For the past few weeks I have been struggling to complete my posts on New Zealand Future and the Maori Party so instead I decide to post about something I can summon enthusiasm for.
In the one year since returning to live and work in Christchurch two things have stood about the people in the city.
The first is that almost everybody you speak to has been effected by not only the quakes but the horrendous bureaucratic and legal process that followed in getting their lives back on track.
Almost anyone you talk to can tell you where they were on that day, what they did after, how they got home, who they spoke to and how they spent that first night. The details are vivid and highly personally and it speaks reams that almost all of them have happy endings. Loved ones and pets were safe, families a bit shocked but sound and neighbors rattled but doing well.
Such is the ubiquity of the events that it’s the quintessential conversation starter in Christchurch. Ask anyone where they were and away you go. Instant connection and genuine sympathy abound and people are usually happy to discuss the events.
Where it gets interesting is how people have coped in the five years following and again almost everyone has had to struggle with either insurers, builders, CERA, the council, ECAN, EQC, the government or lawyers to get their lives back on track but the discussion often takes a darker turn.
At first I thought I had wandered into some sort of weird statistical nexus where I was surrounded by people who had these incredible stories of how they had suffered, struggled and usually prevailed over a range of forces, who to many, appeared bent on doing nothing to help (despite that being their stated purpose) and everything to hinder.
As time passed though I came to realize that what I thought was a fluke density of people was in fact the majority of people living in Christchurch. And it was not just homes and families, it was sports clubs, cultural associations, businesses, community groups and a wide range of entities; all of whom had seen their lives, livelihoods and pastimes upended.
No one blames anyone for the quakes (except the odd religious loony claiming that sin city got what was coming to it). Things happen, that’s life.
On the other hand time and time again I had had to pick my jaw off the floor at stories (both in the press and from people) of what could only be considered corruption, nepotism, criminal practice and all manner dodgy and clearly illegal and immoral behavior by individuals associated with the rebuild, insurance industry, and council and government bodies.
I stopped counting the number of times I heard stories of people having to fight their insurer, builder, CERA or others tooth and nail to get simple things done, have their policies honored, crappy repairs replaced, contracts upheld and getting help with their lives.
And it’s not just individual stories. Not a week goes by that the local media does not have more on to add. I counted in my local weekly paper last week three major articles on issues with the quake and on top of that the daily paper also abounds with many more (stalled convention center, post rebuild job slump and displaced communities just to name a few).
Not all of them are negative but after sifting out the feel good fluff pieces ghost written for Jerry Brownlee or the powers that be most are either critical of the speed of the rebuild process, discussing the various dodgy issues going on, calling for an inquiry into one thing or another (including a royal commission to look at the whole thing) or simply stacking up what’s been done and finding it wanting.
And to add to the problem is the sheer complexity of them all. If it’s not nepotism or corruption in CERA (now renamed in an abortive re-branding exercise); its massive and rampant issues with the rebuild itself; struggles with insurers and pay outs; lives being upturned by homes being downgraded or shoddily repaired; the fact that the side of the city often worst affected by the quakes also happened to have some of the poorest neighborhoods; roads like rural tracks; once familiar and treasured landmarks gone; local businesses and services removed and not allowed back; schools being forced to close despite all clear dangers no longer existing (Redcliffs School); and on and on and on.*
In the first few years this level of concern did not exist; partly because it’s was understood that getting a city back on its feet takes time but also as many of these issues had yet to come to light.
Five years on it’s a different story and in the 12 months since moving here it’s clear that the coverage in the national media does not do even 1/10th justice to what this city and surrounding regions face. Outside of Christchurch it is becoming a silent tragedy with many people (previously including myself) just not wanting to hear any more about it but also believing that things have been mostly fixed and the city is back on its feet.
Yet whenever I take visitors to Christchurch for a drive through the Redzone (I don’t offer they just ask) it’s a rapid change that takes place as the initial chattiness and excitement of the “adventure in quake town” is soon replaced with a silent state of shock as the sheer extent of what’s happened and what’s going on is made clear.
Yes there are new buildings and repaved roads but there is also the empty expanse of the Redzone, looking like a slightly greener version of those aftermath photos of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with empty neighborhoods sprinkled with trees to indicate where property lines once were, the odd house not demolished just to make it clear what this place actually was and roads, that only now after five years, you can drive on without feeling like you’re on an amusement ride of some sorts.
Also the central city, once looking like a kiwi version of a war zone, now has some major new buildings going up but all of the character and heritage of Christchurch is mostly being replaced with dull corporate structures of steel and glass and the central city still has the open wound that is the half destroyed Cathedral right there, at its heart, standing as a grim reminder of what happened.
I lived within the four avenues for most of the 90s and have fond memories of walking or cycling the city streets, learning its secret ways, shortcuts and locations and becoming part of the community of students, artists, bohemians and general folk that make up any central urban area. All of those are gone and with no clear indication that they will ever come back as the only people willing to move back into the central city are the government and banks who are taking a stake on prime ground.
The big new glass buildings might give the impression of life returning but they are hollow reflections of what made up the city center and a forewarning of the sterile corporate soul that will infest the city center at cost to all else.
And that’s where we get to the second thing that I have noticed about Christchurch which is the palpable sense of fury and anger that exists among the people here. Again I thought it was just one or two people but over time I have come to see that the sheer scale of the negative effects of the rebuild is mirrored in the rage and anger at those who have had to live though all the negatives that followed in the wake of the quakes.
For example, mention Jerry Brownlee and it’s almost impossible to not get a string of expletives from people, and from all parts of the political spectrum, red, blue, green, yellow, whatever. His name will draw down a range of angry criticism which regularly borders on road rage levels of anger.
And I say this with no hyperbole at all that I would not be surprised to hear if someone went into an office of a particular authority and behaved inappropriately. As sad as such an event would be I have heard it described and imagined in detail many times; again from people you would never expect to fantasize about such a thing; setting out in clearly where they would go and what they would do. Undoubtedly these are all just the verbal venting of individuals who have been through a lot and are justifiably frustrated but who would never actually do the things they are describing (cathartic fantasizing) but such is the anger and upset at what has gone on here that this is the solution that comes to mind.
The fact that CERA and the government has refused requests for an official inquiry, trotted out a tired line of excuses again and again; refused to look into clear cut cases of corruption and nepotism; ignored issues and buried or twisted stories, surveys or investigations (often with a sprinkling of saccharine PR) where it could and allowed the insurance industry and a range of dodgy building providers (from individual cowboys right up to Fletchers) to game the system to their own immense profit is standard daily fare for people in Christchurch and the anger at such things is now legion.
What will happen I do not know. I have been back 12 months and it’s not like living any other city I have previously lived in (and I have lived in quite a few). The center is gone, it’s referred to as a doughnut city and while life thrives in the various suburbs where the energy and life of the center has now relocated there are others suburbs where communities are still struggling to get back to normal (New Brighton for example).
What I do know is that while most of NZ lives in quiet ignorance of what is happening here it’s a daily fact of life for those in the Garden City. I myself do not live in an effected area, I missed the quakes and have not had to deal with any of the aftereffects but I am a small minority among the upset and often angry many.
As political issues go it’s irrelevant. I doubt Labour or any other government would behave any better such is how our system has become and I wonder how it would be if the Capital was struck as Christchurch was; would the response be the same?
In the end I have an immense respect and sympathy for those that live here and every day I hear stories of them struggling to get their lives back on track and often they do but they mostly did it themselves with little help from government, council or anyone else. If they had not struggled and fought it’s scary to imagine what this city could have become.
This one is for Christchurch!
*- I would add links but there would be pages and pages of them. Just read the Christchurch Press or weekly papers in any day or week for an iota of what is daily here. Just Google it!
This one bubbled up after a three week run of in depth work. I blame my subconscious.
One of the fun parts of being at university was attending lectures for subjects I was not actually enrolled in. One of these was economics. I was doing Political Economics in POLS but the un-enrolled course I was sitting in on was hard core, perfectly pure, Chicago School dogma being drummed into eager young acolytes all ready to get out there and be part of the machine.
It was interesting stuff and while I soon found it to 20% sound theory and 80% minute social mechanics and psychology BS packaged as truth but I continued to attend lectures for the rest of the year, sitting up the back, smugly standing out by my dress, hair length and general demeanour as not one of the true believers.
They knew I was an infiltrator because they didn’t see me at tutorials and I was not of the general mold of Economics students but since I could hold a conversation on general concepts, was up with market play and kept turning up no one ratted me out, to which I was thankful.
And one of the interesting things I learnt attending that course was the concept of externalities, which in general is when a business excludes a particular costs from a product or process from its cost calculations.
For example a factory using chemicals in its production process will not factor in the cost of the toxic waste it produces, that is dumped into the water, sky or environment, if it does not have to, thereby making the product cheaper and generating more profit for the business.
But the concept does not stop there and I remember being fascinated as the lecturer expounded further on whether the decision to exclude was deliberate or due to incomplete information and if it was deliberate how such deliberations played out in the cost/benefit calculations.
It was, as he calmly noted (like a Mongol warlord ordering a pile of heads to be built form the population of a conquered city), not something that any aspect of morality should have influence on and at the end of the day the decision was to be deliberately amoral, made on pure cost calculation alone (in the Mongol case a simple calculation that fear would weaken the enemy and make victory come easier). And when he presented within the frame work of the economic theory (which at the end of the day boils down to “how to make the most profit”) it made perfect sense.
Such theories are clear, clean and crystalline in their perfection and inside their own particular paradigm make perfect sense, all the part fit together and the machine functions smoothly (my favorite example of such a theory at the time was John Rawls Theory of Justice but I have mellowed in my age).
Of course unexpected or unwanted things do occur and no functional theory can simply exclude them if it wants to pass peer review but often the mechanism to enable this is to simply treat the rouge data as a black box effect (ie X goes in, we don’t know what goes on in there, and Y comes out) or to set it up as having minimal impact (an externality) and the results of such styles of thinking is to either run very quickly into dogma (as economics has done) when confronted with a more holistic situation than its mechanistic process can handle or fall before the new and more complete picture.
And the process goes something like this: Ignore, ridicule then accept but acceptance only occurs after the current adherents of a theory pass on or give up or when the truth is so absolute that it cannot be denied.
Of course logic itself can easily become as much of a dogma as any crack-pot theory or religion (I always laugh when I go to people’s houses and they have the oh so trendy “Thou shall not commit logical fallacies” wall chart in their toilet) and the purpose of this post is not to wade of into the realm of abstract philosophical concepts but to look at the idea (such as externalities) and examples of such in real life (something all good philosophies should be doing).
And it’s here where we start to swing this post back towards the title of this blog, Kiwi (ie New Zealand) politics. But before people turn off thinking I am on another one of my rogernomics rants I beg a moment to show that I am not and am in fact looking at something far more relevant and current, poverty in New Zealand.
There is a reason why social safety nets exist. There is a reason why NZ built state housing in the 30s. There is a reason why states have laws to regulate economic and other activities and those reasons are, while possibly not absolute, due to a clear and obvious acceptance of most if not all related costs (to the state as well as groups and individuals), or to put it in other terms, refusal to allow externalities.
Now before someone accuses me of Keynesian leanings, that’s John Maynard Keynes not John Moneymarket Key for those not in the know, it’s worth pointing out that I am not advocating any solution which is can be simply boiled down to “make the state pay for it” any more than our PM is advocating “let the market take care of it” (although that is what he is doing).
Oh no it’s not that simple, but then again holistic theories never are. Reality is, often a messy beast that will not only track dirt into the house but also trail dirty paw/foot prints all over the rug, hide a nasty little surprise behind (or under the couch) and generally make you wish you never owned/spawned a cat/dog/children.
But back to poverty in NZ; right now, without going too far into media histrionics, the questions are: Do we have poverty in NZ, is it widespread, is it growing and (most importantly) what can we do about it?
Currently we have media reports of families sleeping in cars and garages, the government (mostly though ultra-hypocrite Paula Bennett, a previous receiver of state support and funding for education and living but also our beloved PM doing his best to put his “thinking serious face” on when confronted by the media) suggesting they live in motels or just go online and fill in some forms, beggars on the streets of the major cities and state housing stock (and the attendant social capital that it creates) being sold off to let the market take care of things but are these things sufficient to say we have a poverty problem in NZ?
For me the answer/bellwether of the answer to this question was not the media (because they rarely drive events or discussion they just respond to them) or looking out my window (I live in a resolutely blue collar neighborhood) but to the tone of those who support the current government and that tone is starting to change.
A good spike in the data to me was when erstwhile columnist now turned committed blatherer, Jane Bowron, used one of her columns to criticize John Key and the current government and it was poverty in NZ which was the switch she used to cut some strips on our kava swilling PMs backside (I’m hoping Pablo will be wading into the PMs Fiji Visit).
Now Mz Bowron may be a dyed in the wool Green voter in private for all I know but her column is resolutely mainstream and a rather noxious mix of folksy reminiscences, cut rate platitudes and dull day to day observations which are nothing if not well in touch with the main herd and its group consensus but also safely espousing/reinforcing the herds view.
And when one of the herd starts up on topics of such nature and unloads a double barrel of criticism on the current government you know a line has been crossed.
And it’s not just her, the fact that the mainstream media has finally picked up on what is not exactly a new problem (those families sleeping in cars were out where they were a long time before the TV news crews came a calling) and there seem to be subtle changes in the ongoing narrative around the poor, the unemployed and the homeless is enough to trigger a consciousness shift*.
John Key, National, Labour and much of the electorate have treated these issues as externalities for a long long time while not realising the grim flipside to dismantling the welfare state and its only now as that beloved kiwi dream, that of the quarter acre pavalova paradise, is now slipping out of reach of more than just a few poor buggers at the bottom that its beginning to register.
It’s not that home ownership is the main issue, because it’s not, but it’s that home ownership is a core plank in any welfare reform program from all budding peasant revolutionaries’ promises of land for the people to the sub-prime crisis in the US. Its integral to any welfare program and sits low down on Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
So when you have families living in cars, government departments housing homeless in motels (at a cost they have to pay back) increasing people on the streets AND general house and living costs racing out of reach of average pay packets and entering the realm of market speculation AND middle ground opinion starting to show a growing intolerance with the situation you have a slow but gradual rejection of political, social and economic externalities of poverty in NZ (and the attendant economic and political theories) and the beginning of a more holistic, more realistic view of NZ (complete with acknowledging the value of the market but also the worth of the people that actually compose it).
But if it’s not to plainly spelt out enough at this time let me take it one step further.
Somewhere in the 19th century when Europe created the model of the welfare state and began to address the problems of the growing underclass (and all its associated problems) that capitalism (then in its unadulterated rapacious stage) was creating the choices were clear: take steps to address the problems created by unleashing mercantile greed and labour saving technology on a feudal and mostly rural population or face the consequences and after the 1840s and several socialist near misses the consequences would be more likely to be a return to the savagery of the French revolution (then still a recent memory for many) than anything else.
More than now their eyes were open and ignoring the externalities was not an option. Funny how having a good proportion of the ruling class executed in front of a blood thirsty mob can bring about clarity (sometimes if only for a split second before the blade drops) in those that survive.
And today the focus of the battle is between the ideology of externalities (economics) and the grim meat hook realities waiting if we continue to ignore what we know is happening (a forceful and deliberate realignment of our social and economic priorities or at minimum a bloody attempt to do so buy those most affected by the purposeful and deliberate decline in our nation’s social and living standards by a cabal of ideologically lead criminals that we call politicians and their patrons).
Does that mean we will have revolution in NZ? Maybe, maybe not. The Kiwi psyche seems ill adjusted to sing the hymns of Viva Revolution or Liberty, Fraternity and Equality! But it does seem well suited for the kind of passive aggressive resistance common of general populations living in totalitarian regimes. None the less I would find it hard to see any real loss if such a thing did occur and a selection of MPs, lawyers and accountants were put up against the well in order to ensure that the rest toe the line.
It’s the reason democracies have elections (ritualized revolutions) rather than actual revolutions complete with real bloodshed and the ruling class being executed or imprisoned. Perhaps that’s why John Key is currently hobnobbing with the “duly elected” PM of Fiji; he is getting some advice on how to stave off an uprising.
And while some families living in cars seems like a far cry from and all-star cast singing and dancing their way through the French revolution it’s the fact that the traditional supporters of externalizing the costs of turning NZ into a free market bastion are starting to grumble that makes me wonder as one of the key tenents of counter revolutionary theory is that if you leave it until there are armed bands roaming the hills your chances of fixing it are almost nil.
It has to be caught before it gets to that point, when there are no obvious, flaming symbols of resistance and it often relies on more subtle readings of the situation than any crystalline theory can predict or is willing to acknowledge. And while it may not be the poor and miserable doing the leading, it will sure as be some motivated individual who is willing to say what the mob wants to hear that will be at the front.
In the US, the right has fallen prey to demagoguery while the left seeks to suppress through modulated pacification and assimilation of key themes while keeping the status quo in place.
In NZ the climate for 2017 is ripe for messages and possibly actions. At first it was dildos and mud but for how long?
*- The fact that Chris Trotter has been going on about this for ages is beside the point as he is an identified dyed in the wool socialist and the medias resident dispenser of left opinion.
Posted on 15:46, June 1st, 2016 by Pablo
I was invited to speak at a forum in Wellington on the “Privacy Security Dilemma.” It included a variety of people from government, the private sector, academia and public interest groups. The discussion basically revolved around the issue of whether the quest for security in the current era is increasingly infringing on the right to privacy. There were about 150 people present, a mixture of government servants, students, retirees, academics, foreign officials and a few intelligence officers.
There were some interesting points made, including the view that in order to be free we must be secure in our daily lives (Professor Robert Ayson), that Anglo-Saxon notions of personal identity and privacy do not account for the collective nature of identity and privacy amongst Maori (Professor Karen Coutts), that notions of privacy are contextual rather than universal (Professor Miriam Lips), that in the information age we may know more but are no wiser for it (Professor Ayson), that mass intrusions of privacy in targeted minority groups in the name of security leads to alienation, disaffection and resentment in those groups (Anjum Rahman), and that in the contemporary era physical borders are no impediment to nefarious activities carried out by a variety of state and non-state actors (various).
We also heard from Michael Cullen and Chris Finlayson. Cullen chaired the recent Intelligence Review and Finlayson is the current Minister of Security and Intelligence. Cullen summarised the main points of the recommendations in the Review and was kind enough to stay for questions after his panel. Finlayson arrived two hours late, failed to acknowledge any of the speakers other than Privacy Commissioner John Edwards (who gave an encouraging talk), read a standard stump speech from notes, and bolted from the room as soon as as he stopped speaking.
Thomas Beagle gave a strong presentation that was almost Nicky Hageresque in its denouncement of government powers of surveillance and control. His most important point, and one that I found compelling, was that the issue is not about the tradeoff between security and privacy but between security and power. He noted that expanded government security authority was more about wielding power over subjects than about simply infringing on privacy. If I understand him correctly, privacy is a commodity in a larger ethical game.
Note that I say commodity rather than prize. “Prize” is largely construed as a reward, gain, victory or the achievement of some other coveted objective, especially in the face of underhanded, dishonest, unscrupulous and often murderous opposition. However, here privacy is used as a pawn in a larger struggle between the state and its subjects. Although I disagree with his assessment that corporations do not wield power over clients when they amass data on them, his point that the government can and does wield (often retaliatory) power over people through the (mis) use of data collection is sobering at the very least.
When I agreed to join the forum I was not sure exactly what was expected from me. I decided to go for some food for thought about three basic phrases used in the information gathering business, and how the notion of consent is applied to them.
The first phrase is “bulk collection.” Bulk collection is the wholesale acquisition and storage of data for the purposes of subsequent trawling and mining in pursuit of more specific “nuggets” of actionable information. Although signals intelligence agencies such as the GCSB are known for doing this, many private entities such as social media platforms and internet service providers also do so. Whereas signals intelligence agencies may be looking for terrorists and spies in their use of filters such as PRISM and XKEYSCORE, private entities use data mining algorithms for marketing purposes (hence the targeted advertisements on social media).
“Mass surveillance” is the ongoing and undifferentiated monitoring of collective behaviour for the purposes of identifying, targeting and analysing the behaviour of specific individuals or groups. It is not the same thing as bulk collection, if for no other reason than it has a more immediate, real-time application. Mass surveillance is done by a host of public agencies, be it the Police via CCTV coverage of public spaces, transportation authorities’ coverage of roadways, railroads and airports, local council coverage of recreational facilities and areas, district health board monitoring of hospitals, etc. It is not only public agencies that engage in mass surveillance. Private retail outlets, shopping centres and malls, carparks, stadiums, entertainment venues, clubs, pubs, firms and gated communities all use mass surveillance. We know why they do so, just as we know why public agencies do so (crime prevention being the most common reason), but the salient fact is that they all do it.
“Targeted spying” is the covert or surreptitious observation and monitoring of targeted individuals and groups in order to identify specific activities and behaviours. It can be physical or electronic (i.e. via direct human observation or video/computer/telephone intercepts). Most of this is done by the Police and government intelligence agencies such as the SIS, and most often it is done under warrant (although the restrictions on warrantless spying have been loosened in the post 9/11 era). Yet, it is not only government security and intelligence agencies that undertake targeted spying. Private investigators, credit card agencies, debt collectors, background checking firms and others all use this as a tool of their trades.
What is evident on the face of things is that all of the information gathering activities mentioned here violate not only the right to privacy but also the presumption of innocence, particularly the first two. Information is gathered on a mass scale regardless of whether people are violating the law or, in the case of targeted spying, on the suspicion that they are.
The way governments have addressed concerns about this basic violation of democratic principles is through the warrant system. But what about wholesale data-gathering by private as well as public entities? Who gives them permission to do so, and how?
That is where informed consent comes in. Informed consent of the electorate is considered to be a hallmark of robust or mature democracies. The voting public are aware of and have institutional channels of expression and decision-making influence when it comes to the laws and regulations that govern their communal relations.
But how is that given? As it turns out, in the private sphere it is given by the phrase “terms and conditions.” Be it when we sign up to a social media platform or internet service, or when we park our cars, or when we enter a mall and engage in some retail therapy, or when we take a cab, ride the bus or board a train, there are public notices governing the terms and conditions of use of these services that include giving up the right to privacy in that particular context. It may be hidden in the fine print of an internet provider service agreement, or on a small sticker in the corner of a mall or shop entry, or on the back of a ticket, but in this day and age the use of a service comes attached with it the forfeiture of at least some degree of privacy. As soon as we tick on a box agreeing to the terms or make use of a given service, we consent to that exchange.
One can rightly argue that many people do not read the terms or conditions of service contracts. But that is the point: just as ignorance is no excuse for violation of the law, ignorance of the terms of service does not mean that consent has not been given. But here again, the question is how can this be informed consent? Well, it is not.
That takes us to the public sphere and issues of governance. The reality is that many people are not informed and do not even think that their consent is required for governments to go about their business. This brings up the issue of “implicit,” “implied” or inferred” consent. In Latin American societies the view is that if you do not say no then you implicitly mean yes. In Anglophone cultures the reverse is true: if you do not explicitly say yes than you mean no. But in contemporary Aotearoa, it seems that the Latin view prevails, as the electorate is often uninformed, disinterested, ignorant of and certainly not explicitly consenting to many government policy initiatives, including those in the security field and with regards to basic civil liberties such as the right to privacy and presumption of innocence.
One can argue that in representative democracy consent is given indirectly via electoral processes whereby politicians are elected to exercise the will of the people. Politicians make the laws that govern us all and the people can challenge them in neutral courts. Consent is given indirectly and is contingent on the courts upholding the legality if not legitimacy of policy decisions.
But is that really informed contingent consent? Do we abdicate any say about discrete policy decisions and legislative changes once we elect a government? Or do we broadly do so at regular intervals, say every three years, and then just forget about having another say until the next election cycle? I would think and hope not. And yet, that appears to be the practice in New Zealand.
Therein lies the rub. When it comes to consenting to intrusions on our privacy be they in the private or public sphere, we are more often doing so in implicit rather than informed fashion. Moreover, we tend to give broad consent to governments of the day rather than offer it on a discrete, case by case, policy by policy, law by law basis. And because we do so, both public authorities and private agencies can collect, store, manipulate and exchange our private information at their discretion rather than ours.
Posted on 14:43, May 27th, 2016 by E.A.
Sorry no budget commentary (what would I write about anyway) but something a little different.
I have been thinking about Labours great betrayal in 1984 and trying to figure out what actually happened, or more to the point why they did what they did?
This post is for all those who have been burnt by that betrayal, all those who got screwed over by it, who lost their jobs, who had their farms or land taken away, who went into the 90’s unprepared for the savagery of nine years of National government continuing to twist the knife and cut one bloody piece off after another and for those who are now part of the that great kiwi diaspora still euphemistically called “the big OE”. This is for those people. The rest of you might as well stop reading now.
What follows is not a discussion of history, nor is it a well-researched jaunt through a serious of loosely assembled facts. None of this will offer any comfort, solace or even cathartic release for what this country has become; because if you are like me, nothing can heal those wounds short of the various people responsible hanging from the lamp posts along Lambton Quay (of course in effigy only). None the less I feel compelled to describe it as it now appears, as unbelievable as it seems even to me.
And what I am getting at and where I am going is because by living through those times I was deeply affected by them and due to these experiences I have been shaped by them. If the 80s and 90s did’nt politicise you then you left NZ (I was also one of those) for better jobs and better lives overseas or you simply decided (in true Kiwi fashion) to say nothing, do nothing and (with great apathy) give up the ghost to become the middle class voter mass which has helped perpetuate this sorry state of affairs.
And the burning question is how did a party which was effectively Socialist and Keynesian in focus and Roger Douglas, a man trained as an accountant, with no radical bones in his body and with an impeccable left wing pedigree, embark on such a radically Laissez faire fare course of action that in the end has done far more damage to this country than good.
The answers may surprise you.
NZ spent a lot of the 70s under National after a brief flirtation with Labour between 1972 and 1975**. Before 1972 it had been 12 years of National government, Vietnam, the 60s, counter culture and the scent of revolution in the air. Governments across the world were freaked out at the prospect of their quiet little Hobbesian playground being disturbed by the massive social shifts taking place.
National in the 1970s and early 1980s was Rob Muldoon and Think Big with Muldoon often acting more like a left winger than a right with his highly socialised/big government/authoritarian approach to running New Zealand.
It was’nt quite Smiths Dream but there was no reason not to believe that such a dystopia was not just around the corner and this was view shared by both those in the public and in government (although with very different outlooks and expectations).
At this time two events stand out as amazing examples of what Kiwis can do when motivated to do so, when not afraid or apathetic and when the still but deep running idealist streak in this country combines with issues which are perceived as worth the effort. They were the Maori Land Marches/Bastion Point and the 1981 Springbok Tour.
Both of these events changed the face of NZ, both of these were the first major upheavals since the land wars where a mass of people were fighting back and the established powers had no real response. The 1951 Waterfront Strikes also stand out but they were eventually crushed.
To those used to ruling NZ (and I will not name names as I can’t afford the legal fees to fight of defamation charges) these changes portended the end of their hold on this country, the ruin of their plans for Godzone and termination of the colonial status quo.
To these people, just reparation for land stolen or upholding ethical principles over business practice was just not on and like so many scared elites they began to formulate plans for the inevitable counter revolution.
But what to do and how to do it? It was clear that the National Government was on the out and that an energized Labour Party was going to take power come the next election and possibly sweep away all their privilege.
National, the traditional party of the status quo, was now ruled by Muldoon and suffering from the economic fallout of Think Big which had drained the country of funds and left it economically crippled while Labour still had some of the Magic or Norman Kirk about them, despite being driven from government in 1975 with the same vigor that had seen them enter in 1972 (this sudden reversal was in part to the sudden death of the highly popular Kirk and his replacement by the less charismatic Bill Rowling but also due to the internecine power struggle that immediately erupted in the Labour Party after Kirks passing).
So with National not able to fulfill its traditional role as the vehicle for vested interests a plan was hatched to enact a social and economic blitzkrieg on the nation which would not only stifle dissent but use the damage inflicted by Think Big to drive though sweeping deregulation by the soon to be government, the Labour party.
But for this to happen Labour would need to completely abandon its ideological base and core principles. Could the powers that be make this happen, could they turn water in wine? It seems they could.
Many of the details will remain obscured and like Philby and Blunt those involved will probably take the truth to their graves but the fact of the matter is that after the 1984 election things were never the same again.
If you don’t believe in counter revolutions then think again, history is full of political and social elites enacting all manner of schemes to protect their wealth, privilege and lifestyles when threatened and betrayers and double crossers also abound, playing more than one side for their own personal gain.
Since 1984 those elites have strengthened their hold on our nation and society and seen a would be technocrat-tyrant become PM to ensure their ongoing control (think of Key as less than Quadaffi in Libya and more like Salazar in Portugal).
Also keep in mind that less than five years ago many people scoffed at the idea of things that are known to be true today thanks to people like Wiki-leaks, Edward Snowden or the Panama papers.
Is it too far to believe that Rodger Douglas, and others, were moles infiltrating the Labour party so as to drive through a series of reforms that would create such shock and dislocation that, like all good counter revolutions, the opposition would be thrown off balance, fractured and unable to mount a coherent response? Is that such an unrealistic thing to believe? If it is I have one word for you: COINTELPRO.
And when you realize the damage that has been done to Labour since those times is it such a step to understanding that by infiltrating the opposition party and then compromising it at the highest levels that it would effectively taint the party for life and ensure that it would have little or no credibility for years to come, thus neutering it politically.
And can anyone who ever witnessed (or watched on TV) the land marches or the tour protests forget the feeling that the nation was on the brink, that decades of tension and repression were spilling forth in the act of pitting one Kiwi against another.
I believe that right now, today, we are on the cusp of similar changes, the de-regulated state and its grim servants cannot contain the effects or damage of their actions over the last 30 years. We now have at least two generations that have grown up under this and another, much poorer one, on its way.
This is not about Labour being the magic bullet to the depravity of National or having an ideal solution to the problems of the day. This is about us understanding our history, even if it is completely untrue, to enable us to get past it. This is about enacting the Utopian ideals that make Kiwis the world beating iconoclasts that we can be when we put our minds to it and when we are not servants of the power.
Just as then events today are politicizing us and the issues are once again rising up to demand a change the establishment is once again (this time with National in power) going to do everything it can to stop us.
This is why I believe the Greens will be the next to be co-opted if they allow it or that Labour lacks the heart to dismantle the dark satanic mills that John Key manages on behalf of the absentee owners who look down from their high towers and wonder fearfully at the crowds massing below.
*-Thanks to Robot Chicken Season 6 for the title
**- Labour lost in 1975 by almost the same margin it got in on in 72
In recent months I have become increasingly concerned at the state of bullshit in this country. Bullshit, as Harry Frankfurt famously wrote, is distinguished not by its intentionally negative truth value (those are lies) but its absence of intentional truth value, or as Frankfurt terms it, “indifference to how things really are”. In the democratic context, this is the generally low-level governmental pabulum that we are expected to believe because the full truth is unavailable to those from whom we demand it (more on that later), or because there are more or less legitimate reasons why it cannot be conveyed.
Bullshit and its proliferation
I am concerned because the standard of bullshit that we are expected to believe from the government has declined. Bullshit is eternal — it existed before Key and will persist after him — but I am convinced that it wasn’t generally this bad under Clark. I may be biased in this regard, but I accept we were invited to believe some articles of truly egregious bullshit, such as that Taito Phillip Field was merely helping out a friend, or the 21st Century’s most magnificent local example of bipartisan bullshit, that the Ngāti Apa verdict would result in Māori owning all the beaches. But in general the bullshit we were offered was at least plausible. That is, we generally did not have to stretch too far to believe that those in charge did in fact believe what they were telling us to be something approximating how things really are.
That an official government source should believe this is a pretty low bar. But in the past few weeks, the Key government has invited us to believe a number of articles of bullshit that they themselves cannot possibly believe, including but not limited to the following:
Surely nobody is credulous enough to believe even the first of these. But that is what we are expected to do: to march along with the pretence that the government is not simply making things up to keep people from becoming angry about matters we have a right to be angry about. While it is not clear that all these are pure, canonical examples (some probably contain actual lies, others possibly honest obliviousness), it is clear that these cases were articulated without due regard to how things really are. They are bullshit.
What’s more, this is purposeless bullshit, deployed for trivial tactical reasons by a government which, it appears, is indifferent to the link between what we are expected to believe and how things really are.
How we know it is bullshit
In the most obvious cases, the bullshit needs no proof. A senior Merrill Lynch banker knows what overseas trusts are for, and the Prime Minister’s wide-eyed protestations of innocence are manifest bullshit. In other cases the bullshit comes from the pretence that things are not as bad as they seem, such as in the case of the food at Dunedin hospital, which Jonathan Coleman pronounced “standard kiwi fare” while patients refused to eat it, instead bringing their own food or going hungry, and while the DHB’s doctors are considering legal action to force a change. In yet other cases the bullshit fills the gap between the endeavours which have been claimed and those that have actually been made to improve a situation — such as for emergency housing, which was termed “incoherent, unfair and unaccountable” in an internal MSD review last winter, but which has not been fixed. Whatever the cause of emergency accommodation problem, the claim that the government is doing all it can to resolve it is clearly bullshit. In yet other cases, bullshit begets bullshit, such as when the head of MPI’s bullshit is revealed by the leak of an internal report, prompting the Minister to aver that there is no cover-up.
At first glance it seems that these are straightforward cases of lying — that is, that the heads of MSD and MPI are perfectly aware that they have misled the public as to these matters. But it is likely that those doing the bullshitting are themselves being bullshitted, or they could, if they chose, learn how things really are but have not done so, the lack of which knowledge means they unavoidably produce bullshit when called to speak.
To explain this, we must consider organisational dynamics. In 2008 computer scientist Bruce F Webster wrote a brief treatise on The Thermocline of Truth, “a line drawn across the organizational chart that represents a barrier to accurate information”. (Webster’s context is large IT projects, but the corporatisation of government means the same dynamics are to some extent useful to this context too.) He identified four factors:
So while the Social Housing Minister may well have been told of the review last year, this does not mean she read it in full or was substantively briefed on the implications of the policy, much less that she comprehended it all. The government’s relentless Pollyanna routine and commitment to achieving a surplus, and the concomitant constraints on new spending and general disdain for the wellbeing of the poorest New Zealanders shown across the government means that the Social Housing Minister is incentivised to not bring the matter to wider attention, which a real solution would require. That being so, she is incentivised to know as little about it as possible, so that if questioned she can simply bullshit, rather than having to admit that she was aware of the problem but did nothing. Frankfurt cites this maxim in On Bullshit: “Never tell a lie when you can bullshit your way through.”
[Update: At least, this is what the Social Housing Minister tried to do in this case. But she failed, and ended up correcting herself before Question Time today. As Alex Coleman said, she tried to bullshit but ended up lying and corrected the error (with more bullshit). So it goes.]
This sort of thing is sometimes framed as the government or the minister having “other priorities” which, refreshingly, is not bullshit.
Bullshit is the enemy of democracy
But the truth will out. Even if we do not agree that policy analysts are optimists (I accept that this is pretty dubious), it only takes one or two who are willing to risk their position to bring an end to the bullshit. In two of the cases I cited above, we are only able to plumb the bullshit’s depth because internal documents revealing how things really are have been leaked, enabling a comparison to be made between that and what we are expected to believe. It turns out that where something greater than the survival of an IT project is at stake, some people will take action to blow the whistle on departmental or ministerial intransigence. This may emerge from a commitment to a certain political or policy agenda, intra-governmental power games, or honest, decent professional frustration. But whistleblowing recognises that democratic systems thrive on openness, truth and accountability, of which excessive bullshit is the eternal foe.
Whistleblowing, which Danah Boyd calls the new civil disobedience, and other anti-bullshit measures have become profoundly important to both global and New Zealand politics. Chelsea Manning, Edward Snowden, Rawshark, the Panama Papers leaker, and the unheralded sources within MSD and MPI all provide a check to governmental systems whose connection to how things really are is increasingly incidental. Boyd concludes:
The stakes are lower in New Zealand, but the principles remain. There is a long tradition of protecting and celebrating whistleblowers and other civil disobedients for exercising their consciences, and this tradition must be preserved. Incompetence, intransigence, and the cynical use of bullshit such as identified here are considerably more damaging to democracy than principled, non-bullshitty ideological initiatives, because at least with those we can see clearly what we are getting. If the government were to baldly state that, yes, New Zealand is an international tax haven and these are the benefits of being so; or that homeless people are not really a priority; or that fish being dumped overboard is simply a regrettable cost of production, then at least we would be well-placed to decide whether those were policies which we could support. It does not do so, because the political costs would be too great, and seeks to avoid those costs by way of bullshit. Whistleblowers and leakers require them to pay at least some of the costs of their intransigence. This is just.
The electoral risks of taking the piss
Finally, the problem with bullshit on this scale is that people in a democracy may come to rely on what they are expected to believe as a substitute for how things really are. People can usually tell when the two do not accord, but only with regard to factors that directly effect them. The poor will recognise bullshit regarding poverty, and generalise from that. Environmentalists will recognise bullshit regarding, say, the health of the oceans, and generalise from that. But in the absence of non-bullshit information, people’s rationalisations are often scarcely more useful than the half-recognised bullshit from which they emerge. As a consequence people tend to factionalise around the most compelling purveyors of bullshit-alternatives, which promotes epistemic closure and contributes to radicalisation and polarisation such as is evident in the US Presidential nomination race currently underway.
At least one state has weaponised bullshit in service of its ruling regime, and because of this Putin’s Russia is probably the most prodigious emitter of bullshit in the world today (though the other superpowers are not so far behind as they might think). Putin’s command of bullshit is so great that there now exists no democratic threat to his rule.
That is not true in New Zealand. Aside from the fact that we are not nearly so far gone, the long-term success of more or less bullshit-reliant governments led by both Clark and Key suggests that bullshit persists in government by the consent of the bullshitted. We tolerate a certain amount of bullshit, and we can often forgive its emitters, subject to one condition: that they do not take the piss.
While bullshit is ubiquitous, its current standard is, I think, too egregious for people to put up with. The government’s continuing reliance on bullshit could come off as disdain for the intelligence of the electorate, as Clark and Cullen’s did in their final term, when they told us that the Auditor-General was wrong about Labour’s misuse of taxpayer funds for its 2005 pledge card. One of Key’s great strengths is his ability to present mid-level bullshit as being pretty plausible, but the sort of disdain for the electorate noted above seems new. If people begin to reflect that the government is taking the piss, and ask themselves “what kind of fools do they take us for?” the results could be more politically damaging than any amount of ordinary incompetence or policy failure.
It seems that Labour might have finally gotten the memo about getting it’s A into G but perhaps not quite digested the content. Still it’s a start. The last month has seen a steady stream of both Labour and Little in the media, highlighting issues in the electorate and proposing solutions (Panama papers, housing, hotel deals, house prices, fishing quotas etc)
National continues to say that is nothing but “slogans” which is rich coming from them but let’s put the bitterness aside for the moment and have a bit more of a look at the situation.
On my first post about Labour I referred to them needing to come up with something new and that trying the same old policy routine was not going to win them the election from an entrenched National. A few weeks ago I noted that Andrew Little needed to be on the attack if he and the party was actually going make traction in the media and with the electorate.
The rationale behind these two points is simple and my “scouring” of both the mainstream media in NZ and the blogsphere has turned up similar sentiments, the key points of which are that Labour needs to get back to its real roots to atone for the heinous betrayal of 1984 and that a dug in National wont be giving up points easy so Labour needs to take the initiative and hone its policy and pre-election stance through trial by fire rather than more party retreats.
In effect its fat camp, a makeover and a whole new wardrobe for Labour and the effects may have already started to show but I have heard and read several people slag the whole thing off as pointless and a waste of time.
There is some truth to the assertion that it’s too early yet to really see a change in Labour, so far its policy platforms/ideas are still just not hitting the nerve with the electorate but the party seems to be putting out more press releases about the state of affairs in NZ and linking the government to it and that’s a start.
The idea is less about scoring points against National, although a few would be nice, but rather get the party name back in the media and start positioning itself again as the true party of the opposition.
But here is where I would be earning my money if I was a party spin doctor. So far the prescriptions are standard and predictable (ie get the name out more, provide alternatives etc) but the real reason for getting out and about in the media is that it starves National of air and either forces it to burrow deeper into its bunker or come out and fight on core issues or risk having Labour take over the narrative.
And it’s here where a well-planned and prepared policy and media ambushes would work wonders. The current state of New Zealand is full of low hanging fruit just begging for a solution to the problem of the day. National has had eight years in power and it’s clear that nothing is getting better. It’s also clear that Labour has started to think like that and started to gear its message along those lines. But it’s not enough.
The race to November 2017 is not a short sprint and National has banked on the long haul, saving its shots for a John Key led media blitz in the actual campaigning phase. This makes sound sense if Labour wallows in apathy and can’t get out of its own funk as National just has to play it safe and compare itself to Labour to win the prize.
This won’t work if Little and Labour go and stay on the offensive from here until December 2017 but to make this work requires more than just a slew of media releases and trotting out the same old arguments (and MPs) as before.
The key factor in this is Labour shedding all its 1984 to 2016 baggage and emerging anew from the cocoon of policy it has woven itself into and to do this means that the party has to re-cross the Rubicon of sorts and return to ideological roots, albeit with a 21st century spin.
And to return to my original point it looks like Labour has started a charm offensive by running a range of media attacks on National but without the bigger ideological transformation National can continue to say that it’s just slogans because that’s all it will be.
Little does look to be getting some stones with his standing by his comments about hotel deals in Niue (although if you read through his statements you can see the lawyer in him inserting the escape clause at the end) and various senior MPs appearing in the media attacking this and that of govt policy.
It’s an encouraging start but it’s just a start and this race to November next year will require something special to keep the momentum going and to begin wresting back those wayward Labour voters and that is the monumental policy/ideology shift required to sustain the party for the long haul. In short a swift step away from the center and back to the Left.
It’s easy to see why the party has balked at this suggestion in the past but the 1984 to 2016 period has been poison to the party and ammunition for National every time Labour opens its mouth to point out how bad things are under the current government.
The vital point in this whole plan is to differentiate itself from National in every way shape and form, no more squabbling over the scraps of the middle voter demographic, which is now beginning to wither and die anyway under National Policy, but instead a return to easily identifiable core values which come pre-packed with a message and a meaning that is in opposition to everything National stands for.
And the messages have, for most part, avoided Key and gone for Nationals weakness, its bloody awful polices and record across the board with its stewardship of NZ which is key (no pun intended) to defeating National.
This is clever as if they dont fight Key head on, but make National wheel out its golden boy to defend on all and any issues it will take the shine off his royal behind between now and polling day and prep the ground for the whole new message that Labour should be unveiling in the next few months as there have been indications here and there and Labours new general secretary, Andrew Kirton, dropped some tantalising words in the Listener a while back which sounded like there were bigger plans afoot.
This strategy has some other benefits as its will not only starve National of air but it will also do the same to both the Greens and NZ First. If there is any chance of Labour/Winston coalition Labour will have to be the biggest dog in the yard come polling day, not after, and that only comes from being the big dog, picking fights and scrapping it out in public, the the media and not just the benches with all and any challengers.
It’s a risk, I admit, but the issues that bedevil Labour will remain, if not get worse, if they lose this election and by the time the 2020 election comes round could be way too late to salvage the party. It’s the same dilemma National face once John Key decouples from the party
So if Labour has its eyes set on getting the gold in November next year it’s going to have to take things to the next level. My concern is that just as it’s getting its mojo back the party will hold there and try and run a half-baked policy platform through the election and get beaten with predictable results.
Things are getting interesting on the Democratic side of the US presidential primaries. Although Hillary Clinton is on pace to win the nomination, Bernie Sanders continues to dog her steps with wins that keep him, if not within striking distance of securing the nomination himself, close enough in delegate count and popular support to narrow the gap between them to the point that she cannot claim a decisive mandate as the nominee. That is important because if the trend continues, and especially if he can stay close or win in California in early June, he can arrive at the convention armed with demands that will have to be met if he is to throw his support behind her in the general election. There is already talk of him running as an independent (which is what he was until he entered the Democratic primary). That would prove disastrous for the Clinton campaign and could turn the presidential race into a mirror image of two divided major parties having candidates from within their ranks running as spoilers against their convention nominees.
Let us be very clear on one thing: Bernie is right when he says that the Democratic nomination process is stacked against him. Between interest group super delegates whose loyalty is pledged to Clinton regardless of primary results to the closed primary process itself, there has been concerted effort by Democratic party bosses to keep his numbers down by denying independents the right to vote and counter-balancing the popular vote with super delegate selections. He has, quite frankly, been cheated on more than one occasion and that does not even take into account the more underhanded tactics used against him by the Democratic National Committee.
This spilled over recently in the Nevada Democratic convention, where a pro-Clinton state party chairperson overruled Sanders supporter’s motions and sat Clinton delegates rather than those pledged to Bernie. The convention descended into chaos and the chairperson, a woman, was inundated with vicious misogynistic physical threats mainly from the so-called “Bernie Bros,” presumably angry young men. Although Sanders issued a one line sentence condemning violence in a three paragraph statement about that convention, the bulk of it was dedicated to highlighting the underhanded moves made by the chairperson and her minions. He followed that with a victory speech after the Oregon primary (which he won handily) in which he remained defiant, belligerent and determined to take his campaign to the convention. He does not appear to be in the mood for reconciliation with Ms. Clinton.
Needless to say, Democratic Party leaders, Clinton supporters and many liberals are freaking out over this. They see Sanders as a sore loser given that he knew what he was getting into when he joined the party last year in order to run for the nomination. They see his candidacy as interfering with the streamlined selection process that was supposed to result in a unified consensus backing Clinton. More importantly, they see his intransigence and talk of a third party run as handing the keys to the Oval Office to Donald Trump, especially given that some Republican Party luminaries are lining up behind the Orange Crush as a matter of partisan duty regardless of what the consequences may be should he become president. In fact, however reluctantly, the Clinton haters within the GOP and their media surrogates appear to be coalescing behind Trump at the same time that the fractures within the Democratic Party are getting more pronounced. No wonder Democrats are freaking.
I am less concerned than my liberal US friends about this because I think that Sanders is playing his cards correctly. The reason is because I think that what he is playing is a variant of the “moderate-militant” strategy. A moderate-militant strategy is one where a militant objective is announced as a first negotiating point and pursued until an opposing actor makes moderate concessions to the militant. Rather than the militant goals, the real intent is to secure moderate gains. The militant starting point is just a negotiating ploy designed to force the opposing side to move towards it in the hope of securing an agreement.
In the Sanders version, the strategy is to run his campaign on “socialist” principles all the way to the convention. By playing hardball and not wavering before it, he forces the Clinton camp to accept the fact that without him they cannot win and with his supporters opposed they will certainly lose the general election. If Sanders arrives at the convention armed with a strong contingent of delegates in spite of all the manoeuvres against him, he can threaten to tell his supporters to either not vote or cast their ballots against her in the general election. In that case it is very likely that Clinton will concede on important issues and incorporate them into her policy platform before she is declared the nominee. This decision will be made easier by the GOP partisan consolidation around Trump, which brings closer to reality the heretofore unimaginable prospect of his presidency. Given her own negatives, she can no longer rely on loathing of Trump as a guarantee of a defensive vote turnout against him. She needs Bernie more than he needs her, and his playing tough all the way to the convention is a way of underscoring that point.
The worst thing that Sanders can do is concede or pull out of the race before the convention. Were he to do so he would lose any bargaining position he might have had at the convention because for the militant-moderate strategy to work it must be held steadfast until the other side makes a conciliatory move. Given their differences, including opposing views on whether to embrace corporate reform and accept special interest political financing among many other things (such as the US position on Israel-Palestine), it would be a waste of all the time, resources and effort he and his supporters have put into his campaign to abandon it before they have a chance to make their case at the common gathering. Instead, the best bet for his voice being heard strongly at the convention is to press on all the way to it, and then some.
Under no circumstances should Sanders accept Clinton’s assurances on key policy issues in return for his quitting the race and throwing his support to her. I would not trust the DNC and Clinton camp as far as I could throw them. Instead, he must make a condition of his support that the party write in the concessions to his policy demands into the presidential campaign platform adopted at the convention. It may not make for an airtight guarantee once she is elected but it will be much better than relying on her good faith that what was promised will be delivered come January 2017.
If the Clinton camp is smart they will realise that Sanders has brought something new into the party, which given the polarisation of the country and who they are running against, can be a key to their success in November. They must understand how he is playing the game and why he is doing so. They must understand that offering him a position in a Clinton administration is not what he is after and would not suffice to mollify his supporters in any event. They must study their positions in advance and see where they can concede readily and where negotiations on substantive issues will be harder. But what they must understand most is that the chances of a Clinton victory in November rest as much on gaining his support as they do on her own qualifications and experience.
If that is understood, the remaining primaries can be contested vigorously (if not honestly) with a mind towards clearly demonstrating the policy-based platforms of the Democratic candidates versus the empty rhetoric, simple-minded prescriptions and opportunistic bombast coming from the other side. Once that is done, the convention can become not only an arena of contestation between contending ideas about how to take the country forward, but also an opportunity to exchange concessions in order to present a unified front to the voting public. Therein lies the recipe for success in November.
One proven strategy for campaigns that have little substantive by the way of policy to offer and which are trailing in the polls is to drop any pretence of having a grounded policy platform and instead turn to populist demagoguery while casting slings and arrows at opponents. The most common is the “sky is falling” approach, whereby the social and political backdrop to the campaign is cast as one of doom and gloom, with armageddon-like results if the opposition wins. Those undertaking this strategy depict the struggle as a fight between good and evil, as a last chance to roll back the hounds of hell bent on devouring what is left of the good ole days and the traditional way of doing things. The key to the strategy is to divert public attention from core policy issues and towards incidental yet highly emotive areas of social exchange where purchase can be made of difference, uncertainty and fear.
In the current US election campaign, that is precisely what the GOP candidates, Donald Trump in particular, have been doing. They frame the contest as if the US was staring at the abyss as a result of the Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as the lead horsewoman of the apocalypse. This is designed to tap into American’s deep sense of insecurity and pessimism even if the reality of the US condition suggests that many of these concerns–which are held mostly but not exclusively by conservatives–are both exaggerated and unfounded.
The GOP version of the sky is falling approach has twist in that it invokes so-called “culture wars.” The notion that the US is in the midst of “culture wars” started out as an anti-political correctness theme among conservative politicians and media commentators. It has now morphed into an all-encompassing attack on so-called progressive and “secular humanist” socio-economic reform and social changes that may or may not have been pushed by political actors. It is resurrected by the media and political Right every election year. For example, conservatives today rail against the outsourcing of US jobs done supposedly in order to curry favour with foreign trading partners even though in the past they have no issue with the dynamics of globalized production. And yet it is has been advances in robotic technologies rather than politicians that have displaced blue collar shop floor jobs in the US, and the US is not the only place where this has happened. For this crowd abortion is not an individual choice but state-sanctioned murder, and scientific research that uses fetal tissue is part of a vast death machine targeted mainly at (potential) white christians. The so-called “War on Christmas” is really an attack on Christianity and the Judeo-Christian foundations of the Republic. In this appeal, the siren call is that it is time to make a stand and confront the usurpers of the traditional faith, however illusory they may be.
The same folk have reacted viscerally to the Black Lives Matter movement, reviving some unhappy ghosts of the past in doing so, by seeing it as a group of self-entitled freeloaders, enablers, opportunists (yes, Al Sharpton is there), plus assorted and occasionally organised thugs who seek to divert responsibility from their collective lack of values as well as the actions of people of colour who have brought lethal police attention upon themselves (in spite of the compelling evidence of epidemic-level police shootings of unarmed black men). They see in Muslims an insidious fifth column bent on imposing Sharia law and usurping the American dream from within. They consider gay marriage as an assault on the sanctity of straight marriage (in a country with a divorce rate of over 50 percent of straight marriages) and the incorporation of openly gay members in the military as a sign of its deliberate weakening. They see universal health care as the imposition of “socialism” and yet another assault on individual freedom of choice. The see attempts at tighter gun control as the antecedent to federal imposition of martial law. The see feminism as the beginning of the end for the traditional family. They take refuge in xenophobia and bigotry as bulwarks against “progressivism” and the inevitable national decline that they believe that it entails.
And, to put it mildly, many of these people see the current US president as representative of all of these maladies. His upcoming trip to Hiroshima encapsulates the view: despite the White House issuing a public statement saying that the president will not apologise for the nuclear attack on the city and will lay a wreath to pay his respects for the innocent civilian dead, conservatives are using this as further evidence of his plan to destroy America while invoking Pearl Harbour as a reason his apology is treasonous (ignoring the fact that senior Japanese government officials have laid wreaths at the Pearl Harbor memorial in the past).
These commentators see progressive brainwashing everywhere, from the “liberal” (yet somehow corporate) media to every level of the educational system. They see indolence and disrespect amongst their youth and expressions of non-Caucasian ethnic pride as the divisive product of political correctness. They basically see the US going to hell in a hand basket.
The entire premise of the sky is falling/cultural wars strategy is defensive. It is designed to prey on people’s fears of losing what they have and their insecurities about keeping or improving on what they have in an uncertain future marked by rapid demographic and social change in an age of global flux. It makes a dark possibility seem like an imminent reality. It is a push-back reaction rather than a forward-looking progression. It plays, ultimately, on ignorance, and in the US there is plenty of ignorance to go around.
The resort to such a strategy would be laughable except for one thing: it works. It diverts people’s attention away from difficult matters of national policy and on to things that have deeply personal resonance and which touch on primitive instincts and desires. Its appeal is unthinking and visceral rather than cerebral and critical. The more raw and emotional the appeal, the more likely the target audience will react spasmodically to it. In doing so, those who invoke that response are able to counter the policy prescriptions of their opponents without really engaging with them.
That is why I am puzzled by the Obama’s decision to push legal action to facilitate transgender use of toilet facilities based on self-identity, not physical traits. Actually, it is not the legal recognition of transgender rights that bothers me but the timing of the push for them. Why could this not have waited until the next presidential term, especially since Hillary looks to win and even Trump is not opposed to the move? Or is that why the initiative is being made now, as it can be seen as further dividing the GOP base from its presumptive presidential candidate?
If so, I think that it is an unnecessary and counterproductive ploy. By pushing for transgender rights at the particular time the White House has thrown a lifeline to the troglodyte Right, who in turn can pressure the GOP elite and Trump to wage war on such a cultural abomination. Already we hear the clamour about perverts lurking in little girl’s toilets, and The Donald’s penchant for flip flopping on issues is well known, so why on earth start up this particular culture war when a year from now passage of transgender rights legislation would have less electoral impact?
If I was a Democratic strategist I would urge the Party and its candidates to not be baited into culture war debates. That will only trap them in a no-win circular shouting match about science and daily practice grounded in “common” versus “good” sense based on different ideas about ethics and morality–but not intellectually honest or informed people but with aggregations of the mental equivalent of Trump’s Mexican built Wall.
Instead, I would urge them to laugh at sky is falling arguments and refute them with the facts. The country is getting more colour in its demographic, has become more tolerant of non-traditional lifestyles, has robust religious diversity, has innovative production and entrepreneurship and remains, regardless of what the GOP doomsayers claim, economically strong and relatively secure in spite (rather than because) of its foreign military adventures. It may not be utopia or even the mythological house on the hill, but it sure ain’t a bloated carcass of decadence floating towards oblivion (unless you are referring to the GOP itself, in which case the analogy applies).
The Democrats should focus on what Gramsci referred to as “touching the essential,” that is, the real state of the economy and national affairs, addressing the real problems of average people in proper perspective (and there are plenty to consider), and offer practical (and practicable) solutions to specific policy issues. That will leave the GOP to bark into the wind about girly men, safe spaces and serial adulterers. Because when the dust has settled on November 8, the sky will still be there and the cultural wars of the Right will have been lost yet again.
Posted on 15:04, May 13th, 2016 by Lew
New Plymouth mayor Andrew Judd announced this week that he would not seek re-election, due to the abuse he has received after his campaign to introduce a Māori ward representative to the New Plymouth District Council. You can hear his interview with John Campbell here.
Nobody deserves to be spat at on the street. The tragedy is that the spitters, of insults and of phlegm, don’t realise what a favour Andrew Judd has done them.
Much has been made of the favour that Judd’s stand has done for Māori. But two Māori candidates for that council have said Judd needs to go further. They rejected his call for a Māori ward, but they believe he should stand by his convictions and keep fighting. Māori do not have the privilege of walking away when it all gets too uncomfortable.
This is typical of the Indigenous experience: their histories, their stories and their lived reality is disregarded until it can be corroborated by white folks, and often not even then. It all goes double for women and other power minorities.
It’s not new, or isolated. White society systematically disregards Indigenous views, and not just for contentious, contemporary stuff. In 2003 Australian university researchers led by Heather Builth demonstrated using geographical, chemical and computer analysis that the Guditjmara people of what is now called southwestern Victoria had, for about 8,000 years, constructed and maintained a vast system of weirs and canals to farm eels. Eel farming is something modern societies struggle to do effectively, and 8,000 years is a long time ago — roughly at the same time as humans first domesticated chickens. This was an achievement of incalculable value for hundreds of generations, not only the Guditjmara, but also their trade partners and the other mobs who adapted the technology for use in their own country. But its very existence needed to be anointed by the proper authorities before it would be recognised. Guditjmara man Ken Saunders:
The dynamic is insidious. In Aotearoa we have come a long way from the bad old days of being caned for speaking te reo Māori, changing names and trying to pass for Pākehā, and most of that progress has not been due to the efforts of woke honkeys, but by the dogged struggle of Māori swimming against a white tide. But little gets done in New Zealand without at least the acquiescence of the dominant White society, because white society only listens to itself. And so it often takes people like Andrew Judd and Heather Builth to usher these contraband discussions past the sentinels of public discourse.
I used to write a lot about this sort of thing, but I have no real standing to talk about this stuff, except that I am Pākehā, and therefore less easy to write off as another crazy radical. It’s easy for woke whiteys to pat ourselves on the back for and doing those poor brown folks a favour, bestowing our privileged advocacy on them, but the only way it works is if we talk to ourselves. Indigenous people are better at fighting their own battles than we are. But because little happens without our acquiescence, there is a role for woke whitey race-traitors working to change our own people.
So from my perspective, Judd’s stand is of greater benefit for other Pākehā than it is for Māori. As I wrote earnestly in 2011, honouring the Treaty is not simply about doing what is right for Māori, but about white New Zealanders honouring our own principles and standing upright on this ground that we occupy.
Andrew Judd is a good model for this. I am not. I had the fortune to be brought up by a mother who lived with Māori and grew biculturalism into our bones, and I have never been properly able to grok people who think the Treaty is a farce, that bygones should be bygones, or that Māori should just be more like “us”. Judd came to it as an adult with his eyes open to the monoculture that grudgingly permits biculturalism to exist, and he tried to change it in a meaningful way.
Another good model is Race Relations Commissioner Susan Devoy, who was roundly mocked (including by me) as a part-timer with no credibility for her role, but who has repeatedly proven her ability to learn and own the job. These are the people white New Zealand needs: people who know that insidious racism isn’t just a redneck thing, or a Tory thing, or a South Island thing, but something intrinsic to society that is, nevertheless, curable by honest engagement with the historical facts. The people who hold these views are, by and large, just ordinary decent folk afflicted by banal prejudice and ignorance about the realities of a divided society.
White Aotearoa is right, in its way: these divisions harm us. New Zealand would be a better country without racism, without the poverty and crime and dysfunction that results from racism and from the systematic exclusion of a small but growing proportion of our people from full access to education, healthcare, prosperity and influence. Quite apart from the value of basic justice, there are more measurable benefits: the greatest gains begin from a low base, and there is a vast opportunity for Aotearoa’s underprivileged and under-utilised Indigenous people to make enormous economic, cultural and intellectual contributions to the nation. Some already do, and what a difference it makes.
Judd’s bid to ensure Indigenous representation on the New Plymouth District Council failed, and it seems certain that even were he to stand for re-election he would be beaten, because what Mike Hosking said is basically true: he is out of touch with middle New Zealand, and thank goodness! Middle New Zealand is wrong, and it needs to be told so by people whose views it cannot dismiss out of hand. Judd has showed White Aotearoa a way forward. Not an easy way, but an honest way to be true to ourselves, and we owe him our thanks.
Apologies in advance for the terrible rhymes but after a week of absurdity in Parliament I had to comment.
Peter (Dunne), Peter (Dunne), Speed Repeater
Peter, Peter, Speed repeater
Knew the limit but couldn’t keep it
Broke the law twice in one day
Don’t do as he does, do as he says
Simple (David) Seymour
Simple Seymour saw a MP
Going up the stairs
Said Simple Seymour to the MP
“What bill do you have there?”
Said the MP unto Seymour
“Show me first your consistency”
Said Simple Seymour to the MP
“Indeed I have not any”
(Andrew) Little, Boy Red
Little boy red, come blow your horn
The Hotel is in Niue, the trust is offshore
Where is the boy who looks after the sheeple?
He’s away planning strategy at a weekend retreat.
Speaker, Speaker, go away
Come back to parliament another day
Little Johnny (Key) wants to play