicopter-borne RAF snipers.  Police will be empowered to crack down on protesters and even to enter people’s homes to confiscate posters!

I can just imagine...


 “Usain Bolt is coming down the home stretch, ahead of the competition by miles, looking to set a new world record...” 


“Oh my God!  What’s just happened?  Bolt appears to have been hit by an unidentified flying object that just dropped out of the sky!” 

“Was it a bird?  A Marabou Stork, perhaps?  A Royal Albatross?”  

“Must have at least been a Great Bustard, the way he dropped when it hit ‘im”.

“No, I think it was some kind of a plane...a Ryanair jet?” 

“Actually we’re getting word from the medics on the field that it appears to have been an unmanned drone...”


“Well, Jim, in concession to Britain’s having transformed itself into a police state for the occasion of the Olympics, the organisers have added a sport.  It’s called ‘Kettle if you Can’, and involves a group of competitors trying to leap over the heads of police in riot gear who close in on them waving batons”. 

“Sounds like it should be a gripping addition, Tom, I can’t wait to see it”.

“I understand they were also considering introducing a stamina-based event in which competitors could be water-boarded, pepper-sprayed, or billy-clubbed (their choice) until they gave in, but this was nixed on account of the Human Rights Act”.

“Real shame...no wonder those Europeans have gone so soft.  This will undoubtedly fuel right-wingers' calls to repeal the act".


“I hear they’ve released the Prince of Wales after he was arrested on suspicion of conspiring to protest when police got wind that he had made a speech on the “Greening of the Games” last week.  He’s going to be awarding medals this afternoon”. 

“That’s wonderful.  We’ll all need a little pick-me-up after seeing yesterday’s medal-winners shot at the podium as they received their medals”. 

“Ah, you’ll be referring to the unfortunate incident in which the RAF snipers hovering over the stadium mistakenly shot the medallists instead of the man in the audience who they believed to be Osama bin Laden”. 

“Yes, that’s right.  We should all be thankful for the poor marksmanship on the part of the snipers, as the medallists were only wounded.  A terrible mistake”. 

“Yes, such a tragedy.  Do they seem to have learnt any lessons from yesterday’s tragedy?” 

“Absolutely...all the athletes are now wearing bullet-proof vests.  It's expected to shave a second or two off some of the swimming times, but you just can't be too careful”.

“Well, thank goodness for that.  But what I can’t understand is why they thought it was bin Laden.  He’s been dead for over a year now”. 

“Well, the snipers had apparently made the mistake of watching a recent U.S. Republican Party debate in which President Obama was accused of faking the death of bin Laden and hiding him in the White House”.

“What?!  Obama and Osama are the same person?”

“No, Obama is accused of hiding Osama!”

“Oh, I see.  Sorry Jim, I couldn’t hear you over the sound of the helicopters”.


“I have to say, we’ve seen impressively few disruptions during the Games.  Where do you suppose all the demonstrators have got to?” 

“Well, half of the country has been hired by the Met, and they’re sleeping outside the doors of the other half.  I understand they’re also periodically entering people’s homes and taking down any Che Guevara posters they can find”. 


“Have you heard how Mayor Johnson is recovering?”

“I understand he is doing well, considering”.

“For those of you just joining us, London’s Mayor Boris Johnson took part in yesterday’s I’m-full-of-hot-air balloon race—the first London Mayor to compete in an Olympic event...another one of these new events, Jim—when he was shot down by a surface-to-air missile upon being mistaken for an al-Qaeda dirigible”.

“That’s right...I understand that the Government are blaming Ken Livingstone for phoning in a false-report and have placed him under house arrest...”

“Indeed, although the more cynical are suggesting that Cameron, said to fear that Johnson will challenge him for the party leadership, ordered the strike himself.  And indeed, Johnson has been critical of the Prime Minister in recent weeks, accusing him of going easy in his policing of the Games...”

“I don’t know if that’s entirely fair.  I’ll admit, I haven’t seen anyone crushed by a tank, but David Cameron has sent a strong and robust message to people right ‘round the world that he’s willing to go to great lengths to defend the entertainment of the few against the rights of the many, and that there is nothing the courageous British people aren’t happily willing to sacrifice so that people can enjoy a few weeks of fun and games on the television at the expense of their sacred liberties”.

“Well said, Jim!  I don’t think Cameron could have put it any better himself!”

“Of course he couldn’t have...his press office wrote that”.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Riotous Assembly?

In 1929, the government of the Nyasaland Protectorate passed an Ordinance to Establish a Code of Criminal Law.  Bear in mind that this was a government that would today be considered authoritarian and un-democratic.  Subjects in Nyasaland (today Malawi, a small and densely-populated country in Central Africa which runs the length of a lake of the same name—itself the southernmost of the Great Lakes which stretch down the Rift Valley) were already contesting colonial rule, and 1915 had seen a small revolt led by John Chilembwe aggressively put down by the colonial authorities (in 1918, Nyasaland’s Legislative Assembly passed a bill banning “inflammatory literature”).

One section of the Ordinance designed to enforce colonial law and order read as follows:

“When an unlawful assembly has begun to execute the purpose for which it assembled by a breach of the peace and to the terror of the public, the assembly is called a riot, and the persons assembled are said to be riotously assembled.  Any person who takes part in an unlawful assembly is guilty of a misdemeanour, and is liable to imprisonment without hard labour for one year.  Any person who takes part in a riot is guilty of a misdemeanour.

“Any magistrate or, in his absence, any police officer of or above the rank of assistant superintendent or any commissioned officer in the military forces of the Protectorate, in whose view twelve or more persons are riotously assembled, or who apprehends that a riot is about to be committed by twelve or more persons assembled within his view, may make or cause to be made a proclamation in the King’s name, in such form as he thinks fit, commanding the rioters or persons so assembled to disperse peaceably.  If upon the expiration of a reasonable time after such proclamation made, or after the making of such proclamation has been prevented by force, twelve or more persons continue riotously assembled together, any person authorised to make a proclamation, or any police officer or any other person acting in aid of such person or police officer, may do all things necessary for dispersing the persons so continuing assembled, or for apprehending them or any of them, and, if any person makes resistance may use all such force as is reasonably necessary for overcoming such resistance and shall not be liable in any criminal or civil proceeding for having, by the use of such force, caused harm or death to any person.

“If proclamation is made, commanding the persons engaged in a riot, or assembled with the purpose of committing a riot, to disperse, every person who, at or after the expiration of a reasonable time from the making of such proclamation, takes or continues to take part in the riot or assembly is guilty of a felony, and is liable to imprisonment for five years ... Any person who, being riotously assembled together, unlawfully pull down or destroy or begin to pull down or destroy any building, railway, machinery or structure are guilty of a felony, and each of them is liable to imprisonment for life.

“All persons are guilty of a misdemeanour who being riotously assembled, unlawfully and with force prevent, hinder or obstruct the loading or unloading, or the sailing or navigating of any vessel, or unlawfully and with force board any vessel with intent to do so”.

Based in part on a British law dating from the early eighteenth century, Nyasaland’s Ordinance is a good example of what it looks like when an unrepresentative and undemocratic government tries to quash dissent.  The language is sufficiently elastic that virtually any political gathering could become a Riotous Assembly, subject to an almost indiscriminate use of force.  It also rendered any industrial action (already banned) illegal.

Authoritarian governments, parties and people have a long history of using the threat of disorder—even when it only exists in their fevered imaginations—as a justification for using violence to suppress political dissent.  Republican Party candidates are currently accusing demonstrators in the United States of rioting, of attacking the police (really?!), and of consisting of people who the British would have called ‘undesirables’ (such people, incidentally, could be banned from Nyasaland if they were European and could not read or write; if they were thought likely to rely on state resources; if foreign governments deemed them undesirable; and if they were undesirable on “economic grounds” or “habits”, among other reasons). 

Knowing how such laws and language have been used in the past we should, today more than ever, be wary when people begin to be criticised along similar lines, and when politicians and governments advocate restrictive legislation or the further limitation of rights.


Ordinances, Nyasaland Protectorate.  1929.  British Library: CSC.21

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Where Was the Secret Service?!

Some of you might remember the political hay certain irresponsible members of the Republican Party made with the cost (which they basically made up) of President Obama’s recent trip to India.  And some of you might not.  But it’s safe to say that amongst the substantial entourage travelling with the President, the Secret Service has a considerable presence.  In fact, former presidents also receive Secret Service Protection, as do some Presidential candidates. 

In 1909, a former President arrived in the Lado Enclave, a region in the northwest of Uganda that was then leased to the Belgian King Leopold.  He was, of course Theodore Roosevelt, who became President when William McKinley was assassinated in 1901 (the event which transformed the Secret Service into the President’s bodyguard).  Roosevelt was in the midst of an enormous safari which took him across great swathes of East Africa and destroyed almost 12,000 animals, most of which were sent to museums in the United States.

Such was the excess and luxury of this safari that it helped to launch East Africa’s tourism industry, which remains a mainstay of the region’s economy. 

A group of men travelling and living in the Lado Enclave, excited at the prospect of meeting the former-President, arranged a reception for him at Koba, and when Roosevelt came ashore, one of their number, John Boyes, was waiting on the bank of the Nile to welcome him. 

But this was no band of English and Belgian gentlemen or official notables who awaited Roosevelt and his small party.  They were notorious outlaws, elephant poachers and gunslingers who worked the ivory trade in the Belgian Congo to the everlasting irritation of Belgian authorities, and with the connivance of British officials who took in revenue from the tax they levied on the ivory the hunters brought into their territories from the Congo (they taxed it again when it was exported!).  Many of these men had ranged far and wide across Eastern Africa pursuing what they called “white gold”, but around the time Roosevelt arrived in the region, many of them had converged on the Lado Enclave.  Their exploits there made those of the men who populated the Wild West of the United States look positively tame.

The Secret Service didn’t begin protecting former presidents until 1965, so Roosevelt had no be-suited men in sunglasses with ear-pieces to guard him as he stepped into the midst of these outlaws.  What if they had held him hostage?  What if, in the course of his journeys across Africa he had run into a horde of dangerous, dirty Occupiers—the kind Newt Gingrich presumably dreams about? 

But Roosevelt had nothing to fear, for these rough-and-ready men were proud to have someone who they thought of as one of their own in their midst. 

Boyes recounted how Roosevelt “raised his glass and gave the toast ‘To the Elephant Poachers of the Lado Enclave’.  As we drank with him one or two of us laughingly protested at his bluntness [a British District Commissioner and an army officer were present], so he gravely amended his toast to, ‘The Gentlemen Adventurers of Central Africa, for’, he added, ‘that is the title by which you would have been known in Queen Elizabeth’s time’”.

Needless to say, the Company of Adventurers were charmed.  The sentiment was reciprocated, for Roosevelt “made for the door [of the tent] on three separate occasions; but each time, after hesitatingly listening to the beginning of some new adventure by one of the boys, he again sat down to hear another page from our every-day life”.

Before he left, Boyes and his friends “urged him to chuck all his political work and come out like the great white man he was, and join us”.  They offered “to put a force under his command to organise the hunting and pioneering business of Central Africa and perhaps make history”.  Thus did Roosevelt turn down the offer to set up a personal Empire around the Great Lakes, although later in life he is supposed to have confided that “no honour ever paid to him had impressed and tempted him like that which he received from the poachers of the Lado Enclave”.

I wonder what his Secret Service detail would do if Bill Clinton started gallivanting around hiring mercenaries?


Source: John Boyes.  The Company of Adventurers.  London: East Africa Ltd, 1928, 92-3.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Keeping the Faith?

Writing about religion isn’t something I’m terribly comfortable with.  Writing about the Republican Party and religion makes my hair stand on end.  My philosophy has always been ‘live and let live’.  The philosophy of the Republican Party candidates for the office of President (with the exception of Mitt Romney, Jon Huntsman and, to a lesser degree, Ron Paul), seems to be ‘live and the rest of you go to hell’.

I’m getting to truly hate watching these debates, but I think of it as penance-in-advance, because if these people were all correct, at their Iowa Thanksgiving Family Forum, I’ll be burning up for a long time to come, or else reincarnated as a dung beetle. 

This particular forum saw them huddled around a table at a church with an audience of 3,000 people.  It might be hard for those of us who find these people disturbing to imagine, but these forums are having the effect of humanising the Republicans.  They’re joking, smiling, agreeing that liberal, godless, Islamist, communist, fascist, occupying Democrats are at the root of our problems.  And Michele Bachmann getting all the men their water capped off this scene of harmonic domesticity. 

But I could only watch for about 45 minutes.  Then I switched off the computers, turned on all the lights, double-locked the door, closed the window and hid under the covers.  Not because they are Christian.  But because of the self assuredness of these people, the ease with which they dismiss other people’s points of view and what they call “secular society” as “filth” which “pollutes our society”. 

Moderator and right-wing pollster Frank Luntz first asked the candidates to describe what “So help me God” meant to them. 

Herman “that sounds foreign to me” Cain said that it means that the President is ultimately responsible to God (i.e. rather than the public). 

Bachmann talked about the Holy Spirit knocking on her heart’s door and being prayed for by friends.  She suggested that “God created government”.  I think maybe the Holy Spirit knocked on her head, too, a little harder than it intended.

Rick Perry had this little gem: “Being the president of the united states of America has gotta be the hardest job in the world, and the idea that one of us around this table could do it with our own human intellect, our capability, is beyond, beyond any of us and we have to have that eternal wisdom that comes from God”.  There’s nothing wrong, obviously, with having faith of any kind.  But how does this work in practise?  What if the guy (or gal) upstairs takes a break?  Or gets tired of whispering the names of government departments over your shoulder?  Then who do you turn to?  Personally, I’m just fine with someone who thinks that their human intellect and capabilities enable them to govern.

Now Rick Santorum had a brief moment of sanity in last week’s foreign policy debate, somewhere in between launching a hypothetical invasion of Iran and supporting Israel to the hilt.  But in this debate he went a little overboard.  Our rights, he argued, come from God.  “He has laws that we must abide by.  Unlike Islam” [and here the audience burst into applause...apparently just suggesting the difference makes you worthy] “where higher laws and civil laws are the same, we have separate civil laws but those must comport with our higher laws”.  Well, not really.  We have a Constitution.  It was written by men, it’s been changed by men and women, and men and women in this country can change it any time they like if they do so along democratic principles. 

The Newt Who Would Be King who, in case you haven’t heard, is surging, said, “Every American understood that we are endowed by our creator by certain unalienable rights.  And then you have to explain what we mean by creator.  And I wouldn’t have anyone teaching who had trouble explaining what the Founding Fathers meant when they said that our rights come from our creator”.  Got it.  So teachers must be not only Christian, but must ascribe to literalist readings of religious and historical texts. 

Our country, The Newt (who suggested a loyalty oath at some point during his campaign) went on, is “a country which has been now, since 1963, relentlessly in the courts driving God out of public life [... We] shouldn’t be surprised at the problems we have because we have attempted to create a secular country which I think is frankly a nightmare”. 

There was more in this vein, of blaming our problems on a “secular” left.  Santorum accused the left of having “co-opted and taken over the academic institutions of this country [...] the culture, the popular culture”, and urged Republicans to fight this to stop “the filth com[ing] through the television”. 

Cain portrayed people of faith as a put-upon constituency, brutally intimidated by the “political correctness police”, who are presumably using something stronger than pepper spray.  Or maybe Cain was drinking pepper spray before the event, which would account for his barmy contributions. 

But he was in good company. 

The moderator cited research showing that “those who do not pray and do not attend church at all are the most unhappy, most angry”.  The Newt, PhD, stepped up to explain that obviously it is “conservatives who tend to be happier and liberals who tend to be more miserable”.  He went on to lay the blame at the feet of the “anti-God French Revolution”, and said of “liberals”, “They are determined to destroy our value system”.

Bachmann worked on a slightly older genealogy.  American conceptualism, she contended, was based on a Judeo-Christian ethic which, in turn was “really based on the Ten Commandments”.  So Moses (it was Moses, right?) was just laying the groundwork for an American Empire?  I’m going to have to have a chat with some of my college history teachers...clearly they weren’t giving me this fascinating, and undoubtedly well-documented back-story! 

Ron Paul, who seemed the most uneasy in this forum, chimed in.  People have to be willing “to face the consequences of their failure!”  He’s also the most prophet-like of these people, leaning forward, gesticulating wildly. 

Rick Perry was feeling left out, and so opined that foreign aid should be based on the abortion policy of the country in question.

Liberals and progressives were really taking a beating tonight, and Santorum piled on to accuse the left of being about freedom without responsibility.  Funny, why doesn’t he apply that standard to the financial interests he’s supporting?  Or the military industrial machine his insane foreign policy would fuel?  He reminded us that, in his view, “the laws of this country should comport with [God’s] moral vision”.  It’s a little too convenient when you’re the only one who gets to hear the voices.

The Newt had the last word before I decided that I’d had enough of this disgusting rubbish.  “All the Occupy movements”, he began, “starts with the premise that we owe them everything”.  He accused demonstrators of begging for money on the streets.  His advice for them, which garnered huge applause from the audience and praise from the moderator, was “Go get a job right after you take a bath”.

That is vintage right-wing bile.  Misrepresent the character, goals, words of the people who are protesting on the streets, accuse them of immorality, incite hatred of them amongst your target audience, and (this was the take-home message from all of the candidates except Paul) argue that only those who worship in a Judeo-Christian tradition have the real right to participate in civil life in this country.  Any laws that are not in accordance with that tradition are illegitimate, and the same goes for political aims.  I don’t know if it is coincidence or strategy that so many candidates are espousing these views, but they are aiming at a radical restructuring of the debate...one designed to leave a lot of us out of it altogether.

In 45 minutes, the Republicans had managed to blame the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, LBJ, Obama, secularism, Islam, the sexual revolution, Occupiers, hippies, and liberals for the decline of our country.  And all without a mention of banks, the financial sector, wars, poverty, or equality.  And the debate still had at least an hour to run.  Just think what they could pull off in four years...