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The fallacy of the proximity argument.

datePosted on 12:43, September 3rd, 2019 by Pablo

Longer term readers may remember my complaining that, as a political scientist, it is burdensome to have non-political scientists wanting to engage me about politics. No layperson would think to approach an astrophysicist and lecture him/her on the finer details of quarks and black holes, but everybody with an opinion feels perfectly entitled to tell me exactly why their views are just if not more accurate than mine when it comes to discussing political phenomena. Some go on to mention that I must have gotten my degrees so that I could become a politician, which is like telling a primatologist that he wants to be a chimp (I have used this analogy before so apologies if you have already read or heard it).

One of the most often used lines that I hear is what I call the “proximity argument.” That is the belief that proximity to an event, situation or process gives one special insights into them and therefore entitles one to opine from a position of purportedly superior insight. In vulgar terms it is the “you don’t live here” or “I was there” argument, in which the fact of being proximately familiar with something confers special argumentative rights when discussing it.

In recent weeks I have been following the lead up to October’s general elections in Argentina, including reading the posts from friends in Argentina on social media. Their opinions are deeply divided between Left and Right-oriented folk, with some of their commentary bordering on hysterical. What they all have in common is that they claim to know better what the “objective” situation is because they are living in Argentina at the moment, so observations from the likes of me, regardless of the fact that I have written professionally about Argentine politics for all of may adult life, do not count because I live outside of the country.

I cannot enumerate the times that people in the US, particularly MAGA morons, discount what I have to say about US politics because “you don’t live here anymore.” This despite my years of government service prior to emigration, my research and writing on various aspects of US foreign policy and military affairs and my ongoing connections to people in politics and government in that country. “You gotta be here,” they say.

Closer to home, I repeatedly hear and read people claim that one can not opine about issues involving Maori if one is not Maori. Most recently, I have watched with concern the unhappiness voiced by members of the NZ Muslim community with the way on which the investigations into the March 15 attacks have proceeded, in particular the way in which the Royal Commission of Inquiry has handled their participation in the process. The claim is made that since they were the targets and subjects of the attacks, Muslims should be front and centre in any investigation into the events that led up to March 15.

Conversely, several prominent commentators–Gerry Brownlee, Lianne Dalziel and Russell Brown amongst them–attacked me in personal terms because of my media commentary that Christchurch had a well- documented history of white supremacism prior to the attacks. Beside the hypocrisy that comes naturally to politicians, one can only assume that their reactions are due to their personal connections to that city, which may have led them to the conclusion that I was attacking the city as a whole rather than a well-known extremist element within it. In other words, they could or would not see the very rotten trees in their particular forest, or will not admit to having known about them (Dalziel still insists that there is no white supremacist “problem”).

Putting on my analyst’s hat, I find that proximity arguments of this sort to be problematic. Of course familiarity with something gives particular insight into it and therefore those closest to an event, situation or process need to be heard when seeking remedies or even just objective understanding of the phenomenon. But proximity also brings with it emotion and subjectivity, both of which are anathema to analytic objectivity.

Years ago I published a collection of essays titled “With Distance Comes Perspective.” The book title was taken from the Spanish phrase “hay que tomar distancia” (“take some distance”), which refers to the fact that one must sometimes step back and put some distance on something in order to understand its objective status. That always reminds me of the children’s story about five blind people touching an elephant–each describes a different beast depending on what part of the elephant they are touching–because the emotion and subjectivity conferred by proximity often makes one blind to the larger realities at play, or at least the bigger picture.

I put together that collection because I gained perspective on the US, and international politics in general, from having moved to NZ and gaining literal, figurative and theoretical distance on great power dynamics by adopting the perspective of a very small democratic state. I found that in order to better understand US foreign policy I needed to move away from it after having spent time in the belly of the beast, so to speak.

That helps explain why the proximity argument is fallacious. It may be necessary to understanding something but it is not sufficient when trying to explain it. In many cases it obscures objective understanding because it clouds the analysis with emotion and/or the particular (often myopic) perspective of specific participants in or observers of an event. Balanced analysis requires objectivity and objectivity more often than not requires neutral distance from the subject of study. Emotion and subjectivity have no place in the analytic mind.

That does not mean that proximate familiarity is not required. All Ph.D. programs in comparative politics worth their reputations require students to acquire language skills and conduct in-country field research as part of their dissertations, preferably through the use of personal interviews, archival research, documentary collection and observer participation in the broader events and context surrounding their studies. The purpose is for the student to gain cultural familiarity with their case study or studies in order to give depth and contextual understanding to the specific research that they are undertaking. For example, one can never fully understand the nature of Argentine football if one does not understand the class and urban/rural divisions that underpin it, be it from club structure and the stadium songs used by fans to the role of organised crime in club governance and the selection process for the national team. For that to happen, one has to spend time there, both in general and in the stadiums.

For me the dissertation process required repeated trips to Argentina in order to conduct research in the Health and Labour Ministries, interview unionists and health policy makers, and run ideas past others in the research institutes to which I was affiliated at the time (all in Spanish, of course). Being raised in Argentina gave me a distinct advantage when it came to moving around and making connections, but I had to put my political beliefs and personal feelings aside when engaging in research and writing because my dissertation committee were not interested in how I felt but in rather what I objectively observed and the analytic conclusions that I reached from said observations (I left the personal stuff for the dedication page of the finished work).

That is something that I have carried with me over the years and, along with things such as inductive versus deductive reasoning, most-similar versus most-different and large-N versus small-N methodologies, that I tried to impart on students during 25 years of academic service. The idea is to use proximity whenever possible but to use it in a broader context where neutral analytic distance is maintained.

All of which is to say that we must not be fooled by those who use the proximity argument when opining about current events or policy issues. Be it measles, land rights, climate change, gun control, political finance, threat assessments or any other matter of contentious public concern, the false expertise of those who rely on the proximity argument must be balanced with the objective appraisals of those who can address the subject dispassionately and knowledgeably whether or not they have immediate connection to what is being discussed.

Confronting academic Taylorists.

datePosted on 08:03, September 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Although the corporate media has not covered it, choosing instead to focus on the university’s fund-raising efforts, the academic and professional staff at the University of Auckland held a one hour strike last week to protest the lack of progress on negotiations for a fair living wage for all staff, especially for those at the lower end of the wage scale. Among other union proposals was the payment of a flat $2.500 increase to everyone covered by the collective contract in lieu of a cost of living increment. In conjunction with a rise in the minimum wage for lower-salaried workers, this would have the greatest positive effect on those struggling to keep afloat in the Auckland market.

University management refuses to negotiate until the budget is decided next month or in November. This runs contrary to traditional practice where pay for academic and professional staff is negotiated prior to the budget being fixed. It follows on more than a decade of erosion of collective benefits for university personnel and the slow but seemingly inexorable weakening of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) as a bargaining agent at the University of Auckland.

The one hour lunchtime strike was well attended, although not massive in size. Shortly after 12:45 the director of Human Resources, a despicable cur if there ever was one, sent out a group email to TEU members advising them that their pay would be docked for the one hour they were on strike. He went on to request confirmation from the recipient that s/he was indeed on strike so that their pay could be deducted.

There followed a blizzard of emails in response. I am on the TEU mailing list so I got to read them all. Other than one person, all were critical of the university’s approach to employment relations. What stood out were the dozens of stories about countless overtime hours worked with no pay (the academic standard contract is for 37.5 hours per week), the abysmal lack of morale and trust in management amongst staff, and the psychological, emotional and physical toll the stress of working at the UA was taking on its staff. The stories were sad and many gut-wrenching.

These stories came from professors, lecturers, IT specialists, counsellors, librarians, tutors, administrative support staff–you name it, they had something to say. Some people asked how the deduction would work since they were not on an hourly wage. Others pointed out that they were on  leave but would gladly see their pay deducted in solidarity with those who attended the strike.  Many pointed out that they were at their offices during lunch hour working out of loyalty to students and colleagues but would gladly have their pay docked in solidarity with the strikers. Some suggested that the deducted pay should go to charity, at least until it was pointed out to them that the university is a registered  charity and the “donations” could well go into the VC’s pocket or as bonuses to his management team members (the VC is the highest paid public servant in NZ and the senior management team all make in excess of NZ$150K/year).

What became clear from the responses is that behind the facade of the University of Auckland being a “world class” university there is a deeply dishonest and unethical management that is seeking to destroy the TEU Auckland branch and thereby further subjugate its staff to its academic Taylorist precepts. I have written about this before, so no need here to reiterate what it entails. The bottom line is that the University is being hollowed out at its core, in a workplace where academics and academic support staff are reduced to time card punching and asking permission to use the loo while the ranks of middle and upper management bean counters proliferate like rats.

I have been critical of the TEU in the past for valuing wage increases over workplace control (including in the classroom, where there is increasing interference by middle level managers with no teaching experience). I always through that it was a bad idea to trade off regular wage increases for workplace control, which extends to promotion and research leave policy. But what is done is done and now the university management is in the final stages of its assault on the union.

The time to make a stand is now. Having read the emailed responses I decided to write a letter of support to the Auckland TEU and its members. This is what I wrote:

“Dear All,

As a former TEU member and academic staff member at the University of Auckland, I want to add my support to your efforts to restore the university to its former position as a fair and equitable workplace. Unfortunately, having dealt with Mr. Phipps as well as other management lackeys at close range, I believe that yours will be an uphill battle. Their objective is to break the union so that with a few exceptions you will eventually be subject to precarious individual, often part time contracts and thereby will be more easily exploited. The trend is already apparent and the situation is worse for junior staff and those not considered to be “stars.” Given the tight academic labour market and the already low union density amongst professional and academic staff (particularly the latter), it will be difficult to individually resist this project if the TEU is further undermined as a collective bargaining agent.

Mr. McCutcheon was a successful union-buster in his life before being appointed VC. Nothing in his tenure at UA suggests that he has moderated his views on the utility of collective agents, and the tone of Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice is a reflection of that. It should not be forgotten that this management team at UA is not known for its honesty or fairness when it comes to employment relations. “Good faith” is not part of their vocabulary. Many of you will know of the efforts by the SMT to offer financial incentives to senior academics to either quit or not join the union. You will have seen the replacement of departing permanent full time staff with part time hires. Given that there are academics who support or go along with the VC’s approach for self-serving reasons, the struggle to return civility and fairness to employment relations at the UA will be a tough one.

I would not be surprised if the many tales of unpaid hours owed to staff outlined in the barrage of email replies to Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice will be seen by the VC and his minions as a sign that their Taylorist approach to academia is working just fine. They need to be disabused of that notion.

The key to defeating the academic Taylorists is to assiduously defend and increase union membership and to strictly and unwaveringly adhere to any calls for direct action such as labour service withdrawals (be it strikes, slow downs or work-to-rule). The call for a living wage and fair pay for professional (non-academic) staff is a step in the right direction. However, much ground has already been lost in terms of workplace control, academic freedom, promotion and leave, so the time to regain some measure of balance in the employment relationship is rapidly disappearing. The nature and timing of the direct actions to be taken henceforth in defence of the union and its members will be decisive, and must receive unanimous support..

You should not expect favourable media treatment. Today’s editorial in the Herald about the University’s fundraising is indicative of the pro-management bias of the for-profit news outlets. A concerted PR campaign will be required to counter-balance the view, propagated by the SMT, that all is well at the university and that if anything, academics have things easy when compared to other wage earners.The public needs to hear the stories told in your emails to Mr. Phipps.

There comes a time when people can be pushed only so far. Perhaps that time has come for the TEU Auckland branch and its members. Although I no longer belong to the academic community, I understand your struggle and deeply empathise with it. I wish you the best of luck and success in staving off the managerial offensive.

Kia kaha!”

I can only hope that if the union does make a stand, that it not be its final one.

Crowdsourcing opportunity: The 5th Eye.

datePosted on 14:13, June 4th, 2015 by Pablo

I had the opportunity some time go to be interviewed by the one of the director/producers of the documentary “Operation 8” for a forthcoming film about the GCSB and its role in the 5 Eyes signal intelligence network. These good people are part of the grassroots network that attempts to keep those in power accountable to the folk they supposedly serve, and while I may not agree with them on a number of issues I have no doubts about their sincerity, commitment and interest in the common good.

In order to finish the new documentary, titled “The 5th Eye,”  there is a crowdsourcing effort underway that is well worth supporting. The details are here. Besides information about donating, there is a short video trailer included on the page as well as updates and other valuable information. By all means check it out and help this film on its way to fruition.

If you support truly independent film-making in Aotearoa, this is an excellent opportunity to not only talk the talk, but to walk the walk.

Starting ’em early.

datePosted on 12:49, August 18th, 2014 by Pablo

Here at KP we believe that it is never too early to get the kids thinking about politics.

early start

Not surprising.

datePosted on 15:28, May 12th, 2013 by Pablo

In 2007 a certain university lecturer, fed up with the managerial push to admit sub-standard and unqualified foreign students in pursuit of revenue, with the resultant pressure placed on lecturers to pass these students regardless of their performance, wrote a rude email to one such student who had failed to deliver a essay on time and who used a tired excuse of family death to justify the late submission. Although it was later proven that no evidence of any death was offered to any university authority and that there were mitigating factors surrounding the intemperate email, the lecturer was sacked for serious misconduct after selected contents of the email exchange with the student were made public by some of her associates (in violation of university confidentiality policy regarding emails).

The dismissal was later found to be unjustified and some monetary reparations were made, but after 25 years of involvement in university teaching and research in several countries (a rarity in NZ), the lecturer never worked in NZ academia again in spite of several applications for NZ university jobs and a very strong record of teaching, research, fellowships and community outreach, especially when compared to NZ peers.

I recount this sorry tale because the real crime committed by this lecturer was to challenge prior to the fact, then jeopardize with his email the revenue streams provided to NZ universities by foreign students willing to pay full fees of 20K or more but who often had no qualifications in their chosen field of study or who could not speak or write comprehensible english (as was the case with the student in question). This began long before National became government, but is now said to be worse because of twenty percent cuts in public spending on tertiary education.

The quest for foreign fees is such that when the same ex-lecturer was suggested some time later as a potential member of a foreign area focused business board, government and education officials purportedly objected on the grounds that his presence could disrupt recently-signed educational agreements between NZ and several countries in that region (this, in spite of his never having had an issue with students from that region and having significant visibility in academic fields relevant to it).

Such is the obsession with using foreign students as revenue generators. The trouble is that obsession has led to a gross lowering of academic standards for admission, passing and graduation of foreign fees paying students. This has had unpleasant results.

Long before National became government, instances of plagarism and bogus excuses for failure to complete course requirements on the part of foreign students well versed in how to abuse staff pastoral care responsibilities was already a thorn in the side of many lecturers, particularly those concerned about the quality of degrees and the well-being of students who worked hard to meet requirements. Managerial pressure to allow sub-standard students to pass is reflected in performance reviews and promotion criteria. The steady erosion of academic union influence eased the way for imposition of managerial edicts focused on quantity rather than quality of incoming students and graduates, to which were added academic restructuring projects that eliminated departments and courses deemed irrelevant to business or incompatible with profit-making.

Given increased academic job uncertainties in such environments, lecturers feel compelled to toe the managerial line, particularly in light of that ex-lecturer’s well publicized experience. The overall impact has been to devalue the reputation of many NZ university departments and programs while opening up a pandora’s box of predictable as well as unintended consequences.

One manifestation of the downside of the push to put high fees-paying foreign bums in seats has gone commercial: institutionalized ghost writing and student identity impersonation on behalf of Chinese students enrolled in NZ tertiary institutions. Some good student stories follow on the subject.

This situation has been going on for over a decade and has been the subject of repeated internal and public complaints (for example, public disclosure about the lack of security vetting of Pakistani and Saudi students seeking degrees in chemistry, chemical engineering and physics, or the well-reported use of Chinese students by PRC intelligence). The government and higher education institutions have been repeatedly warned about the dodgy side of foreign student admissions but have done nothing prior to media publication of the details.

I am not surprised by this commercialized academic cheating because it fills a market niche, and that niche was created by those who thought that NZ higher education instruction was a tradable export commodity for non-English speakers regardless of their cultural context. But with market opening comes consumer expectations, and under the current NZ tertiary foreign education model the expectation from foreign student consumers is to receive a first world-style degree by buying third world practical and ethical standards.

Like in so many other policy areas, unprincipled opportunity-takers on both sides of the process have benefitted at the expense of the common good. After all, and revenue-generation aside, encouraging dishonesty in any endeavour is bound to be deleterious over the long term.

A dialogue with Alwyn Poole on charter schools

datePosted on 12:25, September 19th, 2012 by Lew

Following my recent post on charter schools and the Canterbury education restructure I received an email from Alwyn Poole, principal of the private Mt Hobson Middle School, disagreeing with my assessment. The ensuing discussion was good, so I’ve posted it here with Alwyn’s agreement. (Below the fold).

Read the rest of this entry »

They say that the first question people from Christchurch ask each other when they meet is “what school did you go to?” I’m not from Christchurch, and I hated school — high school especially.* I’m not a teacher, though for three (long) years I did teach — mostly in public schools, albeit in another country. I liked teaching no better than I liked being a student, but both experiences demonstrated to me how integral public schooling is to a society, and to the individual communities that make it up.

The principal of Christchurch Boys’ High School, Trevor McIntyre articulated the importance of schools to communities in Christchurch on Nine to Noon (starts about 36 minutes in):

You talk about a community, a community has a heart. You’ve got rural communities which are clearly defined, but in a city like Christchurch you’ve got suburbs. And traditionally those suburbs have contained a heart, and typically the heart was a general store, a post office, a hall, a church and a school. And if you look around the city, the general stores are gone, to supermarkets. The post offices are gone. The halls have gone because they’re too expensive to maintain and now we’ve got bigger and better facilities. The churches, if they were still there, have been damaged in the earthquake and are probably not going to be retained. The last vestige of a community centre is a school.

On the face of it, this is why the government’s slash-and-burn approach to Christchurch’s schools is destructive: because it further damages communities that have already suffered considerable harm from two years of earthquakes and a global financial crisis. The fact that the government’s education restructure in Christchurch is proceeding in tandem with the government’s roll-out of its charter schools policy makes it worse.

Public education is of the community, by the community, for the community. Public schools are run by boards of trustees — members of a community, elected by their peers. Zoning ensures the right of those living in a community to attend their community’s schools. Teachers usually commit to a school and a community, often across generations. For all their differences in socio-economic background, culture, ethnicity and so on, New Zealand children share the right to a high-quality education in the same classrooms as each other; not only learning the same curriculum, but learning it together — with each other and from each other. There are exceptions like the Grammar Zone phenomenon, but by and large this generalisation is true. Beyond education, this socialisation is crucial to building the tight-knit, diverse communities that we all think New Zealand is made up of — and I’d argue that this effect of universal public education is more important to the nation’s wellbeing than a curriculum increasingly tuned to producing effective workers for the neoliberal economy.

Charter schools, by design, will tend not to produce this community socialisation effect. They will likely not be run, staffed by, and attended by the members of the communities in which they exist, and will certainly not be ubiquitous within those communities. Due to their special character and possible discretion in granting admissions, pupils at these schools will tend to be demographically and culturally — and maybe ideologically — streamed, and will be similarly taught. As such, charter schools will tend to fragment communities rather than unite them, producing silos of different levels of education, different norms of behaviour and belief, within a society that is already stratified, and is becoming more so.

This is unfortunate, but their niche status and diversity is not the worst thing about them — vive la difference, to an extent at least. The worst thing is the fact that they are to be funded by New Zealand communities but not accountable to those communities; they will not be a positive-sum addition to the diversity of New Zealand’s society and its education system, but a zero-sum substitution. Funding for charter schools will contend with funding for public schools, and the growth of charter schools in a community will constrain the growth of public schools operating there. Even this in itself would not be a terrible problem if it were a level playing field, but charter schools will not be subject to the same requirements as public schools are. They will not be required to teach the same curriculum, to accept all applicants from their communities, to employ qualified and registered teachers, and will be exempt from other measures of accountability.

This is a breach of the social contract under which schools operate. If you take a community’s money to run your school in place of a public school, you inherit the obligations that such a public school would bear — obligations to teach the children of those communities well, to teach them together, and to teach them to the community’s standards. Charter schools fail at all three. They may teach well, but they may not, as they are not required to teach to the curriculum or employ properly-qualified teachers. If they exercise control over who they accept, they cannot legitimately be said to be teaching their community. And as they are not required to be run by members of their community, again, if they end up teaching to their community’s standards it is by good fortune rather than good design. That they will be able to take money out of community schools without being bound to deliver education to the community’s standards is an obvious breach of these obligations, and the sort of violation that is crystal-clear to the proponents of charter schools in other areas: they are perfectly happy to impose all manner of onerous and punitive constraints upon struggling solo mothers on the grounds that we are “funding their lifestyle”, but are disappointingly unwilling to accept the same when it applies to their own enterprises.

There are two other destructive aspects to this policy: first, it is a legislative end-run around one of the strongest remaining functional union movements we have, the teacher’s unions who, contrary to the propaganda, have played a crucial role in maintaining the high quality and low cost of our education system. The government has figured that it can’t bust them, so it’ll just bypass them.

Second, this is large-scale social engineering, an experiment being conducted on the damaged communities and struggling people of Christchurch who, resilient although they might be, need to retain and rebuild what remains of their communities, rather than have them redefined and renovated from afar and by private interests with private motivations. It’s an experiment that places at risk a generation of students and teachers, and the communities they form. It is an experiment being conducted on people who, the government seems to think, are vulnerable and still too busy trying to put their lives back together to organise a meaningful resistance. I guess we’ll see about that.

Quite apart from the hypocrisy of this government, which was swept to power by backlash against the Clark government’s “social engineering” policies, this sort of experimentation is unethical. The government owes Christchurch better than to treat it as a petrie dish. They’ve suffered enough; let the clipboard-bearing wonks poke and measure them no longer. The government’s responsibility is to support Christchurch and to assist it in rebuilding its communities, and to this end the government has a responsibility to fund and support public schools that are of, by and for those communities, around which people can rally. Special character schools are well and good for what they are, and if people want to teach in their own ways and to their own standards, let them do so — but let them pay for their privilege themselves. No funding without accountability.

L

* I hated it, and for the most part it hated me, but I should say I met most of my dearest friends there — including my wife. Again: community.

Performing to spec

datePosted on 19:03, May 29th, 2012 by Lew

At the Dim-Post, a searing explanation of how class-size dogma works in the real world, by a teacher. He or she describes The Dumb Class of 15, who struggle with the assistance of their teachers to barely pass; and The Smart Class of 30, who are underresourced and consequently underperform, but pass because they’re, well, smart. And then Treasury looks at the data.

They look at one sheet of results and say “Look here – the class with 30 all got Achieved, and the class with 15 all got Achieved too. That means, statistically, class size doesn’t make a difference. Let’s cram forty of the little firestarters in there next year!”

No word on what happens to The Average Class, who have neither the advantage of adequate teaching resources, nor “smarts”.

But clearly, it’s all the fault of the teachers. They’re messing with the Natural Order Of Things.

By wasting so much resource on The Dumb Kids who are never going to amount to anything anyway, they disadvantage The Smart Kids, preventing them from realising their potential. Those Smart Kids are essentially being forced to subsidise the underclass — in their childhood as it will inevitably be in their adulthood, supporting the unproductive bludgers all around them.

So no sympathy for teachers. If they would just let The Dumb Kids fail, as the laws of nature and the market intended, The Smart Kids would perform to their full ability, soon enough we’d have all the productivity growth we could possibly want, and the government would have plenty of money to afford tax cuts for The Smart Kids’ parents. Since the teachers have sabotaged the education system by trying to tilt the scale in favour of The Dumb Kids, the government really has no choice but to implement a system that reverses that tilt by rewarding excellence, to ensure that the education system performs to operating spec, where The Smart Kids succeed and The Dumb Kids fail.

Just as nature, and the market, intended.

L

Edit to add: Phil Sage has obliged us all by making pretty much this exact argument on the square, in comments on the original thread. Thanks, Phil!

Mooting Mutu

datePosted on 11:09, September 7th, 2011 by Pablo

Since my name was taken in vain in comparison with Margaret Mutu and her recent remarks on immigration, I would like to set the record straight as to why the comparison is false.

Margaret Mutu is a racial polemicist who received her professorship as a PC sinecure from an Auckland University administration concerned about placating key constituent groups. She is a second rate rate academic with a third rate publication record espousing fourth rate post-dependency and post-modern subaltern-focused theories. She publishes in obscure journals, mostly without peer review, and in crony academic volumes. Her books are published by local presses and receive no international mention.

She has nothing to say about the bitter employment relation disputes between the Auckland University management and its academic staff, perhaps because she is rumored to have been bought off by the management as part of that silence. She likes to talk S***t about race relations, and believes that it is impossible for non-whites to be racist. She is not the only one to think this–there are people in my old department who share that belief.

I was an internationally well respected scholar and teacher who was dismissed for sending a rude email (which was unprofessional, to be sure) to an utterly unqualified and hopeless foreign student who as it turns out invented an excuse to avoid an assignment (as happens often at Auckland). During the time I was at Auckland I published two books and over forty peer reviewed articles, chapters and reviews in major international disciplinary journals. During that time and in spite of the fact that I gave away eight years of seniority to take the Auckland job, I never made it past the Senior Lecturer rank. Now I have been blacklisted and am out of academia.

Because I said that the student’s excuse was preying on Western liberal guilt and thus were culturally driven, I was branded a racist. After litigation I was barred from returning to my career in exchange for a small monetary settlement (due to the fact that I could not afford the costs of a court case when the University had spent nearly 1 million NZ dollars keeping me out). Mutu was on the side of those who claimed I was racist even though we have never met and she was aware of my non-compromising and egalitarian atttiude towards students. Her commitment to excellence in education is, to say the least, questionable.

I was fired for jeapordising the university’s foreign student revenue stream. Mutu did no so such thing, as she only annoys white people who will send their students to the 82nd ranked university anyway. After all, where are they going to go? To a NZ university ranked 180th or so? (For the record, I taught three years at a university ranked 27th-32nd in annual rankings after my Auckland dismissal, so the place got worse after I left).

Needless to say, I have no time for Ms. Mutu and her rants. It offends me that she lumps me–an American raised in South America and who has been involved in struggles that she can only pontificate about–with Afrikkaners with attitudes.

But it offends me more that just because she says offensive things, people demand that she be fired. For better or (in this case worse), universities are supposed to be bastions of the offensive, the profane, the unfashionable and even the idiotic, simply because the role of the academe is to foster the clash of ideas and a culture of healthy, if not intense intellectual debate about subjects both esoteric and contemporary. Just because someone’s views are provocative does not mean that they should not be heard, and that is where academia plays a role.

So even if I believe that VC Stuart McCutcheon in an unethical and corrupt bully with a lot of skeletons in his closet that need to be exposed and who has an abiding hatred of intellectuals and union members (since he is neither), I applaud his defense of Ms. Mutu’s remarks. She may be offensive, and indeed quite stupid, but that is her right as an academic. It was at the point of her hire that the mistake was made, but once her position was enshrined, however bogus the rationale, she has a right to use that pulpit for public commentary without fear of employment retribution. She may not be exactly the conscience of society, but her role as a polemicist enlives its discourse. Hence, I believe that she should be retained, however overpaid she may be.

As for me–it is past time to “get a real job.”

 

Rioting Poms.

datePosted on 11:57, August 9th, 2011 by Pablo

A short while ago we were treated to the spectacle of a Royal Westminster wedding, a royal tour of Canada and the US, then another lesser royal wedding. The UK and colonial media went crazy with 24/7 coverage of the fairy tale personae involved, and the image conveyed was of stability and continuity in British foundational politics.  All was well in the Realm.

In the months since the first royal celebration things have grown dimmer. There is the hacking scandal in which politicians and the police appear to be complicit in the illegal tapping of private information by media corporations (primarily but not exclusively Murdoch-owned assets). Added to this sign of elite criminal coziness, now there is a police shooting followed by wildcat riots that represent criminal opportunism rather than outrage about the death itself. The UK media are swamped with reporters, police spokespersons and politicians all chanting in unison about the “mindless thuggery” and criminality of the youth who are widening the scope of violence beyond Tottenham and London itself.

The official emphasis on criminality cannot hide a number of things that depict a reality that s a far cry from royal bliss. The youth involved, while criminally opportunistic in their looting and vandalism, are a mix of ethnicities, but all seeming of working class or unemployed status (On TV I actually saw some young Hassidic Jews amongst the rioters in Tottenham). Some may have participated in earlier demonstrations and rioting about restrictions on access to higher education and the cost of basic services. They appear to be coordinated–in yet another tweeter and smart phone fashion–enough to stay a step ahead of the thinly stretched British Police. The fire service is not attending to full alarm fires because of fears for their security and the Police cannot predict when the next smash, burn and grab will happen. The mob is ahead of the Man, and the mob is angry.

So far the British government has declined to send in the army even though suggestions have been made that they have very robust anti-riot capabilities in Northern Ireland. The language used to justify that non-action is precious: the government states that it does not deploy such hard assets on British soil. So the riot police in London chase rioters using shields, helmets, horses and batons while the British Army uses armoured personnel carriers, water cannon trucks and live ammunition to keep the peace in Belfast and beyond. Some Imperial habits are hard to break, even though the Empire is long gone and its post-colonial consequences have come home to roost in the capital itself.

The hard fact is that the criminality of the rioters is a political act whether or not those involved or the government and corporate media would like to admit it. At a time when the PM, Police Commissioner, Mayor of London, and assorted other leading officials were on vacation in places like Ibiza, Tuscany and Milos, the youth now on riotous display swelter in the housing estates where unemployment, racial separatism, ethnic conflict and everyday economic insecurity are rife. Like their counterparts in any number of less developed countries, they can see up close the material lifestyles and commodity consumption of the royals, celebrities, sportsmen and corporate elites, but do not have (and likely will never have) the means of access to them. Worse yet, they live in a world where the institutional framework is stacked against them, leading to the violent turn inwards when the opportunity presents itself. The Police response is to ask parents to lock up their children.

Be it Marx, Luxemburg, Lenin, Guevara, Marighella, Ayman al-Zawahari, or Muqtada al-Sadr, revolutionaries understand the potential of the criminal mass engaged in collective violence. Lumpenproletarians are the street vanguard who, however unconsciously, help to bring social contradictions to a head and expose the weakness of the elite response and the inherent fragility (sclerosis?) of the status quo as a whole. Where instigated or abetted by politically conscious cadres (and there is some evidence of this at play here), their actions are designed to accelerate the organic crisis of the State, in which economic, social and political cleavages overlap and congeal into compound fractures not resolvable by force, reform-mongering or after-the-fact piecemeal pacification. Given the ongoing repercussions of the 2008 recession and the increasingly global debt crisis, and no matter how they are disguised by ethnic and religious division, the structural foundations for a larger class war in the UK may be fixing in place.

This does not mean that the British government will not be able to quell the disturbances this time around. But what these riots may be is a dress rehearsal for more to come, perhaps in conjunction with the Olympics next year, where militant planners accelerate the pace, focus and intensity of mass collective violence at a time when the British elite are exposed to global scrutiny and their security resources are already working at full capacity. That raises the issue of whether the official approach to rioters will shift to the more lethal Northern Irish “solution” set, and whether those charged with adopting a more lethal approach will have the ideological conviction to respond in such a way to the actions of fellow citizens rather than foreigners (I note that it will be possible for the official narrative  to scapegoat “outsiders” drawn from minority ethnic communities that hold non-Western beliefs, but even that may fail to overcome foot soldier or beat police reluctance to turn their weapons on their own).

In any event, we should see the riots for what they really are: an expression of mass subordinate discontent and disaffection, the product of profound alienation, expressed through collective criminal violence operating in seemingly opportunistic and decentralised fashion in the face of official incompetence or lack of will. That, by most reasoning, is a good sign of a pre-revolutionary situation, one that has the potential to become more of an existential threat to the status quo should tactical guidance and coherent ideological justification be given to it. After all, if what we are experiencing is a crisis of capitalism in the liberal democratic world, then it was only a matter of time before superstructural conditions and precipitating events would combine into a violent rejection of the system as given in countries in which the societal contradictions were most apparent. Be it in Greece, in France, in Spain or now in the UK, should these contradictions continue to fester and combine, it will not be Tea Party-type clones that will lead the insurrectionary charge, nor will they be as polite.

 

PS: Before Red Dave and other ideologically militant readers opine that I am belatedly joining their ranks, let me state that I do not see this as the beginning of a global revolution or necessarily of one in the UK. It is a pre-revolutionary moment, which means that the UK government still has the ability to engage in divide-and-conquer, selective application of force and reform-mongering tactics (along the lines I mentioned with regard to the Arab uprisings in an earlier  post dedicated to them). There is a fair bit of ground to cover before the Arab Spring gives way to a Red European summer.

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