Monday, September 30, 2013

Clintons Muzzle their Followers to Re-Write the Record

Make no mistake...the Clintons have been the victims of a great many smears over the decades.  Like no other politicians (until Republicans began focussing on the President’s “foreignness”), Bill and Hillary acted as a red flag to right-wing paranoia.  Of course, some of the time the charges—delivered by left and right—were true.  Bill Clinton did lie to the public about his affair.  He was a serial triangulator, without any recognisable moral core.  The Republicans’ Benghazi obsession might be comical, but Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State does deserve close scrutiny.

One undeniable feature of the Clinton machine—and make no mistake, there seems to be a community of staffers, donors, former and wannabe-future administration officials, flunkeys, and hangers-on which is dedicated to advancing the Clintons’ ambitions—is its own paranoia.  As Hillary Clinton prepares for a 2016 presidential bid, the cogs in the machine crank into action in an effort to protect the candidate from scrutiny, shut down public inquiry, and control the narrative around Clinton’s presidential ambitions.
Bill Clinton said it best in a recent ABC interview: “You have to have a strategy for presenting your true self to the voters, in an environment where there are unprecedented opportunities for those who don’t want you to win to paint a different picture of your true self”.  Paranoid after her surprise loss to President Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries, Hillary Clinton is obsessed with controlling how she is perceived by the public, and I suspect that the “true self” she might present to prospective voters will include some important omissions.
I doubt, for example, that Hillary Clinton will present herself as the dangerous neoconservative who by supporting the disastrous, illegal, and immoral war of aggression on Iraq, and egging the President to escalate the war in Afghanistan and expand that war to Pakistan, the Horn of Africa, and the Arabian Peninsula, has not only contributing to the growth of a military-industrial complex, exported U.S. terrorism, and presided over colonial-style wars, but has also aided and abetted the unconscionable expansion of unchecked executive power.
I doubt, in this economic climate, that Hillary Clinton will present herself as the irresponsible neoliberal who by backing the banks and financial industry to the hilt, failing to ask tough questions or see the dangers of deregulation, helped to create the climate of irresponsibility and greed which plunged our country into a recession and kept it there by handing golden parachutes to financial criminals and layoff notices to struggling citizens. 
I doubt that Hillary Clinton will present herself as a self-interested opportunist, a progressive of convenience rather than conviction, and a stalwart defender of the status quo when, if she can manipulate the narrative, she could instead present herself as the champion of the middle class and a defender of U.S. interests abroad.
Hillary Clinton and her team will have their work cut out for them if they decide that distorting her record is critical to her electoral success.
But they won a substantial and depressing victory when film director Charles Ferguson decided not to pursue the documentary on Clinton he was making for CNN.  Ferguson, who has an Oscar to his credit, is best known for his documentary The Inside Job (about the financial crisis), but he also made a film about the war against Iraq (No End in Sight).  I’ve seen him speak at UC Berkeley’s International House (he’s an alum) on several occasions, and he’s no radical.  His film would have been neither the hagiography Republicans feared (and which would undoubtedly have been the price of Clinton’s cooperation) nor the hit-job Democrats worried about. 
However, it might have asked some tough questions and taken a critical stance where Clinton’s past and character warranted.  This, apparently, made the film unacceptable to Clinton and her entourage.  The RNC, juvenile, idiotic, and deaf-to-reality as ever, had threatened a CNN boycott, but it was the non-cooperation of Democrats and the Clinton cabal which sunk the film in the end. 
Ferguson outlined his rationale for abandoning the film in a Huffington Post article.  He recounts how the powers that be in the Clinton’s cabal and in the Democratic Party stonewalled his efforts to meet with sources.  “When I approached people for interviews, I discovered that nobody, and I mean nobody, was interested in helping me make this film.  Not Democrats, not Republicans—and certainly nobody who works with the Clintons, wants access to the Clintons, or dreams of a position in a Hillary Clinton administration.  Not even journalists who wanted access, which can be easily taken away”.  This behaviour is not just an affront to one documentary-producer: it is indicative of how the Clintons view the public, the democratic process, and journalism.  The key attributes of our democracy have become impediments to their ambition, impediments that they are going to try to manage, sideline, and bypass by relying on intimidation, party-discipline, and massive sums of money.
Ferguson’s story of a conversation with Bill Clinton is particularly telling: “I asked him about the financial crisis.  He paused and then became even more soulful, thoughtful, passionate, and articulate.  And then he proceeded to tell me the most amazing lies I’ve heard in quite a while”.  For more on those lies, see the HuffPost article.  Ferguson, who alludes to some of what he sees as Hillary Clinton’s virtues, also outlined some of the topics he would have investigated, topics which should undoubtedly be on the agenda of serious and independent journalists in the coming years: the Clintons’ serial triangulations and constant efforts to re-write their rather sorry records; Hillary Clinton’s work on corporate boards (hardly the credentials of a populist or progressive); the family foundation’s links to Saudi Arabia; the well-oiled Clinton donor networks who are clearly not stepping up to back Hillary’s presidential bid from the goodness of their hearts; etc.
But he concluded that he “couldn’t make a film of which I would be proud...It’s a victory for the Clintons, and for the money machines that both political parties have now become.  But I don’t think that it’s a victory for the media or for the American people”. 
On the one hand, the success of the Clinton machine in shutting down journalistic inquiry seems like it could mark the beginning of Hillary’s inevitable ascendancy.  However, I remain convinced that there are serious progressive candidates out there who are not content with keeping their heads down and their eyes fixed on some invisible centre-line demarcated by pollsters as they muddle through public life.  While Clinton has been cashing in on her celebrity and gearing up for her onslaught on our democratic process, the likes of Elizabeth Warren have actually been pushing legislation and making arguments which would be of moral and material benefit to the public.
But for Warren or any other progressive candidate to have any prospect of breaking through the wall that the Democrats’ political witch-doctors are building up around Clinton’s record, or the adulation of the media, people will have to step in to do the work that Ferguson thinks is impossible, and to circumvent the hammerlock that money has on our politics by making it clear at the grassroots that no kind of corporate-funded Astroturf organisation run out of Clinton headquarters is going to be able to carry a neoconservative, neoliberal opportunist like Hillary Clinton to the nomination without a strong backlash.
Here’s to hoping that the Clinton Cabal will have weakened itself by showing its true colours so arrogantly when it sunk the documentary that sought to perform a public information service to the citizens who will be asked to vote based on her sorry record.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

UC Administrators, the Universities' Own Worst Enemies

Since protests and direct action emerged on University of California campuses as the only tool at students’ disposal to resist soaring fees and diminished funding in 2009, one of the key criticisms of the administration has been its own bloat.  This was both the weakness and strength of protests on campuses.  They identified what seemed like a serious misuse of funds: massive salaries for administrators, whose numbers were growing, at the same time that students were facing higher fees and departments were being told to tighten belts.
This criticism rang particularly true because it mirrored the cleavages at other levels of our society.  Services for the working and middle classes were cut back drastically as the recession took its toll, but tax levels for the wealthy remained largely fixed in place, and the financial criminals whose profiteering and irresponsibility engineered the crisis parachuted from their Wall Street towers flush with cash.  That the already wealthy should be given a reprieve when the poor struggled was bad enough.  That people guilty of criminal behaviour should be bailed out at the taxpayer expense was too much to bear.
Similarly, as UC struggled to weather divestment by the state of California, administrators who had not to all appearances done much to prepare for the crisis, and who simply passed the burden down to students, were rewarded for their lackadaisical performance.  So in the eyes of students, they became corrupt Fat Cats, and the target of virtually all protest and ire on campus.
At the time, I was very critical of targeting administrators for protest—not because I disagreed with any of the injustices and inequities pointed out by their critics, but because I believed then (and now) that they were the wrong targets.  After all, with the best will in the world and fiercest belt-tightening by the administrative class, the savings from administrative bloat would not have corrected the real problem, which was that, held hostage by a fundamentalist Republican Party, the state was unable to raise funds for the university, forcing administrators to turn to students and their families to shoulder the burden.  State politics, rather than campus offices, in other words, should have been the real target.
Now, several years down the road, I don’t disagree with my initial assessment.  But I do see the importance of taking on administrators, their salaries, the inequities they create on campus, and their false sense of their own importance. 
Late last year, John Hechinger wrote about “the troubling dean-to-professor ration” in an article of the same title.  He was not writing about the University of California in particular, but rather about the nationwide trend towards spending increasing money on administrators at the expense of faculty and students.  These bureaucratic officers are often charged with making the university leaner and meaner (Operation Excellence was Berkeley’s version of this ruthless cost-cutting exercise).  From administrators’ lofty offices, this means increased “efficiency”.  At the departmental level, where students, staff and faculty operate, this means heavier loads, service gaps, and more hardship on students in the form of restricted class offerings, larger class sizes, and fewer resources for navigating the expanding university bureaucracy.
In effect, administrators are expanding the ranks of their own, namely the people on campus who make no discernible contribution to the traditional mission of a university: the education of students by faculty.  They are expanding the ranks of the people charged with transforming the mission of the university, reducing its commitment to the public good, regarding students as “customers” instead of community members, seeing education as a “market” rather than a mission, and focusing on the short-term desires of industries rather than the long-term demands of our society.
And a growing caste of administrators is making a tidy bundle in the process, their mode of self-enrichment mirroring that of the irresponsible sectors of the private sphere.  I was somewhat baffled to learn that executives of UC’s healthcare and financial investment programs get bonuses “if they achieve certain goals, such as reducing patient infections or substantially growing the endowment”.  
In other words, the UC Regents pay other administrators bonuses to do their jobs.  To me, it is wrong and offensive that this occurs at a public, state-owned institution, and that the bonuses go to the people ultimately least important to UC’s mission.  Faculty see their salaries stagnate, and students see their tuition rise, and the people presiding over these worsening conditions get bonuses!
It is no wonder many Californians are irritated when UC’s administrators come to them complaining about divestment, but hand out bonuses to their compatriots and award massive compensation packages to campus Chancellors and the system’s President. 
As students look for new ways to make the case for their relevance as a constituency, the unjustness of record-high tuition, and the importance of the University to California, they should make it clear that these leech-like bureaucrats who drain UC of resources while degrading its character are not part of the vision we are defending.  I still think the focus should be on securing funding from the state to remake UC as a truly public institution by revisiting the state’s constitution which is weighted down by initiatives like the undemocratic Prop 13. 
But critiquing the excess of UC’s bureaucratic elite, the indifference of its administration, and the undemocratic character of its governing structure is also of great importance if Californians want to reclaim their University over the long-term.

A round up of recent commentary from this blog on the plight of higher education in California:

Caledonia (Part III)

Another belated travel post.  For the earlier stages of the adventures in Scotland, see Caledonia (Part I) and Caledonia(Part II)


I had lunch on a tussock, and then made my way around the beautiful lake.  Aside from the hostel at one end of Loch Ossian, there was only one other human habitation, a posh hunting lodge at the far end.  In some parts of the highlands, walkers have to take care during hunting seasons when recalcitrant landowners—unreconciled to more democratic laws governing Scotland’s twenty-first century countryside—have been known to harass them.  Jan reassured us at the hostel that short of wearing antlers and grazing around the heath we were unlikely to find ourselves receiving any hostile attentions from the hunters.

My feet being slightly battered from the morning’s walking, I found a nice little peninsula jutting into the loch, and took a nap on the rock, dangling my feet into the water and enjoying the solitude—something difficult to come by in either Nairobi or Lusaka.  I spent another hour and a half circumnavigating the lake, and was a little sad when I found myself back at the hostel, my final full day at Loch Ossian at an end.  But the midges were coming out, and they provided some incentive to retreat inside, where I joined the other hostellers for our respective suppers and after-dinner conversations.

We all swapped ideas about good walking areas in Scotland and England.  I also asked the two Scots about the looming referendum on independence, and they voiced the uncertainty and scepticism that seem to characterise the aspiring nation’s outlook.  They were Labour supporters, and so although there was nothing in particular about the National Party (which currently governs Scotland with a majority in spite of the country’s system of proportional representation) policies which they disliked, they were not particularly enamoured of Alex Salmond.

They also expressed some unease about whether Scotland could afford to make its own way in the world.  Their unease reflects the competing narratives about Scotland’s viability as a nation.  Supporters of independence point to the country’s successful social system, which unlike its English counterpart does not crush university students with fees.  Opponents cite supposed subsidies by the south of the British Isles, where most of the population is concentrated, and where London’s financial sector creates a great deal of wealth (which does not trickle down very effectively).  One rejoinder holds that Scottish taxpayers would no longer have to subsidise Britain’s imperial foreign policy, its obsession with “punching above its weight”, its costly wars, and its expensive and foolish nuclear deterrent.  Scottish nationalists point to Scotland’s oil as a source of wealth, and say the country could emulate the likes of Norway (which seems optimistic).  British nationalists invoke ‘tradition’, ‘history’, and the ‘monarchy’ as cultural reasons for preserving the Union, a claim which is answered by centuries of English conquest and exploitation.

Scots will have to do their homework, and evaluate the economic claims of the competing factions with particular care before they vote in 2014.  But there is something inspiring about listening to a public debate such a critical decision, and as someone who thinks that California would be improved should it separate from its neighbours, I hope that Scots take the referendum seriously.

The next morning I had to make my way to the train station to return to Fort William.  The skies were dark and some droplets were coming down, but the midges were out in force nonetheless, the swarms thick enough that they immediately began clogging my eyes, nose, and mouth.  It was a bit over a mile to the train station, but I donned my rucksack and broke into as much of a jog as my blistered feet would allow.  I was a few minutes early, and so I did laps around the signpost on the platform to stay one step ahead of the midges, which were blackening me as they set in with even greater numbers.  The 9.10 train only stopped by request, and so as it trundled down the track I jumped up and down and waved, and then as it slowed, sprinted down the platform to the door, hotly pursued by a flock of midges who would have put the Nazgul and their foul steeds to flight.

Once in Fort William, I had lunch, bought food for supper and dinner, and hiked back to the hostel, via a detour up the slopes of Ben Nevis and along the river at its base.  That evening I finished up World War Z, which felt appropriate, as the hostel residents all bore a certain resemblance to a bunch of zombies, lurching around on blistered feet, battered knees, crooked backs.  After some long days of walking, I certainly felt more dead than alive in body, if considerably reinvigorated in spirit. 

The following morning I shouldered my pack and made my way to Fort William, in a light rain.  Besides the train to Glasgow, the famous tourist train which recreates Harry Potter’s journey to Hogwarts was also at the tracks.  The weather was drizzly, and on one highland platform a group of walkers was dancing furiously and swatting the air, their faces wrapped in scarves and nets, and I was happy to be in out of the midges, but very sorry indeed to be leaving the lovely region behind.

The days of writing in Nairobi cafes, no less the blissful months in Lusaka’s archives, seemed very far away, but the good news was that the following morning I would be boarding a plane bound for San Francisco, from where I would make my way back to the People’s Republic of Berkeley, where no nuclear weapons may fall (legally) and where the sun would be shining.

Monday, September 23, 2013

Caledonia (Part II)

The Journey Continued...for Part I see here


I’d been worried about the weather for this long day, but it was nothing short of sublime.  In this more remote stretch of country, I passed only two other parties during the day, and they all remarked on how lucky we were to experience this very un-Scottish weather.  The sun shone without a break all day, but the warmth was offset by a pleasant breeze.  It got a little too warm at one point in the afternoon, and so I jumped in the river to cool off.

That’s actually not true.  At one point I began following a tributary instead of the river itself, and by the time I corrected I was some ways from a place where I could jump across.  So I twirled like a hammer thrower (perhaps slightly less elegantly, but no one was around to judge me) and got my bag and boots across before fording the river.  I slipped on my first tentative step in and got soaked.  But the cold mountain water actually felt nice, and long before I began the descent towards the shores of Loch Trieg I was dried out.
By this point I was feeling the effects of all the miles.  My body and mind had a fearful row, and proceeded to spend the next several hours trying to sabotage one another, leaving me to mediate and make sure that I didn’t wander off the path.  Eventually I reached the point from which I knew it was only a few miles further, and as I was a bit early (the hostel didn’t open up until 5pm) I sat and soaked my feet in a stream and ate some shortbread. 

On the last uphill stretch, having crossed the line of rail that wound weirdly through this otherwise totally vacant chunk of land, I was given a sudden pause as twenty yards ahead of me a group of some 30 stags came trotting down a hill and, upon seeing me, went racing down a small valley before disappearing over the crest of the hill.  Red deer are Britain’s largest mammals, and they are around the size of an elk.

Over the next hill I finally got a look at my destination, and even if it had not come at the end of a long day’s walk it would have seemed like a little piece of paradise.  Loch Ossian is a comparatively small Loch (it required only a couple of hours to walk around it), but is rimmed in on its two sides by hills, and by larger mountains in the distance at its northern end.  At its south western edge, the small hostel sat in a grove of trees, near several tiny, tree-topped islands.  It has a slightly worn look, but inside proved to be well-kept.  Lights in the main rooms were powered by a small windmill, and the fire was lit each evening to heat water for the basins (there were no showers).  There were outhouses, but no rubbish bins, so walkers carried out all waste.  The two bunkrooms were also unlit, and the wood walls of the common area were filled with artefacts of the hostel’s history and geographic surroundings.

The warden was Jan, who kept things tidy and offered a fulsome greeting.  “Come in out of the midges”, she said as I approached the check-in desk waving at the air and spitting swarms of the near-invisible carnivorous insects, and so I stumbled into the open air office where the miserable little critters were, if anything even thicker.  There was a Scottish couple hill-walking, a student couple from Glasgow, and two Germans working in the UK, and in the evenings we chatted in the common room, sharing our days’ experiences and taking turns making our suppers on the stove. 

The next morning, it was foggy out, and a thick mist hovered over the lake, giving the islands and trees a ghostly feel.  The midges were out in force, and appeared to be lying in wait in the outhouse for early morning visitors.  I cooked breakfast and then planned my itinerary for the day.  I fortunately had purchased some “Smidge”, an anti-midge solution which promised to “throw the little bleeders off your scent”.  Needless to say, it did no such thing, and if anything seemed to attract them in even greater numbers with the result that I was the only one who did any bleeding!  But my near escape from the midges was to come later, and on this day there was just enough of a breeze to keep them at bay. 

My aim was to make a circuit of the massive horseshoe-like hill I had seen across the line of rail the previous day.  This morning it was wreathed in clouds, but they quickly dissipated as I made my way across the tracks, up through the marsh, which gave way to heather.  By the time I was half-way up Sron an Lagain Ghairbh, as the hill was called, the sun was out in force, heralding another beautiful day.  I later discovered that there was an unmarked path on a different point of the mountain’s flank, and that I needn’t have spent the final half hour hauling myself up through the heather hand over hand, but my grumbling ceased at the top when confronted by the sweeping views: back across the highland valley I had traversed the day before; across Loch Trieg; over miles and miles of deserted heather; over to Loch Ossian and the looming peaks beyond, all of it drenched in distinctly un-Scottish sunshine.

I wandered across the mountaintops for a while, coming up short at sheer drops, peering into still tarns, watching the grass shiver in the wind while the heather remained still, and at one point freezing as a herd of at least 50 red deer came in two stages, running all-out across a slope below a cairn-capped peak, each pausing briefly at the edge of the mountain, momentarily silhouetted against the blue sky, before plunging down the other side of the mountain.  I tried to follow them for a while, the wind being in my favour and the slope of the mountain acting as cover.  I must have looked faintly absurd when I came around the corner, crawling along in the heather, my red rucksack protruding very obviously, and soon the herd was off again.  I later spotted them far away on another mountain-top which gave them a wide view and plenty of warning if another silly walker tried to sneak up on them.

In the hour or two on top of my little world, I didn’t see a single other person, and I was a bit sad to begin the descent (much easier, by way of a marked path on which I met my German hostel-mates), but I wanted to make a circuit of Loch Ossian in the afternoon.