Saturday, March 31, 2012

Environmentalism in California

Jerry Brown’s been making national news in the last week.  Michael Hiltzik gives a rather hilarious account of Wall Street Journal managing editor getting the ‘treatment’.  Now the good editor knows what we in California have to put up with all the time.  But Murdoch’s rag doesn’t quite know how to spin the Governor, who has proven time and again over 40 years that he can always out-manoeuvre his long as it doesn’t involve him accomplishing anything of significance.

In the course of his conversation with Thompson, Brown undercut what some would say is his best claim to an agenda.  His solar tax incentives, focus on wind-generated energy, and regulation floor could give him some claim to an environmental agenda.  But he modestly suggested that he had hardly been going out on a limb, saying, “We didn’t even think of the cost of that tax credit.  Many years later I found out it cost hundreds of millions of dollars.  In those days tax credits were just free virtue, at least in our minds.  Nobody put up any resistance and there were no votes”. 

And the ‘70s were certainly an era when those espousing the use of alternative energy and environmental protection had the wind at their backs.  In January of 1969, somewhere around 100,000 barrels of crude oil were sent into the waters off of Santa Barbara when a Union Oil platform suffered a blow-out.  The company had received a waiver from the U.S. government to fudge safety measures, and reassured the Coast Guard that the spill was a minor one until a rig worker blew the whistle.  The company immediately lied about the extent of the spill, but the oil-covered beaches, dotted with dead and dying seabirds, belied its rhetoric.

Two weeks later a second spill occurred, and again a whistle-blower made the announcement.  The President flew in and announced a permanent ban on drilling that was almost immediately rescinded.  The spills and the incredible reaction from the oil company (its president declared blithely, “I don’t like to call it a disaster because there has been no loss of human life.  I am amazed at the publicity for the loss of a few birds”) generated local and national fury, and showed the perils of relying on oil and of tolerating an unregulated industry climate.

The upshot was that California found itself at the heart of an environmental movement which had already been given impetus by the publication of Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, and which built off of wilderness and preservationist campaigns of an earlier era, such as John Muir’s crusade to save Hetch Hetchy from San Francisco’s insatiable growth.  The state, with its immense coast, spectacular forests, and great southern deserts, manifestly had much to lose from the excesses of polluters and irresponsibility of industries focussed on their bottom-lines to the exclusion of all else.

Since the ‘60s, environmentalism has become a natural part of Californians’ dialogue.    Muir’s preservationist campaign of the early twentieth century, which pitted him against conservationists like Gifford Pinchot and Theodore Roosevelt, was about aesthetics, and the spirituality of wilderness.  The environmentalism that took shape later in the century was impelled by these sentiments, but also by an ecological sensibility that saw people as intertwined with their surroundings, a more sophisticated land ethic espoused by the likes of the great Aldo Leopold, and an injunction towards self-preservation in the face of environmental disasters like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill.  It became a matter of common sense that industries which, should they engage in irresponsible behaviour, putting profits ahead of communal safety and health, should be regulated.  Equally uncontroversial was the desirability of protecting spaces of great natural beauty which were as often as not also ecologically-rich zones.  Finally, it has long been a matter of faith that getting ourselves off a disaster-prone form of energy like oil is a logical course of action.

As a result, Californians have not found themselves subject to the zany fundamentalism—whether economic or religious—which imprisons people in other parts of the country (although our state Republican Party’s radical right turn combined with the power vested in them by minority rule means that a small minority is now vociferously opposed to conservation).  Politicians are comfortable discussing environmentalism.  In fact, in 2010 high-spending gubernatorial candidate Meg Whitman was a little too fulsome of her embrace of Texas’ deregulated environment for the taste of many voters, and had the misfortune to go up against a veteran Californian politician, fluent in progressive-speak if not –action, in a year when Texas oil companies were sponsoring a blatantly self-interested deregulatory bill.  In an illustration that playing the Idiot Card doesn’t yet pay in California, Barbara Boxer pummelled Carly Fiorina over suggestions that profiteering should come at the expense of the cultural, social and health-related benefits associated with a conservation ethic. 

It’s not all been smooth sailing.  Impassioned environmentalists, reprehensibly insensitive to the effects of their efforts on local economies, dialogue-averse, and unwilling to think in the human ecological terms that should come naturally to them, took drastic action in the northern forests of the state when they spiked trees as part of their efforts to save spotted owl populations, unnecessarily dividing themselves from other people who have an equal claim to know and understand their natural surroundings.  But moments of tension have defined environmentalism in California less than those of consensus, as when Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Democratic Attorney General Jerry Brown joined to sue the Bush administration in their effort to implement stricter emissions standards.

But Brown is an opportunist more than a man of conviction, and today, perhaps in aid of his grand bargain to bring business on board with his tax plans, talks proudly of cutting through red tape and has noted that he is looking at the merits of fracking as a method of oil extraction.  Brown may very well be right to quote an ‘expert’ who described fracking as “not as bad as environmentalists say, it’s not as safe as the oil companies say”.  This is an answer sure to appeal to Brown, for it allows him to perch a little while longer on his beloved fence while lesser mortals squabble below. 

But that’s not the point, as we should know by now.  The question is not whether an extractive process is as bad as it could be.  It’s whether, when we’ve universally recognised the need to move beyond oil dependence (with all the perils that such a dependence poses for our security, our environmental and physical health), we should continue to incentivise practises which are ultimately not in our interest, simply so that we can have cheaper gas for a couple of years and let oil companies make stupendous profits.

We have yet to learn that when it comes to the environment, as with politics more broadly, a market-oriented, deregulated approach sets us up for disaster.  In such a climate, which eschews planning in the name of the public good, we will not correct course until we experience something like the Santa Barbara Oil Spill, the Three Mile Island disaster, Love Canal, the recent oil spill in the gulf, or worse.  And while industries might be willing to pay the pittances we ask of them after such disasters, assured of ever-greater short-term profits, the public should not be willing to countenance such an unconscionable approach to the environment on which we depend.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Walking to Work in Kampala

For me, the decision to walk doesn’t, as it might for Ugandans, have anything to do with protesting President Museveni’s long rule, the arbitrary detention of opposition leaders and ordinary Ugandans, rising fuel and food prices (i.e. walking to work is all you can afford), and a general sense that the country is going in the wrong direction.  It’s simply a matter of getting some of what passes for fresh air in Kampala and a bit of exercise, while avoiding the insane traffic comprised of boda bodas (motorcycles), taxis (matatus, or extended vans, which seem to be subject to none of the rules that now regulate the number of passengers and speed in Kenya), buses, lorries, and private vehicles.  Of course you can’t avoid the boda bodas entirely, as they’re more than willing to use the sidewalks in their haste to cross the city.

When I awake in the morning, it’s usually to the call to prayer from the elephantine mosque situated at the top of the hill built by Idi Amin Dada as a testament to the conversion that won him the backing of Qaddafi when he made the fatal mistake of going to war with Tanzania (Qaddafi got the street I walk along to Makerere named after him—doesn’t appear to have done him much good).  I usually leave where I’m staying around eight o’clock, which is a bit late.  But I’ve learned that it doesn’t pay to show up at libraries or archives at their advertised opening times here.  People have a habit of telling foreigners what they think they’d like to hear rather than whatever is actually the case.  So when I dropped by the National Library, I asked the attendant when they open.  ‘Eight o’clock’, he replied.  ‘So if I turn up here at eight’, I queried, already sceptical, ‘you’ll be open?’  ‘Of course!’ he replied, looking injured at my doubt.  So I dutifully showed up at eight and spent the next hour sitting on the pavement outside.  I’d like to be able to report that people dropped coins in front of me, but it was a comparatively cool day and I mustn’t have been looking my usual dishevelled self.

The neighbourhood where I’m staying is a diverse one.  Just down the street is the Somali community centre.  Around the corner is the Kampala Sikh centre.  Ugandan South Asians, unlike their Kenyan counterparts, are a more visible presence in the city centre.  In Nairobi most live in the suburbs.  The route, whether I’m going to Makerere, the Library, UWA or anywhere else, inevitably involves some hills—they’re more or less unavoidable in Kampala.  Fresh air on the other hand, is somewhat in short supply.  There are mornings when I can’t see a hill that’s less than a quarter-mile off, so thick is the city’s smog. 

The city has a bunch of bright-orange, shiny-looking buses.  They may look in better shape than most of AC Transit or RABA’s fleet, but they’re packed to the gills, with people sitting (and sitting on top of each other), standing (and standing on top of each other too, I suspect), hanging on for dear life, and chasing furiously after the buses.  But they’re the very embodiment of calmness and order compared to the taxis that swerve around Kampala’s streets.  And the boda bodas have laws of their own.

Occasionally there will be a break in the vehicular traffic, and an entire oncoming lane will be filled by boda bodas, a couple hundred of them swarming forward at once, several across in the lane, and seventy meters deep, like some kind of motorized peloton.  I suspect the Hell’s Angels could do some serious recruiting in Kampala.  Their drivers, bent over the handlebars, squinting to negotiate hostile roads in pollution so thick that Kampala City Council could probably box it and sell it to cities that don’t have enough of their own, are wearing great-coats, windbreakers, t-shirts, ponchos, fleeces, and just about anything else you could imagine besides leather jackets.  Needless to say, helmets are scarce, but I saw one driver who, between his headgear and eye-wear, looked like he should’ve been flying Spitfires for the RAF.  The passengers are an equally motley assortment. 

There are people in suits.  There are people in t-shirts and sandals.  There are men with spotless white robes billowing out behind them, looking like scooter-riding super-heroes zipping in and out of clouds of black smog.  There are women in bright, floral dresses, perched daintily sideways on the back of motorcycles, high-heels scrambling to find purchase.  Wind-blown and occasionally rain-beaten, there are fezes threatening lift-off and turbans and head-scarves on the verge of un-ravelling.

I decided to take a different route back home from the Uganda Wildlife Authority yesterday.  When writing a postcard to an aged great-aunt unacquainted with e-mail the day before, I’d squinted at the picture on the front, thinking, ‘There’s nowhere in Kampala that looks like that!’  It was serene, lush, rather ritzy-looking.  But when I got hopelessly lost heading across Nakasero Hill, I realised that there was somewhere that looked like this.

The neighbourhoods were green, full of gated-off embassies, NGO headquarters, and fancy-looking restaurants.  Boda bodas were probably outnumbered by the rhino-horned SUVs with UN, USAID, Norwegian Foreign Ministry, DFID, and assorted other emblems on them.  Traffic was sparse, as were pedestrians.  There was a golf course, and massive, looming hotels, each with their sprawling garden.

After stumbling through some kind of police blockade, I made my way down to Jinja Road, the main thoroughfare in town which turns into Kampala Road and then Bombo Road.  And thence back ‘home’ for the evening, through much less bucolic streets, past the impossibly crowded taxi parks, and up the hill.  I had a dream that night about breathing the fresh air in Lassen Volcanic National Park... 

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Tinkering with Term Limits, Doing In Democracy

Californians’ June ballots will feature, in addition to a very un-democratic Democratic primary and several men who have strayed out of either the funny farm or the nineteenth century on the Republican side of things, a measure aimed at tinkering with the state’s term limit laws.  At this point, legislators are permitted three two-year terms in the Assembly, plus two four-year terms in the Senate.  Proposition 28 would reduce the total time individuals can serve by two years, but allow them to spend all of their 12 years in either the Senate or Assembly.

Term limit laws are just over two decades old in California, and were passed in a populist pique aimed at making elections more competitive (incumbents tended to dominate legislative races), curb the influence of long-time political caudillos (Willie Brown in particular), and make things generally more Democratic.  Judging by the state we’re in, they haven’t been a great success.  Two years ago voters mandated nonpartisan redistricting in an effort to make elections more competitive.  Departing legislators don’t all get out of state politics...they often bounce around between other of the state’s elected offices.  And California continues to face a democratic deficit that should scare us far more than our financial one, because it has made the state ever more un-governable. 

If you insist on ignoring the big picture, as many commentators on California’s politics do, there are some merits to Prop 28.  Critics of term limits have insisted that they prevent legislators from coming to grips with the state’s problems, and that legislators, instead of learning the ropes and doing their job, focus too much on their next political berth.  Prop 28 would double the time a legislator could spend in the assembly, and increase by 50% that which Senators could serve.  Why cut the overall number of years, I don’t understand. 

But if you accept the premise of term limits, then you’ll be unhappy with Prop 28, because it arbitrarily extends the period during which legislators serve in a House of government—the precise thing that term limits were meant to curtail.  And if you are unhappy about term limits, Prop 28 doesn’t do away with them.  It is a reform unencumbered by any useful principle, or any accurate reading of our state’s challenges.

I think that my biggest problem with term limits is that they bespeak a lack of faith in our democracy.  Term limits are checks that people necessarily discuss in societies where there is a tendency towards open authoritarianism in government (and when I say authoritarianism, I’m not talking, as Republicans might think, about healthcare reform—I’m talking about places where kleptocratic presidents simply ignore votes, force people to queue vote, abuse people when the vote the ‘wrong’ way, and throw their opponents in prison).  Our own national government, with its obsession over secrecy in national security under successive administrations, and its waging of wars which make us less and less safe, often teeters over the brink of respectability.

But term limits do nothing to correct these kinds of abuses.  Likewise, they do nothing to close California’s democratic deficit.  Political abuse can continue freely, our legislators are less effective and pay less attention to underlying political problems, we continue to find ourselves in a state of political gridlock, and our politics continue to be soiled by contact with too much money.  Term limits have done nothing to address any of these problems, and have quite likely exacerbated some of them. 

All they are is a knee-jerk reaction, which substitutes a brainless ‘throw-the-bums out’ populism for a critical examination of what the real problem is.  Because as anyone who has the feeblest grasp on California’s political system must acknowledge, voters bear a large share of the blame for our impasse.  One minute we’ll idealistically pass some costly measure, and the next we’ll selfishly cross our arms and refuse to pay up, and legislators, hemmed in by the combination of ill-considered measures passed by an ignorant public on the one hand, and minority rule on the other, throw up their hands.  In fact, term limits are undemocratic, because they deny voters the right to re-elect someone they think is doing a good job.

If people wanted to make our politics more democratic, and our elections more competitive, they should embrace campaign finance reform, which would unshackle parties and candidates from the constraints imposed on them by wealthy interests.  They could tackle Prop 13, which does protect average homeowners, but which also creates a loophole for very affluent property owners and businesses.  Prop 13 also props up minority rule, which isn’t exactly democratic.  We could create a system of representation which would allow for a wider range of ideas in our legislature, and which would keep two parties from dominating.  Such a system of representation could also ensure better representation.  Multi-member districts, for example (for many more examples, and detailed explanations, read Joe Mathews and Mark Paul’s California Crackup), would ensure that right-leaning voters in Alameda County and left-leaning ones in Shasta County were represented. 

To me, Prop 28 smells like the kind of initiative that’s meant to convince people it’s doing something important, whereas in reality, it’s just another band-aid, the application of which will only very briefly forestall the need to come to grips with the real problems facing California: Prop 13, which created an absurdly undifferentiated property tax system while enshrining minority rule; our embrace of a two-party system which squeezes out ideas, debate, and honest politics; the bizarre assemblage of conventions (including Prop 13) which preserve tax details in the constitution, and require a supermajority to raise revenue while enabling a small majority to unilaterally shred our social system—which includes our schools, colleges, universities, welfare provision, environmental protection, resource management, all of which, directly or indirectly, benefit people from all economic and social backgrounds.

The real danger of Prop 13 is that, like so many other band-aids Californians have applied over the years, it promises to fix a broken system of governance by tinkering around the edges.  It is precisely this kind of often ill-informed and always-piecemeal tinkering which, the authors of California Crackup convincingly suggest, has brought us to this impasse.  We should stop deluding ourselves that small reforms will solve California’s problems.  When you add together decades of blind manoeuvring, it’s easy to see how such reforms could easily make things worse. 

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

So long, Chancellor Birgeneau!

UC Berkeley’s Chancellor, Robert “there’s no e-mail in Asia” Birgeneau, recently announced that he is stepping down as Chancellor after presiding over the meteoric rise of student fees, the sacking of lecturers and staff, the evisceration of many academic departments, the abject failure to make the case to the state for the importance of public higher education, and attacks—not once, but on multiple occasions—by armed police on peaceful students.

I can’t say that I’ll miss the surreal e-mails from Birgeneau, or the accounts of his handling of worthy student protests. There was the e-mail that described the occupation of Wheeler Hall by a group of students as a “health and safety issue”, as though those students protesting the doubling of student fees in less than ten years were so many termites. Then there was the occasion when Birgeneau and his lackeys sent the Director of Counselling and Psychological services to chat with Wheeler occupiers, as though their unhappiness over the fact that their university, their home, being driven into the ground, was a psychological problem! Of course Birgeneau might be best-remembered on campus for criticising students who were caught on video being savagely beaten by heavily-armed UCPD officers. These students, Birgeneau opined, were “not non-violent”. The students in question had linked arms in the manner of Martin Luther King, Jr’s universally-acclaimed nonviolent civil rights movement.

It was then that Birgeneau used the fact that he was in Asia, further scuppering UC’s state mission, as an excuse for not being “up” on events at his campus, something that hadn’t stopped him from haranguing students and praising the same police department which, two years earlier, had used truncheons and rubber bullets on similarly-peaceful students in the driving rain outside Wheeler Hall to the keening of fire alarms around campus and the death of the trust that should characterise relations between students, faculty, staff and administrators.

No, Birgeneau, his “aw shucks, I’m just Chancellor” act, his disdain for his students, and his gross incompetence when it came to mobilising the campus to fight for its survival...none of these things will be missed. Birgeneau’s greatest failing—and there are many to choose from—is that, through prioritising a brutal retrenchment on campus, failing to mobilise the campus community, bringing in high-flying, over-paid administrators as departments sagged and students assumed ever-greater burdens, and then dismissing students protests as misplaced, he created what has proved so far to be an irreparable tear in the campus community.

Because when students look for a target for their frustration, they do not see a political structure in Sacramento undemocratically weighted against any public social enterprise. The do not see the generations which, having come before them, took advantage of subsidised higher education, and too many members of which are now declining to pay their fair share in a way that is truly reprehensible. They do not see an increasingly selfish public which desperately needs to be reminded that accessible higher education is about more than degrees and jobs—that it’s about thinking critically, approaching the world afresh, and building thoughtful citizens, all of the things that our state urgently needs today.

What they see is a doddery man in a suit who thinks it is okay when police thrash students. Who covers his ears when they talk about inequality. Who thinks it is more important to pay someone six figures to fire their lecturers than it is to save their courses or even their major. And who thinks that there’s some point in going cap-in-hand to Sacramento, when the state’s finances have been commandeered by economic fundamentalists on a mission to dismantle California’s public sphere (and when sympathetic legislators, who comprise over 60% of the two houses, are in no position to help thanks to minority rule).

Birgeneau’s legacy is that Berkeley—the place where one would most expect the community of the University of California to cohere, to communicate, and to take well-thought out action—seems totally unable to get a grip on the nature or scale of the assault the university and its ideals are facing. Some members of that community want to rail against “fat cat” administrators. Some want to democratise the Regents (as useless and sorry a collection of political appointees as you’ll find anywhere). Some want to lobby Sacramento. Some want to host an academic conference. Some want to rage against the system—without bothering to identify what exactly the ‘system’ is. And most appear to favour burying their heads in the sand and hoping that someone else will do something, or that, miraculously, Californians will suddenly decide to begin funding UC again.

It was recently reported that it might very well be more affordable to attend an Ivy League university than a California State University or University of California campus. This is tragic, and shows how unwise disinvestment by the state from its public institutions is. The fact that affluent families and alumni of prestigious private universities are willing to hand over massive amounts of cash to places like Harvard demonstrates that they recognise the value of a good education and are willing to invest in it. It is the most curious of short-sightedness on the part of Californians that they are not willing to direct some of their wealth to the places that are the engines behind technological development, scientific advancement, social equality, and which train many of the people who perform essential services in our society (and by essential services I don’t mean moving money around or generating real estate bubbles).

The lesson that some take from the apparent ‘affordability’ of Ivy Leagues is that privatisation is the answer, that high fees and financial aid are the way of the future. But the Harvard model is not sustainable for the institutions like UC and CSU which educate our citizenry en-masse, and which are the real engines behind our state’s economic and social well-being. Not in the face of increasing inequality, unemployment and the complicated needs of an enormous and diverse state. Not if you think that higher education should be open to any qualified student for the simple reason that it opens minds and fosters the critical public that is at the heart of any democratic society. You can educate a select group of well-heeled students and a handful of economically, racially and socially marginal students thrown in for the sake of diversity in this way. You cannot fulfil the public mission of public higher education in a state like California using that model.

But Robert Birgeneau, in common with UC President Mark “it’s like being manager of a cemetery” Yudof, failed to contribute even to the hackneyed conversation that Californians have been having about the future of their state. There’s the slimmest of chances that new leadership at Berkeley could place the campus and the university system as a whole in a position to start the state-wide debate that no one else seems to have the courage to initiate. But it would require more than a new face at the top. The entire campus community would have to overcome the still-dominant apathy and become more aware than ever of their place in a socially conscious and communitarian California—if, indeed, that is what we desire of our state.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jeremy Paxman vs History

Last fall I went to a talk by Newsnight Presenter Jeremy Paxman on the subject of his new book, Empire: What Ruling the World did to the British. The talk was only mildly interesting, but Paxman delivered an interesting aside during the Q&A session when he remarked on something he found frustrating when reading ‘academic history’. I don’t recall the context for his answer, but the venerable journalist (best known for asking Michael Howard the same question 14 times running, and for his knack of making every interview about Jeremy Paxman) began grousing about how academic historians are all so darn specialised! Instead of thinking about the big picture, according to Paxman, they spend all their time obsessed with matters of minute detail, caught up in trivialities, all the while missing out on the grand sweep of history as it unfolds marvellously before their unfocussed eyes.

I thought about Paxman’s gripe having spent the last few days scrambling around Kampala between Makerere University Library, the National Library of Uganda, the Uganda Wildlife Authority, Parliament, and the Uganda Management Institute. My quest: to explain the politics of wildlife in east and central Africa during the colonial and post-independence years. My sin (according to Jeremy Paxman): specialisation. My penance: to hurl myself beneath the wheels of the nearest boda boda, the driver of which would be all-too-happy to speed me on my way to whatever horrific afterlife Jeremy Paxman envisions for specialists (probably, it involves being perpetually interviewed on the Newsnight set by Paxman as he asks—over and over and over again—‘What’s the big picture, what’s the big picture?’). Well, perhaps he’d actually prefer that all we sinners write Big Books (or Big Dissertations in my case) about Big Events and Big History.

But as I hauled myself back from the brink, Kampala’s traffic swirling around me, breathing in the copious amounts of exhaust spouting in thick great gouts from, I wondered whether Paxo had actually thought through his criticism of historians. Sure, there are those historians (most of them) who write highly specialised narratives about what are, in the cosmic scheme of things, seemingly ‘minute’ events. And there are those who write Big History: histories of whole Empires, nations, movements, etc. But let’s step back and unpack the journalist’s complaint. It’s worth doing, because it’s a gripe you often hear in public about supposedly self-indulgent academics who study ‘irrelevant’ things (right-wing critics would undoubtedly put research on climate change and stem cells and palaeoanthroplogy in this category along with social and environmental and gender history). I suspect it at least partially accounts for the ‘Well, that’s interesting’ remark that I often get from people in the tone of voice that suggests they’ll momentarily drop dead of boredom if I don’t shut up directly about my research topic.

Firstly, historians who write Big History are often past the half-way mark of their career. This is for multiple reasons: their jobs are more secure, so they can tackle more substantial projects; they’ve spent more years amassing knowledge, and so are better able to tackle such a project; having researched diverse topics, they’re interested in piecing them into something larger; they’re professional development is more advanced and so they’re more likely to be asked by a publisher to write such history. Admittedly, you do occasionally get youthful historians writing Big History. Niall Ferguson, who tackles topics like Empire, Finance, and War, comes to mind. But Ferguson writes purely ideological history which, as in his book on the British Empire, appears to be less the product of sustained, serious research than of cherrypicking a select series of events to support his ideological slant and make his point. You could ask Ferguson any number of critical questions about the British Empire that he simply could not address by recourse to what actually happened, because there is no room in his history for a critical appraisal of whole swathes of colonial history, hence his status as an historical stunt-man, who through sleight of hand makes the impossible look plausible. Now most histories are informed by their writers’ outlooks, but in most cases, serious historical training and practise prevents writers from degenerating into quite so crude a caricature of their subject.

And wouldn’t it be dull if all historians spent their times writing books with subtitles like, ‘Britain, 1688-1997’; ‘The British Empire, 1603-1979’; Modern Africa; and so on. People would want some detail. Then Paxman and his chorus would be complaining about all historians wrote about the same thing, and how what they need is a healthy dose of specialisation.

The third problem with Paxman’s criticism has to do with how Big History tends to be written. The approach of what I’ll uncharitably call ‘celebrity historians’ to their topic is often to write a kind of anecdotal history. That is, they’ll choose a somewhat random-seeming series of events or individuals, and extrapolate from these to weave some grand and usually colourfully-written narrative which is engaging but usually troublingly-incomplete. Ronald Takaki, not trained as an historian (although he was an academic, so Paxman wouldn’t be letting him off the hook), wrote a beautiful history of the United States entitled Iron Cages. It’s a very convincing read, and I happen to like it, but it’s not what I’d turn to if I wanted an account of the ‘whole’ history of the United States since 1776.

On the other hand, when a ‘serious’ historian sits down to write the Penguin History of This, the Oxford History of That, or the Definitive History of Such and Such, they’ve not, as a rule, done archival research on the whole period, geography, or theme that they are tackling. Human lifespan mitigates rather severely against any such undertaking. Imagine the scale of that undertaking: reading the primary sources about every single historical event you mention! If you consult the footnotes of such books, they tend to cite a lot of secondary literature. That is, they cite what loads of other historians have written about a bunch of small, seemingly-insignificant topics. To be more explicit still, Paxman’s Angels, the generalists, the writers of Big History, guessed it, on the dreaded specialists!

I think the relationship between what Paxman sees as fundamentally different ‘kinds’ of history, but which are actually just different parts of the same process, became clear to me in a Medieval History class I took some years back. The Professor was an immensely learned man, a pillar of his profession, almost amusingly-passionate about his subject, and incredibly kind (our seminar convened to tea and biscuits each week). He’d recently co-authored one volume of the Penguin series on British history, which he referred us to as a general reference. Now this professor obviously knew aspects of this period of history like the back of his hand, having spent decades in the archives. But clearly he could not know it all himself, and his references and acknowledgements were a testament to the ultimately collaborative effort that is Paxman’s Big History.

But there’s a final point. ‘Specialist history’, as it’s contemptuously referred to by some, can offer more illustrative home truths than can the supposedly more bird’s-eye Big History. Some of the most thought-provoking reads might be on seemingly obscure topics that, in their careful assembly of evidence, make a case better than a more sprawling history could. Accounts of how medical investigators confounded malaria, of ancient Korean military families, of how families and households gained their hold on a South African frontier, of ‘industrial cowboys’ in California, might be as compelling as the story of the rise and fall of a whole empire over hundreds of years. And the writing of such histories depends in turn on the work of those who have written at a wider scale. For example, when I want to explore how the politics of wildlife in east Africa fits into larger questions about race, environmentalism, internationalism, and anti-colonialism, of course the first thing I do is to read what other historians have written about these processes as they operate at a level analysis several times removed from the level at which I’ll ultimately incorporate them into my own research. So I’ll read books about interwar internationalism, the Mombasa dock strikes, the Mau Mau War, the Kenyan colour bar, environmentalism in the United States, and so on.

In his somewhat casual remarks about the writing of history, Paxman articulated what is, I suspect, a common misunderstanding of how history writing works, one which imagines the historians’ world as a place split between Big Historians who bestride the ages like colossi, and rodent-like specialists, who scurry around their feet after the crumbs. But the study of history is a process which relies on the work of historians who study the past at all levels of analysis. The big picture is reliant on the labours of those who write ‘smaller’ narratives, and those smaller narratives are themselves inspired in one way or another by larger narratives (whether written or otherwise). In fact, the same people, at different times, write histories that function at different analytical levels.

I expect that Paxman’s book on the British Empire (the subject of the talk that sparked his diatribe) couldn’t have been written if the journalist, who hardly had time to comb through archives across the British Empire covering hundreds of years, hadn’t read the works of historians who were tackling ostensibly less grand topics.

So, having thought this through, I made my way with a lighter step, convinced of my relevance, towards Parliament, to see what the venerable predecessors of today’s Ugandan politicians had to say about wildlife back in the 1950s...Jeremy Paxman would undoubtedly disapprove.