Archive for ‘cultural difference’ Category

White Queen

datePosted on 15:17, March 17th, 2011 by Lew

Andrew Geddis has a good post up on Pundit about Hilary Calvert and her apparent ignorance of the Humpty Dumpty scene from Through the Looking-Glass.

The extent of Calvert’s idiocy being so egregious, it seems a mite churlish to point out — in addition to failures of basic logic and lawyerly literary culture — the flaws of historical and legal reasoning in her now-famous speech on the foreshore and seabed topic. But Calvert dug her own pit when she wittered on about tangata whenua “crawling on the seabed” like some sort of primitive bottom-dwelling life forms, holding their breath for the better part of two centuries, and the length of a cannon-shot — and the following can’t go unmentioned. Despite being a big-city property lawyer, Hilary Calvert apparently hasn’t done the first bit of research into the basic legal history of this particular property-rights debate. The Muriwhenua report of the Waitangi Tribunal (Wai 22), one of the mechanisms which resulted in fishery rights being vested in various iwi (the “Sealord deal”), is a very well-known and documented case, and covered the matter of indigenous control of coastal waters in considerable detail. Its findings were robust, and were summarised as follows in the report of the Foreshore & Seabed Review Panel:

The Tribunal, which heard detailed evidence on that particular district, concluded that there was an ‘inner’ zone related to the continental shelf, stretching 12 miles out from shore. The hapū and tribes of Muriwhenua had full control over fishing and passage inside that zone. They claimed the same rights further out, but only insofar as they could be enforced against challengers. In the ‘Māori idiom the hapū and tribes of Muriwhenua held the “mana” or “authority” of the whole of the Muriwhenua seas’ within a minimum of the 12-mile zone. The nearest British cultural equivalent, the Tribunal found, ‘is to consider that they exercised “dominion” over that part, or “owned” it as part of their territorial waters’. We accept this view that Māori tribes had dominion over their territorial waters as at 1840, and that in the particular circumstances of the Muriwhenua district, it extended for at least 12 miles out to sea.

So neither Calvert nor anyone in the ACT research unit who checks speeches for accuracy (yeah, permit me a little poetic liberty) has even read the definitive public document from which this replacement law has emerged — let alone attained even a passing familiarity with the basic historical situation which underpins the argument around customary property rights to the coastal marine area. ACT don’t even understand the legal situation regarding the foreshore and seabed review; they oppose it viscerally, without even really knowing or thinking about why. Let me be clear: there are good reasons to oppose the passage of this bill. Although I don’t personally agree, I’ll even go so far as to say that there could be good, principled reasons to oppose this bill because it goes too far in compensating tangata whenua. The reasons being stated by ACT in general and Hilary Calvert in particular are not such reasons, by any meaningful standard.

ACT’s position prior to this week was bad enough; this week it has degenerated into farce. In Through the Looking-Glass the White Queen believes six impossible things before breakfast, and lives in backwards, looking-glass time. On the basis of this performance one has to wonder whether Calvert, once apparently a pretty sharp operator, is finding that her faculties of critical and professional reasoning are becoming atrophied. Though, as someone on Danyl’s blog remarked yesterday, it pays to remember that she was ranked below David Garrett on the party list.

L

The “transitions” diachronology.

datePosted on 18:05, February 17th, 2011 by Pablo

I decided to package my posts about events in the Middle East in chronological order as they appeared, add an introduction and summary by way of framing the discussion, and send it to the nice folk at Scoop to use as this month’s Word from Afar column. By and large, I think that it holds together pretty well in light of events. It is a pity that I could not add some of the interesting discussion in the threads that followed the posts (since the essay was already at the upper word limit for an op-ed), but I did keep them in mind as I did the edit and added the bracketing material. In any case, the test of whether my analysis is right or wrong will play out over the next few months, and I have no doubts that KP readers will hold me to account in either event.

As the gun smoke clears, the Right run for cover.

datePosted on 16:13, January 10th, 2011 by Pablo

As someone who once lived in the area of Tucson where the politically motivated shooting of US Representative Gabrielle Giffords and 19 others occurred, I have something of a personal connection to the event. I shopped in the strip mall where the attack took place and still have friends in Tucson who I visit when possible. Were I still living at my last address there,  Giffords would have been my Representative. I am well aware of Arizona political culture and the issues that divide it, and know something about its gun laws as well. Thus I am not surprised one iota that an assassination attempt on a “liberal” Democrat would happen in Arizona, although it is somewhat surprising that it happened in Tucson, which is a liberal college town oasis in an otherwise vast political landscape of new and old right-wing conservatism.

Unsurprisingly, as soon as news of the shootings hit the airwaves left-leaning commentators blamed right-wingers for inciting the killer while GOP leaders, Tea Party representatives and the populist demagogues in the media all moved quickly to put distance between themselves and the gunman even though the latter professed beliefs that were very much in concert with the thrust of the Tea Party message as well as those of earlier conservative fringe movements. In fact, some in the rightwing media suggested that the Left has its own violent extremists so the table is balanced on that score.

To which I ask: when was the last time a Left activist in the US attempted to kill a politician? Lee Harvey Oswald was less a committed Stalinist during his time in the USSR and more of a social outcast looking for a belief system to cling to (I shall defer from bringing in Mafia-related and other conspiracy theories at this point). John Hinkley’s attack on Ronald Reagan does not count as he was motivated by the demons in his head, and the attacks on Gerald Ford by members of Charles Manson’s gang in the mid-1970s were equally devoid of political content. But as recently as 2009 a right wing extremist, apparently egged on by the commentary of talkshow rabble rousers, killed abortionist George Tiller outside his church. This has followed a series of attacks carried out by right wing militants that include the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated attacks across the country on abortion clinics. Minutemen and other self-professed right wing militias have demonstrated a penchant for violence against others. The Unibomber was motivated by a mix of left and right views. Islamicists operate according to a profoundly conservative belief system. Anti-Castro Cuban nationalists have committed acts of domestic and international terrorism (including the bombing of a Cuban airliner) in pursuit of their conservative goals.

In contrast, Earth First! and the Animal Liberation Front have lefty ideals and destroy property but do not kill people. Anti-trade protestors and anarchists have run riot in Seattle and DC but mostly gotten (some might say well-deserved) police beatings and tear gassed for their efforts. Puerto Rican nationalists have disrupted Congress and planted bombs but killed no one. Thus it would seem that contrary to the claim that the US Left has its fair share of murderous extremists, not since the days of the SLA, Weatherman and Black Panthers has there been a deadly attack carried out by Left militants on political targets. During that same time period, in contrast, the right wing fringe has claimed dozens of victims, of which those in Tucson are the latest. Truth be told, this is only the latest in a long history of right wing assassination attempts on “liberal” political targets that are seen as “communists,” “socialists,” Trilateral Commission and World Government surrender monkeys, atheists or some unholy combination of all of the above. Just as the John Birch Society had its fair share of armed extremists, so now it appears that modern US conservative movements attract a similar element to their ranks. 

To put a not-so-fine point on it: be it as lone wolves or as part of a criminal conspiracy, it is the fringes of the US Right where most political violence comes from. Even if in most cases the extremists involved exhibited signs of mental illness (as in this case), in the modern US it is right-wing militants who disproportionately get murderous. That could be due to the lack of appeal for calls for working class “revolution” in a country founded on the sanctity of individual liberties and property rights, but one would think that would make Leftist militants more rather than less prone to violence against those political figures that attract their ire. Instead, it is the reverse.

Rather than debate the question of how complicit, implicitly or explicitly, the Tea Party, GOP, Sarah Palin and conservative media have been in the Tucson attack, let me offer a simple formula that outlines the context in which it occurred (and will occur again). Note that this “formula” is exclusive to the US but can be altered, mutatis mutandis,  to apply to other countries as well:

Loose gun control laws+availability of semi-automatic weapons+polarised politics+venomous hate mongering political rhetoric in media and in election campaigns+rapid demographic change+economic crisis+ eroding social cohesion and solidarity+deranged or otherwise sociopathic personality disorders+precipitating event (personal or political)=likelihood of an armed attack on a perceived “traitor” by someone espousing militant ideological views.

In the contemporary US, this formula suggests that the attack in Tucson is neither unique or a once-off, and in fact points to a condition of ongoing anomie that barring a major change in both the structural and superstructural causal factors listed above, will lead to more such events in the near to medium future. Rather than the content of any one ideology or creed, it is the combination of factors that makes for the murderous enemy within, and no amount of blame-fixing and scapegoating of “foreign” beliefs detract from that fundamental fact.

PS: for those interested in a more immediate look at the tragedy, take a gander at my old home town newspaper: http://azstarnet.com/

UPDATE: As if on cue a NZ version of the unhinged reactionary chickenhawk faction weighs in, with a link to this post: http://truebluenz.wordpress.com/2011/01/11/it-is-not-about-loughner-or-palin-its-about-the-republic/

Priceless.

Conflict versus Cooperation in Human Nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Back into the Bush.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The US as the new Greece.

datePosted on 12:33, October 23rd, 2010 by Pablo

Watching the lead up to what will be a major Republican and Tea Party comeback in the upcoming US midterm elections, and having spent an earlier part of the year in Greece, I cannot but help but be struck by the parallels between the two countries. This may seem crazy, but sometimes what is obvious is not necessarily apparent.

The US and Greece are saddled with immense debt, most of it public. Both have extremely large state bureacracies that consume an inordinate amount of the tax base. Both have lived, in their personal and public consumption, way beyond their means over the last two decades, riding the wave of financial sector excess and lving off real estate and other speculative bubbles that did not, in fact, significantly contribute to national productive rates.

In each case immediate past centre-right governments contributed to the false sense of security by allowing the financial sector to operate with considerable degrees of autonomy and lack of oversight, reduced taxes for the wealthiest sectors of the population and corporations, and spent money well in excess of state revenues. In Greece state expenditures went into a bloated welfare system that was designed to prop up living standards that are seen as a birthright of all Greeks; in the US, the excess state spending went into war. In both instances the center-right governments increased state spending and the public deficits that accompanied them. In both cases they were turned out at the polls in the past two years.

Center-left governments replaced the discredited right. They inherited unsustainable deficits that will take years to redress and embarked on economic reform programs that were designed to cut the public deficit and increase economic efficiency over the long term. In Greece this meant slashing the public workforce, decreasing public salaries and welfare benefits while offering a package of tax incentives to small and medium business so that they could innovate, expand and thereby take up the slack produced by reductions in the public workforce.

In the US the economic stimulus program was designed to prop up and revitalise at-risk major industries (the automobile and financial sectors in particular) while providing tax relief for 95 percent of the working population. A national health program was instituted that, even though watered down and more pro-business than pro-consumer and nowhere close to socialised medicine,  provides for minimum health coverage for the majority of the population. Selective regulation on the financial sector was legislated, although this worked more on the margins of the system rather than at its core. Military spending was cut at the corners, and in a number of cases companies that received financial bail-out packages have begun to re-pay their debts.  In effect, although in the US public spending increased over the short term with the stimulus and health care packages, the design is oriented towards lowering the overall public spending bill within five to ten years while maintaining a  disproportionate emphasis on “defense.” That is the American way.

In both instances some or most of the center-right opposition in the legislature supported the economic reform packages of the government, but backtracked when confronted by public reaction. In both cases that backtracking led them to move towards the zealot wing of their popular base. That has consequences.

The reason? In each case there was an immediate, reflexive and largely unthinking  public backlash against the reform measures. Following Greek protest tradition, often violent strikes and demonstrations have engulfed the country from the moment austerity measures were announced. Although the protests are led by unions and other elements of the agitational Left, the real beneficiaries of the crisis are the hard Right, who have seen an opportunity to engage in nationalist-populist demagogery in which “foreign interests,’ illegal migrants, “Communists” and a host of other suspected culprits are blamed for the country’s woes.

In the US attempts at reform have been met by a wave of right wing backlash among the mostly white middle classes, who also blame illegal migrants, “Socialists” and other purported “progressives” as well as atheistic liberal homosexual-enabling secular humanists for the decline of Empire. At public forums many vented their anger by calling for a “revolution” or at least the ovethrow of the Washington elite. Some of them turned up armed to make their point.  They have a movement not unlike the Greek ultra-nationalists. It is called the Tea Party.

What is striking about both hard right wing resurgences is that they stand to gain the most from upcoming elections simply by blaming the governing center left administrations without offering a plausible solution to the problems of the day and near future. Both want to return to something long gone. Both want lower, not more taxes, apparently not understanding that in the case of Greece that national pasttimes of tax avoidance, island vacation homes and reliance on the state for pensions, social security and universal health care are contradictory and incompatible. In the US the pejoratively labeled “Tea Baggers” apparently have not connected the dots between maintaining a massive military apparatus that consumes 6 percent of GDP, is fighting two wars of occupation and at least a dozen small irregular conflicts simultaneously, has a presence in 150 countries and deploys three carrier task forces comprised of 7 ships and 75 aircraft at sea at any one time (no other country can deploy even one), and the need for a substantial tax base. Nor can they see that the party that they support is the one that has the most extensive ties to the Wall Street giants that played loose with their money in the game of financial roulette known as the sub-prime lending market that has now come a cropper. Instead they rail against welfare queens and “illegals” stealing the jobs most Americans disdain.

In both countries the conscious anti-intellectualism of the Right is manifest.  They want simple solutions to complex problems, they want the solutions to benefit them without requiring any sacrifice, and they want it all to happen yesterday. Reflexively ignorant political champions lead the charge and rally the masses in each case.

Most of all, it is historical myopia, an overdeveloped sense of entitlement, the lack of acceptance of responsibility and the shifting of blame that ties the US and Greek public together in their rightwards march. Both cultures prefer to forget the immediate past that led to these tough times and instead focus on a mythical past in which the Nation was strong, proud and united in its demographic homogeneity and cultural mores. Both cultures believe that they are special and especially deserving because fortuitous circumstance determined that they were born Greek or American. Neither culture embraces the notion of individual and collective responsibility as a majority ethos anymore. Instead, the common approach is to blame others for individual failure and collective misfortune.  Both right wing movements have little to offer than hatred for central government elites, current reform policy, bankers of “dubious” persuasion and all the “others” who instigated the entire mess. Mutatis mutandis, there are faint echoes of interwar Europe in all of this.

That may be a basis for victory in any contemporary elections given the circumstances, but it is certainly no blueprint for national regeneration. History has repeatedly shown that national-populist lurches to the right produce more anomie and retrogression than progress. For the latter to occur, people will have to first take individual and collective responsibility about their role in the process of decline. Then they will have to accept the costs of redressing that decline which means that they will need to assume the burden of altered lifestyles no longer easily bought on the back of cheap credit, deficit spending and overinflated notions of national grandeur. They will then have to grin and bear it during the tough times so that their children and grandchildren will prosper under different conditions.

None of that is going to happen anytime soon.

Coming this Fall: the Battle for America’s Soul

datePosted on 09:17, October 20th, 2010 by Lew

Imagine that title in scary-movie-narrator-voice. Via Pascal’s Bookie, a simply magnificent piece of propaganda from Personhood USA.

This two-minute ad is superbly done. It frames Colorado’s 1967 abortion law as the beginning of the end, and Amendment 62 in Colorado, which aims to declare that personhood begins at the moment of fertilisation, as the beginning of the battle to save America. Amendment 62 is up for the vote at the mid-term elections in November.

What we have here is clearly not the work of amateurs, nor of itinerant cranks in trailer parks, as many (including myself) have mocked the Tea Party movement. It draws together all the conventional Tea Party wisdom about what’s wrong with America into powerfully truthy narrative: start with a misappropriated Jefferson quote; follow up with Semitic “men in black robes” who hate truth, justice and the freedom and “legislate from the bench”; portray the fringe radical rump of conservative white folk as a valiant oppressed minority group; intolerant millennial-cult hypervigilance as the American Way; Obamacare as morality and human life being bought and sold as a commodity (oh, the irony!); and most crucially, Obama himself as the Grim Reaper, the lynchpin of it all, with the caption “Then the Angel of Death arrived, and Hell followed with him”. The whole thing is capped with fireworks and the Statue of Liberty, a Daisy-esque girl fading to black and a fist-pumping don’t-tread-on-me baby. And the soundtrack really just speaks for itself.

The whole thing is absolutely barking. In the cold light of day it’s nothing more than a Dan Brown plot. It’s fevered stuff, wound up to eleven to inflame passion and suppress reason. But that’s the whole point: this ad is basically the movie trailer for the upcoming battle for America’s soul, coming soon to a screen near you. Just sit back, let it wash over you, and marvel at what that country has become.

L

PC priorities

datePosted on 21:06, October 12th, 2010 by Lew

The media beat-up du jour is the non-story of Te Papa Tongarewa “barring” (or “banning”, “forbidding”, other such absolute terms) pregnant and menstruating women from entry due to the nature of some tāonga on display.

Except they’ve done no such thing. The “ban” isn’t actually a restriction at all — they’ve been clear that it’s a request, not an ironclad edict; and in any case, the exhibit isn’t open to the public, but to staff from other museums. It’s an invite-only behind-the-scenes tour. And the crucial point is that the tāonga in question have been given to Te Papa on condition that this advice is given to prospective viewers. Let me be crystal clear: nobody would be barred from attending on the grounds that they are pregnant or menstruating. If someone wanted to turn up and say “bollocks to all of that, me and my unborn child are going to see those taiaha!”, it’s been made clear that she would be permitted to do so. That might be inflammatory and offensive, like farting in church or wearing a bikini to a funeral, but nobody is forbidding it. And that’s as it should be: Te Papa is our place and nobody should be barred outright. If the condition required exclusion, then that would be fair enough on the part of the owners — who can reasonably impose whatever conditions they please — but quite explicitly not ok for Te Papa, who would be better to decline the opportunity outright to maintain its public mandate.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped everyone with a platform from winding up to rage against the imposition of archaic, alien superstitions upon their civil liberties. But almost without exception, the restriction-which-isn’t-really-a-restriction doesn’t apply to them, since — as far as I’m aware — none of those objecting are in fact museum staff who would be eligible for the tour. And amongst this vicarious umbrage there’s an awful lot of squawking about misogyny and imposition of cultural values, and much more uncritical repetition of the misleading language of “bans” and such. It goes as far as idiotic and lurid suggestions about personal searches using sniffer dogs, for crying out loud.

All this has manifested as a soft and rather opportunistic sort of anti-Māori racism, where Māori are the casualties of our sticking up for the rights of pregant and menstruating women. There’s a common implication that they are the oppressive stone-age patriarchy using whatever means they can to victimise our women; and “forcing” their rude barbarian culture into our civilised and noble times. This is understandable from the usual PC gone mad crowd who’ve suddenly — conveniently — found their inner feminist, but somewhat more disappointing from those who would often be described as the hand-wringing PC liberals, people who ought to know better that it is possible to reconcile conflicting cultural values of this sort in an amicable fashion via the standard tools of live-and-let-live liberalism. And while those same hand-wringing PC liberals do rail against the worst excesses of those illiberal institutions which make up mainstream NZ society — chief amongst them the Catholic church — the response to this case has generated anger out of all proportion. Te Papa had to make the decision: take the tāonga on with the advisory condition, or not at all. Perhaps those objecting to this policy would prefer that nothing of this sort ever go on display. There is a genuine cultural conflict here, but it can quite simply be resolved: those pregnant and menstruating women who believe their right to attend trumps the request to the contrary may do so then and there. Not only are they not prevented from doing so by those hosting the tours, they actually have the right to do so should they choose, and that right should be defended. Those who do not may do so at another time which is convenient to them. The tragedy is that for most of the liberals in this battle of PC priorities, women must be given categorical superiority over Māori. They are arguing for their own culture to be imposed across the board; the very illiberalism they claim to oppose.

There are (at least) two people who are making good sense on this matter: Andrew Geddis, whose liberal argument is very close to my own views, but much better formed; and Lynne Pope who, almost uniquely among the bullhorns sounding around this topic, is a Māori woman who’s actually been on the tour in question. Neither of them have lapsed into the myopic, reflexive Māori-bashing which is the most unbecoming aspect of this situation.

The lesson for New Zealand’s liberals is this: it isn’t necessary to trample on the cultural needs of Māori to accomodate the needs of women. Liberalism itself provides tools to reconcile these differences. They just need to be used.

Update 20101018: As usual, Scott Hamilton makes good sense on this topic.

L

The national discussion about racism occasioned by Paul Henry’s ill-considered remarks have given me pause for reflection on the nature of bigotry. Although I claim no professional competence in the field, I offer the following by way of discussion points on theme.

Bigotry is the visceral attribution of negative traits to groups and individuals based on innate features, or the attribution of individual traits to perceptions of collective behaviour.  Most often, it is opprobrium directed at people for who they are rather than what they do. Racism is just one form of bigotry, which covers ethnic, religious, linguistic, gender, sexual orientation, mental state, physical handicap and other physical or cultural characteristics. It also has an economic component, as evident in the animosity between rich and working class beyond their often antagonistic positions within production. It can work deductively, where traits collectively ascribed to particular groups are attributed to all individuals in that group (e.g. all Latinos are lazy or take siestas, or all Jews are Zionist money-grubbers). It also works inductively, where individual behaviour or attributes are assigned to a whole group (e.g., I was cheated by a Chinese person so all Chinese must be cheats. Or, Chris Carter is a troughing, entitlement-addicted vindictive gay MP so all other gay MPs are the same.  Or better yet, because some Muslims are terrorists, all Muslims are (potential) terrorists). Above all, it is an expression of irrational fear and distrust of “otherness” phrased as negative stereotyping that can or cannot be rooted in a sense of historical grievance or sense of superiority.

Vertical bigotry is located in social hierarchy.Often rooted in socioeconomic class status but generally based on the social dominance of some groups over others, it is the attribution of negative traits to groups located below or above a particular reference group in the social hierarchy. Although most often visible in dominant group contempt for subordinate group characteristics, it is also evident in the contempt of subordinate groups for their dominators. One example of the latter is the general resentment of some members of indigenous groups towards descendants of colonial occupiers, be these Spanish, English, German, French, Portuguese or Dutch, and the attribution by these indigenous actors of collective guilt and attitudes on the part of colonial descendants. On the other hand, and much more prevalent, is the attitude of contempt of dominant groups towards subordinate groups and the attribution of negative cultural traits  to them (e.g. laziness, backwardness, savagery, etc.). 

There is more to the picture of vertical dimension of bigotry, but the point is that it is a two-way street, however asymmetrical the flow of bigotry may be, between dominant and subordinate groups in society. This is as true for capitalist as it is for non-capitalist societies (for example, Burmese treatment of ethnic minorities today or Chinese treatment of non-Han before and after the transition to capitalism), although capitalism tends to reinforce the non-economic stratification of society and the vertical bigotry that comes with it. What is important to note is that, contrary to the claims by some that subordinate groups cannot be racist or bigoted because they are historical victims of oppression, my view is that both dominant  and subordinate groups are quite capable of bigotry. Blaming historical oppression for “reverse racism” is just an excuse for but not a negation of it. Being justifiably aggrieved does not justify being bigoted.

Horizontal bigotry, in contrast, is the negative stereotyping between economically or socially similar groups. As classic case is the traditional loathing of Jews amongst Catholic and Protestant elites in Europe and North America, in which relative economic status of Jews did and does not preclude the use of pejoratives by Christian elites to characterise Jewish culture and modes of social interaction. Another example would be the animosity felt towards Europeans (read: whites) by Asian elites in a variety of countries, even though Europeans have been instrumental in the rise of the Asian “dragons.” Although this Anglophobic loathing may have its origins in 19th and 20th century Western imperialism, it defies the current state of global economic and political affairs, which has seen a reversion of the historical model and the evening of the socio-economic, cultural and political playing field between East and West. And yet it persists: whites are loud, hairy, dirty, smelly, promiscuous drunkards with a penchant for fighting (it would be tempting to insert some wisecrack about Ozzies or Poms here but I shall desist).

This form of bigotry is not confined to elites. Consider the animosity between African-Americans and Latinos (particularly Mexicans and Cubans) in the US, or the mutual prejudices of Maori and Pacific Islanders in NZ. Although it may be the case that such horizontal bigotry is not a generalised sentiment in any of these populations, it should be recognised that it does in fact exist, and by the mere fact of its existence it reinforces and perpetuates the vertical dimension of bigotry that serves as a non-structural barrier to subordinate group advancement in society. And here again, it demonstrates that members of historically subordinate groups can and are often bigoted in their approaches to others, including members of other subordinate groups as well as the descendants of their common historical oppressors.

Less readers think otherwise, I am not saying that any one group is more prone to bigotry than others, although that may be a valid point of discussion. Nor am I attributing bigotry to the majority of any one group, although it is clear that in some instances whole populations are socialised with primordial hatred of targeted out-groups regardless of the historical record between them. Finally, I do not equate bigotry with good natured yet sharp comedic parody, self-deprecation or barbed humour. For me, bigotry involves malice and malice posing as “humour” is what Paul Henry was expressing  when he made his disparaging remarks about a number of people or groups (including Mexicans, as it turns out) during the course of  his tenure on Breakfast.

Which brings up a very thorny question. Could it not be that Mr. Henry’s remarks evidence his anxiety about the vertical dimension of  NZ  bigotry becoming a horizontal contest of bigoted equals?

In any event, what I have merely tried  to do here is clarify my thoughts on the subject in light of my observations and experience in the hope that it serves as food for thought for those who may interested in such things.

The Rise and Fall of a TV Icon (updated).

datePosted on 15:10, October 6th, 2010 by Pablo

I am loathe to give more oxygen to the Paul Henry saga but think that I have a fair idea of the chain of events that led to his suspension and possible sacking. This is due to my personal familiarity with him as a result of my appearances on the Breakfast show. Let me explain.

When I first started showing up on TVNZ after 9-11, I dealt with Mike Hoskings (and Ali Mau) on Breakfast and either Paul Holmes or Linda Clark in the evening news interview shows. The two men have big egos but are smart, do their homework, and are mentally quick on their feet. Linda Clark and Ali Mau are all of those things without the ego. Although they swapped slots from time to time and I also have spoken at some length with Peter Williams on and off-camera, it was Hoskings who ran the bulk of the Breakfast interviews with me, especially during the early days of the 2003 Iraq invasion.

Some years later Hoskings left Breakfast and I began to be interviewed by Paul Henry. He was initially circumspect, always polite and although not as studied as his predecessor, he seemed well-prepared (in part because I tend to give producers some talking points on the subject the night before the show). His only flaw was his tendency to talk over and interrupt while editorialising about the subject rather than allowing the interviewee (me) greater reign for in-depth analysis. But that, perhaps, is the nature of Breakfast TV, which world-wide is the shallow end of the TV news pool.

Something happened, though, during the last 3 or 4 years, at a time when I moved abroad. Henry began to crack jokes, some of dubious taste, and these jokes found resonance amongst his viewers. The more positive feedback TVNZ received, the more he continued to play the role of provocateur rather than newsperson. As ratings went up the TVNZ brass gave him more rope on which to swing his shtick–a rope that he has now hung himself with. Serious interviews were gradually replaced by often funny and not-so-funny ad libs on stories presented in the half hourly news updates. By 2010 Breakfast was a bit of a morning circus, with the female co-hosts serving as straight props for Mr. Henry’s increasingly schoolboy antics.

As John Minto has pointed out, Henry is a serial offender. This year alone he has disparaged on air  people because of their appearance, mental condition, surname and ethnicity (at least twice). In each instance he targeted an innate trait rather than some aspect of the individual’s behaviour. And each time complaints to the BSA and TVNZ about his comments resulted in no more than verbal admonishments from his bosses. In fact, it is now clear that there was much of a wink and nod to these supposed warnings.

Then, at the Qantas Media Awards, he used the People’s Choice award presentation to read out a profanity laced purported letter from a disgruntled viewer which again, had misogynist and homophobic references in it. The mostly Pakeha elite audience roared with laughter. That is the moment when Paul Henry decided he was bullet proof.

His sense of invulnerability was not only driven by high approval ratings. Every Monday he was given the opportunity to interview his ideologically kindred Prime Minister. Every Monday the interview finished with some quick banter between two self-satisfied “smart guys” riding high in the polls. Although what they believed passed for quick-witted repartee was more often banal and insipid, the seeds were sown in their exchanges for the infamous remarks about the Governor General this past Monday.

In effect, although the ultimate cause of his own downfall, Mr. Henry was aided, abetted and facilitated along the way by an array of celebrities, executives, “news” outlets, politicians and hangers-on who are running for cover now that his true nature has been exposed. A large swathe of the general public also played a role in his rise, and in the particular tone he adopted as his confidence in his own celebrity grew. He therefore has reason to be aggrieved. After all, a few weeks ago he was on stage basking in the glow of popular acclamation for doing precisely the things for which he is now suspended and vilified.

I do not think that he should be sacked. A long suspension yes, but if Tony Veitch can be returned to the airwaves after his crimes, then an uncloseted bigot surely can seek redemption. The viewing audience will be the ultimate judge of that. Whatever his long-term future in TV, at a minimum a long time off air while chasten and make Henry think twice before uttering pejoratives or ridicule. The time out of the limelight may force him into the type of self-reflection that could, in fact, make him a better presenter. Or not.

What I find most personally ironic is that I was fired and my academic career ruined for writing an intemperate and unprofessional email to a student in which I accused the student of using “some sort of Western liberal guilt” to weasel out of an assignment due date. Although I was subsequently proven correct in my suspicions that the excuse was a ruse that did in fact prey on my supposed liberal sentiments, I was vilified as a racist and kicked to the curb by Auckland University. The email (for which I immediately apologised, long before any disciplinary proceedings began) was wrong, to be sure, but the outrage, public defamation and punishment far exceeded the offense (sorry for whinging about this by way of comparison, but as you can see it really sticks in my craw and I have not quite gotten over it given the grief it has caused my partner and I).

TVNZ, on the other hand, encouraged Mr. Henry’s behaviour in spite of repeated complaints about it, something that was confirmed by the spokeperson’s initial statement that he merely said what others were too afraid to say. TVNZ apparently never gave him a formal written warning, or even a serious verbal warning. To the contrary. Until things hit the fan it repeatedly defended and encouraged his boorish behaviour because it was deemed profitable for him to do so.

Thus, from my perspective, the Unite union (and other self-righteous johnny-come-latelies like Peter Dunne) is wrong in demanding Mr. Henry’s sacking even if his “crime” is egregious, and even if he is not a union member. The reason is that  the precedent his sacking would set is worse than his individual transgressions. Of course, he may have an individual contract with TVNZ whereby he serves at the whim and discretion of the management, in which case he is well and truly at their mercy–whatever his contract status, this is a particularly bad time to be an unorganised worker facing managerial scrutiny given the thrust of National’s labour reform bill.

As much as it pains me to say so given the circumstances of this case, I think that the union movement should stay out of the debate or use it as a means of reminding workers that collective membership is the best defense against individual victimisation by management no matter how famous the worker may be. After all, the employment issue here is about Henry’s job performance given his contractual obligations and the terms and conditions therein, something that should not be susceptible to public pressure or managerial attempts at corporate face-saving.

For the unions the issue should be one of contractual obligation and due process, nothing more. In that sense the union position should be akin to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defending the right of neo-Nazis to free speech. It is the principle of due process rather than the inadmissible act that is the defendable issue. Paul Henry may be a loud-mouthed, bigoted, overpaid ignorant talking head buffoon, but at the end of the day he is a wage slave living high at the mercy of his corporate bosses. It was the TVNZ paymasters, not Mr. Henry, who dictated the on-air environment in which he spoke. At any time they could have reigned him in, disciplined him or otherwise cut short his propensity to vent divisive, hateful, prejudiced or otherwise rude comments. But they did not. Instead, they encouraged and facilitated him.

Now that the public reaction is adverse, TVNZ will allow him to twist in the winds of opprobrium while his bosses figure out how to best ride out the storm. But as a Herald columnist aptly phrased it, the fault is not just with the monkey, but with the organ grinder, and it is there where the real source of blame for this debacle needs to be focused. In other words, if heads are going to roll, they should roll high rather than low.

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