Archive for ‘Toleration’ Category
On returning this week from his trade mission in the Middle East, John Key stated on Breakfast TV that countries such as Saudi Arabia have views of human rights that are “different” from our own, justifying the government’s decision to exclude human rights issues from any trade agreement that New Zealand is able to secure in the region. That is putting it rather mildly. Saudi Arabia has one of the consistently worst human records in the world. While the mainstream media is quick to focus in on a discriminatory gender regime that bans women from driving and requires them to be covered from head-to-toe, such problems pale in comparison to the treatment of the foreign workers who make up at least a third of the country’s population, or the torture, imprisonment, and death sentences handed down to Christian converts, human rights workers, activists, journalists, and other critics of the ruling elite. Unlike the distinctly Saudi approach to gender relations, it is difficult to see how the Saudis themselves could seriously attempt to justify such severe human rights abuses in religious or cultural terms.
What is especially surprising about the Prime Minister’s statement is that, if he genuinely believes that Saudi Arabian understandings of human rights are “different” rather than simply wrong, this would put him far over on the fringes of moral philosophy into the cultural relativist camp. This is a space occupied only by academic extremists who have followed the logics of social constructionism to their absolute and final conclusions (i.e. there is no such thing as truth, which makes it rather hard to speak truth to power as many of these theorists seem to want to do), or a small minority on the extreme right, which proposes that liberal values can only ever be achieved in supposedly superior Western cultures. Sticking to this line of argument means that anything whatsoever can be justified in cultural terms to the point where, essentially, nothing practised by any society at any point in history can be criticised at all. What strange company for a Mr. Moderate who usually tries to avoid coming to any conclusions that could undermine his apparently undying popularity to be found in.
Furthermore, this is not the generally shared understanding most reasonable people have of these issues. In fact, New Zealand, along with just about every other country in the world, is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in the wake of the horrors of World War Two and aimed at establishing a basic set of rights and liberties that countries should do their very best to uphold. Least it isn’t clear from the title of the Declaration, most of the world believes that human rights are universal, Mr. Key, not particular.
Saudi Arabia, by the way, does not accept these principles, rejecting the Declaration on the grounds that guaranteeing freedom of religion would be detrimental to the country’s own traditions, and that its own version of Islamic law supposedly upholds a higher threshold of human rights than this or any other international agreement. By far the more important point, however, is that New Zealand is itself a signatory to the Universal Declaration, which not only obligates us to ensuring that we uphold basic human rights within our own borders, but also to promote human rights abroad.
Yet when it comes to trade agreements, the explicit approach adopted by both recent centre-right and centre-left governments has been to exclude human rights from the negotiating agenda. This puts us at odds with the other members of the international “club” we belong to, to use another of the Prime Minister’s terms. Based on academic research, the World Trade Organization states that about 75 percent of contemporary trade agreements include human rights clauses, whether binding or non-binding, driven largely by the human rights promotion agenda of Canada, the European Union, and yes, the United States. It obviously cannot be assumed that these clauses always lead to substantive improvements in human rights outcomes, but they are a start.
The real reason behind both National and Labour’s exclusion of human rights concerns from the negotiation of trade deals is two-fold. Firstly, to state the obvious, New Zealand is very small in global terms, and thus cannot exercise much leverage over larger countries in the Asia and the Middle East. When countries are dependent on us for aid, absolutely do we try to influence human rights, most notably in the Pacific (which also occasionally invokes issues of culture and human rights that I don’t intend to get into here). Realistically, if we are to incorporate human rights concerns into our trade relations framework, this might more successful if done through multilateral arrangements—yet is it difficult to see human rights becoming a major concern of the kind of multilateral trade deals that New Zealand has wedded itself to, such as the Trans Pacific Partnership.
Secondly, the bipartisan approach reveals not only a deep ideological commitment to free trade that is not necessarily shared by other developed countries, in which the influence of large protectionist interest groups often moderates that stance, but a rather naïve belief that trade deals and trade relationships can be separated from everything else. Despite good empirical and historical evidence that trade cannot be viewed independently from other aspects of foreign policy, we do this with regard to our security relations, in which government officials cannot see the long-term problem emerging out of the contradiction between an Asia-oriented trade policy and a Five Eyes-oriented security one, and we also apparently do it when it comes to more noble causes.
So herein lies the hypocrisy not only of our current leadership, but all those sectors of our community who stress trade above all other national goals. We tend to have a rather rosy view of our country not only as an independent voice in the international arena, but as a progressive force in the big wide world. We ban nuclear ships and we save whales. We were the first to give women the vote and at least some of protested against the Springbok Tour. We think we deserve a seat on the Security Council because we are nice (alternatively, to carry on the theme, there are those who no doubt think it will help us out on the trade front). Not caring—or pretending not to care— about the worst instances of human rights abuses, however, not only threatens to undermine this aspect of our national identity, but undermines both our reputation and potential as a global player that punches above our weight on moral issues.
A while back I wrote a post arguing that the NZ Left was in serious disarray. Various Left pontificators fulminated from the depths of their revolutionary armchairs against my views, denouncing me for being defeatist. I responded as politely as I could.
Last night conservative, ring wing parties won nearly 64 percent of the popular vote. Left wing parties–such as they are given Labour’s pro-capitalist bent, the Green’s turn to the middle and Internet/Mana’s schizophrenic leanings–mustered 36 percent of the vote. The message is clear: New Zealand is a right-leaning country. Nearly 30 years of pro-market policy (an entire generation’s worth) has resulted in a country that no longer considers egalitarian and redistributive principles as hallmarks of the national identity. Instead, the turn to self-interest has seeped deeply into the social fabric.
That is the context in which the NZ Left must operate. That is the context that I was writing about in my earlier postings. And that is the context that we will have for the foreseeable future unless the Left learns to shift the terms of the political debate off of tax cuts, deficits, public spending, workforce flexibility and other pro-market arguments. So far it has not done so and in fact has often tried to operate within the context and political debate as given. Perhaps last night’s drubbing will make the Left realise that this is a mistake.
After all, those who define the terms of the debate are those who win.
In order for the Left to re-define the terms of political debate in NZ there has to be a plausible counter-argument that can compete with the language of austerity, limited government, non-interference and self-interested maximising of opportunities. This election campaign demonstrated that concerns about civil liberties, privacy, child poverty, environmental degradation, corporate welfare, predatory trade and other progressive cornerstones took a back seat to economic stability as defined by market ideologues.
Given that fact, the process of re-definition has to start there: basic definition of economic stability. One way to do so if to move off of the usual market analytics favoured by bankers and corporates and onto the social costs of an increasingly unequal division of labour. Because the price for market stability is seen in a host of variables that are not amenable to standard market analysis, yet which are as real as the glue sniffing starved kid living rough and begging for change on the increasingly mean streets of Godzone.
If one thing has proven true over the years when it comes to religion and politics, it is that those who most ardently decry homosexuality as abnormal and represent themselves as paragons of “christian” family values often are themselves seriously repressed when it comes to their own sexual preferences. Be they Tories in the UK, Republicans in the US and preachers, priests, mullahs and rabbis the world over, these closet hypocrites go to great lengths to hide their “baser” urges, to include engaging in contact (!) sports and other “manly” activities like game hunting, entering into heterosexual marriages, having children, advocating for corporal punishment and loudly and obsessively condemning “deviant” sexual behavior and the gay community and feminists for a myriad of sins against the “natural” order of things.
Their self-loathing is such that some even practice how they walk and talk so as to appear more Roman than Greek (I am using the terms loosely here, as both Romans and Greeks accepted the “baser” urges as a part of life and are differentiated more by the class, gender and age element in them). Some go to great lengths to dress and act acceptably “mainstream” (according to how they perceive the mainstream). The more strident of the closet prudes threaten and bully those who question their public stance as well as their private desires.
Given its egalitarian and tolerant reputation, it would be a real shame if such people were a significant part of the New Zealand political, religious or social elite. Given demographic probability, chances are that there might be a few.
Which raises the question: does Colin Craig share that Larry Craig wide stance?
Posted on 16:41, January 27th, 2014 by Pablo
My posts on the demise of the political Left in NZ have elicited a fair bit of debate, which is good. However, there are two main areas of misunderstanding in the debate that need to be corrected. The first is that that by repeating my oft-stated claim here and elsewhere that socio-economic class, and particularly the working classes, need to be the central focus of Left praxis, I am ignoring the productive and cultural changes of the post-industrial, post-modern era. The second is that I dismiss the entire Left as ineffectual losers.
Let me address the latter first. When I write about the “political” Left I am speaking strictly about those parts of the Left that directly involve themselves in politics, either institutionalized or not. In this category I do not include the cultural or activist Left that engage in direct action in non-political realms such as poverty alleviation, human rights protection, diversity promotion, etc. These type of Left indirectly address political questions and therefore have political import but are not immediately involved with or primarily focused on political matters (say, by acting as parties or running campaigns, among many other things). Some of their members may be, but the Left agencies involved are, first and foremost, non-political in nature.
In a way, these non-political Left entities act much like non-Left charities: they provide direct assistance to the disadvantaged or vulnerable, have clear political content in what they do, but are not political agencies per se.
Thus I recognize the good works of the non-political Left and even see them as providing potential foundation stones for effective Left political activism. But as things currently stand the interface between the non-political and political Left is largely skewed towards diluting the socialist content and neutering the working class orientation inherent in many forms of grassroots Left activism. And where the interface is direct (say, Socialist Aotearoa), the message is too vulgar and the agents too shrill to make their points effectively.
This may sound harsh but that is the reality. The larger point is that I am not dismissing the entire Left as “dead” or moribund. I am confining my diagnosis to the contemporary political Left, narrowly defined, and it is not defeatist to point out what I would have thought was glaringly obvious.
With regard to the second accusation, this has been the subject of much debate here at KP. Lew and Anita have both eloquently written on identity as a primary focus. I accept their arguments but also think that class matters when it comes to a Left praxis. To that end, let me reprise a statement I made in response to a comment made by reader Chris Waugh on the previous post.
Some people mistakenly believe that because I believe that a Left praxis has to be rooted in class consciousness I “dismiss” or neglect superstructural issues like gender, ethnic identity, environmental concerns and sexual preference.
I do not. However, I do not give these superstructural factors primacy in my thought because all of those forms of identification or orientation are non-universal, whereas insertion in a capitalist class system rooted in the exploitation of wage labor is a universal constant. Hence I see modern Left praxis as rooted in a working class consciousness, broadly defined to include all forms of non-managerial wage labor and all ethnicities, genders and preferences.
Put it this way: consider a situation where there is a female hourly worker and a female CEO of a major firm. What identification comes first when they meet each other in the social division of labor? Will identifying as female be so strong that it will bridge the class gap between them? Or will their class determine their relationship in the first instance?
Perhaps gender solidarity will prevail, as could be the case with being gay, Indian, bisexual etc. But I am simply unsure that these identifications universally supersede the class element and therefore should replace it as a focus of Left praxis.
So there you have it. Not all of the Left is ineffectual but the political Left certainly is. A working class orientation is necessary and central to any Left praxis but not sufficient to encompass the myriad of non-class progressive causes that make up the post-industrial Left. Resolving these issues and reconciling the dilemmas inherent in them are what must be done for the Left to regain a significant place in the NZ political arena.
Posted on 17:08, November 19th, 2013 by Pablo
It is the 150th anniversary of the Gettysburg Address and Jim Mora at RNZ remembered it. He invited me on to the Panel segment to discuss its relevance today with a person who is well informed and one who is less so but strongly opinionated. The segment occupies the first 10 minutes or so of the audio feature and I come in at about the 4:20 mark.
On a recent day in New Zealand we were treated to the following news.
A group of rapists who openly bragged about having pack sex with drugged or drunk underage girls on social media were outed by a news outlet, which led to revelations that the police, who have an institutional history of rape of their own, refused to prosecute the rapists even though their identities were well-known (one is the son of a police officer) and four girls complained about the assaults long before the media broke the story. The police apparently questioned the first complainant about her manner of dress and was told that what she wore invited the attack. The cops now argue that there was insufficient evidence to bring charges.
The police initially said that no complaints were laid and that the social media sites were only recently opened by the rapists, then closed. Both of those claims have now been proven to be untrue, so either the police spokesmen were lying (and that includes a senior detective and a district commander), or they were misled by their subordinates for reasons yet to be determined. The police also say that the fact that one of the rapists was the son of a sworn officer was immaterial to the (as of yet nonexistent) case.
That may or may not be true. What is undeniable is that a number of underage females were sexually assaulted by men over the age of consent who made public their exploits (including why they stupefied the girls and why they only engaged in pack assaults on them) and identified the victims as a form of public shaming. The cops listened to four complaints about these assaults, decided that there was no merit to them (or no evidence to substantiate them even though four different girls essentially described enduring the same thing done by the same men), then stood by, watched the social media coverage provided by the perpetrators and did nothing.
At the same time this story unfolded a convicted spouse abuser who claimed in defense that he was provoked by his victim was promoted to the most listened radio sports program in the country, having worked his way back into that format less than a year after his conviction and having had the Prime Minister subsequently grace his studio to exchange banter about laddish things (including Elizabeth Hurley’s “assets”).
Not to be outdone on the victim-bashing front, a few other prominent male radio talkback hosts (two of them Maori) ridiculed and insulted rape victims when discussing the case of the underage girls, essentially telling callers that drinking and wearing provocative clothing was primarily to blame for what happened.
Coincidentally, a misogynist bigot was brought back from foreign television exile after a series of gaffes and embarrassments to host a prime time news show at one of the highest salaries offered to a television host in New Zealand. His forte is adolescent potty jokes, particularly those directed at women.
Rightwing smear merchants and other retrogrades blame the rape club’s actions on liberal society and the pernicious effect of modern popular culture (when not Len Brown, for his adulterous behavior, as if that were comparable to rape). There may be some truth in such views (save the Len Brown example), but there is the small problem that all the other instances cited above involve men of older generations working in venerable public institutions.
Let’s be clear on this: all of the instances cited other than the social media rape club members are not delinquents but well-established members of New Zealand’s institutional elite, and there are plenty of others who share their predilections and positions of esteem (I have chosen only a handful of notorious examples to illustrate the point).
Some of these apologists/pundits keep on calling the rapists “boys” even though the age of consent in New Zealand is 16 (the rapists were and are 17 to 19). That is worth noting because they also argue that at least some of the pack sex with 13 and 14 year old girls may have been consensual, which indicates they have no clue what “age of consent” means in theory or in practice.
Let me put it more crudely: How is it that a 17 year old is a “boy,” and hence acting impulsively and irrationally when sexually engaging a deliberately stupefied 13 year old female, yet that same female is supposedly capable of consenting rationally, as a woman, to pack sex under the heavy influence of soporific?
Are females who are underage, impressionable, alone, unconscious and/or delirious equally responsible for the acts of male adults behaving soberly, collectively, calculatingly and deliberately when using intoxicants for the purpose of sexual conquest as motive for and product of their behaviour towards said females?
There is a more general point to this reflection. What does this series of coincidental snapshots tell us about New Zealand today? Are these aberrations of the Kiwi male character that somehow have gone unpunished and in fact rewarded in violation of accepted norms, or is Aotearoa not a safe place to be female?
Does there not seem something odd about the coverage of the little white girl found with a Roma (gypsy) family in Greece? From what I have seen the coverage has focused on her supposed abduction and the search for her birth mother (who, as it may turn out, is a Bulgarian gypsy with eight children living in squalid conditions who gave the child away to the Greek Roma family. If so, the “stolen” girl is the lucky child given the relative circumstances of her adopted and birth parents). But little coverage has been devoted to why the Greek police decided to seize the girl from her Roma guardians, who may well have been her legitimate adoptive parents if the story about her Bulgarian mother turns out to be true.
What prompted their suspicions? A tip-off about drugs in the Greek gypsy camp has been offered as the official reason, but why would that prompt suspicion about the child? Was it the that she looked different from the Roma parents? Or was it that the people involved were Roma and have a (largely mythological) reputation for abducting and selling children? Could it be that the Greek cops acted out of prejudice rather than legitimate concern, and the press followed their lead?
Given the virulent racism and intense hatred of Roma in Greece, what exactly prompted the Greek police to decide to intervene given that the girl appears to love her adopted parents and seemed happy with them? Would they have done so if the parents were white and the child was black?
The general Greek attitude was inadvertently summarised by a local sociologist who studies Roma, who expressed surprise because, according to him, Roma were known to act as intermediaries for illegal adoptions by childless Greek couples but where not known to adopt a non-Roma child as one of their own (this said before the identity of the Bulgarian gypsy mother was confirmed).
More tellingly, why the focus on the little white gypsy girl when there are thousands of non-white children being abducted, sold and traded every year, including in Greece? Why has the story not been used to highlight child trafficking in general, rather than as a window on Roma and their reputed criminal proclivities?
It could well be that there was something sinister in the placement of this particular girl with that particular Greek Roma family. But it is equally possible that she was adopted in accordance with Roma culture and received the love and care of a natural-born child. So why, exactly, the fuss about her when so many other children suffer far worse fates?
It is hard not to come away with the impression that what matters is that she is white and was being raised by “swarthy” people whose culture does not accord with the Western mainstream. If so, it tells us much more about the imbued or latent racism of the media coverage rather than the merits of the case. Worse yet, it leaves the fate of thousands of non-white children largely ignored by the same press that is so keen to follow this story.
If we backdrop this case against the incessant coverage of the Madeleine McCann case and the endless coverage of missing white kids in Europe, the US and elsewhere, then it becomes hard to escape the view that some missing kids matter more than others, and they matter only because of the colour of their skin as opposed to the circumstances of their disappearance.
I hate to say it and do not mean to go all soft on this particular subject, but if that is so then the media coverage stinks.
Once John Key realized that his efforts to expand state spying powers were not meeting with the usual docile approval on the part of the public, he retreated to his usual habit of spinning alarmist tall tales (The terrorists are here! The terrorists are in Yemen but coming back!) and smearing his detractors. Some time ago it was Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hagar who got the smear treatment over their coverage of NZDF, SIS and GCSB activities in Afghanistan, with Key dismissing them as liars and conspiracy theorists. Now he has threatened the Human Rights Commission because of its opposition to the GCSB and TICS Bills and dismissed the Law Society’s objections as politically motivated.
His comments about the Law Society are revealing, because he has launched a personal attack on Law Society spokesperson Rodney Harrison QC for being part of Ahmed Zaoui’s legal defense team. Here he has outdone himself on the sniveling weasel scale, because he not only makes it appear that Harrison was somehow wrong to help Zaoui defend himself against claims that he was a terrorist, but he smears Zaoui himself in the process.
Let us be very clear: Ahmed Zaoui was never a terrorist, nor did he knowingly associate with terrorists. He was a member of a legitimate Algerian opposition movement in exile who were forced out of their homeland after a military coup that deposed the democratically elected government that they were part of. Because his political activities in exile made host governments in Europe uncomfortable (governments with close ties to the Algerian military regime), he was forced to undergo two politically motivated sham trials in France and Belgium and when that did not stop him from continuing his political work, to involuntarily globe trot in search of security for himself and his family after his residency permits were canceled.
After stints in Burkina Faso and Malaysia, and with the Algerian secret services on his tail, he made his way to New Zealand and requested political asylum. For that he was jailed, held in solitary confinement for nearly a year in a maximum security prison, spent another 14 months in a medium security prison before being granted bail, and in all was forced to undergo five years of legal wrangling before his refugee request was granted (a request that was initially approved by the Refugee Status Appeals Authority in August 2003 but opposed by the SIS). His treatment by the Clark government was abhorrent.
Let us also be clear that the terrorist claims against Zaoui were manufactured by the SIS, sometimes in amateurish fashion (such as the so-called “casing” video that detailed his travels through Southeast Asia before embarking on a plane bound for New Zealand). The director of the SIS at the time, the duplicitous ex-ambassador and self-admitted Francophile Richard Woods, orchestrated a campaign of smears and falsehoods against Zaoui so as to keep in the good graces of the French government, a project that he had begun during his posting to the New Zealand embassy in Paris (as ambassador to France and Algeria) in the mid 1990s. Wanting to look tough on terrorism post 9/11, the Clark government aided and abetted Mr. Wood’s character assassination project, and it is to its everlasting shame that it did so.
In the end, the accusations against Zaoui were thoroughly and systematically discredited by Mr. Harrison and his legal team, and the SIS was forced to rescind the security risk certificate issued against him. In September 2007 he was granted asylum and the following month his wife and four children joined him. He is now a small businessman living with his family in Auckland.
This is why John Key is behaving like a sniveling weasel. In order to garner support for his spying bills he has played on latent anti-Muslim prejudice and fears of terrorism long after the Zaoui case ended to make it appear that Zaoui was guilty of something and that Mr. Harrison was wrong to defend him.
Yet the truth is quite different: Mr. Zaoui was an innocent man wrongly accused for political and diplomatic reasons by the New Zealand authorities of crimes he never committed. Mr Harrison was one of the champions who defended Zaoui against the gross injustice perpetrated against him by the State. Both men displayed integrity and steadfastness of purpose in the face of concerted official duplicity and malice.
If nothing else, Mr. Key’s cynical revision of historical events for scare-mongering purposes, set against the backdrop of SIS dishonesty in the Zaoui case and the GCSB illegal wiretapping of Kim Dotcom, should be added reason why the GCSB and TICS Bills need to be resisted. After all, if this is how the Minister of Intelligence and Security and his agencies operate under current law, what does that say about what they could do with expanded powers?
One thing is certain. Of the three men involved in this story, one cannot be trusted to act with honesty and integrity in the face of adversity. That person is not Ahmed Zaoui or Rodney Harrison, QC.
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.
One of the most useful analytic constructs in social science is the so-called “great dichotomy.” The idea is to distill an argument into a series of either/or propositions for the purposes of explanatory clarity. The point is not to see the world in binary fashion, as if all matters of social import can be reduced to good/evil, black/white propositions. Instead, the idea is to break down the logical and epistemological sequence embedded as component parts in any particular argument, particularly those of a normative nature. One can then deduce the overall strength of the case being made based on the logical consistency of those parts.
Scholars understand that complex realities are not reducible to mere dichotomies. But using the great dichotomy as part of a methodological approach to social science helps separate that which is relatively binary in nature and that which is a bit more complex. For example, X kills B. One dichotomous question, answerable with a simple yes or no, would be “was X drunk at the time?” That in turn can help illuminate the question as to why X chose to kill, as in “X killed Y after he caught Y in bed with his partner after being out on the piss all night.” The follow-up question would then be “would he have killed if he was not drunk?” If the answer is “yes,” then alcohol is not a significant contributing or mitigating factor. Although there is more to that sorry tale, the use of a dichotomous approach allows focus to narrow on its more complex aspects. That is the stuff of social science explanation. The key is to understand that dichotomous approaches are analytic tools designed to get to the gist of an issue, but are not meant to accurately represent or explain by themselves a larger and more complex question. They help remove extraneous clutter and provide better backdrop clarity on a given issue.
In contrast, binary or dyadic simplification is the practice of reducing explanations of social phenomena to an either/or, good/bad, black/white proposition. Not only is this a practice that deviates from the original mathematical use. It is one that ignore complex realities and which can lead to the construction of false dichotomies that impede clear and rational understanding of the subject in question. The danger of binary simplification is that it not only provides easy answers to complex problems for the intellectually lazy or dishonest. It also provides them with easy enemies and scapegoats because it poses the dichotomy as a zero sum proposition: things that are bad in the world or with which they disagree are the result of some other’s actions, and those actions are inimical, dangerous or otherwise contrary to their preferred version of reality. Thus the “other” must be resisted, vilified and in some cases defeated.
The real sad part is that many people, perhaps most people, are prone to accept binary explanations for complex phenomena. Thus we hear things like “guns do not kill people, people do,” “if gays are allowed to marry than marriage means nothing,” “feminism destroyed the family unit and has made men into girly boy eunuchs,” “abortion is murder,” or “you are either with us or against us.” These are one-line explanations for multi-volume problems or, said differently, comic book answers to complex questions.
I am prompted to write this in light of some stupid remarks in our own comment threads and another one-liner that made the rounds in the aftermath of Mr. Prosser’s cretinous opinions about Muslims. The one-liner, which was bandied about on the comment threads of right-wing blogs as well as those of the NBR goes as follows: “Not all Muslims are terrorists but all terrorists are Muslims.”
I will not dwell on how ignorant that remark is. I will just point out that, among others, the IRA, the Oklahoma City bombers, the Red Army Faction, assorted Latin American guerrilla groups, Greek anarchists, the Tamil Tigers and–dare I say it–a host of non-Muslim governments practice terrorism on a regular and often sustained basis. Yet it is that binary simplification that allows people like Mr. Prosser to believe that actions such as banning Muslim (or presumably Muslim looking, whatever that is) men from boarding planes is the solution to the terrorist problem (and I should point out that the practice of using planes as guided missiles or blowing up commercial airliners did not start with Muslims).
What I find most interesting is that those most prone to adopting binary simplistic approaches to social explanation, to include the construction of false dichotomies in order to make their arguments, tend to inhabit the (dare I say dyadic?) extremes of the ideological spectrum. Those on the Left blame everything on corporate greed while those on the Right blame everything on socialism. White supremacists see evil advancing along racial lines, something that is reciprocated by those who think that only white people can be racist and the plight of non-whites is entirely the fault of white guys, colonial or modern. The arguments on each end blend together depending on the specific subject being addressed (such as arguments in NZ that Pakeha corporate elites or brown dole-bludging treaty troughers are the source of all ruin). In any case, their common bottom line is an absurd reductionism that poses the world in falsely dichotomous, binary terms.
Sadly, people can make a name for themselves by playing the binary simplification game. This is very evident in political blogs and the rhetoric of the ideological extreme. It also is a common tool for politicians of all stripes. The media gravitates to such people because it prefers simple sound bites and one-liners to complex explanations. After all, there is only so much information one can put into a 700 word story or 3 minute video spot. As a result, the practice of binary simplification becomes commonplace and widely accepted as expert commentary or even “truth.”
For a guy who lives in a multivariate universe in which multiple explanations compete for my understanding of what occurs to and around me, it is depressing to think that we are increasingly governed by those who trade in binary simplification and false dichotomies.
Then again, perhaps the beginning of an explanation for that can itself be posed as a great dichotomy.