Friday, April 10, 2015

Pre-apocalyptic fiction: The Jaguar's Children by John Vaillant

Peter Heller is the author of a finely crafted, deeply melancholy, but -- against type! -- hopeful post-apocalyptic novel The Dog Stars, published to wide and well-deserved acclaim in 2012. Heller was at Diesel Books in Oakland last month to read from the newly-released paperback of his second work of fiction, The Painter, where I met and spoke to him as his audience arrived.

Because he asked (another Diesel Books regular having already told him I am a writer), I described my forthcoming novel Consequence, and in the course of our conversation I categorized it as "pre-apocalyptic fiction." The concept seemed to intrigue Heller, and when I described my book's focus on a community of San Francisco activists organizing against the proliferation of genetically-engineered agriculture he told me about a book he recently blurbed: John Vaillant's The Jaguar's Children. I put it in my queue immediately.

The Jaguar's Children is told by Héctor María de la Soledad Lázaro González from the inside of a welded-shut water truck transporting Héctor; an old friend and agricultural scientist César, whom he has only recently found after a long separation; and a company of fellow border-crossers. Following a mechanical breakdown, their coyotes have abandoned the truck and its human prisoners to a slow, tortured descent toward death-by-dehydration in the Arizona desert. Héctor narrates his tale as a series of text and voice recordings queued up in a cell phone, in the hope that sufficient signal will be miraculously regained that he can transmit to an unknown, desperately hoped-for rescuer. Late in the novel we learn that the phone -- César's -- carries the last surviving copy of research that proves the biotech company SantaMaize has released a genetically modified variant of corn that will wipe out genetic diversity that indigenous farmers have depended on for thousands of years, and transform Mexico's self-sufficient communities into indentured servants of agribusiness ... which is why César and Héctor have fled Mexico in the first place, pursued by thuggish enforcers in the service of SantaMaize.

Vaillant's work is set in a pre-apocalyptic, present-day world: amid brutal genocide in Mexico and Central America, fueled by drug cartels and boughten police; among desperate rivers of immigrants to the United States, driven by otherwise inescapable violence and poverty into the predatory clutches of coyotes, who rob then abandon them to die in desert borderlands; and in the shadow of a corporate oligarchy hellbent on destroying indigenous people, culture, deeply-rooted agricultural practice, and land in order to accrue profit and power that dwarfs the crude ambitions of druglords.

Does any of that setting sound familiar? Maybe that’s because you've read about the fictional world of The Jaguar's Children in the reputable, non-fiction press. The chaos and savagery in which Vaillant has set his novel is happening. Today. Now.

That's the thing about "pre-apocalyptic fiction," as I conceive it. It isn't nearly so speculative as its darker, post-apocalyptic cousins. It takes place in a world that has already come into being, not a world that might come to pass. And its heroes are the women and men who are doing what they can to turn the apocalyptic tide.

At a demonstration in support of fossil fuels divestment yesterday on the UC Berkeley campus, I was talking to a fellow-activist and retired psychiatrist about current fascination with post-apocalyptic fiction. My own theory, I told him, is that novels of this sort function in the same way that dreams do: they permit people to grapple with issues, conflicts, and fears that are too overwhelming to confront in real or waking life.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction, on the other hand, like The Jaguar's Children and Consequence, portray real people overcoming fears from which one might naturally and normally hide, in order to confront forces that are -- in real life, today and now -- propelling humanity and all living beings toward an apocalyptic precipice.

Pre-apocalyptic fiction dramatizes the heroism that surrounds us -- in real life -- from Vandana Shiva's "fiery opposition to globalization and to the use of genetically modified crops" described by Michael Specter in The New Yorker last year ("Seeds of Doubt," 25 Aug 2014); to the pacifist anti-nuclear heroines and heroes of the Plowshares movement, described in that same magazine by Eric Schlosser last month ("Break-In at Y-12," 9 March 2015).

As John Vaillant has proven in The Jaguar's Children, these dramas are the stuff that compelling fiction is made of.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit
Teju Cole's Open City: protagonist as open book or guarded guide?
Surveillance and power through fiction and fact: Max Barry's "Lexicon"
Tinkering: on bookstore serendipity and novels that show what it is to be alive
Robert Redford, the Weather Underground, and why we read books

Friday, March 27, 2015

21 reasons it's not nearly so bad as it could be

This morning I woke up a little bit blue, and -- until mid-day or so -- the overcast sky in Berkeley matched my mood. I took a walk around the neighborhood, and found a lot of good reasons to feel better. Here are twenty-one of them.

Just sayin' ...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
April showers brought May flowers
On the bright side: an iris in someone's front yard
Flowery front yards in Berkeley

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Asking the wrong questions about GMOs for disinformation and profit

Even in 2015, the public doesn't trust scientists, according to Mark Lynas of the Cornell Alliance for Science. His article appeared in the Washington Post a couple weeks back, and the author isn't going where you might imagine if you just glance at his title.

The setup is textbook: Progressive-seeming Hyperbole 101 ...
America risks drifting into a new Age of Ignorance. Even as science makes unparalleled advances in genomics to oceanography, science deniers are on the march — and they’re winning hearts and minds more successfully than the academic experts whose work they deride and undermine.
About four paragraphs in, Lynas shows his hand:
But for the general public, the strongest anti-science attitudes relate to genetically modified foods. Eighty-eight percent of AAAS scientists say it’s safe to eat genetically modified food, compared to just 37 percent of U.S. adults. Such discrepancies do not happen by accident. In most cases, there are determined lobbies working to undermine public understanding of science: from anti-vaccine campaigners, to creationists, to climate-change deniers.

These activist groups have been especially successful in undermining public understanding of just how united the scientific community is on many of these issues. The polling data shows that two-thirds of the public (67 percent) thinks that “scientists do not have a clear understanding of the health effects of GM crops.” And 37 percent of the public says scientists “do not generally agree that the Earth is getting warmer because of human activity.”
Funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Cornell Alliance for Science has a mission: to "increase access to agricultural innovations through collaboration and innovative communications." In pursuit of this mission, the organization aims to:
Build a significant global alliance of partners who believe in the common mission of solving complex global hunger issues by leveraging advances in agriculture including the creative tools and insights biotechnology can offer.
That is to say, they're a well-financed PR machine for biotech agriculture, posing as a disinterested, objective, squeaky-priestly-clean booster club. For Scientists. With a capital ess.

Partner organizations advertised on the CAS's web site include (bold emphasis added):
  • International Service for the Acquisition of Agri-biotech Applications (ISAAA), "a not-for-profit international organization that shares the benefits of crop biotechnology with various stakeholders through knowledge sharing initiatives, as well as through the transfer and delivery of proprietary biotechnology applications";
  • Open Forum on Agricultural Biotechnology in Africa (OFAB), which "aims at enhancing knowledge sharing and awareness on biotechnology to raise understanding and appreciation of agricultural biotechnology"; and,
  • Uganda Biosciences Information Center (UBIC), which bills itself as "an information hub that contributes to raising awareness and educating the public about the agricultural research," and "hopes [...] to develop messages and terminologies that are more publicly friendly and relevant.
In a perverse and demoralizing twist, these masked apologists for profit and ruin are blending a focus on peripheral questions with scientism to sow confusion and doubt, which isn't so difficult when political discourse has been softened by the Fourth Estate's lazy failure to deconstruct false syllogisms, shallow analysis, and gotcha sound bytes. Like these, again from Lynas' Washington Post article:
Scientists are also increasingly dismayed that government regulations — particularly on food safety and environmental management — are influenced more by public sentiment tha[n] scientific evidence. It now costs tens of millions of dollars to get a new genetically modified crop variety past cautious government bureaucrats, because of the public’s fears of modified food; whereas new seeds developed using chemical or radiation mutagenesis can go straight to market and even be labeled organic.

[...] On climate change, public support for urgent decarbonization measures is being undercut, while food security and agricultural sustainability is under threat by activists aiming to prohibit technological innovation in seeds.
Well, that's the world we live in: one in which capitalists seek to loosen any and all constraint on profit (a.k.a. government oversight) by deceiving and distracting with little regard to what's true or important and what's not (a.k.a., "marketing"). Why educate when there's big, big money in rendering "messages and terminologies [...] more publicly friendly"? Cf. truthiness.

Here are three things that are fundamentally disingenuous about the WaPo's Cornell Alliance for Science puff piece:
  1. Lynas writes as if scientists are a priesthood whose pronouncements ought to be regarded -- by the laity (a.k.a. citizens) -- as theological imperatives: certain and static. In real life, of course, science is neither certain nor static. Scientific understanding and certainty evolves over time: in light of further experimentation, and fresh discovery of empirically-testable context. That, more or less, is the point of science. I'll come back to stasis in a moment.
  2. Opposition to GMO agriculture is not chiefly about whether, for individuals, it’s safe to eat genetically modified food. Opposition to GMO agriculture has much more to do with the damage that monocropping, loss of biodiversity, disruption of relationships between living species, and unintended consequences of vastly overclocked 'evolution' is doing and will do to the only biosphere we've got -- an intricate balance of interdependent life forms that scientists are only beginning to appreciate, let alone understand (link).
  3. Those who deny what we do know about data-rich aspects of Earth's current environmental trajectory are avoiding reality; those who paper over what we don't know about environmental conditions that early, data-sparse science has yet to reveal are making it up. Trusting climate science and its models is not exactly the same as trusting medical science on the subject of infectious disease; and each of these is markedly different from trusting genetic engineers. Genetically modified plants were first grown in fields circa 1986, not even 30 years ago (link). On the other hand, we have gathered hundreds of thousands of years of data that figure into investigations of the relationship between atmospheric carbon dioxide and glaciation (link); and humans have been burning coal and oil for several thousand years, burning those fuels in vast quantities since the 18th century (link).
Opposition to GMO agriculture is largely about resisting the one-way release of poorly-understood mutations of highly complex living organisms into the only ecosystem we've got. You can't put GMOs back in Pandora's box; biotech is young and crude; living systems are as complex as anything humankind has ever encountered. What that adds up to: scientists do not know what the ecosystem-wide effect will be of multiple, pervasive, sudden, poorly understood, impossibly-unlikely-to-happen-without-human-intervention evolutionary disruptions over the long term and on a planetary scale. Humans (including scientists) have vastly greater stores of data to draw from in analyzing the effects of burning fossil fuels than we do about radically mixing-and-matching the genetic makeup of living organisms. Scientists' degree of certainty about one area of study is not transitive: it doesn't apply to another topic altogether.
Coming back to the question of science and stasis: one way of thinking about how climate change and climate science relates to GMOs -- which is not the way of thinking that Mark Lynas presents -- is this: genetic engineering's effect on Earth's future environment is currently understood at a level comparable to that achieved by scientists of the 1700s with respect to then-future effects of fossil fuel use at a rate those scientists couldn't begin to foresee.

In other words: it's primitive.

Scientists of the 1700s did not widely predict that burning fossil fuels would wreak havoc on systems that balance our planet's composition of air, regional temperatures, proportion of water to ice, etc. Scientists didn't begin to connect those dots reliably until quite recently, by which time we humans had developed economies so fully dependent on burning fossil fuels that the bad news got buried -- and continues to be obfuscated -- by people and corporations with self- and economic-interests in continuing to burn fossil fuels in reckless quantities.

People who oppose GMO agriculture aren't eager for humankind to make that kind of catastrophic mistake again.

So -- yes! -- science is inflected by politics, history, the passage of time (with its development of greater scientific understanding and accuracy), and (not incidentally) by greed.

That doesn't mean scientific knowledge is a matter of pure opinion, not by any stretch of imagination. But it does mean that there's no such thing as a Good Scientists Seal of Approval that can be glanced at and trusted in every context, as those who argue like Mr. Lynas assert or imply. Peer review is as close as science gets. But peer review is far from perfect. It's complicated.

A sensible approach might be this: in making political choices we could and should place greater trust in science that is better understood, better tested, and therefore better founded. The relation between infectious disease and herd immunity is pretty much a solved mystery, for example, so it's not unreasonable to draw up social contracts (policy) organized around this well-understood corner of reality, as, say, the State of Mississippi has done (despite that state's brutal failures in other areas).

Is this sensible approach a simple approach to take? Heck no.

In discerning science that is reliable from science that isn't, confusion is endemic. The differences are not cut and dried. The distinctions are hard to suss out. The effort takes a lot of attention. Development of some level of scientific literacy and expertise is required to sift the wheat from the chaff. The analysis is not easily reducible to Tweets.

But there's good reason for honest, responsible people to make every effort -- despite these obstacles. The exploitation of scientism to manipulate public opinion, and thereby to influence public policy, is not hermetically confined to think tanks at Ivy League universities.

For example: since reading the Mark Lynas piece in the Washington Post, I've been subjected to a meme circulating on Facebook that asks "Is genetically modified food safe?" and answers: "If an overwhelming majority of experts say something is true, then any sensible non-expert should assume they are probably right." That's scientism in a nutshell. And it's not hard to imagine where specious responsibility-punting of that sort, egged on by organizations like CAS, might lead. (Hint: one obvious destination is spelled o-l-i-g-a-r-c-h-y.)

On Valentine's Day, just this past Saturday, the front page of the SF Chronicle featured a story titled Measles fears a mild case of mass hysteria. The article, if one reads it from start to finish, makes sober and credible points about the improbability that the current outbreak of measles will go epidemic; and gives a nod to legitimate concern about vulnerable populations of people (young kids especially, though not exclusively) who cannot be vaccinated for one reason or other. But if, like many news readers in this information-overloaded age, a person only skims headlines or a newspaper's front page, s/he might take away some pretty twisted ideas from these paragraphs, which front-load the much longer article:
The reason measles is on the tip of so many people’s tongues these days, and the subject of so much sturm and drang in the media, is this: It’s a mild case of mass hysteria.

It has played out pretty much like its predecessor in the hysteria chain, Ebola, experts said — or genetically altered animals before that.
That last bit must have made the staff at Cornell Alliance for Science dance a happy dance. Why? Because: experts said. And because, to an inattentive reader, genetically altered animals are about the same thing as genetically altered agriculture, right? Only cuter. And if the one is a case of mass hysteria, then the other ...

And so on.

When concern trolls are publishing puff pieces for biotech in the national press, pretending they're interested only in objectivity and evidence, beware focus on the wrong questions. And quadruple-beware scientism.

We're going to get a lot more of this, not less, in the coming decades. Keep your eyes peeled.

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
Monoculture v complexity; agribusiness and deceit
One hundred trillion bacteria: the microbiome within you and without you
Unvarnished truth is hard to swallow

Thanks to Martin Speck (CC BY-SA 2.0) for the monocrop image; and to Billy Baque (CC BY-SA 3.0) for the image of a classic shell game -- both via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Keith Haring at de Young Museum

Keith Haring: The Political Line is at San Francisco's de Young Museum through 16 February 2015: there are fewer than four weeks left to visit the special exhibition. If you've put off going because you think Haring's work is schematic, repetitive, and/or cartoonish; and/or that political expression has little or no place in art ... well I'm going to recommend you think about setting aside hesitation and heading to Golden Gate Park, before the exhibition goes dark. The de Young is putting on the first major Haring show on the West Coast in a couple of decades -- more than 130 pieces. Those locals who miss the current show may not get a chance to change their minds soon or easily.

Up front confession: I feel a connection to Haring's work because he depicted a zeitgeist that defined times (early 80s) and places (New York and San Francisco) that mean a lot to me personally. Haring was drawing all over New York's subway stations as I edged out of the closet in 1982, in the SF Bay Area. The AIDS epidemic that took his life at age 31, in 1990, was killing thousands of gay men in his community and mine -- this during a period when the U.S. government callously abdicated its role in public health and precipitated the emergence of a movement that wholly upended the relationship between patients and medical authority.

That connection aside, the signature value of the show at the de Young is the clear view it affords of how Haring took a small set of archetypal forms (simply drawn humans, dogs, flying saucers, televisions, crude/sharp weapons, et al.) and combined them vividly, energetically, and in rich combinations and juxtapositions to create a lively and evocative body of work. As I walked through the exhibit several times, back and forth, it occurred to me that complaints about his 'limited' set of tropes bear a certain resemblance to fretting over the fact that the whole of European and American literature is composed of a mere 26 repeating letters of the Roman alphabet. That is, it kind of misses the point. Forest for trees and all that. Haring's work isn't about the individual elements of his work: it's about how they work in concert.

Among my first jolts of the exhibit was a look at this painting created in 1981:

Twenty-three years ahead of the event, Haring nailed the feel of images that flooded out of Abu Ghraib prison in 2004, and prefigured the Columbian artist Fernando Botero's paintings that interpreted them.

Then there were the hell-on-Earth paintings that evoked the work of Hieronymus Bosch, painted in the 15th and 16th centuries --

-- like these:

But Haring's work (and the show at the de Young) wasn't all about power, politics, or reference to art that came before and after Haring's too-brief time on culture's stage. There is something philosophically fascinating (to me at least) about how the crowded, chaotic interplay between his simple lines and figures suggest interpenetration and interconnection of, well, everything. This piece from the early 80s -- though it does, on its surface, depict elaborately constructed, otherworldly, omnipotent power, and human fear and helplessness before it -- themes Haring treats throughout his oeuvre -- also evokes a world in which the borders between everything and everyone are as flimsy and vulnerable as life itself, all in the seemingly random scribbles inside and outside the fleeing human figures.

Powerful stuff. Check it out if you can.

Thanks to Wikimedia Commons for the image of a bound prisoner being terrorized by an American soldier and his dog at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, first published by the Washington Post in May 2004; and for the right panel of Hieronymus Bosch's ~15th century tryptich, the Garden of Earthly Delights.

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Acting up, fighting back: AIDS activism in the '80s and '90s
Everything relates to everything else

Friday, January 16, 2015

30 activists and a few spoons: BART station shutdowns 'cuz #BlackLivesMatter

The cascade of disruptive protest in the wake of grand jury failures to indict police responsible for the deaths of Mike Brown in Ferguson or Eric Garner in New York haven't gone away just because it's 2015, or because a small number of NYPD acted like petulant children at the funeral of Officers Rafael Ramos and Wenjian Liu, who were also tragically assassinated (most to-the-point commentary: The Fire This Time, by editor David Remnick in the 12 Jan 2015 issue of The New Yorker). Neither winter's cold in Boston nor, um, overcast skies in San Francisco have dissuaded protesters from insisting that -- this time -- the long and bitter history of police violence directed against African-American men will not be swept under the rug.

I was in San Francisco this morning. I'm posting some of the video and photos I took, below, and the main reason is: perspective, people. I think it'd be a Very Good Thing if people would take a deep breath and turn down their outrage-meters over freeway blockades and interrupted commutes under the circumstances that give rise to those protests. More on that below, but first some context:

Betweekn 7ish and 9ish this morning, three downtown San Francisco BART stations were intermittently evacuated (except for protesters in the low-dozens at each station who were 'armed' with spoons and digital cameras). The protest focused especially on a threat by BART officials to demand restitution payments of as much as $70,000 from 14 activists who shut down the BART system by blockading trains at Oakland West station in November (the SJ Mercury's day-before article, Potential BART protest Friday in San Francisco may snarl morning commute describes this link). Speaking of broken outrage-meters. There were other demands as well, predicated on the simple formula, which we should all be ashamed is not blindingly obvious and unnecessary to insist on: that Black Lives Matter.

There's plenty of news coverage, statements have been issued, I won't recap all that.

I do think it's remarkable that BART decided to keep stations closed for quarter-hours at a time because a couple of dozen activists were present in a given station and making noise (well, lots of noise) by banging spoons against hard surfaces inside the underground echo-chambers. Did those closures make sense? Maybe.

I read it as a calculation on the part of BART management to avoid systemwide paralysis by moderately inconveniencing the system's riders. Closing some downtown stations where they believed there was a risk protesters would block the doors of trains (can't do that if the trains don't stop) -- and leaving other stations open while running above-ground MUNI busses and trams (at no charge) to ferry people to where they had originally planned to exit BART -- kept the trains running and justified the overtime to which management and SFPD had apparently committed in advance.

Full disclosure: I only came to that conclusion after the fact. As the morning progressed, I opined to friends at Embarcadero Station that there was no way that police would let a couple dozen spoon-banging activists shut down a BART station in downtown San Francisco. I was wrong.

Were commuters irritated by having to exit at a different station than they planned, and by delays of 10 or 15 minutes? Some were. Others thanked activists, in and outside the stations, for helping to focus attention on deeply-ingrained patterns of police violence against and disproportionate incarceration of people of color, most especially African-American men.

While newspapers published the most inflammatory photos they could snap of the few, fairly tame arrests during the peaceful protest, I didn't see much to get excited about in the mode of SF Chronicle hysteria-monger Debra Saunders. In fact, the best representation of protest-in-perspective I saw today was this graph from Abe Lateiner (link is to the original Facebook post, thanks to Sasha W. for re-posting it and pointing out, correctly I think, that it applies nicely to this morning's ~90 minutes of commute inconvenience on BART though it was created to describe the I-93 protest in Boston yesterday):

Filling in other points on the graph -- say points that represent getting shot and killed, or strangled, by a police officer for existing, unarmed, in public -- is left as an exercise for the viewer.

Here are some pix and video that are a more fair (if less dramatic) representation of this morning's BART protests than you'll find in most MSM stories about activists 'armed' with spoons, video cameras, slogans, and a boom box calling attention to #BlackLivesMatter.

The video that follows starts as the protest kicked off a little after 7am inside Montgomery Station; switches to the above-ground march (on the sidewalk even!) between Montgomery and Embarcadero Stations, with flash mob interlude to the tune of Michael Jackson's They Don't Care About Us; then a good look at a BART train barreling through a cavernously empty Powell Street Station as police look on and a couple dozen activists ... wait for it ... make noise with spoons.

Some stills from Montgomery Station at the start of the protest, including two "spooning" women:

The announcement sign is displaying the words "Train Won't Stop" at nearly-deserted Powell St. Station, where BART workers wait around to cut very large locks or chains that never materialized.

That photo at the top of this post? The one of a spoon-banger in action at Powell St. BART? The announcement sign behind him is displaying the BART management's admonishment that riders may not "drink, smoke, or play loud music inside the BART paid area and on trains."

Here's to keeping things in perspective....

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
What Martin Luther King actually did
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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The Berkeley Art Museum is Dead - Long Live the Berkeley Art Museum!

On December 21, 2104, the Berkeley Art Museum closed its doors on Bancroft Way for the last time.

Opened in 1970, the BAM building has been judged seismically unsafe, and word is that its next inhabitant will need to cough up $50-100 million to retrofit it. Meantime, BAM is building a new museum in Downtown Berkeley, scheduled to open in early 2016.

From the museum's mission and history page:
The museum was founded in 1963 following artist and teacher Hans Hofmann’s donation of forty-five paintings and $250,000 to the University; today BAM/PFA’s collection of work by this important Abstract Expressionist artist remains the largest in any museum internationally. An architectural competition to design the new museum building was announced in November 1964, and the following year San Francisco architect Mario Ciampi and associates Richard L. Jorasch and Ronald E. Wagner were named the winners. The jury declared, “The richness of this building will arise from the sculptural beauty of its rugged major forms and will not require costly materials or elaborate details. We believe this design . . . can become one of the outstanding contributions to museum design in our time.” Construction began in 1967, and the building opened on November 7, 1970.
Here's what the open, spacious museum looked like on a quiet, late November day this year -- my penultimate visit:

Today, as 100 metronomes ticked and tocked through the final minutes of the signature building's final day as UC Berkeley's campus art museum, the building was packed.

Here's a clip of Sarah Cahill kicking off BAM's final event of the day (pictured in the still photo above): a performance of Hungarian composer György Ligeti’s Poème Symphonique for 100 Metronomes.

Meanwhile, many of the museum's last-day visitors -- encouraged by museum director Larry Rinder -- wandered through the museum's galleries, including this one displaying some of those 45 works by Hans Hofmann, donated by the artist and Cal professor in 1963:

After the metronomes wound down, a crowd gathered outside, for a procession led by Rinder (carrying the paper-mâché giraffe head) and fueled by the New Orleans style music of MJ's Brass Boppers Brass Band:

We paraded through the campus to its West Gate, across Oxford Street from the site of the new museum, still under construction. Here's a clip of the band's spirited rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In as the event wound to a close:

I'm going to miss the old museum. Here's hoping the new building lives up to its predecessor when it opens, in a little more than a year...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
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Meet the Fishers

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Students rebel against hostage-taking in California's higher ed war

I stopped by Wheeler Hall this evening, crossing from the NW corner of the Berkeley campus where I work to look in on the building occupation that began yesterday evening, following a UC Regents committee vote to hold students hostage in a war between California Governor Jerry Brown and UC President Janet Napolitano (who is also a former governor of Arizona, 2003-2009; and former head of the Department of Homeland Security, 2009-2013). It's a war of Titans (remember Cronus, the leader of the Titans? the one who ate his children?).

Here's how the L.A. Times told the story on Tuesday, in an editorial titled A battle for UC's soul:
At issue is whether the 10-campus system will continue to rank among the nation's premier research universities, drawing top students and the best professors from throughout the world, or whether it will slowly shrink its ambitions, becoming a more utilitarian institution that concentrates narrowly on moving students to their bachelor's degrees and into the workforce quickly and efficiently.

UC President Janet Napolitano says that she will ask the Board of Regents to approve the tuition increases Wednesday, although they would not have to go into effect if the the state provides better funding. Gov.  Jerry Brown, who opposes the tuition hikes, points out that he is already planning on increasing the state's contribution 4% a year over the next two years, though he wants to tie those increases to some major changes. Among his suggestions: more online courses, heavier teaching loads for professors, reductions in nonessential research, the admission of a smaller proportion of freshmen and more community college transfers, so that the state can educate college students more inexpensively for their first two years.
The editorial goes on to lay out:
It then concludes with support for UC President Napolitano's plan to hold students feet to the fire until the state coughs up funding to maintain its preeminent public university system.


Students bussed in from all ten UC campuses to protest adoption of this plan to hold them hostage, but the UC Regents committee charged with making the decision voted on Wednesday to make Napolitano's threat real (the full board ratified the committee's decision today). Last night, seeing the writing on the wall, Berkeley students began an ongoing occupation of Wheeler Hall in the heart of the campus; students at UC Santa Cruz are occupying the Humanities 2 building; CNN is also reporting protests at UC Davis and UCLA. Photos are being tweeted from around the state hashtagged #fightthehike.

My read: this is going to be a complicated conflict to narrate through the filter of mainstream media. There are no clear heroes or villains. Governor Brown wants to fight tuition hikes, but he wants to do it by turning California's higher ed treasure into a diploma mill. UC Pres. Napolitano wants to preserve the value of the university she heads, but she's prepared to throw students off the cliff to get her way (not to mention that her moral authority to lead UC is worse than questionable, as students across the state have been arguing since her appointment to the role).

In the wake of Germany's decision to offer free university education to all -- even international students -- I'd like to see UC students call for the same here in California. Do I think that's an achievable demand? Not in the near term. But it calls for a remaking of the world as we have come to know it, and that's what these times call for.

Longtime Daily Kossack Don Mikulecky quoted Peter Kropotkin in a thoughtfully angry (and underappreciated) diary yesterday:
Think about what kind of society you want to live in and then demand that your teachers teach you how to build that society.

Right on the mark...

Related posts on One Finger Typing:
UC Berkeley's anti-apartheid movement: setting the record straight
The Occupy Movement and UC Berkeley's Free Speech Monument
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Chancellor Katehi, Athens Polytechnic, and ... Janet Jackson?
Paying what things cost

Thanks to Brittany M. (@belitebrite) for her image of the Wheeler Hall occupation at Berkeley on 20 Nov 2014. Thanks also to Falcorian for the image of Wheeler Hall: "Wheeler Hall--UC Berkeley--Panoramic". Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 via Wikimedia Commons -