Archive for ‘September, 2010’

Most important event of the millennium so far

datePosted on 11:10, September 30th, 2010 by Lew

Astronomers have apparently discovered — for the first time — a planet which is both the correct size and the correct distance from its star to support life. And it’s only (all intended irony) 20 light years away!

Gliese 581g is the first world discovered beyond Earth that’s the right size and location for life.
“Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it,” Steven Vogt, professor of astronomy and astrophysics at University of California Santa Cruz, told Discovery News.

Ever-pessimistic, I await the inevitable debunking of this epochal development. But I’m not as bad as some people on twitter, who believe that we’ll just give up on the planet we currently have as we redouble efforts to reach the new one. Sheesh.

Update 20101014: Another group of astronomers, searching for the same planet, have been unable to find any evidence that the planet even exists. Oh well.

L

Blog Link: Ending one chapter and starting another.

datePosted on 20:33, September 29th, 2010 by Pablo

Its the end of days for me in one sense, but perhaps the beginning of something new in a few months or so. More details on the latter prospect as it develops.

‘Ethnographic’ TV: compare & contrast

datePosted on 11:30, September 28th, 2010 by Lew

At the risk of courting Pablo’s disappointment, I’m descending briefly from lofty theoretical heights to make a few rather rambly observations about two new examples of ‘ethnographic’ reality television in New Zealand: How the Other Half Lives and Are You My Tribe? (both of which screen on TV One, Monday nights).

First, the similarities: Both shows follow a pretty well-established format popularised most thoroughly by Louis Theroux: ‘gonzo anthropology’ for the television audience. Both are journeys of discovery undertaken by middle-aged celebrities who have made their names and reputations by being all-round Kiwi blokes — former All Black Marc Ellis and broadcaster Mikey Havoc. Both have enthusiastically embraced their ignorance of those aspects of life in New Zealand which form their shows’ subject matter. Both possess the superficial characteristic required for such an endeavour: the ability to establish and maintain rapport with people whilst simultaneously objectifying them; or, put another way, the ability to make the objectification not seem quite so objectionable.

In HTOHL Ellis is explicitly using his status as a cultural elite to investigate defined sub- or counter-cultures within New Zealand society. In AYMT Havoc uses the same cultural elite status to gain entry to te Ao Māori in an attempt to make up for 38 years of having (as one Ngāi Tūhoe kaumatua put it) not bothered. Both Havoc and Ellis speak to — and for — ordinary Pākehā middle-class New Zealand; that swathe of folk who are, by any objective definition, in charge of the country economically, politically and culturally; and who yet harbour considerable uncertainty about whether they are or not. There’s an unselfconscious normative aspect to this; HTOHL’s blurb declares that Ellis “reckons he’s pretty normal” but in the show “he jumps the fence of normality”; the word ‘other’ is even in the show’s title. AYMT pointedly started with the most ‘scary’ iwi for its first show, which went to some lengths to emphasise Tūhoetanga as a distinguishing characteristic. So the clear subtext of both shows is to firm up that shaky sense of cultural identity by emphasising the fact that the cultural objects of his investigation — those, by definition, with a strong and distinctly-articulated identity — are on the margins, outside society’s norms and not really wholly accountable to them. The screening of the two shows back-to-back is a bit troublesome here; I’m vaguely disturbed by the equation of Māori with the sort of fringe subcultural ‘others’ which are the objects of Ellis’ investigations — Neo-Nazi survivalists, witches, born-again Buddhists and so on.* One of the key things the last few decades should have taught Aotearoeans of all hues is that Māori aren’t just another fringe group.

So much for the similarities. There are some pretty fundamental differences between these two shows, which are also emphasised by their consecutive timeslots. The first and most obvious of these is the specific objects and the host’s relationship to them. Ellis is lighthearted and superficial; he’s more interested in the gonzo than in cultural engagement, and the choice of fringe subcultures as his objects permits him to be flippant and dismissive when it suits. Havoc, playing for much higher stakes, doesn’t have this luxury: he can’t treat his objects as cultural curiosities or as a freakshow. He has to take his objects seriously, and this requires him to engage more deeply and more honestly with them than Ellis does, to put more of himself on the line, drawing more out from the objects of his investigation.

That difference gives rise to the second major difference: the presence and extent of judgement as to life according to ‘other’ norms. The heart of programming like this — and of comparative ethnography in general — is in the carefully-contained judgement of the investigator. The point is to examine the cultural fronts, where norms butt up against each other; and the key attribute of a host isn’t so much to be a jovial wise-cracking ‘good bloke’, it’s to do so whilst gaining genuine insight into where the cultural fronts lie, how they might be negotiated, and indeed whether it’s possible to negotiate them. This is a pretty rare quality; one which Louis Theroux has in spades and which permits him to make such eye-opening television: the objects of his investigation don’t feel like they’re being objectified. As a rule they are disarmingly frank, and sometimes frighteningly so. Theroux achieves this sort of dynamic by carefully constraining his judgement, but not abandoning it altogether. Theroux asks the question which needs to be asked and holds his own cultural ground, but does so in a way which does not threaten or attack his objects. Theroux refuses to become complicit in admiring whatever edifices of self-delusion his objects erect, but also does not make it his business to tear them down.

For all that Havoc exhibits maudlin and faintly embarrassing envy for the strong and rooted sense of identity possessed by Ngāi Tūhoe (honestly, how many generations will it take for people to realise that being Pākehā is not the absence of culture; it is a culture in and of itself!), he enters into the discourse in good and robust faith to find out what that identity is, and what it tells him about his own. His aim is not to disabuse them of their stranger notions, but nor is it just to impassively observe. Havoc puts himself in uncomfortable situations (such as powhiri and a raucous kitchen-table drinking session) but does not relinquish his own cultural ground, finding ways to ask the question — like addressing the fact that one in four young Māori end up in prison, and asking “how is ‘exclusive’ different from ‘racist’?” — and expecting good answers, without alienating those who must provide them.

Ellis, on the other hand, is not required to do anything more than the superficial, so he doesn’t. He exhibits a much stronger sense of his own identity than than Havoc does, but there’s almost nothing of it in the programme. His own reality is never challenged: the cultural front never emerges because instead of engaging and standing firm on his own ground, he withdraws into jocular trivialities, avoiding the conflict which is necessary for this sort of exercise. Discomfort is limited to banalities like sitting through three-hour chanting ceremonies and sleeping rough in the bush. He gets through the entire first episode of this season with Kyle Chapman, former leader of the National Front and probably New Zealand’s best-known neo-Nazi, without once initiating discussion about the ideological and racist foundations of Chapman’s Survive Club. What’s more, when one of the club members talks about how the ‘maaris’ — and Ngāi Tūhoe in particular — are the leading threat to New Zealand’s civil society, he fails to ask the question (in fact, judging by a posting on Survive Club’s website it seems that not being a “media hate monger” was part of the deal.) It takes a special sort of obliviousness to not remark on the irony of a group of racial-supremacist armed wannabe commandos training for the coming apocalypse in a remote part of the Southern Alps who think some other group are the real threat.

You don’t get to be Louis Theroux without asking that question.

L

* I can certainly see the counter here: Tūhoe training camps; rongoa Māori and modern religions like Hauhau and Ratana.

Ahmadinejad Amps Up.

datePosted on 13:11, September 27th, 2010 by Pablo

Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s airing of a 9-11 conspiracy theory during his speech to the UN General Assembly last week produced a walk out by several delegations (including New Zealand’s) and a predictable chorus of outrage by conservative Western media. Not being a fan of 9-11 conspiracy theories myself, I simply note that this is is just the latest in a series of provocative UN speeches by Ahmadinejad, including his contention three years ago that there are no gays in Iran (insert Tui ad here).

What may not be apparent to the peanut gallery is the real reasons for the crazy talk. Let me therefore explain them.

As I have written before here and elsewhere, authoritarian regimes are seldom monolithic but instead are usually divided into factions of one kind or another depending on the specifics of the regime. There are hard-liners and soft-liners, idealists versus pragmatists, old guard versus new guard, religious versus secularist, military versus civilian, rural versus urban–these and other cleavages may overlap in any variety of ways (and can include inter-service divisions in military-dominated regimes). Ahmadinejad is associated with one hard line faction within the electoral authoritarian theocratic regime in Iran. This faction has been seriously undermined by the disputed December 2009 election results and subsequent unrest, something that comes at a time when Tehran is trying to impose its stamp as a major regional power by, among other things, pursuing an independent nuclear capability that has the potential if not intent of achieving nuclear deterrent status. That is the domestic context in which the UN speech was given.

The speech was televised live in Iran. It was designed to bolster Ahmadinejad’s hard-line credentials and image as a strong leader at home, thereby shoring up his support within the Revolutionary Guard affiliated hard-line elements that are vying for regime control with more moderate, secularist factions. The speech was, in other words, more for domestic consumption than international indigestion.

But it was also designed to raise Ahmadinejad’s stature within the Muslim world, and by extension that of Iran in its battle with pro-Western Sunni regimes such as those in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Egypt. The theory that 9-11 was an inside job perpetrated by the US so that it could then embark on a military project of world domination and defense of the”Zionist entity” has a fair bit of credence amongst (mostly uneducated) Muslims. Although crazy on the face of it, supposedly unexplained questions about the attacks themselves, the possibility of an ex post facto US whitewash or cover-up of the events leading up to and immediately following the attacks, and the subsequent US declaration of a “war on terror” leading to the invasion and occupation of two Muslim-dominant states (as well as the deployment of US military forces to dozens of others), lends itself easily to conspiracy theorisation, if not out of genuine skepticism than as a tool by which to manipulate subject populations already hostile to the US and Israel. By voicing one version of the “9-11 was an inside job” theory (as one of three possible explanations for the attacks mentioned by Ahmadinejad in his speech), the Iranian president dared to go where other Muslim leaders fail to tread. That raises his profile, and that of Iran, as the champion of Islamic interests at a time when other Muslim states are seen as complicit with or subjugated to US-led Western interests.

There is an irony in all of this. In a very real sense, Ahmadinejad’s speech and the reaffirmation of his position within the Iranian regime can be seen as a good thing when it comes to negotiations about its nuclear ambitions. It is axiomatic in diplomatic negotiations that agents have a strong mandate from their constituents. If the agents do not then their bargaining position can be undermined during or after the negotiations, making the entire process futile. By making his speech Ahmadinejad bolsters his position as a negotiating agent in the measure that support for him unifies and consolidates into diplomatic talking points. Put another way, were his position within the regime to remain weak or under challenge, his position as a negotiator would be undermined as well and anything that he agreed to could be undone by rivals seeking to strengthen their own internal hand. In other words, his word would mean nothing at the negotiating table.

But if his speech serves to unify support for him, then his ability to negotiate an agreement on the nuclear programme in which trade-offs between renunciation of weapons ambitions are exchanged for removal of sanctions and provision of aid, etc. will be enhanced. This is especially so because he is a hardliner with a reputation, reaffirmed by the speech, of defying the Great Satan, the UK and other Western powers while denouncing the Zionists and courting Chinese, Pakistani, North Korean and Venezuelan ties. Just like US Republican administrations (Nixon and Reagan, respectively) could lead the opening to China and the thawing of relations (glasnost) with the Soviet Union because of their hard-line credentials and domestic positions of political strength, so too it is that Ahmadinejad’s faction, not the soft-line or moderates in the Iranian regime, has the best credentials for negotiating the terms of any durable agreement on its nuclear programme. In the measure that his speech reaffirms his hard-line credentials and strengthens his position within the regime, the more possible it is for him to be a reliable negotiating agent vis a vis the West, which means that the prospects of a peaceful solution to the Iranian nuclear impasse are actually improved if his speech has the desired effect on his intended main audience.

Which is to say, Ahmadinejad may seem crazy, but he is crazy like a fox.

Running towards disaster.

datePosted on 14:19, September 24th, 2010 by Pablo

News that preparations for the Delhi Commonwealth Games are in disarray, and that Indian Games officials deliberately misled NZ and other foreign officials about the state of play with regard to the preparations, should give those responsible for sending the NZ team serious cause for concern. It fact, they should seriously reconsider whether sending a team is worth the risks. Several foreign athletes have already declined to participate due to their concerns about security. Other countries have delayed sending their teams and some are considering withdrawing entirely. NZ needs to do the same. No amount of temporary athletic glory–and the bureaucratic empire-building that rides on the back of athletic accomplishment–should overcome a reasoned and rational appraisal of the risks involved in sending Kiwis into a potentially dangerous situation. The hard fact is that unlike the football and rugby World Cups, where local and international sanctioning organisations work hand-in-hand to ensure that high standards are maintained across the board, this edition of the Commonwealth Games is singular in its lack of coordination and oversight. The results of that misadventure are now plain to see, and yet NZ and other countries have wavered about whether to send their delegations less they risk causing offense to the hosts that lied to them.

Let ‘s take just two dimensions of risk: health and security. Pictures of the atrocious conditions of the athlete’s village have now surfaced, including leaking and broken toilets, seriously dirty washrooms and bedrooms, bedding that has dog prints and human excrement on them, exposed wiring, broken windows, faulty lighting, garbage strewn walkways, staircases and balconies with defective railings–the range of construction and finishing problems runs the gamut. A pedestrian bridge connecting a parking lot to a stadium collapsed, which raises questions about sub par construction standards, possible corruption in the awarding of contracts, inept or negligent construction oversight or some unhappy combination of the above. Given the revelations that Games officials deliberately misled foreign delegations about the status of the construction project, it is entirely reasonable to ask whether this lack of ethics was pervasive throughout the build up to the Games, and what that means in terms of the integrity of the venues.

Let us take the concern further. If this is the state of the physical construction required to host the games, what will be the condition of the kitchens in which athlete’s food is prepared, the personal hygiene standards of those preparing such food, and the cleanliness standards of the public restrooms, food vending outlets and other public spaces in which athletes will find themselves? Will NZ be securing its own dedicated cooking and abolution spaces and if not, how does it propose to guarantee that its athletes will be free of the risk of infection, contamination and other human-caused disease (to say nothing of other maladies such as the mosquito-borne dengue fever epidemic currently raging in Delhi and to which the simple of solution of mass fumigation campaigns such as those used in SE Asia is apparently unheard of or not implemented)?

Then there is the issue of security. It turns out that rival Indian security agencies are engaged in turf battles that have impeded intelligence sharing and real-time communications. Although the Indian Army can be considered competent and focused on deterring potential threats, local police forces are less professional in approach and susceptible  to corruption, infiltration by extremists and simple incompetence. Given that Pakistani-based militants have already issued direct threats against the Games and conflict in Kashmir has escalated in recent weeks, the scene is set for a major terrorist attack on the Games, be it against a foreign delegation, a specific event or the host arenas themselves. The NZ government is unable to give assurances that something nasty will not happen because the Indian government, for all its blowhard security rhetoric, cannot offer absolute guarantees that the Games will be safe (again, owing to distrust and disunity between national, state and local security agencies). In fact, NZ already has travel advisories in place for India irrespective of the Games, so if anything those need to be updated in light of the realities on the ground there.

The bottom line is the Delhi Games are not only in trouble but are trouble in the making. It therefore behooves the National government, to say nothing of MFAT and the NZSIS/NAB etc., to take the lead in determining whether it is worth risking NZ lives by sending them to a second-tier athletic competition in which their health and safety cannot be guaranteed. After all, it was the government that intervened to tell NZ cricket that playing matches in Zimbabwe was not advisable because of the nature of the regime rather than any specific threat to the cricketers themselves. In this case the threats are multiple and real even if the host government is friendly. Should not the NZ government be as concerned in this instance as it ostensibly was with the cancelled cricket tour?

It may be diplomatically uncomfortable, and personally disappointing for the athletes involved, for the government to pull the plug on NZ participation in the Games, but that is a decision that should not be left to those who were duped by the Indian con in the first place and one which should place more value on the long term welfare of its athletes than on the immediate potential for medals that they may accrue.

**UPDATE** No sooner had I posted this than cyclist Greg Henderson announced he was withdrawing from the games citing–surprise, surprise–health and security concerns (can you imagine riding in a cycle road race in New Delhi, where the safety and security of the racers over distances of more than 100 kilometers is entrusted to local volunteers and security officials responsible for keeping traffic off of the course?). That a cyclist has to be the first to admit the obvious, even if he is doing so out of concern for his long-term professional career rather than that of his fellow athletes, is indicative of the lack of wider perspective exhibited by NZ’s athletic overseers. Which is why the government needs to get involved.

**UPDATE 2** The army of cleaners pressed into service at the last minute by the Games organisers includes 7 and 8 year old girls. I wonder what their wages and terms of employment are? Also, various Indian officials have claimed that the complaints are evidence of Anglo-Saxon racism and enduring colonial attitudes. To which I say: Good job guys. Nothing like addressing the root problem full on.

Voting in the Dark Ages

datePosted on 22:35, September 20th, 2010 by Anita

The voting papers arrived at my house over the weekend and present something of a dilemma. One member of our household is in the UK for the election; he still, not unreasonably, wants to exercise his vote. After ringing the assistance number on my voting paper I was told that the only possible legal way for him to vote is for me to mail or courier his papers to him, then he should fill them out and mail them back.

It is, apparently, impossible to cast any sort of vote in local body elections using faxes, scans, emails, or any other new fangled contraption, or in fact any other means to allow overseas voting. In central government elections overseas voting is entirely permitted and supported.

New Zealand Post lists international mail as 3-10 working days, so it’s impossible to be sure he could actually vote if I did mail them to him. My cheapest option is “International Economy Courier” (2-6 working days) at $30 to get the papers to him, then he’d have to courier them back presumably at a similar cost.

So, three questions:

1) What would be wrong with allowing faxed, scan-and-emailed or election office supported overseas voting in local body elections?

2) Is it reasonable that voting in our local body elections should cost someone ~$60?

3) Doesn’t this provide a rather strong incentive for some illegal (but entirely ethical IMO) voting practices in households like mine?

Frogs, toadies and tadpoles

datePosted on 11:22, September 20th, 2010 by Lew


There’s been a long and turgid discussion about the Greens’ support for the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) on Frogblog, with commenters including many of the usuals from around the blogosphere, Russel Norman and Kevin Hague, and someone called BJ Chip (who I assume is a comms flack) running defence for the Green party. (I can’t figure out how to link to individual comments, sorry). Another commenter, Geoff Fischer, makes a persuasive case against the Greens’ newfound pragmatism, both on the Frogblog thread and on his own site. Whilst I don’t entirely agree with Geoff (I’m a pragmatist at heart) I think his critique is a good one, particularly for the Greens (who aren’t). But there are also strong pragmatic grounds to attack the Greens’ decision to support the CERRA; grounds which, if the Greens are serious about their new realpolitik posture, they’d do well to consider.

I’m often disappointed by the Greens’ persistent — even pigheaded — reliance on the ‘principled stand’ in politics. While valuable among a suite of tactics, it’s overused as a one-size-fits-all response which pigeonholes them as idealistic zealots who don’t compromise and can’t be worked with. But although I think its consistent use is a poor strategy in the general case, it gives the Greens a valuable trump card: the ability to say “these are our principles; if you don’t like them, go ahead on your own”. While it all too often results in other parties abandoning the Greens as irrelevant and going ahead on their own, it does build a powerful narrative about the Greens which speaks to characer and reliability and permanence. Principled politics, as Geoff says in other words, has an objectivity about it which is often lost in modern pragmatic discourse where what often passes for ‘true’ is whatever you can argue. When all the other parties in parliament — even the other parties who (however unjustly) appeal to the ‘principled’ brand, such as ACT — are falling over themselves to betray their principles, it’s all the more important that you stick to your own. Put another way: when your political strategy is to be principled, refusing to act on principle is not a pragmatic decision.

Most obviously, taking a uniquely principled stance at the time when the pressure is greatest to cave in hugely strengthens that narrative mentioned above, ensuring the long-term strength of the brand. It’s easy to be principled when nothing is on the line — the measure of a party’s commitment to principle is how it performs when the stakes are highest. That measure has now been taken.

Secondly, principled politics is what the Greens know. It’s their realm of competence. An idealistic stance would have given them the ability to critique whatever misdeeds the government undertakes in the name of this act with a clear and objectively indisputable line (“we voted against it”), whilst the best they can muster at present is the equivocal, inconsistent line which Norman is running in the Frogblog thread (“we objected to it and we don’t like it but we voted for it anyway because we thought it was the right thing to do”). BJChip demonstrates a fundamental lack of understanding how public-sphere political communication works with (her or his, I’m not sure) defence: “if they give us such idiotic cr@p [as "you voted for it"] we can give it back chapter and verse”. I replied with the following:

And not a word after “but you voted for it” will be worth a damn out there in the cold, pragmatic world of realpolitik which the Greens have now decided to enter. In that world “but you voted for it, so STFU” is the super-hero version of the “Nine Long Years” gambit which paralysed the Nats from 1999-2004 and has paralysed Labour for the term so far. You can’t beat it; in the battle of the soundbite, it’s political kryptonite because when they say it, they’re right. You voted for it: it’s your law, you swing by the same rope as the rest if and when it all comes apart. And so you should.

As much as they might believe themselves to be big-game players, the Greens have never even made a serious attempt to master the complexities of pragmatic politics, preferring to leave the cut-and-thrust to others. In the realm they have now entered they aren’t so much frogs as tadpoles. Judging by Norman and Hague’s statements and the spirited defence of BJChip (and others who use the pronoun “we” on behalf of the party), it seems they will attempt to defend the decision to support CERRA as they would any principled stance, with a clear restatement of the whys and wherefores behind the decision, omitting any discussion of the political consequences. This is impossible, because it is clear to even the most casual observer that the decision was a pragmatic one based on the politics.

Third and most importantly, at the electoral sharp end a uniquely principled stand positions the party as a ‘safe harbour’ for voters from other parties who are disillusioned by those parties’ too-enthusiastic embrace of pragmatism. This is where I think the Greens got their political calculus most badly wrong. The Greens’ own membership and support base was not going to be unduly turned off by the fact the party refused to support a bill granting dictatorial powers to Gerry “sexy coal” Brownlee; they may have taken some sort of hit, but the risk was not as dire as it is being spun. But a principled stance against this manifest assault on the constitutional framework of the country would have permitted the Greens to position themselves as the last line of defence against Shock Doctrine authoritarianism; a rallying point for liberal values. “Even if you disagree with our policy orientation,” they might say, “at least you know where we stand, and can rely on us to stand against the worst excesses of government impunity.” Coupled with the ideological moderation signalled by the departure of Sue Bradford and Jeanette Fitzsimons, I believe the Greens stood to gain considerable support from disappointed Labour voters, particularly those who wanted the party to act as a functional opposition to the government — and they might have even picked up a little bit from the other parties, as well.

So the decision manifestly fails on grounds of principle, and because the Greens are a self-declared party of principle with neither a strong history nor any particular skills in the exercise of realpolitik, it is doomed to be a failure in practice as well. One silver lining, though: since the Greens stand to gain nothing from it, their support for CERRA doesn’t really indicate that they’ve sold their principles out for power as “Tory toadies”; more that they simply lost their nerve. This stands in contrast to Labour, whose support for the act was obviously based on pragmatic grounds of political calculus, and principles of good governance be damned. This is especially the case for Christchurch-based MPs like Brendon Burns, who is leading the red team’s defence in a particularly distasteful fashion. They are complicit in the power grab. The Greens and their principles are just casualties of it.

L

When kindness is retold unkindly

datePosted on 22:14, September 19th, 2010 by Anita

A few years ago I had a staff member who was working long hours and many days away from home. His job required a lot of travel, and a lot of time away from his partner, friends and family. At one point his partner’s son was undergoing treatment for cancer and he was working away and couldn’t be there to support his partner. One of the staff in the office arranged for flowers to be sent to his partner – a small token of caring at a hard time.

Looks fine to me, I’ve authorised flowers, movie tickets, and more for family members whose lives have been disrupted by work I’ve given my staff. I was once given plane tickets to spend time with my family after work kept me tied up through Christmas and New Year.

But time passed, and my staff member made some enemies, and that purchase of flowers was used to humiliate him and damage his career.

This makes me wonder a couple of things:

1) Was the decision to buy flowers a bad one?

2) Was the use of the purchase of flowers by his enemies, repeatedly retold by the media, fair?

3) Is my gut feeling right that this particular purchase was used by his enemies to remind us all that this partner is male, and imply that there is something distasteful about that fact?

I’m not for a moment suggesting that spending on and by employees should be uncontrolled, unmanaged or concealed; just wondering where to draw the line between transparency and self-serving malicious prurience.

Two Bicentennials, and two disappointments.

datePosted on 09:27, September 18th, 2010 by Pablo

Although the NZ media did not pay much attention to them, Argentina and Mexico celebrated the bicentennials of their independence from Spain this year (Argentina on May 25 and Mexico on September 16). Much fanfare and parading happened in both nation’s capitals, and a wide array of patriotic rhetoric was heard. But the sad truth is that both states are disappointments and long time failures. They certainly are not in the same league as Somalia or Yemen, but for the majority of citizens in each country the hallowed promise of independence has come up short. The failure in both instances rests not with foreign imperialists but with the respective political and economic elites.

Argentina and Mexico are the fourth and fifth largest countries in the Western Hemisphere and blessed with abundant natural resources, a variety of climates and geography, extensive coastlines and close commercial ties to greater Europe dating to 1810. They have well defined borders and are peace with their neighbours (even if those borders are permeable and historic resentments occasionally arise–but none of this compromises trade or good relations with neighbours big and small). The strategic sectors of their economy are under state or domestic capitalist control (or both). They both exhibit considerable foreign policy independence.

Yet, 200 years after independence, neither has fulfilled its promise. Mexico is in the midst of a vicious civil war between a variety of drug cartels and the state that poses the risk of it disintegrating into neo-feudal enclaves and autonomous regions barely under the nominal authority of a failed central state apparatus. Argentina, although not the financial basket case that it was in 2001-02 or the state terrorism experiment that it was from 1976-82, remains a nation in which corruption at all levels of society is an art form and in which patronage and nepotism are the hallmarks of political life.

This really should not be. Both countries have produced, among many other lines of contribution, Nobel laureates, writers, artists, musicians, actors, medical pioneers, legal scholars, diplomats, human rights champions, renown architects and more than a few good political scientists. The number of such luminaries is disproportionate to the total population of each country, so it is clear that the talent pool runs deep in each case. Yet time and time again, year after year, decade after decade, the tides of national fortune ebb and fall so that neither country has come close to fulfilling the promise of its naturally-given and human potential. That is a pity, and a waste.

I grew up in Argentina and have spent a fair amount of time, both personal and professional, in Mexico. In my younger years, when my leftward tilt was more pronounced, I joined those who blamed the US and imperialism in general for the woes of these and all other countries in the region. Dependency theory was my theoretical crutch and, as a prescription, revolution was to me the best answer to the region’s problems.

I was wrong. Mexico had its revolution in 1917 and although the nature of its authoritarianism changed, the fundamental socio-economic and political problems underpinning it did not (the 1994 Zapatista rebellion in the southern state of Chiapas was a reminder of that). Although a looming presence, the US is not the primary source of Mexico’s ills (although its drug consumer market is certainly a part of it). Although nominally democratic for a decade, Mexican politics remains infested with cronyism, corruption (now often drug related) and a lack of transparency. Socio-economic actors of all types see the state as a trough from which to feed when in power or in favour rather than as a neutral mediator in redistributive conflicts.

Argentina has not had a revolution but not for lack of trying. I was personal witness to the Montonero/ERP campaigns of the late 1960s and early 1970s as well as the last gasp of the Peronist mythos in person (Peron died in1974 after returning from exile the year before). That only precipitated the state terror experiment and the return to shallow consumerism for which Argentines–or least those living in Buenos Aires–are famous. The attitude towards holding power is similar to that of Mexico, and the “state-as-money bag” approach is also endemic amongst the Argentine elites.

After the neo-liberal experiments in both countries, the gap between rich and poor is worse now than it was 50 years ago. Working class dissent remains a simmering pool that remains unmitigated in each case. Crime haunts the streets (more in Mexico than in Argentina, but both at much higher rates than before 1960 or even 1990), and uncertainty about the future is rife amongst all but the upper ten percent of society. Even the national soccer teams have failed to live up to popular expectations, which in of itself is symptomatic of the larger malaise each is living through. And yet the politics of elite greed continues unabated in both countries, now under ostensibly democratic aegis.

All of which is to say that as much as it is nice to celebrate longevity, it is human folly that has prevented these two countries from developing into fully mature states that are nourishing and representative of their citizens. My hope is that the younger generation of citizens exposed to the excesses of the past 25 years in both places will work harder than their parents and ancestors at giving them the political leadership that they so rightly deserve and which was sorely missing from the official grandstands during the celebrations.

Blue smoke

datePosted on 09:31, September 16th, 2010 by Lew

In my previous post on the Canterbury Earthquake Response & Recovery Act (CERRA) I lamented the conspicuous absence of outrage in response to the bill’s provisions from partisans on the right. I have since been heartened by the responses from some of the more principled commentators on the right; well done them.

But there is one most conspicuous exception. I have on many occasions in the past defended Kiwiblog’s David Farrar from allegations that he’s a bog-standard Tory authoritarian. Yes, he’s a loyal partisan; yes, he does have his authoritarian tendencies, but his typical policy alignment is clearly classical-liberal. He is is consistently more liberal than almost all of his fellow-travellers and has regularly exhibited a forthright commitment to democratic principles of the rule of law, of good constitutional practice and the importance of checks and balances. Even yesterday’s response conveyed lukewarm concern about the scope and extent of the act. But I take back all that defence of David’s character; and so, apparently, does David take back his commitment to those liberal principles.

Because this morning’s post on the CERRA is nothing short of cringing, snivelling partisan apologia for dictatorship dressed up as a simplistic classical history lesson. Dictatorship, it appears, is a-ok with David just as long as the dictator wears the right coloured tie. Where now are the lofty appeals to the principles of good governance, the shrieking about attacks on the nation’s constitutional integrity, the billboards bearing the endorsements of dictators? There are plenty around, including a very explicit homage to the Free Speech Coalition campaign which David fronted, but nothing from this erstwhile and self-proclaimed champion of democracy himself.

The fact that DPF is being schooled on both the principled and pragmatic problems with this bill by some of the more wide-eyed and reactionary members of his commentariat suggests that he has taken leave of his political instincts as well as his principles; for instance, the notorious ‘burt’, who urges him to consider what might happen if (due to the collapse of ACT) National fails to win the 2011 election and a Labour minister takes over from Brownlee; a possibility he and the government had either not anticipated or don’t believe was worth considering. Nothing would be sweeter irony, but either way: David’s credibilty on these matters is up in a cloud of Tory-blue smoke; a legacy destroyed by unprincipled partisan loyalty. Such is the price of political dependence.

Update: Similar sentiments from Peter Cresswell, Danyl Mclauchlan and The Standard, from whom I purloined the image.)

Another update: More angels required to dance on DPF’s pinhead.

L

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