Ethical Martini asked the question on Sunday. Out of largely professional interest I watched, read and listened to the coverage on the two main TV newses, National Radio, Stuff, the Herald online and their various dead-tree editions from Thursday to Monday so perhaps I’m too close to it, but I’ve been pondering the question since, unsure how to answer because it comes down to one’s assumptions about what the media is supposed to do in such a case. That’s a tricky question.
If it’s supposed to maximise value for its shareholders, then it sure as hell did that, with garish wall-to-wall coverage and plenty of breathless speculation, really hitting the spectacle out of the park in such a way as to ensure that the name of Jan Molenaar will long be remembered as shorthand for `paranoid survivalist with guns, dope and death-wish’; our own little Ruby Ridge (but without all that annoying moral/ethical/legal equivocation).
If it’s supposed to perform a civil defence or public order function, keeping those in immediate need of information informed for the purpose of ensuring their safety, security, peace of mind, etc, then I would have thought they did a pretty decent job – from Wellington, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of what was going on, despite not ever having been to the place in question or in such a situation. Comments from those in the local area, however, are mixed on this count – and those who know Napier express some frustration at the constant mangling of street names, landmarks, etc.
If it’s supposed to be keeping the wider public informed on a matter of national significance, then I think the media did an exceptional job of keeping everyone engaged and updated with massive amounts of information, although with the proviso that much of that information was speculative at best.
If it’s supposed to act as a communication medium from authority to gunman in the sense of megaphone diplomacy, then I think it failed miserably. Although this was largely down to police command not using it in such a way, the media also framed coverage of Molenaar in the third person and spoke to his family members in othering ways, hardly making it possible to reach out to him. I think the first broadcast message I heard which addressed him directly was on Friday night.
If it’s supposed to act as a balm for a shocked nation, then I think it did a pretty good job of that as well, bolstering public confidence in the Police by portraying them as calm and disciplined rather than vengeful and reactive, and local businesses, charities, schools, Civil Defence and local government as united in solidarity, working well together for the public good, as we might hope they would in what I hope it isn’t too churlish to term `a proper emergency’.
If it’s supposed to tell us who to cheer for and who to boo at, once again it did a cracking job. You know you’re dealing with a real villain when all the people who can’t go home for their own safety are classified as `victims’ and even the people who make cups of tea for them are `heroes’.
If it’s supposed to stimulate and inform public debate on the wider political and social issues which are germane to the case – drug law, gun law, alienation, the role of the coercive arm of the state in private affairs, police doctrine and posture, the complexities of entrenched tactical operations – then it gets a bit more complicated.
On the one hand, I’m inclined to think it did an execrable job. If I may cram a whole lot of mixed metaphors in here: the lobby groups, armchair experts and those with an axe to grind on such matters have played the media like a fiddle, and the media has tuned itself up and rosined the bow to allow it. We’re going to get an awful lot of heat and precious little light. Instantly we have people calling for more guns, less guns, more guns but only for some people, guns to be licensed like cars rather than owners being licensed, the absurd notion I heard on NatRad this morning that all privately-owned firearms should be stored at a central, secure facility and be checked out and back in again. The battle of the slogans is well underway – `if you’ve nothing to hide you’ve nothing to fear’ counterposed against `when you outlaw guns, only the outlaws have guns’, for a start. And then there’s the debate about marijuana, with the frankly idiotic counterfactual that if the police didn’t prosecute minor drug crime then they wouldn’t have been in this sorry mess at all – possibly true, but only until something else brought the red mist down on Jan Molenaar.
On the other hand, the free flow of information around this case – the fact that every idiot on Your Views and talkback radio gets to listen to the so-called experts and decide what to think – should mean in principle that we have the basis for a good fact-based debate. Is not free expression via the media, with everyone putting their arguments up to be judged in a market of information, the most efficient means of determining which views have merit and which are bogus? If not, by what other means should we determine the relative merits of conflicting views and arguments?
I’m still no closer to an overall answer to the question Martin posed. I think it’s pollyanna-ish to say that the coverage did what it needed to do because everyone got a say, we all got our little reality TV fix and all the experts got a chance to climb up on their hind legs and argue the world to rights, but I think it’s curmudgeonly to decry the whole affair as a lurid farce.
What do you reckon?
The section 59 debate, for the first time in a long time, lifted the lid on the New Zealand “family”. What we found was a fight waiting to happen: the core of the debate was not smacking, it was the nature and role of the family. How should we balance the competing interests of the family, its individual members, the community that surrounds it, and the state which we rely on to intervene when necessary and butt out the rest of the time?
How the 2008-2010 government would address that gulf fascinated me. It seems so intractable, yet addressing it is so necessary. National have chosen Christine Rankin, they have chosen to make the Families Commission incapable of progressing this.
It’s not Rankin’s support of the pro-smacking referendum, it’s not her links to the conservative Christian lobby, nor her links to the crime and punishment lobby, the anti-transparency brigade, or the right wing political donors. It’s her track record of divisiveness, or polarising issues and debates.
By choosing Rankin National may have discharged their debts or paid back their supporters, but in the process they’ve sacrificed progress, safety, and growth for our families.
Posted on 18:08, May 11th, 2009 by Pablo
Although I have enjoyed participating in this weblog collective, I was unprepared to deal with the inability of many commentators to construct a proper argument in the debates about posts. By “inability to construct a proper argument” I do not mean those that resort to ad hominems and vulgarity (whom we have thankfully excised via moderation). Nor do I refer to those who substitute opinion for fact and make statements or claims on subjects that they clearly know little about. Instead, I am referring to those otherwise thoughtful commentators who misuse concepts and terms when making their arguments. I refer not to those who deliberately do so to be polemical or provocative, but to those who inadvertently do so. The main problem for the latter is the inability to distinguish between conceptual transfer and conceptual stretching.
Conceptual transfer refers to the process by which a concept or term is taken from its original context and applied to a new situation without appreciable loss of definition or meaning. Conceptual stretching refers to the distortion of the original concept in order to apply it to a different situation or context. The first is a legitimate argumentative exercise; the second is intellectually dishonest or (most often) lazy.
Let me offer some examples. “Socialism” is a 19th century concept that refers to an economy in which the direct producers of wealth in a society appropriate the common surplus generated by their labours and distribute it according to egalitarian principles rooted in commonly accepted notions of need. Decisions on distribution take into account the need to reproduce the economic form via savings and reinvestment, so current individual allocations are balanced against the common interest in future allocations. This concept can be taken out of its 19th century context and applied, without loss of definition, to 1970s Israeli Kibbutzim, Spanish agricultural cooperatives in the 1990s or post 2002 Argentine worker-owned factories. In all of these instances, the concept was transfered to the new situation without distorting its initial meaning; in each instance workers make democratic allocation decisions about the surpluses they generate. On the other hand, calling the Obama administration’s fiscal stimulus package or progressive tax policy “socialist,” or referring to Labour’s macreconomic policies as “socialism,” betrays either profound ignorance of the concept or bad intent on the part of those who make such claims. In the latter cases, the concept has been so badly stretched so has to render it meaningless other than as some type of pejorative.
Take another example: “fascism.” Fascism was a particular inter-war political phenomena. It emerged in response to the Great Depression among the so-called “weak links” of the imperialist chain, former great powers or empires that were being eclipsed by emerging powers. Fascism was characterised by an industrial state capitalist economic project directed by a one party mobilizational authoritarian regime dominated by a charismatic leadership that used inclusionary state corporatist vehicles for mass participation in grand nationalist projects that included the military reassertion of empire. In all cases fascism was a “passive revolution” in that it sought to stave off perceived Marxist-Leninist advances in the countries in which it emerged. European fascism had three variants: Austro-Germanic, in which the core constituency of the national socialist regimes was the lower bourgeoisie; the Italian version, in which the core constituency was the urban working class (Mussolini’s black shirts); and the Spanish version, which grouped monarchists, the agrarian oligarchy and rural peasantry against the urban middle and working classes. In the first two variants, efforts to re-assert their imperial status ended in military defeat. In the Spanish version, the self-recognized inability to re-assert imperial dominance allowed the Franco regime to survive until 1972. As for the Japanese, their version of fascism was an amalgam that had the most cross-class bases of support for monarchism, militarism and imperialism, but without the party mobilizational apparatus used by the European variants.
The point of this extended discussion of the concept of “fascism” is that it was a political form specific to a particular historical moment in the early 20th century, one that can not be replicated simply because the material and political conditions of existence are no longer those that gave it life. The closest parallel to fascism–Latin American populism of the 1940s and 1950s–emulated some but not all of the political features of European fascism and did not have the same economic base. All other recent forms of authoritarianism evidence differences far to great to even remotely call them “fascist.” And yet people do, repeatedly. General Pincohet’s regime in Chile was and is still said to be “fascist” even though his political project was demobilizational and his economic project neoliberal. Commodore Frank Bainarama is called a fascist because he led a coup and rules by fiat in Fiji. Mugabe is a fascist because, well, he is. What is true is that all of these individuals were and are authoritarians, as are many others, civilian and military alike. But that does not make them “fascist.” To label them as such is to undercut any argument for their removal.
In extending the term “fascist” to other forms of authoritarianism that do not share its structural or political features, the term has been stretched to the point of insignificance. It is now just an insult without intellectual justification. It is, in other words, argumentatively useless.
There are plenty of other concepts that come to mind when the issue of conceptual stretching arises. “Hegemony” and “imperialist” are oft-abused, stretched and distorted concepts. “Nazi” (as in German national socialist) is another popularly distorted term. The list is long, and it appears all to often in the writing/commentary on this blog. I would simply ask that people do their conceptual stretching elsewhere–DPF’s blog is a good start.
Even astute writers can fall prey to conceptual stretching. In his otherwise insightful post on Agenda Setting below, my colleague Lew refers to the likelihood of “a more militaristic, less community-based approaching to policing–in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture” in the aftermath of the Napier shootings and siege. The trouble with his invocation of realism is two-fold: as an international relations theory, realism maintains that the international environment is a Hobbesian state of nature in which anarchy abounds. Absent a Leviathan such as those that exist within nation-states, international actors seek to accumulate and use power in order to a) achieve security and b) pursue national interests. Power in such a view is not simply military might, but includes economic resources, diplomatic influence, moral or ethical leadership–the particular mix of what goes into the notion of “power” is complex and variable, as well as contingent on the objectives being pursued or defended. Power is not exclusively “militaristic” nor is it necessarily anti-community–the formation of alliances and use of supranational organisations for conflict resolution is part and parcel of the realist approach.
Lew’s use of realism to describe a likely police response is doubly flawed because it has been stretched to describe a particularly military approach to law enforcement within a liberal democracy. In other words, both the context and the approach are completely different to those in which realism is applied to international relations.
This is not meant to cast aspersions on Lew. To the contrary, I admire his work and appreciate his insights. Instead, this post is an attempt to point out this very common argumentative flaw among otherwise thoughtful readers and commentators, so that we can avoid repeating them in future debates. In the mean time I shall ponder whether to write about another pet peeve: the inability of people to establish a “chain of causality” between independent, intervening and dependent variables when making their case.
Perhaps sadly, the highlight of my week is sometimes Mediawatch on Radio NZ National, due largely to interviews by Colin Peacock such as this one about Media Biz 09 (on which I blogged here), and the one with Mark Weldon which aired this morning (interview starts at 06:40).
In it, NZX CEO Mark Weldon doesn’t so much defend the stock exchange’s acquisition of rural publisher Countrywide Publications as attack those who dare to query the conflicts of interest which arise from the acquisition. Rather than accepting that there are perceived conflicts of interest from the fact that the NZX makes a lot of revenue from argicultural market data, and that Fonterra chairman Henry van der Heyden is a director of the NZX board (among other issues), he responds by alleging a conspiracy:
In almost the next breath, he accuses those raising questions of van der Heyden’s conflict of being wide-eyed and credulous:
That’s just nonsense. I think it’s just typical conspiracy theorist tall-poppy crap.
… before going on to emphasise how CPL is a good down-home NZ company, and that the NZX is holding its Christmas party at their HQ in Feilding this year, as if that’s relevant. This echoes his tone in response to similar questions by Fran O’Sullivan. It gets worse: he then resorts to indignant sarcasm when answering the sort of questions which any credible journalist would rightly be criticised for not asking:
Peacock: Have assurances been sought or given to Farmer’s Weekly and other publications, Dairy Exporter, that they will be entirely free to carry on reporting and publishing as they have been in the past?
Essentially he’s trying to argue that the NZX and the people who lead it are above reproach, beyond being held to accountability by the media, and should simply be allowed to get on with their business without having to answer pesky questions like this. He seems to completely misunderstand what the media is for by arguing that businesses – and especially regulators – should not need to be held accountable by them. Not a very reassuring position for someone who now is part of the media to take. Even less reassuring, as picked up by Peacock from O’Sullivan’s article linked above, is his attitude toward commentator Alan Robb, whose work is published in CPL titles and who has been publicly critical of the decision:
There is, I have to say, a fair degree of disappointment from myself and internally that we’ve got this person Alan Robb whom we now pay who apparently has issues with presuming what our level of integrity about editorial is.
Subtext: “Why are we sponsoring criticism of our decisions?”, and perhaps an answer to the question of who Weldon thinks was “putting about” the idea that conflicts of interest exist, as if it takes a rocket scientist to see that they do. Not very reassuring at all.
The stupid thing is that Weldon gets it. He understands the media ecology well enough to know why the CPL publications must be, and must be seen to be scrupulously independent from the NZX, van der Heyden and anyone else. Carrying on in response to Peacock’s ongoing questions:
We have no interest whatsoever in writing for Farmer’s Weekly or Dairy Exporter. What we do have an interest in is ensuring that the most information can be distributed the most broadly, because that’s how everyone is better off and that’s ultimately how markets work … It would be absolutely stupid on a monetary and financial level for us to prevent anything like [criticism of Fonterra, etc] because all it would do would be immediately undermine the brand which undermines the value of the franchise. There is no economic alignment whatsoever in changing the approach that is currently taken. The second thing is, readers are incredibly astute, we’re very aware that the media will look at this with a reasonable amount of cynicism and anything that we did try and do like that would be picked up in a second and would become a story in and of itself, as I can tell, and even my brain can figure out from this interview that that’s sort of what’s on the mind. So it would be incredibly stupid for us to do that because it would be seen for what it is.
Quite some self-awareness, all of a sudden; he’s dead right on both counts, and it would undermine the credibility of the NZX as well. CPL is a small fish in this ecology. So why, instead of trying to make out that the NZX should be above reproach and assumed to be doing things right and properly – in the same way that those responsible for the current financial crisis were assumed to be infallible and benign – would Mark Weldon not have welcomed the media scrutiny on the basis that he, the others at the top, NZX and CPL had nothing to hide and were quite prepared to be subjected to the full gaze of the press? Such a response would have resulted in people saying “this Weldon chap understands the role of the media in the economy, and his company can therefore probably be trusted to own some of them”.
I suppose there’s one good thing come from it. By protesting too much at the fairly gentle going-over the acquisition has received to date, Mark Weldon has ensured that the watchful eyes of people like O’Sullivan, Peacock and others (perhaps including the Commerce Commission) will not stray far.
While I don’t intend to post on the substance of what has become known as the Napier siege, this sort of event happens rarely and has profound consequences for NZ’s political-media agenda. Maxwell McCombs’ view (based on a study of the 1968 US Presidential campaign) was that it wasn’t so much that the media tell you what to think as what to think about. Currently there’s only one game in town. How might stakeholders respond?
Under the radar: With wall-to-wall coverage (good commentary on its ghastly nature at Ethical Martini), now is the ideal time to sneak out news which must be released but which the releaser doesn’t want to receive wide coverage. Good comms managers will be instructing their minions to air all their dirty laundry this afternoon, before the black hole that is this weekend, and while the media agencies’ resources are stretched. Watch the Scoop wires; there might be some interesting releases.
Police image rehabilitation: Not that it’s intentional, and certainly not to imply that it’s somehow a beneficial thing to lose an officer in the line of duty, but this event and its coverage is manna from heaven for a police force beleaguered by public image problems and allegations of incompetence and corruption. From the facts which are available, it seems the police are 100% in the right here – they arrived unarmed and without intention to provoke any sort of conflict on a mundane policing matter and were met with deadly force. All their dealings with gunman, media and the public have been calm, patient and disciplined. If they succeed in their stated objective of ending this situation without further loss of life (including the life of Jan Molenaar) then they will rightly enjoy a huge resurgence of public sympathy.
Crime and punishment lobby: This looks to be a case which doesn’t tick too many hang’em-flog’em boxes, in that it’s a drug crime but (apparently) not a high-level drug crime; there is no gang involvement; committed by a middle-aged white man in a nice middle-class suburb. It may be difficult to turn this into an iconic crime case, although there are some ready angles: gun control for instance. That won’t stop the usual suspects from trying to make political capital of it – some commenters around the ‘sphere already are.
The future of NZ policing: This will undoubtedly have enormous implications for police doctrine and practice. It seems likely that, at a minimum, it will result in the Police Association calling for police to be better-armed and equipped, at least when conducting any sort of invasive operation. It will probably provide a basis for a more militaristic, less community-based approach to policing – in international relations terms, a more strongly realist law enforcement posture.
(Update 19:20: Stuff’s opinion poll has been updated to ask “Do you think all police should be armed?”, surprisingly not overwhelmingly in the affirmative (screenshot). Smart opportunistic stuff by the Fairfax Digital editors, in contrast to the Herald, who’re still asking for predictions on the Rugby League. Comments on the article are a fairly predictable mix of outrage, condolence, disbelief and armchair expertise.)
Whatever the case, we’re in for interesting times. I hope, as the police do, that the situation is resolved quickly, cleanly and without bloodshed.
There are plenty more possible issues in play here – feel free to discuss them in comments. But I won’t allow this to descend into ideological arguments about the specifics of the case, so please don’t try.
I have long defended the māori party’s decision to enter government with National on two grounds;
The Key government’s record on Māori policy so far has been patchy at best, with the decision to exclude mana whenua seats from Auckland governance, and a distinct lack of targeted recession relief for māori who are especially hard-hit by the recession, showing that there’s still a lot of work to do on that relationship.
So it was with some surprise and pleasure that I heard National Radio’s report this morning that Justice Minister Simon Power has announced that the refusal to sign the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples will be reviewed, thereby possibly withdrawing us from the other axis of evil of four countries who refused to do so. That can of worms wouldn’t have been re-opened unless there was a very good chance indeed of movement on the issue, since National would severely endanger its relationship with the māori party by ratifying Labour’s decision. So, this looks to me like the first symbolic shot in the bidding war for Māori favour. Or perhaps the second – with the first being Mita Ririnui’s private member’s bill to entrench the Māori seats.
The common objection from ideologues who opposed the māori party’s decision to work with National is that symbolic things are meaningless – a view taken directly from the subaltern Māori Affairs Minister Parekura Horomia, who oversaw the Foreshore and Seabed debacle. In defence of the then-government’s decision to join that other axis of evil, he said:
The trouble is, unless preceded by banners bearing symbolic aspirational statements declaring a society’s position in principle, progress marches slowly. The Labour government recognised this in its grounds for refusing to sign the UNDRIP, viz, that it was possibly incompatible with our current laws. That’s the point best illustrated by another non-binding UN declaration, on Human Rights, whose most significant principle was that rights were not dependent upon local legislation but were declared to be universal, with the consequence that local legislation must change to meet the declaration where a conflict exists. By and large, local legislation in many signatory states has duly changed to meet the declaration, in spite of its non-binding nature. That is because its symbolic value is more than its practical value. (Amartya Sen is among those who makes this point, for example here). So it is with the UNDRIP – it presents an aspirational position toward which NZ may strive, along with practically everyone else.
Now, Power’s statement is carefully hedged with the words “as long as New Zealand’s current framework for indigenous rights cannot be compromised” – so actual policy change is still a long way off. But symbolic matters like this are a necessary condition for real progress, and the decision to review indicates that the government intends to take Māori issues seriously.
This evening, the Wanganui District Council (Prohibition of Gang Insignia) Bill passed its third reading, by a narrow margin of three votes – three votes cast by the three members of the ACT caucus who represent the authoritarian faction which has edged in on the libertarian faction and now looks likely to consume it. Two of the votes will come as no surprise – the reactionary populist John Boscawen; and card-carrying hang-’em-and-flog-’em brigadoon David Garrett. Most surprisingly Rodney Hide – perhaps in a bizarre sort of solidarity with his two newest MPs, because I thought him better than this – also voted for the bill. The other two members – Sir Roger Douglas and Heather Roy – remained true to their liberal principles and voted against.
Let it be understood right away that I agree with the bill’s purpose in principle: to keep the residents of Wanganui free from intimidation by gangs. People have a right not to be intimidated, and that right must be secured by the government. But in this case, the cure is worse than the disease because it does nothing to actually treat the disease, only its smallest symptom; and because it fights arbitrary coercion with more arbitrary coercion.
The bill prohibits persons wearing certain things – `gang insignia’ where `gang’ is essentially at the Wanganui District Council’s discretion, and `insignia’ is determined as an issue of fact by a judge in a given case by recourse to the Evidence Act – from being in certain `specified places’ of the Wanganui district.
This is a weapon long-sought by the authoritarian populists who control Wanganui’s local politics – it enables them to outlaw groups who oppose them, or whom they would otherwise have to deal on more even terms. Practically any group could potentially be declared a gang under the right circumstances – the criteria are that the group, or some of its members be engaged in “a pattern of criminal activity”; that they be commonly identifiable by some sort of symbol which can be recognised well enough to ban; and that the ban be deemed necessary to prevent intimidation. Historically this could have applied to HART protesters, striking longshoremen, tangata whenua occupying land in protest at unjust systems of redress and uncooperative local government bodies. Today it could apply to those campaigning for the h to be put into Wanganui, if the protests become heated enough, which they could well do if Michael Laws carries on the way he has been. One man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter, after all.
But for all that, it won’t matter a damn to the gangs themselves. When you try to constrain identity by legislating against its expressions, you engage in a running battle which cannot be won without continual escalation to more and more illiberal measures. Subcultural systems which are forced to adapt to the norms of a majority culture will always find loopholes – the more constraint imposed, the smarter the subculture gets. The Chinese are finding this out from the Song of the Grass-Mud Horse (video with full-colour English translation here), and the parents of tweens are finding it out from Britney Spears, and media content owners are finding it out from filesharers. If a broad ban on patches is enforced then the definition of what constitutes a gang symbol will change. Bandanas, coloured clothing, and so on will be worn instead of patches, but will convey the same intimidatory meaning. What then? Either the law is an ass, having failed to prevent what it seeks to prevent, or the definition of what constitutes insignia in law must change to match the definition in usage. I own the typical blue-and-black checked swanndri – should I be barred from wearing it in public in Wanganui, lest someone feel intimidated? Should my sister, who owns a red one? Talk of banning all blue and all red will be decried as reductio ad absurdum, but ultimately that’s the only way the policy will work, for the two main gangs which operate in Wanganui anyhow.
Or perhaps they’ll just ban those colours when they’re worn by Māori men of a certain build, and there’s the rub. Fundamentally, culture and class and inequality are the issues over which gang insignia are mere wallpaper, and banning it no more addresses the problem than changing the wallpaper stops the walls of a leaky building from leaking. Fix the alienation problem and you fix gangs – something that driving those at the margins of civil society further out into the cold will never achieve.
Update: Former Detective Sergeant in charge of the Auckland gang unit Cam Stokes made the same argument on Nine to Noon this morning. He goes further, arguing that the ban could make the work of Wanganui police more difficult by robbing the police of some intelligence-gathering capability, and could make convictions for some offences difficult to secure.
Another update: At The Standard Eddie reveals that Hide’s support for the bill – despite categorically stating ACT would never support it – was a trade-off for National supporting the 3 strikes bill. Filthy political lucre!
Having been reminded of this excellent neologism by Dolan at Just Left, it’s occurred to me that a similar affliction can be seen among the denizens of the NZ blogosphere.
Now, there are certain wings of that ‘sphere which are well-known for their wingnuttery and general tendency to fly off the handle, and those I won’t dwell upon. But in the past week or so I’ve seen a couple of examples from sources of which I’d expect a bit more.
First, and most egregious, Tim Selwyn’s rabid attack on Christopher Pryde, the NZ lawyer who has taken the post of Fijian Attorney-General. I can’t excerpt most of it, but here’s one of the politer sections:
Perhaps Tim’s purpose is to try and finesse a gag lawsuit. Not to criticise the fundamental point Tim is making – that Pryde is an opportunistic illegal-dictatorship-supporting hack, a discredit to his profession and his country – but the degree of invective here is simply over the top. The point would have been better made in more measured tones; as it stands, the personal attacks detract from the real reasons for condemning him, and make Pryde look like the victim of a character assassination attempt.
Second, The Standard’s response to the offensive and moronic smear ‘Nanny State’ with an even more offensive and moronic smear, the ‘Stepfather State’ characterised as distant, violent, self-indulgent and misogynistic, which originated in a comment on Colin Espiner’s blog:
This resulted in the commentariat falling over themselves to invent yet more offensive and moronic characterisations in a bizarre competition to see which side could be more bigoted. Worst offender, the usually-sensible vto:
What the hell?
According to this story, Former US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has admitted involvement in a (technical) conspiracy to torture US terror detainees:
Now, there’s a lot of ifs in there, and anyone with a more thorough knowledge of the issues in play is welcome to pour cold water on it. But to my eye, if this lawyer is right then it stands to reason that the Hat Trick of those at the top of the US torture agenda has now expanded to a Gang of Four.
Incidentally Pascal’s bookie, who ought to blog more often, makes a strong case in defence of Obama’s restraint on the torture issues in a series of comments at The Standard. The key point is the following:
He’s right: if it’s to be done, it must be done right, and the taint of partisan politics mustn’t be admitted as a distraction. His role is to provide political and legal conditions within which such a prosecution can thrive of its own accord, not to drive the prosecution himself. He’s doing that; those who want Bush, Cheney, Gonzales and (perhaps) Rice to stand trial had best hold their tongues and show a little faith.
Murray McCully hasn’t so much taken the razor to NZAid as taken the axe to its foundations, in one of the clearest indications so far of the new government’s ideological intentions:
Notice how he leaves out what the mandate was changed from. Good press release-writing. National Radio is more explicit, however:
Now we see the dichotomy I theorised a while ago made plain: from from least harm to greatest good.
Now, in the context of foreign policy I don’t have a categorical problem with this approach, because foreign policy is different to domestic policy where the government bears a direct and explicit responsibility for the wellbeing of the worst-off of its citizens. NZ doesn’t necessarily have that responsibility to the worst-off citizens of its donee nations. While it serves NZ to look after them, fundamentally all foreign policy actions are taken with the home nation’s interests at the fore, not with the foreign nation’s interests. So I’m not going to argue against this change of mandate on the basis that it’s cruel or unjust or unfair on the poor of the Pacific, plenty of people are doing that. I’m going to argue against it on the basis that it’s short-sighted and bad for NZ in the context of our relationships with our Pacific neighbours.
The problem, paradoxically, is that the realignment of NZAid with the trade agenda prioritises immediate NZ commercial interests to the exclusion of other, more strategic goals. Like democracy, sustainable economic development isn’t something you can create by throwing money about. NZ’s aid agenda to provide an economic floor in (parts of) the Pacific has generally had three broad purposes: 1. maintain peace and order; 2. deter the advances of more predatory regional powers*; 3. enable people to develop economic structures on their own terms. Largely the first two have succeeded; the third remains a work in progress. The three points are in ascending strategic order; that is, the longest-term goal is to enable the people of the Pacific to develop their own economies and their own market structures, structures which serve them, rather then serving the interests of foreign entrepreneurs first. The changed NZAid mandate, which to my mind roughly reverses the order of the three priorities on the reasoning that if people have the third then the first and second will follow, seems unwise because I don’t think they will follow. Markets which exploit people’s vulnerability, or which concentrate wealth and power among the usual sorts of tin-pot third-world elites will not result in stability, and will render the disgruntled Pacific vulnerable to the aforementioned depredations. This policy realignment (by McCully’s own admission) will divert aid money from those at the subsistence line into private enterprise, most of which is owned outside the Pacific. It will result in a subclass of client entrepreneurs both here and in the Pacific, those with the connections to sign on early and sew up a section of the nascent market for themselves, with full government favour. The Pacific needs trade strategies for mutual benefit, driven by Pacific people to meet their own needs, not created artificially from outside with a territorial gold rush in mind. If we profit to the detriment of our neighbours, our trade might be healthy, but the wider Pacific situation will not, and we will suffer in other ways.
In this situation, trade wins and everything else loses. This is what I mean by the title: McCully has tacitly declared that nothing other than trade really matters, a return to Muldoon’s famous position on the matter. Although the aid agenda is more closely targeted to the Pacific, the focus on trade signals the beginning of a more arm’s length relationship based on cash rather than regional allegiance. This in tandem with a more realist positioning from the defence review, in which the “benign strategic environment” doctrine of Clark’s government has been discarded with, I think, little evidence. Those changes will result in less development and support work and a more hard-power focused defence strategy, with its eye on a phantom threat, and a consequent cooling of the excellent operational relationship the NZDF has with the Pacific. Of course, such a realignment will be necessary if the aid=trade agenda results in the sort of destabilisation I’ve talked about.
* Clearly, in this context I’m talking about China. I don’t typically ascribe to the Sinophobia so rampant in the West, but in the Pacific case I think it’s justified.