Thursday, October 7, 2010

Young people these days..

Okay so this is not so much an informative post as a forehead-slapping, head-shaking, 'Oh-God-Why' expression of thoughts I find myself thinking on a daily basis.

As you may have picked up, I've returned to university this year after a long absence.  An absence that makes me a good decade or more older than most people in my classes.  I've never felt old before, but damn am I noticing some interesting - and really annoying - differences between "young people these days" and behaviour from back "when I was your age".

Sure, I didn't walk to university in the snow with no shoes, warming my feet in fresh cow-pats.  But when I was a fresh little out-of-high-school first-year, lecturers actually lectured - the best ones inspired and instilled passion, and seemed like intellectual demigods to be respected and aspired-to.  Alright, so perhaps I exaggerate slightly, but learning took on new dimensions for me, they were staggering, and it felt as if our lecturers were conduits to endless knowledge. It was an exciting time.

Now I am back.  Things have changed. And I don't like it.

In many of my lectures, instead of even pretending to pay attention to the lecturer, students are on their laptops Facebooking, watching  clips on YouTube, or even just talking to their friends out loud.  In the now overcrowded library, large groups of students congregate, eating hot chips or pies (OH WOW that would have been sacrilege when I was younger!), all talking at once about "OH. EM. GEE. Did you SEE what she was wearing?" "Yeah, like, what a slut!" etc etc ad nauseum.  And this is in the QUIET areas of the library!  How did this come to be?  Talking in a library was once unthinkable - and not just because of prowling librarians who would rip your head off for even sneezing!

I think the thing that shocked me the most this week was listening to some students in their early 20s - definitely not first years - making fun of our lecturer and his course before he came into the room.  Our lecturer, who has spent many years working and researching in an industry these young men want to enter, and who has years of life experience on these young (insert expletive here).  One of these young men subsequently sat on his (very expensive) cellphone for the entire class texting, checking his watch and sighing loudly every couple of minutes or so.  I considered asking him if his face would like to meet my fist.  An impossible fantasy that played out fantastically inside my head.

Interestingly enough, the same lecturer was telling us about, because of new funding allocation systems based around research outputs, emphasis on teaching - both time spent on preparing, and ability in - at the university has taken a back seat.  So much so that one lecturer, who has an exceedingly good reputation and whose classes are always full, has now lost her position as over the last few years she has focused on teaching her students rather than in personal research!

This change in focus is obvious after an absence.  It feels as if a lot of the passion and skill at public speaking has gone.  Many lectures are based on PowerPoint presentations which are sometimes read virtually ad verbatim, and then posted online.  Attending physical lectures is virtually unnecessary.  Tutorial classes are also getting bigger.  In both of my papers this semester the tutorials have so many people in them there are not enough chairs in the room to seat everyone.

Although there are notable exceptions - there really are some fantastic lecturers out there, and bright inspiring first-year students too - things have changed for the worse.  I don't think it's because I'm getting old and boring.  Well, maybe a little..  But considering the rising costs of university fees I sure would like to think I'm purchasing a learning environment and great teaching expertise - not just free WiFi and a running commentary of what some slappers did on the weekend.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Rules for Radicals

Saul Alinsky (1909-1972) spearheaded grassroots community organising in Chicago, aimed at giving poor neighbourhoods the tools to work together in improving their lives.  Alinsky is seen by some as the founder of modern community activism and organising.  He changed the way a lot of people think about democracy.  

In 1971 he published a book Rules for Radicals: A Pragmatic Primer for Realistic Radicals - Alinsky says of it "The Prince was written by Machiavelli for the Haves on how to hold power. Rules for Radicals is written for the Have-Nots on how to take it away."  A friend of mine passed on a condensed version of the twelve rules, which I'm now sharing with you.  Wise words that help make sense of a challenging world..

by Saul Alinsky

RULE 1: "Power is not only what you have, but what the enemy thinks you have." Power is derived from 2 main sources - money and people. "Have-Nots" must build power from flesh and blood. (These are two things of which there is a plentiful supply. Government and corporations always have a difficult time appealing to people, and usually do so almost exclusively with economic arguments.)

RULE 2: "Never go outside the expertise of your people." It results in confusion, fear and retreat. Feeling secure adds to the backbone of anyone. (Organizations under attack wonder why radicals don't address the "real" issues. This is why. They avoid things with which they have no knowledge.)

RULE 3: "Whenever possible, go outside the expertise of the enemy." Look for ways to increase insecurity, anxiety and uncertainty. (This happens all the time. Watch how many organizations under attack are blind-sided by seemingly irrelevant arguments that they are then forced to address.)

RULE 4: "Make the enemy live up to its own book of rules." If the rule is that every letter gets a reply, send 30,000 letters. You can kill them with this because no one can possibly obey all of their own rules. (This is a serious rule. The besieged entity's very credibility and reputation is at stake, because if activists catch it lying or not living up to its commitments, they can continue to chip away at the damage.)

RULE 5: "Ridicule is man's most potent weapon." There is no defense. It's irrational. It's infuriating. It also works as a key pressure point to force the enemy into concessions. (Pretty crude, rude and mean, huh? They want to create anger and fear.)

RULE 6: "A good tactic is one your people enjoy." They'll keep doing it without urging and come back to do more. They're doing their thing, and will even suggest better ones. (Radical activists, in this sense, are no different that any other human being. We all avoid "un-fun" activities, and but we revel at and enjoy the ones that work and bring results.)

RULE 7: "A tactic that drags on too long becomes a drag." Don't become old news. (Even radical activists get bored. So to keep them excited and involved, organizers are constantly coming up with new tactics.)

RULE 8: "Keep the pressure on. Never let up." Keep trying new things to keep the opposition off balance. As the opposition masters one approach, hit them from the flank with something new. (Attack, attack, attack from all sides, never giving the reeling organization a chance to rest, regroup, recover and re-strategize.)

RULE 9: "The threat is usually more terrifying than the thing itself." Imagination and ego can dream up many more consequences than any activist. (Perception is reality. Large organizations always prepare a worst-case scenario, something that may be furthest from the activists' minds. The upshot is that the organization will expend enormous time and energy, creating in its own collective mind the direst of conclusions. The possibilities can easily poison the mind and result in demoralization.)

RULE 10: "If you push a negative hard enough, it will push through and become a positive." Violence from the other side can win the public to your side because the public sympathizes with the underdog. (Unions used this tactic. Peaceful [albeit loud] demonstrations during the heyday of unions in the early to mid-20th Century incurred management's wrath, often in the form of violence that eventually brought public sympathy to their side.)

RULE 11: "The price of a successful attack is a constructive alternative." Never let the enemy score points because you're caught without a solution to the problem. (Old saw: If you're not part of the solution, you're part of the problem. Activist organizations have an agenda, and their strategy is to hold a place at the table, to be given a forum to wield their power. So, they have to have a compromise solution.)

RULE 12: "Pick the target, freeze it, personalize it, and polarize it." Cut off the support network and isolate the target from sympathy. Go after people and not institutions; people hurt faster than institutions. (This is cruel, but very effective. Direct, personalized criticism and ridicule works.) 

If you're keen to read more of Alinsky's writing, this site is a good starter..

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Water water everywhere..

We are a lucky bunch of folk here in Aotearoa.  Of course, things aren't perfect but there are a lot of things we take for granted.  That if we get hurt, we can go to Accident and Emergency and recieve treatment.  That when we go to the supermarket the foods we eat from week to week will be on the shelves, and at pretty much the same price as when we last bought them. 

That - large earthquakes notwithstanding - when we turn on the tap fresh drinkable water will come out.

But we can't afford to be complacent.  Drinkable water may very well be the new crude oil.  From the storylines of comic books such as Tank Girl, a global hegemony and world wars based on control of fresh water is now being talked at in academic circles.

Control of water, especially for agriculture, is increasingly falling into the hands of large corporate entities at the expense of the local people.  And despite their claims of working to develop more efficient water use for the betterment of humankind, it makes sense that if a company's prerogative is to turn a profit then it is going to want to sell more of its product, not less.

The connections aren't always direct, the capitalist idealogues are well practised in painting a shiny veneer on bullshit and blurring the lines between 'need' and 'want'.  The invisible hand of the market belongs to the croupier of Big Business, and the house always wins.

Take, for example, the Ica Valley in Peru - a desert area in the Andes and one of the driest places on earth.  In the late 1990s the World Bank loaned millions of dollars to create asparagus beds in the Valley - expanding to cover almost 100sq km in just 10 years. Peru is now the largest exporter of asparagus in the world, with 95% grown on reclaimed desert in the Ica Valley.  The industry has created 10,000 new jobs in this poor area.

Sounds good right?  New jobs using land that was otherwise not being used?  But here's the thing.  The asparagus beds require constant irrigation.  And in 2002 - that's eight years ago - the region started using more water than was being replenished by rain and the suchlike and the watertable began to drop.  Drastically.  Up to two metres a year.  Two wells in the area, supplying life-giving water to up to 18,500 people, have already dried up.  But that's not all.  Water rights in the area are now owned by the large producers.  Small and medium scale farmers have to pay out for irrigation water from the main canals.  As the land gets dryer, the less productive it becomes and the less water retention it has.  When smaller-scale farmers fail through lack of access to water, for irrigation and for living, the large producers buy up their land for cheap.

Here's what really gets me.  The market for fresh asparagus barely existed before the late 1990s.  It's a created market, sold as a luxury item to overseas markets like the UK. Yet it is killing the land, livelihoods - and lives - of real people across the other side of the world.  The supermarket chains and investors won't be sticking around to help them when the water runs out.  And it will.

This is by no means an isolated case.  Type 'water privatisation' into any search engine and a myriad of similar cases around the world will come up.  It's a huge issue in many developing countries right now as pushing for water privatisation is high on the list of the World Bank, IMF and cronies.

And it's here in Aotearoa.

A subsidiary of Veolia, the biggest water company in the world, is already has seven contracts in a PPP (Public-Private Partnership) to provide water services in Aotearoa.  These contracts could last up to 35 years.

To put some perspective on things, in just 20 years our close neighbour Sydney could be facing a very serious water shortage.  Further afield water is already running out.  Aotearoa, with its low population-density, reliance on foreign trade, and virtually non-existent militarisation - but abundance of clean water and arable land - is going to start looking pretty damned attractive to a lot of powerful people.  People who don't play nice with the kids already in the playground.  People who will screw this country for all they can get and then walk away. 

If we let them.

Veolia already has a toehold, but nothing that can't be dislodged.  And not all threats are foreign.  Federated Farmers want to abstain from responsibility when it comes to livestock effluent in our waterways - but they too can be held accountable if we work together.

Aotearoa is a beautiful country.  But it's time to stop being complacent, to appreciate what we have, and to look after and protect it!

[Inspiration and information in this post comes from The Guardian online ]

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Saturday, September 11, 2010

What passes for 'normal' these days?

This week I've been doing a lot of reading on Feminist International Relations theory.  Having been away from the feminist fold for some years - from an academic standpoint at least - it's nice to get back into the mindset of reevaluating the 'dominant theories' we learn in class and remember that the alarming majority of it has been constructed by white males.  And by nice, I really mean fascinating, but in a sort of 'oh look it's a car crash and I can't stop staring' kind of way.

The only readings I have had this year that have been written unabashedly from a woman's or a non-Western point-of-view have been given to us as 'interest' or 'fringe' readings - eg 'feminist' or 'Asian perspective'.  The other 98 percent or so of readings don't carry the label 'Western', or 'male'.  To be these things is to be 'normal'.   

And when you do the math, this is a really disturbing state of affairs.  Women make up a good half of the population across the board.  Across all ethnicities, classes, religions.  And the number of people in the world who do not consider themselves to be 'Western' far outweighs those that do.  So why are all these people's experiences and combined knowledge considered to be 'the other'? 

I'm not saying that this state of affairs is anyone's choice.  I don't believe it's some conspiracy-theory on behalf of the University, or the lecturers that construct the courses.  I believe tradition has a lot to blame.  A tradition where it was the males in the Western world who were literate, who had time to philosophise, who had the contacts in the public sphere to discuss their intellectual musings and even be published.  Of course, their audience - initially at least - was no doubt white and male also, and so on, a snowballing effect in which what passes now for 'absolute truth', for 'knowledge', can be traced back to a very small gene-pool of world experience which totally ignores the experiences of the rest of the (very diverse) population. 

And it feels at times as if this overwhelming history of white male knowledge, taught as 'objective truth', has left very little room for those of us that aren't white males to figure out our own truths.  For example, a lot of feminist theory I have read is either based on, or is reaction to, existing white-male theory.  For example, Marxist Feminism, or Liberal Feminism.  Or Psychoanalytical Feminism which has a lot of Freud-based theories. 

I don't pretend to have an 'answer' to all this.  Or even suppose that there might be one.  Many of the vary varied theories, covering all sorts of topics, I have studied over the years have made a lot of sense to me.  I'm not saying they should be discarded in favour of reinventing the wheel.  But it would be nice to know what else is out there.  Especially coming from a white, reasonably economically comfortable, literate background - what important knowledge out there in the rest of the world am I missing because it's being drowned out by a dominance in history of white male voices?

an invitation of sorts..

Feeling the intense need to cram my head full of information. Like my brain is parched, and books hold liquid information I want to swim in, hold my breath and dive under till I'm exhausted and saturated and have to come up for air..

Accompanying this desire to fill myself to bursting point with new ideas is the need to subsequently inflict my new findings and opinions on any poor soul within earshot (or now, anyone hapless enough to stumble upon this blog..).

I am currently a student of Public Policy, and International Relations - and in the name of disclosure I also come from an influential background of feminist and anarchist thinking.  I love the idea of 'The System' as a puzzle, a pattern, a machine formed of (at times) a myriad of seemingly unrelated parts that when put together form the miracle that is the society that we live our lives by, and within, from birth till burial.  I love watching over my City from the window of my bus and contemplating how amazing it is that this bustle of buildings and people come together and ensure that the streets are cleared of rubbish every night, that when I turn on a tap, fresh drinkable water comes out.  That the clothing people around me are wearing is determined not by purpose or availability of local product but by some.. understanding..? dictate..? from half a world away.. Opinions on what this all means abound in my head, but lately I have been more drawn to the fascination of the mechanisms, both material and social, that bring the whole shebang together. Ways we take for granted every minute of the day.

As my big fix, the monkey on my back, at the moment is knowledge, and I believe that knowledge consists of the accumulated experience of many different people, I really hope that if you want to comment on, add to, or veer off on some crazy tangent from what I've written then you will do so.