We need to talk about Nigel

We need to talk about Nigel

Over the Easter vacation I, like many of you, tuned in to the Europe debates between Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg. I did this for two main reasons, the first being that it’s great to see politicians making their trade more about the battle of ideas than any of the media circus of posing we see so often from Westminster. The other reason for my interest was that, of the main party leaders, Nigel and Nick are the most appealing to me; the most genuine.  I was one of those stricken with Cleggomania after the 2010 debates and I’ve had Farageophilia for quite some time now. Clegg ran as the alternative to the mainstream parties in 2010 and now that the Lib Dems have been sullied by their time in power UKIP have been moving in on the ‘protest vote’, with both parties during their respective campaigns using their leaders’ charisma to out-personality their opponents.

There is a crucial difference, however, which makes Nigel Farage’s popularity very dangerous: while an impressed floating voter siding with Nick Clegg at the last election would have found himself voting for a level-headed Lib Dem candidate of Clegg’s ilk, Nigel is by no means typical of his party. I think Nigel Farage is wonderful, he talks a great deal of sense on a wide range of issues, he is far from being just another politician and I would vote for him as my own MP in a heartbeat. But to like Nigel Farage and to like UKIP are by no means the same thing; they are a party united only by a common opinion on one issue, as opposed to a party linked by an ideology that unites them across several issues, such as the three main parties. This allows for many worrying candidates to be snuck in under the popularity of their leader, such as the councillor who blamed the recent floods on gay marriage.

Indeed, Nigel seems to be realising this himself and frequently needs to distance himself from ridiculous party activities and leaflets, such as the one Nick Clegg brought out at the BBC debate likening native Britons to Native Americans confined to reserves. The unfortunate thing is that this strain of dogmatic nationalism is given credibility by Nigel’s association with it. When the far right was fronted by Nick Griffin and the BNP, we could all see how dangerous it was and fortunately their time in the sun was short lived. Now that many of those people have been given the face of Nigel Farage their coming to power has become a frightening reality. A recent poll gives UKIP 15% of the vote, now that they have become not only the party of the conservative Eurosceptics but also the protest vote. This is surely due to Farage’s leadership; a man whom the electorate can see is a man of principles, with his feet firmly on the ground and is not just another career politician. He’s the chap they can see themselves having a pint with, but yet also the man who wiped the floor with Nick Clegg in debate.

If Nigel were emblematic of his party as a whole then none of this popularity would be a problem, but as it is when you slice UKIP down the middle you will find a very worrying interior. If history has taught us anything from last few decades it should be to beware the rise of the right wing during times of economic discontent. We now see that happening elsewhere in Europe such as the Golden Dawn in Greece and the Jobbik party in Hungary playing on popular dissatisfaction. Don’t let the same thing happen in this country. Nigel Farage is a politician on the ascent who is himself something I would like to see a lot more of in this country: someone prepared to talk about the issues in politics in a no frills, down to earth way and offer worthy solutions. Unfortunately he has lent his name to a party who doesn’t quite offer the same thing. UKIP is not a mistake that we, as an electorate should allow ourselves to make, no matter how much we may like Farage.

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Why we’re backing Akehurst, and you should too

Why we’re backing Akehurst, and you should too

Any of the candidates for OUSU president would make good leaders. Alex Bartram is paternal and statesmanlike, the Great Dane of the Balliol JCR. Jane Cahill’s vast and well-oiled campaign machine hangs over the election like a Death Star, but if we had to pick someone to rule the galaxy, she’d be high on the list. Louis Trup is the best combination of inclusivity and sandals since Jesus Christ.

But our vote is going to ReclaimOUSU’s Nathan Akehurst. Jane’s pledge to work for a better OUSU headquarters is important, and Alex has best scoped out the needs of the average student. But this is an important period for higher education, with the privatisation of loans as grim a spectre as the wanton slashing of the humanities.

And when the news comes through that tuition fees are being raised to £16k, or that government funding for universities is being reduced further, Jane and Alex will speak up. But Nathan will be outside Tory HQ leading the protests: we know what he believes, and we know that he has the utmost political integrity.

These are bigger issues than mug-painting and exam feedback. It will say a lot for the megaphone-bearer to be an Oxford student, and Nathan will represent us with aplomb. He’s no mug, having a history of thoughtful and eloquent contributions to our Comment section, so don’t think he’s not capable of the diplomacy necessary for the job.

Louis Trup has done his work, with a re-engaged electorate tapping its feet to his folksy hust roadshow. Let’s not spoil the joke by running him through with his own anti-establishment sword. Cahill is smart and principled, but her manifesto does not do her justice, whereas Akehurst has a bold but achievable policy on fines, and is backed by a laudable pledge to use impact evaluation tools for JCR charities.

For our money, Bartram would also make a fine President. His points about rent are more informed than anyone else’s, and his ideas about vacation residence and faculty running are as sharp as you’d expect from anyone with his experience and intellect. If you want a safe pair of hands, go for Team Alex. But the brave vote goes to Akehurst.

Search ‘OUSU’ in your Nexus to make your voice heard.

Goodbye Prime Minister; let’s save Pieminister

Goodbye Prime Minister; let’s save Pieminister

Margaret Thatcher visiting Jimmy Carter | Photo: Copyright waived by US GovernmentBy the time you read this, Margaret Thatcher will have been laid to rest in London. Whether or not you consider yourself an Iron Lady loyalist, her funeral will mark the passing of an Oxford institution.
The Somerville alumna graduated in 1947 and, in assuming office, became the seventh post-war Prime Minister to hail from this university.

To quote an equivocal Vice-Chancellor Andrew Hamilton: “As Britain’s first female prime minister, and one of its longest serving, Baroness Thatcher ranks among the most prominent of Oxford’s alumni. One of the foremost politicians of her age, historians will debate her legacy for decades to come; today we remember a graduate of the University who reached the highest public office and had a lasting impact on British politics and society.” Thatcher features prominently in these pages, with a range of opinions represented in this week’s Comment section.

And whether you agree or not, it is goodbye to the former Prime Minister. But we may also be bidding goodbye to Pieminister, another Oxford institution. Those who frequent the Covered Market will be familiar with its smiling service, its succulent pastry, its delicious, chewy, flavoursome meat – and it is to our unmitigated despair that we announce that the Market’s rents may be going up by 70 per cent.

If it is true that Oxford students are the leaders of tomorrow, altruistic and socially conscious as well as connected, then let it be known that we shall not stand for this cruellest of cuts.

Tell The Man that he can take our playing fields, take our higher education budgets, take our milk, if he really must – but he cannot take our pies.

It’s as if the outcry over the Pasty Tax never tore through the ivory towers of the City Council. We’ll wager that while the fat cats of our local government were deciding the extent of the hike, they were feasting on Moo-Moo Milkshakes, on Bolitas Cheeseballs, and, of course, those tasty, tasty pies.

But the real culprit, of course, is cutting on a national level, which has backed the City Council into a corner stickier than a Brown’s breakfast. State funding of local businesses was never high on the Thatcherite economist’s list of priorities, and it is at times like this that the Old Somervillian’s economic policy comes under closest scrutiny.

We cannot bring back Margaret Thatcher, but we can certainly fight for our purveyors of tasty savouries, so vital to our city’s economy and student lifestyle.

You can take our Iron Lady – but not our pie and gravy.

On student unions and Israeli apartheid

On student unions and Israeli apartheid

“We are free today in this land because so many of our friends throughout the world supported us… [Students] were able to change the moral compass in your country…”

Nobel Peace Laureate Desmond Tutu is better placed than most to comment on the success students can have by standing in solidarity with oppressed peoples throughout the world. In a recent Students’ Union referendum, students at the University of Sheffield voted overwhelmingly to do just that.

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A motion was put before the student body proposing that the Students’ Union commit itself to the global campaign of Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) against Israeli companies and any company complicit in Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories. The motion was approved by a margin of over 1700 votes, making the University of Sheffield the first Russell Group university to back the BDS campaign.

The call for BDS was made in 2005 by a cross-section of Palestinian civil society, inspired by the impact of a similar boycott campaign against South Africa at the height of Apartheid rule. It asks people of conscience all across the world to launch boycotts, implement divestment initiatives, and to demand sanctions against Israel. The campaign will continue until the Israeli government recognises its obligations under international law to accord the Palestinian people their basic human rights.

The BDS movement has seen significant backing from many prominent South African activists. This is unsurprising, with more and more commentators drawing worrying comparisons between the treatment of Palestinians in the Occupied Territories and that of black South Africans under the Apartheid regime.

Imprisonment without trial, torture of prisoners, and regular harassment at checkpoints that restrict freedom of movement – any one of these crimes can be attributed equally to the Israeli occupying force and the South African Apartheid security forces.

The comparisons drawn have also been those of hope, however, and the end of the Apartheid regime is an example of the success that an international BDS campaign can have as part of a campaign against injustice. Archbishop Tutu himself has always recognised the role that the international movement had in pressuring the South African government into change, and the hope is that a similarly concerted international effort could have as important a part to play in Palestine.

Indeed, the impact of the BDS movement is already being felt. At the end of 2011 Agrexco, Israel’s one time largest exporter of agricultural produce who were responsible for bringing products from illegal settlements to the shelves of our supermarkets, entered into liquidation following a campaign of demonstrations, lobbying, and popular boycotts in countries all across Europe.

The French multinational Veolia has also become a target for BDS advocates across Europe and Australia because of their involvement in the Jerusalem Light Rail (JLR). The JLR links illegal Israeli settlements to occupied East Jerusalem, helping maintain the settlements and embed them deeper in occupied territory. The tramway has been condemned by 44 governments, including the UK’s, and was declared illegal by the UN in 2010. BDS pressure has led to Veolia losing contracts worth upwards of $14 billion, including those with Tower Hamlets and Swansea councils, who have both passed motions barring Veolia from bidding on any future contracts. Veolia have also become the first target for the University of Sheffield’s new policy as a result of their waste management contract with the university’s Accommodation and Campus Services. It just goes to show that companies directly facilitating the occupation may be closer to home than you’d expect.

Whilst governments and international organisations continually fail to take action in the face of systematic human rights abuses, the BDS movement is enabling ordinary people to hit companies involved in the occupation where it hurts the most: their bank accounts. These successes are sending a powerful message to the Israeli government, that they cannot simply breach international law with impunity.

This was the message students at the University of Sheffield sent with their resounding support for the motion, and a message we want to hear echoing around student unions all over the country: companies complicit in breaches of international law in the Occupied Territories are not welcome on our campuses.

The BDS campaign is still in its infancy, but it is gathering pace. With the South African boycott, it was the students who led the way with individual boycotts and displays of solidarity, changing the moral compass of their countries in the process.

By students’ unions around the UK seizing the initiative and taking this stance, we can perhaps get the needle swinging once more.

No confidence means no confidence

No confidence means no confidence

Last year, our tutors and lecturers sent out a resounding message of no confidence in David Willetts. On Friday, 9th November, he is being welcomed back, on a shared platform, as part of a humanitas programme lecture series.

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As universities across the country face funding cuts, courses are being demolished and staff outsourced, St Peter’s have invited the figurehead of this overhaul to speak. What is also remarkable is how St Peter’s has entirely overlooked the irony of the invitation: the broad themes of the lecture series pertain to the arts, social sciences and humanities – areas of study most at risk of being cut by Willetts due to their ‘unprofitability’.

Willetts’ presence as a speaker sends a signal of recognition and condonence for his position and policies. This will be particularly painful to first years in the audience who are part of the first cohort of an extortionately indebted generation. More widely, it will be a sign of ‘back to business as usual’ as Oxford’s priviledged position enables it to abandon its defence of the values of higher education without significant material consequences.

The landslide vote of 283 to 5 in the Sheldonion last June signalled a commitment to a publicly funded education system. Staff from across the academic and political spectrum joined together to express their disagreement with the government’s higher education policies of privitization and marketization.

Willetts’ higher education white paper proposed the slashing of funding to higher education institutions, the abolition of courses that were deemed ‘not profitable’, ‘unviable’ universities being allowed to go to the wall and the outsourcing of staff. Private companies were encouraged to get involved in education, effectively enabling public money to be turned into private profit. This marketization of universities, along with budget cuts and the raising of fees to £9,000, threaten to turn the university system into what Oxford historian, Robert Gildea called “a red carpet for the rich”.

In their vote, Oxford academics were confirming what a series of independent experts and the Public Accounts Committee had already made clear: that 80% cuts to teaching grants, trebling tuition fees and cuts to research facilities are unfair, unnecessary and unsustainable. Whilst success has been achieved insofar as the government has ‘indefinitely’ postponed the white paper, universities across the country, including some of the ‘top’ Russell group universities such as Manchester University, are experiencing job cuts, outsourcing and courses being slashed.

Oxford is lucky enough to be in a strong position to retain standards and independence from the government. Since much of its revenue comes from wealthy donors and alumni as opposed to the government, cuts to resources are having less of a devastating effect here than they are across other higher education institutions.

However, as one of the most reputable universities in the country, Oxford must stick to the principles it so strongly committed to last year.  Tutors and lecturers were voting not as academics or individuals but as citizens concerned for the future of higher education. Kate Tunstall aptly captured the united sentiment of students and lecturers when she closed last year’s debate: “this is a big thing for Oxford to do; it’s also not just the right thing to do, but the good thing to do. Let’s take a deep breath and, in unison, in concert, hold a single, stirring note: the positive sound of the tradition and values we wish to defend.”

Giving Willetts a platform to speak disregards the united position that Oxford students and academics took against  him in defence of publicly funded higher education. For this reason, a protest against Willetts has been called by the Education Activist Network (EAN), which has so far been supported by the St Antony’s College GCR and lecturers involved in the Oxford University Campaign for Higher Education. We must signal to prospective students, the university community and the government that we still have no confidence in David Willetts.

Catalysing change in South Africa’s platinum mines

Catalysing change in South Africa’s platinum mines

Extreme violence has characterised the world of South Africa’s mines no less than the hulking metal headgears and yellow mine dumps dotted around Johannesburg – icons of a nasty, brutish modernity. From its inception in the 19th century the most odious aspects of the racial order seeped into this world. Delve into the history books and you are bound to come across references to the prison-like conditions of the compounds that housed hyper-exploited migrant labourers. You may read about the degrading strip searches that black workers were subjected to, the systematic violence of management, the infamous Rand Revolt of 1922 and the violent suppression of other strikes.

[caption id="attachment_29895" align="aligncenter" width="300"] PHOTO/ Liane Greeff[/caption]

But almost twenty years into democracy it is clear that the endemic violence of the mines is far from being confined to memory. On the 16th of August this year, in what became the worst incident of its kind since the end of apartheid, 34 striking mineworkers from UK-listed Lonmin plc. were gunned down and killed by a heavily-armed police force. Over twice that number were wounded. The footage of the massacre – which took place at a dusty, poverty-stricken town called Marikana, in the heart of the country’s platinum mining territory – stunned South Africa and was broadcast across the globe.

Despite that most of those who were on strike are from the lower skill categories and come from impoverished rural areas, the dangerous, backbreaking work they perform is vital to the production process and many of them have considerable experience in the mines. They felt that they were entitled to a living wage of 12,500 Rands per month (a little under £900) – a not altogether unreasonable demand from a company that can afford to pay its CEO the equivalent of what one of its disgruntled mineworker would take 400 years to earn, in a country with the highest level of inequality in the world. Workers’ salaries are stretched thinly as they struggle to provide for the families they leave behind in their rural homes while maintaining themselves and other dependents in the mining areas.

In recent years workers have seen some hard-won gains rolled back by an onslaught against organised labour. Employers, especially on the platinum mines, have been making increased use of more easily exploitable outsourced labourers, often brought in by dubious brokers. Meanwhile the main union on the mines, the National Union of Mineworkers, appears to be increasingly losing touch with its support base. This was, after all, a wildcat strike which NUM disapproved of. NUM’s overpaid leader, Frans Baleni, showed no such disapproval for the heavy-handed response of the state’s security arm.

But NUM was not always like this. It arrived on the scene in the 1980s during apartheid, and as a militant new union it brought high hopes of change and a better deal for mineworkers. It made considerable gains, but since the end of apartheid its promises have increasingly given way to disillusionment. NUM’s leadership now enjoys an all-too-cosy relationship with the major mining houses and the government by virtue of its affiliation with the trade union movement Cosatu, which is a member of the ruling ANC-led alliance. Recently, NUM founder turned businessman, Cyril Ramaphosa, who has a stake in Lonmin and is an ANC heavyweight, has been the subject of much criticism amidst revelations that he called strikers ‘criminals’ in an email correspondence.

Many lower-level officials are similarly disconnected from the lives of workers whose interests they are supposed to be championing. Shaft-stewards tend to be drawn from among the more skilled, better-paid workers. As many move up the union career ladder they are taken out of the workforce, becoming full time officials with considerable bonuses and perks. The rot is only amplified the further up the ladder one looks. NUM has been haemorrhaging members rapidly since Marikana as it battles to hold on to its influence in the face of a rival union, AMCU, which has been riding the wave of workers’ anger (though has hardly been orchestrating the strikes as some have charged)

Since 16 August, Lonmin workers have agreed to go back to work after negotiating a 22 per cent pay rise. However, strike waves have spread across the sector as other workers have taken up the call for a R12, 500 minimum wage. In the wake of the massacre, further episodes of tragedy have taken place. Intimidation of workers and activists is commonplace and allegations of police using torture have emerged. At one point things took an outrageously bizarre turn with a short-lived attempt to charge workers for the deaths of their colleagues under ‘common purpose’ law.

It remains to be seen what will come out of the commission of inquiry that is looking into events at Marikana. It may well be, like so many commissions before it, a rather hollow exercise, with the odd bit of finger wagging and little more than a nod to the fact that someone, or everyone, got a little carried away.

The crass apologies from police, certain sections of government and the employer has painted the strikers as irrational, muti-induced criminals. But despite this some very sober analysis has come even from some unexpected sources. It is indeed time for serious introspection in South Africa, time for a major reappraisal of the mining industry. We ought to be exploring changes in ownership structure, taxation and regulation, and the way in which industrial relations are conducted. Calls for nationalisation, though all too often spilling from the tongues of short-sighted populist opportunists, should not be shot down; we need a robust engagement with the issue.

Decision 2012: America’s affair with foreign policy

Decision 2012: America’s affair with foreign policy

If there’s one thing that the US knows well, it’s how to make an election last. The primaries, debates, sound-bites and talking points all combine to extend the mudfight of choosing the President to well over a year before the election. But, at last, we have reached the final weeks, and it looks as though the two survivors are in a closer race than anyone would have predicted.

[caption id="attachment_29819" align="aligncenter" width="300"] PHOTO/ Barack Obama[/caption]

This election has moved through so many rounds of gaffes and different poll leaders that it is difficult to remember a few months ago when the global press was watching the ‘Romneyshambles’ of the Republican nominee’s visit to Europe with a mixture of horror and glee. Some went as far as to call a win for Obama already. A note to future would-be statesmen: doubting Britain’s national spirit, implying Palestinian cultural inferiority and letting your aides swear at reporters at a war memorial is not the best way to appear presidential on the global stage. What was really interesting, though, was not that Mitt Romney produced this series of overseas blunders; it was the fact that he felt the need to go on the trip in the first place.

Everything indicated that this was going to be an election about America, and only America. A resilient recession, the President’s public support of gay marriage and the emergence of the Tea Party means that the economy, ‘Obamacare’ and civil liberties should have been the exclusive battlegrounds of this election.

Not only that, but foreign policy shouldn’t be a major concern when isolationism seems to be running so high among the US population at the moment. A ‘Pew’ poll this month showed that 60 per cent of the population want American troops to leave Afghanistan immediately and the grassroots popularity of Ron Paul and his outlook speaks for itself. You might assume that the US was returning to the days before the Second World War, where elections were defined by internal policies such as FDR’s New Deal or Prohibition. Issues like Vietnam, Cuba, Détente and Berlin were understandably the bane of Cold War Presidents, but this situation should have ended in 1989. The Cold War’s over and there’s no longer this threatening, red Russian bear in the East to base slogans around.

Yet the Republican nominee still felt the need to come to Europe and visit us. This alone speaks volumes about how America’s self-perception has changed. Some say the visit was to showcase Romney’s statesmanlike potential on the world stage. That’s true, but if it was solely that then he wouldn’t have felt the need to criticise Palestine and Iran before launching a scathing attack on Russia in the tour’s final day. As even the commentators at Fox News despaired, “All the man has to do is say nothing.”

The reason that he didn’t is because of America’s self-image. The USA has come to embrace its role on the world stage to such an extent that it has become part of its national identity. Despite the desires of the Tea Party and isolationists, America seems to be finding it impossible to stick its head in the Capitol Hill sand as it did seventy years ago.

That isn’t to say that it’s not trying. Watching the final, supposedly foreign policy-centric debate was highly revealing as the two candidates discussed the economy and education as much as diplomacy. Yet out on the campaign trail, time and time again the focus has been placed on issues such as Libya, Osama bin Laden and Iran. Admittedly Obama was always likely to use the first two extensively, as they are perceived as being major successes of his Presidency. Romney, however, didn’t need to mention them at all. It would have been entirely possible to run a threatening campaign solely based around the stagnating economy and issues such as abortion and the war on drugs.

The fact that he didn’t is testament to the need of US politicians to find an external focus (if not enemy), even when its citizens say that domestic policy should take priority. Somalia, the Balkans, Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya are reflective of this and it’ll be interesting to see how the clash of the two political forces of Romney’s interventionism and Paul’s isolationism change America’s identity in the years to come.

HFL: Having a F*cking Laugh

HFL: Having a F*cking Laugh

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This time last term, Oxford’s historians frolicked in their previous History Faculty Library (HFL), the Old Indian Institute, at the end of Catte Street. But there was a major problem: people could easily find the books they needed and take them back to their colleges. In short, the system worked and, as many of us will find out when we graduate, history and work are not natural bedfellows. So, the Faculty decided to flog the Old Indian Institute, which had served them well for forty years, and spend that money on crystal meth and ladyboys (probably).

The new library would be the Radcliffe Camera. Now, I understand that the Rad Cam is very pretty, and that looks can seduce, but the Isis is also very pretty, and no-one’s ever decided to fill that with books. And, looks aside, the Rad Cam also has a number of crippling flaws that make, in many respects, the Isis a far superior candidate for a new HFL.

Let me talk you through a trip into the new ‘Bodleian HFL’. Firstly, you must get past the library bouncer, who’s there to check your Bod Card. And that’s fair enough – Tod Parker from West Virginia wants to go inside and look for the Queen, and he has to be stopped. Then, you must go down some stairs, and use the very same Bod Card that let you in to swipe through a set of electric doors. Clearly, there’s a real fear that Tod Parker from West Virginia might shoot the library bouncer with his .357 Magnum, and so an extra line of defence is necessary. After all, the HFL is full of invaluable manuscripts that need protecting, such as The Oxford Dictionary of Popes, a priceless manuscript (£14.98 from Amazon, postage and packing not included) so rare that only students can be trusted with it.

Then there’s finding the book you want. If I were a librarian, I would give each tome a number, something like one or two or maybe even three, and arrange them chronologically. But I appreciate this is Oxford, and so everything must be needlessly difficult. Drag your hand across your keyboard and you’ll come up with an easier code than those the HFL now deploys. My reading list this week contained such pithy and effective references as ‘HQ 799.G7 SPR 1986’ and ‘(UBHU) M96.E01936’. You see, to make things interesting, the Faculty has decided to mix three different referencing systems, related only by their total incoherence. To add some fun to the lucky dip, one of those contains books that can’t even be taken out of the Gladstone Link, and are nothing to do with history at all, which is naturally why there are to be found bang in the middle of the new HFL.

And the crème de la crème of this tale of unadulterated misery? The timing. The Faculty had all vacation to move the books. But we’ve been at Oxford three weeks, and half the shelves are still empty. It’s almost as if they’re confused by, I don’t know, a referencing system or something… So, if you can endure Fort Knox security, and the confusion, your books might not even be there after all. Splendid.

All this ranting and I haven’t even got to the horrors of the Gladstone Link and its spinning, mangling book cases of death. I’ll put that aside for the moment, for something must be done. I’m tempted to unleash a ruthless terrorist campaign, but frankly I feel much safer writing inflammatory remarks in this newspaper than actually doing something about them. Perhaps I could set myself on fire in Radcliffe Square, a glorious martyrdom against tyranny and overuse of swipe cards? I don’t think even that noble sacrifice would melt the hearts of the Faculty. Collective action might be necessary. If every historian, whenever they took a book out from the HFL, drew a penis on a random page, the University’s collection would be slowly phallusified. Maybe, just maybe, the gradual build-up of crudely-drawn male genitalia would topple the HFL’s reign of terror.

The rest, as they say, would be history.

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