Archive for ‘Social change’ Category

Is New Zealand Unsafe?

datePosted on 22:49, February 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The Dutch travel advisory on New Zealand, which followed two violent assaults on Dutch tourists this summer, places Aotearoa alongside other destinations such as the Congo, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Brazil as places where tourists are targets of criminal, as opposed to political violence. Criminal targeting of tourists in New Zealand is neither new or surprising; in fact, it has  a rather long history. What is apparently new is the escalating violence of crime in New Zealand, not only against tourists but against the population at large. In fact, it is locals, not tourists who suffer the brunt of criminal violence in this country. That much is obvious.

But what are the causes for the upsurge in violence, and what can be done about it? This is one area where the Left are at a disadvantage, as Right anti-crime advocates can always use the issue of personal responsibility and the  “get tough” canard as their rallying cry (as ACT did this past election). To that the Left has a variety of responses, most centred on decreasing poverty rates, decriminalising various low-level offenses and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment of offenders. But then the media offers more stories about more rapes and murders, gang intimidation. bail violators, increasingly aggressive boy racers, thuggish taggers and their angry (and armed) detractors, home invasions, domestic violence, child abuse and murder, all seemingly nurtured in a climate of police ineptitude, indifference, bias and corruption. For the pubic at large, the news is bad on all fronts, and it spells one thing: the criminals are winning, and the Left have no response other than to wring their hands.  The last election clearly shows that the NZ public are not buying the Left approach to criminality, so new answers need to be formulated.

It is easy to point at alcohol and P as the cause of increased violent crime. It is easy to blame the vulgarisation of social discourse. It easy to blame failed families, the deleterious impact of the dole in creating generations of welfare addicts, the failings of the education system, bad role models in sports and pop culture, the influence of pernicious foreign music and video and their local imitators. It is easy to blame race or cultural factors. It is easy to push for tougher sentences and bigger prisons (even private ones). But is that really getting to the heart of the problem? Could it be that there is something at the heart of the NZ collective psyche at the beginning of the 21st century that has given foundation to the urge towards violence? Or is the issue structural?

Put another way. Could it be that in NZ the neoliberal-inspired, market darwinist experiments of the last 20 years have coupled with a pre-neoliberal bullying, raping, drinking, patriarchical and xenophobic culture to terminally erode notions of collective solidarity and empathy and replace them with an over-exalted hyper individualist ethos in an environment of ostentatious material wealth, shallow celebrity culture, over-the-top conspicuous consumption and increasing income inequality? (Now THAT was a mouthful!) Under such conditions, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows exponentially while the dominant socioeconomic themes  are for individuals to maximize their opportunities regardless of consequence, could it not be that this offers a social sub-text that extends past the “greed is good” mantra of radical libertarians and into the rationalisations of the criminally minded? Could it be that there is an ugliness inside the NZ collective psyche that was raised to the surface by two decades of market-driven prescriptions and the material dislocations they brought to both traditional and new members of the local underclass–an underclass that now finds emulators throughout the social spectrum? Could it be that a culture that produced Ed Hillary and Willie Apiata produces them only as exceptions to a general rule of selfishness and latent rage that takes just a minor provocation or enticement to be unleashed? Could that be the root of the problem?

Of course, issues of police competence, individual responsibility, generational dysfunctionality, and punishment versus rehabilitation need to be addressed by the Left in a way that does not cede the floor to the Right when it comes to tackling the issue. But where the Left has its best argument is in the socioeconomic bases of increasingly violent criminality in NZ, and it is in that argument that the Left’s solutions to the issue may be found. One thing is for sure: tax cuts will not solve the problem, and until then New Zealand has become a country that for  locals and tourists alike is alarmingly unsafe. I am no criminologist, so must defer to those who are when it comes to formulating a comprehensive remedy for the problem of increasingly violent crime in NZ. But I can say this: Above all other issues of domestic policy, it is this issue that the Left needs to confront if it is to regain political credibility in the eyes of the (scared) electorate.

The revolution is handmade

datePosted on 21:15, February 15th, 2009 by Anita

Hand crafts have been woven into many forms of activism over the last few decades; as symbols o the rejection of mass produced consumer goods, as opportunities for individual expression, and as a way of challenging the sterile cities we live in. Rayna Fahey of the Radical Cross Stitch and the Melbourne Revolutionary Craft Circle will be speaking in Wellington this Tuesday night about crafts and social justice.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where I learned to cook, sew, garden, embroider, knit and do origami. My extended family repertoire included pottery, batik, awesome cookery, and a variety of other fabric and craft arts. I remember the people who have shared new crafts with me over the years; the women who taught me to pour candles, the girl with whom I made incense, the woman who showed me how to reweave in threads to fix embroidery mistakes.

Every one of those people has left an imprint of caring on my life – that is a big part of what craftivism is, valuing each individual and each conversation, remembering our unique skills and talents. Without that we would be no more than cogs in a factory line.

Direct action praxis and the threshold of toleration.

datePosted on 23:17, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

The 2007 police raids on an assortment of activists sparked heated debate amongst progressives throughout the country about the merits of direct action. Some, whom I shall unfairly label the “soft” Left, argue that under  no circumstances should violence be used in pursuit of political ideals. Others, who I shall flatter with the label “hard” Left, argue that under certain circumstances the resort to violence is justified. How do we reconcile these views?

Please note that I shall not be referring here to issues of right wing praxis. Besides the fact that I think that the ultra-Right are beneath contempt, I do not want to offer any pointers they might not already have. I will note, however, that it is curious that the Police and SIS focus their attention on Left activists and appear singularly uninterested in according the same treatment to neo-nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites and Aryan survivalists even though these losers openly advocate violence against people on their websites and in their communiques, and have a history of violence against those they hate. Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the Police and SIS; perhaps it is because the ultra-Right are inept, but either way, the double standard seems weird.

Getting back to the point, what constitutes legitimate direct action in Aotearoa? Let us begin with two simple definitions. Direct action is the use of non-institutionalised (to include illegal), highly symbolic methods of resistance, protest, grievance or voice in pursuit of political objectives. Praxis is the melding of theory and practice into a coherent strategy of action. From a praxis standpoint, the nature of the cause matters less than the nature of the action (although the people involved may disagree). The resort to extra-institutional forms of redress is designed to highlight the cause or issue that is the focus of the action. But to be successful, direct action has to follow some simple rules: 1) it must raise public consciousness about the issue in a way that institutionalised channels and agencies can or do not; 2) it must force a government and/or private agent’s reaction that otherwise would not obtain; 3) it must elicit majority sympathy for the action or empathy for the cause. This last point is important because it brings up the issue of the threshold of toleration, which is the point at which favourable public reaction tips over into rejection. The key for direct action adherents is to get as close to that threshold of toleration without stepping over it and producing a negative backlash against both the activists and their cause. So long as they stay within the threshold of toleration, their actions will be successful (whether or not they are arrested or charged for violating criminal or civil statutes). Finally, direct action adherents must accept the legal consequences of their actions and be prepared to use the judicial system as an echo chamber and bully pulpit in which to reiterate the justice of their cause.

The main issue confronting the direct action advocate is to ascertain the limits of the permissible. In  New Zealand, it appears that regardless of cause, violence against people is not acceptable to the majority. The irony of NZ government-ordered  brutality against protestors notwithstanding (say, during the 1954 dockworkers strike or Springbok tour), it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders abhor political violence against persons. Hence, “terrorists” will find little fertile ground here, and anything that results in physical harm or the threat of harm to people is likely to elicit a negative reaction from the pubic. But what about things such as spitting or throwing excrement or blood on others? Is that within the threshold of toleration? In NZ, I would think not.

On the other hand, violence against property, be it public or private, is more open to discussion.  With sedition laws no longer in force, where are the limits to physical assaults on property? Is throwing a brick through a bank window an acceptable protest against corporate greed? Is painting a statue or monument in blood legitimate? Is setting fire to a mosque or synagogue acceptable protest against the perceived transgressions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Israel? Is trying to occupy NZDF headquarters acceptable protest against NZ involvement in foreign conflicts? Is destroying animal testing facilities OK? Is sabotaging rail lines to impede coal shipments within the threshold of toleration? Is tree-spiking a legitimate tactic? Is running around the bush throwing molotovs while talking trash about race wars and traitorous politicians a valid direct action precursor (or sidebar)?  Although the specific answers to these questions may or may not be easily found, the broader issue is finding the appropriate threshold of toleration for a given type of direct action given the context in which it is engaged.

By the rules I outlined above, the Waihopai Plowshares direct action was a success. Some may think it ineffectual since the Echelon eavesdropping stations remain operative, but the point was never to physically stop the operation (which is why the activists did not damage equipment once inside the dome). It was done in order to raise public awareness and questions about NZ’s participation in the Echelon network, and the action most certainly did that. On the other hand, threatening the spouses and children of pharmaceutical company executives over the latter’s role in animal testing is an example of crossing the threshold of toleration. Whatever the justice of the cause, threatening to harm people not directly involved in animal testing–especially children–is bound to elicit a negative reaction from the public majority. It is therefore counter-productive, even if many believe that executives need to be held directly and physically accountable for the corporate logics of profit that justify the exploitation and torture of animals for human benefit.

I could go on but the thrust of my argument should by now be clear. Direct action is an effective political tactic if it follows certain guidelines. It must differentiate between the target of the action (let’s say, the US embassy, which has been chosen to be flour-bombed ), the object of the action (to raise awareness of, lets say, extraordinary rendition and secret detention centres in which torture is practiced as an interrogation technique), and the subject of the action (the NZ government and public, so as to put pressure from both on US diplomats that NZ does not condone or accept such practices).  The purpose of the hypothetical illustration is not be polemical but instead to chart the ends-means sequence that needs to inform direct action for it to be successful.

The bottom line is this. Direct action is a legitimate political tactic when institutional channels fail. The nature of the action depends on the cause espoused and the society involved, since the threshold of toleration varies from culture to culture and political society to political society. What might be an acceptable form of direct action in Nigeria may not be so acceptable in NZ. Thus the main “problem set” for activists is to determine the toleration threshold for a given form of direct action in a particular socio-political context, Having done that, it is on to the barricades, comrades, y hasta la victoria, siempre, companeros!

Paying the “true cost”

datePosted on 06:00, February 8th, 2009 by Anita

Over at The Hand Mirror Anna has a post up about the anti-worker sentiment expressed by the 15% holiday surcharge, and I totally agree. But … :)

One of the things about the holiday surcharge is that it passes on to me the cost of disrupting someone else’s holiday. I am asking for someone to work on their holiday, shouldn’t I pay for my convenience? Penal rates are designed, in part, to be a disincentive to employers making people work on public holidays, so it makes a certain amount of sense that is is passed on to act as a disincentive to me.

In a free market economy ideal where nothing is to be banned, price signals take the place of regulation, and price signals are only effective when the cost is paid by the decision maker. So if we have accepted the free market approach, the question in this case is who the decision maker is; the cafe owner who opens the doors, or the cafe patron who comes through them?

This illustrates one of the many downsides of relying on price signals to define acceptable behaviour: some of us can pay  and some cannot; some can afford to turn down the money, some cannot. Secondly price signals very quickly turn into a price for everything and a value for nothing. if it’s worth it to your business you can open on a public holiday and pay the price, if it’s worth it to your business you can stick to the dangerous work practice and just pay the price of the deaths you cause.

So, paying 15% on a public holiday. It probably succeeds as a disincentive to some, but for many people all it does it prove that public holidays of the poor can be bought by the wealthy.

Families: picking favourites

datePosted on 06:00, February 7th, 2009 by Anita

Many of you will have already seen this beauty doing the rounds, but if you haven’t it’s worth a viewing


“Fidelity”: Don’t Divorce… from Courage Campaign on Vimeo.

It reminded me a little about the power we give the state by allowing it to make the rules about our relationships. But far more strongly it made me think of the way the moral right wants to pick favourites amongst our families; it wants to say those families in the video are less good than het families.

Why does a lobby that argues so strongly against state interference in families simultaneously argue that the state should get to pick which families are better than others?

Section 71 of the Coroner’s Act prevents the media using the phrase “the death is suspected to be suicide” and instead requires the media to use euphemisms. I have heard two explanations for the restriction – preventing additional suicides and respect for the family – neither hold water because we permit overt reporting of suicides providing that the conventional euphemisms are used. It’s not even necessary to canvas the dubious argument that reporting cases of suicide may inspire other suicides, because the reality is that suicide cases are reported on and everyone knows it. 

Media organisations have argued against the restriction for years on the grounds that it unnecessarily restricts press freedom. I’d also like to add the argument that it reinforces a culture of shame and secrecy for families dealing with the pain of suicide – a truly awful experience only compounded by the message from society that we must not speak of it.

Suicide must be reported on respectfully, it must not be sensationalised and the media must respect the pain of the family and friends. The Coroners Act does not require any of those, all is asks is that media use well recognised euphemisms.

Sometimes you are in…

datePosted on 06:00, February 2nd, 2009 by Anita

In many things in society there are (to paraphrase Heidi Klum) those who are in and those who are out. This contrast is necessarily judgemental (some are better than others), uninclusive and disabling. When addressing these divisions in society there are two possible approaches: one is to extend the “in” group, increasing the number of people in the dominant high status group and leaving a smaller number in the out group. The other is to dismantle the distinction altogether: decreasing the relative power of the old in group, and increasing the status of all members of the out groups so that their standing in society becomes level.

The two different approaches can lead to tension within people fighting for change: some set out to claim “normalcy” and consciously reinforce the way they are similar to the in group. Others in the same movement want to remove the normal/other distinction by reinforcing their difference and demanding acceptance.

This dichotomy exists between the older gay rights movement and the newer GLBTQ movement. The gay rights movement started off fighting for in group status; they aimed to be considered part of the mainstream – the orthodoxy – and to do so they showcased their similarity to the dominant group. They used older professional men in suits as spokespeople, they chose people who were either long time celibates or in long-term stable relationships: people who would fit in nicely at Rotary, church or Cabinet meetings. While they maybe have privately acknowledged the drag queens, the bi and trans, the public focus was on middle class gay men and, to a lesser extent, lesbians.

The more recent GLBTQ movement has taken the opposite approach, proudly showcasing difference and refusing the change to become part of the in group: “we’re here and we’re queer!”. The spokespeople would not get through the door, but that’s because they don’t want to be on the inside, they want to take the walls down.

With every social change that we campaign for, whether it is rights for the disabled or the eradication of child poverty, we have to decide whether we’re asking for more people to be allowed into the in group – where they will be rewarded with high status provided they blend in – or whether we are asking for a radical change in the social order – which will allow and enable more diversity and change, but will require change by everyone.

Friends don’t let friends rape

datePosted on 06:00, January 31st, 2009 by Anita

Over the last week or so there’s been a lot of talk about the “It’s not ok” campaign (I recommend Luddite Journo and Russell Brown, I do not recommend Bill Ralston), at the same time I’ve been commuting past huge signs saying “Safe in the City – Stick with your mates” with a picture of young women out on the town.

With drink driving we have, over the last few years, learnt that the person drink driving is 100% to blame and that we can and should step up and help our friends and families not drink drive.

More recently we have at least started to learn that the person who is violent towards their partner, children, elderly parent or other family member is 100% to blame and that we can and should step up and help our friends and families not hurt the ones they love.

Yet when it comes to rape we hold the victim, at least partly, responsible and believe that women have a responsibility to stop their friends and family being raped.

The reality is that we all know people who rape, just as we all know people who have been raped. I’m talking about the fact some of the people we know have raped people they know, and they way they’ve talked about sex and dates and partners so we’ve had every opportunity to hear that true consent isn’t an issue for them.

This isn’t a women vs men issue – both men and women are raped, both women and men rape, and every single one of us is able to stop our friends and family raping.

Why don’t the ads say that?

[Hat tip to Queen of Thorns and her magical sexual assault pixies]

Crime and punishment

datePosted on 06:00, January 24th, 2009 by Anita

Somewhere in all the tough-on-crime rhetoric we seem to have missed out the step where we talk about what prisons are actually for. Do we have prisons to keep us safe, to rehabilitate, to deter, or to punish?

In theory we have them to keep us safe, no more no less. In practice some victims of crime and some onlookers want vengeance. I believe they have no right to vengeance, they have a right to have things put as right as possible (recognising that many things cannot be put right), and they have a right to be safe; but there is no right to punish, no right to inflict pain for that selfish purpose.

So why should prisons be any different? They should serve the purpose only of protecting us and only as a last resort because simply by incarcerating someone we do huge damage to them and those around them.

If we used prisons only when absolutely necessary to to keep us safe

  1. Far fewer people would be locked up – only those that we had no other way of keeping us safe from.
  2. There would be minimal restrictions on those people – if the community will be safe if the person has a TV, they should be able to have a TV, if the community will be safe if they see their children in a friendly inviting environment with toys three afternoons a week, then they should be able to do that. The restrictions we place should be only those that are needed to keep us safe.

Yet we have many prisons full to bursting with people who would do no damage is set free, or who we could be kept safe from in other ways. The people in those prisons (and their families) suffer restrictions which are totally unnecessary.

We have a prison system based on vengeance and punishment, is that who we want to be?

[I have struggled with this post and rewritten it several times, the word “prison” bothers me. I believe that what we should have, for the handful of people who we can’t be safe from without some kind of restraint, is so unlike our current prisons that I don’t know what to call them. 

I thoroughly recommend Maia’s posts about prisons at Capitalism Bad; Tree Pretty, she says it so much better than me. All I know how to say is that we have no right to seek revenge]

The politics of state funding to private schools

datePosted on 06:00, January 21st, 2009 by Anita

In the United States for a long time the Christian Right and the Economic Right existed in parallel trajectories. They campaigned for different things, they didn’t co-ordinate, and they didn’t overlap in membership. Then they started flirting, they each recognised the political power the other had. The issue that brought them together was public funding to religious schools; it was something they both wanted. For one it was direct funding, for the other it was tax payer subsidisation of the education of the rich. The Republicans, keen to draw in the conservative Christians hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools

In Australia as John Howard built his brand off his Methodist values, rolled back liberal measures and developed and used the conservative Christians, his government hugely increased the state funding of private (religious) schools.

In New Zealand, as the Brash and then Key led National Party fought against a liberal incumbent and developed its relationship with the conservative Christians both leaders promised church groups that they would increase funding to religious schools. Now they have been elected and are promising to nearly double the funding to private (religious) schools.

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