Archive for ‘Uncategorized’ Category

The False Promise of Asian Values.

datePosted on 14:28, October 19th, 2009 by Pablo

The country that I live in is a major exponent of the so-called “Asian Values” school. This school of thought argues that Western notions of liberal democracy are not applicable to Asia because Asian values are different than those of the Anglo-Saxon world and therefore attempts to impose Western-stye democracy are ill-suited to local conditions and, what is worse, a form of cultural imperialism.

So what do Asians value? According to the official line, they value the primacy of collective rights over those of the individual, order above freedom, material security over political voice, and economic efficiency over egalitarianism. The private sphere is reified while the public sphere is circumscribed. Family and community take precedence over the individual or narrow social group interests. These are held to derive from traditional “Confucian” values. Hence civil society is not a spontaneous expression of variegated social interests but a state-structured (and state-supportive) amalgam of overlapped sectorial agents in which “volunteerism” is imposed as a social obligation rather than freely given. Conformity is enforced as the means by which to achieve upward mobility, and although meritocracy is given rhetorical championing by the state, in practice it is often subordinated to the requirements of playing along, following orders and not challenging the status quo as given. Needless to say, this reverses most of the priorities of Western liberalism.

Asian values exponents will argue that the proof of the superiority of their system is in the pudding: individually and collectively Asia is a region of rising economic powers, with their growth only checked by foolhardy attempts to impose western-style democracy on immature populations not yet ready to accept the fact that with expanded political rights come an equal amount of social and political responsibilities. They point out the “chaos” of democratic society in the West and where democracy has been attempted in Asia, as opposed to the order found in the “traditional” East. They see social hierarchies as natural and exploitation as inevitable, with attempts to ameliorate this “natural” order of things contributing to social unrest and instability. The latter are considered to be primordial dangers to “good” society, and to be avoided or suppressed at all costs. 

What I find interesting about these claims is that they mirror claims made about Latin American societies in the 1950s through the 1980s–that they operated under a different (Catholic) social code that was authoritarian, patriarchal, racially and economically stratified, state-centric, community- and family-oriented, and was therefore more naturally amenable to authoritarian forms of rule. And yet Latin America has by and large democratised with no ill-effect other than to give space to populist demagogues along with sincere politicians (as happens virtually anywhere political competition is opened up to mass appeal). But in terms of social stability, economic growth, etc., Latin America has not been discernibly hurt (or improved) by the move towards social and political freedom. It has simply evolved in a more open direction.

So what to make of the Asian values argument? Well, living in the epicenter of its practical implementation it would appear that “Asian Values” are no more and no less than the philosophical justification for developmental authoritarianism. These values are no more natural in the East than they are anywhere else–all societies put value on family, kinship, order, efficiency and stability. It is in the imposed and contrived ways in which “Asian Values” are reproduced–from the top-down, through the State and its agents, rather than spontaneously welling up from the cultural grassroots of society at large–that we see its real purpose. The Asian values argument is in reality just a cover for the maintenance of an authoritarian status quo that otherwise would be susceptible to challenge from those that it purports to represent.

Is Iran a Menace?

datePosted on 19:13, October 6th, 2009 by Pablo

Concerns about the alleged Iranian nuclear weapons programme have escalated in recent weeks with 1) the revelation of a previously unknown uranium enrichment facility outside of Qum (although the claim that the facility was a secret and unknown to Western intelligence is a bit dubious), 2) reports of Russian weapons scientists involvement in the Iranian nuclear programme and 3) Iranian test firing of medium range missiles that extend their potential target perimeter to 2500 kilometers. Since enriched uranium is by definition a dual use material (i.e. it can be used as fuel or as bomb material), Iranian enrichment efforts are, protestations of peaceful intent notwithstanding, for all intents a weapons material production line as well. This is what lies at the heart of international efforts to curtail its ambitions by persuasion, sanction or force.

But is a nuclear armed Iran really a threat to international peace and stability? Here I pose some pros and cons.

First of all it must be understood that from a strategic standpoint, nuclear weapons are considered to be deterrent weapons foremost and defensive weapons secondly. The general line is that a country with one nuclear weapon forces larger (even nuclear armed) adversaries to pause and seriously consider the consequences of launching an attack on a nuclear rival. This is the rationale behind the French force de frappe, Indian nuclear programme (which is oriented towards China) and the Pakistani nuclear programme (which is oriented towards India). It is the logic behind the North Korean quest for nukes (given that there has never been a formal declaration of the end of hostilities with the US and South Korea), and it is the premise behind the undeclared Israeli nuclear deterrent. Given that a nuclear first strike on another state would entail a response in kind from that state or its allies, the Iranian programme could well be based upon the rationale underpinning the approach of the existing nuclear armed crowd: to deter rather than attack. Since its western border neighbour was invaded and occupied for seemingly spurious reasons by a nuclear state precisely because it did not have a nuclear deterrent (lies to the contrary notwithstanding), perhaps Iran is doing what a least nine other states have done, for the same reasons, and without ulterior motives beyond robust deterrence. There has never been a nuclear attack launched while this logic has prevailed, so why should it be assumed that the Iranians would prefer otherwise?

The Iranians may have valid reasons to feel defensive. Remember that the US installed and supported the despotic regime of Reza Shah, who forcibly imposed a secular modernist project on an unwilling population that resulted in thousands of politically-motivated deaths at the hands of the dreaded secret police known as SAVAK. Note that Iran has not waged an aggressive war against anyone during the tenure of the revolutionary regime, and that it has US troops in large numbers in bordering countries to the East and West. Moreover, Iran was invaded by Iraq in the 1980s with US support, has a history of maritime border confrontations with the US and other states (including the shoot down of an Iranian passenger jet by a US guided missile cruiser in the 1990s), and is a regular target of US and Israeli war-gaming. Closer to the subject, dozens of Iranian nuclear scientists have died in very mysterious circumstances both at home and abroad (plane wrecks, accidental poisonings, etc.). As the saying goes, perhaps they have reason to be paranoid, which is why they want to seek a nuclear deterrent.

On the other hand, Iranian actions and pronouncements are bound to cause controversy if not concern. The storming of the US embassy during the 1979 revolution and taking of diplomatic hostages for over a year; the oft-repeated claim that it desires to “wipe the Zioinist entity (Israel) off the map”, the denial of the Holocaust, the hosting of anti-Zionist conferences that are more confabs of anti-semites rather than serious discussion of Zionism, the use of armed irregular proxies such as Hezzbolah, the logistical supply to Hamas in Gaza and  the Mahdi Army and other  Shiia militias in Iraq, its alleged involvement in the bombing of the Israeli embassy and Jewish community center in Buenos Aires in the mid-1990s, its repeated appeals to Shiia irredentism in the Sunni Arab world–these are the types of actions that cause the international community to wonder about the sanity and intentions of the Iranian theocratic leadership. It is against this backdrop that concerns over potential Iranian nukes are voiced.

It should be noted that plenty of countries used armed proxies to do their surrogate work while denying direct involvement in politically sticky contexts; many political leaders say stunningly crazy things (remember Ronald Reagan and W. Bush, to say nothing of Silvio Berlusconi and Kim Jong-il); many countries have deep cultural/religious/ethnic enmities with their neighbours that do not result in war, much less nuclear war. The Sunni Arab world are deeply afraid of the consequences of a Shiia nuclear capability (since an Iranian nuclear missile can be aimed as much at Riyadh or Cairo as at Tel Aviv), and argue that they will have to respond in kind to what they believe is an existential threat (which is also the Israeli view). But this may be more due to the deeply rooted divisions between Shiia and Sunni over correct Islamic interpretations rather than due to a reasoned appraisal of Iranian motives. As for the Israelis, I recall a conversation I had a few years back with a senior Mossad officer, who when asked about the purported Ahmadinejad quote about erasing Israel from the face of the earth, responded that “that is for domestic consumption rather than a real statement of intent. Should it turn to the latter, Israel will deal to it as required.”

Thus I am left with a quandary. The Iranians often act seemingly irrationally and their obfuscations about their nuclear intentions appear to demonstrate bad faith if not bad intent. On the other hand, Iran has no history of significant international aggression and has been subjected to significant hostility, when not attack by larger powers. Thus it appears that the matter of whether or not Iran would be a nuclear armed menace remains an open question.  So why is it that it has been labeled an imminent threat to world peace should it acquire a nuclear capability? Is it the (elected) authoritarian nature of the regime (if so, why is it that authoritarian regimes like those of China and Russia are not branded the same)? Is their specific brand of religion? Is it just that Ahmadinejad appears to be nuts, and it is assumed that all of the mullahs are as well?

Readers are invited to ponder the issue. Should you wish to respond, please note than any anti-Muslim or anti-Semitic rants will be proactively expunged. The idea is to have a reasoned debate about the pros and cons of construing Iran as a threat. Until I resolve that question in my own mind, I shall recommend (gasp!) that old Ronald Reagan dictum: “trust but verify.”

John Rides the Fence

datePosted on 21:55, October 1st, 2009 by Pablo

Besides serving as a prop for some Letterman piss-taking, John Key’s visit to the the UN allows us to finally see the contours of National’s foreign policy. It can be captured in a neat phrase: firmly straddling the fence.

At the UN Mr. Key made all the right noises, speaking about fighting climate change, reducing carbon emissions, supporting multilateral approaches to conflict resolution and nation-building, promoting free trade and economic transparency. But his actions elsewhere speak volumes about what National really intends, at least in core areas of international relations. I shall break them down in order of importance to NZ.

On trade, NZ is gradually but decisively shifting to an Asian/Middle East orientation. National clearly sees that NZ’s competitive advantage lies in its traditional comparative advantage in primary good and derivative exports rather than value added manufacturing (except in niche industries such as weapons componentry). The bulk market for primary goods and their derivatives is in the East not the West, and even if certain NZ niche export industries such as wine prosper in the advanced liberal democracies, National’s future bet is with consumption growth in Asian and Middle Eastern autocracies. The recent championing of the growth in NZ-PRC trade since the 2008 bilateral FTA was signed demonstrates that National cares less about the after-entry effects of the FTAs (to say: labour market conditions, environmental standards, corporate responsibility to share holders and the general political climate in which export/import Kiwis make their money) and more about profit generated from trade volume growth.

On aid, NZ is privatizing the lot. The recent NZ$1 Million disaster relief assistance offered to Samoa and Tonga notwithstanding (already in the NZAID budget formulated by the Fifth Labour government, and directed to an afflicted area where the cost of recovery will run into the US$ 100 millions), the focus of NZ aid assistance under National, as Lew mentioned in a post a while back, is to promote private entrepeneurship and trade rather than poverty alleviation and social welfare. Moreover, the broader philosophical instinct betrayed by this approach is the National disbelief in nation-building efforts. Now it is clear that National believes that nation-building is a self-help issue: no matter if there are intractable pre-modern conflicts at play, or the  prospects for peace and security for millions are at stake, the answer is to promote capitalist entrepeneurship. In other words, the pursuit of profit trumps all humanitarian concerns when it comes to National’s approach to using taxpayer dollars to provide foreign aid. For National market approaches and trickle down effects are all that is needed to make the world right.

(I should note that this market fetish is now reaching deep into university planning schemes and in efforts to attract foreign fees paying students. As I have experienced directly, the impact on quality of instruction is negatively impacted by the rush to profit from ‘bums in seats.’)

Then, of course, there is national security. Here market logics may or may not apply. National has ramped up its commitment to play the role of Australia junior, which is to say a role in which it actively participates in the foreign military missions of its traditional partners. Afghanistan is the testing point for this re-orientation, because National has re-committed the NZSAS to front line combat duties while at the same time signaling its intention to withdraw the NZDF nation-building Provincial Reconstruction Team (PRT) contingent in Bayiman province. Something tells me that the costs of the NZSAS re-deployment will largely be borne by others (which makes it affordable),  whereas the PRT came mostly at NZ expense (whcih makes it unaffordable in spite of its excellent work). It appears that cost-cutting without principle abounds in these NACTIONAL daze. Given National’s downplaying of nation-building efforts in favour of market-driven logics, the Bayiman PRT is gone-burger (incidentally, the majority of the people who inhabit Bayiman are traditionally the slaves/servants of Pushtuns, so they are natural allies of UN/NATO reconstruction efforts).

So, on security issues National wants to curry favour with Australia, the US and the UK. On trade grounds it wants to curry favour with China, the UAE, Iran, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia–to mention just a few favoured trade partners. At the same time it appeases the UN with platitudes about environmental protection, non-proliferation and disarmament.

This is a three-sided foreign policy that is designed to be all things to all people divided into selected audiences. Although professional diplomats will work admirably to overcome the difficulties in reconciling these positions under the “principled but pragmatic” foreign policy stance that has obtained since 1990, one has to wonder–beyond the ridicule incurred by not even getting an invite to sit down and talk with the host on the American TV show but instead agreed to lip-read a bunch on American written deprecatory one-liners– if John Key’s loins not were chaffing under the strain of keeping a straight face while enunciating what is basically a  (N.8) wire-top foreign policy for the next three years.

PS–the NZ bid for a rotating Security Council seat is another case of splitting the difference. NZ will clearly be western on security matters but as a small state with an Asian trade orientation, will toe the multilateralist, non-interventionist “open border for trade” policy line, all the while getting to have a temporary say in how threats to the international community are perceived. Given its non-nuclear commitment, that means that NZ  will be duty-bound, among other things, to condemn the Iranian nuclear (weapons) programme and vote in favour of the sanctions/military resolutions occurring thereof. That places its trade orientation at odds with its security stance (since Iran has become a major export destination). Presumably MFAT has thought this one through and contingency planned accordingly.

On the possible merger of NZ spy agencies.

datePosted on 23:43, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I originally posted this as a comment on Kiwiblog, but it is worth elaboration. I am not so much interested as why  sensitive documents somehow managed to be dropped on a public street into the path of a journalist, which, if interesting, is inconsequential in the larger scheme of things. The real issue is the proposed, or at least potential merger of NZ intelligence agencies. From a democratic standpoint, I believe that centralising all intelligence-gathering and analysis in one agency is a recipe for disaster, or at least political manipulation. A core tenet of democracy is the decentralisation of power, evident in a system of checks and balances, particularly in its security component. I fear that NZ has lost sight of this tenet. In that light, here is my brief (excerpted)  thought on the matter of NZ intelligence agency mergers:

(With regard to the potential merger of the GCSB and NZSIS) I shall limit myself to pointing out two problems, one external and one internal to the intelligence agencies involved. Externally, the GCSB manages the Echelon stations in NZ and passes along foreign derived signals intelligence (SIGINT) to the SIS and Police where necessary, as well as monitor NZ signals traffic where required (this is a minor part of its operation). It is therefore more of a foreign-oriented intelligence collection agency rather than a NZ-oriented one. That spells potential conflicts of interest with larger intelligence liaison partners in the event that it is subsumed under or within the SIS. NZ intelligence requirements do not always run in concert with those of its larger partners, although it gains a measure of insurance and protection for providing its soil for the eavesdropping stations (another reason why NZ will never be invaded without a fight, since the stations are extremely valuable to the Echelon partners).

Internally, the SIS already has to handle external and domestic espionage and intelligence analysis along with counter-intelligence duties. This with a total complement of less than 200 people, a quarter of whom are clerical staff. That means that all of the human intelligence that gives NZ primary source or primary-derived information, plus the analysis of intelligence derived from the GSCB, NZDF, NZ Police, contract assets and liaison partners, has to be done by 150+/- people. It is a tall task already, and adding the SIGINT duties to it can complicate the management of intelligence flows and result in turf battles between the SIGINT and HUMINT branches and their respective analytic units (to say nothing of the fact that foreign nationals are heavily involved in the operation of the Echelon stations and therefore answer first to their foreign masters. Allowing them into the SIS could therefore compromise NZ national security even if they are erstwhile allies).

It is also generally believed that in a democracy it is best to separate domestic from foreign intelligence gathering, and SIGINT from HUMINT so as to avoid the monopolisation of intelligence flows and advice in any one agency, which could be politicised to deliver “intelligence” that is more politically-motivated spin than actual fact (as occurred with the Zaoui case under the previous SIS Director). Unified intelligence agencies can operate in democratic systems (such as in Canada), but that requires strong parliamentary oversight authority, something that does not exist in NZ.

The EAB is an intelligence client that undertakes foreign-oriented assessments rather than a collection agency, so a move to merge simplifies the intel streams coming its way. The same goes for the Police and the NZDF (which have their own collection branches), Treasury, other Ministries as well as the Combined Threat Assessment Group (CTAG). But one of the good points of having different sources of intelligence collection and analysis is that it avoids “group think” (and mistakes) by getting independent vetting of sources, methods and interpretation. Under the merger plan intelligence will be reduced but not completely centralised, although the question remains as to whether a merged agency can competently handle all of the responsibilities that entails.

All of which is to say that the merger idea may be economical but it may not be efficient.

Chickens, scooters and dogs.

datePosted on 13:02, September 8th, 2009 by Pablo

I have done a fair bit of traveling, including to some underdeveloped parts of the world. I recently took a short trip to such a place from my SE Asia redoubt, and while enjoying the respite from phones, TV, radio,  newspapers etc., I got to thinking about human development indexes and how to score an area or community on a scale of economic, social and political development. I am not an anthropologist, so am not equipped to propose a real index, and for the purposes of this note will eschew social and political factors. What I am simply offering is my short-hand guide to underdevelopment, or for lack of a better phrase, the Pablometer of relative economic development.

You know that you are in an underdeveloped part of the world when there are scrawny chickens and skinny stray dogs wandering about, and where scooters or bikes outnumber cars by a factor of at least 10 to 1. In some parts of the world a pig in the yard is an added touch, whereas in others a goat substitutes for its porcine counterpart (since both of these animals are excellent organic rubbish disposal units). In some places, donkeys, burros, mules, cows, horses, yaks, water buffalo or sheep are added to the mix, but this represents a form of upward mobility since all require paddock, pasture or open country to graze (the latter most often pertaining to (semi) nomadic societies). 

As for mechanised transport, the rule of thumb is that the number of scooters on any given road will outnumber cars in excess of 10 to 1, and that adherence to road codes decreases in equal measure to the increase in the scooter-to-car ratio. In parallel, the scooter dominance is buttressed on one side by the use of collective transport vehicles, with the rule being the more open to the elements the rider compartment/platform, the more underdeveloped the place. On the other side of the transport divide, the number of human-power conveyances sharing space with scooters and lorry/bus/truck collective ridership alternatives is a good indicator of the recent arrival of popularly accessible mechanised transport.

There is, of course, the indoor plumbing factor. I shall spare the readers of the indelicacies of my surveys of this particular field, but suffice it to say that, for the Western visitor,  sitting is preferable to squatting, tile or porcelain is preferable to wood, indoors is better than outdoors, flushing is better than gravity and paper or water is better for personal hygiene than dirt or sand. The issue of potable water, of course, is a major determinant of where you are: water tanks with down pipe filtration is a sign of progress; water tanks without filtration is not. Water tanks with critters swimming in them are a sign of gastrointestinal trouble ahead (see above). Being able to use tank water for bathing, as opposed to bathing in rivers or streams, is a step up on the Pablometer scale. Being part of a reticulated water system is, by definition, a step out of underdevelopment and thus does not qualify for the Pablometer rating.

As for energy, it is assumed that being on a power grid disqualifies the locality from consideration by the Pablometer index. Instead, the ranking is determined by whether power is generated by generators (the noisier the better), whether these are communal or household, and whether they run for more than 4 hours daily. Depending on the geography, wind and water-powered generators may prove to be effective substitutes for the fossil fuel-driven alternative. Hand-cranked generators and paraffin lamps, etc., are lower on the scale.

Needless to say, there is more to the (under)developmental scale and I invite readers to add their own thoughts on the matter so that I can develop a more comprehensive Pablometer. I also invite readers to ponder whether (or better said where) in NZ there are places that can be considered for this index, and if so, why is that.

One final point is worth mentioning. If the people you are interacting with under such conditions have no interest or conception of the “tourist trade” or how to make money off of strangers in their midst, you are not only in an underdeveloped part of the world–you just might be in paradise.

Does New Zealand have Public Intellectuals?

datePosted on 15:11, September 2nd, 2009 by Pablo

One thing that is striking about the tone of contemporary public policy debates in NZ is the absence of intellectuals. Although various academics are trotted out by the media to give sound bites and opinion based on their supposed “expertise” in given subject areas, they otherwise do not loom large in the national conversation on issues of policy. Likewise, activists and partisans of various stripes make their views known on a number of fronts, but their contributions are notable more for their zeal than their intellectual weight. So, what happened to NZ’s public intellectuals, or perhaps better said, has there ever been a real tradition of public intellectuals in Aotearoa?

I ask this because as a relative newcomer to the country (arrived in 1997), I may have witnessed the passing from the public eye of the final generation of public intellectuals. People like Andrew Sharp, Bruce Jesson, Barry Gustafson (who is retired by active), Michael King–their likes are no longer seen in policy debates, and there does not appear to be another generation of intellectuals emerging to replace them. Moreover, due to my ignorance of NZ intellectual history, I remain unsure if theirs was the only generation of scholars who had an impact on public life, or if they are the final generation in a tradition that extends back to pre-colonial days.

To be sure, the likes of Jane Kelsey, Brian Easton (who, if from that previous generation is still alive and involved in contemporary debates), Gareth Morgan, Ranginui Walker, Sandra Coney, Ian Wedde, perhaps Chris Trotter (who is prolific if not consistent in his views) continue to agitate for their causes. Various bloggers have made their mark on public discourse, and Maori luminaries interject their insights into discussions of tangata whenua and tino rangatiratanga. But it appears that there is an anti-intellectual bias deeply ingrained in NZ society, one that has its origins in the much celebrated egalitarian ethos of the country, but which is now reinforced by the corporate media disposition to sell teenage pop fodder, “infotainment,” culturally vacuous “reality” shows and sports instead of providing even a minimum of in-depth news, analysis and debate. Although there are evening and weekend segments dedicated to public affairs on major media outlets and plenty of talkback options in which opinions are voiced, those that feature them are dominated by policy dilettantes or, worse yet, journalists, society celebrities or ex-politicians talking to each other (in a version of the Fox News syndrome of mutual self-promotion via staged interviews on personality-driven shows). There is even an academic version of this, in which individuals who are purported experts in “media studies” are brought out to pontificate on how media covers politics and social issues. No need to consult those that actual work in these subject areas–all that is required for public consumption is someone who looks at how the media covers how sociologists, economists and political scientists track issues of policy.  That is enough to make definitive judgements on the matters of the day. Add to this the fact that many media guest talking heads are paid for their appearances, or if not, wish to keep their mugs on the society pages, and what passes for informed public scrutiny of policy cause and consequence is nothing more than a collection of glib retorts and one-liners. This is the media equivalent of comfort food.

The pandering syndrome has infected the political classes. Personal image and party “brand” is more important than substance. Market research drives approaches to policy. And nowhere is their an intellectual in sight to serve as critic and conscience of society. Instead, “opinionaters” from all parts of the political spectrum pass shallow retrospective judgement on matters of import, and in the measure that they do so they rapidly fade from the front lines of  the degraded public debates. Small wonder that political debates often tend towards the banal and trivial.

I am therefore curious as to whether there has ever been a robust tradition of public intellectuals in NZ, and if so, why has it all but disappeared? The 2007 book Speaking Truth to Power (Auckland University Press) decried the dearth of public intellectuals, and the situation appears to have gotten worse since then (good reviews of the book can be found here:  http://www.listener.co.nz/issue/3493/artsbooks/8641/that_thinking_feeling.html; and here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/sunday-star-times/features/feature-archive/163908/Smart-thinking-NZs-public-intellectuals).>>Sorry, I am having trouble placing the links in shorter format<<

The word “intellectual” itself has become a focus for ridicule and derision, and professions in which intellectual labour is the norm are denigrated as the province of losers who otherwise could not get a “real” job (hence the tired saw that “those that do, do, and those than don’t, teach”). This is odd because in other societies intellectual labour is valued intrinsically, and in NZ there has been at least rhetorical championing of the move towards a higher level of public discourse. What happened to the “knowledge economy” and the effort to turn NZ into a value-added, innovation-based manufacturing platform? Is there no role for public intellectuals in that project, to say nothing of more lofty efforts to argue and impart a normative as well as positive theoretical framework for the ongoing betterment of Kiwi society? Are intellectuals indeed just pointy-headed bludgers ruminating about how many angels can fit on the end of a pin from the obscurity of their ivory towers and smoke-filled staff rooms? Or is there something amiss in the larger society that denies them a public role?

I shall leave the answers to you.

When you put a price on it, it’s for sale.

datePosted on 22:18, August 31st, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

Claire Browning at Pundit has got a must read piece on the mining-our-national-heritage business.

Firstly, she catches Gerry Brownlee spinning a wee bit when he supports the case for digging by citing a world bank report listing NZ as second only to Saudi Arabia in terms of natural wealth per capita. It turns out that…

…our ranking was overwhelmingly attributable to pasture and crop land (68%) and, ironically, protected areas (19%). The subsoil assets category comprised a tiny proportion (3%).

Hmmm.

Secondly, she points out that National do not appear to be kidding.

Senior ministers don’t come out punching hard, in a fight they’ve voluntarily bought, which they must know is going to be a knock-down drag-out fight, without a degree of commitment to something or other. Tim Groser invoked this image, allegedly dear to the public heart, of a Conservation minister who “goes around with knobbly knees and shorts and releases kiwi into the wild. I am a champion releaser of kiwi into the wild … but I’m sorry, we’ve got to grow up”. Gerry Brownlee liberally salted his soundbites with words like “hysteria” and “paranoia”, and blustered on Morning Report about how what we’d just heard was an “incredibly biased piece of reporting but not anything more or less than I expect from Radio New Zealand”.

She’s right. It’s no coincidence that this was first signaled in a speech to the Australasian Institute of Mining and Metallurgy. When you then go on to announce a ‘stock-take’, that’s also not an accident. (I’m actually kind of amazed that the Government is using that ‘stock take’ language as something to supposedly calm our nerves and allay our fears.)

I’m a bit disappointed by the pushback I’ve seen so far. It appears to have accepted the framing set up by Brownlee and is responding almost solely with arguments around the 100% Pure branding and the negative effects on the tourism dollar that might be felt through the mining of our National Parks, wetlands, marine reserves and who knows what all else.

The problem with this is that it puts a dollar value on those assets. Put a price on them and they are for sale. These assets are not for sale. That is the point of them. They were not land banked to be used in case of increased demand for lignite. Not all of these lands are pretty little tourist spots either. By making it ‘tourism vs mining’ we allow National to be able to carve off wetlands and other habitats because ‘tourists never go there’. These lands are protected because of their intrinsic value, any money we may earn off them through tourism is nice of course, but that is merely an allowable activity, not their purpose.

Labour’s opposition has got some potential problems. Given their recent history National will have some room for maneuver. I think the mocking ‘absurd’ tone could work. It focusses on the fact that these are schedule four lands, and moves outside of Brownlee’s framing of monetary value only. It is also not anti-mining per se, which is important, (for Labour), given Labour’s historic ties.

On that note, here’s Levon Helm singing a Steve Earle song about mountains, and mining

“One percent”

datePosted on 21:55, August 19th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

Why the leak?

That’s one of the questions raised by Scott Cambell’s barnburner of a story.

“Clearly we are at a crossroads. The ACT Party has threatened to end its relationship with National if we allow Maori seats on the super city. Despite multiple arguments in support, its mind cannot be changed.”

That’s from an email “sent to National’s 58 MPs by one of its own senior members”, which TV3 has a copy of, but have not put on the interwebs as far as I can tell. (natch)

Hide denies threatening to “end the relationship”, saying “What we have done is state our position very clearly – we would be opposed to any reservation of seats for a particular group.”

Curiouser and curiouser.

Scott Campbell, who is obviously in a far better position to know than I, says that in an ‘all-but-done’ deal there will be no mana whenua seats.

But an all but done deal isn’t done yet, and someone wrote this email and someone, (possibly the same someone), leaked it. We can assume they did so for a reason.

If Hide didn’t make the threat, then why would a senior National Party member tell caucus that he did? If he did make that threat, why is he backing down from it?

Whatever the answers to these delicious questions, this is clearly a tough test for John Key’s big tent coalition strategy, and for two of his coalition partners.

Personally I hope Hide’s bluff gets called. Or maybe that’s already happened.

Update:
The ‘senior’ National Party member is … Tau Henare. Hide confirms that if the seats are in, he’s out as Minister of Local Government:

He told the Herald last night that he had made it clear to Mr Key that he could not remain as minister if the legislation included Maori seats on the council.

“But it wasn’t by way of a threat,” he said.

Mr Hide said he told Mr Key: “Just to be absolutely clear, you have got our support for supply and confidence but as a minister, as the Act leader, I couldn’t be responsible for introducing to the House a bill that would have reserve seats in it.”

…a principled position.

Still leaves Key in the position of having to deal with at least the appearance of an ultimatum.

Contemplating the neofascist revival.

datePosted on 13:16, August 13th, 2009 by Pablo

Courtesy of Rob Taylor back in Karekare, here is a link to an interesting article about the rise of a neo- or proto-fascist movement in the US. Although I have some quibbles with the structural as well as some of the political aspects of the argument (at least in comparison with the original (European) versions of fascism), the article is nevertheless worth a read. To me the trend is not just evident in the US, but in the rise of right-wing movements in Asia, Europe (and to a lesser extent Latin America) as well. For NZ readers interested in the quality of Kiwi democracy, the question is whether the trend is now evident at home, and if so, what are the means of forestalling it from developing further.

Needing it to be true?

datePosted on 21:08, August 11th, 2009 by Pascals Bookie

C S Lewis – Mere Christianity “The real test is this. Suppose one reads a story of filthy atrocities in the paper. Then suppose that something turns up suggesting that the story might not be quite true, or not quite so bad as it was made out. Is one’s first feeling, ‘Thank God, even they aren’t quite so bad as that,’ or is it a feeling of disappointment, and even a determination to cling to the first story for the sheer pleasure of thinking your enemies are as bad as possible?

The political blogosphere is a wondrous beastie for those of us who are interested in rhetoric, argument and the eternal question “Who are these people and why are they saying these things?”

As mentioned elsewhere DPF’s satire on the Green’s climate change policy isn’t all that funny

When Swift made his modest proposal about Irish peasant farmers finding a cure for their problems by eating their children, the target of the satire wasn’t the Irish peasant farmers, but rather the people that were ignoring their plight. That’s pretty much why it was satire and not just an anti-Irish version of the blood libel.

But what interests me is why someone might find DPF’s satire satirical. What’s the point of it?

On one level it could just be what satirist and US Senator Al Franken termed ‘kidding on the square’. This is where you say something outrageous, not minding at all if it gets taken literally, while retaining the defence of ‘just joking’ if challenged. Anne Coulter’s career of accusing liberals of being traitors is built entirely on this tactic.

On this reading DPF’s post is just flat out nasty propaganda, accusing the Greens of having genocidal instincts. Some commenters to the post certainly read it this way, with variants on the “It’s funny/scary because it’s true” routine.

Another reading of the post is that it’s a response to a particular form of psychological dissonance.

As the science around AGW becomes ever harder to dismiss, people who have invested a lot in dismissing it need to find an outlet. It’s not that they were wrong, or blinded by ideology, or that their opponents were smarter than them, or just correct about them in some of the things they said, rather it must be that their opponents are even worse.

Here’s the slacktivist explaining the idea as it relates to certain right wingers in the US at the moment who are convinced, or perhaps just ‘joking’, that ‘health care reform = killing grandma’.

This downward plunge is bound to accelerate. The goal is a feeling of moral superiority, achieved at first by telling oneself little lies about the behavior and motivations of others. But those little lies lead to feelings of guilt. That guilt is legitimate, earned and wholly deserved, but this isn’t about whether one’s feelings are just or appropriate, it’s about whether one’s feelings feel good. So the guilt provokes a feeling of moral inferiority that can, for those addicted, only be countered by telling slightly larger lies about the even-more-inferior morality of others. Those bigger lies carry with them a larger sense of guilt and so the cycle repeats itself again and again with the lies getting larger and larger. And with every downward spiral, the ever-larger lies become ever more implausible, so that it becomes harder and harder to pretend that one actually believes the lies one is telling oneself and the guilt becomes that much more intense and undeniable and can only be staved off, temporarily, through ever more outrageous lies until finally one finds oneself desperately asserting that President Obama’s desire to provide health care for the uninsured is actually a plot to murder your grandmother in cold blood and reinstate the Third Reich here in America.

Consider what the example above means for those embracing it. Even a cursory examination of this claim would reveal it to be false, but they have chosen not to examine it, chosen to swallow it unexamined and to pass it on to others because they need it to be true. They need it to be true because this is what it would take for them to recapture at least the illusion of moral superiority. Let that sink in for a moment.

To be confident of the claim that they are better than some other group, they have chosen to compare themselves to a eugenic Nazi regime that euthanizes senior citizens. That such a regime is wholly a figment of their warped imaginations is less revealing than the fact that they have been forced to imagine such a horrifying scenario in order to find something with which they can believe they compare favorably.

Ouch.

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