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Letters from America: Opioids and Venezuelans.

datePosted on 08:22, August 3rd, 2017 by Pablo

I am on an extended stay in the US that will see me in several states and regions before my return to NZ in December. I decided that this is a good opportunity to write an occasional “Letters from America” series gathering together random thoughts on various aspects of US politics, society and culture. First stop is the East Coast of South Florida.

Late summer in South Florida is hot (over 30C daytime temps), humid (over 80 percent until the PM thunderstorms break the steam bath), and languidly quiet. Tourists are few and far between and the locals alternate hiding from the heat indoors with forays to the beach or pool.

The two items on my mind today are opioids and Venezuela. Since the latter might not seem to be an US relevant subject, let me start with it.

Venezuela is in the middle of a slow burning civil war sparked by deteriorating economic and social conditions caused by the incompetence, corruption and myopic power lust of the Maduro government that succeeded the father of the Boliviarian Revolution, Hugo Chavez, upon his death. Unlike many non-Venezuelan leftist commentators I have no time for Maduro and the petty authoritarian kleptocrats that surround him just because he opposes the US and the US opposes him.  He is just another prop in the endless right-wing arguments about how the Left cannot govern either competently or in a democratic way. As much as I loathe the Venezuelan oligarchy that has always been a disloyal opposition to the Boliviarians, I despair for the Venezuelan poor, working and middle classes who saw hope in the Revolution and have now had their aspirations terminally dashed under a barrage of water cannon, tear gas, sniper fire, rocks and molotovs. The root causes and official responses to the crisis are not just the work of external interference and internal agitators (sound familiar?).

Blame lies everywhere in Venezuela today, but no one will take responsibility and the regime has simply met its end with the last resort of dictators–repression. What comes after may be no better, or worse.

The reason that Venezuela is a social issue in South Florida as well as a political issue in the US is simple: there are over 100,000 Venezuelans living in South Florida, many recent arrivals as “refugees” from the Boliviarian regime. Many moved their capital and as much of their fixed assets to the US as they could (capital flight being a key indicator of political instability), bought property in a climate that is similar to that of their homeland, and struck up political alliances with the long-standing Cuban exile community. Like minds think alike, and the type of Cubans and Venezuelans who inhabit South Florida come from the reactionary-to-troglydite end of the political spectrum.

The union of Cuban and Venezuelan reactionaries, coupled with the money they bring into local, state and national politics, has been instrumental in turning the Trump administration’s approach to both countries in a backwards direction. The Cuban-Venezuelan lobbying bloc is staunchly pro-Trump. Not surprisingly, the restored relations with Cuba begun by the Obama administration have been partially rolled back, and the US has just announced asset freezes and other punitive sanctions against Maduro and members of his personal entourage wherever US jurisdiction applies. The White House has been at pains to note that Maduro joins Mugabe, Kim Jung-Un and Assad as the only heads of state sanctioned in this way, and the way in which the farcical and rigged constitutional referendum was held in Venezuela this past weekend was likened to assorted atrocities committed under Stalinism, Pol Pot etc. No mention of the US glad-handing the Saudis, Erdogan in Turkey or Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sissi even as they engage in more egregious human rights violations than Maduro on a systematic basis. But hey, as a general rule politics in the US is about hypocrisy loudly masquerading as righteousness or indignation, so in that regard the White House sqwaking about Maduro (who again, is not a fit or suitable ruler for his country) needs to be taken with a grain of comparative salt.

There is a more sinister element in this “Venezuelafication” of South Florida. Although one of my pleasures in returning to SoFl is to have access to many Spanish-speaking radio and TV channels (including the legendary “Escandalo (Scandal) TV”), what pours out of the talk shows is an increasingly violent insurrectionary call to eliminate “traitors,” “dupes” and assorted others who are seen to enable or support the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes both at home as well as in the US. This has meshed with the alt-Right narrative about “libtards” and other usurpers of the White Christian social order because many of the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles are also virulent racists and classists who view the poor brown masses in their homelands as human vermin equivalent to those reviled by the US Right. And because the Cuban and Venezuelan regimes, whatever their faults,have  empowered brown people in their countries and removed some of the deep-seated social and institutional barriers to their success, the White Cubans and Venezuelans see red in more than one way.

What that has done is to compliment and expand the rhetoric of violence surrounding political debate in SoFl. And whereas it may have been true in the past that “an armed crowd is a polite crowd,” that presumed that the crowd in question had some basic shared notion of civility and proper comportment to fall back on when things got heated. Under Trump that is no longer the case and in fact the opposite is now openly encouraged: give no quarter to political opponents, hear, much less heed no argument from them, confront and attack them at all times using all means necessary to silence them.

Then add some Cuban and Venezuelan mouth frothing ranters with money and influence into the mix. The bottom line is that local and state democracy suffers when expat revanchists take center stage in it.

Were it that I was inclined to seek escape in prescription drugs because it would inure me to the dangers inherent in that trend. But others are not as averse as I.  Over 2 million Americans are addicted to prescription opioids (mostly Oxycontin, Vicodin and Methadone). Over 1000 people a day are hospitalised with opioid overdoses, and 100 people a day are dying of them. In 2015, the last year for full records, over 15,000 people died of opioid overdoses, with 183,000 having died between 1999 and 2015. In 2016 the estimated number of opioid overdose deaths jumped to over 59,000 people, the largest increase ever. Even so, the sale of prescription drugs has quadrupled, along with overdose deaths, during the 1999-2015 time frame. Why is this so?

The first cause is the proliferation of shady “pain clinics” in which unethical doctors hand out prescriptions for opioids like lollies. The process if simple: you walk into the clinic complaining of chronic pain of one type or another, you get a script in less than 10 minutes for a $30-40 fee, and the cycle continues after you leave the clinic and enter the pharmacy conveniently located either next door or a few storefronts down from the clinic (usually located in strip malls).  SoFl is awash with these places, and it is not a stretch say that it is easier to get one’s hands on opioids than it is cocaine, cannabis or other illegal drugs.

The second cause is the discounting of opioid prices in states and regions that have an opioid addiction problem. You read that right: pharmaceutical companies sell their drugs at cheaper prices in those regions where addiction rates are highest. What might these regions be? Well, pretty much all of those Red States that voted strongly for Trump, Florida included. Think Ohio, Indiana, Missouri, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, the Dakotas, West Virgina–if the state went strong for Trump, it is likely that the price of a Vicodin is less than that in a Blue State.

Who are the victims of opioid addiction? Again, the connection with Trump’s voter base is strong: predominantly white working class or unemployed/partially employed males aged 25-54 years (most of the figures used here are from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention–CDC).

In the face of these epidemic-sized addiction figures, the attorney generals of several states in which the problem is concentrated have filed class action suits against the pharmaceutical companies for their price discounting and targeted marketing of vulnerable populations. But resistance has already been met at the federal level, with GOP congress people rebuking those who would seek to interfere with market imperatives and the freedom of choice people have when it comes to self-medication.

The problem does not end there. The rise in addiction has in turn given rise to a thriving “rehab” industry in which addicts enter into so-called “sober homes” in order to detox. Trouble is, these sober homes are often no more than temporary way stations for addicts trying to kick the habit and pain clinics and pushers have been drawn to them like flies to poop. In many cases “sober homes” are nothing more than glorified shooting galleries, with the attendant rise in criminality associated with the phenomenon. Cities throughout the US but especially in SoFl, including the one I am in, have had to redraft zoning and occupancy laws in order to discourage these type of addiction parasites from continuing to profit from human misery.

So there you have it: a country whose internal political polarization is abetted by that imported from abroad, filtering into a society that in many places is awash in guns and prescription drugs unscrupulously  supplied by industries profiting from them. These same places provide the core demographic–the hard 35 percent–of Trump’s support base who are the ones who support his every move, including demands for regime change in Cuba and Venezuela and a turn against the notions of civility and democratic disocurse that previously served as the ideological myth that once bound the nation together.

The trouble for this “Deplorables” core, as well as the Cuban and Venezuelan exiles longing for a return to the pre-revolutionary past, is that Trump’s promises are nothing more than the prescription drug version of a pipe dream.

The problem of US presidentialism.

datePosted on 16:34, February 27th, 2017 by Pablo

Citizens of mature democracies frequently complain about politics and politicians, whether it is the influence of money in politics, the rise of corporate lobbyists, or outright corruption, but they often simultaneously retain a strong faith in the actual political institutions that govern over them. The citizens of the United States are no exception in this regard. More often than not they hold a genuine belief that their system of government itself, framed as it is by a constitution written over two hundred years ago, is fundamentally good.

What exactly is it that our American friends believe to be good, even superior, about their system of government? It is founded on a division of powers that is supposed to guard against radical or rapid-fire policy-making, an in-built conservatism that is compounded by federalism. Presidential power is checked by Congress, and presidentialism, it is argued, is further superior to parliamentarianism because electoral terms are fixed, meaning that they can’t be messed about with for political purposes. Supporters of the US system will even work to defend the politically appointed nature of the public administration in terms of democratic accountability, cutting across the power of the career bureaucrat who runs rings around members of parliament in an effort to expand his or her own power base.

The Trump presidency has defied those conventions to the point that people are talking about an incremental or “quiet coup” in the US. The concern is that his circumvention of traditional White House practice is designed to consolidate power in the Oval Office at the expense of the legislature and judiciary. But there is more to it than rule by decree: the problem with President Trump’s behavior rests partially with him and partially with the system that allowed him access to power.

Beyond the pernicious influence of corporate money and the venal nature of the Beltway elite, the first two weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency shows that something is rotten about the state of the US political system. Institutions are only as good as the customs, practices, and arguably even the wider political culture in which they are embedded. The rule of law, it turns out, is not as robust as the myth would have it, at least not when it comes to placing restraints of Executive Authority. What many have assumed were legal requirements surrounding the behaviour of a US president are in fact only long-term practices, traditions, and even “understandings” that President Trump has wasted no time ignoring. Add the fact that every other President in modern history was disciplined into exercising political self-limiting behaviour through experience with public service of some kind, which Trump does not have as a personal or professional attribute, and then it is fair to say that the system of government itself is in a state of decay.

The premise upon which the US presidential edifice once stood was the notion of executive self-limitation (or self-restraint). A core tenant of democracy, self-limitation in the presidency means that the president will not stretch or ignore customary norms to advance his own agenda, nor will he put his interests above those of the nation. The assumption is that once president, individuals will subordinate their own interests to those of the nation even if it means refraining from taking advantage of the office for personal or abjectly partisan gain. Even if historical practice has shown that presidents push the margins of this tradition, none have shown such a blatant disregard for it as has Mr. Trump.

This points to a fundamental weakness of the US presidential system. Rather than being constrained by strong institutional boundaries and legally defined limits to what can and cannot be done, the US presidency assumes goodwill and an interest in consensus and compromise in pursuit of collective good on the part of those who occupy the Oval Office. In past practice, that has largely been the case. Those who have taken the oath of presidential office have voluntarily fitted into the strait jacket of institutional weight and national history and have generally conducted themselves within the customary limits of Executive Authority.

The customary limits of US presidential authority rest on horizontal and vertical accountability. The former involves executive accountability to the other branches of government. The latter involves presidential accountability to the electorate, the media and the federal bureaucracy under executive control. The assumption is that presidents will acknowledge their responsibilities on both dimensions and act accordingly when it comes to issues of transparency and oversight.

That is not the case now. President Trump has set out to redefine limits of presidential authority in order to implement his campaign platform unchecked by either form of accountability. He has ignored Congress, challenged (and vilified) the courts and federal agencies when signing executive orders or pushing his version of events and has selectively turned on the media with the full weight of his office (since, among other media-related issues, providing such things as regular and open briefings to the entire White House press corps is a courtesy, not a requirement). He claims that he speaks directly and answers to “the people” alone and that his actions in office are justified by his electoral mandate. This represents an example of what Spanish political sociologist Juan Linz called the “authoritarian temptation” of presidential systems: those in presidential office can, if they wish, use that office to impose by executive fiat unilateral approaches to policy-making while ignoring the conventional trappings of presidential accountability (before dispensing with them altogether). As the first amongst equals, the president can ignore or by-pass Congress when expedient and can seek out judges that will uphold his policy vision under legal challenge (and look to replace replace those that do not). And since it is the president who appoints senior staff throughout the US federal bureaucracy, it is the president’s unvarnished wishes and desires that are channeled first when it comes to translating policy into practice.

In other words, presidential systems facilitate the rise of what is known as “electoral authoritarianism” whereby a freely elected democratic president uses the privileges of office (such as Executive Orders and Decrees) to consolidate power at the expense of the other two branches in order to then unilaterally impose undemocratic policies on society. From Peron to Chavez to Dutarte to Mugabe and Putin, the historical record is replete with cases of presidential systems that started out as freely elected but inevitably turned authoritarian while maintaining a façade of electoral legitimacy and some measure of populist appeal.

This is an inherent flaw of presidential systems as much if not more than that of any one individual.

In the case of president Trump there is a twist, and its name is Steve Bannon, the president’s closest advisor. The former publisher of the white supremacist, anti-Semitic conspiracy web site Breitbart, who was a link between Russian operatives and the Trump camp during the campaign, has been appointed White House chief strategist and made a Principal of the National Security Council at the expense of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Director of National Intelligence (both of whom were demoted). Having previously spoken of “smashing the system” and author of the phrase “draining the swamp,” Bannon sees Trump as an empty vessel into which he can pour his ideological agenda. It was Bannon and another former Breitbart editor, Steve Miller, who wrote both the dark Inaugural Address (“carnage in America”) and the Executive Order banning refugees and citizens of seven Muslim-majority states. It is Bannon who shapes the Trump worldview and who sets the policy agenda in the West Wing.

Bannon sees the world as immersed in an apocalyptic struggle between traditional Western values and usurpers from Asia and the Middle East. He sees liberal democracies as weak and ineffectual, trying to be all things to all people and masters of none. His vision foresees a final confrontation between the dark forces aligned against the West and the last bastions standing to defend it: the US and Russia. In fact, he has predicted and advocated for US wars with China and Islam on the premise that the US has arrived at its “4th Turning:” a period, like the Revolutionary, Civil and Second World Wars, where the US remakes itself via existential conflict into a new and revitalized state after a period of economic, cultural, social and political decline. Since Bannon believes that the US retains a measure of strategic superiority over both of these perceived rivals at this point in time but is at risk of losing that advantage, his timeline for war is short and his preferred approach is to initiate conflict while the US strategic advantage still holds.

Bannon understands the weakness of presidential systems that rely on self-limiting voluntarism for commonweal governance. He knows that presidential systems allow for much more executive initiative and discretion when pursing policy, including the use of force. He sees a window of opportunity in the form of a Republican controlled Congress with a self-serving leadership and a disorganized Democratic opposition.

In view of these institutional conditions, rather than honor tradition he has moved to exploit it. Trump serves as the perfect vehicle for his shadow agenda and the Republican Party plays along because it feels that it can get something in exchange (such as presidential support for its legislative agenda, including repeal of abortion rights and the Affordable Care Act as well as pro-business tax reform).

Bannon would not have as much influence if he was not operating in a presidential democracy in which custom and tradition rather than legally defined codes of conduct were the norm. In fact, without legally defined institutional constraints, norms are not enforceable when incumbents decline to engage in self-limiting behavior.

In the US presidential system the only real check on executive authority is the court system. Although Congress can pass laws that compel or otherwise restrict aspects of presidential behavior (like the current bill requiring Steve Bannon’s appointment to the NSC be subject to Congressional approval), the highly partisan nature of the US federal legislature, including on the subject of presidential impeachment, makes passage of such legislation difficult and subject to legal challenge and/or reversal. In the unlikely event that Congress orders the president to adopt a specific norm or practice, the matter will inevitably wind up in court.

So the court system has the last say on how US presidents should behave, but that is on a case-by-case basis. Moreover, in truth US courts are more arenas of contestation that determinants of adjudication. The real check on executive behavior comes in the form of litigation (and the threat thereof), but in order to litigate the limits of presidential power, legal challenges must be phenomenally well funded and argued. Even state governments may find themselves unable to sustain legal challenges to executive action in the face of the federal authorities’ determination to defend presidential prerogatives. Public interest groups, law societies, religious,ethnic, business and labour organisations, NGOs and CSOs have even less resources with which to fight the Executive Branch, so the path of legal challenge is institutionally skewed in the president’s favour.

All of which is to say that Donald Trump’s behavior as president is as much due to the nature of the political system into which he is inserted as much as it is due to his sociopathic personality.

This does not mean that parliamentarianism is always the preferred democratic system. Many variables come into play when determining which system of representation is best suited for a given polity. But what is clear is that custom and practice are no substitute for the rule of law when it comes to government institutions as well as citizens, and in that regard, it is the system not the people who have failed when it comes to preventing the excesses now dominating the White House.

This essay began as an exchange of notes with Kate Nicholls, who teaches at AUT.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

“Culture wars” as election year bait trapping.

datePosted on 12:31, May 16th, 2016 by Pablo

One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.

In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.

The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.

The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.

And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).

These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.

The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.

The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.

That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move?  Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?

If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?

If I was a Democratic strategist I would urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed  people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.

Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).

The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.

Media Link: Brussels’ heart of darkness.

datePosted on 19:56, March 23rd, 2016 by Pablo

I wrote a short opinion piece in the Herald outlining some of my thoughts about the Brussels terrorist attacks. Unless the root causes of the problem are addressed, there will be no end to them. Even if they overlap in the form of foreign fighters, those root causes primarily reside in the disaffection and alienation produced by socio-economic and cultural grievances at home rather than in the conflicts of the Middle East. The solution is to be proactive as well as reactive to the threat posed by domestic radicalisation, and that involves social reform as well as better human intelligence collection in the communities from which home-grown jihadists emerge.

Culture, strategy and an end to the phony war

datePosted on 08:07, August 14th, 2014 by Lew

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, in business and elsewhere, culture eats strategy for lunch.

Nicky Hager’s latest book Dirty Politics (which I haven’t read, but here’s Danyl’s summary) seems certain to cause a strategic shift in the electoral landscape. It should give credence to some of the left’s claims about the National party, and turn public and élite scrutiny on the character and activities of the Prime Minister and his closest aides, including his apparently-extensive irregular corps of bin men, turd-mongers and panty-sniffers. To do so is probably its primary purpose, and the timing and cleverly-built hype around the book reflects this.

But what I hope is that it also produces a cultural shift in New Zealand politics — weakening, or at least rendering more transparent, the intrigue and back-room, or back-door, dealing that characterises this sort of politics.

The book apparently alleges that the Prime Minister’s office is at the heart of a broad network of nefarious intelligence and blackmail, where they collect and hold a lien over the career or private life of everyone close to power. Nobody is their own person; everyone is owned, to some extent, by the machine. Patrick Gower wrote before the 2011 election that John Key owns the ACT party, and Hager’s book seems to substantiate this, detailing how they forced Hide’s resignation, in favour of Don Brash.

That is culture, not strategy, and it exerts considerable influence on those over whom the lien is held.

Immediately upon the book’s release, Cameron Slater noted that some journalists, and some Labour and Green MPs, would be getting nervous. Well, good. If there has emerged some sort of mutual-assured destruction pact to manage this culture, ending it could be Nicky Hager’s lasting contribution to New Zealand. Let the comfortable and the cozy live in fear for a bit. This includes Kim Dotcom, who claims to hold such intrigue against the Prime Minister, and is the target of a similar campaign, though it remains in abeyance.

This is a phony war about preserving the position of political élites on both sides of the ideological divide, to the general detriment of the sort of politics we actually need as a nation. Unlike the original MAD pact, we don’t risk the end of the world if this all blows up — we just might get our political and media systems cleaned out.

At least that’s the theory. I’m not very optimistic — cultural systems are sticky and resilient, and clearly many people have much invested in them. As we have seen with bank bailouts and phone hacking, the system can’t be destroyed from outside, and the influence wielded applies also to anyone who might be called upon to investigate.

The final point is about intelligence and security. The book alleges that the Prime Minister’s office released information from the Security Intelligence Service to these people, and that National staffers illicitly accessed Labour’s computers. The documents that form Hager’s source material also were apparently illicitly obtained from Cameron Slater’s website during an outage. That’s probably the most serious cultural indicator: sometimes you have to fight fire with fire. We are well beyond due for a serious discussion about the acceptable bounds of espionage, leakage and spying, and if Nicky Hager’s book generates this debate, he will have done Aotearoa a great service.

L

“Its OK–He’s Maori.”

datePosted on 14:50, January 10th, 2014 by Pablo

For me the most distressing part of the video of the drunk nine year old made public a few days ago was not so much his addled state, the nonchalant comments of the other kids with him, the RTD that was supplied to him or the adult that did the supplying. Nor am I interested in whether the cameraman has some sort of agenda that motivated the video.

What bothers me most is the above remark by an older teenager who was at the skate park at the time of the incident, and who is seen on tape commenting aggressively about the videotaping (by a Pakeha) of the young drunk. The nine year old and teenager are, indeed, Maori, as were the other kids in the video.

I am not sure what to make of the comment. Was it just some stupid remark by a flippant youth? Or is there something deeper going on here? If the latter, is that more reflective of the individual teenager who said it or is there something collective at play? Is this a case of self-loathing, hopelessness, bravado or self-exemption enunciated in a simple phrase and if so, is it confined to this particular kid or that group of kids? Why would he offer such a response when confronted by a stranger remonstrating about the drunk kid?

What does his comment say about the state of NZ society, if it says anything significant at all?

I have no answers for this nor do I have the expertise on Maori issues to offer one. I would be loathe to do so in any event because all of the alternatives appear to be equally bad, so put the queries out there for readers to comment upon and debate.

Some advice about travel advisories.

datePosted on 09:19, January 5th, 2014 by Pablo

The murder of Westerners, including a New Zealander in Libya, in the aftermath of the so-called “Arab Spring” of regime change in North Africa and the Levant, has raised the profile of travel advisories as effective guides to personal and institutional safety of foreign travelers in such unstable regions. Libya is classified as High Risk in an around Tripoli and Misarata extending west to the Tunisian border and Extreme Risk pretty much everywhere else in the country by most Western states, including Australia, Canada, the UK and US. Syria is, understandably, considered to be an Extreme Risk environment by virtually all Western governments. The body of the Kiwi who was murdered, a female friend of a contractor to an Italian petrochemical firm, was found 100 kilometers west of Tripoli in a High Risk area. For her and her British companion, as well as several Americans recently, the risk was terminally extreme.

Both governments and private entities issue travel advisories, which are most often associated in Western minds with unstable or undeveloped states and regions in which lawlessness is rife (the same is largely true for advisories given by non-western governments such as the Japanese, Singaporeans or Chinese). The advisories may focus on political or criminal threats to foreigners in general and citizens in particular depending on the situation (for example, ethnic Chinese are more likely to be the target of socioeconomic-based ethnic violence in Melanesia and Polynesia than ethnic Europeans, and female travelers are particularly vulnerable in many places because of local cultural mores). Yet these advisories are not always as neutral as they may appear at first glance and hence need to be treated with caution and in broader perspective.

Put bluntly, it is erroneous to assume that governments, much less many private entities, issue objective and value-free travel advisories. They do not.

Government travel advisories take into account the diplomatic, security and economic relations of the issuing state with the targeted country. As a result, taking everything into account and (however short-sightedly) thinking of the bigger picture moving forward, there is a tendency to downplay security concerns where the countries in question are allies or have good foreign relations, whereas there is an inclination to paint an adversary or hostile country in a more negative light regardless of the objective situation on the ground. States are loathe to annoy their partners and allies, or those that they wish to cultivate for diplomatic or economic reasons, by issuing alerts and advisories of high or extreme risk in them. They may be pressured by corporate actors to downplay the risk of travel to those countries. Thus, even if the situation on the ground is hazardous for tourists or business travelers, the advice offered in such circumstances often does not raise above that of a caution about medium to moderate risks to personal and institutional security.

The concern with maintaining good diplomatic relations is compounded by the failure of many Western governments to fully appreciate the fluid nature of political and social events in designated countries, specifically the impact of regime change, latent social unrest and pre-modern cleavages on mass collective action. Confusing mass acquiescence with popular consent often leads countries to overestimate the degree of political support sustaining a foreign ally or partner. That in turn leads them to formulate their travel advisories in ways the underestimate the possibility of regime failure and the attendant risks associated with it.

Given resource constraints in diplomatic and intelligence agencies in many countries, limitations on diplomatic presence and in-country expertise in foreign contexts can limit the ability of advising governments to gather accurate, time sensitive and nuanced information on local conditions. Consequently, they often rely on the host government or foreign partners for situational knowledge, which itself may be more general than specific. This is then passed on by diplomatic outposts (some which may not be located in the country under scrutiny) to the home governments, often without vetting by other security agencies. That is a problem because for a number of reasons both host governments and foreign partners may not provide accurate reads of the local conditions being assessed.

Bureaucratic in-fighting amongst government agencies responsible for offering input into official travel advisories adds to the problem of objectivity. Different foreign policy-related agencies with input authority on travel advisories may have different information from their foreign counterparts with regard to the countries being assessed (say, intelligence, police and military agencies versus diplomatic, customs, health or immigration agencies).

Look at it this way: whatever the concerns of one or more agencies, would others be willing to accept harming a fruitful diplomatic, security or economic relationship because of the particular, if valid, concern about citizen travel to a particular country? And even if the foreign affairs bureaucracies agreed to defer to the concerns of one or a few agencies, would all Ministers necessarily find it politically expedient to accept the bureaucratic judgement, be it in an election year or not?

Continuity, stability, reliability and future mutual support are the most precious commodities of foreign relations, but the interest in them often blinds governments to the inherently weak or unstable nature of the regimes that appear to offer them. It also leads to acceptance of what foreign allies depict as local reality as fact when the truth may be otherwise. Thus time and time again Western governments have been caught by surprise at mass upheavals against seemingly stable friendly (most often authoritarian) regimes, with their citizens visiting and resident in countries where popular revolts occur often victimized as a result in part because they were lulled into a false sense of security by official travel advisories that downplayed the risks to the friendly regime, and by extension, foreigners who could be construed as associated with it.

This has occurred throughout North and Sub-Saharan Africa in the past five years, SE Asia and Latin America in years before, and is evident in the moderate advisories given to Middle Eastern diplomatic, military and trading partners by Western governments in spite of clear indications of simmering restive and anti-foreign sentiment in them.

Similarly, travel agencies, tour companies, airlines and other business invested in tourism, as well as those that see profit in resource extraction and commodity export, have an inherent disposition to downplay risks because their livelihoods depend upon sustaining and increasing the number of tourists and investment dollars in such ventures. Absent an obvious and compelling threat such as a civil war like those in Syria and the Central African Republic, profit driven private entities will, like official government warnings, often couch their advisories in moderate terms. Here too they are handicapped by a lack of objective risk analysis because they often rely for their local knowledge on in-country partnerships that also depend on tourist and investment dollars for their livelihoods. In such relationships no one wants to upset the foreign traveler or investor gravy train so risk is downplayed in all but the most dire situations. As two of many examples, Kenya and Thailand offer proof of that.

NGOs and IOs tend to more pragmatic in their travel advisories and risk assessments because they have less profit at stake and more lives and reputations immediately in play. Travel guides tend to be objective but superficial in their risk advice unless the local situation is obviously dire. This is not surprising given the breadth and focus of travel guides (think Lonely Planet as an example, although to its credit it does address gender and LBTG travel issues where possible), which are not oriented towards divining risks to personal and collective security but instead focus on geographic, cultural and entertainment features of any given place.

The best risk assessments and travel advisories tend to come from insurance firms (although some of their assessments have been proven to be suspect, such as those involved in the determination of national credit ratings). Likewise, reputable international political risk and open source intelligence firms are more objective and forthright about the situation in any given country because their client’s welfare is often at stake, and maintaining client relationships is most important for the success of such firms. In fact, insurance firms regularly seek external assessments from political risk and open intelligence firms so as to limit the possibility of and mitigate their liability in the event a client disregards their in-house advice.

The difference here is that reputable political risk and open source intelligence agencies tend to canvass as wide an array of sources as possible before they put their names on any assessment, including travel advisories. Moreover, such firms can tailor their assessments and advisories to client needs, for example, but specifying the relationship of competing market actors with local political factions and (where present) criminal or political armed groups in specific foreign contexts (the relationship between irredentists and oil firms in the Niger Delta comes to mind, but also applies to resource extractive firms and indigenous militias in regions like the Southwestern Pacific and Central Africa).

Needless to say, reading news about a travel destination is a very good way of getting abreast of the local context. Many non-European countries have English, French, Italian, Spanish, German or Dutch language newspapers (many of these  a colonial legacy), and outlets like the BBC, VOA and RT radio services also provide useful updated information on local conditions. Similarly, social media may offer better awareness of tactical or real-time situations, although one should always be aware of editorial and personal bias in any news provider, so-called mainstream or not. After all, when it comes to taking advice and reading the news, a discerning traveler is a prepared traveler.

Reliable information on local conditions is as important for those who deliberately travel to unstable or conflict zones such as reporters, diplomats, military personnel, security contractors and ideological “internationalists” who join in foreign fights as it is for the casual or unwary traveler. Regardless of circumstance, one should know what they are getting into and prepare (or avoid) accordingly.

In light of the above, travelers should not rely exclusively on the advisories of governments or private entities with a direct interest in downplaying risk assessments in foreign countries. This may seem obvious but in fact is not, as many people assume that their governments and the companies that transport, house and entertain them overseas have their personal and group safety as an overriding concern.

They do not, and are insured against episodic calamity as a result.

Is Child Abduction Media Coverage Color-Based?

datePosted on 15:34, October 25th, 2013 by Pablo

Does there not seem something odd about the coverage of the little white girl found with a Roma (gypsy) family in Greece? From what I have seen the coverage has focused on her supposed abduction and the search for her birth mother (who, as it may turn out, is a Bulgarian gypsy with eight children living in squalid conditions who gave the child away to the Greek Roma family. If so, the “stolen” girl is the lucky child given the relative circumstances of her adopted and birth parents). But little coverage has been devoted to why the Greek police decided to seize the girl from her Roma guardians, who may well have been her legitimate adoptive parents if the story about her Bulgarian mother turns out to be true.

What prompted their suspicions? A tip-off about drugs in the Greek gypsy camp has been offered as the official reason, but why would that prompt suspicion about the child? Was it the that she looked different from the Roma parents? Or was it that the people involved were Roma and have a (largely mythological) reputation for abducting and selling children? Could it be that the Greek cops acted out of prejudice rather than legitimate concern, and the press followed their lead?

Given the virulent racism and intense hatred of Roma in Greece, what exactly prompted the Greek police to decide to intervene given that the girl appears to love her adopted parents and seemed happy with them? Would they have done so if the parents were white and the child was black?

The general Greek attitude was inadvertently summarised by a local sociologist who studies Roma, who expressed surprise because, according to him, Roma were known to act as intermediaries for illegal adoptions by childless Greek couples but where not known to adopt a non-Roma child as one of their own (this said before the identity of the Bulgarian gypsy mother was confirmed).

More tellingly, why the focus on the little white gypsy girl when there are thousands of non-white children being abducted, sold and traded every year, including in Greece? Why has the story not been used to highlight child trafficking in general, rather than as a window on Roma and their reputed criminal proclivities?

It could well be that there was something sinister in the placement of this particular girl with that particular Greek Roma family. But it is equally possible that she was adopted in accordance with Roma culture and received the love and care of a natural-born child. So why, exactly, the fuss about her when so many other children suffer far worse fates?

It is hard not to come away with the impression that what matters is that she is white and was being raised by “swarthy” people whose culture does not accord with the Western mainstream. If so, it tells us much more about the imbued or latent racism of the media coverage rather than the merits of the case. Worse yet, it leaves the fate of thousands of non-white children largely ignored by the same press that is so keen to follow this story.

If we backdrop this case against the incessant coverage of the Madeleine McCann case and the endless coverage of missing white kids in Europe, the US and elsewhere, then it becomes hard to escape the view that some missing kids matter more than others, and they matter only because of the colour of their skin as opposed to the circumstances of their disappearance.

I hate to say it and do not mean to go all soft on this particular subject, but if that is so then the media coverage stinks.

 

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