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Where to draw the line?

datePosted on 12:02, February 19th, 2017 by Pablo

Here are some thoughts for readers.

It is reported that former US Sen Scott Brown (R-MA) has been nominated by the Trump administration to be US ambassador to New Zealand. Besides a record that includes being a centrefold model, party to a sexual harassment lawsuit, and an undistinguished US Senator after a career in local politics in his home state, Mr. Brown is on record as saying that he supports the use of water boarding and other forms of torture. This is of particular note because Mr. Brown is a lawyer who served in the Massachusetts National Guard as a Judge Advocate General’s (JAG) officer, that is, as part of the Army legal system. He should therefore presumably be familiar with Jus in Bello, Jus ad Bellum and other international conventions that, among other things, prohibit the use of torture in war and peacetime.

NZ is a signatory to the Geneva Convention, which prohibits torture (as a war crime). It also supports the International Court of Justice, which prosecutes war crimes and crimes against humanity (which include torture).

Every country has the right to refuse to accept the credentials of foreign ambassador-designates.

So the question is: as a responsible member of the international community and a strong supporter of the rule of international law, should NZ refuse to accept Scott Brown as the incoming US ambassador? Or should it adopt a policy of diplomatic necessity and cast a blind eye on Mr. Brown’s support for state-sanctioned criminal acts in order to curry favour with the Trump administration?

And, as a sidebar: Inspector General of Security and Intelligence Cheryl Gwyn is currently undertaking a lengthy investigation into whether NZ, via the SIS and/or NZDF, was involved in the extraordinary rendition and black site programs run by the US under the Bush 43 administration (which involved the extrajudicial kidnapping and secret detention without charge of suspected Islamicists, several of whom wound up dead as a result of their treatment while in captivity). These  programs included the use of water boarding and other forms of torture as supposed interrogation techniques at the US military prison in Guantanamo Bay (Camp Xray) as well as a network of black sites around the world (not all of whom have been identified yet and which it is possible Ms. Gwyn’s investigation might shed light on). Given this background, will the decision on Mr. Brown’s acceptability as the US ambassador be indicative of what we can expect from the government when it comes to her findings?

I would love to hear your opinions.

War for war’s sake?

datePosted on 13:28, January 17th, 2017 by Pablo

An article in a US magazine about the Senate confirmation hearings of US Secretary of Defense nominee General (ret.) James Mattis struck a chord. The author pointed out that the hearings basically involved patsy questions that were designed to elicit the standard responses about the US having the “greatest” military on earth but (somehow, given that it spends more on the military than the next eight countries combined) needed much more money to counter myriad threats. That allowed Senators to push weapons programs being built in their home states such as the F-35 fighter jet and the next generation of nuclear submarines (all of which Mattis said the US needed and the acquisition of which he supported). The sense one gets from the hearings is that it was a stitch up so long as Mattis threw the usual sops to the usual pork barreling crowd.

No questions were asked of Matthis as to why the US goes to war and why, after being constantly embroiled in wars big and small for a quarter century and currently involved publicly in at least eight conflicts (Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Nigeria, Sudan), the US has failed to achieve a victory in any of them. What is the point of going to war if the result is inconclusive (Libya), a stalemate (Afghanistan) or a defeat (which Iraq can be considered if one looks at the national and regional situation before and after the US invasion)?  Or is the purpose now simply to feed a military-industrial complex that increasingly occupies a vanguard position in the US economy (even more so than when Dwight Eisenhower warned against the dangers of the complex that led him to coin that phrase)?

It seems that the answer is the latter. But it is worth delving into the backdrop to war-mongering for war and profit’s sake.

There are wars of necessity, wars of opportunity and wars of convenience. Justification for war is usually made on the grounds that they are fought defensively for existential purposes, in the face of grave threats to the nation-state. This is the basis of Laws of War (Jus ad Bellum) arguments. Even so, larger powers may engage (“expeditionary”) wars of offensive opportunity or convenience, most often against smaller or weaker states, if they feel that they can produce an outcome that enhances their international position or achieve a specific goal (political, military or economic). The US invasion of Iraq was a war of opportunity, as the neocons leading the US security apparatus thought that they could redraw the post 9/11 political map of the Middle East by removing Saddam and placing, as it was referred to at the time, a land based aircraft carrier full of US troops in between Iran and Syria that would intimidate both of them. Afghanistan may or may not have been a war of necessity. Taliban-controlled Afghanistan itself did not pose an existential threat to the US, but its aiding and abetting of the 9/11 conspirators, to say nothing of the repercussions of the attacks themselves, advised in favour of a strike against the al-Qaeda safe havens located in that country. Then the conflict morphed into something else. Nation-building, peace enforcement, counter-insurgency, regime support–you name it, but all of these renamed conflict justifications have one common theme: no victory or end in sight.

Russia’s incursions into Georgia and the Ukraine were and are wars of opportunity that have allowed it to reinforce its border buffer areas, something that has been a tenet of Russian geopolitical thought dating back to the Czars. Likewise, Russian involvement in Syria is opportunistically designed to defend the Alawite regime (with or without Assad at its helm), protect Russian interests in Syria (including 100,000 Russian citizens as well as the naval base at Tartus), and increase Russian influence throughout the Middle East in the face of US reluctance to commit significant force in Syria during the Obama administration.

China has claimed that any move to deny it possession of the disputed artificial islands it has built on reefs in the South China Sea will be seen as an existential threat leading to a major regional war. Whether a bluff or not, it is clear that China has used the opportunity provided by US reluctance to confront it early in the island-building process as a means of expanding its littoral claims in accordance with the “three island chain” or “string of pearls” maritime strategy it has long promoted but until recently has not been able to implement (and in which the South China Sea is considered to be Chinese territorial waters within the first or innermost island chain).

Generally speaking, the syllogism upon which wars are fought goes like this: geopolitical position (including diplomatic, economic and security partnerships)–> threat environment–> strategic orientation–> force composition–> weapons acquisition–> tactical orientation–> force deployment–> operational tempo. Depending on the specific nature of this syllogism, nation-states wage wars of an existential, convenience or opportunistic sort. For example, as a small isolated maritime nation New Zealand should, by virtue of the logic embedded in this syllogism, have a naval dominant defensive force structure that emphasis anti-access/area denial capabilities over its littoral waters and sea lines of communication.

However, in practice the NZDF is an Army dominant force with limited blue water naval projection, no air supremacy component and a special operations branch (the SAS) that mainly serves in overseas expeditionary roles that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland. The reason is that force composition is not just product of physical defense needs but also of alliance commitments and international politics, something that has seen the NZDF deployed in foreign combat zones that are unrelated to existential threats to the homeland since the end of World War 2.

That returns us to the US and its penchant for continuous war without victory. Regardless of what US politicians say or how “great” its military is, the US is a declining super power transiting from unipolar dominance to great power status in a multipolar world. Yet even when it was the international hegemon it was not clear that it had a full grasp of the need to have strategic coherence before it went to war. For example, for the entire post Cold War period and existing yet to this day, the US claims that it has a “2.5 major regional war” fighting capability (2.5 MRW). That is, it can simultaneously fight two and a half (whatever that means) major regional wars unassisted and prevail in all of them. But the reality is clearly not the case. The US not only cannot fight and prevail in the 2.5 MRW scenario, but it has needed multinational assistance to fight (and still not decisively prevail) in those that it has fought in the last 15 years.

The US makes weapons procurements that are designed to counter a mix of threats without establishing a hierarchy amongst them. The US spends more money on weapons technologies than any other country by a far stretch. In fact, US “defense” spending and the justifications for it are akin to the arguments about the US health system–and the results are similar (high costs tied to corporate manipulation, much technological innovation, excellent high-end delivery systems but less than desired outcomes across the board for the nation as a whole).

US strategic incoherence is rooted in broader disagreements about the thrust of US foreign policy.  Realists, neo-realists, neoconservatives and liberal interventionists compete for foreign policy dominance, yet no single school of thought has prevailed since the mid 1980s (idealists and constructivists had a brief moment in the sun under the first Clinton administration but were soon smothered by the weight of international events). Both the political elite as well as the foreign policy and national security bureaucracies are rendered by divisions amongst these competing theoretical camps, something that has made impossible a coherent approach to the application of armed force in foreign theatres (let it be noted that the US foreign policy and strategic approach has largely been guided by liberal interventionist precepts since the Bush 43 administration, but not to the extent that it has coalesced into a comprehensive theoretical framework for the conduct of US international affairs).

That is the crux of the matter. It is not just, as vulgar Marxists would say, that the military-industrial complex dominates US foreign policy because of its neo-imperialist imperative. There is something to that, but the real bottom line is that without a coherent strategic vision that connects the resort to war to the national, as opposed to corporate interest, then the latter will step into the vacuum and prevail in discussions about national security.

Wrap those discussions in nationalist/patriotic rhetoric festooned with flags and military paraphernalia at everything from car dealerships to football games, add incessant rhetoric about valour and sacrifice defending “freedom,” “democracy” or the US “way of life,” push the uncritical veneration of a “hero” or “warrior” military culture, and you have, in the absence of a genuine strategic rationale for going to war, the trumped up (yes, I did go there) reasons for turning the US into an incessant but ineffectual war machine. Glorification of war as a PR exercise over the course of decades and commercially tied to the minutia of American life is the opiate that feeds public delusion that the US should be the world’s laws enforcement agency and can in fact win any war.

The result is that the US increasingly looks and acts like a jumped up version of the former USSR–a steroid-jacked muscleman with deteriorated internal systems having trouble coping with anger management issues. Yet unlike the USSR, which tested its muscles selectively and avoided constant physical engagement in wars of convenience (and still fell), the US is a muscleman that is always looking for trouble. And trouble it has found.

The strategically incoherent yet endless resort to war in pursuit of profit is one major reason for the US decline. I shall address others in a post to follow.

Darkness at heart.

datePosted on 17:22, January 5th, 2017 by Pablo

Lets consider a hypothetical scenario.

A group of women appear to be well on their way to intoxication at a polite venue on an island known to cater to the affluent. They are not caucasian. A well-heeled older white male patron observes them and decides, perhaps after a few tipples of his own, to take it upon himself to caution them about the perils of drinking and driving in an area that has a heavy police presence over the holidays. He assumes that they are not locals.

His unsolicited advice is not welcome and he is told by one of the women, a 23 year old, that as local born and indigenous to boot, she “can do what she pleases” (according to his account).

His response, according to her, is to say that she needs to acknowledge that it “is also a white people’s island.” He says that it was just joking banter.

My questions at this point are this: even if she was being drunk and dismissive, of all the things he could have said, why that particular line? Could he not have replied in a myriad other ways, such as by telling her that her behaviour was drawing unwanted attention? Was he trying to say that the rule of law applies to everyone regardless of origin, but that the law is made by white folk? Even more to the point, why did he feel the need to go over and caution them? Is he in the habit of approaching strange women in public venues and giving them the benefit of his unsolicited advice? If so, why?

In any event, in the real world the young woman hits social media with her displeasure and the incident becomes a media frenzy. Various celebrities weigh in to defend the old guy, leaning on his good deeds for sport and various charitable contributions. Others are not so charitable.

The scenario gets stickier because he uses as a PR spokesperson a well-known reactionary woman who, in response to the furore over this remarks, at first says that the 23 year old is too fair skinned to have been the subject of racism and then says that she has never heard of the term “casual racism” until today.

The Race Relations Commissioner, herself of disputed background when it comes to issues of racial awareness, at first says that the old white gent is not a racist but then backtracks and introduces the term casual racism that the PR spokeswoman had previously never heard of. The term is certainly not new but it seems that the PR woman travels in insulated circles.

The questions that arise at this point are: seriously, the old white guy uses an even more clueless old white woman with a rightwing track record to defend him against charges of “casual” racism? And she then decides to use the 23 year old’s skin tone as a defense against the charge of racism (because the young woman is light skinned)? And in 2017 she claims to not know what “casual” racism is (perhaps because she casually is one)?

As for the Race Relations Commissioner–was she conflating her personal and official views when she made either or both of her statements?

Anyway, like I said, this is just a hypothetical scenario about race, gender and generational difference referencing current events in a post-truth age.

in a weird way, it reminds me of another (not so) old guy getting into some strife because of his penchant for serial hair-pulling of (sometimes very) young women in public venues or at events. He too claimed that his actions were just playful, joking physical banter that was misconstrued by one recipient of his attentions (and to be fair, none of his other instances of hair pulling were even noted, much less protested until a waitress complained). According to his many defenders, he was not a sexist or a fetishistic creep.

I guess offence is taken in the eye of the beholder, but in both cases the offence was taken after an older white male in a position of power decided to unilaterally approach and engage younger women in ways that were unwanted. In each case the older male felt entitled, or privileged, to initiate contact with a younger woman without first ascertaining whether that contact was welcome, and continued the contact after it became apparent that it was not. That others defended their actions as, at worst “misunderstandings,” speaks to a number of things.

What could they be and why, in 2017, should they be?

It is not about the monkey, it is about the machine.

datePosted on 17:13, November 24th, 2016 by Pablo

In the late 1980s I found myself sitting at a research institute in Rio de Janeiro pondering the sad fact that George H.W. Bush (aka Bush 41) had just been elected president. This was a guy who sat down the hall from Reagan’s desk and yet who claimed that he had seen nothing and heard nothing when it came to Iran-Contra and the drugs for guns schemes being run out of the Oval Office using Ollie North as the facilitator. With his having been a former CIA director, decorated WW2 pilot, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, US Representative, Ambassador to the UN and US envoy to China (before a US embassy was established in Beijing) as well as Vice President, I found it hard to believe that Bush 41 had no clue as to what was going on down the hall.

So there I sat in the Institute cafe, moping over my cafe com leite as I pondered another four years of Republican presidents. At that moment a Brazilian colleague showed up and asked me why I looked so sad. I told him. His face lit up in a big grin and he told me that to the contrary, I should be encouraged by the news. Given that he was a dyed in the wool Marxist scholar and activist who had suffered through the days of the US-backed dictatorship, I found his comment odd. When I asked why he believed so he said: “The US is the best country on earth! Here in Brazil we always look for one person to take us out of darkness and into civilisation. But in the US it does not matter if you have a monkey running the White House because the machine continues no matter what!”

That is why despite the gloom and doom occasioned by Donald Trump’s election as US president, there is a sliver lining in that cloud. It lies in the institutional edifice of the US State–that is, the complex of commonweal institutions, agencies, norms, rules, practices and procedures, plus those who administer them–which will serve as a restraining device on his most spurious instincts and largely dictate the limits of what he can and not do in the Oval Office. Mind you, I am not talking about the so-called “Deep State,” which I have trouble believing exists if for no other reason than it would have prevented Trump from assuming office one way or another. Instead, I am talking about is the conglomerate often referred to as the Federal Government, in all of its facets and permutations.

I have said publicly on repeated occasions that assuming the presidency is like putting on a straight jacket. When one takes the presidential office the entire weight of US history, good and bad, falls on one’s shoulders. This includes assurances, commitments, guarantees, obligations, promises, responsibilities, rewards and threats made in the past and occupying the present that may be possible to modify but which are hard to summarily rescind or revoke. Even in the latter case the process for withdrawing from established policy is generally slow and fraught with challenges, be they legal, political or diplomatic, and can elicit unintended or unforeseen consequences or responses (such as those occasioned by US troop withdrawals in Afghanistan and Iraq).

The presidency also inherits the entire edifice of governance–its rules, its mores, its  promotion schedules in a bureaucratic architecture that is huge and by design very compartmentalised and specialised in its legally allowable administration of policy. In fact, when freshly elected presidents attempt to  throw a cloak of campaign promises on an institutional apparatus that may or may not be disposed to following executive directives, the result may be bureaucratic resistance rather than supine compliance. When the president-elect campaigns on a promise of  “draining the swamp” that is the institutional nexus between public and private rent seeking, the stage is set for a confrontation between individual (presidential) will and institutional preservation. The odds do not favour the individual.

The idea that Trump is going to summarily dispense with assorted policies involving trade, security, immigration, domestic energy exploitation, press freedoms, civil rights and the like is wrong because he simply cannot unilaterally do so without challenge. Those challenges have already begun over his refusal to declare conflicts of interest with his business ventures and will continue across the gamut of his presidential endeavour. They will come from many sides, including from within his own party and congressional leadership. However grudgingly, he (or better said, his advisors) have begun the process of walking back most of his signature campaign promises, which may or may not emerge in modified form.  Even in areas where he is sticking to his guns–say, on withdrawing from the TPPA–the more likely outcome is that Congress will force a withdraw-and-renegotiate compromise rather than a full and final abandonment of it. As his mate Rudy Giuliani has explained, things are said in the heat of battle on the campaign trail that were never meant to be followed through on, and now is the time to bring America together. Given how divisive the campaign was, that will be a big ask.

Needless to say, that also makes those who voted for him look like a bunch of suckers.

The compromises being forced upon him are evident in the arguments about his senior level appointments. On the one hand naming Steve Bannon (of alt-Right/Breitbart fame) as Senior Counsel and Strategist has produced a wave of repudiation and calls for his dismissal because of his publicly expressed anti-Semitic, racist, misogynist and generally bigoted views. On the other hand, his consideration of Mitt Romney for Secretary of State has elected howls of disapproval from the likes of Newt Gingrich and Mike Huckabee. New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who was one of the first to endorse Trump after his own presidential bid failed, was rewarded for his troubles by being sacked as transition team leader on the orders of Trump’s son-in-law, whose father has been successfully convicted in the early 2000s by Christie during his days as a federal prosecutor (ostensibly because of Christie’s involvement in the so-called “Bridgegate” scandal). This has alienated many self-designated “pragmatic” Republicans who saw reason in Christie’s approach to governance and were willing to overlook his errors in judgement in backing Trump and pursuing personal vendettas while governor.

For his part, Giuliani stands to receive a important role in the Trump administration but interestingly, that role has yet to be announced in spite of Giuliani’s slavish boot-licking of the Orange One. This has led to speculation that he too is considered to have too much baggage to garner a cabinet-level prize such as Secretary of Homeland Security. What appointments have been made (Jeff Sessions as Attorney General, Mike Ryan as National Security Advisor, Betsy De Vos as Secretary of Education and Nikki Haley as UN Ambassador) have all met with wide-spread criticism on a variety of grounds (racism when it comes to Sessions, Islamophobia and mental instability when it comes to Ryan, and complete lack of relevant experience when it comes to De Vos and Haley). With 4000 political positions to fill, that makes for a a very fraught appointment process–and that is before the serious business of security vetting begins on pretty much all of them.

Whatever the provenance of the challenges, their conveyance will be institutional, be it from the courts, Congress or the federal bureaucracy. The latter is worth noting simply because translating policy initiatives into concrete action takes an institutional inclination (beyond capacity) to do so. As Ronald Reagan discovered when he tried to abolish the Department of Education, bureaucratic opposition, however self-serving it may be, is an excellent form of institutional constraint.

What this all points to is that not surprisingly, Trump’s presidency is off to a shaky start in spite of his desires and sometimes conciliatory rhetoric. That looks to continue well after his inauguration. Already there is talk of recounts, challenges and impeachment. So he may think, as he has said, that as president he has no conflicts of interest (in a reprise of Dick Nixon’s comment hat it is not illegal if the US president does it), or that he has a free hand when it comes to running the US government. But he is now learning just like Nixon that the hard facts of life in the Oval Office say otherwise.

The bottom line is this: no matter how strong the president may be at any given point in time and no matter the comparative weight of external events and presidential initiatives, the facts of life in the Oval Office are dictated by the institutional machine, not by the monkey that temporarily sits atop it.

Sailing aboard the SS Futility.

datePosted on 15:09, November 16th, 2016 by Pablo

The RNZN is celebrating its 75 anniversary through this upcoming weekend, with 18 foreign warships attending the events. There will be fleet review on Saturday and an open house on the ships on Sunday.  An exhibition of international naval history will be open throughout the week on the Auckland waterfront.

For the first time in three decades the US is sending a warship to NZ waters as part of the event. In doing so the US acknowledges and accepts NZ’s non-nuclear stance and the NZ government confirms that it can verify that the ship is non-nuclear propelled and armed via independent means (and quiet diplomacy). The ship in question is the USS Sampson, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer. Other nuclear powers represented at the celebration are China and India (and France and UK in lesser capacity), as well as a host of regional navies including Australia, Indonesia, Japan and several Pacific Island states. Ships from Singapore, South Korea and Canada will also participate.

The NZ Defense Industry Association is running its annual Forum concurrently with the RNZN celebrations. It gives NZ defense-oriented businesses an opportunity to take advantage of the presence of foreign military commanders in order to hawk their wares as well as exploit the opportunities provided by the NZ$20 billion in capability upgrades announced by the MoD/NZDF for the next fifteen years. Needless say, the combination of events has elicited opposition from a variety of groups.

Protestors have already blocked the venue of the defense industry meetings and more protests are scheduled for the next four days, including a flotilla on Saturday when the fleet will be on review in the Waitemata Harbour. Interestingly, some moron posing as a National MP suggested that the Terrorism Supression Act be amended to include protest flotillas as “terrorists” because they might terrorise the crews of the warships by accidentally getting run over by them. So much for intelligent representation but who knows, maybe someone at the defense industry Forum will have a marketable idea about non-lethal anti-dinghy defences that are designed to deal with such contingencies.

There seems to be several different elements in the protests. There are pacifists who are against the presence of warships of any sort as well as those who profit from the misery of war. There are those who are against the so-called “death merchants” but who do not necessarily object to naval forces (perhaps seeing them as a necessary evil). There are those who are anti-nuclear. There are those who are anti-imperialist. There are those who support indigenous sovereignty. There are those who are anti-American. There is some overlap between these factions but the core appears to be focused on two things: the defense industry Forum and the presence of the USS Sampson as symbolic of conjoined war-mongering evils.

Although one can not really argue against being opposed to “death merchants,” the reality is that like the tip of an iceberg, weapons manufacturers are a relatively small percentage of those exhibiting at the Forum (although major weapons providers like Lockheed Martin are major sponsors of it). Most of the NZ defense industry are logistics and support providers who often also have civilian branches to their businesses (for example, drone manufacturers, navigational technology suppliers and search and rescue equipment providers). At worst, one might consider them “enablers” rather than direct purveyors of instruments of death. Be that as it may, it is understandable why pacifists are opposed to the Forum. Simplistic, naive and righteous, but understandable.

The issue of the warships is a bit more complex. Although there are plenty of pacifists who are opposed to the entire notion of celebrating naval forces, many of the protestors appear to be more focused on protesting the presence of a US warship. This includes some of the ostensibly anti-nuclear types, who seem to have given a pass to the Chinese and Indians while focusing on the US boat. The same is true of the anti-imperialist crowd, who also are concentrating their attentions of the USS Sampson but seem unconcerned about the neo-imperialist ventures of other countries represented, to say nothing of the unhappy histories of places like Indonesia or Chile (whose visiting training ship Esmeralda was used as a prison for political prisoners during the Pinochet era). So that basically means that much of the protesters are anti-American more than anything else.

That stance has been made a bit harder to justify now that the USS Sampson has been diverted to do earthquake relief duties in Kaikura. After all, it is hard not to look silly when the focus of your protests is on a ship that is involved in humanitarian relief operations on your home soil and yet you ignore the authoritarian and often repressive histories of other countries represented in the visiting fleet. This is particularly true if the crowds at the naval expo, watching the fleet review and waiting to board the ships on open house day are larger than the number of demonstrators. Clearly they are not getting the message the protestors want to impart on them.

So the question is: what is the point of the protests?

If the answer is to support pacifism in its opposition to anything connected to war regardless of the ancillary civilian benefits of naval power such as disaster relief and regardless of public attitudes towards the military, then so be it. But if the answer is to selectively protest against the US and defense industry regardless of circumstance, well, that seems to be more of a futile gesture than a public education action.

The last thing the NZ Left needs to be seen as is silly and futile.

Social origins of the Politically Absurd.

datePosted on 09:35, November 8th, 2016 by Pablo

The 2016 US presidential election is a an existential crisis of American society politically manifest as a theatre of the absurd. The story line revolves around a clash of visions over what constitutes the preferred America. On one side is what could be called the “old” vision. The vision is “old” not only because it harks to so-called traditional values rooted in nostalgic reimagining of the 1950s, but because those who most ardently adhere to it are lower educated whites aged 45 and over who are or were employed in blue collar, service sector and small business occupations.

This vision privileges the dominance of white heterosexual christian male values. It is both laissez faire and  economically nationalist in orientation, patriarchal and socially insular in perspective, wary of “outsiders,” and believes in a natural order where rules are made to be obeyed without question. It prizes conformity and stability and respect for authority.

On the other side is a “new” vision. This vision is “new” because it is multiracial, multicultural, heteroreligious and secular, plurisexual, post-feminist, economically internationalist, global in orientation and polyarchical when it comes to power distribution, legitimate authority and social hierarchy.

In reality the two visions bleed into each other in specific instances to form a hybrid social orientation in many groups that is not as dichotomous or binary as it otherwise might be. I say “bleed” rather than “blend” into each other because the overlap and cross-fertilisation between the two social perspectives is not uniform or universally applied: Mexican American IT specialists may enjoy rap as much as Norteno music while dutifully practicing their Catholic faith and adhering to its moral codes, while middle aged white professionals  can find identity in the mores and practices of non-traditional cultures and religions while engaging in post-modern leisure pursuits.

The battle between the old and new perspectives began in the 2008 presidential election when a representative of the “new” vision, Barak Obama, took on an old white man, John McCain, for the highest office in the land. That continued in 2012 when Obama confronted another old white man, Mitt Romney, in his re-election bid. It continues today in the form of another “new” candidate, Hillary Clinton, facing yet another old white man, Donald Trump. Clinton may not be the archetypical “new” candidate as described above, but the mere fact that she is female is a break from the traditional mould.

For his part, Trump represents a grotesque caricature of the traditional alpha male, and in the absurdity of his candidacy lies the last gasps of a dying culture. In his sociopathic narcissism, his sexually predatory behaviour, his racism, bigotry and xenophobia, his abject greed, his pathological lying, his thin-skinned obsession with revenge, his insensitivity to others, his ignorance of basic economic, political, military and diplomatic facts, and in his adolescent resort to crude insults and derision as a weapon of last resort, Trump is the antithesis of the self-made, strong and independent straight-talking man on horseback. And yet, because he acts as if he were and the GOP and conservative media enabled his deception, those who embrace the “old” vision see in him a saviour. But they are wrong, for what he is to them and the culture that they cling to is an angel of death.

That culture is dying because over 45 year old lower educated whites have the highest rates of suicide, alcoholism and opiod addiction in the US, so they are quite literally leaving the mortal coil at higher rates than everyone else. That is not a demographic on which to base a presidential campaign and yet Trump and the GOP have dog whistled, incited, pandered and courted it as these people will live forever or at least until the mythical past can become the future once again.

The “old” vision will lose this election but it will not be its death rattle. Its adherents will fight against the king tide of social change with  the fervour of a drowning man, and some of them will become violent. The obstructionists in the GOP will do everything in their power to undermine the Clinton presidency, and they will front another “old” visionary in the 2020 presidential campaign. But regardless of what they do and how much they resist, the hard fact is that demographic, socio-economic and cultural change are irresistible forces that work against them.

They are doomed and within a generation they will be gone.

Note: I write this the day before the election simply to give my brief read on the broader context that explains why Clinton will win. Depending on how poorly the GOP does in the House and Senate races, the bloodletting within the Republican camp could be epic. That will be fun to watch.

What Domestic Terrorism Threat?

datePosted on 15:44, November 5th, 2016 by Pablo

Last week the government released its National Security System Handbook.  The NSS is a national emergency response system headed by a committee chaired by the Prime Minister that is convened to address serious threats to the security of New Zealand and New Zealanders. It includes officials from various security and intelligence agencies as well as others where and when pertinent depending on the nature of the risk event.

On page 24 of the document examples of events that triggered convening of the NSS are given. Included among them are the 1080 milk powder poison threat, potential consequences of Ebola and Zika outbreaks, the 2010 and 2011 Christchurh earthquakes and the 2011 Rena maritime disaster. Nestled among these and listed separately is the line “(t)hreat of a domestic terrorism incident.” While the other examples are all a matter of pubic record, the domestic terrorism threat is not.

The government refuses to release details of this domestic terrorism threat. That is disappointing for several reasons.

Two years ago the government raised the terrorism threat warning level from “very low” to “low,” citing the international threat environment in which New Zealand is located. Given that the NSS Handbook has been in existence for only two years, the domestic terrorism threat mentioned in the NSS Handbook could have  happened after the threat warning level was raised. But even if it occurred before the Handbook was written, this was supposedly a concrete terrorism threat on New Zealand soil, not something of a general nature, so it is curious that the threat level was not raised to “moderate” or “medium” given the possibility of larger networks involved, existence of copy cats or emulators, or of other plots in the making (simply because it would be hard to predict that the threat in questions was a one-off). Again, this was supposedly a real threat–presumably a physical plot of some sort–rather than social media ranting or otherwise hollow venting by some disgruntled nutter.

As far as I can tell, no one has been arrested, charged, tried or convicted of a domestic terrorism plot in recent years. A couple of individuals were jailed this year for possessing offensive materials in the form of violent jihadist videos, but they were not charged with terrorism offences and were unlikely to require an NSS meeting in response to them. The same is true for the wanna-be jihadists who were prevented from traveling to the Middle East to join Daesh–there would be no need for an NSS meeting over a matter of passport control. There have been a few individuals who have pledged loyalty and support for Daesh on social media, but that does not rise to the level of threat required to trigger convening the NSS. The Urewera case does not seem to apply because both the 5th Labour government and the current National government maintain that its was solely a Police operation that resulted in no terrorism charges being laid.

A domestic terrorism threat of a magnitude that requires triggering of NSS protocols would not involve cyber-esionage, crime or warfare. It would be something that was real and imminent, or at least in the process of becoming so.

Thus the questions beg: If this domestic terrorism threat was real, what became of it? Was it thwarted? What became of the suspect(s)? Did the authorities act so early that they could not obtain evidence that could justify laying charges in court? Are those suspects still in the country or were they passing through? If the suspects are still in the country, are they moving about freely or is there some form of monitoring of them? Should not the public be advised of their presence?

The last point matters because one would think that the government could use this domestic terrorism threat to reinforce and justify its attempts to expand the powers of search and surveillance in various security related Acts. It would reassure the public of the need for more vigilance as well as the competence of the State when it comes to detecting and thwarting terrorist plots.

One can fully understand that the intelligence community would be reluctant to reveal the sources and methods by which this threat was detected and responded to. But surely some detail could be provided that does not compromise the intelligence gathering process but which could point to the specifics of the threat. Unless New Zealand uses secret terrorism courts or is involved in black site or rendition programs, it should not be too difficult for the government to provide a public summary of the facts surrounding the case listed as an example in the NSS Handbook.

Otherwise, the government leaves itself open to skepticism on that particular claim.

Trump is Toast

datePosted on 13:21, October 11th, 2016 by Pablo

Well, all good things must come to an end.

But first, let’s play word association:

Authoritarian Populist.

Racist. Bigot. Xenophobe.

Bully. Buffoon. Bankrupt.

War-mongerer. Torture fan. Genocidal Demagogue.

Narcissistic Sociopath. Tax evader. Ignorant blowhard.

Serial Liar. Serial Cheat. Serial adulterer.

Thin skinned. Egomaniac. Coward.

Lecher.

Sexual predator.

Whose name comes to mind when these words are mentioned?

Conservative spin aside, there is no coming back from this. The destruction of brand Trump is unfolding before our eyes and soon will be complete.

Let’s unpack the video outtakes from his 2005 Access Hollywood appearance in order to explain the reasons why.

In it he speaks of pursuing a married woman. That will cost him religious conservative votes as well as those from people who take a dim view of home-wreckers.

He then boasts that he has a pre-meditated strategy to swallow breath mints before he forcibly kisses women without their consent. He goes on to say that because he is a “star” he can grope women’s genitals with impunity. These are admissions of repeated sexual assault. That is going to cost him much more than female votes, as many in the law and order crowd, to say nothing of men who have real respect for their mothers, wives, sisters, daughters and grand daughters will walk away from a self-admitted practitioner of such criminal behaviour (say what you want about Bill Clinton, there is no audio recording in his own voice of him admitting to sexual assault).

In his non-apologies he claims that the crude and lewd language he used during the now infamous bus ride is just “locker room banter.” Besides the fact that many have pointed out that it is not, in fact, normal athlete talk to speak the way he did, what he is basically saying is that (presumably male) locker rooms are places where discussion of sexual assault is common place. If that is true, then what he is speaking about–and dismissing–is a particular aspect of rape culture. True or not (and there is definitely a problem with rape cultures in some areas of US society), the fact that he downplays the seriousness of boasting about sexual assault (whether real or made up) is indicative of deeply seated misogyny on his part. This may have been something that he could get away with twenty years ago, but it is not now.

Better yet, Trump is a wrecking ball that is bringing the Republican Party down with him as the GOP rats scramble to get off that sinking ship known as the 2016 campaign. They have to jump because the word association game that we just played will be attached to those who do not. Already 50 Republican elected officials are trying to put distance between themselves and Trump, including the House Majority Leader and 14 Senators. The focus of the Republicans is keeping their House and Senate majorities, and that looks to be increasingly in peril in the Senate (where a shift of 4 seats restores a Democratic majority).

In parallel, the media facilitators at the alternative universe known as Fox News are also in full meltdown mode as the Trump sycophants (Sean Hannity) publicly quarrel with other colleagues (Meghan Kelly, Shepard Smith) in a crisis environment brought about by the forced resignation of another sexual predator, Roger Ailes, as CEO of the network.

These are the worst of times. These are the best of times.

The forces of evil in the US are in disarray, on the run and looking for whatever (political) cover they can find. But there is no place to hide.

This year November 8 is not just election day. It is not just judgement day for the GOP.

It is armageddon for US conservatism. The end is nigh.

The real questions now are what will the Democrats do with the gift of Republican self-destruction? Will the Clinton administration heed the lessons of the election and integrate at least some aspects of Bernie Sanders’ policy prescriptions into it? Will the Democratic Congressional leadership seize the opportunity to consolidate or pursue legislative gains in areas such as health care, education, campaign finance reform and taxation? Will the Supreme Court nominations made by the Clinton administration ensure a “progressive” majority for decades to come?

For their part, will the unsavoury forces unleashed by the Trump campaign crawl back under their rocks or will they turn into a violent disloyal opposition? Will the GOP split into “moderate” and retrograde wings and if so who will dominate conservative discourse? What lessons will the Republicans take away from this disaster? Will those lessons teach them civility or even more darker modes of behaviour?

Time will tell but for the moment we can only thank The Donald for his efforts.

Peddling False Hope.

datePosted on 11:19, October 1st, 2016 by Pablo

By way of a short thought, I venture again into the waters of US election year politics.

Today’s subject is Donald Trump, or more precisely, the promises he passes off as solutions to the US malaise (as he and his supporters see it).  The key denominator in everything he says is that he offers the promise that he and he alone can solve the nation’s problems, foreign and domestic, and that he can do so in a clear, simple and direct fashion without much cost or sacrifice to the nation. Much like PT Barnum a century or so ago, he clearly believes that there is a sucker born every minute in the US. And what he is peddling to them is no more than that snake oil known as false hope.

Let me outline what he has promised to do but which he cannot do. Trump cannot build a wall and make Mexico pay for it. He cannot deport 11 million people including US citizens born of undocumented residents. He cannot place a ban on “all Muslims” immigrating to the US, he cannot institute blanket profiling of Muslims and surveillance of mosques, and he cannot stop refugees from Muslim-dominant countries from seeking asylum in it. He cannot leave NATO to its own devices. He cannot leave South Korea and Japan to defend themselves against Chinese aggression, and he cannot influence Chinese monetary policy in a way that would “level the playing field” with the US. He cannot force US based companies to return all of their operations to the US while paying US workers higher wages. He cannot reinstitute water boarding and other “worse” forms of torture. He cannot order the US military to commit war crimes such s killing the relatives of terrorists, and he cannot “take the oil” from Iraq. He cannot preemptively launch nuclear attacks based on whim. He cannot renege on trade deals without consequence. He cannot “rip up” NAFTA (the North American trade bloc involving Mexico, Canada and the US). He cannot fire generals because they disagree with his views, and he cannot form a partnership with Russia just because he admires Putin.

Trump cannot mandate that women be “punished” for having legal abortions. Trump cannot “wipe out” Daesh.

Trump cannot make “America Great Again” because his vision of greatness–white male christian nativist and insular–has been overcome by the structural, demographic, cultural, social and technological changes of the last quarter century. In fact, his vision of “greatness’ was great only for a socio-economic few, and that few will be a distinct minority within twenty years.

Trump cannot drill, drill, drill or frack, frack, frack. Trump cannot make the US safer by ensuring that more people have guns.  He cannot re-institute “stop and frisk” as the solution to African-American demonstrations against police brutality or even urban crime without re-hashing the case of its (un)constitutionality. Trump cannot run his administration like a family owned business lacking shareholders or a Board of Directors and he certainly cannot use bankruptcy as a means of avoiding liability for poor financial decisions. He cannot renegotiate the US debt using default as leverage.

The reasons he cannot do anything of what he has promised is not only that his words are meaningless and empty, in typical national populist demagogic tradition. It is due to the fact that the US political system does, in fact, rest on institutional checks and balances grounded in law. Any and everything that he proposes, were he to try to execute it via Executive Order, would be challenged in courts as unconstitutional and take years to litigate. He needs Congress to pass laws that will allow him to do some of the things that he promises to do, and other promises require congressional approval in any event. Even if it remains in Republican control, Congress has been the subject of his often personal attacks and understands its role as a check on the Executive (witness the obstructionism of the past eight years). So no matter who controls Congress, but especially if the Democrats win the Senate, the legislative branch will not just play along with Trump’s demands and initiatives and will in fact spend much time blocking most of what he has proposed on the campaign trail. He is on a hiding to nothing.

Trump cannot use his personal wealth while president, which includes paying lobbyists to advance his political projects. Although he can fund partisan and personal trips and events out of his own bank account, he cannot use his taxpayer-funded salary or the resources of his office for personal reasons. That means that he will have to place his assets in the hands of others, be it via trusts or family delegation for the duration of his incumbency. The Donald may have some problems adjusting to that situation and could try to circumvent the rules governing presidential finances. Beyond the ethics of the matter, that poses a practical challenge for him because even if he fills the entire upper echelon of the federal bureaucracy with political appointees (whose credentials will have more to do with shoe licking than competence), he still will have to deal with a career civil service with institutional knowledge and depth of expertise (if not vested interests) when it comes to policy implementation paid for by the taxes Trump thinks it is “smart” to dodge.

Nor can he reconcile his financial plan, which involves lowering corporate taxes while renegotiating trade agreements and increasing spending on the military and elected infrastructure projects. In an age of budgetary cost-cutting that has resulted in several government shut-downs, he simply will find it impossible to fund his projects with public money even if he offers sweetheart deals to private parties in order to offset public expenditures–again, because it is not for him alone to do so and he will find his purse strings not only constrained by but attached to the demands of other interests regardless of who controls Congress.

The truly sad aspect of this is that neither Trump or his supporters understand the very basic concepts of separation of powers and checks and balances. They believe that he can just order people around and “get things done.” They think that he can bully foreign leaders the way he bullies out of favour beauty pagent contestants. They think that he can resort to personal insults, to include fat, slut and disability-shaming, to deter his adversaries and critics. They would be mistaken in those beliefs and it is a shame that the US educational system has produced so many people without even an elementary grasp of how government works or why civility is a value. That one such ignorant person is the nominee of a major political party is a clear sign of its demise.

It will interesting to see what happens over the next few weeks of the campaign. It looks like Trump is starting (?) to come unglued as the pressure mounts and his blustery facade begins to crumble under the light of scrutiny. Clinton pounded him into the ropes in the first debate (I scored it a TKO), and if he decides to bring up Bill Clinton’s affairs in future conversation he will be eviscerated on the hypocrisy rack. From my perspective, the election campaign is just getting better.

One thing is certain: ignorance is not bliss and Drumpf is about to find that out in spades.

 

Confronting academic Taylorists.

datePosted on 08:03, September 27th, 2016 by Pablo

Although the corporate media has not covered it, choosing instead to focus on the university’s fund-raising efforts, the academic and professional staff at the University of Auckland held a one hour strike last week to protest the lack of progress on negotiations for a fair living wage for all staff, especially for those at the lower end of the wage scale. Among other union proposals was the payment of a flat $2.500 increase to everyone covered by the collective contract in lieu of a cost of living increment. In conjunction with a rise in the minimum wage for lower-salaried workers, this would have the greatest positive effect on those struggling to keep afloat in the Auckland market.

University management refuses to negotiate until the budget is decided next month or in November. This runs contrary to traditional practice where pay for academic and professional staff is negotiated prior to the budget being fixed. It follows on more than a decade of erosion of collective benefits for university personnel and the slow but seemingly inexorable weakening of the Tertiary Education Union (TEU) as a bargaining agent at the University of Auckland.

The one hour lunchtime strike was well attended, although not massive in size. Shortly after 12:45 the director of Human Resources, a despicable cur if there ever was one, sent out a group email to TEU members advising them that their pay would be docked for the one hour they were on strike. He went on to request confirmation from the recipient that s/he was indeed on strike so that their pay could be deducted.

There followed a blizzard of emails in response. I am on the TEU mailing list so I got to read them all. Other than one person, all were critical of the university’s approach to employment relations. What stood out were the dozens of stories about countless overtime hours worked with no pay (the academic standard contract is for 37.5 hours per week), the abysmal lack of morale and trust in management amongst staff, and the psychological, emotional and physical toll the stress of working at the UA was taking on its staff. The stories were sad and many gut-wrenching.

These stories came from professors, lecturers, IT specialists, counsellors, librarians, tutors, administrative support staff–you name it, they had something to say. Some people asked how the deduction would work since they were not on an hourly wage. Others pointed out that they were on  leave but would gladly see their pay deducted in solidarity with those who attended the strike.  Many pointed out that they were at their offices during lunch hour working out of loyalty to students and colleagues but would gladly have their pay docked in solidarity with the strikers. Some suggested that the deducted pay should go to charity, at least until it was pointed out to them that the university is a registered  charity and the “donations” could well go into the VC’s pocket or as bonuses to his management team members (the VC is the highest paid public servant in NZ and the senior management team all make in excess of NZ$150K/year).

What became clear from the responses is that behind the facade of the University of Auckland being a “world class” university there is a deeply dishonest and unethical management that is seeking to destroy the TEU Auckland branch and thereby further subjugate its staff to its academic Taylorist precepts. I have written about this before, so no need here to reiterate what it entails. The bottom line is that the University is being hollowed out at its core, in a workplace where academics and academic support staff are reduced to time card punching and asking permission to use the loo while the ranks of middle and upper management bean counters proliferate like rats.

I have been critical of the TEU in the past for valuing wage increases over workplace control (including in the classroom, where there is increasing interference by middle level managers with no teaching experience). I always through that it was a bad idea to trade off regular wage increases for workplace control, which extends to promotion and research leave policy. But what is done is done and now the university management is in the final stages of its assault on the union.

The time to make a stand is now. Having read the emailed responses I decided to write a letter of support to the Auckland TEU and its members. This is what I wrote:

“Dear All,

As a former TEU member and academic staff member at the University of Auckland, I want to add my support to your efforts to restore the university to its former position as a fair and equitable workplace. Unfortunately, having dealt with Mr. Phipps as well as other management lackeys at close range, I believe that yours will be an uphill battle. Their objective is to break the union so that with a few exceptions you will eventually be subject to precarious individual, often part time contracts and thereby will be more easily exploited. The trend is already apparent and the situation is worse for junior staff and those not considered to be “stars.” Given the tight academic labour market and the already low union density amongst professional and academic staff (particularly the latter), it will be difficult to individually resist this project if the TEU is further undermined as a collective bargaining agent.

Mr. McCutcheon was a successful union-buster in his life before being appointed VC. Nothing in his tenure at UA suggests that he has moderated his views on the utility of collective agents, and the tone of Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice is a reflection of that. It should not be forgotten that this management team at UA is not known for its honesty or fairness when it comes to employment relations. “Good faith” is not part of their vocabulary. Many of you will know of the efforts by the SMT to offer financial incentives to senior academics to either quit or not join the union. You will have seen the replacement of departing permanent full time staff with part time hires. Given that there are academics who support or go along with the VC’s approach for self-serving reasons, the struggle to return civility and fairness to employment relations at the UA will be a tough one.

I would not be surprised if the many tales of unpaid hours owed to staff outlined in the barrage of email replies to Mr. Phipps’s suspension notice will be seen by the VC and his minions as a sign that their Taylorist approach to academia is working just fine. They need to be disabused of that notion.

The key to defeating the academic Taylorists is to assiduously defend and increase union membership and to strictly and unwaveringly adhere to any calls for direct action such as labour service withdrawals (be it strikes, slow downs or work-to-rule). The call for a living wage and fair pay for professional (non-academic) staff is a step in the right direction. However, much ground has already been lost in terms of workplace control, academic freedom, promotion and leave, so the time to regain some measure of balance in the employment relationship is rapidly disappearing. The nature and timing of the direct actions to be taken henceforth in defence of the union and its members will be decisive, and must receive unanimous support..

You should not expect favourable media treatment. Today’s editorial in the Herald about the University’s fundraising is indicative of the pro-management bias of the for-profit news outlets. A concerted PR campaign will be required to counter-balance the view, propagated by the SMT, that all is well at the university and that if anything, academics have things easy when compared to other wage earners.The public needs to hear the stories told in your emails to Mr. Phipps.

There comes a time when people can be pushed only so far. Perhaps that time has come for the TEU Auckland branch and its members. Although I no longer belong to the academic community, I understand your struggle and deeply empathise with it. I wish you the best of luck and success in staving off the managerial offensive.

Kia kaha!”

I can only hope that if the union does make a stand, that it not be its final one.

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