Archive for ‘identity’ Category

Brogressives and fauxgressives

datePosted on 14:51, June 27th, 2009 by Lew

Chris Trotter doesn’t want to debate, which is good, because there’s really no point to it – his arguments and mine are at cross purposes because we differ on a key point: whether support for independent self-determination for power minorities is necessary to call oneself a ‘progressive’. Chris doesn’t think so. As far as he’s concerned, Māori self-determination is a nice idea, so long as it doesn’t try to take a different line to the honkey Marxist agenda which he misdefines as ‘progressivism’. If that were the case, then this “well-meaning but misguided political naïf” would need to turn in his cloth cap. But progressivism hasn’t ever just been about the white working classes dictating the political agenda to other power minorities; it’s never held that the needs of all power minorities be crushed by the worker solidarity agenda. That’s why my previous post was directed at the “Marxist left”, not at the progressive movement. I’m ok with not being part of that clique – comfortable, as Danyl Mclauchlan said, having no ideological flaws that a few decades digging canals in Fiordland wouldn’t set straight.

The progressive movement has been about power minorities supporting each others’ political agendas against those who would keep political power in the hands of patrician elites. Diversity is a political strategy. You should support peoples’ right to make their own political decisions, even if you disagree with those decisions, because if you don’t you could find support for the right to make your own political decisions to be somewhat lacking. So while Chris is playing the No True Scotsman game, I can play, too: if you don’t support the rights of indigenous people to determine their own political destiny, you’re not a progressive. More in the nature of a slogan: if you’re not a brogressive, you’re a fauxgressive.*

Until we can come to some sort of sense on this matter there’s no point in continuing the discussion. Chris, by his repeated denial and denigration of indigenous rights to political self-determination, criticising the independence of the Greens from Labour, and in denying that women ought to be free from sexual predation as of right, seems well on his way to becoming one of those conservative baby-boomers which are the subject of his latest column. For shame.

Edit: I withdraw and apologise for the redacted paragraph above, as a response to Chris’ justified complaints about my conduct here. This wasn’t up to the KP standard, and I’m sorry for that. I’ve replied to Chris in the comments of his thread on the hope of more meaningful engagement.


Meanwhile, Relic and Imperial Zeppelin have posted good responses to my last post on this matter, which are worth responding to and which I think neatly illustrate the problems I have with this sell-out / kupapa / brown tories / haters & wreckers line of argument.

Imperial Zeppelin, first:

Where do the Maori and Labour Parties come into the equation? Both these political entities may well claim to advocate on class and/or race issues, but do they?
[…]
It would appear reasonable to expand on Marty Mars’ statement and contend simply that race and class issues (along with all the others) will not be resolved as long as you leave the resolution to others; never mind others who are beholden to interests inimical to class, race, gender and environmental interests.

I both agree and disagree, but this gets to the nub of the matter: power minorities need to drive their own political agendas. My view is that while neither the Labour party nor the māori party perfectly represent their nominal constituencies, they are nevertheless best-placed to advocate for those constituencies. Nobody else can do it for them; the degree of their success or failure will or ought to be be reflected in their electoral support.

Relic:

how about a quote from V.I. Lenin to back up the bus a little-“politics are the concentrated expression of economics”

This is precisely what’s wrong with the Marxist approach. Going back to a higher authority than Lenin, I consider politics to be the ‘master science’ – the discipline which governs which other disciplines are considered worthwhile. Far from being just economics, it encompasses religion, morality, ethics, war, epistemology, identity, history, actual science and more to boot. Politics is how people organise themselves in society. There are many referents of political identity, and it is for each individual to choose their own primary identity. Marxists who say it’s only economics tend to be those who, ironically, care mostly about money and the power which it brings.

The Maori Party is led by the likes of Prof. Winiata and embodies the hierarchical inclinations of certain tribal elites.

And the Labour party doesn’t embody the hierarchical inclinations of academic and public servant elites? Let’s not pretend that any party in parliament is actually a workers’ party – in the democratic systems we have, credible political vehicles are by necessity elite-dominated. So all you’re saying is that you prefer elites of one flavour to those of another.

The capitalists via their primary parliamentary representatives National/ACT recognise the need to embrace the large and growing Maori economic sector, unlikely to be sold off overseas at this stage, and needing to be diverted from potential co-operative (socialistic) forms asap. Yes, there is the parliamentary numbers game but it is not the main prize as I see it. Getting Maori to embrace the colonisers kaupapa-private property relations, is.

This is a much better point, but (like other criticisms of the māori party, it rests on two false premises: first, that Māori don’t know what’s best for Māori; and second, that Labour are substantially better.

Second issue first. With the Foreshore and Seabed Act, Labour did more damage to Māori access to resources, mana whenua status, equality before the law and collective resource control than any government of any colour had done for the better part of a century. The passage of that act was the most recent shot fired in the war of colonialism, which told Māori that they were not entitled to due process and redress in law, as other citizens were; that they had no right to even try to assert mana whenua rights to historic resources no matter how strong their claim; and that hapū-level ownership was not an option. And all this from their historic allies, whom Māori had supported without fail for generations.

It’s not that Labour had no choice, as they and their apologists claim – they had the choice of losing and retaining their principles and the loyalty of Māori, or winning without either. They chose the former, before the gauntlet was properly thrown down at Orewa, and subjugated tino rangatiratanga to political expedience, forcing Māori to once again lie back and think of Ingarangi in service of the ‘greater good’ which served the Pākehā majority. That was Labour’s decision to make, but the expectation that there would be no consequences was simply absurd, and speaks to the level of entitlement Labour felt it had to Māori loyalty. The māori party, more than anything else, was founded to demonstrate that government needs to earn the support of Māori, rather than enjoy it as of right, use it, and abuse it as convenience dicatates. So far it is doing that, though whether it will do so in the long term remains to be seen.

Many objections to the māori party decision to side with National focus solely on the losses, ignoring the possibility of gains or arguing that National have no intention of fulfilling any of their undertakings. It is true that National’s policies will probably inflict more acute economic harm on Māori in the short term, but there’s more to intergenerational indigenous politics than small-scale tactical gains and losses in economics, and the calculus is that short-term losses may be worth it for long-term gains.

The integrity of the tino rangatiratanga movement is just such a strategic gain. The first big test of the māori party’s strategy comes this Tuesday, when the Foreshore and Seabed Act review panel reports its recommendations to Chris Finlayson. Further tests will come in the next year as National and Labour begin to bid in earnest for the brown vote, supposing Labour begins to campaign at all. Even if the māori party is turfed out off parliament in 2011, if they have raised the importance and profile of kaupapa Māori politics such that no party in the future believes they can act as Labour did in 2004, they will have succeeded.

As for the argument that Labour policies help Māori because most Māori are working class and Labour policies help working class people, therefore all Māori should. This is simply a reverse ‘rising tide lifts all boats’ argument. The point is that Māori have different needs and, under the Treaty framework, different entitlements to the rest of the working class. A political movement which treats Māori simply as brown proles ignores this historical reality, and is an insult to all those who have fought for recognition and redress.

On to the first issue. After generations of relying on Pākehā elites to redress the abuses of the land wars and following, a group of Māori leaders have taken it upon themselves to develop a principled strategy to find redress by their own means. Some Māori have supported them, and if they fail to make progress toward that redress, or do so by sacrificing other, more important things (such as the kaupapa of collective ownership) then the party will (or should) lose that support. This is fundamentally the point: the decision as to whether the calculus described above is worthwhile for Māori is for Māori to make, not for “well-meaning but misguided” honkeys who want to co-opt the politics of tino rangatiratanga as part of their worker solidarity movement.

Self-determination is a fundamental component of liberty. If you approve of political self-determination only for those movements which serve your own political ends, you’re little better than the Iranian clerics, for whom any political candidate is acceptable, as long as they’re a Shi’a fundamentalist. Let a thousand political agendas bloom; that is the liberal way.

L

* With thanks to Melissa McEwan, whose blog is well and truly open for business again.

Identity is more than class

datePosted on 17:49, June 24th, 2009 by Lew

Marty mars, commenting at The Standard, nails down the problem with Eddie’s and IrishBill’s latest bit of anti-māori party propaganda in one brief sentence:

You cannot fix any class issue until the race issue is sorted and that won’t be sorted while you are still working everything from the class angle.

Until the Marxist left realises that Māori have their own political identity and generally don’t (won’t and shouldn’t) identify en bloc with non-Māori political movements which require their Māori identity to be subsumed by a transnational class identity, it can’t reliably count on Māori support, and can’t really consider itself an inclusive movement.

Substitute ‘Māori’ for other political minorities if you like – the internationalist movement will only be successful when it learns to accommodate diversity and turn it to political advantage, rather than trying to squash it.

The Clark Labour government’s fundamental inability to realise this (by passing the Foreshore and Seabed Act, most notably) is why the māori party is trying other options. They and their people have had seventeen decades worth of out-of-touch honkeys telling them how to achieve the sort of political and economic progress they want, and at the same time largely denying them the resources with which to achieve such progress. Time for a new strategy, and creating a bidding war between the two main ideological blocs doesn’t look like a bad one, to me.

Hone is right, though – the party is going to have to get a lot more than they have if they want to retain their people’s loyalty and not be seen, come 2011, as the Brown Tories.

L

Deconstructing Democracy, Part 4: Entitlement.

datePosted on 01:41, June 10th, 2009 by Pablo

One of the most divisive issues in modern democracies is the notion of entitlements. In NZ the dividing line mostly centres on interpretations of Te Tiriti and its sequels.  In this discussion I shall try to unpack the concept in order to phrase its importance to sustainable democracy in broader terms.

To that end let us clarify what entitlements are not. Entitlements are not objective rights. Objective rights are universal standards guaranteed and enforced by the State. Contrary to what many believe and the desires of constitution-makers, they are not naturally given or divinely ordained. Rights are not  “objectively” or materially given (contrary to what natural law and capitalist theorists believe).  Instead, people are born into social contexts in which the notion of inalienable or universal rights may or may not exist, and may shift depending on circumstance (think the US government stance on torture under W. Bush). Individual and collective rights are not guaranteed deus ex machina but by human invention. They are a human artifice encoded, enshrined or ensured by human instrument. Thus, be it the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights or civil liberties statutes in any given country, universal rights standards are effectively enforced by States, which are also the primary abusers of individual and collective rights. Universal rights in principle are selectively upheld in practice depending on the disposition of States and the regimes that govern them. In reality they are not natural, innate, inherent or immutable, but instead are the intellectual product of human beings (elites, for the most part) acting upon notions of collective interest in specific historical contexts.  

Although they may overlap with universal rights and are often confused with them, entitlements do not originate in the State and are not always universal or objective. Instead, entitlements are subjectively driven assessments of what is deemed to be expected or “due” a person or group based upon their location in the socio-economic and political context. Such assessments are group and context specific in origins, although “outsiders” may believe in their validity.  Thus, Kazak goat herders may feel that they are entitled to guaranteed pasture; Taiwaneese teenagers may feel that they are entitled to MP3s; Cubans may feel entitled to first class health and education services; Singaporeans may feel entitled to cheap public housing and food; Argentines may believe that they are entitled to a daily ration of “bife” (steak); Tongan fishing villagers may feel entitled to a portion of any day’s catch; Salafists may believe that they are entitled to religious freedom in Christian societies; Pashtun fathers may feel entitled to marry off their daughters as they see fit; African-Americans may feel entitled to affirmative action; physically disabled people may feel entitled to accessible facilities; religious, ethnic and linguistic minorities may feel entitled to observe their differences in a preferential way; Maori and other indigenous groups in post colonial societies may feel that they are entitled to the land, sea and air that comprise the physical boundaries in which they exist, and to continuing the cultural practices of their ancestors.  The point is that all people have a sense of entitlement to something, and that something is a product of historical events and practice translated into current perspective, grievance, and approach, all subjectively assessed from the standpoint of the individual or group in question. Although they may be well-founded and quite necessary for the people in question to lead fulfilling lives, and may in fact be universally shared, these notions of entitlements are not, by definition, rights.

Authoritarians do not much have to worry about reconciling their political projects with notions of entitlement.  They can recognize or disregard entitlements as they please, using force as the ultimate arbiter of disputes arising from differences over who is entitled to what. For democracies however, particularly those in heterogeneous societies with past records of oppression, exploitation and expropriation, addressing the issue of selective group entitlements is central to regime stability. That is where the so-called rights (entitlements?) of the majority may run in conflict with the rights (entitlements?) of minorities. Rights are always universal and State-granted; entitlements may or not be. The question in democracies is how to reconcile them.

Depending on the political strength of any given actor, selective notions of entitlement can be pushed onto the policy-making agenda.  If successful, the promotion of entitlements can lead to legislative recognition, which in turn can lead to the treatment of entitlements as rights. The key to democratic stability is for selective entitlements to be accepted by the majority as if they were universal rights. That assumes majority consensus on the historical record that produces a shared definition and perspective on selected group entitlements as well as their means of achievement or redress. That is, above all, an ideological project.

Rights are defined, bestowed and enforced by the State, in a top-down process of elite attribution and mass application. Entitlements are construed “from below,” originating in grassroots conceptualisations of what is (historically) due to or expected by a given group or groups. In the measure that selective notions of entitlement enter into the majority consciousness as reasonable and fair given a particular history and current context, they then have the chance to become part of the policy process. In the measure that they enter into the purview of the State (as the operational agent for the implementation of policy), they can become synonymous with the general interest. At that point they become State-sanctioned and enforced.  But however conflated their usuage may become, entitlements can never be construed as rights unless they are universally shared. That is why debates on selective entitlements are so heated and divisive. Be it on matters of cultural identity, resource extraction or political representation, the conflict between selective entitlements and universal rights is a permanent feature of the social landscape in modern democratic societies. 

I admit to not having a complete grasp on how to reconcile group entitlements and universal rights in a democracy. Yet in seems that it is one of the most important and intractable issues in the reproduction of the democratic form. Better said, it is the resolution of the entitlements versus rights conundrum that lies at the heart of sustainable democracy in the early 21st century. And that, again, may be in the first instance more of an ideological project than a matter of policy.

Next post: contingency and self-restraint.

Turns out I am a Sensible Moderate™ after all

datePosted on 10:31, June 8th, 2009 by Lew

Normally I despise and distrust political quizzes as misleading trivia, but since this one confirms my existing prejudices about myself I’ll post it anyhow.

My Political Views
I am a center-left moderate social libertarian
Left: 2.64, Libertarian: 2.48

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -6.04

My Culture War Stance
Score: -7.51

Hat-tip: Dave at Big News; and ScrubOne (who seems to be my polar opposite) is apparently compiling another chart of the NZ blogosphere, so everyone knows which canned propaganda terms correctly apply to whom.

L

Deconstructing Democracy: Introduction.

datePosted on 19:38, May 26th, 2009 by Pablo

Anita’s post below on raising democratic children was meaningful to me because I was primarily raised in authoritarian societies, was involved in anti-authoritarian activities in my youth and first got to vote when I arrived in the US to attend university (under Nixon!). Later as a single parent I worked hard to raise my kids in what I liked to call a “triangular” social democratic family (Dad and two kids with a reasonably equitable sharing of household rights and responsibilities given our respective life positions). Although we do not agree on many issues, I can confidently say that they are both politically engaged.

I spent a large part of the Reagan years living on and off in Latin America studying processes of authoritarian demise and democratic (re)constitution, spent the early 1990s working in and out of the US government, then decided to emigrate to NZ once the kids were old enough to fend for themselves. In NZ I initially found one of the two freest places I have lived in (along with Uruguay), but then unhappily watched the corrosion of democratic values in both political and civil society over the next decade. I am now again involuntarily living under yet another authoritarian regime (not quite as murderous as the ones of my youth), and having written previously about the dilemmas of democratic consolidation in post-authoritarian societies, I have time to reflect from afar on what the term means to me, with specific reference to NZ.  Once I finish the current book project I am working on, I intend to write a book about the subject of democracy in transitional societies, and to that purpose have begun to deconstruct my thought on what democracy involves.

Over the next few blog posts I will sketch out my preliminary thoughts on the issue (these are too long for one post). The reason I do so is not so much as a self-indulgent attempt to see what the thoughts look like on paper, but because I think that sometimes people who have lived their entire lives in a democratic society lose sight of what that really means and what it involves. Perhaps it takes someone who has experience with both dictatorial and democratic systems to cast fresh light on the latter. That is my purpose here.

To begin with, we must separate “democracy” into its procedural and substantive dimensions. Procedural democracy refers to the means (procedures) by which political power is acquired and maintained. Substantive democracy refers to the three dimensions on which democratic societies are reproduced: institutional, societal and economic. I explain each in turn.

Procedural democracy is characterised by free and open competitive elections between self-constituted political actors awarded equal legal status and free from interference from the state, with an unencumbered right to vote shared by the entire adult population of citizens (and in the case of NZ, permanent residents, of which I am one).  This much is the obvious procedural minimum–there is more with regard to how the selection of incumbents of political decision-making positions is accomplished. But the key points are the freedom of expression, preference and competition embedded in the concept of procedural democracy; and the fact that elections, in and of themselves, have no intrinsic worth. By themselves elections are just a procedure, or as a Chilean observer once commented, a type of “secular communion” held at regular intervals by the electorate to consecrate their commitment to the political form as well as to select those who shall temporarily rule.

That is where substantive democracy comes in. Elections without institutional, societal and economic underpinnings are all procedure and no substance. Ferdinand Marcos held (and won) regular elections, as did the PRI regime in Mexico and Brazilian military regime of 1964-1985. The country where I am currently living has regular elections as well, but the outcome is pre-determined: the ruling party always wins. Thus, what matters most for the constitution and consolidation of democracy is not holding elections, but the substantive reproduction of democracy in its institutional, societal and economic dimensions.

Institutional democracy refers to the organization of the state apparatus and collective actors, the rules that bind them, and the forms of interaction they engage. The guiding principle of institutional democracy is transparency, equality and accountability. Institutions, both public and private, big and small, operate in away that minimizes preferential bias or ascriptive intrusions in their governance and outputs. The notions of polyarchy and pluralism apply here. Good representation of the concept is the notion that “justice is blind” or that collective agents and public officials are responsible (effectively answerable) to their principals. Needless to say, even in an advanced liberal democracy like NZ, the reality is somewhat less than the ideal.

That may be due to difficulties at the societal level. Societal democracy refers to the inculcation of notions of consent, concession, compromise, collective interest, equality, solidarity, individual rights, mutual consideration, egalitarianism and legitimate exchange. This promotes general belief in tolerance, respect for difference, non-hierarchical outlooks and negotiated solutions in the pursuit of mutual second-best collective outcomes (as opposed to self-interested first choice maximization of opportunities). It also promotes a (relatively) high degree of public participation in politically-oriented activity (including participation in the type of demonstrations seen in Auckland the past few days). This is what distinguishes democratic from authoritarian societies. Yet here too the ideal is not matched by reality even in the most mature of democracies–but it remains an aspirational objective.

Part of the reason societal democracy is less than perfect is due to failures to achieve economic democracy. At an economic level substantive democracy involves a general agreement within society that favours political guarantees for maintaining a minimum standard of living and just compensation for productive labour. It includes acceptance of minimum health and welfare standards for those who are structurally unemployable (i.e., through no fault of their own). The means of achieving economic democracy are much debated, but the fact of its necessity is not.

There is a fair bit of argument about what dimension should come first. Does procedural-institutional democracy precede societal and economic democracy (as liberal theorists claim), or, as Marxists argue, is the process the reverse? Can it be imposed by external actors, and if so, on which dimensions? (I would argue that in most cases it cannot). The degree to which a society has moved towards achieving procedural and substantive democracy helps distinguish between liberal, illiberal, exclusionary, delegative and radical democratic systems. As an example, let us imagine that we can “score” democratic “value” points based on a continuum from least to most (please note that this is my subjective rating for heuristic purposes and does not use Freedom House or Transparency International scores). Generally speaking, arrayed on a scale of 1-10 (1=undemocratic; 10=democratic utopia), countries are considered democratic if they score above 5 on all dimensions (a minimum of 20 points). Moreover, that score is not static or immutable–it varies over time depending on socio-economic, demographic and political conditions. Thus, when I arrived in NZ in 1997 I scored the country as a 8 on a procedural level, 8 on an institutional level, 9 on a societal level and a 7 on an economic level. By 2007 my scores for NZ were 7.5, 7, 8 and 8 ( a net decline of 1.5 democratic “value” points). In contrast, I had the US scored in 1997 as 6, 6, 8 and 7, moving to 5., 5.5, 7.5 and 6 under the reign of George W. Bush. As for the country I am currently living in, the scores are 1.5, 5, 6.5 and 1.

The point is not to argue for the precision of these scores. The point is that democracy is a living, breathing entity, one that reproduces dialectically across the above-mentioned dimensions, and one that is susceptible to decline if it does not reproduce a minimum threshold of democratic “value” across them. In subsequent posts I shall elaborate on the five factors that need to be reconciled for this to occur. These are consent, uncertainty, contingency, entitlements and self-restraint. In the next post I shall address the issue of consent as the foundation of hegemonic rule, and of  democracies specifically. 

For the moment suffice it to say that I endorse Anita’s insightful remarks about the early political socialisation of children, as that constitutes a precondition for the achievement of societal and institutional democracy.

PS: Please feel free to weigh in. All reasoned views welcome–after all, I have a book project in mind!

Symbolic bidding war?

datePosted on 10:47, May 8th, 2009 by Lew

I have long defended the māori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;

  • The decision is theirs to make on behalf of those Māori who form their constituency, not the decision of well-meaning Pākehā, or Māori who vote for other parties. They made clear before the election that it might happen; there is no credible argument for bait-and-switch.
  • By emphasising that the relationship of Māori with Labour is at arm’s length, they send the signal that no party can afford to disregard Māori as Labour did with the Foreshore and Seabed Act. Furthermore, if they can make the relationship with National work (and admittedly that’s a pretty big if) then it puts the māori party in a strong strategic position to promote a bidding war for the Māori policy agenda come the 2011 election and beyond.

The Key government’s record on Māori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for māori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.

So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the māori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for Māori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats.

The common objection from ideologues who opposed the māori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:

I’m actually more than a little surprised the Mâori Party is prepared to back something which effectively offers indigenous peoples no more than aspirational statements.

The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.

Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take Māori issues seriously.

L

Gang whack-a-mole

datePosted on 00:52, May 7th, 2009 by Lew

actpower1This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.

Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.

The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.

This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.

But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.

Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by Māori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.

Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.

Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!

L

Trotter: more on the h

datePosted on 00:03, April 7th, 2009 by Lew

This blog is almost becoming Kiwipoliticoh, since given my limited time at present I’m having to pick my battles.

I’m pleased Chris Trotter has come to terms with his inner racist. His characteristically torrid column is basically a rehash of the bogus arguments I discredited here, which Chris has apparently not bothered to read, much less answer the questions I pose in it. His latest column makes explicit what I wrote in the first post on the matter and discussed in more general terms in another post – that people pick an ideological side on matters like this and employ whatever post-hoc rationalisations they need to convince themselves of that position. I freely admit I’ve done the same in this h debate – to me, as to most, it just seems obvious which side is in the right, and that’s a sure sign of ideological knee-jerk. The difference is that my position has some weight of philosophical and legal precedent and linguistic and geographic fact behind it, not just settler ideology.

The column is not pure rehash, though – it’s got some new hash thrown in for good measure, and none of it any more useful than the first lot. It is the canard that by changing a European name back to a Māori name the former is somehow “obliterated” or “expunged” from history. The very examples Chris gives to support this absurd contention disproves it, and moreover it shows the naked settler racism of the position.

Names are important, and to his credit Chris does not succumb to the smug `haven’t those maaris got more important things to worry about’ rhetoric, hoever he over-eggs his pudding a bit here. If, on its own, changing a name genuinely did obliterate and expunge it from history and this was a necessarily bad thing, then Chris ought for consistency’s sake to form a club to protect Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie Roads, in danger of being so obliterated and expunged by the nefarious newcomer Bowalley Road. The fact is that those names have not been lost – they have faded from common usage but remain a part of the fabric of local culture, to be remembered and celebrated, as they are. If the change goes ahead, nobody except the fearmongers such as Trotter and Laws are suggesting that all historical references to Wanganui be struck from the records, or that a great terminology purge be conducted. The name and the fact of its usage for a century and a half will stand in the documentary record, as it ought to. The generations currently living here will mostly go on using Wanganui, and even many businesses will not bother to change their stationery, out of a dogged loyalty to the identity or out of simple inertia.*

Instead of mourning the loss of Beaulieu, Bewley and Baldie, Chris lionises the upstart Bowalley Road in the very name of his blog. This reveals that Chris accepts that some names have more intrinsic value than others, and on this point I agree with him. Where we disagree is on the basis by which we determine which of an exclusive pair of names should take precedence over the other, a simple matter of logic which I covered in the first post.

Now for the racism: having accepted that some names have more value than others, and having chosen to privilege the colonial name over the traditional name, Chris and others like him essentially say “the settler tradition is more valuable and important than the Māori tradition”. If the case were a marginal one, or if there were two equal competing claims, this would be fair enough – I’m not suggesting that all or even most names ought to be Māori names by right – but in a case where there is a clearly and obviously correct name which isn’t being used in preference to a clearly and obviously incorrect name, the implied statement changes from “the settler tradition is more important than the Māori tradition” to become “settler mistakes are more important than the Māori tradition”, which is much more pejorative. It essentially says “our ignorance is worth more than your identity”, and that, right there, is colonialism in a nutshell.

The battle will be an fierce one, and the troops are massing. The NZGB has signalled that numerical advantage – `preponderance of community views’ – isn’t enough to prevent the change, but it also grants significant weight to those views. In a bald attempt to strengthen their crude majoritarian argument before the NZGB, the Wanganui District Council (which, oddly, will not have to change its name even if the city name changes) has decided to seek a legal opinion on the NZGB’s decision, and to hold another referendum on the spelling of the name. As if there is such a thing, they plan to “conduct a neutral information campaign” on the matter beforehand, though it isn’t clear how they plan on ensuring even a fig-leaf of neutrality – will the council (who voted against the change) argue the sans-h case while Te Runanga o Tupoho (who brought the petition to the NZGB) argues the h case? Will the council pretend it can be neutral on this matter? And what is the purpose of an information campaign anyway, when they, better than anyone else, know that this isn’t a matter of logical, dispassionate assessment of facts and history – it’s a matter of picking sides. I watch the carrion birds circling with interest.

L

* Incidentally, the Wanganui Chronicle had a good laugh at itself and its readership on April 1 with a front-page story announcing that the name would be changed to the Whanganui Chronicle. Good on them! A few days later the editorial apologised to all those who had been taken in, saying that they’d thought the story too absurd to be believable.

NZGB to settlers:

datePosted on 14:28, March 31st, 2009 by Lew

Matters of linguistic and geographic fact are determined by meritorious debate, not majoritarian opinion.

Yesterday the New Zealand Geographic Board announced that there is a valid case for the name of the city of Wanganui to be spelt in its correct rendition of Whanganui. (I posted on this issue twice recently.)

The NZGB explicitly rejected the majoritarian argument, stating that the debate was important, not just the show of hands:

The Board noted the results of a referendum held in 2006, when a considerable number of Wanganui residents indicated their preference to retain the current spelling. However, the Board was conscious that declining the proposal at this point would not allow views both for and against to be expressed

Michael Laws has predictably come out calling this an attack on democracy. Unfortunately for demagogues like Laws (fortunately for the rest of us) facts are not democratically determined. Facts are defined by their relationship to reality, not by their relationship to majority opinion. Democracy is good for a very large number of things, but it’s very poor indeed for determining matters of actual factual observable and demonstrable reality.

But the really important aspect of the NZGB’s release are the implications of the following two statements:

“Wanganui, the name given to the town to reflect its position near the mouth of the Whanganui River, was spelt incorrectly and has never been formally gazetted by this Board or its predecessors. It is therefore not currently an official New Zealand place name.”

[…]

“While the Board acknowledges the historical transcription was based on the local pronunciation, the mechanics of standardising a previous unwritten language, together with its full meaning/translation, signal that the name was intended to be ‘Whanganui’. This is about correcting a mistake made more than 150 years ago.”

In these statements Dr Don Grant suggests that a local council may not by simple fiat enshrine an error as a norm – the origin of that error matters, and if its correctness is disputed then the intention of those who originated it becomes relevant. This implies a burden of proof on those wanting to retain the current no-h spelling to demonstrate that those who originally spelt the name that way intended to do so – thereby coining a new word. That is an untenable position held only by those with no genuine arguments of merit, whose leader Laws stated that people who didn’t like the current spelling could go to `Fuckatanay’ (as he pronounced it), neatly highlighting the crass idiocy of the position.

It is also an important matter of precedence. My arguments have been based on the idea that the current spelling of `Wanganui’ is the correct spelling in law, while Dr Grant made quite clear that it has no legitimacy, having never been formally recognised by the body properly constituted to do so, which is not the Wanganui District Council. Because of this, the decision the NZGB needs to make is not whether to confirm the de jure status quo spelling as the settlers suggest, but whether to give the de facto spelling precedence over the de jure status quo, which (since no alternative spelling has been approved by the properly-constituted body) can only be Whanganui. The core of the settler position is this claim to the status quo, that possession is nine tenths of the law and that since the name is currently in settler possession it is theirs to define and use as they wish without consideration to others or to the historical, linguistic and geographic facts of the matter. The status quo in this case is clearly on the side of the h: if the settlers cannot convince the board of their claim it will not remain as Wanganui but will revert to the correct spelling. That’s a huge difference.

Submissions open in mid-May. If you have an argument you want heard on this, make a submission. The debate matters.

L

BK Drinkwater replied several days ago to my post on the core philosophical difference between Labour and National. Unfortunately I’ve been too busy (with work and with caring for family members at either end of their lives) to give very much attention to this sort of thing, and this state will continue for the foreseeable future. His is a good post, and although it’s couched as a critique of mine, I mostly agree with it. It’s not so much arguing a different point than mine as looking at the issue more deeply. I especially like his restatement of the matter in formal terms:

The big question, and this is the one that will probably decide which camp of economic thought you pitch your tent in, is this: to what extent do the ill social products of income inequality compound as according to income inequality, and does this effect rival the benefits of economic growth to the point where you’re willing to see less of the latter?

A therefore B (therefore A)
I was in the initial post perhaps a bit vague about which parts of my argument were the hypothesis and which were the evidence to prove it (in truth, they’re both, which is itself problematic). This meant BK accepted the utilitarian dichotomy I raised (greatest good versus least harm), but didn’t follow it completely through. Once followed through, I think it illuminates the reasoning behind both sides’ policy preferences and ideological truisms. I pegged the core philosophical difference to a crude split of those who see the world as being bounteous with opportunity and potential, and those who see it as being fraught with danger and risk. For example:

Classical liberals in National are concerned almost solely with negative rights: the right not to have your stuff stolen, the right not to be raped, etc etc. Labour recognizes also positive rights: the right to a high standard of education and healthcare, the right to share equitably in the prosperity of the nation as a whole.

(Ignoring for a moment that the example isn’t accurate because both National and Labour believe in the things ascribed above to Labour). The notional ambitionist is concerned with negative rights because they see the world as basically beneficial, and consider that if people are just left the hell alone human beings will generally be sweet. The notional mitigationist ideologue, on the other hand, believes that the world is a harsh place, and that minimum entitlements of comfort and dignity should be guaranteed in positive rights. The two positions positions don’t explain the worldview as much as they are derived from the worldview. Other dichotomies map to this with a fair degree of accuracy: the abundance versus scarcity split of how full the glass is represents just one, you can probably think up others.

Above, I used `the world’ deliberately, because I think a good case study for this sort of thing are the linked matters of climate change and peak oil. Ambitionists, by and large, see neither of these as a great problem, because at core they hold an unshakable confidence in humanity’s ability to overcome anything and will find ways to mitigate against both, given enough time and good reason to do so. This is the throughoing theme of Atlas Shrugged. Mitigationists, on the other hand, believe that there are forces greater than humanity and that these problems cannot be overcome – at least not by the ambitionist approach. This is the throughgoing theme of another great dystopic novel, The War of the Worlds, where humanity is saved through no fault of our own but through careful preservation of a lower bound.

These dichotomies are heavily propagandised, and are a significant matter of political identity. I reject much of the Marxist cui bono? approach to explaining political allegiance, and rather think that (warning, rash generalisations follow) the wealthy support National because National reflects their experience that the world is a sweet place where everyone has opportunities, they just have to take them; while the less-wealthy support Labour because Labour reflects their experience that it’s tough to scrape by without a decent base-line of public support. This leads me to my next point: what do people really believe?

Apology
Answer: what their ideological identity tells them to. The dirty little secret of my initial post is that I appealed to utilitarianism because it’s a useful framework, but I don’t actually buy it, and I don’t think very many other people do either. The unstated assumption was that people think rationally about matters like this, in terms of actual utility. I think people should, but I don’t think they do. When it comes to propagandised political identity markers such as these dichotomies, people assess policies or political positions in deontological terms, not in utilitarian terms – they identify themselves with an end and then rationalise the necessary means, inventing or adopting or appropriating arguments which allow them to sleep at night. The question is what does this policy advocate vis-a-vis what I believe to be right rather than what utility will this policy bring vis-a-vis the alternatives. So all this talk about opportunity and risk and discount rates and such is useful in theory, and useful in practice inasmuch as it might form the basis for ideologically resonant arguments which might lead to greater support for better policy outcomes, but I don’t think the question I raised was strictly one of utility – it’s one of identity. Sorry about that.

More on the money proxy
I want to expand on why I have problems with the money proxy, which I touched on in the last post. It’s pretty simple, and explains the reason why I’m not strictly an ambitionist: money is both the means by which we judge a person’s worth (in the human sense) and the resource needed to enjoy the comfort and dignity to which I (and most people) believe human beings are entitled by simple virtue of their being human beings. Because the same thing is used as both a means and an end, there is inevitable conflict: by denying people access to sufficient food, healthcare, accomodation, etc. on the grounds that they cannot afford to buy it for themselves, a society tacitly says: you are not worth it because you do not have enough money. This, to me, is not acceptable. If we cannot divorce the value of a person’s dignity, comfort and wellbeing from the monetary cost of sustaining it, what’s the purpose of society?

I suppose that’s my A.

L

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