Archive for ‘November, 2010’

Gettin’ Jiggy wit dat Wiki.

datePosted on 09:22, November 30th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest document dump by wikileaks, more than a quarter of a million documents detailing “cables” (diplomatic messages) between the US State Department and 274 embassies and consulates from late 1966 until earlier this year, is a treasure trove for diplomatic historians and others interested in the minutia of diplomatic correspondence. As a recipient of such cables in a former life I have found it highly entertaining and informative to read the musings of US diplomats about foreign leaders, sensitive subjects, US perspectives on those subjects at given points in time, with a fair bit of gossip thrown in. Many of these communications came from junior diplomats as well as ambassadors and other senior department officials. Most of them (half) were unclassified, 42 percent were classified “confidential” (the lowest security classification), 6 percent were classified “secret,” and 2 percent were classified “Top Secret-NOFORN” (NOFORN means no foreign eyes may read the document).

The latter is where things begin to get serious and sensitive, and it will be those cables that the US government is most concerned about even if they have been redacted by the news organisations that received the dumps (to their credit several of the news organisations, including Der Speigel, The Guardian and the New York Times, sent the documents to the US government in order to have them vetted for security purposes and accepted most of the suggested redactions that came in response). These cables will be the ones that mention negotiating strategies, intelligence gathering capabilities and methods, people in foreign governments who work with or for the US, military relations within and between states, and to a lesser extent the personal foibles of foreign leaders.

The rest is just normal daily correspondence between embassies and Foggy Bottom (where the State Department is located in DC). They may prove embarrassing to some, but is anyone really surprised that the Saudis and other Sunni Arab Gulf states are deeply fearful of Iran, or that much of the money for jihadists comes from them? Or that the Chinese engage in cyber espionage and sabotage? Or that North Korea and Iran are military partners? Is anyone surprised that Ghaddafi is a weirdo or that Kenya and Nigeria are vast slicks of corruption floating on a sea of poverty and unrest? Or that Silvio Berlusconi can party better than most people a third of his age? Or that some foreign leaders are not the sharpest tools in their sheds?

Mind you, a lot of the correspondence is just hearsay or cocktail party tidbits, and the analytic abilities of the correspondents vary considerably. But that is what routine diplomatic correspondence largely consists of–everyday reporting of things that may or may not be true, may or may not be interesting for reasons other than salacious purposes, and which may or may not elicit a policy response on the part of the US government. In downscaled terms, this will be the same for NZ diplomatic correspondence, so the publication of these documents can offer potential insights into how NZ operates diplomatically (there are almost 1500 cables that mention NZ in the dump, many of which cluster around the issues of Afghanistan, non-proliferation, terrorism and Fiji. That alone demonstrates the areas of mutual interest and cooperation between the two states).

As mentioned, there is much to be mined in this latest dump, and some of the more sensitive information is bound to cause concern in diplomatic circles in Washington DC and beyond. One item that caught my interest and which has been flagged by the New York Times is that US diplomats were instructed to go beyond their credentialed responsibilities in order to obtain personal information about foreign dignitaries and substantive information about different country’s negotiating postures on selected issues. This differs from normal diplomatic reporting because it asks foreign service officers to serve as what are known as “official cover” intelligence collectors. An “unofficial cover” intelligence agent is someone who uses a false identity that has no official connection to the government for which s/he is working. If they get caught they are at the mercy of the government that captured them (think of the Russian spy ring recently broken up in the US). Official cover assets use their diplomatic status to cover the fact that they are engaged in activities for which they are not credentialed and for which they will be arrested if caught. Since they have diplomatic immunity they are merely deported if discovered.

The practice of using diplomats as official cover assets is not new, but the revelations in this document dump demonstrate how systematic is has been while Hillary Clinton has been Secretary of State, and how the UN has been a major target of such activities. That is bound to cause a stir. What is personally interesting to me is that earlier in this decade I suggested, with reference to the Zaoui case and the SIS misinformation campaign directed at him, that I would not be surprised if some NZ diplomats might be serving as official cover assets in areas of diplomatic and security priority (this at a time when the SIS director was a former career diplomat rather than a former judge or military officer like those who preceded him, and claimed to have no idea who Zaoui was before he arrived in NZ even though the director had been NZ ambassador to France and Algeria at exactly the time when Zaoui purportedly committed the “crimes” for which the SIS branded him a risk to NZ national security).

The curious issue of having a former diplomat front an intelligence agency notwithstanding, I said at the time that it would be expeditious if NZ used diplomats as official cover assets, admitting the risks involved in doing so. After all, NZ is a small country with limited diplomatic and intelligence-collecting resources and a good international reputation, so allowing MFAT or other diplomatic personnel abroad to double as intelligence collectors outside of their credentialed positions seems like good value to me (again, understanding the need for acute discretion when doing so).

My comments at the time were condemned by Helen Clark, SIS Director Richard Woods, various Labour Party MPs (I remember former Immigration Minister Leanne Dalzeil disparaging my character), and I even got an accusatory letter from the then-State Services Commissioner (someone by the surname Wintringham I believe) and a strange phone call at home from someone claiming to be from the EAB. The gist of what they all said–besides Ms. Clark prophetically saying that I was unworthy of employment at Auckland University–was that I was endangering the security of NZ diplomats by making such “unfounded” accusations. Well, perhaps I got the idea for making such speculative claims from having worked inside the US foreign policy apparatus, so I just assumed that it would be par for the course in other countries as well, particularly US allies or partners with similar interests in specific areas. Then again, perhaps not and NZ is a much “cleaner” actor on the diplomatic stage. UPDATE: As it turns out, John Key agrees with my speculation: http://www.stuff.co.nz/world/americas/4400719/WikiLeaks-reveals-NZ-pipe-band-cables.

It may be a pyrrhic victory but I guess I stand vindicated on that one.

In any event, I urge anyone with an interest in international affairs to read the coverage of the latest document dump if not the documents themselves. It is amazing to see how the press in different countries cover the story (I read Latin American, Spanish and Portuguese papers as well as the Singapore Straits Times, various British, US, Australian and NZ outlets and other internet sources, and the variety in focus is enlightening and itself a source of information). It will be fun to watch the diplomatic reactions to the revelations in the leaked documents. But what I am really looking forward to is the US embassy in Wellington commentary about the appointment of Winston Peters as foreign minister as well as in anticipation of his visits with US leaders in DC and NZ. Something tells me that they could be unintentionally very funny, if not “glowing.”

Understanding Brinkmanship.

datePosted on 13:20, November 26th, 2010 by Pablo

The latest North Korean military provocation against South Korea, discussed at some length in Lew’s previous post, elicited some interesting discussion but also reminded me of the need to have a full conceptual grasp when contemplating seemingly irrational or dangerous acts in the international arena. Beyond the fact that rationality is multi-layered and subjective, so what looks crazy to outsiders at first glance makes perfect sense to insiders with a longer-term perspective and different interests at stake, the hard fact is that–as poker players know so well–acts of apparent irrationality are often calculated risks designed to achieve higher goals. Bluffing, be it stonewalling or sandbagging in nature, is designed to mislead the opponent so as to lure him into over-playing his hand or to fold while ahead. These tactics are integral to war-fighting and strategic gaming between states. Today I would like to briefly mention one other ploy that uses apparent irrationality as a rational weapon to secure strategic advantage: brinkmanship.

Inter-state brinkmanship is the use of provocative acts to test an opponent’s resolve and to incrementally secure strategic advantages that otherwise would not obtain by diplomatic means and which are too costly to go to war over. Brinkmanship is a strategic game that is most useful to actors that have little to lose by engaging it. Having something to lose, and confronted by an opponent that has less or nothing to lose, makes rational actors hesitant to initiate, respond in kind or escalate a provocation. On the other hand, if the provocation is such that it itself constitutes a serious loss of value to the receiving party, then brinkmanship can lead to larger conflict.

The matter is one of relative versus absolute gains: the actor that has less to lose in the event of war gains more via brinkmanship relative to the actor(s) that have more to lose, who see war losses in absolute terms even in the event of victory. They key to success, therefore, of the brinkmanship strategy is to understand the relative cost/benefit calculus at play in the opponent’s (collective decision-making) mind, given the contextual factors involved (alliance structures, security guarantees, role of third parties etc.). Needless to say brinkmanship occurs in social interaction below the inter-state level, but that is not the focus here. Although I have some familiarity with interpersonal brinkmanship, my professional interest is focused at the international level in general, and current North Korean behaviour in particular.

North Korea has in the past and is currently playing the brinkmanship game to perfection. Beyond the internal issues that I believe are a major cause of the provocations, the DPRK knows that South Korea has much more to lose in the event of all-out conflict. There is little in North Korea that the South Koreans want other than the restoration of familial ties (which are slowly dying out). It serves no strategic advantage to South Korea to up the ante and force a full military confrontation, even with the assured entrance of the US into the conflict under the terms of its security agreement with Seoul. Likewise, the US has no interest in seeing another major regional conflict explode over a minor border incident when it is busy with wars elsewhere. In addition, China has no interest in seeing such a conflict engulf the buffer state on its southern border at a time when it is focused on economic growth and the (not so) quiet development of a blue water naval capacity with which to protect the sea lines of communication upon which its raw material and primary good imports depend (since Chinese entrance into a direct confrontation with the US on the Korean peninsula would inevitably entail the destruction of that incipient capability).

Even if South Korea won a major conventional war with North Korea (since the DPRK does not have a deliverable nuclear weapons capability and has more than enough conventional force to wreak substantial havoc in the South even as it is defeated), the economic and social costs to the South, as well as the inevitable refugee streams from the North into the South across the conflict zone, are prohibitive for Seoul. Win, lose or draw, the DPRK leadership will still be fed, housed and nurtured at the expense of its subjects, whereas the South Korean regime will face the wrath of a public largely disinterested in war or having to shoulder the costs of winning one. As one US diplomat is reported to have said, North Korea is a country “without options.” That may be true for North Korean society, who must suffer and bear the consequences of their leadership’s decisions, but the leadership itself has plenty of options to choose from, and brinkmanship is one they know how to play extremely well.

Thus North Korea knows that it can push the envelope and stage the second military attack on South Korea in ten months because none of the other actors with an immediate stake in the game want to see the conflict escalate. It therefore can use the provocation as leverage in other areas of strategic interest: resolution of the armistice/peace treaty impasse; renewal of talks on the nuclear weapons programme in exchange for international fuel and food aid; creation of an effective DMZ along the two country’s water boundaries (and possible negotiation of the boundaries themselves)–the leverage possibilities are only limited by the imagination and interests of the DPRK leadership. Whichever faction in that leadership that successfully played the brinkmanship card will be strengthened in its internal power struggles for having done so.

Even if there is some more exchange of fire between the two sides, and it escalates a little in intensity (say, by South Korea using its air force to bomb North Korean military positions), the game is stacked in North Korea’s favour. All other parties will push to sue for peace sooner rather than later, and the price for that will be agreeing to discuss something that is of more interest to the North Koreans than anyone else.  In other words, the terms of that discussion will be framed by the successful brinkmanship game played by the DPRK.

Sometimes being seemingly crazy has its own rewards.

Brief considerations on Korea

datePosted on 08:36, November 24th, 2010 by Lew

Normally I would leave discussion of this sort of topic to Pablo, whose expertise is much greater than mine (and I expect he will weigh in with his own thoughts on the topic too). But I lived there for a few years and had a great deal of time to ponder the security situation there, both through my own research and in discussion with several groups of former soldiers and senior businesspeople whom I was teaching English whilst there, and I think I have a handle on it.

A bit of background. The DPRK (North) and ROK (South) Korea remain officially at war; the armistice agreed in 1953 after the Korean War was not a peace treaty and signalled only a cessation of hostilities which has been accompanied by significant military and intelligence preparations on both sides. It is a tense situation, but it is at a fairly stable equilibrium because the mutual assured destruction principle still holds to a large extent. The ROK and its allies understand that the DPRK and its primary military and command assets are sufficiently well-defended that an assault from the South would draw a counter-attack which would inflict massive civilian, military and infrastructure casualties — estimates range in the hundreds of thousands of deaths in greater Seoul alone, which is within easy artillery range. And that’s with conventional weaponry alone, not taking into consideration the possibility of chemical, biological or nuclear weapons (the regime certainly has the former two; it’s generally agreed that it also has the latter, but not in a deliverable form). For its part the DPRK understands that such an assault on the ROK would spell the end of its regime at the hands of a US-led NATO force.

There is a sense among people responding to the the news that yesterday’s exchange of artillery fire at Yeonpyeong Island in the West Sea is qualitatively different from the dozens of other skirmishes which have taken place over the past 50-odd years of this cold conflict. It is true that this is one of the more serious engagements of that war, but it essentially follows the same pattern. Some action by the ROK and its allies (in this case a joint US-ROK naval exercise) granted the DPRK a pretext to rattle its chains; it fired a few rounds and some fiery rhetorical statements and the ROK does likewise. Two ROK soldiers have died, a dozen or so soldiers and a few civilians have been injured, and more civilians from the region have evacuated to the mainland. The casualty count is higher than usual, but so far, so typical. Late last night (NZ time) the DPRK released a statement alleging that the ROK had fired first. This is almost certainly false — the ROK rarely instigates these sorts of engagements — but that doesn’t matter. The purpose of the statement is to raise questions as to the ROK’s moral standing in the engagement, and to provide the ROK government with cover to stand down on the basis that it’s not worth going to war over a misunderstanding. If they do stand down the ROK government risks a minor loss of face, but since they are a liberal-democratic state whose populace has no appetite for war (and for the strategic reasons mentioned above) then barring much more serious provocation they will do so, President Lee Myung-bak’s own florid rhetoric about “enormous retaliation” notwithstanding.

Again: business as usual. While this latest event is perhaps quantitatively more serious than some previous events, it is qualitatively no different. This is the same strategic posturing game which is played out every crab fishing season in the West Sea, and year-round on the land border between the two states. The most serious mistake most of those who are now calling this the start of World War III are making is to try to understand this event in customary diplomatic terms as they would the relationship between two liberal-democratic states in good international standing. The DPRK’s actions and motivations make no sense when viewed in this light, because the DPRK is not, and never has been such a state. The explanation of these events are to be found, if anywhere, in an examination of the DPRK’s internal regime dynamics. Pablo has written about this topic recently with regard to the sinking of the ROK naval vessel Cheonan in March, and I urge you to reread his post in light of these most recent events.

So I don’t think there’s anything much to this. Due to the DPRK’s military doctrine of total war, an invasion or genuine commencement of hostilities would not begin with a few mortars; it would start with a massive and rapid deployment of force, targeted at the most vulnerable civilian and infrastructure targets, likely in the middle of the night and preferably during an adverse weather event or some sort of civil unrest. None of these conditions abide at present. But the fundamental point is that the tense yet stable strategic situation on the 38th has not changed, so it is very unlikely that either side will choose this juncture as the hook upon which to hang the possible demise of their state. There have been some recent developments in that strategic situation — the probable elevation of Kim Jong-Il’s son to a senior position in preparation for ascent to leadership of the regime; fresh concerns about the regime’s nuclear weapons program, and so on — but I believe these are too minor and too recent to have wrought the sorts of changes to the internal DPRK dynamic and to the cross-border dynamic which would be required for a substantial change in posture.

Of course, you never know. I have no special inside information or insight into the strategic situation there, and it may be that events of which few people are aware are driving this situation. But on the face of things this has been just another day on the 38th Parallel.

L

Conflict versus Cooperation in Human Nature.

datePosted on 10:38, November 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

One thing I used to do early in undergraduate classes is to ask students if humans were inherently more conflictual or cooperative. I noted that all primates and many other animal species had both traits, but that humans were particularly elaborate in their approach to each. I also noted that the highest form of human cooperation is war, where large numbers of humans cooperate in complicated maneuvers that combine lethal and non-lethal technologies over time and distance with the purpose of killing each other.

It was interesting to observe the gender and nationality differences in the response. Males tended to see things as being more conflictual while female students (again, these were 18-22 year olds) tended to see things in a more cooperative light. US students tended to see things  as being more conflictual than kiwi students, although it was also interesting to note the differences between political science majors (who saw things as being mostly conflictual, although here too there were differences between international relations, comparative politics and political theory majors) and those majoring in other disciplines such as anthropology, sociology, history, philosophy and fine arts types (I tended to not pay much attention to the opinions of medical students or hard science majors like chemistry or physics students, much less engineering students, simply because these people were pursuing distributional requirements and therefore not that interested in the subject of the courses that I teach, and tend to dwell less on the moral and ethical dilemmas inherent in human existence and more on solving practical  problems much as plumbers do–this includes the pre-med and med students I encountered over 25 years of teaching, which says something about the character of those who want to be medical doctors in all of the countries in which I have taught).

Singaporean students exhibit strong gender differences along the lines described above and reinforce everything else I have seen before when it comes to this question. In spite of the constant push by the PAP-dominated State to emphasize racial and cultural harmony, the majority of students I have encountered in 3 years of tutoring and teaching in SG see things as being mostly conflict-driven (with some interesting ethnic dispositions in that regard as well). For all of its official preaching of harmony, SG is very much a conflict-driven place.

I used my own experience to show how one trait or another can be reinforced via socialisation. Coming out of Argentina in the early 1970s  I viewed politics as class war by other means. It was all-out conflict and I was socialised to see it as such and behave accordingly. For the Argentine elite “communists” and other challengers to the status quo had to be eradicated–and often were. For Left militants the imperialist enemy and its local lackeys had to be annihilated if ever Argentina was to be a fair and just country. Needless to say, when I arrived in the US to begin my university studies with this zero-sum view of politics, my undergraduate peers thought that I was nuts–this, even though it was the Nixon/Agnew era and I had all sorts of ideas about how these clear enemies of the world’s working classes could be assisted on the journey to their deserved places in Hell.

Instead, my undergraduate friends preferred the shared comforts of bongs, beers and each other (this was the age before AIDS so such comforts could be pursued in combination in a relatively unfettered manner). They preferred cooperation to conflict, and after unsuccessfully trying to convert a few of them to my more contentious view of life, I decided that When In Rome (before the Fall)…..you get the picture (although I never did quite give up the view that politics is essentially war by other means, something undoubtably reinforced by my ongoing engagement with Latin America as an academic and US security official).

If one thinks of the difference between Serbs and Swedes, or Afghans and Andorrans, one sees that a major point of difference is the cultural predisposition to conflict or cooperate. Be it individuals, groups or the society as a whole, the tendency to be cooperative or conflictual rests on the relative benefits accrued from either, reinforced over time by custom, practice and experience until it becomes an indelible feature of the social landscape passed on from family to family and generation to generation.

Within otherwise stable societies some social groups are more or less disposed to conflict or cooperation than others. This is not necessarily reducible to class status. Although their social graces may be more refined and the veneer of cooperation makes them appear to be more “civilised,” the rich may be just as prone to conflict as are the poor. Conversely, the working class, when self-conscious and organised, is quite capable of undertaking mass cooperation in pursuit of common goals even if some actions, such as strikes, are clearly conflictual in nature (which again goes back to my adolescent notion that economics as well as politics in a class system are essentially war substitutes given distributional conflict over a limited or finite amount of socially-allocated resources).

One might argue that the advent of market-driven social philosophies, with their common belief that all individuals and groups are self-interested maximizer’s of opportunities, pushed the replacement of cooperative approaches towards the common good with hyper-individualistic, conflictual approaches in what amounts to a feral perspective on the social order. The latter exist in many lesser-developed societies in which pre-modern tensions and capitalist wealth generation create the conditions for abject greed, corruption and despotism. The twist to the tale is that in the advanced liberal democratic capitalist world, the turn to market steerage also appears to have brought with it a turn away from social cooperation and towards social conflict.  Now the tendency towards conflict appears to be the norm rather than the exception and it is no longer social reprobates and sociopaths who engage in conflictual approaches towards inter-personal or inter-group disagreement or dispute resolution.

Which brings up the questions: has NZ followed this sad trajectory in recent years? Has it always been more cooperative than conflictual as a a societal disposition, or is that just a myth that belies that reality of a society with a historical disposition to be in conflict with itself in spite of its peaceful international reputation?

I leave it for the readers to ponder the basic premise as well as the true nature of NZ society then and now.

In Defense of Responsible Cyclists.

datePosted on 17:52, November 17th, 2010 by Pablo

I have ridden a bicycle of one sort or another since I was 7 years old. I got my first race bike at 14 and I spent most of my adulthood in the US riding bikes as a commuter, triathlete, and occasional mountain biker (even on a tandem MTB!). I did some long road races for training, and continued all of the above when I moved to NZ in 1997. When I stopped competing in 2002 I continued commuting and riding for fun, even after my precious triathlon bike– a 2000 Cervelo P2 fitted to me–was stolen in a burglary (if anyone sees a red 26 inch wheel P2 with Ironman Hawaii stickers on it–it is mine and I want it back). All told, I have ridden well over 100,000 miles in a variety of places, on and off road, urban and rural, solo and tandem. I love bicycles, from old beaters to beach cruisers, classic Italian road bikes, dual shock MTBs and, as my foremost love, the bicycle equivalent of my partner’s mind: time trial bikes–sharp edged, aero, lively and fast, deep dished and big geared, yet immediately responsive and intuitively attuned to where I want to go and what I need to do to get there sooner rather than later (I may get in trouble for this since a bike has no soul, but for me it is an attempt at making a material comparison to a precious intangible. Competitive cyclists and tri-geeks will know what I mean).

As for the relationship between competitive rider and bike, I shall defer to the wisdom of an old Mexican mechanic who serviced my ride while I was racing in El Paso, Texas: “it is not the machine but the monkey that rides it that matters.” Competitive or not, it is the monkey who ultimately pays the price for riding on public roads. As an insentient object,  a bicycle may be broken or destroyed but not injured or killed when it crashes. For the human rider, that substantive difference does not obtain.

Anyway, I moved to an island state in SE Asia in late 2007 and took my nice commuter bike with me. In the first 14 months in country I was hit by cars twice, once by the side rear view mirror of a van passing at 50 kph and the other by the back end of a city bus that cut in front of me  in order to pull into a bus stop (when it could have waited 2 seconds to allow me to pass the bus stop entry). Although the first driver stopped to see if I was Ok after he heard the thump, the bus driver and passengers on the bus berated me for being in the road (this, while I was laying on the curb checking to see if I was injured).

But SG is not too bad. During the 10 years I lived, trained and raced in NZ I was hit five times–two sideswipes, two at roundabouts by motorists who would not cede although I had the right of way, and one T-bone when a car turned left across my bow on a steep hill during a rainstorm. In two instances I was assaulted by the drivers involved (one whom was on his way home from church), and in one case the driver attempted to flee. In four of the cases the driver was a middle aged pakeha male (the other was a chinese male), with two of the five driving panel vans. In the US I was hit once, in Florida, by a a slow moving geriatric in a Cadillac who wanted to “move me along” down the road because I was moving too slowly (at 40 kph on a Sunday morning at 7AM). I also had a gun pulled on me in Tucson (at 6:30AM!) by a redneck in a pickup truck who swerved into a bike lane to show me and my riding buddy who was boss–but then ran into a red light half a block down the road. When I rode up to confront him he kindly produced his penis-substitute.

I tell this story because once again cyclists have been killed and injured in NZ by careless motorists. Every year, it seems, the triathlon and road racing community loses someone to a car crash. Simple bike commuters die as well, every year. What ensues is discouraging: motorists angrily denouncing cyclists as road hogs, irresponsible, effete, possible gay lycra-clad wankers with too much time on on their hands and too much money invested in bikes. They rail about cyclists needing licenses and taxes in order to ride public streets, and generally stress the inconvenience of having to slow down for the oxygen and blood powered vehicles in the way between them and whatever important destination it is that cannot be impeded by the two wheeled laggards blocking the road.

Inconvenience? Let me explain some very simple physical facts. Even if rude and inconsiderate, cyclists are human beings with spouses, children, parents and others who love them, riding on a self-propelled unarmoured vehicle wearing nothing but a helmet and normal clothes (or lycra). The rider’s points of contact with the pavement are two 5 centimeter patches of 21-25 mm rubber rolling at anywhere from 70-130 rpm, at speeds that can be as low as 5 kph or high as 60kph under normal variable terrain conditions in NZ. A rider and bicycle might, if the rider and bike are big, weigh 150 kilos. The bicycle is a vehicle in the road, as is any other, but with the twist that it shares with horses (which are also vehicles in their own right), the virtue of being self-powered. Yet no one in their right mind would sideswipe or fail to yield to a horse and rider. So why do it on a bike? The very attitude of some towards cyclists–that they are lesser beings, inconvenient, in the way, tax-dodgers etc., betrays an authoritarian mindset that speaks to the darkness within the NZ psyche. After all, bicyclists are people too, and in a democracy those people have just as much right to the road as anyone driving a fossil fuel powered vehicle. They may be slower, but they are equal when it comes to sharing the road.

The root problem of the conflict between cyclists and motorists is a matter of simple physics. An automobile weighs a ton, has 4 surface contact points of over a quarter meter each, travels from 0 to 150 kph as a matter of course, and has a metal and composite-encased passenger compartment with air bags as basic safety measures between the flesh inside and the kinetic effects of hitting the road or another object at speed on the outside. A bicycle rider has none of those, and is at the mercy of elements, road surfaces, the disposition of motorists and his or her own spatial and situational awareness in order to ensure safe passage during the journey. At the end of the day, cyclist is not in complete control of his and her fate when riding on public roads. The largest part of a cyclist’s fate that is not under his or her control is the attitude and behaviour of motorists.

Of course there are irresponsible cyclists. These should be ticketed, fined, and if causing injury, prosecuting for vehicular assault depending on the gravity of their transgressions. But motorists need to understand that a touch of fenders between two cars merely results in a dent in each, whereas the touch of a fender on the rear or front wheel of a bicycle, to say nothing of a full-fledged sideswipe or frontal collision, has the very serious, even likely potential for catastrophe for the cyclist. Do motorists really want to maim or kill cyclists just because the latter are rude, inconsiderate, slow or inconvenient? As it turns out, even the behaviour of cyclists can be classified and spotted a priori.

There are the four types of cyclists usually seen in the public streets: road riders, triathletes, commuters and bike messengers (MTB folk wisely tend to stick to non-paved rural tracks where trees, rocks and precipices are the main obstacles). Triathletes ride what are known as time-trial bikes given the individual nature of the sport. These bikes have aerobars jutting off the front handlebars on which the rider can rest their elbows in order to lower his/her aerodynamic profile (since most of the gains in bicycle speed come from overcoming wind resistance). Triathletes mostly ride alone except on occasional social rides, mainly because the triathlete must learn to suffer, fuel, eliminate and otherwise cope by his or herself given the nature of the sport (this is especially true of the long-distance triathlete, although some short distance triathlons now allow drafting in packs–see below).

Road riders (known as “roadies” and identified by their curled handlebars and stylised clothing) usually ride in groups, do not use aerobars (which are dangerous in packs if one is stupid enough to try to ride on them), and lessen their wind resistance by drafting. Drafting is a practice where one rider “pulls” the others by leading out front for a short spell of time while taking the brunt of the frontal air flow, upon which the following rider moves up front and the lead falls to the back of the “train” of riders behind him/her (I should note that the drafting effect is even greater when swimming given water resistance, and is even possible while running). This allows all riders to rest and give maximum effort during their short “pulls.”

The trouble with this practice is that it produces a double line of cyclists, those going forward and those going backwards, which on narrow open public roads can lead to lane blockages even if the pack is riding at 50-60 kph.  As a result, roadies are the cause of most motorist rage, although triathletes often cop the blame from road raging cowards because they are alone rather than sheltered by a pack and hence are  easier to intimidate from a moving vehicle (a situation that is often worse for female riders). Roadies often compound the problem of group rides by spreading 3 or more abreast in order to converse or gain some space in the pack. The trouble is that the law prohibits cyclists from riding more than 2 abreast, so in going beyond  the “2 wide” rule they are illegally blocking the road. No wonder motorists get angry. Road riders in groups tend to be the the cause of most of the more egregious examples of anti-cyclist road rage, be it in the moment or later.

Commuters come in all sizes and shapes and ride all sorts of bikes, and are seen mostly in cities rather than in towns. They mostly stick to surface streets but have been known to ride footpaths and stray onto major arteries. They often share bike lanes with buses, which makes them hated by and targets of bus drivers. Many use what is known as a “California” stop at street lights and stop signs, which is a slow roll-through when cross-traffic is clear rather than a full stop (this practice spans all types of bike rider, especially those wearing “clipless” bike shoes with special soles and peddles to maximise rotational efficiency throughout the peddle stroke, which if efficient makes for cumbersome foot plants at short notice. I have been guilty of employing the California stop from time to time, given that I have fallen more than once while trying to quickly unclip out of a clipless peddle).

Bike messengers ride hybrid bikes (road frames with MTB bars and gearing), and tend to exhibit an unhealthy regard for personal safety as they play a form of bicycle parquet during the course of their errands. They often are the most accomplished bicycle handlers and often are competitors in some form of cycling when not working, but they also tend to have the loosest view of traffic regulations and the interface between street, footpath, alleyway, steps and any other potential riding surfaces. They are a major source of motorists’ ire in large urban areas.

This brief exegesis is offered so that readers who are motorists but not cyclists will understand what they are dealing with when they come upon bicycle riders in the road. Virtually all cyclists are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are and most take pains to avoid confrontations with motorists. But sometimes terrain, context or circumstance conspire to bring them together in an untoward way. The fundamental thing that a motorist needs to understand in such instances is that, no matter how rude, inconsiderate, wankerish or otherwise inconvenient that rider’s presence may be, he or she is a living, breathing person made out of flesh and blood who has a right to life as much as you do. Injuring or killing them with your metal steed in an effort to prove a point or teach them a lesson is not only stupid–it is criminal. Even if it takes a minute or two (or five) to get around a cyclist or group of riders, perspective has to be maintained: a slow delay versus a thwarted life–is that a fair or reasonable trade off? Moreover, motorists need to understand that most of the roads they transit now have cyclists on them, and that cyclists have a legal right to be there. That means that motorists need to drive as if horses with riders were on the road–caution must taken in blind spots, on curves and hill summits and the two meter legal separation distance between cyclist and motorist must be respected when overtaking.

In the case of the irresponsible, arrogant or generally tosser rider(s), better to call the cops to the scene and/or demand more stricter enforcement of cycling and road safety regulations so that the minority of those who make up the bulk of the conflict with motorists are made to understand that with the right (and freedom) to ride a bike comes the responsibility to behave according to the universal rules of vehicle conduct. Otherwise homicidal or negligent motorists will have the final word on every cyclist’s fate on any given day.

Small feels Large, but only to the Small.

datePosted on 14:37, November 14th, 2010 by Pablo

From the rhetoric and doe-eyed looks emanating from the PM and Foreign Minister during the signing of the so-called “Wellington Declaration,” one would have thought that NZ had just been awarded most favoured nation status by the US and assumed a place akin to that of France or Germany in US foreign policy. This belief seems to have gone to the head of the PM, who has taken to lecturing larger states such as Japan on NZ expectations when it comes to trading agreements. The truth is a bit different.

The “strategic partnership” announced by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton confirms what has been apparent to the international security community since 2001: NZ quietly dropped its concerns about engaging in military-to-military relations with the US in exchange for the US routinely granting executive permission for these to occur. NZ military deployments in Afghanistan and Iraq (the latter reportedly involving more than just the one year rotation of combat engineers in Basra, something that the NZ government refuses to acknowledge), as well as NZ commitment of intelligence assets to both tactical and strategic intelligence gathering at home and abroad (such as the deployment of GCSB and SIS personnel to Afghanistan) all occurred without fanfare and in spite of the formal ban of military exchanges and exercises in effect since the dissolution of the ANZUS alliance. Not having US Navy surface ship port visits in NZ does not deter US submarines from entering NZ territorial waters with or without NZ government connivance, and any look at video of NZDF troops in action in foreign locales clearly shows that they work in close proximity to US troops and preferentially use US equipment during the conduct of their combat operations.

The Wellington Declaration just makes public this discreet relationship, which even as it deepens and becomes standardised over the long-term will not require signing of a formal alliance treaty. The latter is seen as an encumbrance for domestic political reasons on both sides (since both the US Congress and NZ Parliament would see opposition to the signing of a bilateral security treaty), so much as in the way the US conducts its foreign wars (which is to not seek Congressional ratification of a declaration of war for fear of opposition, but instead to use Executive authority as commander-in-chief to declare a state of national security emergency requiring military combat deployments abroad that presents Congress with a fait accompli), the Wellington Declaration circumvents legislative scrutiny at the same time that it reaffirms the obvious close security ties that exist between the two states.

What changed most clearly is that while Labour prefers to soft peddle the relationship due to its internal factional dynamics, National has always had issues with the “independent and autonomous” foreign policy stance that has characterised NZ diplomatic relations since the early 1990s. Although it cannot reverse the anti-nuclear policy due to domestic political factors, National has always worked to reaffirm its “traditional” security ties, to the point that it supported NZ joining the US-led “coalition of the willing” that invaded and occupied Iraq without UN authorisation. With the Wellington Declaration it has gotten its wish.

But sometimes getting what one wishes for brings with it unanticipated trouble. By formally committing to a strategic partnership with the US, overlapped on National’s commitment to engaging closer military ties with Australia, NZ has in effect become a posse member for the global sheriff and its Antipodean deputy. The closer the level of military engagement between NZ and its larger military partners (quaintly called “interoperability” in the jargon), the more dependent it becomes on them for strategic guidance, material support, operational readiness and deployed force security. This makes it more likely, in spite of National’s assurances that NZ always retains the option to refuse a request, that NZ will wind up becoming involved in conflicts not of its choice but that of its strategic partners. That in turn raises the specter of NZ developing, by way of military coat-tailing, hostile relations with countries and cultures with which it historically has had no quarrel, which will spell the end of its “independent and autonomous” diplomatic posture.

What Mr. Key and his company of advisors appear to not understand is that the US rapprochement with NZ is due to two basic strategic factors, one general and one specific, that have little to do with interest in NZ per se. The first general reason is that, after a delay in responding due to the obsession with counter-terrorism in the Middle East and Central Asia, the US has moved to counter Chinese advances in the Western Pacific basin, which it sees as the next big strategic conflict zone. Not only is it in the process of moving the bulk of its military assets into the Pacific, in a reversal of the century-old Atlantic and Euro-centric orientation that characterised its strategic outlook until recently. It has also reaffirmed its bilateral security ties to all of its Asian partners as well as India. This includes Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Australia, NZ and even Viet Nam. This defensive arc covers countries deeply concerned about Chinese neo-imperialist ambitions, many of whom have diplomatic or territorial disputes with the Chinese, and along with its soft power projection in the Pacific Island Forum countries (including Fiji, where the US has just announced the resumption of US AID development work), the US is moving to counter Chinese influence in SE Asia and beyond (most often gained via so-called “chequebook diplomacy” whereby China promotes infrastructure development projects with no apparent strings attached but which all have potentially dual civilian and military applications). The Wellington Declaration just adds NZ to the roster of US security partners that constitute a collective hedge against the looming Chinese presence, which is particularly noteworthy because of NZ’s increased dependency on Chinese investment and trade for its economic fortunes.

With the Wellington Declaration Chinese influence and ambitions in NZ are potentially fence-ringed. That may have been National’s undeclared intent, and if so that is the hypothetical NZ gain from the deal. But all of that remains to be seen  (if nothing else because it would contravene National’s public assurances that it welcomes the Chinese investment and cultural presence on NZ shores–cue revelations about Pansy Wong and her long obviously dodgy failed businessman-husband, who just might have caught US negative interest given the Chinese penchant for placing intelligent assets in their diaspora).

The second, specific strategic purpose that the Wellington Declaration serves is US nuclear counter-proliferation efforts. Unlike its predecessor, the Obama administration has a basic, and apparently sincere interest in reducing nuclear weapons stockpiles and preventing the proliferation of nuclear weapons beyond those that currently possess them. Having a small “neutral” non-nuclear state as a partner in such efforts provides a convenient and effective cover (some might say fig leaf), particularly with regards to “rogue” states such as North Korea and Iran. NZ has already participated in the Six Party negotiations on the North Korean nuclear programme, helping to gain a delay in Pyongyang’s efforts to achieve full weapons capability. In Iran’s case, NZ’s strong economic ties to the mullah’s regime is seen as providing a source of indirect diplomatic access and backdoor entry into the Iranian mindset with regards to nukes (via diplomatic and intelligence service information sharing). In other words, working with and through NZ on matters of nuclear proliferation, the US gains diplomatic cover for its own self-interested reasons to oppose the spread of the universally recognised deterrent.

What NZ does not get out of this strategic partnership, and which the National government continues to wax deluded about, is improved negotiating status with the US with regard to bilateral trade. The US is content to allow the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations to take their course with respect to trade with NZ and other small Pacific partners, and domestic political considerations accentuated by the recent midterm elections make it nigh impossible for NZ’s leading export sector, dairy, to make inroads into the subsidised US market. Truth be told, for the US there is no “issue-linkage” between security and trade when it comes to NZ even if its rhetoric continues to hold out the promise of such being the case sometime in the future. Yet the current (and to be fair, the past) NZ government continues to insist that, “difficulties” notwithstanding, bilateral trade with the US in forthcoming if not imminent because of NZ efforts across a range of issues of mutual interest without qualification or constraint.

This is where Mr. Key and Mr. McCully fail the foreign policy leadership test. Given the US strategic interests at play, and its absolute need to secure partnership agreements that catered to these interests given the evolving world balance of power, NZ was in a position to bargain hard and leverage its credentials (mostly Labour-made) as an honest broker and reliable international interlocutor into some form of tangible, immediate benefit in exchange for accepting the role of US strategic partner. That did not happen. Instead, what NZ got was platitudes, promises and bilateral yearly meetings between foreign policy counterparts, something that is par for the course for any number of nations, in what essentially amounted to a stop-over on Secretary Clinton’s trip to more important meetings with the US proxy that is Australia. As a result of that brief rendezvous,  NZ is now saddled with the burden of being internationally perceived to be (if not in fact)  more closely tied to the US without the full benefits of being so. It is a junior partner of the US in security only, and that is bound to be noticed by the international community.

In effect, NZ is just a small cog in a larger US strategic plan that is influenced by factors that have nothing to do with NZ interests and all to do with how the US sees and proposes to shape the strategic environment currently evolving in the Western Pacific and with regard to nuclear proliferation. National believes that it has made NZ a “player” by signing a strategic partnership agreement with the US, but the truth is that it has committed the country to a relationship that has always been one sided and which just got more so. To put it bluntly: the Tories may feel big as a result of the “Wellington Declaration” but they still are small and myopic when it comes to perceiving, much less comprehending the bigger picture, to say nothing of  the realities at stake down the road.

PS: The farce only gets better. NZ announced that it is in FTA negotiations with authoritarian, crime mob-dominated klepto-oligarchic Russia even though it admits that Foreign Affairs and Trade have very limited Russian language comprehension skills and the deal will involve Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (Russia negotiating for them, presumably), two states that NZ has admitted to having”limited” knowledge about (to include comprehension of Tajik or Uzbek dialects). In other words, National has staked its claim to being at the forefront of free trade agreements without understanding the business and political culture, much less language or human rights conditions, of potential partners just after it committed to a long-term security partnership with a country that has a troublesome relationship with all three.  This is amateurism taken to art-level heights.

Isolated

datePosted on 12:01, November 10th, 2010 by Lew

This brief report from Radio Waatea brings into crispish focus a few issues regarding the māori party’s support for the new Marine & Coastal Area (Takutai Moana) Bill, and perceived collaboration with the National-led government against its constituents’ own interests:

Sharples upset at Maori Media Ingratitude
Maori Party co-leader Pita Sharples says he’s disappointed at the heat coming on him from the Maori media over the Marine and Coastal Area Bill.
Criticism of the bill by iwi such as Ngai Tahu and Ngati Kahungunu and from Taitokerau MP Hone Harawira has been extensively reported.
But Dr Sharples says it’s better than the existing Foreshore and Seabed Act, and the Maori media should reflect that.
“They forget we’re there on their side to do stuff for them. Instead of sort of helping us knock down the barriers, they try to knock us down as the barrier. And yet without as it were the initiation of us in there, there would be no efforts at all and in the context of past Maoris in government, we have really achieved outstanding results,” he says.
Dr Sharples says the Maori Party hasn’t got enough credit the whanau ora welfare delivery model and for his rehabilitation units in prisons, which will open next year.

Sharples is right in several important respects. The role the māori party party has played in getting take Māori and tino rangatiratanga on the government agenda has been crucial. The māori party really does have a unique claim to an “authentic” kaupapa Māori politics, and this should make Māori media such as Waatea, Māori Television and TVNZ’s Māori programming division (which produces Te Karere and Marae) should be strongly sympathetic towards their policy programmes. Should, I say, if the end policy result was seen to be consistent with those kaupapa.

But these agencies do not owe the māori party any favours. As media outlets their job is not to shill for a party line but to present a considered view of current events in context, and by reporting the deep dissatisfaction within Māoridom regarding the MCA bill they are doing just that. Māori media have generally shown a strong commitment to independence and impartiality — which is a particularly tricky thing to do given their cultural focus — and their coverage of the māori party’s policy platform is simply an extension of that commitment. Long may it continue, and would that it were more broadly shared.

What this episode really illustrates is the extent to which the māori party is isolated from its support structures with regard to its position on the MCA bill. Just as the party has failed to persuade its own constituency, and indeed its own caucus, that the MCA bill is worth supporting, it has failed to persuade the only media establishment which might be sympathetic to its cause as to the merits of that cause. All this illustrates one of two things: either the party is way off base; the strategy of supporting the bill is bad for Māori and Māori know it; or that the strategy of supporting the bill is actually a great deal better than anyone knows, but the party has largely failed to articulate this.

I know which I’m tending toward, and I invite readers to argue their case. But no matter which you believe, I think it’s clear that attacking the media is neither a mature nor a useful response. Successful actors in modern democracy lead the media, like they lead their electors — in the knowledge that both must follow willingly, by consent (however grudging), or not at all. If, as a politician, you ever find yourself running a sustained campaign of trying to shove either the media or your constituents in a certain direction against their will, berating or harassing or whipping them for their stupidity or intransigence or for simply failing to follow instructions — then you have very probably already failed.

L

The Problem with Trading Down.

datePosted on 10:13, November 9th, 2010 by Pablo

Jane Kelsey’s latest  book on trade, an edited collection titled No Ordinary Deal, was launched last night in Auckland. Other launches will follow in Hamilton, Wellington and Christchurch this week before the road show heads to Australia. As a contributor to the book I attended the launch and enjoyed the speech given by another contributor, Lori Wallach, a trade specialist at the US research institute Public Citizen (founded by Ralph Nader in 1971). Lori, who wrote the chapter on the US domestic agenda and approach to the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, noted that the model for the TPP is not the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade (GATT) but instead the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which essentially is an investor’s guarantee agreement rather than one about free trade per se.

In her chapter and her speech, Lori noted that among many other downsides to the TPP, it would exempt foreign investors from domestic regulations in NZ, and should the investor be made to comply with those regulations by court order, the costs of compliance would be borne by the NZ taxpayers in the form of mandatory compensation. She went on to note how local pharmaceutical regulations and control boards would be circumvented in favour of US drug company standards, and explicated the dumping and market monopolisation efforts of US agri-businesses under this type of trade regime. As a sidebar she noted how NZ dairy exports would not appreciably increase to the US under the agreement, as well as the fact that the recent midterm elections have ridden on a backlash against trade because of presumed US job losses tied to it, which means that the possibility of the US ratifying the TPP in the next two years under the new congressional leadership (even if negotiations are concluded, which itself is unlikely) are improbable at best. Her basic premise was that she would not object to the TPP if it were about free trading of goods and services as per the Ricardian ideal. What she objects to is the use of free market rhetoric to cloak cross-border commercial arrangements that are less than free or fair and which contain pernicious costs for smaller national partners and wage labour-dependent consumers in general.

The bottom line is that the TPP is fraught and the public need to be aware of the very large downside to it. It is not a genuine “free trade” agreement in the proper sense  of the term. Instead, it is a US-centric investor’s agreement skewed in favour of large (mostly foreign) corporate interests rather than consumers and local producers. Among other topics, chapters (there are 19 in all) explore the impact of the TPP on indigenous rights, climate change, intellectual property, cultural exchange and, in my contribution, security. They are well worth reading, and often eye-opening.

The book is designed to promote informed debate on the matter by offering a critical counter-point to the received wisdom of the policy elites who attempt to sell it as as “win-win” universal good for all involved. As I have noted previously when writing about asymmetric trade, this is a far cry from the truth and carries with it not only the potential for a loss of economic freedom and sovereign control of strategic assets, but also the very real danger of increasing both physical and emotional insecurity in the smaller partners involved in such agreements. Since insecurity breeds fear (be it fear of job loss, fear of environmental harm, fear of forced dislocation from one’s land or cultural roots, to say nothing of fear of physical harm by direct or indirect means), and freedom from fear is considered to be an inalienable human right, the downside of the TPP needs to contrasted againt the supposed upsides championed by those who stand the most to benefit from the deal, and who constitute an elite and often unaccountable minority among the constituencies involved.

More publisher information on the book and the launches can be found at www.bwb.co.nz.  An information sheet on the book is here:

No Ordinary Deal
Unmasking the Trans-Pacific Partnership Free Trade Agreement
Jane Kelsey
The Trans-Pacific Partnership is no ordinary free trade deal. Billed as an agreement fit for the twenty-first century, no one is sure what that means. For its champions in New Zealand a free trade agreement with the US is a magic bullet – opening closed doors for Fonterra into the US dairy market. President Obama sells it as the key to jobs and economic recovery, while protecting home markets. Australia hails it as a foundation stone for an APEC-wide free trade agreement.

None of these arguments stacks up. All nine participant countries except Vietnam are heavily liberalised, deregulated and privatised.* They already have many free trade deals between them. Who really believes that US dairy markets will be thrown open to New Zealand, or that China, India and Japan will sign onto a treaty they had no role in designing?

No Ordinary Deal
Experts from Australia, New Zealand, the US and Chile examine the geopolitical and security context of the negotiations and set out some of the costs for New Zealand and Australia of making trade-offs to the US simply to achieve a deal. ‘Trade’ agreement is a misnomer. The TPPA is not primarily about imports and exports. Its obligations will intrude into core areas of government policy and Parliamentary responsibilities. If the US lobby has its way, the rules will restrict how drug-buying agencies Pharmac (in New Zealand) and the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme (in Australia) can operate, and the kind of food standards and intellectual property laws we can have. Foreign investors will be able to sue the government for measures that erode their investment. The TPPA will govern how we regulate the finance industry or other services, along with our capacity to create jobs at home.

Above all, No Ordinary Deal unmasks the fallacies of the TPPA and exposes the contradictions of locking our countries even deeper into a neoliberal model of global free markets – when even political leaders admit that this has failed.

*The US, Australia, New Zealand, Brunei Darussalam, Chile, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam. Malaysia joined in October 2010.

  • RRP: $39.99
  • 288 pages
  • 270 x 140 mm
  • ISBN 9781877242502
  • Publication November 2010

Distributor: HarperCollins, PO Box 1, Shortland Street, Auckland
Contact: customerservices@harpercollins.co.nz
Sales Manager: Tony Moores, tony.moores@harpercollins.co.nz
PO Box 12474, Wellington 6144
Phone: 04 473 8128
Email: info@bwb.co.nz
www.bwb.co.nz

The Contributors: Jane Kelsey, Bryan Gould, Patricia Ranald, Lori Wallach, Todd Tucker, José Aylwin, Paul Buchanan, John Quiggin, Warwick Murray, Edward Challies, David Adamson, Geoff Bertram, Tom Faunce, Ruth Townsend, Susy Frankel, Jock Given, Ted Murphy, Bill Rosenberg, Nan Seuffert.

Back into the Bush.

datePosted on 12:12, November 7th, 2010 by Pablo

It took me a while but I finally have moved back into my home in the Waitakeres and established an Internet connection. The whole experience has been out-of-body: transported from an SE Asian unnaturally manicured urban landscape into the sub-tropical wilderness overlooking a black sand beach. In the time I have been away the bush has reclaimed its place in the surrounds of the house so there is much work to be done in re-establishing a clear space before winter shadows set in. The silence and darkness at night, save the calls of the moorporks and a porch light, is simply incredible after 3 years of traffic noise and human chatter. I can now jog on a beach rather than on cement or a treadmill (which means that I will actually be motivated to do so). I can (semi-) safely ride a bike and swim in unpollluted waters. Rather than entirely store-bought produce I am now once again gathering chicken and duck eggs and using the garden for veggies (my tenant kindly left the garden in good shape). A neighbor moved his cow and her calf into my upper paddock, reminding me of the quality fertiliser production that would ensue from the natural lawn-mowing and weed control efforts of the friendly bovines. The simple acts of walking up and down stairs, chopping wood, shoveling, sawing, pushing barrows etc. is a marked contrast to the sedentary elevator and escalator-driven existance that cushions the Little Red Dot from the natural world. In fact, that was one thing that was startling about the SG experience–people no longer seem to know how to cope with nature, be it small animals or big rainstorms. Everything is delegated to the state for management and control, which is pretty much the antithesis of what is going on out in the West Auckland hills.

People are different too. From the crassly materialistic, commodity fetichist, money and vanity-obsessed culture in which I have lived for the past few years I am now in a place where people wear track clothes and gumboots in malls. The lack of pretense is refreshing, but perhaps that take on things has less to do with “proper” notions of civility and more to do with my working class orientation.

Be that as it may, such dress in public spaces would invite open derision and possible police intervention in SG, given that people dress to the nines before embarking on the national sport of shopping and shoddy clothing is associated with foreign workers who are considered to be inferior and criminally-minded by many of the local majority (I should note that this can happen in certain elite shopping districts in the US as well). The Asian fixation on cosmetic beauty and displays of wealth has been replaced in West Auckland by something more earthy, even frumpy or bogan (although this may simply be a Westie thing–I presume that if I lived in Mission Bay or Remuera there would be a bit of “sniffy” attitude there as well). Out in the supercity West, there seems to be much less of a concern about status and “keeping up with the Jones,” although I am reminded that equality and politeness goes out the door as soon as some people get into vehicles (this is especially true for middle aged Pakeha males driving panel vans). Children actually play, and with their parents to boot (with no maids in sight to do the housework and child-raising).

Then there is the racial mingling, which in West Auckland involves all persuasions consentually and freely associating but which in the Little Red Dot is either middle aged white males consorting with young Asian females or third generation Sino-Indian mixes (much to the disapproval of parents on both sides). Hence, homicidal drivers notwithstanding,  it has been delight to return to a tolerant and diverse place even if I am re-discovering all the aches that come with living in a semi-rural environment. But that is exactly why I prefer to live here rather than there–this existance is grounded and real. 

I have been fortunate in having word of my return leak to the media, which has resulted in a few interviews on topics of contemporary import (of which I will post more later). One of the interviews is here:

So long as that contributes to public debate and gainful employment in some capacity down the road, the more the better. I also may have some real business leads in the making, so fingers crossed that they materialise.

Anyway, this is just a quick brief on my return to Aotearoa. Many people may seek to leave NZ for greater economic opportunity, but as far as I am concerned this is the best place to call home. Once my partner joins me, it will be, once again.

On a lighter note: Machine of Death

datePosted on 21:37, November 2nd, 2010 by Lew

Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.  -- Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

On 26 October 2010, the guy who writes the marvelous Dinosaur Comics and a bunch of others self-published a book (because nobody would publish it for them) of short stories based around the idea of a machine which could tell you how you would die. The book is called Machine of Death. They happened to choose October 26 as the publication date without knowing that Glenn Beck’s latest tome of dangerous absurdities with the suitably loony title “Broke: The Plan to Restore Our Trust, Truth and Treasure was to be released on the same day. While it’s nice that Machine of Death pipped Beck’s book in the amazon.com sales rankings on opening day (proof), what’s most wonderful about this little episode is that it so incensed Glenn Beck that he had a wee rant about the book on his widely syndicated radio programme. It’s so gloriously insane, there’s nothing to do but quote it in full:

And I want to tell you that, um…our books are ALWAYS #1. And I find it REALLY fascinating, FASCINATING, that if you go to Amazon.com, Broke is number THREE. And the two books that are ahead of it — one is Keith Richards’ Life, which is getting a TON of — you know, that’s everywhere.
But this is a book about, you know, how he snorted his father’s ashes, after death. (sarcastically) THAT’S cool. This is the SDS [Students for a Democratic Society] book. This is for all of the — this is for [union leader] Andy Stern who’s all, I guarantee you he’s on the phone and has been the last few days, you know, with people like, you know, Bill Ayers going “All right, DUDE! Ah, do you remember when we were rolling around in the mud like animals? Remember that? This guy was smoking ash — you know, smoking his dad, and, and, popping stuff into his veins? Ah, those were the DAYS, man.” And then William Ayers was like, “Whaddaya mean, those were the days? I’m still doin’ that stuff, man!”
So that… “culture of death.” And it’s an escape into the past, of, you know, the Woodstock stuff.
And then, the #1 book — TODAY, at least — is Machine of Death. And it’s a — collected stories about, you know, people who know how they’re gonna die. Haowww!
So you have DEATH — I know it’s called Life, but what a life it is, really! It’s a culture of death! OR, “How do we restore ourselves?”
These are the — this is the left, I think, speaking. This is the left. You want to talk about where we’re headed? We’re headed towards a culture of death. A culture that, um, celebrates the things that have destroyed us. Not that the Rolling Stones have destroyed us — I mean, you can’t always get what you want. You know what I’m saying? Brown sugar. I have no idea what that means.
– Glenn Beck, The Glenn Beck Program, October 27, 2010

This, as if it needs to be said, is the other side of the Angel of Death ad I wrote about the other day; what happens if the font of inchoate hatred which powers the Tea Party movement isn’t carefully channeled through propaganda wizards and filmmakers and spin doctors. Wonderful. Frightening.

L

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