Progressive bills and freedom of information

datePosted on 09:22, February 17th, 2009 by Anita

No Right Turn is running a wiki for the development of Progressive bills, it’s a great opportunity to figure out some progressive possibilities and get them happening. So if there’s any way you’d like to make NZ more progressive, and you can imagine it being achieved through a private members bill this is the place for you! :)

I”m currently struggling with how to improve our freedom of information legislation, the Mexican model has some real possibilities, but it’s not as easy as one might hope.

My goal is two fold, firstly to extend the amount of information made available (extending it to Parliament and so on) and secondly to make it harder for agencies to game.

My experience with OIAs is that some agencies are lovely, when others require chasing, more chasing before they provide incomplete and overdue responses (at which point the Ombudsmen can sort it out), but it makes a mockery of the current rules, and is unreasonably time and energy intensive. I’m not sure whether legislative change would fix it, or whether a fundamental cultural change is required

The principle underpinning freedom of information is that it’s our information and our government; and that transparency increases justice, fairness and accountability, yet many agencies behave as if they have a right to secrecy and evasion. What would change the attitude?

Issues

datePosted on 20:16, February 16th, 2009 by Lew

Plenty of words have been written about the class and race aspects of Pihema Cameron’s death. How about a picture:

cameron-emery

(Amateurish hack of this – or without evil flash here.)

L

What does at mean that they’re “one of us”?

datePosted on 06:00, February 16th, 2009 by Anita

Over the last couple of weeks there’ve been a number of threads floating round blogs about what it means when “one of us” does something wrong.

Tane has a great post at The Standard about Bruce Emery’s conviction

Let’s not pretend for a second that Emery would have got off so lightly if he was an unemployed Maori and his victim a middle class Pakeha child, tagger or not.

Tim Selwyn and Deborah express similar sentiments. Being one of us has elicited public sympathy and a reduced sentence, as Deborah wrote

Being a white middle class man is a mitigating factor.

Luddite Journo takes the next step to look at the victim rather than the murderer, in a piece titled You can only be a victim if you own a house she writes

Much of New Zealand identifies with only one person in this case – and it’s not the boy who was killed. 

[As an update, Morgue has a great post in which he suggests that the issue is not the treatment of people-like-us, it's our treatment of people who are not like us. Emery got appropriate empathy, but we don't extend it to others]

On similar themes but different incidents Maia writes two posts about why we try to construct rapists as other, and all over the media and blogs people struggle with the way Paula Bennett is one of us but her grandchild’s father is not.

Why is it such a contentious issue? Because is all the bad things in the world are the fault of other people we can sit back and do nothing. This view is well illustrated by Stuart at StuRants:

I’ve now realised there are at least two New Zealands: the one I live in, and the one where all this stuff happens. As yet, the two have never intersected, but until they do (and may God spare me that misfortune!) I refuse to feel bad about it.

This is somewhat at odds with the prevailing politically correct argument that when a child is beaten to death or whatever we are all responsible. Sorry, but no. I can’t think of anything I could have done to cause these things, or anything I can do to stop it happening.

The reality is that people like us kill people, and those killings are just as wrong as the ones that are committed by criminals on benefits in state houses. The domestic violence, rapes and child abuse that is committed by the educated middle class is just as damaging as any other kind. It is only by accepting that these terrible things are done by people like us that we will learn to stop them.

Is New Zealand Unsafe?

datePosted on 22:49, February 15th, 2009 by Pablo

The Dutch travel advisory on New Zealand, which followed two violent assaults on Dutch tourists this summer, places Aotearoa alongside other destinations such as the Congo, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Brazil as places where tourists are targets of criminal, as opposed to political violence. Criminal targeting of tourists in New Zealand is neither new or surprising; in fact, it has  a rather long history. What is apparently new is the escalating violence of crime in New Zealand, not only against tourists but against the population at large. In fact, it is locals, not tourists who suffer the brunt of criminal violence in this country. That much is obvious.

But what are the causes for the upsurge in violence, and what can be done about it? This is one area where the Left are at a disadvantage, as Right anti-crime advocates can always use the issue of personal responsibility and the  “get tough” canard as their rallying cry (as ACT did this past election). To that the Left has a variety of responses, most centred on decreasing poverty rates, decriminalising various low-level offenses and focusing on rehabilitation rather than punishment of offenders. But then the media offers more stories about more rapes and murders, gang intimidation. bail violators, increasingly aggressive boy racers, thuggish taggers and their angry (and armed) detractors, home invasions, domestic violence, child abuse and murder, all seemingly nurtured in a climate of police ineptitude, indifference, bias and corruption. For the pubic at large, the news is bad on all fronts, and it spells one thing: the criminals are winning, and the Left have no response other than to wring their hands.  The last election clearly shows that the NZ public are not buying the Left approach to criminality, so new answers need to be formulated.

It is easy to point at alcohol and P as the cause of increased violent crime. It is easy to blame the vulgarisation of social discourse. It easy to blame failed families, the deleterious impact of the dole in creating generations of welfare addicts, the failings of the education system, bad role models in sports and pop culture, the influence of pernicious foreign music and video and their local imitators. It is easy to blame race or cultural factors. It is easy to push for tougher sentences and bigger prisons (even private ones). But is that really getting to the heart of the problem? Could it be that there is something at the heart of the NZ collective psyche at the beginning of the 21st century that has given foundation to the urge towards violence? Or is the issue structural?

Put another way. Could it be that in NZ the neoliberal-inspired, market darwinist experiments of the last 20 years have coupled with a pre-neoliberal bullying, raping, drinking, patriarchical and xenophobic culture to terminally erode notions of collective solidarity and empathy and replace them with an over-exalted hyper individualist ethos in an environment of ostentatious material wealth, shallow celebrity culture, over-the-top conspicuous consumption and increasing income inequality? (Now THAT was a mouthful!) Under such conditions, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots grows exponentially while the dominant socioeconomic themes  are for individuals to maximize their opportunities regardless of consequence, could it not be that this offers a social sub-text that extends past the “greed is good” mantra of radical libertarians and into the rationalisations of the criminally minded? Could it be that there is an ugliness inside the NZ collective psyche that was raised to the surface by two decades of market-driven prescriptions and the material dislocations they brought to both traditional and new members of the local underclass–an underclass that now finds emulators throughout the social spectrum? Could it be that a culture that produced Ed Hillary and Willie Apiata produces them only as exceptions to a general rule of selfishness and latent rage that takes just a minor provocation or enticement to be unleashed? Could that be the root of the problem?

Of course, issues of police competence, individual responsibility, generational dysfunctionality, and punishment versus rehabilitation need to be addressed by the Left in a way that does not cede the floor to the Right when it comes to tackling the issue. But where the Left has its best argument is in the socioeconomic bases of increasingly violent criminality in NZ, and it is in that argument that the Left’s solutions to the issue may be found. One thing is for sure: tax cuts will not solve the problem, and until then New Zealand has become a country that for  locals and tourists alike is alarmingly unsafe. I am no criminologist, so must defer to those who are when it comes to formulating a comprehensive remedy for the problem of increasingly violent crime in NZ. But I can say this: Above all other issues of domestic policy, it is this issue that the Left needs to confront if it is to regain political credibility in the eyes of the (scared) electorate.

The revolution is handmade

datePosted on 21:15, February 15th, 2009 by Anita

Hand crafts have been woven into many forms of activism over the last few decades; as symbols o the rejection of mass produced consumer goods, as opportunities for individual expression, and as a way of challenging the sterile cities we live in. Rayna Fahey of the Radical Cross Stitch and the Melbourne Revolutionary Craft Circle will be speaking in Wellington this Tuesday night about crafts and social justice.

I was lucky enough to grow up in a home where I learned to cook, sew, garden, embroider, knit and do origami. My extended family repertoire included pottery, batik, awesome cookery, and a variety of other fabric and craft arts. I remember the people who have shared new crafts with me over the years; the women who taught me to pour candles, the girl with whom I made incense, the woman who showed me how to reweave in threads to fix embroidery mistakes.

Every one of those people has left an imprint of caring on my life – that is a big part of what craftivism is, valuing each individual and each conversation, remembering our unique skills and talents. Without that we would be no more than cogs in a factory line.

I do believe it's not butterA few weeks ago, Gordon Campbell wrote an excellent fisk of the Media Biz 09 conference advertising bumpf. This morning on Mediawatch (from 06:30) Colin Peacock covered the issue in characteristic depth, interviewing the conference organiser and two of its luminary speakers, the ones who would “share the secrets of getting your message across positively”, help delegates “get inside the minds of the men whose leadership shapes what the viewing audiences see” and enable them to “get your story to the top of the pile”. Three wise and grizzled industry heads, when questioned by Peacock, emphasised two things; first, that the marketing material was breathless over-hyped bullshit, and second, there were in fact no secrets to impart:

Mark Jennings, TV3 Head of News and Current Affairs:

“I think the marketing for this event has been over-egged [...] I can tell you right now that if anybody coming to this conference thinks they’re going to learn any super-secrets on how to handle the media, they’re mistaken. There aren’t any great big secrets, and if there was, we wouldn’t be divulging them.”

Mark Sainsbury, TV One Close Up Host:

“I paid no attention to the marketing of this thing. I had quite a simple inquiry from Rob Harley saying they were doing this conference, that it was mainly for voluntary groups, community organisations in terms of how to understand the media [...] This is the conference as it was sold to me, and the marketing, of course, as you well know, is something totally different. You don’t go along to, almost a semi-public conference, and people are somehow going to be handing over the secrets. [...] I mean, there is no great sort of secret to hide or anything to impart.”

Rob Harley, Media Biz 09 Organiser:

“I’m wondering what they [journalists not involved in the conference who have expressed concerns] think those secrets are. [...] we could argue the toss all morning about how we worded the brochure, or whether if we’d spent a bit more time workshopping it we could have got it right, fair point.”

I have a few questions in response to this rather remarkable set of statements.

1. Given that there are in fact no great secrets, why would anyone attend such a conference, at a cost of $2k per delegate?
2. If the conference is in fact pitched at the voluntary sector, community groups, educators and the like, variations of which were affirmed by all three speakers including Harley, why is it billed as “the ultimate conference for business people seeking more effective use of the media”, and why does it cost $2k per delegate (a cost far beyond the budgets of most such groups)? Come on, the word `biz’ is even in the conference title!
3. Why would anyone take communications advice from a bunch of people who have so abjectly failed to: a. communicate the purpose of their conference; b. correctly identify its target audience; c. market their conference material in such a way that it actually has some relationship with reality; d. avoid negative publicity for all of the above; and e. make any sort of justification to combat negative publicity stemming from the above failures, other than `well, yeah, the marketing is bollocks and there are no secrets anyhow’?

It’s possible to view this either as sinister or incompetent: either the conference organisers and the news agencies involved are just utterly incompetent and are now making excuses, or there is a co-ordinated post-hoc damage control programme underway, as those same people try to spin the story away from Gordon Campbell’s argument that this was a sinister meeting of the news and PR industries and an assault on media independence.

According to all three interviewees, the real purpose of the conference was to allow news professionals to try to help people understand how the media works at an operational level so as to help them make it easy for the media to run their story: essentially, promoting media literacy among sectors who are traditionally not media literate. This ostensibly to combat cases like the example Rob Harley gave, where “everybody lost because the requisite information was not included in the news, stuff that had been said overseas which really needed to be commented on in New Zealand went begging for an explanation.” He’s absolutely right – there is a strong public good in having all sectors of the community meet a minimal standard of communications expertise. This sort of training can be a hugely important service, imparting skills (not `great secrets’) which are already widely exercised in business circles to groups without the capacity to employ trained comms staff or PR firms.

So, in my view, Rob Harley and the others involved in Media Biz 09 have a great opportunity to match their actions to their fine words about media literacy and the community and voluntary sector, by inviting a few delegates from key community or voluntary organisations to attend on a pro-bono or subsidised-fee basis. The conference is (presumably) too close to deadline to cancel, according to Harley it probably won’t break even anyhow, and I can’t see this epic PR fail helping to lift enrolment among the monied businessfolks at whom it’s targeted. But there’s no doubting the credentials of the speakers, and it’ll probably be a cracking two days. An opportunity for those involved to do some good, restore a bit of goodwill in the media, and wipe some egg off their well-known faces.

Edit: Gordon has emailed me to point out the seemingly-obvious, that they’re not so much knaves or fools, but apparently knaves then fools.

Edit, 20090217: Event director Richard Nauck told bFM’s Jose Barbosa a few interesting facts. First, he says half the registrations are non-profit organisations, while most of the remainder are small-business and schools; second, all the non-profits got in for half-price, and only about 20% of attendees have paid full-price; third, he “truly regrets” the use of the word `secrets’ in the advertising bumpf. In the same session, Jose also interviewed Brian Edwards, who does this sort of thing himself, but retains grave concerns about the conflicts of interest for the media people involved.

L

Because she’s Indian

datePosted on 23:51, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Now, I don’t have a Facebook account. I’ll rant to you another time about why I consider social networking to be a form of mass surveillance; just let it be said than before hiring anyone, and I’ve hired a lot of people in the past few years, I check out their social networking pages. But damn, it’s wild what some people will put up there in public.

Anyhow, my wife has a Facebook account, and she just found that someone she knows has a child whose ethnicity is listed on some official form as `Indian/NZ European/Pakeha’, who got automatically enrolled in an ESOL course upon enrolment at some school. Yes; apparently you can get yourself automatically enrolled in a course in school because of your ethnicity. (Think of the possibilities! I’d start with enrolling everyone of `NZ European/Pakeha’ in the full suite of Te Reo Māori courses).

Apparently she found it pretty easy and reckoned she was the best in the class; she’d been speaking English and nothing else ever since she was born.

Now, there was a fair bit of the old `moribund bureaucratic state schools’, and rightly so. But what I think was grand about the ensuing discussion was that people universally found it absurd that someone would be prejudged on their stated ethnicity. Best quote: “Maybe they could teach her Indian as a second language?”

Good stuff.

L

On blog conduct

datePosted on 10:48, February 13th, 2009 by Lew

Or, this is not a democracy, it’s a private residence, get used to it. But we need you, and you apparently need us, so let’s do what we can to get along.

Weblogs and online discussion forums are a type of feedback media, where the published content forms the opening chapter, not the entire story. In feedback media, there are broadly two groups of participants, who I’ll term proprietors and contributors; the former being those who operate the medium and provide its `official’ content, the latter those who participate in the medium by adding their own content. The nature of the relationship between these two groups is critical in determining how the medium functions. This post is a quick examination of how feedback media operate at a theoretical level, a survey of examples, and a rationale for dual-mode gatekeeping, with a view to creating an environment conducive to quality discourse which is largely free of personal feuds and partisan point-scoring.

The Dump Button
Though there are others, the canonical mainstream feedback media are the letters-to-the-editor page and talk radio. In either of those media, a proprietor has the unilateral ability to prevent or limit contributors’ participation – in the case of the newspaper editor, the mechanism is `points noted’; radio hosts have a button with which they can drop a caller between when she starts speaking and when she goes to air – traditionally, this timeframe is seven seconds. Blog proprietors have a range of similar devices at their disposal.

This has important implications when viewed in the light of one of the fundamental pieces of media theory – Stuart Hall’s encoding/decoding model, which argues that a given text is encoded with meaning by its creator, and that meaning is decoded by the person reading it, who can accept, partially accept or wholly reject the encoder’s frame of reference (not the content; that’s a different matter with which Hall was not largely concerned). In principle, the presence of gatekeeping mechanisms such as those described above means it’s virtually impossible to have a statement published which the proprietor doesn’t want to be there. The logical flipside of this is: if your comment gets published, it’s because the proprietor wants it to be published, and for their own reasons.

Symbiosis
Proprietors of feedback media generally have plenty of reasons for wanting to allow content to be published, the primary one of which is the symbiotic relationship they have with contributors. The nature of the content and the nature of the gatekeeping are the two primary factors which determine the tone of a medium; the former largely because of the contributors it attracts and the latter largely because of the contributors it drives away. When Lindsay Perigo took over from John Banks on his Radio Pacific talk show, many regular callers kept calling because the political content Perigo aired was quite similar. Banks was extremely tolerant of callers who took a while to get to the point – he rarely, if ever, cut people off, and he had a great deal of time for listening to peoples’ stories. Perigo was the opposite; he guided the show much more firmly and did not generally tolerate callers chatting about trivial or mundane matters, and that changed his audience and his contributors. Banks’ loyal callers became quite displeased when Perigo, for instance, dedicated an entire hour of his show to the songs of Mario Lanza, of whom they’d never heard, and became irate when he lost his temper with some of the more elderly callers and began to cut them off for not sticking to the programme or saying anything he considered meaningful. Gradually, the old callers stopped calling and were replaced by a new set: younger, less religious, sharper of tongue, etc.

Gatekeeping Models
Plenty of different gatekeeping models exist in practice. I’ll focus on four which are fairly archetypal. Each creates a different atmosphere.
1. Slashdot. The lunatic asylum model. Members control almost everything. This results in a community which is extremely tolerant of insults, memes, tomfoolery, and has an incredibly low signal to noise ratio.
2. Kiwiblog. The echo chamber model. Content is published by DPF, commented upon by members, who use a karma system and are subject to a demerit system (operated by DPF) which is more theoretical than anything. This results in a sort of groupthink; not because DPF enforces it, but because he allows his commentariat to do so, creating a recursive loop of abuse which deters dissenters from participating. There is an argument that DPF (who’s a thoroughly decent bloke, quite unlike his comment threads) keeps his blog this way in order to make himself look sensible and reasonable by comparison.
3. No Right Turn. The Holy Sepulchre model. Content is published by Idiot/Savant, and that’s what you get. Idiot/Savant took the opposite line to DPF and turned off comments altogether a good long while ago. The result is almost pure signal, very little noise. I/S is frequently referred to by and comments on other blogs to maintain the feedback aspect of his medium.
4. The Standard. The noisy tavern model. Content is posted and comments are moderated by a group of writers, and Lynn Prentice, who tolerates very little of the sort of abuse for which KB is known. In general this results in a more congenial atmosphere, with a wide range of dissenting voices who are usually treated with at least a modicum of respect. However, it still gets pretty heated because there is no clear delineation between content and conveyance.

The Living Room Model
Anita’s model for Kiwipolitico is of a living room in which robust and complex but civil and reasoned discussions take place. This implies rights and responsibilities, and although I’ve only recently moved in (as it were) I shall presume to list a few as I see them. These apply equally to proprietors and to contributors.

* You have a right to be treated as an honourable contributor and to be free from serious personal attacks, abuse or character assassination.
* You have a right to not have your personal or professional life dragged into a discussion unless you allow it, or it is somehow germane to a legitimate matter of debate.
* You have a responsibility to defend and substantiate your arguments and assertions, not to assume that because people here are civil you can get away with a weak argument or unproven claims.
* You have a responsibility to adhere to and enforce these standards of conduct to the extent you are able.

Sir Karl Popper (and others) argued that if a society is perfectly tolerant of any and all behaviour, it must tolerate behaviour which is destructive of toleration itself, eventually leading to a general absence of toleration. This is pretty clearly evident in the Slashdot and Kiwiblog examples above and to a lesser extent in The Standard example, where because of a greater or lesser lack of discipline, much worthwhile discussion is simply drowned out, and the signal to noise ratio drops. The problem is usually not with the arguments, which can be well-reasoned and supported; it is the attacks and epithets which accompany those arguments which deters dissent. Therefore, in order to privilege argument over attacks, the content to be argued and the means by which it is argued need to be treated separately. The living room model requires that there be little or no gatekeeping of argument itself, coupled with strict gatekeeping of the means by which that argument is conveyed – essentially: make what points you choose, but do so in good faith and in accordance with decent norms of conduct and reasoned debate.

The point and purpose of the model is to separate arguer and argument for the purpose of criticism. You should be vulnerable to critique only on the grounds of your arguments, your ideas, or your conduct. Good ideas and arguments, cleanly made and supported by evidence and logic, will thrive here regardless of their ideological bent, but arguments resorting to personal attacks, abuse, absurd hyperbole, rash generalisation or wilful misinterpretation to make a point will perish whether we agree with their premises or not, because these are the signs of a hollow argument which lacks a valid foundation. While you will be sheltered from personal attacks, don’t expect your argument to be sheltered or defended by the proprietors; indeed, we may take great glee in watching it be torn asunder, as long as the tearing is done in a civil, justified and reasoned fashion. Finally, toleration breeds toleration. If you consistently exhibit good character and careful arguments, occasional minor indiscretions may be overlooked. This is a privilege to be earned, and I hope everyone will earn it.

L

Act: selling its soul to the Devil

datePosted on 21:08, February 12th, 2009 by Anita

Some time in the last few years Act sold its soul to the vengeance-and-retribution lobby. I don’t know if the conversion arrived with Stephen Franks (who went on to the Sensible Sentencing Trust), or whether they held onto their principles until after Franks but the temptation of a monied populist lobby was just too great and the deal was done later.

They’ve tried to keep the detail of the deal quiet: they took Garrett from the Sensible Sentencing Trust but have tried to keep quiet his death penalty past, failing to mention his book on their website, they’ve also tried to paper over his bigotry and problematic interpersonal behaviour. 

The EPMU, however, has provided us with some good information about the price. When they released the evidence in the Shawn Tan case we got to see the inside view on the negotiations between the Asian Anti-Crime Group and Act, with the AAG pointing out Act’s low support and their own ability to mass mobilise the Asian community, followed by gems like

As with any serious investment, there has to be tangible and substantial returns. For the three of us to invest our time, energy and money into campaigning for the ACT Party, we need to have guaranteed returns – and that entails being ranked high enough for us to be assured places in Parliament

So Act, “the Liberal party”, became a vehicle for a punitive conservative authoritarian lobby.

Direct action praxis and the threshold of toleration.

datePosted on 23:17, February 11th, 2009 by Pablo

The 2007 police raids on an assortment of activists sparked heated debate amongst progressives throughout the country about the merits of direct action. Some, whom I shall unfairly label the “soft” Left, argue that under  no circumstances should violence be used in pursuit of political ideals. Others, who I shall flatter with the label “hard” Left, argue that under certain circumstances the resort to violence is justified. How do we reconcile these views?

Please note that I shall not be referring here to issues of right wing praxis. Besides the fact that I think that the ultra-Right are beneath contempt, I do not want to offer any pointers they might not already have. I will note, however, that it is curious that the Police and SIS focus their attention on Left activists and appear singularly uninterested in according the same treatment to neo-nazis, skinheads, anti-Semites and Aryan survivalists even though these losers openly advocate violence against people on their websites and in their communiques, and have a history of violence against those they hate. Perhaps it is a bias on the part of the Police and SIS; perhaps it is because the ultra-Right are inept, but either way, the double standard seems weird.

Getting back to the point, what constitutes legitimate direct action in Aotearoa? Let us begin with two simple definitions. Direct action is the use of non-institutionalised (to include illegal), highly symbolic methods of resistance, protest, grievance or voice in pursuit of political objectives. Praxis is the melding of theory and practice into a coherent strategy of action. From a praxis standpoint, the nature of the cause matters less than the nature of the action (although the people involved may disagree). The resort to extra-institutional forms of redress is designed to highlight the cause or issue that is the focus of the action. But to be successful, direct action has to follow some simple rules: 1) it must raise public consciousness about the issue in a way that institutionalised channels and agencies can or do not; 2) it must force a government and/or private agent’s reaction that otherwise would not obtain; 3) it must elicit majority sympathy for the action or empathy for the cause. This last point is important because it brings up the issue of the threshold of toleration, which is the point at which favourable public reaction tips over into rejection. The key for direct action adherents is to get as close to that threshold of toleration without stepping over it and producing a negative backlash against both the activists and their cause. So long as they stay within the threshold of toleration, their actions will be successful (whether or not they are arrested or charged for violating criminal or civil statutes). Finally, direct action adherents must accept the legal consequences of their actions and be prepared to use the judicial system as an echo chamber and bully pulpit in which to reiterate the justice of their cause.

The main issue confronting the direct action advocate is to ascertain the limits of the permissible. In  New Zealand, it appears that regardless of cause, violence against people is not acceptable to the majority. The irony of NZ government-ordered  brutality against protestors notwithstanding (say, during the 1954 dockworkers strike or Springbok tour), it is clear that the majority of New Zealanders abhor political violence against persons. Hence, “terrorists” will find little fertile ground here, and anything that results in physical harm or the threat of harm to people is likely to elicit a negative reaction from the pubic. But what about things such as spitting or throwing excrement or blood on others? Is that within the threshold of toleration? In NZ, I would think not.

On the other hand, violence against property, be it public or private, is more open to discussion.  With sedition laws no longer in force, where are the limits to physical assaults on property? Is throwing a brick through a bank window an acceptable protest against corporate greed? Is painting a statue or monument in blood legitimate? Is setting fire to a mosque or synagogue acceptable protest against the perceived transgressions of the Taliban, al-Qaeda or Israel? Is trying to occupy NZDF headquarters acceptable protest against NZ involvement in foreign conflicts? Is destroying animal testing facilities OK? Is sabotaging rail lines to impede coal shipments within the threshold of toleration? Is tree-spiking a legitimate tactic? Is running around the bush throwing molotovs while talking trash about race wars and traitorous politicians a valid direct action precursor (or sidebar)?  Although the specific answers to these questions may or may not be easily found, the broader issue is finding the appropriate threshold of toleration for a given type of direct action given the context in which it is engaged.

By the rules I outlined above, the Waihopai Plowshares direct action was a success. Some may think it ineffectual since the Echelon eavesdropping stations remain operative, but the point was never to physically stop the operation (which is why the activists did not damage equipment once inside the dome). It was done in order to raise public awareness and questions about NZ’s participation in the Echelon network, and the action most certainly did that. On the other hand, threatening the spouses and children of pharmaceutical company executives over the latter’s role in animal testing is an example of crossing the threshold of toleration. Whatever the justice of the cause, threatening to harm people not directly involved in animal testing–especially children–is bound to elicit a negative reaction from the public majority. It is therefore counter-productive, even if many believe that executives need to be held directly and physically accountable for the corporate logics of profit that justify the exploitation and torture of animals for human benefit.

I could go on but the thrust of my argument should by now be clear. Direct action is an effective political tactic if it follows certain guidelines. It must differentiate between the target of the action (let’s say, the US embassy, which has been chosen to be flour-bombed ), the object of the action (to raise awareness of, lets say, extraordinary rendition and secret detention centres in which torture is practiced as an interrogation technique), and the subject of the action (the NZ government and public, so as to put pressure from both on US diplomats that NZ does not condone or accept such practices).  The purpose of the hypothetical illustration is not be polemical but instead to chart the ends-means sequence that needs to inform direct action for it to be successful.

The bottom line is this. Direct action is a legitimate political tactic when institutional channels fail. The nature of the action depends on the cause espoused and the society involved, since the threshold of toleration varies from culture to culture and political society to political society. What might be an acceptable form of direct action in Nigeria may not be so acceptable in NZ. Thus the main “problem set” for activists is to determine the toleration threshold for a given form of direct action in a particular socio-political context, Having done that, it is on to the barricades, comrades, y hasta la victoria, siempre, companeros!

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