Archive for ‘Toleration’ Category

Depiction of masculinity in rock radio.

datePosted on 17:10, December 2nd, 2010 by Pablo

As I flip through the NZ radio airwaves I have been much humoured by the depiction of masculinity in advertising on rock radio (for purposes of definition, that is FM radio stations that feature AC/DC, Metallica, Tool, Shihad and other old and new bands that play up tempo, guitar driven, blues derived sound. This does not include Lady Gag, Madonna, boy and girl bands, Justin Beiber, Millie Cyrus, rappers and their ilk). Some of the imagery conjured in these ads is funny but disturbing, and I realise that the depiction is concocted by advertising companies selling product to a 15-35 year old male demographic. But three things stand out about the depiction of ideal NZ men in these ads.

The first is that the general thrust of the ads is framed as a negation or antithesis of an extant others–metrosexuals and women. These are not moccachino-sipping, quiche eating, emo or poncy little dog carrying (in a man purse!) financial advisors or lawyers. More implicit than explicit, the intimation is that these are mates, dudes, fun-luvin’ rascals that have to live on the edge of a PC world. But the positive message (such as it is) is sublimated under the representation of what it is not. The majority thrust of the bottom line is a negation. These are not post-modern poseurs or dandies, and they do not want to relate to chicks other than at a primal level.

The second noteworthy aspect of the ads is the objectification of masculinity. Men’s identities lie in the commodities they prefer (consumer non-durables, mostly): utes and V8s, rugby, some more rugby, league, more league, cheap alcohol, cheaper beer, red meat (ideally hunted, then cooked on a bbq), fishing gear, racy magazines, grubby clothes, stereos and farm equipment. They do not wear cologne.

The third and perhaps most interesting aspect of the depiction is its representation of “manly” values. Men are mates; hard drinking, carousing, happy go lucky, staunch (especially when drinking), fast driving, opportunistic and impulsive horn dogs working hard on the ladies. Nowhere in the depiction are there notions of honour, valour, courage, sacrifice, sincerity, solidarity (except with mates), humility, basic intelligence and knowledge of current global affairs, or interest in the needs of women, children and the family. That is a bit odd simply because the early 20 to 35 male demographic is the one that is reproducing the most (presumably a manly trait), has young families, is starting careers and otherwise has the burdens of post-adolescence crashing down on it. Yet the values being reified appear adolescent.

I have seen this type of representation on rock radio programming in Florida and Arizona. In those cases the demographic was male 15-23, simply because the size of the population allows that age group to sustain specific types of commercial music programming. I presume that there is an Ozzie variant. NZ has its own, over a wider age range.

The success of advertising campaigns based on this type of symbology appears to lie in the deep unhappiness of 15-35 year old NZ men with the evolution of society. It speaks for a desire to not only be rebellious adolescent in social perspective, consequences be damned.  It also speaks to a desire to be in another era that, however mythological represents the antithesis of NZ society today. The question is: was there ever anything remotely close to this depiction in NZ historical reality?  If not, what explains the appeal of these ads? And if it is true that there is a deep antipathy to the current social order, what does that say about prospects for assimilation of this demographic? In other words, what are the prospects of these angry and nostalgic (mostly Pakeha) young men, if indeed the advertising thrust is a window on their souls?

(Of course, I defer to Lew for a more professional interpretation of the subject).

Conflict versus Cooperation in Human Nature.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Defense of Responsible Cyclists.

datePosted on 17:52, November 17th, 2010 by Pablo

I have ridden a bicycle of one sort or another since I was 7 years old. I got my first race bike at 14 and I spent most of my adulthood in the US riding bikes as a commuter, triathlete, and occasional mountain biker (even on a tandem MTB!). I did some long road races for training, and continued all of the above when I moved to NZ in 1997. When I stopped competing in 2002 I continued commuting and riding for fun, even after my precious triathlon bike– a 2000 Cervelo P2 fitted to me–was stolen in a burglary (if anyone sees a red 26 inch wheel P2 with Ironman Hawaii stickers on it–it is mine and I want it back). All told, I have ridden well over 100,000 miles in a variety of places, on and off road, urban and rural, solo and tandem. I love bicycles, from old beaters to beach cruisers, classic Italian road bikes, dual shock MTBs and, as my foremost love, the bicycle equivalent of my partner’s mind: time trial bikes–sharp edged, aero, lively and fast, deep dished and big geared, yet immediately responsive and intuitively attuned to where I want to go and what I need to do to get there sooner rather than later (I may get in trouble for this since a bike has no soul, but for me it is an attempt at making a material comparison to a precious intangible. Competitive cyclists and tri-geeks will know what I mean).

As for the relationship between competitive rider and bike, I shall defer to the wisdom of an old Mexican mechanic who serviced my ride while I was racing in El Paso, Texas: “it is not the machine but the monkey that rides it that matters.” Competitive or not, it is the monkey who ultimately pays the price for riding on public roads. As an insentient object,  a bicycle may be broken or destroyed but not injured or killed when it crashes. For the human rider, that substantive difference does not obtain.

Anyway, I moved to an island state in SE Asia in late 2007 and took my nice commuter bike with me. In the first 14 months in country I was hit by cars twice, once by the side rear view mirror of a van passing at 50 kph and the other by the back end of a city bus that cut in front of me  in order to pull into a bus stop (when it could have waited 2 seconds to allow me to pass the bus stop entry). Although the first driver stopped to see if I was Ok after he heard the thump, the bus driver and passengers on the bus berated me for being in the road (this, while I was laying on the curb checking to see if I was injured).

But SG is not too bad. During the 10 years I lived, trained and raced in NZ I was hit five times–two sideswipes, two at roundabouts by motorists who would not cede although I had the right of way, and one T-bone when a car turned left across my bow on a steep hill during a rainstorm. In two instances I was assaulted by the drivers involved (one whom was on his way home from church), and in one case the driver attempted to flee. In four of the cases the driver was a middle aged pakeha male (the other was a chinese male), with two of the five driving panel vans. In the US I was hit once, in Florida, by a a slow moving geriatric in a Cadillac who wanted to “move me along” down the road because I was moving too slowly (at 40 kph on a Sunday morning at 7AM). I also had a gun pulled on me in Tucson (at 6:30AM!) by a redneck in a pickup truck who swerved into a bike lane to show me and my riding buddy who was boss–but then ran into a red light half a block down the road. When I rode up to confront him he kindly produced his penis-substitute.

I tell this story because once again cyclists have been killed and injured in NZ by careless motorists. Every year, it seems, the triathlon and road racing community loses someone to a car crash. Simple bike commuters die as well, every year. What ensues is discouraging: motorists angrily denouncing cyclists as road hogs, irresponsible, effete, possible gay lycra-clad wankers with too much time on on their hands and too much money invested in bikes. They rail about cyclists needing licenses and taxes in order to ride public streets, and generally stress the inconvenience of having to slow down for the oxygen and blood powered vehicles in the way between them and whatever important destination it is that cannot be impeded by the two wheeled laggards blocking the road.

Inconvenience? Let me explain some very simple physical facts. Even if rude and inconsiderate, cyclists are human beings with spouses, children, parents and others who love them, riding on a self-propelled unarmoured vehicle wearing nothing but a helmet and normal clothes (or lycra). The rider’s points of contact with the pavement are two 5 centimeter patches of 21-25 mm rubber rolling at anywhere from 70-130 rpm, at speeds that can be as low as 5 kph or high as 60kph under normal variable terrain conditions in NZ. A rider and bicycle might, if the rider and bike are big, weigh 150 kilos. The bicycle is a vehicle in the road, as is any other, but with the twist that it shares with horses (which are also vehicles in their own right), the virtue of being self-powered. Yet no one in their right mind would sideswipe or fail to yield to a horse and rider. So why do it on a bike? The very attitude of some towards cyclists–that they are lesser beings, inconvenient, in the way, tax-dodgers etc., betrays an authoritarian mindset that speaks to the darkness within the NZ psyche. After all, bicyclists are people too, and in a democracy those people have just as much right to the road as anyone driving a fossil fuel powered vehicle. They may be slower, but they are equal when it comes to sharing the road.

The root problem of the conflict between cyclists and motorists is a matter of simple physics. An automobile weighs a ton, has 4 surface contact points of over a quarter meter each, travels from 0 to 150 kph as a matter of course, and has a metal and composite-encased passenger compartment with air bags as basic safety measures between the flesh inside and the kinetic effects of hitting the road or another object at speed on the outside. A bicycle rider has none of those, and is at the mercy of elements, road surfaces, the disposition of motorists and his or her own spatial and situational awareness in order to ensure safe passage during the journey. At the end of the day, cyclist is not in complete control of his and her fate when riding on public roads. The largest part of a cyclist’s fate that is not under his or her control is the attitude and behaviour of motorists.

Of course there are irresponsible cyclists. These should be ticketed, fined, and if causing injury, prosecuting for vehicular assault depending on the gravity of their transgressions. But motorists need to understand that a touch of fenders between two cars merely results in a dent in each, whereas the touch of a fender on the rear or front wheel of a bicycle, to say nothing of a full-fledged sideswipe or frontal collision, has the very serious, even likely potential for catastrophe for the cyclist. Do motorists really want to maim or kill cyclists just because the latter are rude, inconsiderate, slow or inconvenient? As it turns out, even the behaviour of cyclists can be classified and spotted a priori.

There are the four types of cyclists usually seen in the public streets: road riders, triathletes, commuters and bike messengers (MTB folk wisely tend to stick to non-paved rural tracks where trees, rocks and precipices are the main obstacles). Triathletes ride what are known as time-trial bikes given the individual nature of the sport. These bikes have aerobars jutting off the front handlebars on which the rider can rest their elbows in order to lower his/her aerodynamic profile (since most of the gains in bicycle speed come from overcoming wind resistance). Triathletes mostly ride alone except on occasional social rides, mainly because the triathlete must learn to suffer, fuel, eliminate and otherwise cope by his or herself given the nature of the sport (this is especially true of the long-distance triathlete, although some short distance triathlons now allow drafting in packs–see below).

Road riders (known as “roadies” and identified by their curled handlebars and stylised clothing) usually ride in groups, do not use aerobars (which are dangerous in packs if one is stupid enough to try to ride on them), and lessen their wind resistance by drafting. Drafting is a practice where one rider “pulls” the others by leading out front for a short spell of time while taking the brunt of the frontal air flow, upon which the following rider moves up front and the lead falls to the back of the “train” of riders behind him/her (I should note that the drafting effect is even greater when swimming given water resistance, and is even possible while running). This allows all riders to rest and give maximum effort during their short “pulls.”

The trouble with this practice is that it produces a double line of cyclists, those going forward and those going backwards, which on narrow open public roads can lead to lane blockages even if the pack is riding at 50-60 kph.  As a result, roadies are the cause of most motorist rage, although triathletes often cop the blame from road raging cowards because they are alone rather than sheltered by a pack and hence are  easier to intimidate from a moving vehicle (a situation that is often worse for female riders). Roadies often compound the problem of group rides by spreading 3 or more abreast in order to converse or gain some space in the pack. The trouble is that the law prohibits cyclists from riding more than 2 abreast, so in going beyond  the “2 wide” rule they are illegally blocking the road. No wonder motorists get angry. Road riders in groups tend to be the the cause of most of the more egregious examples of anti-cyclist road rage, be it in the moment or later.

Commuters come in all sizes and shapes and ride all sorts of bikes, and are seen mostly in cities rather than in towns. They mostly stick to surface streets but have been known to ride footpaths and stray onto major arteries. They often share bike lanes with buses, which makes them hated by and targets of bus drivers. Many use what is known as a “California” stop at street lights and stop signs, which is a slow roll-through when cross-traffic is clear rather than a full stop (this practice spans all types of bike rider, especially those wearing “clipless” bike shoes with special soles and peddles to maximise rotational efficiency throughout the peddle stroke, which if efficient makes for cumbersome foot plants at short notice. I have been guilty of employing the California stop from time to time, given that I have fallen more than once while trying to quickly unclip out of a clipless peddle).

Bike messengers ride hybrid bikes (road frames with MTB bars and gearing), and tend to exhibit an unhealthy regard for personal safety as they play a form of bicycle parquet during the course of their errands. They often are the most accomplished bicycle handlers and often are competitors in some form of cycling when not working, but they also tend to have the loosest view of traffic regulations and the interface between street, footpath, alleyway, steps and any other potential riding surfaces. They are a major source of motorists’ ire in large urban areas.

This brief exegesis is offered so that readers who are motorists but not cyclists will understand what they are dealing with when they come upon bicycle riders in the road. Virtually all cyclists are acutely aware of how vulnerable they are and most take pains to avoid confrontations with motorists. But sometimes terrain, context or circumstance conspire to bring them together in an untoward way. The fundamental thing that a motorist needs to understand in such instances is that, no matter how rude, inconsiderate, wankerish or otherwise inconvenient that rider’s presence may be, he or she is a living, breathing person made out of flesh and blood who has a right to life as much as you do. Injuring or killing them with your metal steed in an effort to prove a point or teach them a lesson is not only stupid–it is criminal. Even if it takes a minute or two (or five) to get around a cyclist or group of riders, perspective has to be maintained: a slow delay versus a thwarted life–is that a fair or reasonable trade off? Moreover, motorists need to understand that most of the roads they transit now have cyclists on them, and that cyclists have a legal right to be there. That means that motorists need to drive as if horses with riders were on the road–caution must taken in blind spots, on curves and hill summits and the two meter legal separation distance between cyclist and motorist must be respected when overtaking.

In the case of the irresponsible, arrogant or generally tosser rider(s), better to call the cops to the scene and/or demand more stricter enforcement of cycling and road safety regulations so that the minority of those who make up the bulk of the conflict with motorists are made to understand that with the right (and freedom) to ride a bike comes the responsibility to behave according to the universal rules of vehicle conduct. Otherwise homicidal or negligent motorists will have the final word on every cyclist’s fate on any given day.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The perils of Paul (updated).

datePosted on 13:59, October 4th, 2010 by Pablo

The flap over Paul Henry’s latest remarks got me to thinking. First, why was John Key smirking and downplaying the obvious racist content of Henry’s questions about what a “proper” Kiwi should look like? Why did Key instead not point blank admonish Henry for his remark, or at least give him the rope to hang himself with by asking him what HE thought a New Zealander looked like? Why did Phil Goff say that  the incident was “Paul being Paul” rather than put the wood into him? Why did the TVNZ spokesperson claim that Henry says what other people think but do not want to say? Is that a fact that I missed somewhere? Am I being too PC in thinking that with this latest remark Henry has truly jumped the shark? Or is the silent majority in NZ really a bunch of closet bigots for whom Paul Henry is a champion? (and if so, that is too close to the Tea Party/Sarah Palin connection for comfort). Has the turn to market egotism driven so deep into the NZ collective psyche that such remarks are considered tolerable or even funny?

For a guy about to return to NZ and seek citizenship after 13 years of permanent residency, these are more than casual questions.

UPDATE: Henry really is the bigot gift that keeps on giving. In his on-air (non) “apology” the day after his first comments about the GG, not only does he not apologise for the remarks themselves (instead he apologies for any offense they may have caused), but he then goes on to use a slur for Roma (gypsy) while saying that he is of a less distinguished background than Sir Anand because he (Henry) is of half Roma descent apparently. So the bottom line for Mr. Henry is that there are in fact superior and inferior people based upon their inherent characteristics rather than their individual merits or flaws, and using pejorative slurs is Ok so long as one can claim kinship to the insulted group. In sum: Henry uses an ethnic slur while falsely apologising for a racist question. Priceless.

Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

datePosted on 01:55, September 12th, 2010 by Pablo

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

A Diplomatic Dilemma: Kowtow or Confront?

datePosted on 17:53, June 18th, 2010 by Pablo

The manhandling of Green Party leader Russell Norman by Chinese security guards as they escorted a high-level delegation into Parliament raises some thorny questions for the government. Norman was protesting in favour of a free Tibet when his flag was taken from him and he was shoved to the ground. Technically speaking, he was exercising his democratic right to free speech and protest on parliament grounds, so the minute the guards laid hands on him they were guilty of assault. Of course, it remains to be seen if Norman did anything to provoke the guards reaction, such as by rushing at the visiting officials or uttering threats (neither of which appears at this juncture to have happened). Some commentators believe that he deserved what he got because he was being provocative merely by protesting , or because the whole episode was a PR stunt anyway. Even so, if the assault on him was provoked by his holding the flag or shouting “free Tibet”  rather than him posing an immediate physical threat to the delegation, then the guards were in fact violating his rights as well as NZ criminal law and parliamentary protocol. So what is the government to do?

China is now the second largest trading partner of NZ, which has secured the first bilateral free trade agreement between China and a Western country. The National government has worked hard to deepen ties with the PRC, to the point that it is working on the details of a military exchange program with the Asian giant and has not opposed the sale of strategic assets to Chinese consortia. In the past the 5th Labour government has coordinated with visiting Chinese delegations to prevent protesters from getting close to the visitors. There is, in other words, a history of NZ officials working to appease Chinese sensitivities about protest and dissent within a larger context of improving relations between the two countries.

But there has never been a direct confrontation between members of a Chinese entourage and NZ citizens, much less a shoving match between Chinese nationals and an MP inside of parliament itself (as far as I know previous protests by Ron Donald never escalated this far). So a precedent is about to be set. If the NZ Police charge the security guards with assault, or if the government declares them personae non grata and expels them, then NZ runs the risk of having these strengthening ties disrupted by a Chinese diplomatic backlash. Even of short lived or partial, any retaliatory curtailment of trade and investment could end up costing NZ millions of dollars in lost revenue (and the jobs that go with it). But if the Police or government do nothing, then they send the signal that NZ’s commitment to civil rights is secondary to its commitment to trade. Some might see that as kowtowing to an authoritarian one party state in the pursuit of profit. So far the Police have said that they will investigate Norman’s complaint about the incident, but  that does not mean it will result in charges being laid.

One line of argument could be that NZ has to look at the broader and longer-term picture and not jeopardise a relationship that is crucial to NZ’s future prosperity over a trivial incident. A counter-argument is that NZ has more to lose if it abandons its democratic principles in favour of the ethereal promise of cash down the road. One rationale privileges principle over practicality; the other privileges the reverse.

So, what is to be done? What should be Labour and ACT’s responses be (as the majority opposition party and supposed champion of individual rights, respectively)? Should pragmatism triumph over principle, or should principle outweigh economic and diplomatic considerations? Is there a compromise solution in which face is saved all around? Will the Police go through the motions of an investigation but do nothing, and if so, what will National do by way of official follow up?

Less one think that this conundrum could only occur because of the nature of the Chinese, consider this scenario:

A protester attempts to approach US Vice President Biden and/or Secretary of State Clinton at the Beehive entrance in order to deliver a petition demanding closure of Camp X Ray at Guantanamo, or better yet, a summons to the International Court of Justice for complicity in US “war crimes” in Iraq and Afghanistan. What do you think the Secret Service response would be, and if the Secret Service agents surrounding the US dignitaries were to react in a physical manner, would the NZ Police or government press charges against them?

Such are the quandaries of being an elf amongst giants.

My partner and I are reaching the end of our sojourn in Greece and will be back in SE Asia by the end of the week. Her data collection and interview schedule have provided the follow-up material needed to finish the Greek chapter of her book (which includes Ireland and Portugal as the other case studies, a comparative project she started five years ago and long before anyone else noted some of the bases for comparison that now occupy so much attention). For my part, I have managed to glean some preliminary observations about civil-military relations in this fragile democracy, and in doing so have developed an idea about undertaking a comparison of post-authoritarian Greece and Argentina (although the specific focus of the project is still unclear and it will have to wait in any event until I manage to finish the current, long delayed book project as well as some articles in preparation or revision).

At this point I would like to reflect on an issue that I have previously written about in this forum (Sept 2009): the notions of Entitlements and Rights, in this case as they apply to contemporary Greek democracy.

If one thing comes across to this foreign observer, the Greeks have a tremendously developed sense of entitlements and rights. In fact they see them as one and the same. But they also have little sense of social responsibility. The prevailing attitude appears to be they everyone is entitled to express their opinions however they see fit regardless of whether it infringes on other’s security or dissent.  Everyone is also entitled to extract as much as they can from the state without having to help pay the costs of public goods (say, by paying taxes in full). The expressed view is not only that people are entitled to these attitudes (seen as a combination of opinion and behaviour), but that they have the Right to them.

Of course, this is an over-generalisation. Many Greeks do not impose their views on others and retreat into parasitic survivalism outside of their involvement in the public sphere. Yet at least when it comes to the intersection of political and civil societies, the tone is often “me/us first, the rest of you can get stuffed.”

What is interesting about this phenomena is 3 things: 1) that this notion of collective and individual entitlement is construed as a Right of all Greeks. Although nowhere is it written in the Greek constitution that people have a right to storm parliament, attack the police, property and standers-bye, or thrown molotovs into banks during demonstrations, it is generally accepted that such is inherent in the Greek way of expressing dissent or dissatisfaction with the status quo. These types of direct action are not seen as insurrection or low-level guerrilla warfare, but as something disgruntled Greeks simply do.

This attitude–that Greeks not only are entitled to get agro when they protest but have a right to, and that it is their right to not be held to criminal account for their violent public actions–is a product of the days in 1973-74 when the university student movement was instrumental, via violent clashes with the security forces, in bringing down the so-called colonel’s dictatorship that had usurped Greek democracy in 1967. Many of the leaders of that movement are now senior figures in politics, unions, the civil service and higher education. For them it was the resort to direct action, at considerable physical risk to themselves, that was THE decisive factor that restored Greek democracy. As a result, the role of direct action, including violence, has been mythologised in modern Greek political folklore, and even if stylised and ritualised in many instances, it remains central to the formation and reproduction of Greek political identities. In other words, to be staunch in the streets is to be Greek, and nothing can infringe on this inalienable right of all Greeks (immigrants are another matter). In a country that reifies its warring history regardless of win or loss, this is a powerful glue.

That brings up the second interesting aspect of this entitlements-as-rights phenomena: the government, including security forces, agreement with that logic. It is remarkable how the government accepted, for example, that the attempted storming of the Greek parliament on May 5 was a “right” of the protesters. Although it denounced the murders of three bank workers caught up in the demonstration violence, it did not specifically condemn the burning of the bank in which they were trapped.  Instead,  the government ordered that the parliament building be defended so that the debt rescue package could be voted on, but it clearly instructed the riot police to deal  lightly with the protesters and to not enforce basic criminal statutes outside of the immediate confrontation zone around parliament itself (and as I mentioned in a previous post about the general strike, may have negotiated with the communist-led unions to ensure that this occurred).

Nor was there a massive police cordon erected around the city centre, or police roadblocks and checkpoints erected at major road and rail access nodes to the downtown area even though it was a foregone conclusion that armed fringe groups were headed to the scene (and I must say that some of the Greek militant factions have truly marvelous names, such as the “Conspiracy of the Cells of Fire” held responsible for two bombings this weekend in Athens and Thessaloniki). In other words, with full knowledge of what would happen, the government confirmed the perception of entitlements-as-rights by ordering that security be limited and light.  Hence, for the moment, the military has played no role in internal security, which is left to two layers of riot police (one to prevent, the other to respond to violence), regular cops and plain clothes detectives and intelligence agents. However, if the pace of agitation continues, that attitude of military non-involvement in domestic security could well change (and it does not have to be overt, just decisive).

In effect, all political actors accept this particular interpretation of the Greek “me/us first, the rest be stuffed” broad entitlements-as-rights argument. Perhaps that is because there is also a fundamental Greek belief in the powers of collective and individual self-control. But nothing I have seen in the Greek streets suggests that self-limitation is a widely accepted national trait. To the contrary, the general attitude on the streets, both in the daily routine as well as during demonstrations, is that one gets away with what they can absent countervailing or superior power.  For those who have had the experience with them, Athenian street market vendors and taxi drivers are cases in point (and yet the market for both persists).

To put that in a comparative perspective, imagine any group in NZ claiming the right to throw molotovs, wreak storefronts  and storm parliament, and have that “right” not only accepted by any government of the day but also have that government order the police to refrain from using undue force on said protesters in the event they turn violent (to include limiting the number of arrests). Would that ever be feasible? For those so inclined, spurious comparisons with “wreakers and haters,” spitters, bum flashers, flag shooters and burners or street theater anarchists simply do not cut it.

That brings up the third, and most troubling aspect of the broad Greek interpretation of entitlements-as-rights (which if readers may remember my post on the subject last September are clearly not the same thing, nor should they be). Nowhere in this logic is there any notion of social responsibility, be it collective or individual. The entire argument is framed simply in terms of expected treatment and permissible behaviour, not in terms of social costs or collective mitigation of harm in pursuit of the common good. The absolutism of the claim of entitlements-as-rights and the absolute lack of relativity or regard for consequence are quite astounding. It is remarkable to watch and listen to people proclaim zero responsibility for societal ills, collective dysfunction or personal injury while demanding that their expanded notions of public and private rights be held sacrosanct. For this observer, the gap between what is demanded and what is offered in return is canyonesque.

And that is where my personal disconnect lays. As someone who recognises the legitimacy of violent direct action in the face of oppressive regimes, I fully understand the public need to physically confront the powers that be. But I also understand that there are costs involved in that form of expression. When one contravenes established  criminal law–often on purpose because it is a symbol of tyranny or class rule–one accepts that s/he has placed themselves outside of the law-as-given. One is thus a self-recognised “outlaw,” defined in old American Western parlance as “outside of the law.”  Being outside of the law of course means that one is liable to extra-judicial retribution, or at least criminal charge. Guerrillas  and counter-hegemonic activists of of all stripes understand this as they enter the fray and they fully understand the downside consequences of their decision to act (the Waihopai 3 notwithstanding). Having said this, it strikes me that the Greek state is more obese and arthritic than malignant and oppressive, so the resort to violent direct action on a near daily basis seems symptomatic of  a malaise not solely attributable to the Greek state.

And yet in contemporary Greece most everyone has a state-centred grievance and no one has a a claim on blame (or at least accepts even partial responsibility for social costs involved in the claim to entitlements-as-rights). For Greeks, collective costs are acceptable so long as immediate personal injury is avoided (this applies to bank managers as it does to unemployed youth). Rights of voice and expression are believed to be unfettered and encumbered only by individual preference, the consequences of which are to be borne by others.  Outside of exceptional cases involving ongoing public interest, public or private contravention of the law-as-given is generally held to be non-liable. A petrol bomb here, a bribe there–everyone is entitled to express their self-proclaimed rights in their own way and others should beware and steer clear. There is collective tolerance of that view. Governments come and go indulging such attitudes as the miminal cost of rule. Greeks that understand democracy as a substantive and procedural compromise can only ponder this, shrug their shoulders, and silently weep.

All of that may change now that the crisis is upon the Hellenic Republic. What may have been permissible in better economic times may no longer be so as the burden of sacrifice begins to wear on the fabric of Greek society. As austerity bites into the great mass of Greek workers the resort to survivalist alienation in the private sphere may give way to a defensive overlap between collective and private notions of entitlements-as-rights, drawn along lines reminiscent of 1974. Should that occur (and there have already been calls from ultra-nationalist groups for the military to act), the logic of entitlements-as-rights spawned by the events in 1974 could well be replaced by a military counter-version in which it is entitled, and has the right, to intervene in government in order to “save” the nation from itself, even if on a temporary basis.

Improbable as that may seem (and it is), such could well be the future price Greeks might pay for confusing a broad conception of entitlements with civil rights devoid of civic responsibility. Let’s hope not.

Epilogue: This concludes my posts about Greece. I may have more to comment on this fascinating country down the road but for the time being I must contemplate a return to the authoritarian (yet efficient and clean!) tropics. Which brings up the question: is it better to live peacefully and comfortably without real voice under authoritarian aegis, or is it better to suffer disorder and inefficiency in a democracy in which voice matters more than anything else? That is the perennial question of transitional political societies.

PS: My partner says that the syndrome is much more individual than collective, and that participation in collective action is a convenient cover for individualist self-projection using the ideological justification of rights to unfettered voice (rather than a genuine concern with collective gains). I disagree to some extent because I think that repeated involvement in direct action modifies the very notion of self (for better or worse), but that subject is for another discussion. In the meantime I defer to her superior knowledge of all things Greek.

Something About the Symbolism of Poppies.

datePosted on 03:46, April 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

Peace Movement Aotearoa is running a white poppy campaign as a fund raiser for its activities. It is doing so one day before the RSA red poppy appeal. Some think the timing is unfortunate in the extreme. Others denounce PMA as “parasites.” I beg to differ.

There are obvious freedom of opinion and speech issues involved, all of which must be resolved in favour of the PMA no matter how misguided they may be or how they may be piggy-backing on the veneration of the sacrifice at Gallipoli. But that is exactly why the white poppy campaign should be respected.

The red poppy campaign is a recognition of sacrifice that, although in service of a foreign master and resulting in (tactical) defeat, was a prime example of the measure of the Kiwi spirit. It is to be honoured, which is why I, as a foreigner, have attended ANZAC day celebrations. But I also respect the white poppy campaign.

That is because there is the offically unrecognised aspect to ANZAC celebrations, which is the futility and subserviance of the heroic sacrifice by so many of New Zealand’s best (and not so best) men  of the day. To be honest, many died in vain. In the larger scheme of things Gallipoli was not strategically decisive. That war was not fought in defense of democracy and freedom.

Therein lies the justification for the white poppy campaign. Along with the red poppy recognition of sacrifice, it is entirely fair to recognise the futility of NZ involvement in some wars and to campaign against any such future involvement. I tend to believe that WW1, WW2 and Korea were just wars (look at North Korea now if you think that was an unjustifed conflict), and NZ involvement in the liberation of Timor Leste is commendable, but the point of the white poppy campaign is to underscore the fact that NZ, as a sovereign and independent nation, can now pick and choose its fights when it does not involve defense of the homeland. Although they may not realise that NZ has to pay its international security dues in order to receive international protection against foreign invasion (however improbable that scenario may be), the PMA crowd are perfectly correct in choosing to parallel their campaign of reflection alongside the recognition of ANZAC sacrifice. Put another way–how many Kiwis have died in a war of NZ’s choosing? It may be true that sometimes “you gotta do what you gotta do,” but when it comes to war, sometimes you have to recognise that you do not have a dog in the fight.

Of course this hurts the ANZAC veterans (or their descendents) who choose not to acknowledge that freedom of expression, governance and worship  is not what Gallipoli (or Vietnam) was about–it was about great power quarrels fought in areas of the global periphery with military-strategic importance.  Thus,  if the mythological claims of defense of freedom are to be honoured, then the white poppy campaign should be welcomed along with its red poppy counterparts. After all, it is difference of opinion that makes the defense of freedom so fundamental to the democratic ethos. Although it may not have been at play at Gallipoli, it sure is when it comes to respecting the rights of the white poppy campaigners.

I therefore honour the ANZACs for their (often unthinking) sacrifice. And I respect the PMA for their thinking opposition to war, however much I believe sometimes war is necessary ( if nothing but on lesser evil grounds).

As for the maori component of this sacrifice and current opposition,  I defer to Lew.

>>Written from Greece, where democracy is clearly showing strains but in which the right to voice is sacrosanct.<<

In January and February 2008 my wife and I did a road trip the length of the country, twice — from Wellington to Bluff, back to Wellington, up to Cape Reinga, and back to Wellington again. For most of the trip, we flew a small Tino Rangatiratanga flag, one of those small ones which clip onto a car window. It was partly a matter of literally “flying the flag” of my political views at this time of year — I must note, with some misgivings on her part — and partly an experiment to see what response it would get.

Photo by Adrienne Rewi.
(Photo by Adrienne Rewi — because its surprisingly hard to take a shot of your own car-flag while driving and we didn’t take one. Used without permission but with thanks — I’ll take it down on request.)

Most obviously, traffic seemed to treat us somewhat differently, though this might be down to regional and seasonal driving variations. Some cars honked, some flashed their lights or waved; others rode closer behind or seemed to overtake more aggressively. Many times I saw drivers staring or otherwise reacting with surprise at seeing a couple of Pākehā in a white station wagon flying such a flag. Truck drivers were particularly well-represented in all these reactions; the road is their territory, and visual vehicular statements of identity or loyalty mean a lot to them.

This was especially true when driving around Otago and Southland with my ZZ Top-bearded and bemulleted uncle in the car. Mostly in the South, though, people were cool but not hostile, and too polite to mention anything they might have thought. The response, both positive and negative, was strongest in the central North Island, Northland and the Bay of Plenty. In Taumarunui we got into town late and a group of local Māori were drinking and singing karaoke at the hotel where we stopped. They were intrigued and after a few friendly waves and “kia ora bro”s a couple of kuia came over to suss us out — asking us who we were, where we were from, and so on. Learning that we were from Whanganui, and that I have family connections to Jerusalem put it in context and they treated us with easy amiability. Their only mention of the flag was to remark that it was probably a pretty good guard against theft; said with warmth and irony and humour. There were several of these sort of encounters. Later, stopping for side-of-the-road hāngi on the road between Wellsford and Whangarei, the young guy gave us $2 off and claimed it was because it was the last, though I could see there was plenty left and it was only just lunch time. Especially in the Far North, and through the Bay of Plenty from Te Puke through Whakatane down to about Rotorua, Māori pedestrians and kids playing near the street would shout and point and wave. Usually, this was in run-down areas, and the people waving and shouting “chur bro!” often wore gang colours.

The “anti-theft device” line was replayed unbidden in Tauranga while visiting some in-laws, though this time in all seriousness, with none of the warmth of the Māori in Taumarunui. This was combined with a rather heated debate as to the relative merits of the Clark government, Foreshore and Seabed Act and general state of the bicultural nation. The two events were on consecutive days, and the contrast could not have been more stark.

In a couple of cases — once in Lyttelton in the carpark of the Wunderbar, and again outside a petrol station in Whitianga — we were asked by random strangers if we were Māori, and if not, why were we flying the flag. In Lyttelton this was good-natured and curious; in the other case, the question was asked with gruff suspicion, and the answer — an explanation of what the flag means and its origin — didn’t cut any ice with the chap who looked and seemed rather like Garth George. I’ve encountered that sort of reaction before — once a guy called me a “race traitor” in Molly Malone’s because I was wearing a Tino Rangatiratanga hoodie — and that one didn’t even have the flag, just the words.

But on a trip of 7,500km on the busiest roads in the country, passing through all the main population centres at the time of our national holiday, in an election year, not long after the Urewera Terra arrests and with issues of racial separatism and colonialism very squarely on the agenda, the thing which was most obvious was how little such a statement changed anything. It reiterated to me that New Zealand is a pretty tolerant and easy society, as long as that tolerance is not stretched too far. Another example of this was this evening’s “Great Debate” on Māori TV between celebrities and comedians and such folks on the moot “now is the time for Aotearoa to close the immigration gates”. I won’t spoil the result, because it really is worth watching (and I assume Māori TV will put up a video), but while the moot was robustly (and often very personally) contested, it was all done in wonderful good humour. The same good humour as of a Māori joking ruefully about Māori crime — and the opposing siege mentality the following day. Happily, I think the former predominates in this country, and provides a sound basis for the ongoing development of a bicultural — and eventually multicultural — society.

L

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