The Ministry of Silly Thoughts

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Month: February, 2013

Whistle Blowing Day

Students for a Democratic UC, an organization I am a member of, recently organized an action called “Blow the Whistle on Privatization,” where we all called in on the same day to the UC-wide whistleblower’s number to repeat on all the violations of ethics related to privatization. I gave a short speech for the occasion, and thought to include the text here — I’ve left in all the emphases I used to guide my delivery, because you know, it’s a speech, and as Nietzsche tells us, writing is only good insofar as it gets “the signs” right…*

*Or something like that. I can’t remember the exact quote at the moment…

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          Good afternoon everyone, it is awesome to be out here with you. My name is Robin Marie, I am graduate student of US History here, and I wanted to talk a little bit about what we are doing out here and why it matters. But I am going to start with a bit of an embarrassing story. About nine years ago, I wrote a story in the student newspaper at UC San Diego, where I went to undergrad. The story was about a recent student protest against rising fees, and I argued that while it was unfortunate that student fees were going up, the fact of the matter was that there was a budget crisis in California, and ultimately we all have to cut corners and sacrifice in order to get California out of the red. This, of course, is a common way of thinking about fee increases and budget crises and is often what we’re told when we demand that public education in California be made affordable for everyone.

 But I was wrong. Because what I did not understand then, is that budget crises do not just appear, naturally, out of thin air. Budget crises are the result of politics – in short, the result of the struggle over resources and power that takes place every day. And right now, and for almost two decades now, public education in not only California but the whole country has been losing this struggle – less and less public money has been provided to the UC, while more and more private money has been supplementing this loss. All of you out here know this – a major source of this new private money comes from hiking up your fees. But what not everyone understands is that this has not just unfolded willy-nilly, the result of a million unintentional actions. On the contrary – there is a powerful coalition of people throughout this country, from bankers to manipulative politicians in both parties, who have an interest in privatizing the UC system. We are here today to blow the whistle on this bullshit. We are calling in to the UC-wide Whistleblower’s Number, which is 800-403-4744 to report on all the ways in which UC administrators and the UC Regents have been violating standards of ethics in the process of either encouraging privatization or refusing to stand up against it.

 Let me give you just one example of such a violation. Richard Blum, a member of the Board of Regents, is the largest investor in two firms devoted to for-profit education. What this means is that Richard Blum has an invested interest in the death of public education – for the more people who are pushed out of attending the UC system because of rising fees, the more likely that they will be driven into the private education options he has an invested interest in. This is what is commonly known as a conflict of interest. Why should this man be on the governing board of a system of public higher learning? But Dick Blum is only one man, and the problem is much deeper than that. Almost everyone on the Board of Regents is a member of the 1 percent – these are not people invested in public education, these are people whose interests, associations, and ideology aligns them with the same forces which are leading to privatization. How the hell are they overseeing the well-being of the UC?

In case I am being confusing, let me be clear: this situation is seriously fucked-up.  (SLOW DOWN) Public education in California is currently in the process of being destroyed. This is not going to happen all at once, and there will be set-backs to this process – I am happy, for example, that Prop 30 passed this fall; this will provide important emergency funds to the UC. However, do not think, for one second, that this means everything is fixed now; that the people and the power behind privatization have gone away or been defeated. Politics in California and in this country was not reversed by this single ballot initiative. So we have to continue to fight, and refuse to passively be a part of this process.

  Let me close with a thought on why this matters. Why should we want to throw ourselves in this fight against privatization? After all, I know most of you right now are just worried about what the hell you are going to do once you get out of here – if you are going to be able to find a job, and if you’re going to be able to avoid having to take a job that will make you miserable. I know it’s frightening, and I know it might seem easier to keep your head down, get your degree, get out and enter the race. But here’s the thing : Every society needs spaces and institutions not dedicated to generating profit for private gain. Every society needs spaces and institutions where public goods, such as knowledge, citizenship, and democracy, are the purpose of the institution. Unless this is the case, there is no place in society where we can go where we will be anything other than commodities. You may think you just want to get out of school now, but where will you be headed to? What kind of jobs will you be getting? How will you be treated there? Are these jobs going to be enough to sustain a life of dignity for yourself and for your family and for your friends? In this time of rising inequality, these are serious questions which are seriously related to the question of privatization. Because here’s the thing – if you let them commodify you here, in this university, then there will be nothing to stop them from commodifying you out there, in every nook and cranny where you try to make a life for yourself. And is this what you want to be the rest of your life, a commodity? Is this how you wanted to be treated, as a product rather than a human being? Because let me tell you, I sure as hell do not.

 So let’s do something about this fucked-up situation and refuse to hand over some of the last remaining public institutions of America – let’s stand up and say, I am a student of the University of California, and I will NOT BE COMMODIFIED.

Things I think about when editing my dissertation.

My favorite joke in all of the The Muppet Christmas Carol — and there are a lot of good ones to choose from.

If you want to get straight to the punch, fast-forward to :47.

Dystopia, 2013.

I am a happy person. I enjoy my life. And I certainly do not proscribe to the argument that because I am the recipient of class and racial privilege, that I ought to flagellate myself on a daily basis and avoid all enjoyment of these advantages in some misguided belief that self-hatred and denial will make up for the accident of my birth.

However, all this being said, I am nonetheless a creature of the left. And when you’re on the left, you can’t – nor should you – go much more than a day without, at the minimum, thinking about the unfairness of these advantages. And beyond thinking about them, what you really ought to be doing is working – if not every day, then most of them – in whatever way you can to make your privileges no longer your privileges but everyone’s rights: or, if it seems appropriate, to get rid of such privileges altogether.

This work can take place in any number of ways, from the small to the very great. It could be posting a story on facebook that you know will get you flak from your conservative relatives, or it could organizing an action of hundreds or thousands of people. But you’ve got to get it out of your head – you’ve got to make your behavior, in some discernible manner, contribute to the erosion of social injustice.

This is the consciousness that I live with as a member of the left. It’s the awareness all of us on the left live with, and struggle with, as we figure out to what degree we want or have to participate in the surrounding culture we cannot entirely escape. And that negotiation is about as messy as it gets, and I have nothing but empathy for all us trying to navigate it.

Because here’s the thing. We’re the exceptions. By highlighting this, I am not meaning to congratulate us on being the rare and the few to see the truth – most likely somehow we just lucked out in being exposed to the hard work of other likeminded people at some crucial point and time. And it is not hard to understand, given the incredibly powerful hegemony of the forces we are up against, why we are a minority. If so many people are blind, it is because it can in fact be very difficult to see.

And yet still, I get sad sometimes. I get a sharp feeling of dystopia that creeps up on me suddenly and grips me for a matter of moments before I can shake it off and return to my default mode of accepting and enjoying the everyday world as it is. These moments come when I am neck-deep in thinking about where we are today.

Right now, the public university is in the process of being destroyed. The very idea of public education as a right is under attack, and education is swiftly being transformed into yet another commodity in a culture full of almost nothing but commodities. Meanwhile, inequality is growing, and the 1 percent are sucking the dreams and dignity out of the rest of us. There has been resistance. But just as many people have gone along with it in true American form, believing always in a boot-strap ideology so wrong and so full of bullshit that it must qualify as one of the most sinister and outrageous lies a society ever swallowed.

Meanwhile, the United States has somehow managed to incarcerate more of its citizens than any other country in the world. Over half of these inmates are non-white. If you are a non-white male, whether or not you will be pulled over or frisked by a cop for no legitimate reason is not a question of if it will happen, but only a matter of when it will happen. Occasionally, someone shoots some video of racist police violence – they might even catch a young Oakland youth being executed in a subway station. But for every video caught, who knows how many similar incidents go unrecorded. The mothers of the children in these videos are still struggling to make ends meet, often working long hours or more than one job, while white middle-class America accuses them of being lazy and enthusiastically pushes them off welfare after their five years are up. As these same mothers try to feed their children, pundits on Fox News wail about the injustice of providing them with food stamps, and conservative trolls on YouTube complain about poor people having the gall to buy steak and lobster with them at the grocery store. Because you see, white middle-class America is not satisfied with the suffering the lower-class endures simply because they are poor – they also need to be denied any enjoyment out of life; they have to repent for their poorness through self-laceration. Simply being poor isn’t a sufficient punishment for adding a few more cents and dollars to their tax return.

So let’s go back to the university, land of middle-class America. I’m handing out flyers for an action a week from now – we’re asking people to call in to the UC Whistleblower’s number to inform the appropriate officials that the university is currently being destroyed – and what’s more!, the people who are responsible for looking over its well-being are members of the 1 percent, invested in the forces that are attacking, not helping, our university. One of them, Dick Blum, is even the largest shareholder in two firms dedicated to for profit education. We think this qualifies as a serious conflict of interest.

But a student doesn’t look very interested in my flyer. They shoot me a look and instead of saying “no thank you,” put their head down and keep right on going. But in the brief flicker of their eyes, I can see the layers of their thoughts laid out before me: “Oh these political people. They’re so annoying. It’s true the pepper-spraying was out of line but they think that everyone should get everything for free. Things could be better but come on. Work hard and you will still get ahead. Or at least I hope so. The economy isn’t looking good. No, it’s getting better. And it’s true, I’ll be ok. I’ll find something when I graduate. I’m not going to turn into one of these people asking for hand-outs and being self-righteous. I’m not like that.”

Or, even worse, they think none of this; their apathy and fear is so thick it prevents them from even getting so far as forming semi-coherent thoughts in defense of the ideology they have absorbed.

And so, it is in moments like this – where in a matter of seconds, both the reality of the extent of social injustice we condone every day, and the extent of both the ignorance and willful oppression that sustains and nurtures it – hits me all at once. And then it is not only sad that I feel, but so very frightened – and I ask myself, where the fuck do I live?