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Left in tatters.

datePosted on 12:14, September 21st, 2014 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.

Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.

That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.

After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.

In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.

Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.

Eye Candy, Window Dressing and Deep Pockets.

datePosted on 15:06, July 29th, 2014 by Pablo

I came back from six weeks abroad to see the beginning of the Internet Party’s “Party party” launches. It leaves me with some questions.

It seems that what the Internet Party has done is this. Using Kim Dotcom’s wallet as a springboard, it has selected a candidate group largely made up of attractive metrosexuals (only a few of whom have political experience), recruited as window dressing a seasoned (and also attractive) leftist female as party leader (even though she has no experience in the IT field), and run a slick PR campaign featuring cats that is long on rhetoric and promises and short on viable policies. The stated aim is to get out the apathetic youth vote and thereby reach the three percent electoral threshold.

The strategic alliance with the Mana Party makes sense, especially for Mana. They get additional resources to more effectively campaign for at least two electorate seats, especially given that it looks like the Maori Party is moribund and the Maori electoral roll will be more contestable even if Labour tries to reclaim its historical support in it. The Internet Party gets to coattail on Mana’s activism and the presence of relatively seasoned cadres on the campaign trail. Between the two, they might well reach the five percent threshold, although current polling suggests something well less than that. The lack of political experience in the Internet Party could be problematic in any event.

But I am still left wondering what the IP stands for and how it proposes to effect change if its candidates are elected. We know that the IP came about mostly due to Dotcom’s hatred of John Key. But Dotcom is ostensibly not part of the IP, which makes his attention-grabbing presence at its public events all the more puzzling. Leaving aside Dotcom’s background and baggage for the moment, imagine if major financial donors stole the stage at Labour, National or Green Party rallies. What would the reaction be? Plus, hating on John Key is not a policy platform, however much the sentiment may be shared by a good portion of the general public (and that is debatable).

Giving free internet access to all seems nice, but how and who is going to pay for that? Wanting to repeal the 2013 GCSB Act and withdraw from the 5 Eyes intelligence network sounds interesting, but how would that happen and has a cost/benefits analysis been run on doing so?  Likewise, opposition to the TPP seems sensible, but what is its position on trade in general? The policies on the environment and education seem laudable (and look to be very close to those of the Greens), and it is good to make a stand on privacy issues and NZ independence, but is that enough to present to voters?

More broadly, where does IP stand on early childhood education, pensions, occupational health and safety, immigration, transportation infrastructure, diplomatic alignment, defense spending or a myriad of other policy issues? Is it anything more than a protest party? Nothing I have seen in its policy platform indicates a comprehensive, well thought roadmap to a better future. In fact, some of the policy statements are surprisingly shallow and in some cases backed with citations from blogs and newspapers rather than legitimate research outlets.

Is having attractive candidates, catchy slogans and a narrow policy focus enough for IP to be a legitimate political contender?

I have read what its champions claim it to be, and have read what its detractors say it is. I am personally familiar with two IP candidates and have found them to be earnest people of integrity and conviction who want more than a narrow vendetta-driven agenda opportunistically married to an indigenous socialist movement. I would, in fact, love to see it succeed because I think that the political Left in NZ needs more varied forms of representation in parliament than currently available.

So my question to readers is simple: is the IP a viable and durable option in the NZ political landscape, or is it doomed to fail?

One thing is certain. If dark rumours are correct, the government has some unpleasant surprises for the IP in the weeks leading to the election. If that happens, it may take more than Glenn Greenwald and his revelations about John Key and the GCSB to redeem the IP in the eyes of the voting public. I would hope that both Dotcom and his IP candidates are acutely aware of what could be in store for them should the rumours prove true, and plan accordingly.

Barking from the closet.

datePosted on 10:35, February 22nd, 2014 by Pablo

If one thing has proven true over the years when it comes to religion and politics, it is that those who most ardently decry homosexuality as abnormal and represent themselves as paragons of “christian” family values often are themselves seriously repressed when it comes to their own sexual preferences. Be they Tories in the UK, Republicans in the US and preachers, priests, mullahs and rabbis the world over, these closet hypocrites go to great lengths to hide their “baser” urges, to include engaging in contact (!) sports and other “manly” activities like game hunting, entering into heterosexual marriages, having children, advocating for corporal punishment and loudly and obsessively condemning “deviant” sexual behavior and the gay community and feminists for a myriad of sins against the “natural” order of things.

Their self-loathing is such that some even practice how they walk and talk so as to appear more Roman than Greek (I am using the terms loosely here, as both Romans and Greeks accepted the “baser” urges as a part of life and are differentiated more by the class, gender and age element in them). Some go to great lengths to dress and act acceptably “mainstream” (according to how they perceive the mainstream). The more strident of the closet prudes threaten and bully those who question their public stance as well as their private desires.

Given its egalitarian and tolerant reputation, it would be a real shame if such people were a significant part of the New Zealand political, religious or social elite. Given demographic probability, chances are that there might be a few.

Which raises the question: does Colin Craig share that Larry Craig wide stance?

My posts on the demise of the political Left in NZ have elicited a fair bit of debate, which is good. However, there are two main areas of misunderstanding in the debate that need to be corrected. The first is that that by repeating my oft-stated claim here and elsewhere that socio-economic class, and particularly the working classes, need to be the central focus of Left praxis, I am ignoring the productive and cultural changes of the post-industrial, post-modern era. The second is that I dismiss the entire Left as ineffectual losers.

Let me address the latter first. When I write about the “political” Left I am speaking strictly about those parts of the Left that directly involve themselves in politics, either institutionalized or not. In this category I do not include the cultural or activist Left that engage in direct action in non-political realms such as poverty alleviation, human rights protection, diversity promotion, etc. These type of Left indirectly address political questions and therefore have political import but are not immediately involved with or primarily focused on political matters (say, by acting as parties or running campaigns, among many other things). Some of their members may be, but the Left agencies involved are, first and foremost, non-political in nature.

In a way, these non-political Left entities act much like non-Left charities: they provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged or vulnerable, have clear political content in what they do, but are not political agencies per se.

Thus I recognize the good works of the non-political Left and even see them as providing potential foundation stones for effective Left political activism. But as things currently stand the interface between the non-political and political Left is largely skewed towards diluting the socialist content and neutering the working class orientation inherent in many forms of grassroots Left activism. And where the interface is direct (say, Socialist Aotearoa), the message is too vulgar and the agents too shrill to make their points effectively.

This may sound harsh but that is the reality. The larger point is that I am not dismissing the entire Left as “dead” or moribund. I am confining my diagnosis to the contemporary political Left, narrowly defined, and it is not defeatist to point out what I would have thought was glaringly obvious.

With regard to the second accusation, this has been the subject of much debate here at KP. Lew and Anita have both eloquently written on identity as a primary focus. I accept their arguments but also think that class matters when it comes to a Left praxis. To that end, let me reprise a statement I made in response to a comment made by reader Chris Waugh on the previous post.

Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.

I do not. However, I do not give these superstructural factors primacy in my thought because all of those forms of identification or orientation are non-universal, whereas insertion in a capitalist class system rooted in the exploitation of wage labor is a universal constant. Hence I see modern Left praxis as rooted in a working class consciousness, broadly defined to include all forms of non-managerial wage labor and all ethnicities, genders and preferences.

Put it this way: consider a situation where there is a female hourly worker and a female CEO of a major firm. What identification comes first when they meet each other in the social division of labor? Will identifying as female be so strong that it will bridge the class gap between them? Or will their class determine their relationship in the first instance?

Perhaps gender solidarity will prevail, as could be the case with being gay, Indian, bisexual etc. But I am simply unsure that these identifications universally supersede the class element and therefore should replace it as a focus of Left praxis.

So there you have it. Not all of the Left is ineffectual but the political Left certainly is. A working class orientation is necessary and central to any Left praxis but not sufficient to encompass the myriad of non-class progressive causes that make up the post-industrial Left. Resolving these issues and reconciling the dilemmas inherent in them are what must be done for the Left to regain a significant place in the NZ political arena.

Whose Team New Zealand?

datePosted on 16:20, September 21st, 2013 by Pablo

As much as anybody I enjoy sports and competition, so much so that I enjoy watching top level competition in sports that I am unfamiliar with. I have therefore enjoyed watching the America’s Cup racing, not so much because of the nationality of the teams but because of the boat design, speed, tactics and seamanship involved. In fact, I am poorly placed to get worked up on patriotic grounds because as readers of my earlier post on liminality may remember, I have allegiances to several countries and divided loyalties as a result. Moreover, I believe patriotism to be the last (and best) refuge of political scoundrels so I endeavour to resist its emotional pull wherever I happen to be living.

In this America’s Cup series I am cheering for Team New Zealand because I know that it means a lot to New Zealand and very little to the US. Other than rugby, Kiwis tend to adopt a “David versus Goliath” approach to international team sports. They are not alone in this small country syndrome, as I have pointed out previously with regard to Uruguay and team sports other than soccer. But in New Zealand that syndrome extends beyond sports, including into the international political and economic arenas.

With regard to the America’s Cup, here in NZ there is live blow by blow coverage of every meter of every race, whereas in the US it is not being covered live anywhere except on boutique cable boating channels. Here it is front page news in every newspaper and news broadcast. In the US it barely rates a header in the sports section of big city newspapers, including that of the race venue San Francisco. Heck, in Texas high school football (the helmeted version) gets more coverage on a weekend than the America’s Cup has had in a year!

In the US most people do not give a darn that Larry Ellison indulges a billionaire fancy with a crew that includes only one American. Here people want to name their first born sons after Dean Barker. They also want that turncoat, traitorous preferably ex-kiwi Russell Coutts strung from the lanyard because he dared to work for the competition. In other words, Kiwis are heavily invested in the outcome whereas in the US they are not.

Or are Kiwis that heavily invested? From what I gather from video coverage of people watching the race live on television on the Auckland waterfront, there is hardly a brown face in the mix. The same goes for those Kiwis who have traveled to the America’s Cup Village in San Francisco. Pure pakeha pulsation throughout.

So where are the non-Pakeha kiwis when it comes to this race? Are they just not into sailing? If so, why not? Why is something that is so heavily promoted by the media and advertisers as a nationalistic rallying point having so little impact on non-Pakeha communities?

I ask because the New Zealand taxpayers have put $38 million into Team Emirates for this race series (both Labour and National support the expenditure). So whether or not they are emotionally invested in the racing, Kiwis are financially invested in it. The public expenditure was justified on grounds that the economic benefits to NZ of a future Cup defense in the event of a win would justify the investment (since winners get to name the venue for the next race). The narrow investment now is said to bring greater and broader future returns.

Besides the fact that no public consultation preceded the allocation of taxpayer money to Team Emirates, the issue of benefits is thorny. Even if Auckland benefits from hosting a future defense of the Cup (and that would mostly go temporarily to hoteliers, restaurants, bars and other service sector providers), what about the rest of the country? Other than Auckland based niche industries like boat-building and sail-making and a few high-end tourist locations and ventures, is it true that the country as a whole will benefit from the tax revenues generated by increased economic activity in Auckland? Do we really expect to believe that places like Ruatoki and Twizel will see direct benefit from an America’s Cup defense in Auckland?

It should be noted that Team Oracle USA received no public funds for its Cup defense, and that the redevelopment of the Embarcadero in San Francisco was a majority private venture that has not yielded the economic dividends to the city that were originally tabled by way of justification for holding the race there. So the “future benefits” argument is contentious at best, especially if drawn over the long-term. Yet spending public money on the challenge is seen as in the long-term NZ national interest.

Put another way, why is it that NZ taxpayers coughed up money for a yacht race campaign that not all New Zealanders care about and which relatively few New Zealanders will benefit from in the form of future uncertain economic returns in the event of a successful challenge this year? Since hosting the Cup defense will undoubtably include allocations of more taxpayer dollars to infrastructure and venue development, is this an appropriate use of public money? Given that the food in schools program receives just $10 million a year, could it not be argued that government priorities are a bit out of whack when it comes to long-term investment in the nation’s future?

Leftist conspiracy types will claim that the government subsidy for a small appeal elitist sport is designed to benefit its rich and upper middle class business supporters, nothing more. I would hope not, but then again I come back to the question of who in New Zealand is truly supporting the Cup challenge. Is the America’s Cup for the few or for the many? In the US it is for the few by the few, but here in NZ the issue appears a bit more complicated.

Anyway, I could be entirely wrong in my read and certainly do not have a good handle on the extent of support for the America’s Cup outside of what I have seen and heard in the media. Readers are welcome to ponder and comment on the issue.

Better to do that than to get started on the subject of host venue race time limits being enforced in low wind conditions on a day when a overwhelming match-winning victory by the challengers was in sight!

Identity is politics

datePosted on 22:04, August 29th, 2013 by Lew

(Or: How the activist left learned to stop worrying and love identity politics.)

Here and elsewhere I spend much time railing against the notion that “identity” is somehow distinct from “politics”, or that “identity politics” is anathema to the idealised “real politics” of class and ideology. I don’t accept that those with politicised identities — in our context most often women, Māori and LGBTI people — ought to fall in behind the straight white able-bodied men of The Cause on the understanding that The Cause will lend its support to their subordinate issues when the time is right. Moreover, I don’t accept that a person’s politics can meaningfully be divorced from their identity. Identity is politics. I am far from alone in these views.

Recently it has come to my attention that many of those who claim to oppose “identity politics” are pretty happy with it too, given the right circumstances. The contest between Grant Robertson, Shane Jones and David Cunliffe provides a good example.

Right out of the gate the contest was framed in terms of identity — Grant Robertson’s sexual identity. “Is New Zealand Ready For A Gay Prime Minister?”, the headlines asked, proceeding then to draw dubious links between unscientific vox-pops and the reckons of sundry pundits, all of whom were terribly keen to assure us that they, personally, were ready, even if the country isn’t yet. But while Robertson’s identity is what it is, his campaign is not an identity politics campaign in any meaningful way. In this it differs sharply from the campaigns of the other two contenders.

Shane Jones
Shane Jones is expressly running an identity politics campaign: he’s Māori, and his goal to win all five seven of the Māori electorates for Labour is one of many explicit appeals to his Māoritanga, and well he might appeal: it is an attribute sorely lacking among our political leaders, and a particularly stark omission in Labour, with its long claim to being the, um, native party of Māori.

But Jones’ Māoritanga isn’t the only identity pitch: he has made overt masculinity a part of his brand. When he came clean about charging pornographic movies to Parliamentary Services, his explanation was “I’m a red-blooded male”. He recently doubled down on this in relation to Labour’s proposed gender-equality measures, saying New Zealanders didn’t want “geldings” running the country, and that “it was blue-collar, tradie, blokey voters we were missing”. His value proposition for the Labour leadership is that he can expand the party’s electoral base into the archetypally-masculine realm of the “smoko room” where such voters are said to dwell. It seems likely that this strategy will alienate a good number of female voters into the bargain.

David Cunliffe
David Cunliffe’s identity pitch is doesn’t look like an identity pitch, because we’re not used to seeing identity pitches from straight white men. But identity politics isn’t the sole domain of women and minorities — the US Republican Party has been running a long identity politics campaign for most of a decade against Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Cunliffe’s claim is his identity as a guy who greets his supporters in a dozen different languages and whose announcement of a candidacy is greeted with a waiata, wearing a lei like it ain’t no thing. He is a mutual-second-best candidate for a bunch of different identity groupings — he’s male, but he has strong caucus support from Labour women, including his previous running-mate Nanaia Mahuta and marriage equality champion Louisa Wall. He’s straight, but he’s not homophobic or chauvinistic about it. He’s Pākehā, but his multicultural bona fides are clear, and he has strong support from Māori and Pasifika caucus members. He studied at Harvard, but he’s the working-class son of an Anglican minister. He’s comparatively young — Generation X — but not so young as to be seen as a whipper-snapper by the Baby Boomers. Homo Sapiens Aotearoan is David Cunliffe’s identity; a modern native of the biggest Pacific city in the world.

Grant Robertson
Grant Robertson’s campaign is quite unlike the others, which are pitched at the electorate, or parts of it. Robertson’s campaign is focused on unifying the Labour Party, on the basis that a unified party will be a more effective machine for building electoral support. His isn’t a pitch based around his individual brilliance or personal character, but his ability to organise, strategise, and forge an effective team out of his diverse and complicated group of colleagues. Robertson’s identity is a part of this — his advocacy and work in passing the marriage equality bill earlier in the year indicates where his politics lie, and make clear he’s no shirker — but this is by no means the focus.

And yet last night’s story by Brooke Sabin basically wrote Grant Robertson’s candidacy off on the basis of a series of ad-hoc buttonholes with workers at a union rally who apparently didn’t like that he was gay. Sabin reported that only two of the 40 people spoken to would support Robertson, and in the studio introduction to the piece anchor Hilary Barry inflated this to:

Labour leader hopeful Grant Robertson was dealt a blow today. Many in the religious and socially-conservative faction of the party, out in force at a rally this afternoon, don’t like that he’s gay, and won’t vote for him.

There are a swag of problems here: most obviously that repeatedly and urgently raising the issue (“not that there’s anything wrong with that”) sets the agenda. Further, the footage suggests that the only thing these vox pops were given to go on when assessing Grant Robertson’s fitness to be Prime Minister was that he was gay — so it was the only thing on the agenda. Worse yet; one respondent, when prompted to choose between Jones and Cunliffe, asked “Shane Jones … is he a gay too?” suggesting that not only was she not very well placed to make an informed assessment of the comparative merits of each candidate, but that asking her to do so anyway, taking her word as an indication of general union sentiment and then playing her naïve answer on national TV bordered on exploitation. (At least part of my assessment is shared by Neale Jones from the EPMU, who was there, and said on Twitter, “Sabin went around repeatedly badgering workers about whether they had a problem with Grant’s sexuality. Got story he wanted.”)

The Identity Agenda
Jones’ identity pitch is clear, and Cunliffe’s is less so, but not much less so. Robertson’s identity pitch is inferred from his sexuality and inflated. The only aspect of the archetypal “identity politics” candidate’s campaign which is focused on “identity politics” is the “ready for a gay PM” agenda, which is set by commentators and the media, outside Robertson’s control (but which he must tolerate, lest he be reframed as a “bitchy gay” rather than as the solidly masculine, rugby-playing sort we are possibly prepared to tolerate.)

So that’s ironic. But the deeper irony of this is that David Cunliffe is the darling of many of the people on the activist left who have railed most fiercely against “identity politics” all these years. (Check the list of endorsements here). There’s no policy to speak of in this contest — Cunliffe’s campaign is identity politics through and through, and yet the activist left loves him for it. I don’t think it’s unfair to observe that they love him, and they love it, because now it feels like their identity being prioritised in politics, as if it hasn’t ever been before. All that evil old “identity politics” they railed against before — the problem wasn’t that it was identity politics, but that it wasn’t their identity politics.

But I’m glad they love it. It works, after all. We have a strong sense of who David Cunliffe is, where he comes from and what motivates him, and that helps us understand, and more importantly to believe, his strategic vision and the policy platform he articulates. I think he genuinely does speak to a wider audience of potential Labour supporters than any recent leader, and that can only be a good thing for the party and the polity as a whole. If he wins, and I think he will, I hope it will go some distance to demonstrating that identity and ideology aren’t zero-sum; they’re complementary. Maybe once that realisation sinks in we’ll be really ready for a gay Prime Minister, or a Māori one.

Managing Expectations.

datePosted on 15:08, July 16th, 2013 by Pablo

A while back I wrote a series of posts on deconstructing democracy in which I noted that this form of rule ultimately rests on the consent of the majority, and that consent is not given once, forever, but instead is the contingent outcome of repeated conflict resolution efforts made at the political, social and economic levels. Because they are contingent, the three dimensions of consent are the subject of regular re-negotiation leading to collective compromises, the terms of which serve as the threshold of consent to which the majority must agree if democracy is to be consolidated and maintained over time.

The need for majority contingent consent in order to successfully reproduce democracy as both a political and social construct leads to self-limiting, incremental gains approaches on the part of groups and factions. The strategy is to advance sectoral fortunes via institutional means that ameliorate open conflict and facilitate the type of material and political compromises that reproduce mass contingent consent over time. Self-limiting and incremental gains approaches to realizing collective and individual interests are used in pursuit of mutual second best outcomes whereby all groups accept that attempts to maximize unilateral opportunities leads to collectively sub-optimal outcomes for the society at large.

Ideological and redistributive conflicts are denatured by the pursuit of the mutual second best, which in turn facilitates the achievement of material and political compromises that are reproducible over time. When that occurs, contingent compromises on matters of material and political interest frame public expectations of what are reasonable demands and achievable objectives on and by governments of the day.

That is why democracies are replete with calls for ideological moderation and centrist voting, and why they utilize institutions such as collective bargaining and compulsory arbitration when it comes to sectoral conflict.

In another series of posts I noted the problems inherent in transitional dynamics, which are the processes by which political regime change occurs. I wrote the posts early in the advent of the so-called Arab Spring, and I noted that bottom up transitions are not always revolutionary nor do they lead to democracy, and that top down transitions are more likely to result in negotiated and relatively peaceful devolution of political authority even if these too are not always, or even likely to be democratic. For those who may remember, I repeated the view that the interplay between opposition moderates and militants and regime hardliners and soft liners would most significantly influence the immediate outcome of a given transition, and that there would likely be a purgative phase following the transitional moment in which adherents of the old regime would be ostracized or victimized by supporters of the new one (if not the new regime itself). The latter is particularly true for countries with no historical experience with democratic forms of rule.

Needless to say, the Arab Spring and its sequels have tested these propositions and added a few new chapters to the regime transitions literature. But what continues to get relative short shrift, and which is a topic pertinent to any form of government that relies on majority support for its continuance in power, is the subject of managing expectations.

Achieving and maintaining the threshold of contingent majority consent requires management of public expectations of what is reasonable in terms of demands and what is achievable given the socio-economic and political context of the times. Resource availability, trade dependency, labor force skill base, nature of political representation and a host of other factors influence what are considered to be “reasonable” demands and “achievable” goals at any given point in time.

If individuals and groups concur on what is generally reasonable and achievable, mass contingent consent based upon self-limiting and incremental gains strategies leading to mutual second best outcomes is possible. Sectoral agreement on specific issues does not have to be uniform or absolute, and instead is the subject of institutionalized conflict resolution mechanisms involving debate and negotiation.

In democracies the key element in determining what is reasonable and achievable in a particular historical moment is government framing of the issues that condition individual and group approaches to making demands on political authority. Issue framing not only allows the government of the day to define the terms of debate about the specifics on which reasonable demands and achievable objectives are construed. It also allows the government to manage popular expectations as to what is and is not reasonable or achievable.

I mention this because one major problem for nascent regimes in the Middle East and elsewhere is and has been managing popular expectations of what can be delivered by a sudden move to electoral rule. “Democracy” means a lot of things to a lot of people, from unfettered freedom of expression to free blue jeans and TV sets. Many envision democracy as being a panoply of rights unencumbered by responsibility, to include the need for tolerance of others whose views, persuasion or traits are not congruent with one’s preferred world view.

The rush away from authoritarianism also has a tendency to encourage demagogic promise-making on the part of political contenders that has little relation to (or bearing on) what can be reasonably demanded on or achieved by the new regime. The syndrome is compounded when the incoming elite has little knowledge of, much less training or skills in the complexities of macroeconomic management, social policy, international diplomacy and trade or a myriad of other areas of government responsibility. Sometimes the best opposition leaders are the least qualified to govern.

The combination sets up the scenario of failed expectations: new political regimes based on popular support often fail to adequately manage expectations so as to give themselves time to learn the intricacies of their position and to establish priorities as to what can be reasonably demanded and achieved. Popular demands for short-term remedies and immediate material gains outweigh the regime’s capacity to deliver on what was promised, much less what was implicitly expected at the moment of transition. That produces a withdrawal of mass consent and a reversion to first-best or maximalist group strategies that lead to non-institutionalized mass collective conflict. This has been evident in Egypt and, with some significant differences in terms of the specifics of what is being debated and the intensity with which it is being contested, is also apparent in Turkey.

In established democracies the issue of managing expectations has roots not so much in what is immediately promised but in what has been historically delivered. The longer and more deeply embedded the concepts of reasonable and achievable are in the public consciousness, the more difficult it is to significantly alter downwards the threshold of mass contingent consent. Should democratic governments move to redraw the concepts of reasonable and achievable in order to downgrade or reduce the combined threshold of consent, the more likely it will be the non-institutionalized collective conflict will result. That has been the case in Greece and Spain.

In light of all of this, the National government in New Zealand has a challenge on its hands. Since the late 1990s the move to narrow the definition of citizenship rights and entitlements (the subject of yet another earlier post) has responded to incrementally applied corporate logics on the subject of collective demands in market driven climates of fiscal austerity in which reduction in state-provided public goods is seen as a basic requisite for economic competitiveness. The objective is to diminish public expectations of what is reasonably achievable and what can be reasonably demanded in a small open market economy.

The effort to reforge collective identities, at least with regards to public expectations of what is reasonable and achievable, has been largely successful. That has help lower the threshold of mass contingent consent in contemporary Aotearoa to levels that more closely approximate those of Asia than those of Europe or the Americas, and which are a far cry from those that existed before Rogernomics was imposed.

Even so, there is a limit to the downgrading of the threshold of consent and National appears to be approaching it. Be it the non-response to the Pike River or Rena disasters, the third world response to the Christchurch earthquake, the passing of legislation under urgency, the attempts to intimidate the media on both large and small issues (such as the Tea Cup affair or the personal denigration of Jon Stephenson because of his critical writing about the NZDF in Afghanistan), the focus on maximizing trade opportunities rather than affordable domestic consumption, the penchant for secrecy rather than transparency in policy-making, or even the arrogance and indifference of the PM when it comes to important questions about his leadership (epitomized by his repeated brain fades and his holidaying in the US rather than attending the funeral of NZ war dead), the combined effect may be that there comes a point where he and his government can no longer manage public expectations with a smile and a wave.

I am not sure when it will come or what that tipping point may be precipitated by, but it seems that we are well down the path towards a public withdrawal of consent to this government. It certainly will not look like the events in Athens, Cairo, Istanbul or Madrid, and the opposition may not have the ability to capitalize on the moment of opportunity provided it by public repudiation of the narrow definition of what is reasonable, achievable and expected of government, but it seems to me that the debased threshold of mass contingent consent has reached its limits in New Zealand.

The question is whether, should it eventuate, the withdrawal of consent in New Zealand will be confined to “manageable” institutional channels focused on specific aspects of the three dimensions on which it is given, or whether it will evolve into something more.

 

Recognising the enemy

datePosted on 09:46, April 18th, 2013 by Lew

Last night the New Zealand parliament voted 77-44 on the third reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, passing it into law. The strategy I wrote about after the first reading has been spectacularly successful, and marriage equality will be a reality as soon as the bill receives the royal assent.

There were many powerful speeches last night. Louisa Wall discussed the spectrum of cultural traditions around sexual and gender diversity, and called a huge roll of supporters from almost every corner of the political compass.

Maurice Williamson lampooned the supposed “gay onslaught”, celebrated the “big gay rainbow” that had appeared in his electorate this morning as a sign, and hilariously used his training in physics to calculate the amount of time a person of his mass and humidity would burn for in the fires of Hell. “I will last for just on 2.1 seconds — it’s hardly eternity, what do you think?”

Tau Henare gave his old party leader Winston Peters a lesson in political history, why referenda aren’t the answer to everything, and why exactly he is no longer a member of the New Zealand First party.

Mojo Mathers spoke of the pride she felt when her daughter attended the school formal with her girlfriend. And following the vote, in scenes that have been viewed all around the world, the House stood and broke into song.

There were others. But for me the heaviest work of the night was done by Kevin Hague, who got to the very heart of enmity to this bill, and to this cause in general. I’ve quoted him at length, emphasis mine:

“I remember travelling to Auckland’s North Shore to protest against one of our opponents, Pastor Richard Flynn, who called publicly for homosexuals like me to be put to death. Over the years I have campaigned hard for the right of our communities to not be outsiders any more, to assume a full place in New Zealand society. With every new reform, the same group uses the same strategy, raising fears of terrible consequences which always fail to materialise.
[...]
“Mr Speaker, that’s why this bill is about so much more than achieving equality under the law, a basic human right that has been denied us until this day. It’s about saying ‘these lives matter: our society is big enough for us all.’ With this bill, our parliament stretches out its arms to my communities and says ‘our society is big enough for you, too — you belong, unequivocally, and without compromising who you are.’

“When the debate started, I thought all of the people like Richard Flynn had thankfully gone. The early comments from opponents were refreshingly free from fire and brimstone. There is no doubt that New Zealand has grown up over the past 27 years, as we have become a more modern, vibrant, and pluralistic society. But as the debate has worn on we have seen the re-emergence of a hard core whose opposition to this bill has lost its veneer of reasonableness. Their problem with this bill is that they believe that we gay and lesbian people are morally inferior. They don’t want to include us as as full participants in New Zealand society. They recognise — correctly — what full legal equality, what this signal means. And they don’t like it.

Kevin Hague’s measured words and calm delivery obscure a stark and clear-sighted analysis: This is war. The enemy does not regard us as human, and they never will, so we must defeat them utterly. When it comes to GLBTI people, adherents to this creed of brimstone will be satisfied with nothing less than extermination and erasure: they are an existential threat. Although it is often couched in such terms, beneath the veneer theirs is not a rational objection founded in philosophy or pragmatism, in science or honest assessment of tradition; it is simply fear and hatred that burns like the fires they preach. This is not confined to the religious sphere — variants of the brimstone creed exist within secular society, and across a broad ideological spectrum, but they share extremism in common. Much of the discourse around marriage equality, and much of the discourse around related matters, rests on ignoring, minimising or mocking those who stand up for the brimstone creed, but the brilliance of Kevin’s analysis is that he meets them — and it — kanohi ki te kanohi, staring it in the face and recognising it for what it is.

But marriage equality won because it isn’t just an issue for GLBTI people. Ghettoising it as a “gay issue”, (as feminism for generations has been ghettoised as a “women’s issue” and racial equality has been ghettoised as a “black” or a “brown issue”) was a delaying strategy that worked for a time. But no longer. Marriage equality passed because a bill introduced by a gay Māori woman was supported not only by gay Māori women, but by men and women, young and old, homosexuals and heterosexuals and bisexuals, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, atheists and agnostics and Christians and Muslims, Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, Chinese and Indians.

All of us who believe in a just society, and an equal society, who believe in a place where ancient prejudices, cultural inertia or the maintenance of privilege cannot justify erasure must fight these battles too. The brimstone creed isn’t just an existential threat to “teh gays” — it is an existential threat to a free and decent society, and we will not have won until we defeat them utterly. There are many more battles like this, and with the clear vision and fierce determination of people like Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague, I am strangely optimistic about fighting them.

L

Pick a side

datePosted on 09:15, April 6th, 2013 by Lew

Commenter Chris (not THAT Chris), says:

For all I know, [Dame Susan Devoy] may be a complete dud, or a wonderful race relations mediator. But whatever she is, you are being totally unrealistic passing judgement on her because she refused to appear on TV within a day of starting her (part-time) job.

Well, no. A part-time job that pays $270k per year? Someone appointed to a role like this should not need on-the-job training to be able to answer basic questions about it. Nobody is asking for detailed policy analysis or in-depth engagement with specific issues — only for broad discussion in principle, so we can get a sense of where she stands, and how her qualifications on race relations differ from those of some random person down the pub.

On previous performance I’d have thought there wasn’t that much to distinguish her from someone down the pub on these issues. But recently Toby Manhire dug up this wee gem from her autobiography, in which she reveals that the only thing preventing her from playing the “sunshine circuit” in apartheid South Africa was the threat of sponsorship being cancelled and that “media coverage could damage my reputation in this country.”

She also doesn’t think sports boycotts helped the situation there. Here are two people who do:

Dame Susan’s words were probably written in 1992, and it is possible she holds a different view now. I hope someone will ask her. But by 1992 the end of apartheid was already nigh, several years of negotiations to end it having already been undertaken between the government of FW de Klerk and Nelson Mandela (who had been out of prison since 1990). South Africa fielded a “non-racial” team at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona — the first Olympics it had been permitted to compete in since 1960. The notion that sport had not been an important factor in its end is simply not credible, and was not credible in 1992 either.

So I know whose side I’m on. Still, it beats the Prime Minister’s claim that he didn’t know what side he was on. At least Dame Susan is open about her ignorance of the issue.

L

False Dichotomies and Binary Simplification.

datePosted on 16:46, February 22nd, 2013 by Pablo

One of the most useful analytic constructs in social science is the so-called “great dichotomy.” The idea is to distill an argument into a series of either/or propositions for the purposes of explanatory clarity. The point is not to see the world in binary fashion, as if all matters of social import can be reduced to good/evil, black/white propositions. Instead, the idea is to break down the logical and epistemological sequence embedded as component parts in any particular argument, particularly those of a normative nature. One can then deduce the overall strength of the case being made based on the logical consistency of those parts.

Scholars understand that complex realities are not reducible to mere dichotomies. But using the great dichotomy as part of a methodological approach to social science helps separate that which is relatively binary in nature and that which is a bit more complex. For example, X kills B. One dichotomous question, answerable with a simple yes or no, would be “was X drunk at the time?” That in turn can help illuminate the question as to why X chose to kill, as in “X killed Y after he caught Y in bed with his partner after being out on the piss all night.” The follow-up question would then be “would he have killed if he was not drunk?” If the answer is “yes,” then alcohol is not a significant contributing or mitigating factor. Although there is more to that sorry tale, the use of a dichotomous approach allows focus to narrow on its more complex aspects. That is the stuff of social science explanation. The key is to understand that dichotomous approaches are analytic tools designed to get to the gist of an issue, but are not meant to accurately represent or explain by themselves a larger and more complex question. They help remove extraneous clutter and provide better backdrop clarity on a given issue.

In contrast, binary or dyadic simplification is the practice of reducing explanations of social phenomena to an either/or, good/bad, black/white proposition. Not only is this a practice that deviates from the original mathematical use. It is one that ignore complex realities and which can lead to the construction of false dichotomies that impede clear and rational understanding of the subject in question. The danger of binary simplification is that it not only provides easy answers to complex problems for the intellectually lazy or dishonest. It also provides them with easy enemies and scapegoats because it poses the dichotomy as a zero sum proposition: things that are bad in the world or with which they disagree are the result of some other’s actions, and those actions are inimical, dangerous or otherwise contrary to their preferred version of reality. Thus the “other” must be resisted, vilified and in some cases defeated.

The real sad part is that many people, perhaps most people, are prone to accept binary explanations for complex phenomena. Thus we hear things like “guns do not kill people, people do,” “if gays are allowed to marry than marriage means nothing,” “feminism destroyed the family unit and has made men into girly boy eunuchs,” “abortion is murder,” or “you are either with us or against us.” These are one-line explanations for multi-volume problems or, said differently, comic book answers to complex questions.

I am prompted to write this in light of some stupid remarks in our own comment threads and another one-liner that made the rounds in the aftermath of Mr. Prosser’s cretinous opinions about Muslims. The one-liner, which was bandied about on the comment threads of right-wing blogs as well as those of the NBR goes as follows: “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.”

I will not dwell on how ignorant that remark is. I will just point out that, among others, the IRA, the Oklahoma City bombers, the Red Army Faction, assorted Latin American guerrilla groups, Greek anarchists, the Tamil Tigers and–dare I say it–a host of non-Muslim governments practice terrorism on a regular and often sustained basis. Yet it is that binary simplification that allows people like Mr. Prosser to believe that actions such as banning Muslim (or presumably Muslim looking, whatever that is) men from boarding planes is the solution to the terrorist problem (and I should point out that the practice of using planes as guided missiles or blowing up commercial airliners did not start with Muslims).

What I find most interesting is that those most prone to adopting binary simplistic approaches to social explanation, to include the construction of false dichotomies in order to make their arguments, tend to inhabit the (dare I say dyadic?) extremes of the ideological spectrum. Those on the Left blame everything on corporate greed while those on the Right blame everything on socialism. White supremacists see evil advancing along racial lines, something that is reciprocated by those who think that only white people can be racist and the plight of non-whites is entirely the fault of white guys, colonial or modern. The arguments on each end blend together depending on the specific subject being addressed (such as arguments in NZ that Pakeha corporate elites or brown dole-bludging treaty troughers are the source of all ruin). In any case, their common bottom line is an absurd reductionism that poses the world in falsely dichotomous, binary terms.

Sadly, people can make a name for themselves by playing the binary simplification game. This is very evident in political blogs and the rhetoric of the ideological extreme. It also is a common tool for politicians of all stripes. The media gravitates to such people because it prefers simple sound bites and one-liners to complex explanations. After all, there is only so much information one can put into a 700 word story or 3 minute video spot. As a result, the practice of binary simplification becomes commonplace and widely accepted as expert commentary or even “truth.”

For a guy who lives in a multivariate universe in which multiple explanations compete for my understanding of what occurs to and around me, it is depressing to think that we are increasingly governed by those who trade in binary simplification and false dichotomies.

Then again, perhaps the beginning of  an explanation for that can itself be posed as a great dichotomy.

 

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