Archive for ‘February, 2021’

The tyranny of the dishonest and stupid.

datePosted on 15:00, February 24th, 2021 by Pablo

One theme in the literature dedicated to democratic theory is the notion of a “tyranny of the minority.” This is where the desire to protect the interests of and give voice to electoral minorities leads to a tail wagging the dog syndrome whereby minorities wind up having disproportionate influence in debates about policy. The minorities in question may be political, ethnic, religious, racial, cultural or identified by other characteristics, but the commonality is in their (previous) relative disenfranchisement when compared to dominant electoral groups, again defined by various criteria. For example, white, straight, christian males have traditionally been an electorally dominant group in the US; transgender gay afro-asian atheists have not.

In democratic practice the issue is one of striking a fair and equitable balance between the rights of the (electoral) majority and the rights of minorities. This has been attempted via re-districting and voter enrolment schemes that allow for more minority representation in politics at all levels, affirmative action initiatives and regulations that preferentially promote minorities in fields and institutions in which they are traditionally underrepresented, advancement of historical accounts and alternative artistic expressions that reflect the experiences of the subaltern, exploited and dispossessed, etc. The objective is to level the playing field across the gamut of social endeavour, thereby leading to more democratic outcomes in politics and society.

The push to democratise has by now gone well beyond politics and deep into the fabric of social life. Old notions of what is permissible even in the sanctum of family life have been challenged and redrawn away from traditional heterosexist patriarchal hierarchies. Private firms can no longer ignore gender bias or subtle racism in their ranks. Children no longer fear the teacher’s rod or strap.

All of this is good. Historical injustices have been addressed and authoritarian social structures have been reformed as a result of democratisation efforts world-wide. The fear now, in some quarters at least, is about an over-reaction to previous ills when it comes to democratising society. It also has prompted a backlash by reactionaries, who in earlier decades whined about “political correctness” and “culture wars” and who now whinge about “triggered” “wokeism,” “cancel culture,” “snowflakes” and limits on “free speech” (when what they actually mean is restrictions on public expressions of various forms of racism, bigotry and other intolerance).

At its core the argument against economic, social and political democratisation is about over-compensation and giving a few people too much just because they were done wrong somewhere down the road. To wit: unencumbered by traditional forms of discipline, children will run roughshod over their parents. Students will have rights without responsibilities. Wives and teenagers will mouth off with impunity and people of color will expect and demand equal treatment by law enforcement. Once tradition goes, chaos will rule.

Of course none of the above is true and fears grounded in such beliefs lack substantive foundation. But the concern that minority rights might eventually supercede majority rights is a real one for more than political scientists, and has become what is known (in very simple terms) as the tyranny of the minority.

The backlash to economic, political and social democratisation was to be expected because the backlash comes from those who benefitted from the majoritarian electoral status quo before the political, economic and social rights of minorities was even allowed, much less considered as part of the democratic equation. But now the backlash has taken a particularly sinister turn in the form of the dissemination of disinformation and false narratives under the banner of democratic “balance” when it comes to minority voice.

As a lead in, let’s consider the CNN approach to political debates on its opinion shows. In the interest of being “balanced,” CNN shows regularly feature paid Republican shills (reportedly on a retainer of US$150,00/year) who with increased frequency over the years have blatantly lied, denied, denigrated, insulted, engaged in specious false comparisons and “whataboutism,” and generally acted like the a-holes that they truly are. Rick Santorum, Kayleigh Mcenany, Paris Dennard, Kelly-Ann Conway, Jason Miller and assorted others were given a huge platform from which to dispense their bulls**t, and some even managed to use the CNN enhanced profiles to step into White House jobs in the Orange Merkin administration (Dennard and Miller were caught up in sex scandals so are now relegated to talking to the converted on Fox News).

Given their disinterest in honest debate and fair play and their use of the CNN platforms to push fake news and disinformation, why on earth were they given that privilege? What was CNN thinking? Did it do so out of a naive belief that these people would behave with a modicum of grace and decorum? Or did it feature them out of some mistaken belief in “balance?” What objective balance can exist between an honest and neutral commentator and a dishonest partisan spin-scammer? Why would one even try to “balance” objective truth with rabid lies?

That is the crux of the tyranny of the minority today. Because of the advent of social media and (successful) practice of sowing deliberate disinformation and fake news, everyone who has an opinion is not only entitled to one but has equal weight in the debates of the moment. Take the anti-vaccination crowd. Even though a thousand scientific journal articles and books by leading epidemiology and vaccinology experts have been written about the effectiveness of vaccines, even though polio and other diseases were essentially eradicated within a few years of immunization campaigns being introduced against them, some celebrity chef or other uninformed ignoramus will find one medical practitioner and a few tinfoil quacks who claim that vaccines cause autism, rabies, droopy eye syndrome and alien reproductive parasitism in humans and use that as a counter-argument against vaccines. Rather than ignore these fools, some other internet-schooled morons seize upon the minority opinion to show “proof” that the counter-narrative is true.

Many will embellish the original stupidity with talk about Big Brother Deep State social control schemes, and before long the internet is festooned with anti-vax screeds vying for attention with real scientific publications. Because scientific publications are hidden behind paywalls or in university libraries and use technical language in order to be understood, the “my kid has autism because of a measles shot” scientifically uneducated crowd have the upper hand in the democratic space that is the unregulated social media market. So much for being blinded by science (apologies to Thomas Dolby).

When confronted by the utter inanity of their claims, the anti-vaxxers will respond with something along the lines of “you may have your truth but I have MY truth.” The false equivalence between them then becomes not a matter of fact versus fiction but a matter of disputed (selective) facts. Everyone not only has an opinion and places to publicise them. They now have their own set of cherry picked facts to back up their views (“links please”). At that point the slippery slope toward full blown conspiracy theories begins.

That is where we are today. Conspiracy theories vie with objective reporting as preferred narratives on social issues. The latest conspiracy gem from Q Anon involves fake snow in Texas rather than the real blizzard-caused sub-zero snow and ice that killed over 50 people and left that state without power water for days. One can only conclude, charitably, that those who subscribe to such views do not live in the Longhorn State.

However absurd all of this is, real damage has been done. Well before the January 6 conspiracy-motivated assault on the US Capitol, the pervasive echoing of political and social conspiracies permeated rightwing media, whether out of a sense of sincere conviction or opportunistic political gain. Faith in government at all levels has been consistently undermined by the promulgation of minority extremist ideological views that in a truly fair and confident society would never see the light of day but which now are given equal space with fact-based reporting. In an effort to democratise social and political discourse, the field has been given away to the tyranny of an often deranged or evil-minded ideological minority.

The truth is that not all opinions are equal. Not all views are worth considering. Not all “facts” are empirical, falsifiable or objectively measured. Some thing should simply not be considered because they are not worth the time or energy to do so. But here we are, with Plan B (non-expert) academic fools in NZ disputing the expert scientific approaches to pandemic mitigation and me arguing with anti-vax housewives in the primary school parking lot.

I blame post-modernism, including cultural relativism and other forms of inter-textual subjectivity, for greasing the slippery slope into the tyranny of the ideological minority. I do so even as I recognise the contributions that modes of critical inquiry like subaltern studies have made to the study of humanity and the advances to the human condition pushed by non-binary interpretations of what constitutes personhood. But the descent to the “all truth is subjective and therefore all views are equal” syndrome that has led to the popular rise of pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as alternative truth and conspiracy theories as counterfactuals to reality-based narratives lies in the notion that one can transpose an alternative methodology designed to interpret human social behaviour onto “hard” scientific inquiry or the lived and experienced reality of the people in question.

In reality, Pizzagate did not happen. The Democratic leadership demonstrably does not run a pedophile ring. It has been repeatedly verified that US election results were not stolen, in any State. On the other hand, fake snow in Texas and Jewish space lasers setting fires to California forests for profit are not objectively provable and yet are peddled (by Republican politicians even!) as if they were empirical fact. The commonality among them is the all of these views share space in the rightwing conspiracy ecosystem that is by design focused on countering observable and verifiable information provided by objective reporting in various media.

In other words, it is not what you know and the basis for how you know it. It is about how you interpret things based on what you are told, whether it is verifiable or not.

In a weird way, the path towards democratising stupidity is proof that human social evolution is dialectical, not progressive (in the sense of progressing from lower to a higher forms of knowledge, consciousness or material well-being). The push for economic, political and social democratisation, which through much trial and error and while still a work in progress, has yielded significant gains for populations previously denied agency in their lives and in society in general, has also eventually led to the spectre of the tyranny of the minority. As a result, much effort has been put into ensuring that democratisation efforts do not result in the “tail wagging the dog” effect mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and much pushback has been levelled at that effort by those who fear the effects of democratisation on the traditional socio-economic and political hierarchies that constituted the previous era.

This all is evidence that human societies do not always progress from more simple to more complex. But the dialectical progression is most clearly seen in the democratisation of social discourse to the point that idiots and evil-doers are given equal opportunity and space to vent their irrational, mean-spirited and unreal views as if they were truth, and where a minority of ideological retrogrades can manipulate the digital media space to dissemination lies, falsehoods and disinformation unimpeded by reality-based filters or objective facts.

Before, the fear was that democratisation of electoral and social opportunity would lead to a tyranny of people denied voice because of who they are by the previous systems in place, and who would use the new, more open institutional structures to impose their minority preferences on the majority. Now the threat is posed by ideological minorities who in a rational world would be laughed off stage but who now, with the democratisation of telecommunications, have global media platforms on which to spew hatred and ignorance unencumbered by a grounding in objective knowledge and notions of honesty, civility and fair play.

If Hegel could see us now, I wonder what he would say.

Clueless or cynical?

datePosted on 15:19, February 9th, 2021 by Pablo

So, it turns out that Air New Zealand accepted a contract to service three gas turbine engines for the Saudi Arabian Navy through its wholly owned subsidiary, Air New Zealand Gas Turbines. It turns out that Air NZ has a side bar in the gas turbine maintenance business and even has dedicated service facilities for maintenance on military machines (of which the US and Australian navies are clients). Air NZ claims that the contract with the Saudi Navy was actually let by a third party but has not said who that is. Some have speculated that it might be the US Navy, using Air NZ Gas Turbines for what is known as “spillover” work.

This has just come to light via the dogged persistence of a TVNZ reporter who faced more than eight weeks of stone-walling from the company before he got an answer. When he did, he was told that the contract was “small” (worth $3 million), signed off by people well down the executive chain of command, and let in 2019, when current National MP Chris Luxon was CEO. Apparently MFAT and government ministers were not advised of the contract offer, which is doubly problematic because doing business with the Saudi military is controversial at the best of times and Air New Zealand is 52 percent owned by NZ taxpayers through the Crown (as Minister of State Owned Enterprises Grant Robertson being the minister responsible). The issue involves more than potentially bad PR. It has potential diplomatic implications.

Revelation of the business relationship has sparked a bit of a furore. With typical understatement, the Greens are calling for an investigation into Air NZ involvement in Saudi genocide and war crimes in Yemen. Other leftists extend the critique to any relationship between Air NZ Gas Turbines and the US and Australian militaries. Right-wingers say that it is a simple commercial decision and so is business as usual, plus Saudi Arabia is a “friendly” country while Iran is not (yes, they get that simplistic). Much frothing has ensured.

Iranian news outlets have picked up on the story, questioning why a trade partner like NZ would provide support to a major military and political rival in the Gulf region. NGOs like Amnesty International are also aghast at the news, especially since NZ provides millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to Yemen in an effort to help alleviate the humanitarian crisis produced by the proxy war conducted between a Saudi-led Arab military coalition and Iran-backed Houthi rebels in the North and West of the country. Houthis compromise the majority of the 45 percent of Shiia Muslims in Yemen, with 55 percent of the population being Sunni Arabs and various smaller sects in the South and East.

in order to put context on the situation, let’s consider some background. The fault lines of contemporary Middle Eastern conflicts are drawn along the Sunni Arab-Persian Shiia line. The Sunni Arabs, most of who have quiet understandings with Israel that permit discrete cooperation between them and the Jewish state, are implacable enemies of the theocratic Shiia regime in Teheran. Although born of historical enmity between the two branches of Islam, in modern times the conflict between Arabs and Iranians has been accelerated by Iran’s efforts to be recognised as a regional power, including by acquiring nuclear weapons. Most of the principals in the conflict are authoritarians, but the Sunni Arabs have the backing of the US and other Western nations, much of which is specifically due to the shared hostility towards the Iranians and their purported “rogue” international behaviour (including their nuclear weapons desires and support for irregular fighting forces in and out of the Middle East). Iran, for its part, receives support from Russia, China, North Korea, Cuba and Venezuela precisely because of its anti-US and anti-Western orientation since the 1979 Revolution, so the vicious circle of homicidal enmity and distrust has global reach.

Over the years the main conflict zones between Arab Sunnis and Iranian Shiites have been in Lebanon, Syria (the Alawite regime led by Bashar al-Assad is a sub-sect of Shiia Islam), Iraq and Yemen. Because of the fear of escalation into major war if they fight directly, physical confrontations between Iran and the Sunni Arab states are conducted by proxies such as Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian military and the Houthis (for Iran), and (for the Arabs) various Sunni militias and/or governments in the contested areas, as well as Israel directly and indirectly.

The results of this multi-dimensional conflict ebb and flow over time, but the situation today is that the Iranians have increased their influence in Iraq after the US invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein, have successfully (along with the Russians) propped up the Assad regime against ISIS, Kurds, Turkey and the US-led military coalition that began as an anti-ISIS force and then mission-creeped into a regime change-focused (and now departed) occupation inside Syria, have maintained the stalemate in Lebanon between Hezbollah and various other armed sectarian movements while threatening Israel, continue to support Hama’s standoff with Israel in Gaza and have helped prevent the Houthis from being cleansed from Yemen by the Saudi-led and US-supplied Sunni Arab military coalition. Domestically, the Iranian regime, while fronted by an elected executive and parliament, is dominated by conservative clerics and military hard-liners who have a poor human rights record and little tolerance for dissenters at home or abroad. They are no angels but are a force to be reckoned with in Middle Eastern politics.

For its part, Saudi Arabia is a despotic, deeply corrupt oligarchy with a notoriously poor human rights record at home, involvement in war crimes in Yemen on an industrial scale, responsibility for the murder of dissidents abroad (because Jamal Khashoggi was not the only one) and which has within its ruling structure people who support, fund and arm Sunni extremists world-wide. It is, in a phrase, an international bad actor. One that is deeply mired in a proxy war in Yemen in which its Navy is used to enforce a maritime blockade of Houthi-held regions, including the blockade of humanitarian assistance to displaced and starving civilians.

Against that backdrop, why on earth did Gas Turbines go through with the contract? Did it ask about what naval ships were the end users of the equipment (since it could be argued that supplying equipment destined for support vessels was ethically different than supplying equipment destined for warships)? Did a bunch of clueless engineers sign off on the deal because it was within their authority as a commercial transaction and they did not even consider the PR, domestic political or broader geopolitical ramifications of the end user? Or, because middle management recognised the political sensitivities involved, did the contract offer get pushed up the hierarchy to the parent company and its senior management at the time but that is now being denied?

Was there anything in place to prompt a “trigger” for higher level vetting of the contract and/or automatic consultation with MFAT and the minister responsible for SOEs? After all, this type of potentially controversial transaction would seem to fall under the “no surprises” bureaucratic dictum dating back to the 5th Labour government, and it would only seem surprising if the foreign ministry and minister responsible for the Crown’s stake in Air NZ were not informed prior to signing the deal.

Or did Air NZ management decide that they could slide the contract under the radar, perhaps using the cover of existing contracts with the US Navy (which does in fact have a logistical support and weapons supply arrangement with the Royal Saudi Navy, which uses a mix of French and US-built ships in its fleet). If so, did they think that they could keep knowledge of the contract away from government as well as the public, or did they let someone in a position of political authority in on the secret? If all of this was above-board, why did Air NZ delay responding to the reporter’s requests? Why did Grant Robertson initially say that the issue was “an operational matter” for Air NZ and why has MFAT said nothing about the affair?

Given the potential political fallout and diplomatic blow-back, can we really take at face value assurances that no one outside of Gas Turbines had knowledge of the contract when it was negotiated?

NZ has good trade relations with both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the former much more extensive than the latter. NZ has good diplomatic relations with both countries, although unlike other Western countries it has been viewed as an honest interlocutor by the Iranians in the past. Given the ongoing conflict between the two countries, it would seem that providing any sort of material assistance to the military of one rather than the other is like sticking a NZ pinky into a pot of boiling water. It could get burned.

NZ professes to have a “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy. Semantics aside, the decision to accept the contract to service Saudi Navy turbine engines was neither principled or pragmatic. No due diligence or political risk assessment appears to have been done during the contract negotiations. Instead, the deal reeks of myopic commercial opportunism disengaged from the larger context and consequences of the transaction.

Whether than was caused by cynicism or cluelessness is the question of the day.

A self-mutilation ritual.

datePosted on 11:40, February 8th, 2021 by Pablo

It appears that rather than follow the not-so-sage advice offered here in KP a short time ago about how to save their future as a political party, the Republicans have decided to double-down on their Trumpist/MAGA bet. After the House Democratic majority stripped a recently elected QAnon freak from her committee assignments (I will not mention her name here) because of her deranged behaviour and speech (including calls to kill Democratic congresspeople and claims that the Rothschilds used a space laser beam to start California fires in order to make a profit and that the Sandy Hook and Parkland school shootings were faked), her GOP colleagues reaffirmed their support for her while rebuking the 11 of them who voted for Trump’s impeachment on grounds that he incited the January 6 insurrection in the Capitol building. The freak then held a press conference and announced that the Republican Party was “Trump’s party.” No Republican contradicted her and state Republicans in the home districts of the pro-impeachment GOP renegades voted to censure them.

This is going to end badly for the GOP. Corporate America and (prodded by lawsuits) even mainstream Rightwing media appear to realise the danger that the assault on Congress represents. Non-Republican rightwing extremists have infiltrated the MAGA ranks and exploited them for their own purposes. Conspiracy theory craziness has taken hold in the MAGA movement. Seeing this, some regretful MAGAites have defected once they realised that the Trump pipe dream was not going to become reality or that his claims about the stolen election were deliberate lies that cost taxpayers millions of dollars to refute (in the form of recounts and litigation). To be sure, there are still many who still worship the ground he walks on, but many more are glad to see the back of him and want it to stay that way.

Catering to the remaining MAGA base may solidify GOP support in hard Red states, but the rest of the country is turning Blue as demographics increasingly work against perpetuation of that base as a proportion of the population, much less as a cohesive voting bloc. Insurrectionists are bad for business as well as law and order, so for a party that claims that it is the champion of both, kowtowing to the violent maniac fringe is a losing proposition over the long term. The MAGA brand is turning to mud even if those loyal to it cannot see what is coming at them down the road.

There is the hitch. Most analysts now see the GOP as divided into three parts: a MAGA populist wing, a neo-con Reaganite wing and a bridge faction with feet in both wings that attempts to straddle the fence of specific policy issues (or want to have things both ways–conspiratorial crazy on the one hand and soberly responsible on the other). After the attack on the capitol, what many of the non-lunatic factions in the GOP fear is two things: being physically threatened or attacked by MAGA and QAnon extremists egged on by Trump and his acolytes if they do not accede to his wishes; and being “primaried” out of office by them with funding provided by the Trumpsters (“primaried” refers to the practice of putting up candidates against incumbents in party primaries so as to replace them with more ideologically aligned people).

The combination of physical and political threats has paralysed most of the GOP party leadership, who have opted for the default option of blaming Democrats for assorted ills while looking to them for the knock-out electoral blow on the lunatics in 2022. They understand that things have gone too far and they cannot prevent the MAGA wing from trying to take control of the party as a whole while Trump continues to agitate from the sidelines. So this is their state of play: hope that the Democrats win big in the congressional mid-terms so that they can purge the MAGAites from the party and return to some semblance of conservative normalcy. They know that the purge of moderate candidates in GOP primaries will likely lead to massive losses in the 2022 general election and the consolidation of Democratic control of the federal government for the near future. That allows the non-MAGA Republicans to clear house and get their affairs in order without the burden of having to govern, something that can set them up well for 2024 and beyond. People like Mitch McConnell, Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney understand this well.

Of course, many of those immediately involved in the fray may not see things in this light and may continue the internecine fights over the heart and soul of the GOP well after 2022. The MAGA wing certainly see their future as wedded to Trump, and the Senate impeachment trial will go a long way towards determining which of the GOP factions will prevail over both the short and the long term. But as long as they are divided and the Democrats coalesce while in power and restore some semblance of respect, normality and competence to governing (not a sure thing but more plausible today than in the past because of the stakes at play), then the Republican Party is going to increasingly be on the outside looking in when it comes to national policy-making. And that will suit the lunatic fringe just fine, as they have been exposed as being uninterested in democracy if such a thing involves compromise, toleration, transparency, equality and mutual consent in the policy-making process. That, however, will only increase their marginalisation as a political force. They had their moment during the last four years and soon they will pay a political (and in some cases, criminal) price for their sins.

In the meantime, watching the Republican in-fighting is like watching someone repeatedly cut themselves. The difference is that self-mutilation is most often not fatal to the person doing it, whereas what is going on in the GOP has the potential to be terminal to the party as a democracy-supportive political institution.

On seeing that jaguar.

datePosted on 12:33, February 5th, 2021 by Pablo

I am not one to usually write about personal anecdotes but it seems this is the season for it. As of late I have been following the news about jaguar sightings in the area of Southern Arizona where I once used to live. Two males were sighted regularly over the last two decades (only males have been seen and it is assumed that is because they are younger cats pushed out of established territories in Sonora, Mexico by older males), but both were killed–one after a failed radio collar trapping attempt in Arizona and the other by ranchers in Mexico (where they are not protected, unlike in the US).

This is very bad news because not only were jaguars driven to extinction in the US by the 1960s, their former habitat in Southeast Arizona is now threatened by the proposed development of a huge open pit copper mine just miles from my former place of residence. To add insult to injury, Trump’s wall project, if completed, would impose an impassable physical barrier across the cat’s northern range and migratory and territorial paths for hundreds of other animals like ocelots, bears and puma. Since large cats need hundreds of square miles in which to roam, the mine and wall would be a disaster for their re-establishment in the northernmost part of their natural range.

With that in mind I commented on a forum dedicated to jaguars in Arizona and thought that I would share it here.

In the early 1990s I was living in Adobe Canyon on the Southeast flank of the Santa Rita mountains. Adobe Canyon is connected to the East via plateau (mesa) to Hog Canyon. At the north end of Adobe Canyon, near where it converges with Hog Canyon, are two well-known water landmarks: El Pilar and Bathtub tanks (the former a natural rock formation with underground streams forming pools at its base and the latter the product of a New Deal-era conservation project that dammed streams for cattle grazing). I spent much time in that wilderness, which was full of wildlife, including black bear, puma, bobcat, foxes, coyote, assorted snakes and lizards, hundreds of birds and numerous other creatures. It was a marvellous place to observe these animals.

Adobe Canyon is what is known as a box canyon because one side ends in a wall rather than being open on both sides (it was about ten miles in length from entrance to the wall at El Pilar). On the other side of the wall was Hog Canyon, which was longer and opened-ended on both sides. My place occupied 50 acres on what is known as high desert grassland and scrub bordering on the desert island oak and cottonwood foothills of the Santa Rita Mountains (pictured below). A seasonal (winter and monsoon flooding) stream ran through the property near the house and neighbouring ranchers ran cattle on it by agreement when needed. It got snow in winter because it was located about 5500 feet above sea level.

Jaguar habitat in Southern Arizona

In 1992 I was sitting at my dining room table looking out on the meadow across the wash (dry stream bed) from my house when I saw a very large black cat come out of the tree line. Simultaneously, my Labrador started whining and shuffled off behind the sofa. I had seen puma and bear a few times before, including in that meadow, and this creature was neither of those.

What I was looking at was a melanistic jaguar, about twice the size of a puma. I jumped up and called the local Fish and Game ranger who lived in Hog Canyon. He rode over the ridge on his horse and was able to spot the jaguar as it left my property over another ridge line. We agreed that it was too big to a black puma (of which there were no records) and certainly was not a bear. I assumed that he would report the sighting, as we felt then that it was the first sighting of a jaguar in AZ in many years. However I wonder if he ever did so because of the politics involved between conservationists, ranchers, politicians, mining firms and developers. What I can attest to is the fact that there was at least one jaguar in the Santa Ritas in the early 1990s, and he was not of the spotted variety like the two males observed in the 2000s.

High desert grassland

As it turns out I relocated soon thereafter to Washington DC to take up a job in the Defense Department, so never had the chance to follow up on that sighting. Nor have I seen mention of the black cat since I left that neck of the woods. I have been back to visit a few times over the years and Adobe Canyon is pretty much the same although the nearest towns are growing and gentrifying and there are a few new houses in the canyon itself. The old hands on Sonoita working ranches are being replaced by vineyards, wineries and tech entrepreneurs on lifestyle properties with great views. Perhaps that will work in the jaguar’s favour, since vintners and tech moguls are not invested in livestock as an income stream even if they keep a few around for tax and lifestyle purposes.

Anyway, all of this seems very far away and long ago from my current position on the west side of the Waitakere ranges. No big cats here other than feral moggies looking to get shot or trapped, and a lot more ocean on the horizon rather than Sky Island mountain ranges spanning 360 degrees from my roof top. And much, much more rain.

Another note on academic decline.

datePosted on 15:48, February 2nd, 2021 by Pablo

Recently my partner and I were discussing the absence of collegiality in many contemporary academic departments. She is an academic and knowing my experience with a certain NZ university, she mentioned that it was perhaps best that I had left that profession, however under duress. Her point was that academic Taylorism (of which I have written about before on these pages) has now well and truly been entrenched in the halls of higher education, and that an old school professor like me would simply not survive in an atmosphere were students are “clients” with many rights and few responsibilities, pass/fail standards are dictated by managers rather than merit (e.g. a certain percentage–as high as 80 percent–of students must pass a course if it is to continue on the books), in-class discipline is non-existent (for example, with regard to use of cell phones and attendance), and even bibliographies and test questions are monitored and often dumbed down by bureaucrats who do not have degrees, much less higher degrees in the subjects in question (this actually happened to me before I departed the hallowed halls).

The precipitant for our discussion was two-fold: the breaking up of the Political Studies Department in my former employer and its dilution into a larger school that included dispersing political scientists throughout the campus. This removed any collegial centre of gravity, even a common room, for people who study politics and left them atomised and isolated in their far-flung offices. Sure, they can still communicate by phone and email or arrange to meet at a campus cafe, but the days of casually and spontaneously congregating for morning and afternoon tea is gone, which in turn removes the direct interpersonal discussions that often serve as catalysts for an exchange of ideas, intellectual collaboration and which underpin the very notion of “collegial” behaviour.

My partner’s employer chose to solve that problem, or perhaps did not even think of the situation at all, when it renovated the physical space in which she works into an open plan arrangement where people conduct their business in assigned small cubicles in a large airtight room. Although intellectual labour can be done anywhere (for me the best time to mull over ideas and plan classes was while running), the employer expects the academic staff to be on campus as much as possible and requires people to take annual leave if working from elsewhere (beyond the mandatory holiday leave already on the books). That forces people onto campus even if they do not have classes, meetings or student office hours. The problem is that office time in academia is a mix of bureaucratic paper-shuffling and make-work for managers, some writing or reading, some grading and marking, lots of emailing, some supervision meetings with students, regular administrative meetings of various sorts (also known as gab fests), and way too much student counselling by people who have no training in mental health or any other sort of counselling (i.e., since when is a Ph.D. in Political Science a license to counsel students on personal matters? And yet that is an expected part of the job).

That makes the open-plan arrangement a bit fraught because there is little privacy afforded by the scheme and the ambient noise levels generated by 30 or more people conducting business at the same time makes it very difficult to actually get any constructive work done. But since the managers who order the renovations conduct their business from the privacy of individual offices and do little if any face to face counselling of younger people or intellectual work, that is not their problem. I have a feeling that it will be after the new look is put into practice.

As I said before, I have previously written on KP about the pernicious affects of academic Fordism and Taylorism, so there is no point in beating that dead horse. But the discussion with my partner brought up what is one of the most embarrassing professional memories of my days in academia, which upon reflection points to a long-term downward trend in the quality of political science education in this country.

Let me explain. When I arrived in NZ in 1997 I was sold a bill of goods that my new employer was akin to “the Harvard of the South Pacific” or some such nonsense. As a University of Chicago alumni that was familiar with Australian universities, that claim did not impress me but I knew what the recruiters were trying to convey. And indeed, in those days most of the political science staff had degrees from elite, first tier institutions in Europe, North America and Australia. This led to a proliferation of older white male academics trained at such places, although by the time I arrived women had been successfully incorporated into the department and much of the post-colonial mindset was removed from it. During the 1990s Asians and Maori were brought in as well, a trend that continued while I was there.

The university was ranked about 100 positions above what it is today and the Political Studies department was actually ranked in the top 50 Political Science departments world-wide. I was hired to teach and research on civil-military relations and interest groups (in my case, labour unions) as well as Latin American Studies as part of a proposed expansion of area studies and political science offerings. For a brief while, that seemed to be a viable plan.

But academic managerialism soon struck in the form of a new VC. From then on it was a slippery slope or rush to the bottom to put “bums in seats” in order to secure EFT (Equivalent Full Time) funding. Managers began to interfere with what used to be purely departmental and classroom decisions. Research funding contacted and was subject to generic competitive models that did not account for disciplinary specificity. The union-busting project against the house collective bargaining agent for staff began in earnest and accelerated thereafter. People with research and teaching talent began to leave and boot-licking academic driftwood began to pile up. Promotion and tenure decisions were revised so that quantity rather than quality of research output and publication became key criteria for advancement.

This led to a rush towards “crony collaborations” in which academic friends produce edited collections in local or profit-oriented publication outlets and publish articles in journals edited by each other, without the scrutiny normally undergone by the peer-review process required by internationally-recognised publishers (say, in my discipline, World Politics, International Security or the International Political Science Review or Cambridge or Princeton University Presses). What used to be the norm when it came to research output rapidly became the exception to the “quantity over quality” rule ( I got a taste of this when I was advised to list my editorials and media appearances on the contrived and biased PBRF reviews required to justify departmental funding).

Towards the end of my tenure and afterwards, newer hires were increasingly recruited from non-elite graduate programs and paid at comparatively lower levels than during my first years in residence. Their PR and self-marketing skills became as or more important as their contributions to original research in the discipline. The employer demanded that courses generate a profit and, once the STEM disease set in, that they prove relevant to the Science, Technology, Economics and Management priorities of the tertiary funding model. “Non-profitable” departments like Classics or Indonesian Studies were soon eliminated.

Fees-paying foreign student enrolments increased under diminished admission standards. Existing degree requirements were lowered and “certificate,” “diploma” and other types of shallow qualification study programs proliferated. Flash buildings were built and more acquired (including a former brewery and a mansion for the VC), non-academic middle managers (many in PR) were hired by the bucketful and academic staff were told to limit photocopying, ration A4 paper and assume more administrative duties previously done by secretaries. Besides turning Ph.D.’s into clerical workers, among other things this move to “corporatise” academia along profit-oriented lines prompted PR flak-inspired suggestions in my former department that the Introduction to International Relations course for first year students be re-named “War and Peace” and that my course on Revolutions be renamed to have “9/11” in the title.

The larger point is that academic managerialism has destroyed the very concept of the academy, which if anything should be one of the last refuges from the profit motive because it rewards discipline and merit as it imparts knowledge, both conformative and transgressive, for knowledge’s or humanity’s sake rather than for money.

As the Taylorist pathogen took hold, more of the good people in the department left or retired. I was asked why I stayed and in my naivety I simply answered that it was about lifestyle and personal relationships. My partner and I had met in the late 1990s and were getting more serious, and my lifestyle out on the west flank of the Waitakere Ranges was ideal for my purposes at the time. Under an pre-existing research leave policy that was covered by my original contract I did take a couple of semester-long research leaves during those first ten years, once to the University of California San Diego and the other to the Portuguese Institute of International and Strategic Studies. Then the old research leave policy was terminated, and shortly after that, I was as well.

Before that happened, this did: In 2006 I was contacted by Guillermo O’Donnell, arguably the most famous Latin American political scientist of his generation, if not of all time. Don Guillermo, as I called him our of formal respect, was a mentor of mine from my Ph.D. days at Chicago. Along with Adam Przeworski, Philippe Schmitter and Lloyd Rudolph, he sat as an ex officio member of my Ph.D. dissertation committee. He took an interest in me because I was raised in Argentina, had participated in some political action and done human rights work there and was writing a dissertation on the Argentine State. He found it intriguing that an American guy was “so Argentine” down to my Buenos Aires accent and attitude. Later on, when he was Director of the Kellogg Institute of International Studies at the University of Notre Dame, I was awarded a residential research fellowship there in order to help finish a book I was writing at the time. Although he remained as a mentor, we became friends.

Many years later my future spouse got her Ph.D. in Political Science from Notre Dame and herself was a student of Don Guillermo even though her speciality is in European Politics and Political Economy. But like so many people trained at elite institutions, she well knew back then that exposure to a wide array of ideas and views is what makes for a good scholar, so she gravitated to him while studying there.

I mention this because in 2006 he and his wife–a sociologist who had been a colleague of mine at the Centre for the Study of State and Society in Buenos Aires in the early 1980s and later at Notre Dame in the late 1980s–were on a Ford Foundation-sponsored world tour that included lectures at several Australian universities. They contacted me to say that they would love to visit my partner and I in NZ and that all they needed was an invitation from an academic institution to do so. The Ford Foundation would pay all costs. They were particularly keen to come because Don Guillermo was an avid rugby fan and lifelong supporter of the Pumas and an admirer of the All Blacks.

In spite being given O’Donnell’s resume and biography, my department Head at the time (specifically appointed by the managerialist regime over better-qualified people)) refused to write the invitation letter. He claimed to not even recognise who O’Donnell was and did not care that the department would not have to put any money into inviting him (this Head was appointed by a very recently departed VC and his then political science minion/Dean of the Arts Faculty, who remains in a high managerial position to this day). By that time the managerial stamp had been imposed on the department, including shoulder-tapping recruitment attempts and mid-level bureaucrats from the Arts faculty sitting in on staff meetings as monitors of what was being said and done.

Chastened by the lack of collegiality and professional courtesy, I arranged to invite them as guests of the Latin American Studies Centre because even though the Latin Americanists at the Centre were not social scientists, they knew who he was (the O’Donnell family in Argentina are prominent in the arts and politics so it is a well-recognised name).

O’Donnell and his wife arrived and enjoyed their stay with us. As part of that stay, I organised an informal talk and meet-and-greet between him and my Political Studies colleagues in the then-departmental staff room. Nothing major, but a chance for the academic staff and students to interact with an actual luminary in political science (among other things, O’Donnell coined the phrase “bureaucratic authoritarianism” to describe a specific form of late 20th century capitalist dictatorship). I publicised the event across campus in student and university publications and email networks. I put up posters and spread the news by word of mouth.

When the day came, it was a debacle. I paid for the sandwiches, wine, cheese and crackers out of pocket and figured on 30 people attending. Instead, about six of my students, two of my Latin American Studies colleagues and just a single Political Studies academic staff member attended. Just one. With my partner, I and the O’Donnells, there were around a dozen people there at 4PM on a mid-week afternoon.

Maybe the time was not right and people needed to rush home or were in class. Perhaps the academics were working on Nobel Prize-level research projects. But I think not because when I asked several of them over the next days the majority stated that they did not know who he was, or he did not do what they are interested in (that from political theorists), or they were simply busy. Neither the Head or Deputy Head, both of whom ostensibly worked in the field of comparative politics, deigned to attend.

O’Donnell was gracious but perplexed by the slight. In Australia his lectures had hundreds of people in attendance. In Europe and Latin America large halls needed to be used to handle the SRO crowds. In North America his university appearances were sold-out celebrity events. In NZ, he was a nobody. He found that to be oddly ingratiating mostly because although provincial in the extreme it allowed him to relax when in the public space in measure that he was not used to. He got to visit the NZRU officess as a walk-in after getting out of a taxi.

I relate this anecdote because it shows that the decline in academic quality, at least in Political Studies at one university, began when academic managerialism took root in that university. Although there are always exceptions to this trend, the rot has now spread to other universities and runs deep into the academic fabric throughout the country. Entire “academic” programs are built around the Taylorist money-making model (I mean really, how many terrorism and/or conflict studies programs does one small country need and what the heck are non-disciplinary “autoethnographic”-based graduate degrees?). What was then, is now even more so.

It is time to call things for that they are in NZ today: the profit-driven managerial destruction of academic institutions as independent bastions of impartial truth and objective and subjective knowledge dissemination. Under the current tertiary sector leadership and mindset, I doubt that the impact of the pandemic will make things better.

In fact, it could make things worse because the push towards so-called “E-Learning” (video conference lectures and seminars) while continuing to charge the same fees will lead (as it already has) to further reductions in the physical infrastructures required for in-person teaching and promote bigger enrolments in Zoom-like settings (rather than actual classrooms or lecture theatres) where the spontaneous inter-personal dynamic between instructor and students is all but nullified. Although small group seminars can be accommodated by video (“webinars”), I know of no academic who enjoys video conferencing big class lectures, other than those who hate students anyway. Most students do not bother to attend these type of sessions and instead look for on-line power point and lecture notes with an eye towards exams rather than understanding of the subject. Of those who do attend, few engage with the lecturer. Because marking is increasingly done on-line using standardised forms, teachers reduce the amount of essay writing involved in course assignments and instead offer simplified examination options more akin to those in high school. Adding more and more foreign students with limited English language abilities into that mix compounds the problem (should they return once the pandemic is controlled). And so on.

None of this augurs well for the quality of New Zealand university education in the years to come, especially in the social sciences and arts (which are the red-headed stepchildren in the STEM tertiary education model). It therefore behooves those who are responsible for the tertiary sector to understand that the moment provided by the pandemic is also a moment to pause and reconsider the merits and demerits of Taylorist and Fordist approaches to academic endeavour in light of a very mixed twenty year’s experience with those approaches. Only then can moves me made that allow NZ to regain its prior reputation for offering high quality academic degrees and quality research that are competitive on the world stage.