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Archive for ‘July, 2012’

Gaming Gay Marriage

datePosted on 14:29, July 29th, 2012 by Pablo

I have never quite understood the argument that gay sex is “unnatural.” Unless one believes that the only natural sex is that which reproduces the species, then how one chooses to express sexuality is as natural as differences in hair or skin color. If we admit that sex can be a means of expressing love, affection and physical pleasure rather than purely a reproductive act, then how one goes about doing that is as natural as variations in climate or on a theme. It does not matter if sexual preference is by “choice” or genetics or some combination thereof. Once the reproductive imperative is removed as the sole reason for having sex, then how one chooses to partake is almost limitless (I say “almost” because I adhere to convention that sex should be between consenting adults, or in the case of teenagers, between those of similar age, and that no coercion or exploitation can be involved).

I introduce the subject of gay marriage this way because I simply fail to understand why it is an issue. When I hear opponents argue against it I am reminded of the old Argentine saying about Catholic clergy opposed to divorce: if they do  not like divorce they should not marry. Or the more recent retort: if one does not like gay marriage then one should not marry a gay.

One thing is clear. The reproductive imperative does not apply to the legal recognition of straight marriages. Many heterosexual couples are childless by choice or circumstance. Some fulfill their parental instinct via adoption or with the help of surrogates, but others do not. In all cases they are legally free to marry.

Having thought about it a bit in light of recent arguments arising out a parliamentary bid to legalize gay marriage, it strikes me that the debate can be seen in simple game theoretic fashion.

Those opposed to gay marriage see the outcome if it is legalized in zero or negative sum terms. Awarding the right to marry to homosexuals will directly and negatively impact on heterosexual marriage. The belief is that awarding gays the right to marry comes at the immediate expense of heterosexual marriages, and that something will be directly lost or detracted from the latter if the former is permitted. Worst yet, the situation could become collectively negative sum if gays are allowed to marry: both gays and straights will suffer losses as a result (this is usually seen in the “children need hetero parents” argument, but extends to the costs of awarding full rights to married gay couples when it comes to family-oriented taxation, insurance and health benefits). The bottom line is that awarding equal marriage rights to gays (as a sexual minority) will impose costs or losses on the sexual majority, and therefore should not allowed under the lesser evil principle because collectively it is a lose-lose proposition.

Those in favor of gay marriage see the issue in even or positive sum terms. They see gay marriage as taking nothing from nor adding to hetero marriage, or in the most optimistic view, enhancing the value of marriage as an institution by extending the franchise to those of same-sex persuasion who wish to monogamously commit to each other in the eyes of the state (I will leave aside issues about non-monogomous unions and plural marriages in order to make the first-order point). In this view gay marriage should be encouraged as it deepens the familial bases of social stability and is therefore a greater good for society as a whole. It is a win-win solution.

Whatever other issues are put forth pro and con, it seems to me that this is the real crux of the issue. The rantings of bigots and extremists are not addressed here simply because they do not matter. I include in this God-botherers and other repressed and closeted people who act out of irrational psychological fear. Nor do I care to indulge the arguments of some extremists who think anything goes and there should be no prohibitions on sexual contact (say, the Man-Boy Love Association crowd). Here I am simply trying to distill the rational arguments in favor and against.

For me the issue is certainly even sum and probably positive sum. If we accept that one major source of social decay is the decline of the “traditional” family defined by heterosexual marriage, then it seems to me that one good response is to encourage the rise of “non-traditional” families as a complement. After all, “traditional” gender roles have been altered over the years (I would say for the better) without killing off the majority notion of marriage and family as the pillars of society, so I do not see how non-traditional marriage and families will be any more harmful to social stability than allowing women the vote or non-whites to have equal civil rights.

With regard to marriage specifically, there are already precedents for taking what was non-traditional or even taboo and making it commonplace. For example, marriages of mixed race or inter-faith couples, or those with intellectual or physical disabilities, once were viewed as suspect or dangerous (often on reproductive grounds), and in some cases legally proscribed. Today they are additional and welcome threads that rather than harm have added to the vibrancy of the matrimonial fabric of complex societies.

Anyway, this may be obvious to KP readers given their ideological dispositions. The point I am trying to make is that marriage is not a pie with a finite number of slices, where giving one slice to gays will mean that there is not enough left for straights. To the contrary, marriage should be seen as an expanding pie in with we can all share regardless of sexual preference because we commonly appreciate the order and stability it helps bring to our individual and collective lives. I reckon that is a very traditional way of thinking.

Opinionated Coroners.

datePosted on 09:35, July 26th, 2012 by Pablo

In the past few weeks coroners have been in the news. The investigations of the disappearance of an emotionally distraught woman at Piha, the Kahui twins murders and the death of a cyclist on Tamaki Drive have seen a surprising, some would say unusual, level of coroner opinion voiced on sensitive issues, some of which verges on editorializing.

For example, in the Piha case the coroner placed some responsibility for the young woman’s death on a couple of good Samaritans who tried to shelter and comfort her for four hours after she asked them not to call the police because she feared that the cops were angry at her. The coroner ignored the actions of seven other people who also interacted with the victim, including those who last saw her alive–naked and delirious talking to a light post–but did nothing and those at the house that she had fled from fearing sexual assault. He also downplayed the gross negligence of the police, who called a taxi rather than send a patrol car in response to the original 111 call from the distressed woman (the taxi driver was clueless and went to Onehunga rather than Piha). The coroner’s bottom line is that civilians should leave the handling of emergencies to professionals even if that means ignoring the wishes of those at risk. The implicit message could well be “do not get involved.”

The coroner in the Kahui twin case basically fingered the father for the murders. Since the father was acquitted of murder by a jury in a well-publicized trial, it will be interesting to see if the case is revived by the Police. The coroner’s verdict is clearly an instigation to do so.

The coroner in the Tamaki Drive cycle death case has suggested that it be mandatory for cyclists to wear high visibility clothing and to ride in cycle lanes where available. However, the cyclist was killed in daylight after swerving to avoid an abruptly opened door from a car parked immediately at the end of an irregularly marked cycle lane, on a notoriously tight corner. He ignored suggestions by bicycle advocates that the Auckland Council’s failure to remove parking along narrow stretches of Tamaki Drive contributed to the accident (which it did two days after the accident), or that the truck that killed her failed to adhere to the 2 meter gap rule (which ostensibly is the distance that should be maintained between cyclists and motor vehicles on roadways and which is in the road code). He reiterated a juries’ verdict that the motorist who opened the door without first looking behind him was not at fault. In effect, he blamed the cyclist for her own death.

I am curious about this. I am not an expert on Coroner’s courts or investigations, but I had thought that they were focused on the facts of the case in order to determine causality via a chain of events or circumstances. In this cases outlined above, the scope appears to have been expanded into opinionating and assigning blame rather than simply recommending improvements and safeguards to avoid similar occurrences. Have I got this understanding wrong or is this unusual?

I must confess that I live near Piha and have some local insight into the circumstances of the young woman’s disappearance. I am also a former recreational, commuter and competitive cyclist who has ridden on numerous occasions on Tamaki Drive (too flat for serious training unless it is a time trial, and only “safe” on early weekend mornings). I do not much care for infanticide regardless of who does it. So perhaps I am reading too much into these coroner’s reports, but from what I have seen it appears that in these cases they were interested in more than establishing the facts of the matter at hand.

Something to read: Rise of the neo-crusaders

datePosted on 19:58, July 25th, 2012 by Lew

I have been very scarce, again, and I will continue to be for at least a couple of weeks. In addition to cyclical work commitments that take up all my thinking and writing energy, my daughters have recently had some serious and complicated medical issues. We’re all fine, but it’s been enough to shunt this blog well down my priorities. Thanks again to Pablo for keeping things ticking over.

The anniversary of the Norway massacre has passed, and I wanted to write something about it; particularly about how the trial has shaped discourses of nationalism and extremism there and elsewhere.

I haven’t, but DeepRed has probably done better than I could on his own blog, Kumara Republic. I highly recommend you read it here: Rise of the neo-crusaders. His post covers some of the ways the extreme right has reconfigured itself in recent decades, and some of the ways in which its members attempt to distance themselves from, while not really distancing themselves from, Anders Behring Breivik and his actions. A good read.

L

Market-oriented social engineering.

datePosted on 13:13, July 24th, 2012 by Pablo

The political Right regularly accuses the Left of engaging in social engineering. Be it pushing such unnatural constructs as union and civil rights, health awareness and environmental concerns, the Right claims that the Left is out to control how people behave and even think. For freedom-loving individualists, this is anathema.

Consider my surprise, then, when I saw the Prime Minister saying that one of the reasons for the $2000 dollar “kiwi-first” purchase option with loyalty premium for Mighty River Power shares was to “change the investment psychology” of New Zealanders. It seems Kiwis put money into real estate and bonds, but not the stock market. Mr. Key thinks that his countrymen and women should diversify their portfolios into stocks, and the asset sales option is one way of promoting that. After all, it is not really prudent to have too many eggs in one basket.

I can see his logic. As a money trader and speculator, stock manipulation comes natural to Mr. Key. Sell short, hold, think long…he has the field covered. And truth be told, in a market environment such as NZ’s, it may not be unreasonable to urge people to spread their savings around. Higher rates of savings are traditionally linked to higher standards of living and growth, so by market logic such a move is both collectively and individually optimal.

What I find notable is the PM’s admission that the Mighty River Power stock purchase proposal is a deliberate attempt to alter the way Kiwis think about investment. In other words, it is a social engineering project that proposes to transform the psychological disposition of Kiwis when looking at their investment options.

But if that is the intention, how is that different from campaigns to get people to stop smoking, not drink and drive, use public transport, practice safe sex, license and desex their pets or stop littering? Are these not all examples of what the Right claims is undue interference by government on the rights of individuals to freely choose how to live their lives? Even if one admits that the share purchase option is not compulsory and still a matter of free choice (as are some of the examples just mentioned), is not the intention of the National government and Mr. Key to engage in exactly the type of social engineering–to include psychological indoctrination–that the Right accuses the Left of championing for its nefarious totalitarian purposes? Mr. Key has admitted that there is a social engineering intent to the proposal, so how is that good when other social engineering experiments are considered by the political Right to be bad? Or are some types of social engineering more acceptable to freedom-loving market individualists than others?

If the latter is true, than even the Right has to admit that social engineering projects embarked upon by governments are not always contrary to the small-governance/more market/individual choice principles that ideologically underpin Right thought. And if that is the case, then how can social engineering experiments be totalitarian, collectivist and fundamentally anti-democratic at their core?

Pardon me if I see a little contradiction here…

Managing Policy Fade.

datePosted on 14:47, July 19th, 2012 by Pablo

A conversation with Lew and Selwyn Manning prompted this rumination. It is not meant as a comprehensive organizational analysis but instead as food for thought, using the case of the UN and Fiji after the 2006 coup to outline a phenomenon known as “policy fade.”

Deployment of Fijian soldiers and police as UN peacekeepers after the 2006 military coup in that country is a good example of policy fade, in this case undertaken by the UN. Initial calls for and threats of Fijian suspension from all UN peacekeeping operations never materialized and Fijian involvement in UN-sanctioned armed multilateral operations increased after 2007. Suspension from international organizations such as the Commonwealth and Pacific Island Forum (which included prohibitions on Fiji participation in PIF-sanctioned multilateral armed peacekeeping operations), the halting of foreign aid from the EU and Asian Development Bank, and travel sanctions on officials in the Bainimarama government by Australia and New Zealand were not matched by the UN when it came to peacekeeping. Instead, the UN’s course of action has been marked by non-enforcement of the measures called for by the original policy statements made immediately before and following the 2006 military coup. Along with other circumventions, the UN policy fade allowed the Fijian military to defy the sanctions regime imposed upon it.

Policy fade is the process of putting distance on an initial policy position. There are several ways to back away. Here the focus is not on policy retreats or complete back downs imposed by adverse externalities or changes of mind on the part of policy-makers.  Instead, the emphasis is on types of managed policy fade initiated from within a political organization.  It can accompany policy softening, which is the modification of policy along its margins without removing the original intent.  Managed policy fade is about instituting a controlled move away from failed, unpopular, embarrassing or non-enforceable policy without losing credibility (or face, or honor).

There are several ways with which to manage policy fade. The issue can be ignored over time so that it disappears from the public eye. It can be re-defined so as to diminish its visibility, divert attention away from it or to give credence to a change in approach.  It can be deferred and/or delayed so as to encourage historical amnesia.  The process of policy fade can involve combinations of these approaches. In all cases the intent is to remove the policy issue from public scrutiny in order to eventually abandon or change the original approach.

The UN used the delay-and-defer approach to the subject of Fiji’s peacekeeping role. Kofi Annan’s originally strong language on the consequences of the coup was qualified by his successor Ban ki-moon.  Annan made his statements in October 2006, prior to the coup and during the last three months of his term as Secretary General. Confronted with a lack of votes in the Security Council in favor of a resolution ordering Fiji out of peacekeeping duties and not wanting to risk aggravating rifts in the General Assembly over the issue very early in his term, Ban delayed following up on the promises of Annan and others to that effect. He also deferred the issue to his underlings.

In April 2007 Ban called for a study of the impact a peacekeeping suspension would have on Fijian society as well as the regime. As is well known, service in UN peacekeeping operations is a major source of pride for the Fijian military, which can hone professional skills and maintain espirit d’corps while contributing to domestic stability via remittances from its soldiers abroad. The study was designed to identify the tangible costs of a suspension beyond diplomatic isolation. Its results have never been disclosed. Meanwhile Fijian peacekeepers continued to serve in UN missions and at present constitute the largest source of soldiers for the UN peacekeeping mission in Iraq. It appears that the UN decided the benefits of having Fiji continue to be a contributor to peacekeeping operations outweighed the illegality of its military regime, and simply never admitted to that calculation in public.

The delay-and-defer approach relies on news cycles and diminishing public interest to be effective. If the media and/or public focus continues to bring attention to the issues involved, then policy fade becomes more difficult to implement. On the other hand the press of events means that media and public attention spans are often limited, making the policy fade process possible once the glare of scrutiny is off.

Since 2006 the UN’s and global public attention has shifted elsewhere. That reduced the importance of a possible suspension of Fijian peacekeepers as a UN policy priority. The subject of suspending Fiji from participating in UN peacekeeping operations was consequently dropped from public statements and a quiet accommodation was made with the Fijian authorities that sees Fijian military and police continuing to serve in blue helmet missions abroad (the use of Fijian military and ex-military by private security companies was not effected in any event).  When 36th Parallel Assessments recently questioned the UN about the ongoing presence of Fijian troops in UN peacekeeping missions despite the original talk about suspension, the response was to admit that no suspension was authorized and decisions on Fijian participation in peacekeeping operations are taken on a case-by-case basis.

Although it contravenes the intent of the sanctions regime imposed by other international organizations and individual countries, continued Fijian participation in UN peacekeeping operations may be seen as a way of showing goodwill towards, and exercising some diplomatic leverage on, the Bainimarama government as it moves towards re-scheduled elections in 2014. In fact, an increase in Fijian troop contributions to UN missions in 2011-12 coincides with the suspension of the state of emergency in place in Fiji since 2009 and commencement of the voter registration and constitutional consultation process leading up to the 2014 vote.

After 2007 Australia and New Zealand remained silent on the issue of Fijian troops on UN peacekeeping missions even though it demonstrates the futility of their bilateral sanctions against the military regime. Instead, they also have engaged in policy fade, in this case of the “ignore it and it will go away” variety. Knowing that there are more important issues to address and not willing to enter into a public argument with the UN peacekeeping division or be embarrassed in the Security Council and General Assembly when both are contemplating bids for temporary membership on it, Australia and New Zealand cast a blind eye on the continued use of Fijian peacekeepers by the UN even though in some cases (Sinai, Syria) their soldiers serve side by side with Fijians.

In both countries public disinterest or ignorance of the state of play surrounding the bilateral sanctions regime has helped governments to ignore the issue in public while concentrating on other priority policy areas and allowing relations with Fiji to be handled quietly, both directly and in multinational fora.

Given the diplomatic lifeline thrown to the Fijian regime by the UN with regards to its involvement in peacekeeping, the overall sanctions regime imposed on it was porous. However, it also provided a stick to complement the UN carrot, and the uncertainty of the UN case-by-case approach to Fijian peacekeeping ensured that the Bainimarama government could not rest entirely easy with regards to its diplomatic status or that of its blue-helmeted troops in the field.

The task now for Australia, New Zealand and other international agencies is to gracefully move away from their respective hardline stances towards something more accommodating of the Fijian regime. This can be tied to the gradual (and continued) opening of the Fijian political process as the date of elections draws closer, and could involve incremental lifting of sanctions and resumption of fuller diplomatic relations or practical engagement with the Fijian state on the part of those currently employing sanctions against it. The US, Russia, India and PRC already give full bilateral diplomatic recognition to Fiji, so large international organizations can take the lead in following their example in return for continued progress towards the 2014 ballot.  Should that happen, then Australia and New Zealand can re-consider their stance on travel sanctions with some decorum.

However it is couched, the ineffectiveness of the international sanctions regime in the face of the UN policy fade on Fijian peacekeepers made necessary policy fade on the part of other actors. The fade process on the original international sanctions policy is transiting to the redefining phase, something that should be evident in policy pronouncements on Fiji by the international sanctions coalition over the next year.

 

A different version of the essay appears as an analytic brief at 36th-parallel.com

On Liminality.

datePosted on 15:05, July 5th, 2012 by Pablo

For some time I have been pondering the issue of liminality. It is a term that appears in cultural studies and all sorts of post-modern rubbish posing as theory, but in this instance it resonates with me and seems to accurately depict a social condition that is increasingly evident in a multi-globalized world. “Liminality” refers to state of intermediacy or even indeterminacy. It is a condition of being caught in betwixt and in between, of being in two or more places at once but not being fully settled in any one of them. It is different from and more than hybridity, which is a combination rather than a condition, although hybridity can lead to liminality in some instances (say, a mixed race person moving between the different class and cultural backgrounds of parents).

In my frame of reference liminality is the condition where a person who has lived for significant periods of time in more than one country finds him/herself saddled with affections and aversions from each, leading to overlapping loyalties, and more importantly, a sense of relativism that destroys any notions of cultural absolutes or ideals. For example, the more the individual lives in different places, the more it seems to me that it is hard to get seriously nationalistic about any one of them. Even such small issues as sports loyalty can be a complicated matter. I, for example, follow Argentina in soccer because I grew up there. I root for Barcelona because it has a genius Argentine forward and a very Argentine style of play, but support Portugal as a national side in Europe because I lived in Lisbon for while and watched several of their players live as part of the experience. I support the ABs in rugby but switch allegiances to the Pumas when the play each other. I support the US in things like baseball and basketball, but then again tend to root for Greece in basketball because I lived in Athens for a while and the Greeks are crazy about b-ball, and cannot help but cheer for any small Latin American country when they play against the US in either sport (and truth be told, Cuba, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela have great baseball traditions and Argentina and Brazil have beaten the US in international basketball competition. Yay for them!).

Although I am not sure that they are sports rather than games, I have taken an interest in and support Singapore in table tennis and badminton because, well, I lived in Singapore for a few years and that is the only thing that they do well when it comes to international “athletic” competition (truth be told the national sport in Singapore is shopping, but they do not award medals for that). When not rooting for Argentina my default options are Chile (where my family lived for several years and where I subsequently conducted field research), Uruguay (where my family vacationed for extended periods during our time in Argentina and where I conducted field research in later years) and Brazil (where I lived episodically in the 1980s).

The sports angle is a minor one. The more serious issue is that as more and more people travel and settle across international borders, the more liminal they become. In many instances this occurs on top of an urban-rural disjuncture, whereby people transplanted from one to the other find themselves (at least initially) alienated and out of synch with the rhythm of life in their new locale. Think of a Laotian peasant or Somali refugee arriving and settling in Auckland. As with most new migrants, particularly those that are involuntarily re-settled, the pull of nostalgia for what was culturally lost very often overwhelms the urge to integrate and accept new values, mores and customs. It is only subsequent native-born generations that feel grounded in the new culture, but even they are often caught in betwixt and in between. One solution, particularly if the native population is hostile to new settlers, is to retreat in parochial defense of the “old” country or way of life. But even that eventually gives way to mixed feelings of loyalty and obligation to the old and the new.

Liminality occurs at the sub-national as well as the international level, both of which have been impacted by the revolution in transportation and telecommunications. There are consequently more and more people living in a liminal condition or state of mind. It therefore seems to me that “liminality” should be included in policy debates about things such as immigration, although to do that correctly we will have to wrestle the term away from the cultural relativists and other intellectual poseurs who think that trafficking in big words is equivalent to practicable and useful social research.

I am no expert on the topic so mention all of this merely as a subjective reflection. It is prompted by the July 4 celebrations in the US and comments by friends back there about how the US is the greatest country on earth etc. Yet most of these folk have never lived outside the States for an extended period of time, so how would they know? From my perspective it certainly has many merits and offers many opportunities, but in the end that is as much due to the its continental size and relative insulation as it is to the particularities of its people, politics and culture. Mind you, I feel certainly loyalty to the US as the country of my birth and whose government I once served, where my children and siblings reside, but that competes with my childhood loyalty to Argentina and current loyalty to NZ (which is where I expect to end my days. That raises an interesting sidebar: how many people actually think about the country or place that they would prefer to die in? I can say one thing for sure. Among other unhappy places, Afghanistan is not on the top of my list, with all due respect to the Afghans that I have known).

Who is to say that Canada, Costa Rica, Norway, Estonia, Turkey, Bhutan or–the goddess forbid–Australia is not the “greatest” country? How is universal “greatness” as a nation defined? One would have had to have lived in many places and have done many different things in order to make such a distinction (I do not mention Aotearoa simply because we all know that it is Godzone). And if one did in fact live in many places doing many different things, it is more likely that s/he would be at a loss to pick one single place as being above all of the rest in every respect. That is what liminality can do to a person–it makes it impossible to speak about culture or nationality in absolute or definitive terms. I say this even though I am fully aware of the canard that states that “there is no place like home,” whereby expats use the experience of living abroad to reaffirm their loyalty to their nation of origin (my parents did this for most of their lives). That may be true in some but not all instances, and I would argue that the more countries one lives in the less able s/he is to make such an assertion.

In any event, I write this as a person born in the US, raised and subsequently lived as an adult in Argentina and other Latin American as well as European and SE Asian countries, who resides permanently in NZ while continuing to travel to Australia, the US and elsewhere for professional and personal reasons. That pretty much defines my liminality, which I am not entirely sure is a bad thing.