Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Telling lies

I give up. I really do. At least the stupidity of the authors deciding to boycott PEN America's free speech award to Charlie Hebdo has been widely condemned, but some of the mealy-mouthed defences that have been put up are incredible. PEN itself, eloquently "rejecting the assassin's veto," has at least acknowledged the magazine's stated aim as being to "reject forcefully the efforts of a small minority of radical extremists to place broad categories of speech off limits", even if it does hedge them with standard conditionalities about offence and not needing to "endorse the content of Charlie Hebdo's cartoons." Of course the prize for the absolute worst defence, laden with slanders, is in the Guardian. Where else could it be? Here are some of the corkers -
"The satirical weekly has indeed published racist, sexist or offensive cartoons"; "there is no honour in caricaturing the marginalised"; "what Charlie Hebdo now represents – namely sneering and dismissive attitudes towards immigrants across Europe"; "the original decision rather smacks of a white, privileged, smug and superior establishment coming together in solidarity with a publication that some regard as racist.
 Bloody hell; this is a defence?

It is perfectly obvious that all this crap is the result of a deliberate, viral smear campaign. The far left orchestrated it to cover their embarrassment after their beloved far right theocrats committed a mass murder of unarmed leftists and Jews. They launched a campaign of calculated lies in the English-speaking world. And how they succeeded. The truth is that Charlie Hebdo is anti-fascist, anti-racist, forcibly pro-immigrant, and pro-Palestinian. It campaigns against austerity, poverty, inequality and for workers' rights. It is the total opposite of how it has been painted. It is a paper of the radical left. It isn't particularly obsessed with Islamism either, as this infographic, published by Le Monde back in February, makes clear.

Yes, that's right. Out of five hundred and twenty three covers over ten years, Islam only featured seven times. Charlie Hebdo even took the piss out of sport six times more often! Yet its leftist enemies are trying to paint it as an Islamophobic hate rag.

This despicable and indecent propaganda could only work in the English-speaking world. Where else would you find people in such numbers who couldn't be bothered to read the magazine itself, who can't read French and who know nothing of French politics or the prominent incidents that were being satirised. Where else, on the basis of such lazy ignorance, would individuals and news outlets be willing to self-righteously parrot lies?

The authors that protested PEN's award talked of the magazine's "cultural intolerance." Well how about their cultural ignorance? Even without mentioning their moral failure in the face of murder, they stand condemned as a bunch of bloody Francophobes.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Trouble at t' uni

Marina Warner, Alex Preston and Terry Eagleton have mounted the barricades on the streets of higher education to repel the barbarians storming the ivory towers.

The worst and most hyperbolic defence is mounted by Eagleton. High on rhetoric and low on fire-power, he doesn't stand a chance. But the other two have something more substantial to say and Marina Warner's contribution, a follow up to an earlier piece, is particularly thoughtful. But even so, some of their aim is awry. It is clear that something has gone wrong in higher education. I agree; I have lived through it. The question is, what?

First, let's get this straight, being an academic is a privileged job. Even given the difficulties and pressures, being an academic is still a privileged job. For a variety of reasons I took an early retirement. There isn't a day when I don't miss it. There isn't a day when I don't wonder about my decision and think about whether I could or should have held on. Here, in a Greek spring, I can see the attractions of a pension more clearly than I can on a wet day in Manchester, but being an academic is most definitely a privileged job and I was lucky to have been one.

Now, let's look at some of their targets.

1. The war on the humanities.
The main evidence for this is that teaching grant was removed from all humanities subjects and they are now funded through fees alone. However, STEM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Maths) still get some grant. Sounds suspiciously like bias, but it isn't really. Under the new funding regime, with most universities charging top-level fees, humanities subjects got more money per student than before. The problem was that STEM subjects are more expensive to teach and the humanities are more popular. They were in danger of getting less funding. The conclusion was obvious. STEM subjects were at risk. The logic for any university was to pack it with cheaper humanities students. The market had to be modified. Maintaining some teaching grant was a way of ensuring that STEM subjects were not lost, not an act of anti-humanities prejudice.

2. Marketisation.
Because of fees, university teaching is now funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruit. Before the new system, it was funded on the basis of the number of students universities recruited.

3. Privatisation.
All that the new funding system has done is to transfer some funding from the state to the student through higher fees and loans. But the fees are still funded up front by the state and it is likely that many of the loans will be unpaid. There is no sign of the state withdrawing and it is still determined to try and use the tools at its disposal to shape university provision, often for the worse.

4. Bureaucracy.
Yes, it has increased and how. But, part of this increase was necessary. If you want to understand why, read the classic essay, The Tyranny of Structurelessness. For example, when I was a student in the late 70s and early 80s I had no idea why a particular mark was applied to my work. Now we have assessment criteria that can be used to explain why and to challenge judgements if necessary. Clear regulations and information benefits students, but does increase administration. The cosy informal arrangements of an elite system were convenient but exclusive. A mass system needs structure.

5. The rising number of administrators.
This is certainly an indicator of increasing bureaucracy. But what would happen if the number weren't going up? Academics would have to do it all! Administrators should enable academics to be academics by handling much of the paperwork. That is what they are there for. My main complaint was that I didn't have enough administrative support, not too much.

6. Instrumental education and vocationalism.
I actually don't mind if students get a job as a result of their studies.

7. The neo-liberal university.
I am not sure what that means. Neo-liberalism is a theory of economics, not education. If it means that universities are shaped by the dominant political and economic paradigm, what's new about that?

Many complaints consist of ill-defined "boo words" or of things that don't stand up to much scrutiny. But something is still wrong. Very wrong. Crass and poorly thought out policies can be worked around creatively, the real problem is implementation.

Clearer regulation was needed, but this much? An emphasis on helping students to get work and some vocational content isn't a bad idea, but it has translated to a sneering attitude to the arts and humanities and a mad rush to build prestigious business schools and overseas campuses that can sometimes lose money. The various research assessment exercises have been poorly conceived, mitigate against good quality work, are stupidly bureaucratic and have led to the under-valuing of teaching. And there has been a real victim, whether by design or by neglect. Part-time study and adult education have been decimated by the new funding regime.

I have overstated the case for the defence because I wanted to say that there was a rational basis to policy, however poorly designed it turned out to be. I have also brushed away a genuine complaint about the failure to think about the purpose of higher education, other than making a simplistic and dubious causal link between numbers of graduates and economic prosperity. There has been a real external pressure to turn centres of learning and community resources into diploma factories. But the main complaints from academics are about impossible workloads, stress, bullying, exhaustion, casualisation and the erosion of employment rights. This is the result of practice, not policy. And so we have to go back to looking at the old culprit of managerialism.

The exaltation of the manager is one aspect of the ideology, as is the cult of leadership (though I thought that rather fell out of fashion after the nineteen thirties). Both have led a trend away from democratic governance of institutions. However, of prime importance is bureaucracy. Rather than seeing it as either irrational, a manufacturer of "bullshit jobs," or as the product of an excess of zeal, it is important to grasp that bureaucracy is an instrument of power. It doesn't impose structure, but control. Structure needs administration, not bureaucracy. Bureaucracy is a weapon in the battle against autonomy and it is the restriction of autonomy and independent judgement in favour of institutional control that is hurting.

Stalin understood it well. Controlling the bureaucracy rather than commanding the support of the people is the way to power. We are not building neo-liberal institutions, which, after all, would be liberal, but proto-Stalinist ones camouflaged with a veneer of consultations and meetings, endless meetings, giving an illusion of democracy. And there is an irony here. Getting to a position of power does not require competence or even eloquence, all you need is a certain amount of self-regard and cunning. Once there, managers are protected by closed circles of self-interest and the decline of accountability in a managerial institution. At its worst, the results are not impressive. You get a lemming-like following of fashionable policies, from chasing after dodgy money to the current cowardice in defending free speech, whilst the most consistent effect is the rocketing of Vice Chancellor's pay, mirroring the cash grab in the corporate sector.

I know of good managers in good institutions. I understand the pressures that institutions face and the uncertainties that go with funding changes. These can lead to unpalatable choices. But the working lives of academics are outside their control in a way that they used not to be, whilst their managers are less constrained and better paid. It is not a formula for happiness.

Even so, even in these difficult times, never forget that being an academic is a privileged job, that university teaching can be a joy and that the intangible rewards are immense. I miss being one. I miss it intensely.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Twenty years

It is twenty years since Father Ted was first broadcast. Unbelievable. And this is a marvellous feature commemorating it.

What about Ted and reality though?
Some years after Father Ted ended, Linehan and Mathews ran into a real-life priest – always a sticky moment for the men who had portrayed Catholicism as a joke and the Vatican as an all-night disco party. Ted was intended to be crazy and absurd, they said. Nobody really thinks priest are like that. “Lads,” the cleric confided, “you don’t know the half of it.”

Thursday, April 09, 2015

Satire is dead

I emerged from the fog of a bad cold in an unseasonally chilly Greece and, now recovered, picked up the Guardian. Or was it the The Daily Mash? Has the Guardian become a self parody?

First up was a strange rant about how the cause of jihadi radicalism in Britain is apparently, er, David Cameron. Oh. Well, he "got away with bombing Libya (with barely a thought for the poor Libyans ...)" - other than responding to the Libyans' increasingly desperate requests to bomb Libya of course, or, to be more precise, bomb the Libyan army that was busy killing them. But since then he has encouraged jihadis by calling "for the overthrow of the secular Syrian government" and "to demonise it out of all proportion" (with 200,000 dead, overflowing torture chambers and around nine million displaced I want to know what would be proportionate in the demonisation stakes). But he had a clinching argument. He insisted that we "remember, this is the same President Assad who was having tea with the Queen in 2006." Of course, I had forgotten. How could I be so silly?

So was this pro-Assad propaganda a Seumas Milne column or by someone from the SWP or the Stop the War Coalition? No, it wasn't a stopper, it was a former British ambassador. I think that the diplomatic service may need to look at their recruitment policies.

So, with a mounting sense of despair I turned to the next article. It was by Naomi Wolf. Please tell me, why does anybody publish Naomi Wolf? Anyway, it started off as a robust defence of free speech, even if her history was embarrassingly wrong. According to her, "Before 1857 it was quite difficult to get arrested for speech in England." Tell that to John Wilkes (1763), Francis Burdett (1820) or Richard Carlile (1819), to mention only the most prominent cases, and it would be helpful to know that the offence of seditious libel had been part of the common law since 1606. Never mind, the main thrust of the argument might have been superficial, but it is a fair point that government restrictions on speech usually fail to suppress ideas. Except that she too is writing about jhadi radicalism and suffers from the standard liberal under-estimation of an ideology that exhorts people to murder strangers and obliterate free speech with violence.

Wolf doesn't bother to get to grips with harm principle, that free speech can be restricted where it can cause harm to others (like 'let's nip off to Iraq, crucify people, throw gays off buildings and rape a few slaves'), nor does she really engage with the fact that most policy makers feel that any response to jihadism has to be multi-layered, combining a range of different measures. Instead, she offers the Mrs Merton solution - "Now, let's have a heated debate..."
If you look at what actually worked in history, you would not be arresting people for “Muslim extremist” thought or antisemitic cartoons, however unpleasant: you would be holding well-covered, widely translated public debates between moderate Muslim critics of extremism and extremist voices, or between Muslim extremist religious advocates and western rabbis or secularists – and tweeting, Facebooking, televising, and commenting on the debate in real time.
 Is this for real? Are you sure it is a serious newspaper? 

I put it down and stared out of the window as a brightly coloured woodpecker flitted between trees before settling on the apple tree and tapped at the bark, its bright red head moving rapidly in a cold breeze. It beat reading the Guardian hands down.