Sunday, 8 March 2015

Penny for Your Thoughts - UBC's Student Elections, Money, and the End of History

It doesn't take a political analyst to tell you that the average university student cares very little for campus politics.

I include myself in that statement. Apart from my four years as an active member of UBCO's visual arts course union, which (in my opinion) plays an integral role in keeping the art communities of both the university and the Okanagan at large from stagnating, I've largely stayed out of student politics and had a hard time stomaching the BS generated each year come election season. To make it worse, as cartoonist for The Phoenix News I've been in thick of it, tasked with critiquing the goings on in my own inkstained way. On second thought...that's been kinda fun; getting paid to take the piss out of student politicians is a good life.

An article from The Ubyssey, the Vancouver campus paper, caught my eye on Facebook the day before yesterday: "Presidential Candidates Discuss Student Life, Tuition Increases, and Hunger Games". The photo on the article made me remember something I'd read about a joke candidate at UBC, some guy running in V's Guy Fawkes mask from Alan Moore's V for Vendetta, which I thought was a laugh. So I read the article.

And it really pissed me off.

I shared the article on Facebook, at midnight (which is never good idea; I get cranky around midnight), making clear my opinion that we had officially reached a point where the idea of genuine revolution is now nothing more than a student punchline. I got my first comment around twenty minutes later from a friend back in Canada: "LOL!"

To which I replied:
In retrospect, this may have been a little drastic, but I was mad. Maybe it was lingering effects of receiving my friend Leah Moore's rage when British Unity scumbag Nick Griffin started using her dad's V symbol in his xenophobic political campaigns. Maybe it was the cantankerous streak last weekend left in me, having spent Saturday night drinking in Glasgow with my Irish-Marxist-punk-intellectual-art lecturer buddy Dave, who has pure revolution pumping in his veins. My pal on FB tried to defuse the situation, noting that surely there's "significant distance between Tiananmen Square and a noteworthy play of fiction regarding a vivacious character" (kudos to him for "vivacious"). But I wasn't taking any shit about this; far as I was concerned, sitting in my dorm room at 1:30am and steaming mad, this was The End. Student politics was dead. 
"Noteworthy? Hardly. It's a political shit-disturber cosplaying for attention. Which sort of distance do you mean: geographical, chronological, or ideological? Just because we're no longer living in the Cold War doesn't mean we should leave those sentiments to gather dust on a shelf somewhere. It's like pulling teeth to get our generation of students to vote right now, in our own bloody student elections never mind real-world politics. The apathy is suffocating. We live in a safe, sheltered, postmodern Western world where we are told that we're training to become intellectuals of some kind, when in reality all we want is a receipt for our "education" printed on fancy paper. That makes the vast majority of us weak, ignorant, and lazy, and it's turned the platform of politics into a stage for parodying ideals of revolution from an era when a higher percentage of the student body were willing to die for an idea than we can currently get to drop a slip in a ballot box."

Between then and now I've done a lot of reading. The morning after that exchange I had a less-than-cordial private message waiting for me, calling me on my bullshit for criticizing this harmless gag so harshly when I've not only lampooned politics in my own work but also defended the much harsher satire of publications like Charlie Hebdo. At the same time I came across a brilliant article on AlterNet about a student organization actively challenging current academic economic thought by trolling conferences and lectures with incisive questioning. I sent that back as a reply, saying that this is the role students need to take upon themselves: not sitting on a stage in a comic book mask making Hunger Games jokes, but committing themselves to real, intellectual action that addresses the flaws in contemporary social power.

I woke up this morning and read Francis Fukuyama's "The End of History?". I read a piece on The Guardian that a friend of mine shared titled "Politics Was Once About Beliefs and Society. Now It's a Worship of Money.". Then I started digging through The Ubyssey's Alma Mater Society election material, and everything came together in a rather satisfying way.

The first thing I discovered is that the fellow running as V is a wicked smart, well-articulated student activist named Viet Vu (I shit you not) who is currently president of the Vancouver School of Economics Undergraduate Society. "Vu became president of the Economics Students Association in 2013...As president, Vu’s role is both supervisory and ambassadorial. He advises the society’s other execs on their day-to-day activities and event planning, and represents economics students in dealings with UBC and the AMS." Not, I freely admit, the guy I expected to find under that mask. Vu wrote a letter in The Ubyssey last October, voicing his sadness at the results of the AMS's annual general meeting, which ended on that occasion with a poorly-conceived vote on the matter of whether or not the society should be sanctioning student protests. UBC has been steadily increasing student fees, and action is needed; what lay undecided at the time was whether such action would officially involve the AMS. The vote went through, committing the AMS to support of student fee protests, but Vu said this was a mistaken decision. Read his letter; like I said, the guy's articulate. He cites past negotiations with the school which were successful, in which discourse and not aggressive mobilization of the student body won over and implemented change. Using AMS resources to fuel protests, he says, will do more harm than good in the long run.

The man, the mask; Viet Vu (left) and his
presidential alter ego (right)
There are most certainly those who disagree. The opposition was quick to respond to Vu's letter with one of their own, penned by one of the editors at The Talon, UBC's alternative press newspaper (they're the aggressive, activist ones). No punches were pulled. The letter confidently deploys militarist language in presenting Vu's position as defeatist."Despite what Vu and others in his stead imagine, the 'play nice' strategy isn’t about going into battle for students — it's about negotiating the terms of our surrender." After stating that UBC's negotiating process is callous and patronizing towards its students, the piece caps it all off with this:
And for those of you who will counter that those protests should be organized on an exclusively grassroots level, consider this: if student mobilization is being orchestrated by a body independent of the AMS, why would the university negotiate with the AMS? If the AMS has no ability to stop the protests, how would they have any legitimacy in those discussions? And most importantly, if the AMS isn’t on the front lines with students fighting for accessible education, how can they claim to represent us at all? A student association that isn’t fighting with us can’t fight for us; and a student association that can’t fight for us isn’t one worth having.
Apparently there's a war on, and unless they're paying for the picket signs and bullhorns Vu and his diplomats aren't invited.

UBC has a long and strange tradition of joke candidates in their student elections, stretching back as far as the 1920s. The function of such a candidate is up for discussion, but I figure this article is pretty spot-on: the gag runners are there as a satirical foil to cast the other candidates and the election process in a light that makes you raise an eyebrow at the whole thing. "You run a goat in an election to equate the other candidates to a goat. They have to run against a goat. They have to compete with a goat. That’s funny." Damn right that's funny. What I'm working to understand is where Vu and V fit into that tradition. Vu is also running for senate, and advocating for an "action-forward" senate; I can only assume the action he has in mind doesn't involved hand-painted signs and marching. Is Vu, then, running for a senate spot that he sees as being the right channel for the kind of productive discourse he believes in, while using the presidential race as the most prominent stage from which to lampoon the picketers? I'm very curious to see how that pans out.

To wrap this up I want to touch quickly on the three other pieces of writing I encountered recently, external to the whole UBC thing. Some of you reading this may already be familiar with Fukuyama's theories about humanity having reached the "end of history", a point, he says, where we have exhausted ideological evolution. Western liberalism is it, the culmination of all our thinking which ultimately recognizes human rights, class divisions, sexism, etc. All those issues can be resolved within this framework, and all opposing systems (fascism and communism, namely) have already fallen flat. Therefore any political quibbles we have from now on will be about tweaking the system we already have in place (my first reaction was, "but that system won't work because patriarchy", but that's a conversation for another time). "The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one's life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands." Which jives rather well with that Guardian article I mentioned earlier, claiming that politics has forsaken the pursuit of ideological reform for good business practice, and that AlterNet article about economic rabble rousers stirring up new and rejected ways of thinking among the old and stale minds in the Academy.

Somehow, it all comes back around to economics.

So, maybe it's true. Maybe this is the end of history, and all we've got left to look forward to is a bunch of wannabe politicians whingeing about funding, student fees, and the f**king activists waving signs outside the boardroom windows. I dunno; I'm a cartoonist, not an economist. You'll find me sitting at a desk somewhere with a pen, making you all look fat for a student newspaper that doesn't have enough money to pay me that week because the funds were diverted to buy pizza for the crowd of angry hipsters camped outside the university president's office.

Oh, and Mr. Vu? Stop making corny Hunger Games quips about fighting to the death for the new SUB; let's not mix our pop-cultural metaphors more than we absolutely have to.


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