Archive for ‘December, 2009’

Happy Holidays and a year end summary.

datePosted on 19:34, December 23rd, 2009 by Pablo

I am taking off for 3 weeks to do some R&R overseas, and will not be on line for most of that time if at all. I just wanted to wish readers and KP colleagues alike the best for the holidays and upcoming year. It has been an interesting first year at KP, and for me personally. Until I was invited here I was a regular reader of various blogs, but now have a better understanding of the time and effort put into them. I learned a a lot in the process, mainly that reasoned debate is a precious commodity and there is way too much nastiness posing as “argument” on NZ political blogs. However, here we fought the good fight to keep things (more or less) civil and to filter out vulgarity and ad hominen attacks, and that stance appears to be working. I must thank the regular commentators not only for their input but also for their decorum.

For the record, we have had just over 180,000 page views of 360 posts with 5736 comments since we opened shop in early January 2009. I have done around 75 posts. Most have been serious reflections, a few have been deliberately polemical, and a couple were done just for fun. 

Much thanks has to go to Anita for keeping the site updated and ongoing while contributing her own valuable insights, to Lew for adding high quality argument to the KP collective, to our guest posters for expanding the scope of our debates, and to jafapete for helping originate the idea of this blog even if he has been sparse with his posts. To all of you, your efforts are appreciated on this end.

Not sure what 2010 is going to bring for me but the good news is that I will be spending a month in NZ as of mid-Feb doing a mix of research and personal business. Now THAT is something to look forward to!

More flaggery

datePosted on 20:00, December 20th, 2009 by Lew

Interesting discussion about flags going on at John Ansell’s blog and Kiwiblog and elsewhere. Go and vote on your favourite fern flag. I’m all for a new flag, but these designs are too logo-ish for my taste. Flags seem to me like the sort of things which ought to be made up of geometric fundamentals. That having been said, I think Ansell’s design A is emblematically the strongest, but I don’t think solid black is an appropriate colour for a national flag. If pressed I would reluctantly choose E or C. Is there an obvious reason why green and black aren’t paired somehow?

Fun thought: would the monarchists and traditionalists and nationalists be claiming victory if the government decided to adopt a new national flag which crown agencies would use, with the proviso that other folks could use the old flag if they wanted?

L

Bhadge

datePosted on 23:12, December 19th, 2009 by Lew

I’ve been very busy again this past week, and so the list of things I want to write about copiously exceeds my ability to write about them. My promised post about internecine disputes is in very early draft form but I’ll try and get it finished soon. I still have a post planned looking at the wider implications of the foreshore and seabed review, but I think that’ll have to wait until after I’ve painted the roof.

yep_im_a_redneck_button-p145980559379977550q37f_400I also wanted to write a lot about the final outcome of the h debate, but find that my views have already been pretty well encapsulated by Andrew Geddis and Idiot/Savant. You should also read Scott Hamilton’s latest on the wider topic of Pākehā separatism.

Given that the decision declares both ‘Wanganui’ and ‘Whanganui’ correct, but mandates crown usage of ‘Whanganui’, there’s as clear an implicit statement as can be that the latter is more correct than the former. This has been clearly understood by TVNZ and Radio NZ, who have adopted the latter usage as a matter of editorial policy. They are owned by the crown, after all, and both just happen to be in direct competition with Laws and his media employer. Permitting both spellings but making this declaration as to primacy was a move as shrewd as it was elegant by Maurice Williamson — similarly to John Key’s decision to permit the flying of a Māori flag if only Māori could agree on one. Michael Laws, Tariana Turia and Ken Mair have all claimed victory, so everyone with an actual stake is nominally happy. The Standardistas and the KBR are furious, which is a pretty good sign. It obviates the strongest symbolic position occupied by Laws, the idea that Wellington is coercing Wanganui into doing its PC bidding. Wellington need not — the rest of the country will do that, because the use of the no-h word will be an identity marker, a statement, like a badge; not quite “Yep, I’m a redneck” but something approaching it. The thing is that Laws and his rump of greying die-hards do not simply face a disorganised and discredited bunch of radical natives; they find themselves standing against the inexorable tide of civil society and its evolution, a youthful and browning population for whom biculturalism is the norm and separatism stopped being cool a generation ago (if it ever was).

Who knew that all Michael Laws wanted for his cause was an emasculating partial endorsement and a prolonged death sentence? He could have saved everyone (and his own reputation) a great deal of trouble by making this plain at the beginning. In other circumstances, I would be angry about everyone having been taken for a ride — but as it stands, I’m mostly just quietly pleased that civil society’s tendency toward self-correction will be left to do its thing.

L

A simmering pot soon to boil?

datePosted on 17:08, December 19th, 2009 by Pablo

>>This post has been updated<<.

Is it me or is there a lot of simmering anger percolating in NZ? A church puts an “edgy” advert on a billboard in order to promote thought on the meaning of Christmas and it gets attacked  and vandalized four times while bible-bashers and fundies go ballistic in the blogosphere defending the attackers and condemning the perceived insult. The government allows a (not “the”) Maori flag to fly alongside the conventional national (post-colonial) standard, and people go bat crazy over the”affront.” Words and phrases like “traitor” and “real patriot” get thrown about, and even otherwise civilized commentators set to ranting in invective-laden terms. Meanwhile news reports speak of increased violence throughout the land, many times within families and whanau , but not exclusively among the poor and disadvantaged. Contrary to NZ’s supposed reputation, tales of corruption high and low are now almost daily occurrences (be it nepotistic or corporate). Were one to just read the press, racial and ethnic conflict is the norm (understanding that press coverage does not lead but responds to public perception). Drink driving blitzes nab dozens of people on the piss (in spite of blanket coverage caution messages and a host of cheap or free driver services), parties degenerate into riots for trifling reasons, bullies continue to thrive, acts of senseless stupidity of various sorts are carried out on the streets and roads by quick to rage groups and individuals, and the “me-first, the hell with the rest” attitude permeates social discourse and interaction–all during what is supposed to be the season of peace.

What is up with that? New Zealand may have problems, but it it is a country with no real enemies, a benign climate, spectacular scenery and ample natural resources, an egalitarian social culture, and a traditionally  “can-do” attitude and spirit of volunteerism. It has no existential threats, a history of (pretty) good ethnic relations, a preference for tolerance, compassion and understanding, and, perhaps until recently, a record of good governance and political transparency. All of these traits are considered to be the exact requirements for peace and social stability, and in fact are considered to be the best insurance against social disharmony and anger. 

And yet, NZ is exhibiting signs of a polarised society stretched at the seams. This is more than annoyance at “dole bludgers,” ” troughers” and assorted easy to scapegoat miscreants and “others.” It does not seem to be entirely related to unemployment rates, arguments about climate change, or concerns about immigration. It is more than being fed up about political correctness or neoliberalism (although both may contribute to the syndrome). Instead, this appears to be an increasingly generalised symptom of a pervasive malaise deep at the core of Kiwi society. In fact, I may be alarmist but I see this as a society inching towards the end of its civilized rope. I have my own opinion as to what caused the decline (and have previously posted on it), but this recent spate of visceral anger, even if cloaked in virtuous or self-righteous terms, speaks to something darker in the NZ psyche.

So I ask again: am I crazy or is there something seriously wrong at the core of NZ society, and if so, where does it come from?

Oh, and BTW–Happy Holidays!

The flag: politics either way

datePosted on 09:34, December 15th, 2009 by Lew

It’s impossible to ignore the fact that every single one of those Māori I’ve heard speaking out against the tino rangatiratanga flag has a tribal axe to grind. Shane Jones, Kingi Taurua, Pita Paraone, Winston Peters — they’re all from the iwi of that group of rangatira who established the United Tribes of New Zealand confederation under Busby in 1835, in the Tai Tokerau. They, naturally enough, want the United Tribes flag flown instead of the one which represents the aspirations of wider Māori. The root of this claim is the belief among those groups that theirs was the ‘state of origin’, as it were — the first actual state in these lands. That’s a complex and disputed claim but regardless, the belief abides, and this sense of primacy is no small part of the reason that so many of this country’s Māori statesmen and women, great thinkers and inspirational leaders, come from the tail of Te Ika a Maui.

They say there’s an ulterior motive in the flying of the tino rangatiratanga flag on the part of the māori party, who have adopted it as their own, and I accept they have a case. They also have a case to argue that the United Tribes flag should be flown — especially at Waitangi Marae (Te Tii), where the choice belongs solely to mana whenua. But let’s not pretend there’s no ulterior political motive on their part: they have every reason to decry the flag as ‘separatist’ and ‘divisive’ in order to fly their own. Not only that, but the motive is no more unanimous among Ngāpuhi than among other Māori — the tino rangatiratanga flag is supported (obviously) by Hone Harawira, and was designed by Hiraina Marsden, the daughter of the Rev. Māori Marsden, one of the most important philosophical figures of that iwi, and a mentor to Shane Jones and many others. So the political motives in play are much more complex than they appear.

As for Winston Peters’ objection that the tino rangatiratanga flag is ‘political’ — was there ever a more ridiculous assertion? The whole purpose of such a flag is to symbolise and propagandise political identity, to provide it focus and expression. The United Tribes flag is no less political than the tino rangatiratanga flag — and so it becomes a matter of picking which symbolism is more appropriate.

On the one hand we have a long historical pedigree, and a flag which represents the early unity of the NZ proto-state and the formal beginnings of collaboration between tangata whenua and tau iwi, but which actually represents only a small subset of the Māori population and whose political cause (to establish a client state sympathetic to the English in their manouvres against the French) was superceded by the Treaty of Waitangi only a few years after its establishment.

On the other, we have a relatively new flag, one whose symbolism and history is exclusively Māori, rather than being part of a wider game between colonial powers; a modern flag representing modern, rather than historical aspirations but which has, to an extent, been hijacked by the radical movement.

For me, it comes down to the process enacted by the government: wisely, instead of deciding by fiat, John Key instructed Māori to decide, and decide they did, with more than 80% of the 1200 submissions in favour of the tino rangatiratanga flag. This is not to side with majoritarianism, but to say that choosing another flag would have been manifest politicking. Better from Key’s perspective to devolve the decision and allow an age-old struggle to re-emerge: he looks statesmanlike, and both his erstwhile political friends and his enemies get bogged down in internecine fighting. I had hoped it wouldn’t happen; and it might yet prove minor. But the issue won’t go away — nor should it.

L

Name suppression: protecting victims’ rights

datePosted on 14:08, December 13th, 2009 by Anita

There is a woman, a victim of rape, who knows that every time any acquaintance  looks at her they know what her husband did to her. When she walks through the supermarket every shopper may be looking at her and thinking about her terror, fear and shame.

In a healthy society she would have no reason to feel ashamed, but ours is not a healthy society: most victims of rape do feel shame, embarrassment and humiliation.

When a blogger decided to court fame and media attention by making a political point about name suppression he not only outed the man whose name was suppressed, he also revealed the victim’s identity – he revictimised a woman who has already suffered enough.

[The blogger's name has been removed as suggested in a comment as the name of the blogger, in turn, leads toward the woman's identity]

A Note on Progressive Praxis in Aotearoa

datePosted on 18:15, December 12th, 2009 by Pablo

The recent debates engaged here and elsewhere on the “proper” course to be taken by NZ Left/progressive politics has given me pause to think about the larger issue of Left/progressive praxis in a country such as this. I am on record as defending the class line-first approach, whereas Lew has quite eloquently expressed the primacy of identity politics (and, it should be noted, I am not as hostile to Lew’s line of thought as some of his other critics). But I do not think that the debate covered the entirety of the subject of Left/progressive praxis, and in fact may have detracted from it.  Thus what follows is a sketch of my view of how Left/progressive praxis needs to be pursued in Aotearoa.

First, let’s set the stage. NZ is dominated by market-driven ideologies. In its social, cultural, political and economic expression, capitalism is the primary and undisputed organising principle. Counter-ideological resistance can be found in all of these domains, but the supremacy of capitalism as a social construct is clear. Even so, when compared with the 1990s, this supremacy is not as unshakable. The global financial crisis, corporate greed, predatory lending, financial market manipulation and fraud, increasing income disparities, assorted mendacious acts of venality and corruption have all contributed to a decline in the ideological legitimacy of market-driven logics, including those espoused by its political representatives. That provides a window of opportunity for Left/progressives, even if their traditional sources of strength in the union movement are no longer capable of exercising decisive leadership of a counter-hegemonic sort. Hence the need for a different type of praxis.

The Left/progressive cause needs to be organized into two branches: a political branch and a social movement branch. In turn, each branch needs to be divided into militant and moderate wings. The political branch would encompass Left/progressive political parties such as the Greens and the Alliance as well as fringe parties willing to cooperate in a common venture such as the Communists, Socialist Workers and the like. Because Labour is no longer a genuine Left Party, its inclusion is problematic, but it is possible that its leftist cadres could be invited to participate. The idea is to form a genuine Left/progressive political coalition that serves as a political pressure group on the mainstream parties while offering real counter-hegemonic alternatives to voters in selected districts. One can envision a Left coalition banner running slates in targeted districts with strong subaltern/subordinate group demographics. The idea is to present a Left/progressive alternative to the status quo that, at a minimum, pressures Labour out of its complacency and conformity with the pro-market status quo. At a maximum it will siphon disaffected voters away from Labour and into a genuine Left/progressive political alternative. This may be hard to do, but it is not impossible if properly conceived and executed.

In parallel, the social movement branch should encompass the now somewhat disparate assortment of environmental, union, animal welfare, indigenous rights, GBLT rights and other advocacy groups under the banner of common cause and reciprocal solidarity. The unifying pledge would be that of mutual support and advocacy. It goes without saying that the political and social movement branches will have areas of overlap in the guise of individuals with feet in each camp, but their strategic goals will be different, as will be their tactics. But each would support the other: the social movement branch would endorse and actively Left/progressive candidates and policy platforms; the Left/progressive political branch would support the social movement causes. This mutual commitment would be the basis for formal ties between and within each branch. 

That brings up the moderate-militant wings. Each branch needs to have  both moderate and militant cadres if they are to be effective in pursuing a common agenda. The moderate wings are those that appear “reasonable” to bourgeois society, and who engage their politics within the institutional confines of the bourgeois state. The militant wings, on the other hand, are committed to direct action that transgresses established institutional boundaries and mores. Since this involves transgressing against criminal as civil law (even if non-violent civil disobedience such as the Plowshares action against the Echelon listening post in Blenheim), the use of small group/cell tactics rooted in autonomous decentralized acts and operational secrecy are paramount for survival and success.  The need for militancy is simple: it is a hedge against co-optation. Political and social militants keep their moderate brethren honest, which in turn allows the moderate wings to exploit the political space opened by militant direct action to pursue an incremental gains agenda in both spheres.

For this type of praxis to work, the key issues are those of organization and contingent compromise. Endongeonously, all interested parties in each branch will have to be capable of organizational unity, which means that principle/agent issues need to resolved in pursuit of coherent collective action, presumably in ways that forestall the emergence of the iron law of oligarchy that permits vanguardist tendencies to predominate. There are enough grassroots leaders and dedicated organisers already operating in the NZ milieu. The question is whether they can put aside their personal positions and parochial concerns in the interest of broader gains. That means that exogenously, these actors will need to find common ground for a unified platform that allows for reciprocal solidarity without the all-to-common ideological and tactical hair-splitting that is the bane of Left/progressive politics. The compromise between the political and social movement branches is contingent on their mutual support, but is designed to prevent co-optation of one by the other (such as what has traditionally tended to occur). If that can be achieved, then strategic unity between the political and social movement branches is possible, with strategic unity and tactical autonomy being the operational mantra for both moderate and militant wings.

On the face of things, all of this may sound quite simplistic and naive. After all it is only a sketch, and far be it for me, a non-citizen pontificating from my perch in authoritarian Asia, to tell Kiwi Left/progressives how to conduct their affairs. It may, in fact, be impossible to achieve given the disparate interests and personalities that would come into play, to say nothing of the resistance to such a project by the political status quo, Labour in particular. But the failures of Left/progressive praxis in NZ can be attributed just as much to its ideological and organizational disunity as it can be to the ideological supremacy and better organization of the Right. Moreover, Labour is in a position where it can no longer ignore groups that it has traditionally taken for granted, to include more militant union cadres who are fed up with being treated as corporate lapdogs and political eunuchs. Thus the time is ripe for a re-evaluation of Left/progressive strategy and action, particularly since the NACTIONAL agenda is now being fully exposed in all of its profit-driven, privatization-obsessed glory. Perhaps then, it is a time for a series of Left/Progressive summits in which all interested parties can attempt to forge a common strategy of action. It may take time to hash out such a platform, but the political rewards of such an effort could be significant. After all, la union hace la fuerza: with unity comes strength.

My first “real” job involved creating a Latin American Studies program for US military and civilian intelligence officers at a military post-graduate institution. One of the factors that contributed to my being hired was that I had familiarity with how Latin American guerrilla organizations fight. When asked at the job interview about how to “counter” them, I noted that the very term “counter-insurgency’ was self-defeating on two levels, one semantic and one practical. That impressed and surprised my  interlocutors, who then allowed me to teach my interpretation of counter-insurgency (COIN) theory to my Latin-America bound students. In return, I got to learn and participate in their business. But that was two decades ago. Since the doctrine of counter-insurgency has resurfaced and been applied in recent years to Afghanistan and Iraq, and is seemingly back in vogue and unchallenged in those settings, I thought I would reprise my argument against its use.

“Insurgency” refers to counter-hegemonic or anti-status quo groups that use armed struggle as the means to the end of political victory. It is not a form of warfare per se, but instead a term used to describe the nature of a particular guerrilla (or irregular or unconventional) group using irregular warfare as the means to their end. Thus one does not “counter” insurgency by fighting, but by ideological means. Hence “counter-insurgency” properly applies to non-coercive measures employed by political status quo regimes to thwart the ideological appeal of (most often nationalist) guerrillas. The term is therefore misused when applied to the kinetic part of asymmetric warfare, which more properly can be termed “counter-guerrilla” or irregular warfare operations.

But even then the practical problem remains: by defining kinetic operations as “counter-guerrilla” or (mistakenly) “counter-insurgency,”  the conventional fighter begins on the back foot. Anyone familiar with guerrilla warfare knows that you do not “counter” it, or merely respond to guerrilla operations. That is because such an approach gives the guerrilla forces the initiative as to how and when to stage their operations. Such a “countering” strategy inevitably allows guerrillas to remain on the offensive and dictate the timing, nature and tempo of armed confrontations. It is, therefore , often a self-defeating strategy doomed from the onset.

In order to be successful, counter-guerrilla operations need to be offensive, irregular and consequently symmetrical to those of the guerrillas themselves. The idea is to fight guerrillas on their own terms but with all of the capabilities afforded to conventional militaries (e.g. air cover, precision-munitions, satellite guidance, signals and technical intelligence). That involves small group operations–such as what the NZSAS is trained to do–acting with excellent and precise tactical intelligence to strike preemptively at guerrilla targets, focusing on leadership and command, control, communications and intelligence (C3I) structures. Rather than large group operations that rely on massed force and kinetic friction, the irregular approach emphasizes fluidity and maneuver. In other words, it operates the way guerrillas do.

Therein lies the problem with Western counter-insurgency strategy. It confuses the nature of a guerrilla grievance with a type of irregular warfare, and in doing so legitimizes the grievance in contexts in which the status quo regime is unpopular. In such contexts “insurgents” are awarded popular appeal as symbols of resistance to the unpopular regime and foreign oppressors, thereby undercutting any “hearts and minds” efforts undertaken by the latter. This in turn undermines efforts to obtain precise, reliable and timely intelligence on guerrilla targets, which is a function of the rapport between the civilian population and various armed actors. Instead, the intelligence flow preferably goes to the guerrillas, and what passes for intelligence to the conventional actor is often disinformation.

To that can be added the mindset created by the “countering” posture of irregular operations. Such a strategic posture condemns the countering party to react to the actions of the guerrillas, which although leading to tactical success on occasion, denies the countering side the possibility of strategic victory. So long as guerrillas can avoid confrontations with massed force, they survive to fight another day, another week, and years thereafter. “Countering” strategies also have the drawback of not being fine-tuned to the cultural norms and fighting styles of irregular opponents. Although much has been written about the different approaches to conventional warfare adopted by different nations (such as American, Arab, British, Chinese, Israeli and Russian fighting styles), much less attention has been paid to different unconventional or irregular fighting styles. Not all guerrillas copy the Guevara, Guillen, Marighella or Mao  playbook when undertaking their campaigns, and many hybrid versions of guerrilla warfare exist that are rooted as much in local armed  custom as they are historical examples. A “countering” strategy is less capable of embracing that fact.

I have refrained here from taking a position on the worthiness of the cause (pro or anti-guerrilla) in a given case. Readers can choose sides in any conflict as they deem fit. What I am doing here is briefly explaining why Western counter-insurgency strategy has elementary problems that seriously impede the possibility of success in any context in which its adversaries are well organised and highly motivated, particularly if the latter adopt a guerrilla strategy of fighting prolonged wars of attrition on their home soil against foreign forces that are not as committed to the long-term struggle (or who do not have the support of their home populations to do so).

As the old saying goes, in asymmetric wars, strategic stalemates are victories for the militarily “weaker” side. However, if the militarily “superior” side bases its campaign on erroneous assumptions and faulty strategic logics, then more than a stalemate is within the grasp of the ostensibly “weaker” side. After all, asymmetry in warfare works both ways.

 

PS: I have updated the post. For those interested, here is a link to US counter-insurgency doctrine. The Spec Ops community understands the problem, but as a minority component of a large conventional military, they ultimately are not determinants of the solutions offered.

Deeply subversive

datePosted on 15:43, December 10th, 2009 by Lew

Some of you will know that I take perverse joy in waking up to Geoff Robinson and Sean Plunket each morning,* and I regard Sean as one of the country’s best interviewers (and the best hard-news interviewer, though Mary Wilson gives him a fair run some days). Pablo has written about Radio NZ’s treatment of him over his bid to write a column for Metro, and I think it’s fair to say he (Sean) is pretty sore about the whole affair. He does not strike me as one to trifle with, and though I can’t quite put my finger on it, I think something very subtle is going on with Sean Plunket’s new blog: Sean Makes Crafts.

Welcome to the blogosphere, Sean. We watch with interest.

Update: It seems Poneke and The Standard got onto this before me.

Update 2: Sean Plunket denies he has anything to do with it. Well, that’s just the sort of thing he would do, wouldn’t he?

L

* Not only me. My daughter, just turned 1, does a little dance when she hears the Morning Report music. Strange, but true.

Back away slowly

datePosted on 00:20, December 9th, 2009 by Lew

Update: This post was a response to an attack on me by Chris Trotter. Since it was published, Chris has graciously apologised for writing it, and for the general bad blood between us. He has deleted the post from Bowalley Road, and I give him my hearty thanks for the reconsideration.

I have also been culpable in this rather nasty exchange, which stretches back almost a year. For that part in it I, too, must apologise. While I retain strenuous objections to Chris’ political positions (as I’m sure he does to mine) these needn’t have become personalised, and are better discussed calmly as befits reasonable adults. While they may yet prove intractable, it should be possible for people in a free society to hold irreconcilable differences and yet remain civil. Much heat, and too little light, has emerged from this meeting of political minds, but I think there is potential for future engagement between Chris and I based on some sort of goodwill and tolerance rather than upon vituperation and political posturing, and I will do what I can to cultivate it.

While Chris has deleted his post, I do not believe in tampering with the historical record in that way. While I might regret things I’ve said, I won’t pretend I didn’t say them. And so the content of my response remains below the fold. It should be read with the subsequent context and this apology (and pledge to more constructive engagement in the future) very firmly in mind. In fact, the most worthwhile thing by far to emerge from the dispute is an unexpectedly useful discussion led by commenter “Ag” on the nature of class consciousness and electorate rationality: I commend that discussion, rather than the post from which it emerged, to the KP readership.

L

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