The great secret of the ASUC, which I have divined after spending more than four years exploring its Byzantine ins and outs, is one that is probably clear to the outside observer: It is a fundamentally stupid organization.
No matter how large and sprawling its bureaucracy grows, no matter the scope and price tag of its ambitious projects and no matter the dramatic heights of self-importance achieved by its officials (both elected and appointed), the ASUC will never be able to escape the most defining and foundational fact of its existence: student governments are honestly not that big of a deal.
This is not to discount all the important work that the ASUC does, of course; I obviously think it has value, or I would not have sunk so much of my time and energy into it for the last four years. But a student government inherently has a cap on how important it can be; the turnover of its voting populace is so rapid that most of them will only reap its benefits for about four years, and then, for better or for worse, they’ll move on.
Once people are entrenched in the system, however, it can be difficult to maintain perspective. It is difficult, for example, once one has devoted six months of one’s life to a soul-sucking senate campaign, swearing to everyone one meets that the ASUC is not as much of a joke as everyone thinks, to recognize that the ASUC is exactly as much of a joke as everyone thinks.
Herein, perhaps, lies the fatal flaw of the denizens of the ASUC: a lack of perspective. It is difficult for outsiders to look at the ASUC and understand why it is beset by such dramatic levels of petty infighting and obstructive squabbling, but these outsiders are not laboring under the delusion that the activities of the ASUC are extremely important. Whether it is because of sunk costs, a culture of mutual masturbation or just the tendency of the electoral process to draw in the terminally self-important, the officials of the ASUC have as a whole bought into their own bullshit. This leaves them tragically incapable of being in on the joke. Which, of course, makes the joke all the sweeter (at least if you’re an arrogant, schadenfreude-reveling asshole like me).
As a satirist, I hold that humor is an important and necessary tool for navigating the otherwise soul-sucking labyrinth of politics — both because it maintains emotional stability and because it can be an especially trenchant method of delivering criticism. This is true at all levels of government, and the ASUC is no different. Accordingly, I have spent the last four years associating myself with a satirical party and getting up to all sorts of amusing antics. And while members of the ASUC have gritted their teeth and grinned at me while I pranced around in costumes and made them take embarrassing pictures with me during campaigning, the same is not year-round.
Last year, after Senator Boomer Vicente bragged about passing more bills than any other senator during his candidacy for External Affairs Vice President, the SQUELCH! senators submitted a bill mocking senators who pass excessive quantities of meaningless bills in order to look like they’re doing real work. This was during campaign season, and everybody laughed, and the bill slowly trickled through the ASUC legislative process over the next few weeks. It finally came into consideration before the entire senate the week after elections ended. Senator Benedict Llave, whose community’s new senate candidate had just lost her campaign, suddenly cried foul, saying that joke bills damaged the legitimacy of the ASUC and such tomfoolery was so horrible that it had contributed to the loss of his community’s senator.
This, besides being obviously wrong, underscores the incapability of the ASUC to engage with criticism, even when couched in the form of a joke; not only did Senator Llave (or even Senator Vicente, at whom the bill was directed) fail to refute the point made by the bill, but he took the mere existence of a joke at the ASUC’s expense as a personal affront.
Earlier this semester, after my column discussing the strengths and weaknesses of Student Action published, a current Student Action senator emailed The Daily Californian management questioning my right to criticize the ASUC in print because, in their opinion, my column was nothing more than a cruel weekly diatribe against innocent hardworking ASUC senators, willfully ignoring all the good work they did in order to get my kicks out of bullying the weak and powerless. I’m not naming names in this instance specifically because my goal is to make a trenchant point, not to directly mock specific individuals. The unfortunate implications of an elected official trying to silence the free press to avoid criticism aside, the point remains that my jeering discussion of campus politics clearly struck a nerve, despite the democratic principle that volunteering to become an elected official opens you up to criticism by the voting populace.
My overriding point is not that everyone should have a better sense of humor (although, as a separate point, they probably should) but that it is part of the duty of elected officials to accept and adapt to criticism from the audience they are meant to serve. If a member of the ASUC would truly claim to be effective in their role, it is necessary that they learn how to take an appropriate joke.
Jake Fineman writes the Monday column on the ASUC. Contact him at [email protected].