Archive for ‘Politics’ Category
Although I always knew that “hope and change” was a rhetorical chimera rather than a realizable objective, and understand full well that the US presidency is a strait jacket on the ambitions of those who occupy its office, I am one of those who have been disappointed by the Obama administration on several counts.
I fully understand that he inherited a mess and has done well to dig out from under it, particularly with regard to revitalizing the economy and disengaging from two unpopular wars. With some caveats, I support the drone campaign against al-Qaeda. I support his health care reforms, his support for gay marriage and his efforts to promote renewable energy. I support his measured endorsement of the Arab Spring coupled with his cautious approach to intervention in Libya and Syria, where he has used multilateral mechanisms to justify and undertake armed intervention against despotic regimes (US intervention being mostly covert, with the difference that in Libya there was a no-fly zone enforced by NATO whereas in Syria there is not thanks to Russian opposition).
But I am disappointed in other ways. The failure to close the detention facility at the Guantanamo Bay Marine and Naval base, and the failure to put those detained there on trial in US federal courts because of local political opposition, are foremost amongst them. Now, more egregious problems have surfaced.
It turns out that after the attacks on the US consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012, the administration removed from its “talking points” for press briefings and interviews the facts that the attack was conducted by al-Qaeda affiliates (and were not a spontaneous response to an anti-Islamic on-line video, as was claimed), that repeated requests for security reinforcement at the consulate before the attacks were denied in spite of warnings about imminent threats, and then military assets were withheld during the incident (which lasted eight hours).
The public deception was out of proportion to the overall impact of the attack. Whether or not al-Qaeda affiliates conducted it, serious questions about the lack of security were bound to be raised. The White House appears to have panicked under campaign pressure about the significance of the date of the attack and who was attacking (a purely symbolic matter), compounding the real issue of State Department responsibility for the security failures involved.
While not as bad as the W. Bush administration fabricating evidence to justify its rush to war in Iraq, it certainly merits condemnation.
There is more. It turns out the IRS (the federal tax department, for those unfamiliar with it), undertook audits of right-wing political organizations seeking tax-exempt status as non-profit entities. IRS auditors were instructed to use key words and phrases such as “Patriot,” “Tea Party” and other common conservative catch-phrases as the basis for deeper audits of organizations using them. That is against the law, albeit not unusual: the W. Bush administration engaged in the same type of thing.
Most recently it has been revealed that the Department of Justice, led by Attorney General Eric Holder (a recent visitor to NZ), secretly obtained two months of phone records from over 100 Associated Press reporters and staff, to include their home land lines, office and cell phones (in April-May 2012). The purpose was to uncover leaks of classified information about counter-terrorism operations to reporters after AP managers refused to cooperate with government requests to divulge the sources of leaks. That made the phone tapping legal. But there was an option: the government could have subpoenaed those suspected of receiving leaks and forced them to testify under oath as to their sources.
The main reason I am disappointed is that the Obama administration should have been better than this. I never expected the W. Bush (or the Bush 41, Reagan or Nixon administrations) to do anything but lie, cover up, fabricate, intimidate and manipulate in pursuit of their political agendas. They did not disappoint in that regard. But I do expect Democrats in general, and Obama in particular, to behave better in office. They are supposedly the defenders of the common folk, upholders of human rights and civil liberties, purportedly staunch opponents of corporate excess and abuses of privilege.
Republicans inevitably use public office to target domestic opponents and bend the law in favor of the rich and powerful. Democratic administrations are supposed to be better because, among other things, they know the consequences of such manipulation. Yet apparently they are not, even if these events pale in comparison to the crimes and misdemeanors of Republican administrations.
I am not being naive. I spent time working in federal agencies under both Republican and Democratic administrations in the 1980s and 1990s, and the difference in approach to the public trust, at least in the fields that I worked in, were great and palpable. It would seem that the things have changed since then.
Democratic governance often involves the compromise of principles in the pursuit of efficiency or cooperation in policy-making. There are always grey areas in the conduct of national affairs, and there are events and actions where reasons of necessity make secrecy more important than transparency in governance. The actions outlined above are neither.
I still prefer Obama to any of the GOP chumps that rail against him. But as John Stewart makes clear in this funny but scathing (and profane) critique, he and his administration have just stooped closer to their level.
Hence my disappointment.
I disagree with Pablo’s post about media treatment of the Aaron Gilmore saga — but I only disagree a little. In my view the Gilmore case is “stuff that really matters”, but I do agree with Pablo that most of the coverage of it isn’t getting to the “stuff that really matters” elements of the case nearly well enough, and that it is displacing coverage of more crucial issues from the agenda. All the stories Pablo mentions are worthy of much more, and more in-depth reporting than they have received. Two other points Pablo makes are particularly valuable — that “blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised”, and that “the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment.”
The Gilmore story is important, as are those others — but the coverage is so individuated to him that it makes the issues seem trivial, because ultimately, if you reduce the story to that of a drunken backbencher, it is. At the heart of the Gilmore saga is the abuse of power, and the problem is that the coverage is about Aaron Gilmore’s attempted abuse of his own power, not about a culture within the National Party and the government where the abuse of power is not merely acceptable, but routine and expected.
The deep questions — how such a megalomaniac got into an electable position on a party list; who, having been apprised of these born-to-rule tendencies after previous incidents of this sort, approved his position; and the implications of this for the health of our democracy — these are important questions. They haven’t really been asked, or answered, though Matthew Hooton, of all people, had a go at it early on.
The John Key National-led government has a lot of form for bad and self-serving appointments, and for the abuse of power. This has presented opportunities for the opposition to frame them as serial cronyists, which they haven’t been able to take. (I wrote a couple of things about this in the first term — it’s not new). And it’s still going: to hear locals tell it, how Gerry Brownlee and CERA are treating Eastern Christchurch isn’t all that different in its principles to how Aaron Gilmore treats waiters and public servants. (The difference is that they have real power.) Recent appointments on the basis of loyalty or malleability at the expense of quality or expertise include Catherine Isaac to implement charter schools, Ian Fletcher as head of the GCSB and Dame Susan Devoy as race relations commissioner.
This is a government which has been particularly unconcerned with even the appearance of due process, and this should be acknowledged in every story on this topic. There’s no credible argument they hadn’t done due diligence on Aaron Gilmore — he was already in Parliament once. Why do they appoint people like this, and why do they get away with it?
The hard truth is that political parties will overlook an awful lot if there’s a financial or electoral advantage to doing so, just as corporations will. Militaries will overlook almost literally anything, up to and including the mass murder of civilians. This is true of the “nice” guys as well as the nasty ones — the Obama administration’s continuing support of Guantanamo Bay and its increasing use of UAVs are two clear examples of this. Apple products are manufactured by the notoriously exploitative Foxconn (Apple is far from alone in this, but we’re supposed to think Apple is somehow better than others). For a recent local example, see the Labour Party’s dogged defence of Taito Phillip Field, whose abuse of vulnerable workers cut directly against everything a Labour party ought to stand for. There are many more.
The fundamental reason this sort of behaviour is endemic is that we — as voters, or in the corporate case, as consumers — reward it with our votes, or our wallets, or both. Parties and companies that eschew these methods tend to lose to those who accept them as an ethical cost of doing business because while we are happy to get outraged, when the chips are really down, we don’t actually care that much about this sort of thing. It doesn’t really change our behaviour.
The danger is that people start caring, and more importantly, start remembering, and changing their behaviour. If the Aaron Gilmore affair haunts the National party — and the other parties — such that they see a strong downside risk to appointing cronies, selecting megalomaniacs for their lists, and generally swaggering around as if they own the place, we’ll all be better off. If parties are forced to accept responsibility for their bad decisions, and as a consequence to select better people and implement better systems of accountability and conduct, cultures of power-abuse will abate. Incidentally, this is why I don’t favour a rule that allows parties to eject rogue MPs from Parliament* — the Nats bought Aaron Gilmore, they own him. We should judge the entire party by his actions.
But for this sort of change to occur, we need media coverage to develop those real critiques of the exercise of power, rather than critiques of an obnoxious individual who is ultimately just a product of larger cultural systems. That would make this sort of wall-to-wall coverage worthwhile.
* Though I still believe any credible political leader should be resourceful enough to find ways to persuade rogue MPs to resign.
National has to be delighted about the coverage of their drunken bully boy last on the list MP, Aaron Gilmore. Coalition partner John Banks is in court on issues of political corruption. National is trying to ram through under urgency a gross expansion of domestic espionage courtesy of the amendments to the GCSB Act. What does the media focus on? Not-so-happy Gilmore. If I were the PM, I would milk the Gilmore story for all its worth, always looking chagrined.
There are very serious issues being discussed this week. US Attorney General Eric Holder is currently in the country. This is the person who authorized the FBI extradition pursuit of Kim Dotcom that resulted in the over the top raid on Dotcom’s home and subsequent legal debacle that is the case against him and which resulted in the Kitteridge report that recommended the organizational and legal changes now being proposed. As I allude to in the immediately previous post, the findings of a military inquiry about major failures in command and training in Afghan deployments have been released but not made public (huh?). The Green/Labour attempt to disrupt asset sales could be a watershed political moment.
Yet all of these take a back seat to the habitual escapades of a dolt working hard at being a lout.
Note to the media: although the salacious details of an inconsequential politician’s idiocy might seem worth mining, especially if it seems that he could wound the government, the real stories are dead and centre in front of you. Smelling shallow blood in the water is not akin to developing real critiques of the way power is exercised.
Note to the PM and the media that take his ignorance or obfuscation at face value: the problem of Gilmore’s unwillingness to resign stems not from MMP but from political party charters regarding their lists in an MMP environment. The two things are quite different.
Contrary to what the government would hope and TVNZ would like to believe, Seven Sharp is an idiot echo chamber, not a news aggregator, and therefore should not be used as a model for selecting which stories deserve emphasis.
Time to get off of the shellacked curly-cued imp and onto the issues that actually matter.
Phil Goff is in the spotlight for supposedly leaking the results of a suppressed NZDF inquiry into the suicide of a soldier in Bamiyan Province, Afghanistan, on April 3, 2012. From what I can tell, what Mr. Goff has publicly commented about had already appeared in various media, so I do not believe that he leaked any suppressed details.
The inquiry focused on the deployment of the NZDF rotation to Bamiyan known as CRIB 19 (September 2011-April 2012). Besides the suicide, the inadequate training of CRIB 19 prior to deployment to Bamiyan has already been reported (as have complaints about the training of the ill-fated CRIB 20, which suffered five combat deaths in two ambushes). CRIB 19 only had three weeks (rather than five) of training prior to deployment (a 40 percent reduction), with some modules apparently taught on the flights into the theater or upon arrival. The deployment was also abruptly extended from six to eight months. The soldier killed himself in the last month of that extended deployment.
It appears that the NZDF is trying to suppress a full report on the command failures involved. The excuse that CRIB 19 could not receive full training prior to deployment due to RWC duties is laughable and an insult to the public’s intelligence. For example, since rotations to Bamiyan were planned well in advance, does it really seem plausible that those designated for deployment were diverted to crowd control and other logistical support connected to the RWC rather than to combat or at least conflict zone preparations? With a complement of 6000 Army and another 6000 in the Air Force and Navy, could not 100-200 soon-to-be deployed soldiers and sailors been spared RWC duties?
Given that there were/are serious hand-off and hand-on issues involving PRT/NZDF command leadership and personnel changes in foreign theaters, can it be true that the RWC threw a spanner into what was by that decision time an opened and extended international security commitment known locally as a longer tour of NZDF duty and commitment to major ISAF allies?
Put shorty: did successive New Zealand governments commit troops to Afghanistan (and Bamiyan) under false or changing pretenses and then blamed rugby for the contradictions in its policy enforcement?
As an aside, it should be noted that the size of the NZDF PRT contingent grew steadily over the years, from around 50 in the first rotation to nearly 200 in the last. That is one indication of the deteriorating security situation in Afghanistan during the course of the Bamiyan PRT mission. It would also indicate that more rather than less conflict-related training prior to deployment was advisable given the obvious mission creep.
If CRIB 19 personnel were diverted to RWC duties to the extent that their training time was shortened before they deployed into a combat zone and then their deployment was extended by two months without notice and without the usual leave provisions, then that is a command failure. Worse yet, if–and I emphasize that this is only an if–the training time was shortened as a result of cost-cutting measures undertaken by the NZDF as part of the government’s across-the-board spending cuts, then it was a political as well as a command failure. Whatever the case, the reasons for the shortened training needs to be explicated in better detail than the simple “they were on RWC duty” line.
After all, sending people into harms way without adequate training is nothing short of criminally negligent.
Whatever happened to the disinfectant impact that the light of public scrutiny has on government (and this case NZDF) behavior? If ever there was a need for such light, it is in the case of CRIB 19.
Nearing the second anniversary of Osama bin-Laden’s death, it might be wise to pause and reflect on his legacy. The purpose is to give an objective appraisal rather than to engage in emotive debate or prejorative discourse.
Bin-Laden’s major legacy is one of ideological inspiration: he cemented in the minds of some sectors of the global Islamic community the idea that Western encroachments on Muslim societies, particularly that of the US, could be resisted with irregularly deployed armed force. These actions need not be spectacular, such as the 9/11 attacks. They could equally be low-level, localized and home-grown so long as they were persistent and unpredictable. There cumulative effect would increase the anxiety of the targeted (mostly but not exclusively Western) populations while prompting an over-reaction by their respective security authorities that impacted on basic notions of civil liberties, individual freedoms and collective rights. The sum effect would be risk aversion by non-Muslims when it came to imposing non-traditional values and interests on Muslim societies.
With regard to the US, bin-Laden’s broader strategic objective, as former CIA officer and bin-Laden profiler Michael Scheuer has pointed out, was to over-extend the US military in an ongoing global unconventional conflict unconfined to national borders or specific regions, which would result in economic bankruptcy and ensuing political polarization within the US. That in turn would prompt the resurgence of isolationist and pacifist tendencies within the US public that would erode support for foreign policies of intervention in Muslim lands.
Although the strategic concept vis a vis the US has not been fulfilled to its ideal, it seems to have been in some measure successful: the costs of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq contributed to the fiscal crisis that led to the 2008 recession and ensuing politics of austerity. Iraq was a strategic over-reach (and mistake) by the Bush 43 administration intent of demonstrating its resolve as well as its military might. Increasingly polarized over basic notions of identity and values, the US public has nevertheless become more collectively risk adverse when it comes to engagement in foreign conflicts, something reflected in the tenor of politics within the Washington beltway.
Likewise, the Afghanistan conflict went from being an attack on al-Qaeda and its Taliban protectors to a war of occupation without end under the guise of “nation-building” and “security assistance.” The material costs of both wars have been phenomenal and the human costs, if not counted in the billions, have been equivalent to those of Vietnam and the Korean Conflict. Previously dormant ethno-religious tensions have been awakened in Asia, Europe and North America with ill political and social effect. The politics of toleration, once a hallmark of Western democracy, now competes with xenophobia and religious separatism for electoral favor. Even Australia and New Zealand are not immune from the syndrome.
In terms of the armed conflict itself, there are now two broad fronts involving two very different strategies at play from a “jihadist” point of view. On the one hand, attacks in stable nation-states with minority Muslim populations have devolved into dispersed, decentralized, self-radicalized grassroots small cell operations in which elements of the Muslim diaspora use their local knowledge to conduct symbolic attacks on host societies. Modeled on Che Guervara’s “foco” (wildfire) theory of guerilla warfare as channeled by Carlos Marighella with his “two-prong” strategy of simultaneous urban and rural insurgency, the objective is not just one of symbolic protest but also to prompt a blanket over-reaction by local authorities in which many are targeted for the crimes of a few.
The lock-down in Boston during the one suspect manhunt after the marathon bombings, a clear violation of the fourth amendment to the US BIll of Rights prohibiting unwarranted searches and seizures (ostensibly done in the interest of “public safety”), is a case in point. More generally, the suspension of civil liberties under a variety of anti-terrorist legislation in a number of Western democracies, to include New Zealand, demonstrates just how successful bin-Laden’s strategy has been at eroding the constitutional pillars of these societies.
That is all the more poignant because Islamic terrorism does not constitute an existential threat to any stable society, Western democratic or not. In fact, one can argue that terrorist acts are more acts of desperation in the face of permanent value or cultural change than it is a defense of tradition or promotion of a preferred alternative (think of the attacks of armed Marxist groups in Europe in the 1970s and 1980s). It may be injurious and tragic for those involved, but in the larger scheme of things it is more akin to the last grasp of a drowning person than it is a serious challenge to the socio-econmic and political status quo.
However, in fragile or unstable states where Muslim populations are a majority or a significant minority, the strategic objective is to gain state control waging more conventional wars. The confluence of historical grievances rooted in traditional forms of discrimination superimposed on territorial or resource disputes lends popular support to jihadist attempts to wrest sovereign control away from pro-western regimes in places like Yemen, Mali, Somalia, and increasingly, Nigeria. Likewise, Muslim irredentists with local grievances engage in guerrilla wars in Chechyna, Thailand, Pakistan the Philippines and Kazakstan, among other places.
In a twist of fate, the so-called “Arab Spring” has allowed battle hardened jihadists from places such as Chechnya, Iraq and Afghanistan to exploit the window of opportunity offered by civil war in places like Libya and Syria to promote their Islamic agendas in solidarity with their local brothers. Courageous, ferocious and determined, these forces provide discipline to otherwise rag-tag resistance movements who in the absence of such help are more likely to be defeated than to prevail.
The impact of these internationalists was felt in Libya, where in spite of covert Western military assistance the jihadists gained a significant toe-hold that has yet to be dislodged. Likewise, the resistance in Syria is increasingly led by black flag fighters drawn from throughout the Sunni world. The possibility of these forces eventually securing power in both countries remains very real.
Not all has gone to plan according to bin-Laden’s dream. The use of lethal drones as a favorite anti-terrorist weapon has decimated al-Qaeda leadership ranks. The military and intelligence campaigns against militant Islamicists have prevented the organization of large-scale attacks such as 9/11 because the number of people and logistics involved invite early detection and proactive response. With the exception of Pakistan, which has strategic reasons for playing both sides of the fence in the so-called “war on terrorism,” Muslim states have largely joined the anti-Islamicist campaign (although Sunni Arab support for the fight against the Gaddafi and Assad regimes is clear). Thus the decentralization of jihadist operations was a practical necessity as much as the second part of a long-term plan.
The bottom line is that although the bin-Laden legacy is mixed, it has been indelible: the world is a changed place as a result of his actions, for better or for worse. But the world is also a different place because of the response to his actions, for better or worse. It is the latter that will determine the fundamental impact of the former long after his death.
A recent TVNZ Colmar Brunton poll showed that 32 percent of those surveyed had little or no trust in New Zealand’s intelligence agencies, 32 percent had much or complete trust in those agencies, and 33 percent were lukewarm either way (with 3 percent undecided). That means that 65 percent of respondents were less than strongly trusting of New Zealand’s spies. This is a remarkable degree of public skepticism of intelligence organizations in a democracy.
The Prime Minister has said that the New Zealand intelligence community has to work hard to regain public trust. He is wrong, or is just being politically polite.
Unlike agencies such as the Land Transport Authority, Police, Fire Service, Health Boards, WINZ and Education, which provide direct goods and services to the public and which depend on public trust in order to operate efficiently (notwithstanding the well-known problems afflicting at least some of these “direct provision” agencies), the intelligence community need not concern itself with expressions of public trust. That is because the service that intelligence agencies provide as ostensibly commonweal organizations (i.e. ones that serve the universal public interest), although for the general good in the last instance (at least theoretically), is not provided directly or even openly. Instead, the intelligence agencies answer to the government of the day as the representative of the public will and provide their collection and analysis skills to the government for the national good as defined by their charter and the government’s interpretation of it. They do not need the public’s trust in order to operate efficiently because most of what they do is away from the public eye.
Thus, in the first instance, the trust of the government is what matters for the spies. In this the intelligence community has an advantage because politicians elected into government are generally not conversant with intelligence matters and therefore are susceptible to espionage agency “capture:” the information that the spies provide gives the political elite a privileged window on the world, so they are most often reluctant to critically dispute the view.
More importantly, New Zealand’s intelligence sharing partners must have strong levels of trust in its spies. Without that, New Zealand’s access to allied intelligence sharing may suffer because foreign partners will be reluctant to risk placing sensitive information in the hands of untrustworthy people. The saving grace for New Zealand’s spies is that the years of relationship-building with its intelligence partners could allay the latter’s fears of incompetence or unprofessionalism on the part of the former.
On the other hand, even long standing relationships can be damaged by breaches of trust. This could well be the case in the wake of the Dotcom scandal, where the case against the internet magnate is crumbling in light of disclosures of illegal warrantless wiretapping by the GCSB (which makes evidence collected by those wiretaps inadmissible). Between the GCSB’s failures to follow its own basic protocols with regards to eavesdropping requests from sister agencies, coupled with the over the top nature of the raids on Dotcom’s residence (which included the presence of armed FBI agents and the detention of women and children by armed police), it is unlikely that any NZ judge will grant the US extradition request. That means time and resources spent by the US and NZ on pursuing the case against Dotcom will be for naught. The GCSB failings are bound to be noted by New Zealand’s intelligence partners, who will wonder about the assurances given by the GCSB and Police (and more than likely the SIS) that their course of action would not be subject to legal challenge or public scrutiny.
The bottom line is one of vertical and horizontal accountability. In democracies, governments are held accountable by the electorate (expressed both individually and collectively). That is the vertical dimension of accountability. Under that government, public agencies are accountable to each other via a system of checks and balances. That is the horizontal dimension of democratic accountability, which is used to cultivate the public trust that is key to vertical accountability.
In New Zealand there is very little horizontal accountability between the intelligence community and other parts of government, to include parliament and the judiciary (and perhaps even the executive in specific instances). This makes its agents (to include the GCSB and SIS) even less vertically accountable than in most liberal democracies, where oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms are much better developed.
As a nation-state New Zealand is also accountable to its diplomatic and security partners. That is another facet of horizontal accountability, writ large. New Zealand’s foreign partners must have trust in its diplomatic, military and espionage agencies in order for their mutual relationships to prosper. So long as they do, domestic trust is of secondary importance. But for that to happen, New Zealand’s intelligence community must be able to deliver on what it promises, which means that it must offer iron-clad guarantees that its activities will not be the subject of contentious public or political debate that can jeopardize ongoing intelligence collection and analysis operations
Thus, on the one hand, the poll results are not as worrisome for the government as may appear at first glance. So long as the New Zealand intelligence community and its component parts have the trust of its allies, then it will suffer no harm as a result of the public loss of faith in it. But should foreign partners come anywhere close to exhibiting the flat bell curve of trust that characterizes the results of the TVNZ survey, then New Zealand could well find itself excluded from at least some of the sensitive intelligence flows that are the ostensible reason for its participation in the Echelon/Five Eyes network, to say nothing of the wider intelligence community of which it is part.
As for the domestic side of the equation: a nation of sheep is led by the sheep dog. The sheep dog is the government, of which intelligence agencies are part. The shepherd is the institutional system of checks and balances that govern intelligence gathering and analysis, to which the government of the moment is subject. Absent such effective oversight, compliance and accountability mechanisms, sheep are always at the mercy of an unrestrained and unaccountable dog.
Last night the New Zealand parliament voted 77-44 on the third reading of the Marriage (Definition of Marriage) Amendment Bill, passing it into law. The strategy I wrote about after the first reading has been spectacularly successful, and marriage equality will be a reality as soon as the bill receives the royal assent.
There were many powerful speeches last night. Louisa Wall discussed the spectrum of cultural traditions around sexual and gender diversity, and called a huge roll of supporters from almost every corner of the political compass.
Maurice Williamson lampooned the supposed “gay onslaught”, celebrated the “big gay rainbow” that had appeared in his electorate this morning as a sign, and hilariously used his training in physics to calculate the amount of time a person of his mass and humidity would burn for in the fires of Hell. “I will last for just on 2.1 seconds — it’s hardly eternity, what do you think?”
Tau Henare gave his old party leader Winston Peters a lesson in political history, why referenda aren’t the answer to everything, and why exactly he is no longer a member of the New Zealand First party.
Mojo Mathers spoke of the pride she felt when her daughter attended the school formal with her girlfriend. And following the vote, in scenes that have been viewed all around the world, the House stood and broke into song.
There were others. But for me the heaviest work of the night was done by Kevin Hague, who got to the very heart of enmity to this bill, and to this cause in general. I’ve quoted him at length, emphasis mine:
Kevin Hague’s measured words and calm delivery obscure a stark and clear-sighted analysis: This is war. The enemy does not regard us as human, and they never will, so we must defeat them utterly. When it comes to GLBTI people, adherents to this creed of brimstone will be satisfied with nothing less than extermination and erasure: they are an existential threat. Although it is often couched in such terms, beneath the veneer theirs is not a rational objection founded in philosophy or pragmatism, in science or honest assessment of tradition; it is simply fear and hatred that burns like the fires they preach. This is not confined to the religious sphere — variants of the brimstone creed exist within secular society, and across a broad ideological spectrum, but they share extremism in common. Much of the discourse around marriage equality, and much of the discourse around related matters, rests on ignoring, minimising or mocking those who stand up for the brimstone creed, but the brilliance of Kevin’s analysis is that he meets them — and it — kanohi ki te kanohi, staring it in the face and recognising it for what it is.
But marriage equality won because it isn’t just an issue for GLBTI people. Ghettoising it as a “gay issue”, (as feminism for generations has been ghettoised as a “women’s issue” and racial equality has been ghettoised as a “black” or a “brown issue”) was a delaying strategy that worked for a time. But no longer. Marriage equality passed because a bill introduced by a gay Māori woman was supported not only by gay Māori women, but by men and women, young and old, homosexuals and heterosexuals and bisexuals, liberals and conservatives, socialists and libertarians, atheists and agnostics and Christians and Muslims, Māori, Pākehā, Pasifika, Chinese and Indians.
All of us who believe in a just society, and an equal society, who believe in a place where ancient prejudices, cultural inertia or the maintenance of privilege cannot justify erasure must fight these battles too. The brimstone creed isn’t just an existential threat to “teh gays” — it is an existential threat to a free and decent society, and we will not have won until we defeat them utterly. There are many more battles like this, and with the clear vision and fierce determination of people like Louisa Wall and Kevin Hague, I am strangely optimistic about fighting them.
I was interviewed on Radio NZ about the controversy surrounding the appointment of Ian Fletcher as GCSB director. I had to leave out a number of important points like the need for objectivity and political neutrality in intelligence operations, or how the PM could have had a surrogate reach out to Fletcher rather than get personally involved in his selection. Otherwise, the gist is here.
I am sure that there will be plenty of eulogies, some fawning and some harsh, for Hugo Chavez. Since I spent a good part of my academic career writing about Latin American politics, to include the nature of national populists such as Chavez and a bit about his regime itself, I am well aware of his shortcomings and strengths. It is in the nature of national populism to be redistributive, mass mobilizational and increasingly authoritarian. As a left-wing variant, the Chavez regime was all of those things, and the fact that the US supported the 2002 coup against him only cemented the increasingly authoritarian direction of the regime. But his authoritarianism was mass rather than elite-based, and it was this mass support that carried him through three terms and four elections. He was no tin pot despot. His rule was a bit more complicated than that of, say, Robert Mugabe, who took a popular national independence movement and turned it into an armed clan-based kleptocracy.
The Achilles heel of national populism is the personalist nature of executive rule. Peron, Vargas, Cardenas and Chavez–all increasingly concentrated power in their own hands, thereby removing institutional checks and balances as well as clear lines of authority and succession. That could be the undoing of the Boliviarian experiment.
After the 2002 coup Chavez purged the military and civilian state bureaucracy of professionals and populated the upper ranks with acolytes. This decreased the efficiency and capabilities of state agencies, both armed and unarmed. He increasingly relied on Cubans for behind the scenes leadership of his internal security services, including his personal bodyguards. He played divide and conquer with his parliamentary counterparts at the same time that he re-jigged the constitution to increase the length of his presidential terms as well as the electoral prospects of his political party. He populated the judiciary with supporters and increasingly restricted freedoms of public expression and the press. He trained and armed supporter militias organized along the lines of the Cuban Auto-Defense Committees. Some of these have been accused of intimidating and assaulting members of the political opposition.
He used inclusionary state corporatist mechanisms of interest group administration that bestowed favor and patronage on supportive groups and excluded or punished non-supportive groups (which thereby polarized civil society organizations). This allowed for top-down direction of the thrust of state policy and funding directed at civil society, but it also gradually surpressed independent and autonomous expressions of grassroots interest.
All of this was justified on the grounds that he faced a disloyal opposition aided and abetted by hostile foreign powers, the US in particular. Although there is an element of paranoia in those claims, there is also a large grain of truth to them. The hard fact is that just the appearance of socialist inclinations on Chavez’s part sent the US into knee-jerk opposition, something that was particularly acute under the Bush 43 administration and was not undone once Obama was elected.
Chavez did much good for Venezuela, particularly in the fields of health, education, welfare and community organization. During his time in power infant mortality rates dropped and literacy rates increased dramatically. The percentage of Venezuelans living in poverty dropped from 50 percent to below 30 percent in ten years. Rural hospitals and schools were built where there previously were none. His regime kept the price of domestic petrol cheap (as it could as a major oil-producing and refining nation), which allowed the poorest segments of the population to weather rises in the price of imported commodities.
In spite of the claims of his detractors, he won four elections handily and relatively cleanly in the eyes of most international election observers. His tenure marks a major historical moment in Venezuelan life, and his legacy will be indelible on it. Whatever his authoritarian tendencies, he was no Pinochet or Somoza. Although his regime selectively repressed the opposition, it did not systematically torture or kill. Nor did it expropriate all private wealth, although it did seek to raises upper-income taxes, nationalize some strategic assets and prevent capital flight via financial controls. Needless to say, this earned him the emnity of Venezuelan elites and their foreign supporters.
He was a close ally of the Cuban regime, but given the common hostility of the US, that was born as much out of necessity than it was out of ideological affinity (truth be told, Raul Castro always thought of Chavez as a buffoon but Fidel was flattered by his attention and both were grateful for his cheap oil supplies. The Cubans worried that he would provoke a confrontation with the US that would suck them in and destabilize them).
He expanded Venezuela’s diplomatic, economic and military relations (towards China, Russia and Iran in particular, but also with other Latin American states) so as to counter-balance the traditional US-focused obsequiousness of his predecessors. He was the motor force behind the solidarity market Latin American trade bloc known as the Boliviarian Alliance for the Americas (ALBA), which among other things rejected IMF and World Bank financial prescriptions. He had significant Latin American popular and governmental support, which was mirrored in international media coverage.
He is alleged to have cultivated relations with Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.
He presided over the deterioration of Venezuela’s core infrastructure, to include its oil production facilities (in which foreign investment dried up in response to his nationalization policies), as well as a dramatic rise in violent crime (Caracas has one of the highest murder rates in the world). He did not stop corruption but merely shifted it in favor of those who wear red berets. Venezuelan consumption of Scotch whisky, already the highest in the world when he assumed power in 1999, increased steadily from then on. He was unable to curb the Venezuelan obsession with female plastic surgery and beauty queens. So not all is well in the Boliviarian Republic. I shall leave it for others to debate the trade-offs involved and the pros and cons of his regime.
On balance, in the Latin American scheme of things Hugo Chavez was a relatively moderate caudillo (strongman) with a staunch independent and redistributive streak and majority popular support until the end.
The real problem at the moment is that his movement has no natural leader to succeed him. Moreover, he was the ideological glue of the regime: it was his vision, his praxis, the drew the course of events. With him gone the ideological basis of the regime is subject to interpretation by contending personalities and factions within the Boliviarian movement. His designated Vice President, Nicolas Maduro, has no independent power base, much less broad support within the Party. He has a serious rival in Diosdado Cabello, a former Army colleague of Chavez’s who is the head of the National Assembly. Cabello has support within the military, whereas Maudro’s support comes from within the union movement and public bureaucracy. Yet neither is visibly stronger than the other, so the backroom maneuvering and in-fighting has begun in earnest (and in fact began when Chavez returned to Cuba for surgery last December).
To this can be added the opposition, which rallied around the figure of Henrique Caprilles Radonski in the October 2012 elections that saw Chavez elected for the fourth time. A presidential election is supposed to be held 30 days after the public announcement of Chavez’s death (March 5). Riding a wave of grief, unity and solidarity, Maduro is the favorite to win that election if he is a candidate. It will be interesting to see if Maduro can maintain his grip on power before or after the elections in the absence of support for his mandate, however electorally affirmed. One thing is certain: Maduro is no Chavez, and everyone knows that.
Caprilles might not run in the immediate elections so as to delegitimize them and allow the Boliviarian in-fighting to proceed unimpeded and without a common political enemy to focus on. Whatever happens over the short-term, the bigger question is whether the Boliviarian experiment can outlive its creator. Can there be Chavismo without Chavez? Given the dynamics at play within and without the Boliviarian regime, the odds are not entirely favorable.
For the time being we will be treated to the grand spectacle of a Venezuelan state funeral, where the streets will be awash in red and the dignitaries will include a who’s who of US adversaries and critics, Hollywood leftists and very few heads of state from the developed capitalist world. As for Chavez–will his afterlife smell of sulphur or of something more pleasant?
Richard Prosser’s xenophobic and bigoted remarks about Muslims (which are not racist, since he was targeting a religion, not an ethnic or racial group) has rightfully met with wide-spread opprobrium. More than a comment about Muslims, his remarks say a lot about him on several levels. Let’s just leave it at this: That he was prompted to air his views by having his pocket knife confiscated at an airport security gate, then actually took the time to write out his thoughts in a magazine op-ed, make it clear that somewhere in Aotearoa a village is missing its idiot, and that idiot has been found spending lots of time in the Beehive.
However, the current repudiation of his views has not always been as wide-spread, and in fact his appeal to negative Muslim stereotypes was, if not all the rage, widely accepted just ten years ago.
Consider that when Ahmed Zaoui attempted to seek political refuge in New Zealand in late 2002, his arrival was met with official alarm and a chorus of exactly the sort of xenophobic invective that Prosser has voiced. The Fifth Labour government branded him an “Islamicst” with ties to al-Qaeda, then worked with the SIS to manufacture a “terrorist” case against him in order to justify his indefinite detention and eventual expulsion. It even changed domestic spying laws and created new anti-terrorist legislation (both still on the books and enhanced by National) so as to counter the Islamicist threat. The SIS went so far as to claim in its 2005 annual report that local jihadis and their sympathizers were a serious threat to New Zealand, only to drop the claim entirely in the 2006 report.
Zaoui was not the only Arab who got the heavy treatment. In 2006 Rayed Mohammed Abdullah Ali, a Yemeni-Saud flight school student overstayer, was summarily deported and handed over to Saudi security officials after he was caught (apparently following a tip-off to Winston Peters from a member of the public related to Ardmore Flying School). Despite concerns about his fate once he was turned over to the Saudis, he disappeared after being placed in their custody. The Fifth Labour government, through then-Immigration Minister David Cunliffe, refused to comment on his whereabouts or well-being and did not seek assurances from the Saudis regarding his treatment. As a justification for his summary deportation under escort, the Fifth Labour government claimed that he was a threat to national security, with his alleged “crime” being that he briefly flatted and shared pilot training with one of the 9/11 hijackers. No evidence has been produced to suggest that Abdullah Ali was aware of, much less involved in, the 9/11 conspiracy. Yet in the eyes of the New Zealand authorities at the time, relying in part on disputed FBI reports, he was guilty by association.
Shortly after Zaoui’s arrival Winston Peters, who now says that there is an element of truth to Prosser’s remarks but that his choice of words was unwise, demanded that Zaoui be expelled forthwith and went on to say that the NZ Muslim community was a “hydra” with extremist cells within it. Along with NZ First, National supported Labour on the Zaoui matter. Only the Greens questioned the official narrative (and Keith Locke needs to be congratulated for his staunch defense of Zaoui’s rights). Eventually, and with the help of some steadfast supporters and a few critical media types, the courageous work of Deborah Manning, Richard McLeod and Rodney Harrison destroyed the government attempt to frame and scapegoat Mr. Zaoui. After nearly five years the case against Zaoui was withdrawn and he was set free (he now runs a kebab place on K Road). For a good documentary overview of the case, see here.
My point is that timing is everything when politicians choose to stereotype so-called “out” groups. Back then Islamophobia ran rampant and it was fine if not fashionable to Muslim-bash, which the Clark government did adroitly and with aplomb. It did so by being subtle in its talk and thorough and focused in its actions. It publicly maintained it had nothing against Muslims or Islam, yet ordered its security apparatus to increase its surveillance of Muslim males (something that is ongoing) and enacted draconian security legislation with an eye towards the purported Islamicist threat to NZ (although truth be told, it first tried to use its new anti-terrorist legislation against the Urewera 18, and we know how that turned out).
Today all of that is water under the bridge although the laws remain on the books. NZ Muslims are no more of a threat today then they were a decade ago, but with the exception of the usual right-wing fanatics ranting in the blogosphere, the public mood is largely relaxed on the issue of the danger to NZ posed by Islamic extremism. Most politicians understand that even in election years scapegoating Muslims is now a losing campaign strategy. Thus Prosser is being made to wear a hair shirt over his contemporary remarks when he would have been applauded as a non-PC realist just a few years ago.
I would simply say that more than his stupid words, his timing if off. Politics is the art of hypocrisy disguised as righteousness, but the key to a successful disguise lies in the timing of the public posture. The Fifth Labour government timed its stereotyping just right, which allowed it to curry favor with its Western security partners in the anti-Islamic crusade by strengthening its anti-terrorism laws and internal security legislation. Zaoui was the precipitant and scapegoat used to that effect.
Prosser, on the other hand, is simply an uncouth political neophyte spouting rubbish at the wrong time. Had he made his remarks ten years ago he would have fared far better in the court of public and political opinion.