Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Depressing Debate On UC's Logo

You may or may not have found yourself gripped by the uncharacteristic passion which swept University of California campuses and their virtual communities in the past week.  The source?  An unelected and unaccountable Board of Regents?  A new Berkeley Chancellor who, much like the old Berkeley Chancellor, has resigned himself to seeing the university’s public character eroded?  The certainty of fee hikes in the coming years?  The refusal of politicians in Sacramento or administrators at UCOP to contemplate steps which would reverse the unconscionable slide towards unaffordability and inaccessibility? 
No, nothing like that.  Students and alumni were, instead, turning their ire on the new logo for the entire university system that was recently unveiled.  Facebook exploded, my union took up the cause (to be fair they also talk about fees and contracts), and someone posted a petition at which has since garnered over 50,000 signatures.  To put that in perspective, I remember signing petitions about fees, disinvestment, and police violence which were lucky to get 5,000 signatures. 

Now don’t get me wrong.  The new logo is most charitably characterised as a monstrosity.  I’ve heard it described variously as something anyone with a modicum of design skills could whip up in 10 minutes (without the benefit of a focus group and a budget), as what passed for fine art or graphic design in pre-school, as a toilet bowl, and as the ‘C’ doing something unmentionable to the ‘U’. 

The administration, exhibiting its uncanny knack for being desperately out of touch with its students, explained that the logo change was about making the university look more modern, up with the times as it were.  In reality of course, it just looks goofy.  Researchers at the University of California are world class, but the only thing UCOP does of that calibre is excuse-mongering, and their PR machine launched into overdrive as they explained their swift climb-down. 

Some took heart from the unified front that UC students and alumni presented to the administration, but I actually found the whole episode a little sad and disconcerting.

It’s troubling, after all, that people are willing to put their name to a petition rejecting a logo, but can find neither the time nor the courage to object to terrible fee hikes and the introduction of the sorry logic of the “free market” into our university.  People complained that the logo didn’t reflect the values and character of the University of California, but they haven’t been willing to stand up for that wonderful institution which is our home and was once the pride of our state. 

Many students and alumni, to judge by their actions, find the mutilation of the system’s logo more offensive than they do the demand that they pay twice the fees that they did less than a decade ago.  They find the design flaws in a symbolic representation of the University of California more objectionable than they do the disfiguring of the University’s mission and public character. 

Because the real tragedy has been that successive generations of Californians have been willing to put their short-term personal prosperity ahead of long-term communal well-being.  It is that we have created a system of government that allows one generation to wage war on another, to create a set of conditions skewed to benefit those who are wealthy and secure at the expense of those who struggle and face daily uncertainty.  It is tragic that our Governor has been allowed to present decades of disinvestment and austerity regimes as a “victory” for higher education.  It is reprehensible that our community lets him and our representatives get away with pushing this myth as inexorably as the UC Regents and the state’s business community are pushing their grubby little market ideology, which they pass off as a philosophy compatible with UC’s commitment to the promotion of social and economic equality and justice. 

Even Berkeley’s campus seems increasingly quiescent in the face of what we are told is the overwhelming logic of market diktats.  Students are too caught up in the rush of the semester and the hurry to get a marketable degree to pause and think about how their educational experience is being reconstructed, and how access to that experience will be circumscribed for future generations of Californians.

We can hardly expect the state to invest in our institution if we aren’t even willing to come to its defence.  Unless the UC community regains some sense of proportion and prepares to invest some time and energy in trying to roll back the regressive measures of the past years, we’ll be left with a very nice logo in a shell of a gutted institution, wondering how we allowed a public right to be turned into a private commodity.  We’ll have to explain to ourselves and those who come after why we permitted a place dedicated to the promotion of learning and the construction of citizenship into a mercenary marketplace serving those citizens who can afford it and catering to the short-term desires of the state’s corporate community rather than respecting the long-term interests of the public.

There is no explanation for such a transformation that would do credit to the generations which inhabit California today.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Half of the Human Race (Book Review)

A few of my readers over at the Record Searchlight complain that I’m overly slow in getting to the point.  Fair warning...this will likely be no exception.

A common image of pre-Great War England is of an assured, genteel, perhaps even pastoral land, its inhabitants enjoying a complacency which would be shortly annihilated by the guns of August.  But George Dangerfield’s classic The Strange Death of Liberal England shatters the idea of a green, pleasant, and amicable land.  His audaciously literary account (first published in 1935), in explaining the breakdown of the consensus around liberal society, portrays a very different country.

By 1910, Britain’s was a system buckling under too many contradictions: it was a “free trade nation”, but that free trade was based on gunboat diplomacy (the “freeing up” of trade), and was being sharply questioned as Britain lost its comparative advantage and protectionists gained in strength; Britain was meant to be a country of liberty, the destination for refugees and revolutionaries fleeing autocratic Europe, but it governed an enormous Empire through the use of force and violence; it was committed to a laissez-faire political and moral economy, and yet the working class was making demands that led to the first hints of a welfare state while an emerging cadre of social scientists and bourgeois philanthropists “discovered” poverty and other ills brought on by industrialisation, urbanisation, and imperialism; Britons were free, the Irish were not; more and more men were able to vote and participate in civic life, women were largely not. 

These contradictions reached the breaking point, and by 1910, Britain was a society on the verge of war with itself.  A prehistoric Conservative Party was fighting a rearguard action against democratic reform, and the Liberal Party’s government of the day found itself in a tense standoff with the House of Lords.  Labour grew restive over the failure of employers to pass on the benefits of good economic times to workers, who were increasingly unwilling to be placated by vague promises.  Ireland edged toward a civil war, and as the government sought to deal with the vexed question of the northern provinces, murmurs of mutiny wafted through the ranks.

In no place were the contradictions of British society more evident than in what was surely one of the most dramatic civil rights struggles of the twentieth century, in which the women of Britain demanded the vote.  It is salutary to recollect that the struggle for suffrage was precisely that—a full-blown battle which involved breaking windows, lighting fires, undertaking hunger strikes, and generally ransacking what proved to be the hollow conscience of a supposedly liberal nation.  For after being confronted by patronising tones and legal obstacles, .blank stares and laughs, dissatisfied with the efforts of their more respectful sisters, who were perpetually betrayed by both major parties, militant suffragettes turned to civil disobedience. 

Suffragettes did not shrink from speaking the language of war in support of their cause, one which seems absurdly obvious today, but which was answered at the time by brutal force, terrible imagery, and draconian legislation (most famously the “Cat and Mouse” Act) aimed at squashing their efforts.  “I am here as a soldier”, Emmeline Pankhurst declared to North American suffragettes in Connecticut in 1913, “who has temporarily left the field of battle in order to explain—it seems strange that it should have to be explained—what civil war is like when civil war is waged by women”.   Intimating that in this final struggle for their rights women would not be intimidated, and were willing to make the ultimate sacrifice, Pankhurst opined, “Not by the forces of civil war can you govern the very weakest woman.  You can kill that woman, but she escapes you then; you cannot govern here.  And that is, I think, a most valuable demonstration we have been making to the world.  We have been proving in our own person that government does not rest upon force; it rests upon consent; as long as people consent to government, it is perfectly easy to govern, but directly they refuse then no power on earth can govern a human being, however feeble, who withholds his or her consent”.  Pankhurst described the fury women felt when “we found that all the fine phrases about freedom and liberty were entirely for male consumption and that they did not in any way apply to women”. 

The civil war was averted by the coming of the Great War.  That war passed, leaving a momentarily changed country.  Women (initially those under the age of thirty) won the vote, though this was presented as a reward for “good behaviour” during the war.  The House of Lords faded into irrelevance, the flower of the English nobility having gone down with all the quaint notions about the glory of war and battle in the trenches.  Irish nationalists drove the British out, and then fought a bloody civil war, echoes of which were felt last week as police disarmed bombs in advance of the visit of a U.S. cabinet official.  And the Trade Unions embarked on further battles with successive governments.  Baldwin turned the tables on them, portraying them as a rabble against which the “constitutional classes” should arm itself, although in the end, the welfare state which emerged in the post-Second World War era was a testament to their struggle. 


It is in that pre-war world that Connie Callaway and Will Maitland, the two characters at the heart of Anthony Quinn’s novel, Half of the Human Race, find themselves.  They are not just star-crossed lovers, but star-crossed members of a conflicted society.  Initially drawn together by a shared love of cricket, Connie and Will are kept at a distance in spite of their love by the demands of the cold and respectable society they share.

In her Hartford speech, Pankhurst declared that “in the course of our desperate struggle, we have had to make a great many people uncomfortable”.  It is precisely this discomfort which lies at the heart of Quinn’s moving characters’ divide.  For Connie is a committed if also conflicted suffragist, and her passion by turns disturbs and attracts Will, who ultimately feels humiliated by Connie’s embrace of militancy and her subsequent imprisonment.  Unmoved by the nudging and urgings of those in his circle who see the depth of his affections for Connie, Will persists in seeing himself as the victim, and the two characters proceed, like ferries in the night, to pass each other again and again and again, maddeningly unable to see the sentiments behind one another’s actions. 

So theirs is a love story, and a well-written one.  I found it easy to plunge into the book, and once there, could hardly get out.  The characters, a bit stiff in their Edwardian way, were nonetheless affecting, and I found the novel as a whole to be almost disturbingly moving. 

But there is something more than a love story there.  Amidst the jocularity, the cricket matches, the house parties, the weddings, the innumerable social engagements and obligations of this affluent English society, there is the story of impossible loneliness.  It is a story about the inability of people who love one another to communicate that love openly and honestly.  It is about the failure of social chatter and small-talk to substitute for a conversation between equals.  It is about the cry for help that never emerges from the mouth of a friend or loved one in need out of fear of social sanction, and the haunted mien of those who let the un-uttered cry go un-answered to avoid censure.  It is about a kind of familial and social authoritarianism—whether in the form of Will’s daunting mother or the cricketing code—that grinds people down when it does not kill them outright.  It is about the absurdity of the loyalty embodied by the men who charged “over the top” into machine gun nests on Flanders field in the service of king and country and empire, and yet who were unable to respect the cause embraced by their mothers and sisters and wives. 

The beautiful thing about Half of the Human Race is that it is simultaneously a portrait and a narrative of a particular era and the outrages that people visited upon one another during that era, and a meditation on moral frailty, social mores, love, and friendship.  It is, in other words, very much worth reading, and the best book I’ve read this year.

Obama's Murder Memos

When its critics looked to define everything they saw as wrong with the Bush Administration, they frequently turned to the so-called “Torture Memos”.  Penned by John Yoo, now unaccountably a Law professor at UC Berkeley, these memos represented a calculated effort to take advantage of a crisis situation to re-interpret executive power and privilege.  Needless to say, that reinterpretation tended towards a dramatic expansion and abuse of that power.  Specifically, Yoo played a crude game, redefining torture and narrowing the application of legal protections as they obtained to those who found themselves in conflict with the United States, whether through their actions or through being caught up in the often-indiscriminate dragnet constructed by our military and intelligence services as we invaded first Afghanistan and then Iraq. 

These memos opened the door to an approach to the world that it is difficult to avoid calling evil.  In a Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties in 2008, Representative John Conyers conducted the following exchange with Yoo (the entire exchange is chilling, and worth seeing, but overly-long to reproduce here given Yoo’s persistent prevarication):

Conyers: “I didn’t ask you if you ever gave him advice, I asked you do you think the President could order a suspect buried alive?” 

Yoo: “Mr Chairman, my view right now, is I don’t think that a President would—no American President would ever have to order that or feel it necessary to order that”.

Conyers: “I think we understand the games that are being played”.

Indeed.  Citizens of what is ostensibly a democracy of some sort are being asked to accept the notion that in moments of “emergency” (and this is an emergency which has dragged on for eleven sorry years, and shows no sign of abating, as President Obama expands the war with greater vigour—if less outright enthusiasm and an equal lack of forethought—than his predecessor to “fronts” all around the world), rights go out the window.  In an “emergency”, be it a moment like 9/11 or the “forever war” declared in the following months, we are required to debase ourselves as a people, trample on the very same rights we trumpet as we go to war, and engage in the most heinous of acts against our so-called enemies.

We are asked, in effect, to accept as a measure of good faith that our national security apparatus—an apparatus which has practised torture, murder, assassination, the surveillance of American citizens, the manufacture of evidence for multiple wars—would not misuse these powers which they don’t even bother to ask that they be granted, but instead cook up in back rooms with the aid of their lawyers.  It’s as if a known and convicted murderer came to you and asked that you allow him access to deadly weapons, promising that he or she would not use them.  It’s like a financial industry causing an economic crisis and then asking that you relax the regulations on them.  Or like an energy industry taking advantage of poor oversight and then, through carelessness, causing an environmental and social disaster, and then coming to ask you to weaken said regulations further. 

President Obama has learned some interesting lessons from the Bush Administration’s “Torture Memo”.  Capitalising on a more trusting public, and the free pass given the administration by progressives who manage to reconcile themselves somehow to its despicable methods, the Obama Administration has embraced secrecy and non-disclosure even more fulsomely than its unholy predecessor. 

Upon being elected, the President repeatedly reiterated that his administration would be “the most open and transparent in history”.  He even issued a Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and agencies on the subject of “Transparency and Open Government”, reiterating his commitment to “creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government.  We will work together”, it went on to read, “to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration.  Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government”.

Except, it seems, when it comes to the waging of war and the ordering of murders.  Earlier this year, Charlie Savage wrote in the New York Times about the existence of a memo, now tacitly—snarkily, almost—acknowledged by the administration, which explains the rationale behind the President ordering the murder of American citizens.  Such a murder—and let’s leave aside for the moment the moral character of the man who was murdered, Anwar al-Awlaki—did in fact occur, “despite an executive order banning assassinations, a federal law against murder, protections in the Bill of Rights and various strictures of the international laws of war”.  

The administration’s logic, according to those who saw Obama’s Murder Memo, threw these supposedly sacred laws under one bus after another, relentlessly mowing down legal protections on the basis that in wartime, anything, anywhere goes. 

This, at least, is the general thrust.  We cannot know precisely what the Murder Memo authorises, because the President has chosen to hide the rationale behind his frightful violence from the public.  If the rights to which the President pays an increasingly-hypocritical lip service in virtually every public utterance are really so important, surely he could at least dignify the public—the public which elected him—with an explanation of why he sees the need to take the law into his own hand and give himself the power to kill American citizens without defending a change in the law before Congress. 

Perhaps the President could even dignify us with an explanation of his more comprehensive thinking about national security.  If he is prepared to act on the idea that national security trumps public rights, surely that is a fitting topic for a national address.  If he is prepared to argue that the killing of people, the destruction of infrastructure, the assassination of individuals, and the overthrow of governments by using armed drones is not war, thereby evading Congressional oversight, then perhaps he could say this publicly to the nation.  If he is prepared to endorse a system in which a whistleblower is tortured on a brig and kept away from his lawyers for months, but CIA personnel who murdered prisoners in their custody walk free, perhaps he could include a reference to this in his State of the Union Address.  If he is prepared to persecute wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia, and contemplate expanding his War of Terror to Mali, perhaps his pollsters—who drive so much of Presidents’ thinking these days—could at least ask people what they think about their country going to war on a permanent basis against an ephemeral enemy in a manner calculated to imperil the public interest. 

We have been at war on a steadily-expanding number of fronts for increasingly-opaque purposes since 9/11.  In waging these wars, we have effectively entered a kind of tunnel as one country, and will emerge as an altogether different one.  We have performed wicked deeds, and condoned unspeakable acts.  Because they continue to take place in the dark, we can’t quite tell what they were, and I doubt that we shall ever know the full extent of the killing that’s been done in these wars.  The prisons, torture chambers, rendition flights, dirty deals, weapons sales, kidnappings, and murders will never be fully documented.  But the story of our descent into this pit will be more complete if we demand that our elected leaders explain the basis on which we are making these decisions.  But I suspect that the President knows that his moral contortions would prove too much for the public, and that he would risk severe censure if his machinations ever became transparent. 

So for now, the Murder Memos go unread by the public.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Chancellor's Pay IS an issue at UC Berkeley

“Greetings, visitors from outer space!  You have arrived in a place called California.  The weather is nice, the scenery is pleasing to the eye.  But we are short on cash, divided by our politics, and sensitive to impingements on the public purse.  So behave accordingly!”  So should read the sign greeting the UC Regents outside of their monthly meetings, and the new UC Berkeley Chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.

I have no idea where the UC Regents live.  I suspect that they’re scattered around the urban centres of the state, and convene for periodic meetings to decide on matters of great importance for the future of the state’s, the nation’s, and the globe’s preeminent system of public higher education.  But when I read about some of their decisions and hear some of their convoluted logic, I can’t help but wonder whether they’re actually beamed down from a space-ship for each of these meetings.  They appear so insulated from reality, so unaware of the world in which they live, that I have to question their ability to do their job.

Their latest move has been to approve a $50,000 pay raise for Berkeley’s incoming chancellor, Nicholas Dirks.  This move comes during a decade when the campus, the system, and students have been feeling an increasingly uncomfortable pinch.  The fact that student fees and administrative pay have been rising in concert says very little that is comforting to students.  It is, however, very clarifying with regard to the thinking of the Regents and the cadre of administrators which is throwing its weight around the halls of our campuses. 

Put things in perspective.  The Regents, UCOP and many UC students, together with their Cal State counterparts and Democrats around the state just finished making a passionate case to voters that they needed to dig deeper into their pockets to fund their prized academic institutions.  This was necessary to offset cuts which would otherwise be coming our way, cuts which would force up the tuition of students and damage academic divisions.  The voters acquiesced to higher taxes (albeit on a handful of their members), something unusual in California.  And now money is being spent on a $50,000 raise for an administrator. 

The image this creates—of the Regents, Chancellors, and UCOP breaking out the champagne after averting devastating cuts to the university, and rewarding themselves rather than those members of our community who are bearing the burden of state disinvestment—is unhelpful to put it mildly.  Students, after all, are paying the same unconscionably high levels of tuition today that they were before the passage of Prop 30.  Our Governor is still talking about the need for belt-tightening and austerity.  These people are, in other words, the Mitt Romneys of the higher education world--they're out of touch and they couldn't care less.

In the defence of these extraterrestrial administrators, as reported by the Mercury News, the Regents bleated that “the pay raise would be funded by private donations to UC Berkeley’s foundation”.  This is precisely the same argument leveraged by CSU Trustees when they defended the pay raises they awarded to campus presidents at a time when students were paying unconscionably high fees and academic divisions are taking a beating.  But guess what?  It doesn’t matter.  If UC can forage up so much as a penny, that money, irrespective of the source, should go towards tuition relief, the maintenance of academic divisions, our libraries and collections, or other campus essentials.

As it is, the actions of the UC Regents are giving cover to business-minded critics of the university who would like to see it drop its commitment to building citizenship and fostering critical thinking amongst a large number of the state’s students (with the support of the public) in favour of a for-profit model which turns out employees to staff those industries which the business-community, its eye fixed firmly on a short-term horizon, deems essential. (Another big problem, stemming from the corrupt if perfectly legal method of the appointment of Regents, is that they often are the business-minded critics, and so operate at UC either in spite of or because of considerable conflict of moral interest.)

We hear, again and again, the argument about the need for effective administrators.  But I would like to know exactly what it is we are paying for when we give someone occupying the office of Chancellor, an office which already comes with money that looks pretty darn good to most of us, a raise.  It’s not campus leadership.  It’s not efficacy in advocacy.  It’s certainly not progressive thinking about the changing nature of the university.

The rhetoric of the 1% versus the 99% may be inadequate to fully describe the relations between different sectors of the increasingly-divided campus community.  But it is certainly not inaccurate.  Operation Excellence, the exaltation of “high powered” administrators, the insistence that Berkeley deserves “only the best” of the campus-corporate types to sit in California Hall...these things offer very little that is concrete to the university in technical terms, and exactly nothing whatsoever in terms of values and culture.

Many of us have sought for some years now to argue that the real blame lies with Sacramento, a dysfunctional political structure, and a party comprised of zealots and economic fundamentalists, rather than with campus leadership.  But that is a difficult and ever-more unsustainable argument to maintain when our campus and system representatives to Sacramento are letting us down so badly, when our leadership looks like a part of the predatory class behind our ills rather than an opposition to it, and when that same leadership—again at the system and campus level—is so offensively tone deaf to the pain which students are feeling and to the straits in which the state finds itself.

It is not often that I’d find myself in agreement with Governor Brown, but he was right to say that Dirks’ raise “does not fit within the spirit of servant leadership that I think will be required over the next few years”.  If they are smart, the Regents should reconsider their suggestion, Dirks should make clear that he does not want or need this raise, and the administrative leadership  of the University of California should start behaving like a public body primarily concerned with the welfare of its students and academics—the people who do the real work on our campuses. 

Otherwise, they shouldn’t be surprised when they face a restive campus.