Blog Link: The Giant’s Rival Part Two: The US responds.

datePosted on 12:21, September 21st, 2009 by Pablo

The second part of the series on China’s growing presence in the South Pacific is now on Scoop. It explores the US response.

Wrong objection

datePosted on 17:05, September 18th, 2009 by Lew

David Farrar falsely equivocates when he asks the following:

Why do so many people who complain that ACT got five seats in Parliament on only 3.65% of the vote, never complain that the Maori Party got five seats in Parliament on 2.39% of the vote?

The issue isn’t so much that ACT didn’t deserve seats for their share as that, for proportional consistency’s sake, NZ First deserved seats for their share as well. From there, people work backward to ‘If NZF didn’t get them, why should ACT have gotten them?’

The overhang is a misdirection away from the fact that the 5% threshold is the main source of entropy in our proportional system (and its neighbour SM). The two types of electedness he suggests are the same — winning an electorate and coming in on the list — aren’t, as David well knows, and this is a capricious argument from him. To prevent an electorate member from sitting on proportional grounds directly disenfranchises the electorate who voted for her. The solution to a system which arbitrarily disenfranchises a large number of voters on the basis of other voters’ decisions surely isn’t more disenfranchisement — it’s less.

As I’ve argued before, removing or lowering the threshold would reduce voter regret among the supporters of marginal parties, and embolden those electors to vote for their chosen party, resulting in truer representation. The possible impact on an overhang party — one which has traditionally won more seats than its share of the vote would otherwise entitle it — is an interesting case, and would force people who now vote tactically to re-evaluate their decisions.

I have an upcoming post asking what factors people value in an electoral system, and issues like these are germane to the forthcoming discussion about MMP.

L

Jimmy Carter is Right.

datePosted on 23:42, September 17th, 2009 by Pablo

A furore has erupted in the US because former president Jimmy Carter has publicly stated the obvious: many of the people in opposition to health care reform, as well as the so-called astroturf “tea party” and “birther” movements (the latter claiming that Barak Obama is not a natural born US citizen and thus constitutionally ineligible to be president), are less in opposition to Obama’s policies than they are to the color of his skin. Even though he is half-white, they are fixated on his blackness, and in posters, cartoons, internet videos and photomontages he is depicted as an ape, and Arab, a terrorist, a commie or a socialist, and–as Sarah Palin so eloquently expressed it–“not one of us.” The “us” in question is presumably white and conservative, but what they really are is racist.  As Carter said, some people cannot abide by the thought that a Negro is running the show.

Normally one could ignore the crackers and their banjo-strumming Deliverance views. They are, after all, evidence of the death throes of white majority America, which in 25 years will see a non-white (mostly Hispanic) majority and more people of color in positions of national authority. But in this instance these retrograde views are instigated and supported by a disloyal elite who share their perspective, and who have significant clout in politics and the US media. Forget the mental midget that is Joe Wilson, Republican representative from South Carolina and apologist for the Confederacy, who last week shouted “you lie!” in the middle of the president’s speech on health reform to a joint session of Congress. The New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd was correct in noting that the only thing missing from his outburst was the qualifier “boy” at the end.  No president before Obama was interrupted in such a fashion during a major address, to include George W. Bush when he bald-faced lied to Congress and the US public that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and was imminently disposed to use them (thereby setting into motion a chain of events that cost thousands of lives and trillions of squandered dollars in pursuit of what ultimately will wind up looking a lot like the Baath Party regime with a Shiia twist–if Iraq is so lucky). I will not even mention W’s defense of coercive interrogations during his last State of the Union address, but the point is that people who knew better still sat on their hands and shut their mouths. It may have been cowardly, but it was also a measure of Congressional protocol dating back 200 years.

So why the breach in this instance, over a remark that even if debatable was relatively innocuous? What is the single difference between Obama and all his predecessors that would embolden a small-town politician to openly question his integrity before Congress and the country at large (BTW–one of the things that is expressly prohibited under the rules of order in Congressional debates is calling people “liars.”) Why have so many right wing media types jumped to Rep. Wilson’s defense and why are people now sending him campaign contributions from all over the US?

Rep. Wilson is of no consequence and there is little danger in his simple breach of Congressional protocol (a Kanye moment of the political sort, if you will). The real danger is in the subtext of racial animus propagated by the likes of Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, the Christian nutters such as the Phoenix-based Baptist minister who exhorts his congregation to pray for Obama’s assassination, and the other corporate and religious bigots who run the astroturf campaigns against the President’s agenda (“astroturf” refers to the fact that these supposedly grassroots movements are artificially created by  well-funded special interest lobbies using targeted advertising rather than originating from genuine popular discontent). It is these heavily bankrolled conspirators–and they are exactly that–who are the danger. That danger could well turn out to be mortal.

I have written before that the US Right is implicitly setting up a scenario for an attempt on the president’s life. They provide the ideological and rhetorical fuel via their media proxies, and with that stimulus some whacko pulls the trigger or detonates the bomb. It will not be a Muslim fanatic, but a white loser or group of losers holding a racial grudge. The US already has seen evidence of this in the Oklahoma City bombing and repeated white supremacist plots  and attacks (including an assassination plot against Obama during last year’s presidential campaign).  That is why Jimmy Carter needs to be listened to: not all opposition to the President is racist, but a significant portion of the minority that opposes his agenda are playing the man for his color, not the content of his policy. The trouble is that racism is also  the elephant in the room that no one wants to openly confront in this “post racial” era. Until that happens, the descent towards violence is almost inevitable, with implications that are unimaginably bad.

In fact, it can be argued that it will not be a foreign foe that will ultimately defeat the US and reduce it to a fallen empire: it could well be devoured from within, with racism the food for that self-consuming hunger.

A victory for common sense and democracy

datePosted on 11:27, September 17th, 2009 by Lew

… these are the sort of words Michael Laws would be using if the decision to spell Whanganui incorrectly had been endorsed by the NZ Geographic Board, so I feel justified in using similar language given that the decision has gone my way.

As I have argued at great length, this is a good decision. I’ll work through the details of the submissions when I get time, hopefully tonight.

L

ACC: tell ’em

datePosted on 22:37, September 16th, 2009 by Lew

I have received the following communique originated by NZ Association of Psychotherapists member Kyle MacDonald; an easy means for you to tell the Minister for ACC what you think about sexual abuse recovery rationing:


Grass Roots Political Action, a step by step recipe.

“The death of democracy is not likely to be an assassination from ambush. It will be a slow extinction from apathy, indifference, and undernourishment.”
— Robert M. Hutchins

  • Time required: 10 minutes.
  • Ingredients: Four pieces of A4 paper. Two envelopes.
  • Method: go to Kyle’s website www.psychotherapy.org.nz and click “Grass Roots Political Action: A step by step recipe”.
  • Select which Minister, and print one out for Pansy and one for Nick.
  • Read the letter; react and critique.
  • Insert your details into the angle-brackets. Change the wording to your heart’s content; the more varied the letters the better!
  • Print, and sign.
  • All mail to Parliament is free, so simply pop in an envelope!
  • Bask in the glow of flexing the democratic freedom you are lucky enough to possess, and pass both the word, and this email, on to everyone who you can possibly think of…

Update: There’s also a petition, for what that’s worth.


Grass Roots Political Action Part II – Gather Support.

“In a democracy dissent is an act of faith. Like medicine, the test of its
value is not in its taste, but in its effects.”

— J. William Fulbright.

Dear friends, colleagues and supporters of counseling and therapy in
Aotearoa New Zealand,

Many of you will now be aware of attempts by ACC to change the Sensitive
Claims Scheme which provides counseling to victims of sexual assault and
abuse. These changes are being rushed through with inadequate consultation
and the professional organizations representing the providers of this
treatment have been lobbying parliament to stop the changes.

Now there is something you can do to help! Follow this link to an online
petition and sign up to show your opposition to the proposed changes.

http://www.petitiononline.com/ACC0909/petition.html

Please also circulate this petition as widely as you can to friends, family,
colleagues, clients and your professional networks. The aim will be to
present this to The Minister for ACC Hon. Nick Smith prior to the 12th of
October.

Thank you for your time,

Kyle MacDonald
Psychotherapist


There. Easy.

L

Hōiho trading

datePosted on 11:26, September 15th, 2009 by Lew

So much of Labour and the economic left’s criticism of the māori party and its conduct in government with National is little more than the howling of self-interested Pākehā angry that the natives aren’t comporting themselves in the approved fashion. But in this case, criticism of the māori party’s support for National’s amended ETS is entirely justified — not because it goes against the principles of the labour and environmentalist movements, but because it goes against the māori party’s own stated principles and demonstrated political strategy. Idiot/Savant has a thorough fisking of the differences.

Whereas previous criticisms have mostly been leveled at the māori party for trading away tactical gains against strategic gains (going into government with National; refusing to quit any time National capitalised on its majority; etc), this decision sacrifices the strategic for the tactical, swapping a few relatively token benefits to some industry sectors in which Māori have strong interests and to low-income people among whom Māori are strongly represented, against a huge intergenerational moral hazard by which the general populace will subsidise emitters, robbing the general tax fund of revenue which could otherwise have been channeled into targeted poverty relief and social services, of which Māori are among the most significant consumers. The upshot must surely be the Foreshore and Seabed; but this seems to me a very heavy price to pay for a concession which seemed likely to go ahead in any case.

While the māori party is not — and Māori are not — ‘environmentalists’ in the western conservation-for-conservation’s-own-sake sense, a core plank of their political and cultural identity is rooted in their own kind of environmentalism, and by acceding to an ETS which does not enforce carbon limitations on industry and society, they have put this role in jeopardy and severely weakened their brand and alliances.

There is a silver lining in this for Labour and the Greens, however. The māori party’s deal has prevented Labour from succumbing to a similarly tempting compromise on the ETS, and it can retain its relatively high moral ground. Labour and the Greens now have a clear path on which they can campaign for the 2011 and future elections, a definite identity around which to orient their policies, and the real possibility of significant strengthening of the ETS in the future. Where this leaves the māori party I’m not sure; no doubt those who shout ‘kupapa!’ will be keen to consign them to the annals of history, but I don’t think redemption is impossible — especially if the māori party shepherds the FSA review through to its desired conclusion, it will remain a political force too significant to be ignored.

L

Democratic Service and Repair

datePosted on 17:25, September 14th, 2009 by Lew

In the shadows of chain-store ghost towns
Where no-one walks the streets at night
A silent nation, hooked on medication
Stares into a blue flickering light.
— Calexico, Service and Repair

This verse has been on my mind rather a lot since moving to my new exurb (it’s not quite a chain-store ghost town, although there sure is one of every chain store here.) But it’s the second pair of lines I’ve dwelt most upon; a potent image of Brave New World escapism as a substitute for real-life engagement, a soma-ed out populace who’ll take what it’s given.* This is a fashionable refrain in postmodern affluent liberal polities: democracy is being undermined by apathy, generated by those who would prefer you didn’t engage in politics at all so they can just get on with running the world without pesky peons interfering.

Political engagement in NZ is fairly weak and superficial, and that is bad for democratic politics. Engagement with and understanding of both the function and the presentation of political process is critical sustenance for democracy; but note, it must be with both the function and the presentation. It can be active (marches, submissions, donations, party membership, etc.) or passive (caring about the news, writing letters-to-the-editor, talkback, bloggery, heated discussions at the pub).

Both are important. In a political network model of concentric circles, a party’s leadership is surrounded by a wider group of insiders, cadres, activists, lobbyists and so forth, surrounded in turn by the party’s wider electorate. Organised political activity will only ever be the domain of a relative few, whom we might call second-circle elites; those who are involved in the political process but who do not drive it. The major role of these second-circle elites is to act as intermediary between the first and third circles; to channel information from the electorate to the leadership and to spread politics out to the electorate. These two functions (in and out) are very different; the former involves constant, frank and honest self-appraisal, a critical assessment function which must be independent from the proselytising imperative. The latter is the proselytising imperative; it requires faith and focus and adherence to doctrine and discipline.

When the feedback loop breaks down and information is fed out but not back in, a political movement becomes hijacked by its elite base — as if the second circle can somehow substitute for the third circle, as if burning desire among a few people can somehow substitute for smouldering will among a much larger number, in apparent ignorance of the fact that votes are not distributed on the basis of intensity of feeling. Ultimately the role of second-circle elites is to promote engagement between the first and third, and where apathy reigns in a polity, it is generally due to their failure to adequately perform those gatekeeping, proselytising and critical assessment functions. But second-circle elites all too frequently blame the electorate for these failures. Often, as in NZ at present, this leads to them decrying ‘politics by focus group’ or ‘pandering to the masses’ as defence of their own ‘principled’ or ‘just plain right’ positions; a view which scorns and patronises the electorate. Often, this position is combined with the grudging acknowledgement that the masses do in fact have all the votes and must therefore be ‘pandered to’ in order to gain sufficient support to prosecute a political agenda which may or may not resemble the agenda campaigned upon. This elite-centred view of politics kills engagement and increases apathy among non-elites, and results in the self-fulfilling prophecy that the unwashed hordes make poor political decisions — they often do, because they often don’t get what they vote for and didn’t have much of a hand in defining it anyhow.

But although the elites might sneer, engagement among the so-called silent majority is highly valuable, and the number of their votes is the least part of their importance. Their scrutiny of political events, policy and discourse may not be so intense, but it is broader and more stable. Even a moderate degree of political and media literacy among a wide section of the electorate provides a valuable check on how much government, its delegated authorities, lobbyists and other political actors can get away with, raising the bar of political action and discourse and providing a check that a high degree of literacy among a small second-circle elite can never provide. This is simply the wisdom of crowds.

Political movements need to decide whether their main priority is to agitate their own partisan lines for short-term electoral gain and alienate those segments with whom they disagree, or to build a democratic infrastructure of engagement and literacy in the polity in the knowledge that greater engegament and literacy will pay dividends. Or, to put it another way, political movements need to decide how much of the one they are prepared to sacrifice to the other. It’s a tricky balance, and I don’t mean to suggest it’s a precise zero-sum tradeoff, but the project of building democratic literacy and engagement is not usually compatible with a partisan agenda, and this means accepting that some proselytisation opportunities will be missed. But if the core problem is a low standard of political action and discourse in the polity, and the imperative is to drive up the quality of political action and discourse by increasing polity-level political and media literacy, then the strategic job of the agitators should be to promote political literacy above all else; even to the partial exclusion of short-term partisan gains. In my view, too much has been sacrificed to the electoral cycle; that the government so often gets away with the ‘nine long years’ gambit, itself a propaganda device to deflect attention from some policy failure or unappealing priority decision, indicates the failure of this imperative.

The NZ electorate is not entirely unengaged, though the standard of that engagement is quite low. There have been a number of catalytic issues in recent years which have made people sit up and care about politics: the Orewa Speech, the Foreshore and Seabed Act, the Electoral Finance Act, the s59 repeal; the h debate are a few which spring readily to my mind. Most of these were created by the right for largely partisan reasons, realising that engagement was a way of taking the political initiative. It is critical to note here that engagement is not the same as literacy, but that it can lead to literacy in the long term if properly managed. While the iwi/kiwi debate and the smacking debate and so on generated much heat and little light, they provide an illustration that political activism isn’t quite hunched before the TV screen with a beer in one hand and a remote control in the other. What’s needed is a cultural change in NZ democratic politics; issues that the polity cares about, politicians who are responsive to those issues, and elites who are committed first and foremost to raising these issues and sustaining the discourse betwen the first and second circles for the good of democratic politics rather than strictly for partisan gain.

Crowdsourcing politics for democracy’s sake is preventative maintenance. It’s well overdue.

L

* Really, what will we do now that NZ’s Next Top Model has been cancelled?

Blog Link: China on the Horizon, Part One.

datePosted on 12:07, September 14th, 2009 by Pablo

I have been working on a project focused on the growing Chinese presence in the South Pacific. It will eventually materialise as a magazine or journal article, but as I worked on the draft I decided it would make for a decent “Word from Afar” column at Scoop. Because of its length I have cut it into two parts as well as expanded or modified some aspects of the original text. This first part explores China’s growing influence in the Southwestern Pacific Rim.

Next week I shall cover the US response.

It’s our public service, why don’t we get a say?

datePosted on 21:55, September 10th, 2009 by Anita

The government is

  • considering merging a variety of departments,
  • carving up others,
  • busy shutting down big chunks of others,
  • abolishing some services,
  • taking control of Institutes of Technology and Polytechs away from communities,
  • studying opening up national parks to mining,
  • re-re-restructuring the health system,
  • oh, the list goes on.

Every one of those changes is to our public service and it affects the public, yet the government is not allowing for public consultation on any of them. They can’t get away with the “we were elected on this platform” excuse or even this government’s TINA (“the recession forces us to do this”), this is straight forward exclusion of public participation.

We, both the left and the right, didn’t let Labour get away with it, why are we allowing John Key and friends to exclude us from decisions that so directly affect our lives?

On why War is not a funny thing, or a reason to profit.

datePosted on 00:23, September 9th, 2009 by Pablo

The title of this post is deceiving, as I am not about to write about the futility or morbidity of war, particularly in its pursuit of commercial gain. Instead, I write about a more mundane aspect of war, with a NZ angle.

To wit: I was asked by a Herald reporter about the photos of NZDF personnel posing with bombs inscribed with anti-Taliban messages and commercial logos. True to form, what appeared in the Herald were excerpted quotes, along with Steve Hoadley offering his balanced views of the subject.

This is what I actually said:

>>The photograph of the bomb is inappropriate because of the commerical use and security implications, but follows on a time-honoured tradition of soldiers writing witticisms and vulgarities on bombs destined for the enemy. The photograph of the soldier with the energy drink bumper stickers is inocuous but the commercial tie-in is a breach of military professionalism and ethics. It is the bomb photo that is the problem.

The soldiers should be recalled and reprimanded because of the very serious error in judgement and the tie to a profit-making entity, as well as the emailing of the photo back to the energy drink company (which is a breach of communications security). A very bad look.

Coverage in the media will increase NZDF personnel exposure to retailiation by Taliban forces, since the Taliban are mentioned on the bomb. That compromises the security, in particular, of the Bamyan PRT mission. The NZSAS will not be affected by this. But the damage will be done by the bomb photo, as prior to release of this photo non-NZSAS NZDF were considered to be relatively impartial within the ISAF mission. That neutral appearance has now been compromised and they could be seen as servants of the Americans, UK and Australians (who fly the jets on which such a bomb is loaded, and under whose command NZDF usually operate).

All in all, a very stupid stunt by silly soldiers with possibly lethal repercussions for their mates.<<

What is important to note is that the Bayman PRT is charged with reconstruction work that is part of the international nation-building effort in Afghanistan. They are not officially supposed to “take sides” in the fighting or be involved in combat operations (which even if a fiction gives the appearance of neutrality that in turn provides a small measure of insulation from attack). The bomb photo now exposes the NZDF bias.

I should also point out that there are Afghans in NZ who, even if anti-Taliban,  are not happy with the US presence and/or the use of air attacks as the weapon of choice against a “difficult” population that harbours anti-ISAF guerrillas. Besides the ample reach of internet communication of the photos, some of these NZ -based Afghans may feel reason to pass the pictures to people back home equally unhappy about the US approach to the indigenous conflict, not all of whom may be Taliban. Either way, the Afghan forces fighting against ISAF now have a reason to target Kiwis.

In fact, contrary to Prof. Hoadley’s assertion in the Herald article that the ethnic makeup in Bayman provides a “buffer” against Taliban attack, the proof is in the pudding: there already have been at least a half dozen attacks on NZDF personnel in Bayman before these photos were released. There is no “buffer.” It is Taliban logistical difficulties and ISAF force protection that prevents the death of a Kiwi in Bayman, not the disposition of the local population (traditionally regarded as slaves or indentured servants by the majority surrounding them). Hence, the possibility of a Kiwi death has been increased with the dissemination of the photos, and it has nothing to do with the SAS deployment. it has all to do with drawing attention to the NZDF PRT and who they are perceived to be working for.

The bottom line: the bomb picture is wrong on several levels. It will not affect the mission of the NZSAS, who are in combat. It does affect the reconstruction efforts of the Bayman PRT, many of whom are (military) engineers and medics, not hardened combat troops. If anything, the photo could hasten the return of the NZDF Bayman PRT, which by all expert accounts is the wrong thing to do. Unless the soldiers involved were National Party plants or Green Party subversives (since now there is a clear security rationale for the withdrawal of the PRT already ordered by the Key government, which accords with the Greens stance on the ISAF mission)), email dissemination of the photo-op to non-governmental sources was sheer and utter stupidity. That is what an extended tour in a combat zone can do to the average soldier.

For that reason, as well as the commercial tie-in, the photos are an affront to NZDF military professionalism and deserving of court martial for all involved in their publication. The soldiers involved can plead mitigating circumstances, but for the NZDF as an entity, their removal from the theater (especially following on the cannabis/hashish scandal) is a must. After all, it is the professional reputation of the NZDF, not the individual fortunes of these silly soldiers, that is a matter of State.

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