Posts Tagged ‘religion’

Church, State and the weight of capitalism.

datePosted on 15:33, May 19th, 2020 by Pablo

Arguments by religious folk that they are being discriminated against under the Level 2 pandemic restrictions in NZ, which limit church services to ten people or less when schools, restaurants, malls and other service outlets are allowed to host many more people under voluntary self-distancing protocols, got me to think about whether people understand the rationale behind the government approach as well as the role of religion in society and particularly in a liberal democracy such as NZ. I wrote a tweet outlining my general view and it elicited some contrary responses from people who are either religious and/or dislike the current government. I will not dwell on their responses but I will below string together in fuller scope my side of the discussion.

I began with the first tweet:

“Liberal democracies are secular regimes where church and state are separate and the state treats all religions neutrally and equally while having superordinate authority over material (as opposed to spiritual) issues, including public health. Churches need to respect that.” That began a back and forth with the contrary minded readers, which elicited the following responses from me:

“Stage (sic) 2 is based on opening up commerce, with some social restrictions still in place. Education is critical for commerce in several ways. Services are critical to economic well-being. Religion is a social construct based on belief that is not economically essential. Big diff.

In medicine, the environment, engineering, economics, threat assessment, even political forecasting, among so many other material things, science must and will trump belief. With CV-19 science must prevail over belief. There is nothing “illiberal” about the govt response.”

The last sentence came in response to a commentator’s remark that NZ is an illiberal democracy because of the restriction on religious gatherings, among other things. The author went on to speak of a difference in values between the government and people like him when it comes to family and society. I replied:

“A secular democratic regime can, should and most often does value families and society, and its social policies demonstrate this. The level 2 re-opening is business driven because NZ is a capitalist country, and everyone’s welfare depends on capitalist survival, not churches.

So long as the economic imperatives of a capitalist society remain a paramount concern of govt, then commercial concerns will supersede (much variegated) spiritual ones. Hence the pro-business incrementalism of the govt approach. They respond to structural necessity, not values.”

And that is the bottom line. NZ is a capitalist society. It is a capitalist society because the means of production are mostly in private hands and subject to market-oriented logics, because the relations in and of production reproduce the material hierarchy on which the economic system rests, because it is inserted in a global capitalist system of production, consumption and exchange, and because the social division of labour that emerges out of it reinforces the hierarchical relations between the ultimate producers of wealth and the owners of productive assets in NZ and elsewhere. Most of all, NZ is a capitalist society because the welfare of everyone directly or indirectly depends on the welfare and investment of capitalists–if they do not prosper, no one does.

Regular readers know the I am not a fan of laissez fare capitalism or the various market-driven experiments of the last forty years. Nor am I entirely pleased with how the current government defers to capitalist logics rather than fully embrace the entire policy spectrum involved in well-being budgeting. I am just saying: when it comes to the economic motor of NZ society, it is what it is.

NZ has just faced and continues to be threatened by a deadly global pandemic. The initial government response was a public health campaign marshalled on scientific grounds that was mitigated by an unprecedented economic relief package designed to help people weather the financial storm caused by the disruption of economic activity. Capitalists and workers were included in the relief measures. This response was vetted by a pandemic emergency response committee chaired by the Leader of the Opposition and communicated in daily press conferences by the Prime Minister and Director General of Health, along with other officials. That is far from being the makings of a totalitarian police state that a fair few believe it to be.

Once the lockdown/quarantine phase of the restrictions was lifted (after six weeks), the government announced that its level 3 and 2 approaches were designed to get businesses back to work. This employed a type of pragmatic incrementalism where restrictions on commercial activity were slowly lifted in piecemeal, sectorial and graduated fashion over what is now going on 3 weeks. The government explicitly stated that this was not a social opening and that pre-pandemic social activities that do not have a commercial orientation were very consciously excluded from the stage 3 and 2 re-opening measures.

That is why churches are not allowed to resume pre-pandemic activities, indulging religious services, in the measure that they did before March 23. Note that they can still host church services and other activities but that they must adhere to the “fewer than 10” rule when doing so. No one has restricted their freedom of worship. Only group size when worshipping has been limited, and that is because churches are not considered to be businesses.

If churches want to claim that they are a type of commercial enterprise, then they have reason to feel discriminated against and by all means should air their grievances along those lines. But that might open questions about their tax-free status, real estate holdings, tithing practices and other non-spiritual aspects of their mission. So it is unlikely that we will hear this argument aired in public or as a defence of a church’s right to host large gatherings for religious purposes.

In any case, the “blame” for not including churches in the Level 3 and 2 re-openings is not the fault of government values when it comes to family and society. If anything, blame comes simply from the fact that NZ is a capitalist nation and the bottom line is, well, the bottom line. Spirituality is fine but it does not pay the bills, unless of course it is of the “prosperity doctrine” persuasion where the Lord commands that we should enrich ourselves before all others.

Speaking of which: why the heck was that charlatan fraudster Brian Tamaki and his Destiny Church minions allowed to defy the level 2 restrictions without punitive sanction? Were the police worried about a confrontation with a large crowd? Even if that was the case, if the letter of the public health order cannot be enforced even with enabling legislation conferring extraordinary enforcement powers on the police, what is the point of having them? Or are exceptions to the rule made for bully-boy bigoted loudmouth xenophobic lumpenproletarians posing as preachers?

We might call that a type of reverse discrimination.

PC priorities

datePosted on 21:06, October 12th, 2010 by Lew

The media beat-up du jour is the non-story of Te Papa Tongarewa “barring” (or “banning”, “forbidding”, other such absolute terms) pregnant and menstruating women from entry due to the nature of some tāonga on display.

Except they’ve done no such thing. The “ban” isn’t actually a restriction at all — they’ve been clear that it’s a request, not an ironclad edict; and in any case, the exhibit isn’t open to the public, but to staff from other museums. It’s an invite-only behind-the-scenes tour. And the crucial point is that the tāonga in question have been given to Te Papa on condition that this advice is given to prospective viewers. Let me be crystal clear: nobody would be barred from attending on the grounds that they are pregnant or menstruating. If someone wanted to turn up and say “bollocks to all of that, me and my unborn child are going to see those taiaha!”, it’s been made clear that she would be permitted to do so. That might be inflammatory and offensive, like farting in church or wearing a bikini to a funeral, but nobody is forbidding it. And that’s as it should be: Te Papa is our place and nobody should be barred outright. If the condition required exclusion, then that would be fair enough on the part of the owners — who can reasonably impose whatever conditions they please — but quite explicitly not ok for Te Papa, who would be better to decline the opportunity outright to maintain its public mandate.

Of course, this hasn’t stopped everyone with a platform from winding up to rage against the imposition of archaic, alien superstitions upon their civil liberties. But almost without exception, the restriction-which-isn’t-really-a-restriction doesn’t apply to them, since — as far as I’m aware — none of those objecting are in fact museum staff who would be eligible for the tour. And amongst this vicarious umbrage there’s an awful lot of squawking about misogyny and imposition of cultural values, and much more uncritical repetition of the misleading language of “bans” and such. It goes as far as idiotic and lurid suggestions about personal searches using sniffer dogs, for crying out loud.

All this has manifested as a soft and rather opportunistic sort of anti-Māori racism, where Māori are the casualties of our sticking up for the rights of pregant and menstruating women. There’s a common implication that they are the oppressive stone-age patriarchy using whatever means they can to victimise our women; and “forcing” their rude barbarian culture into our civilised and noble times. This is understandable from the usual PC gone mad crowd who’ve suddenly — conveniently — found their inner feminist, but somewhat more disappointing from those who would often be described as the hand-wringing PC liberals, people who ought to know better that it is possible to reconcile conflicting cultural values of this sort in an amicable fashion via the standard tools of live-and-let-live liberalism. And while those same hand-wringing PC liberals do rail against the worst excesses of those illiberal institutions which make up mainstream NZ society — chief amongst them the Catholic church — the response to this case has generated anger out of all proportion. Te Papa had to make the decision: take the tāonga on with the advisory condition, or not at all. Perhaps those objecting to this policy would prefer that nothing of this sort ever go on display. There is a genuine cultural conflict here, but it can quite simply be resolved: those pregnant and menstruating women who believe their right to attend trumps the request to the contrary may do so then and there. Not only are they not prevented from doing so by those hosting the tours, they actually have the right to do so should they choose, and that right should be defended. Those who do not may do so at another time which is convenient to them. The tragedy is that for most of the liberals in this battle of PC priorities, women must be given categorical superiority over Māori. They are arguing for their own culture to be imposed across the board; the very illiberalism they claim to oppose.

There are (at least) two people who are making good sense on this matter: Andrew Geddis, whose liberal argument is very close to my own views, but much better formed; and Lynne Pope who, almost uniquely among the bullhorns sounding around this topic, is a Māori woman who’s actually been on the tour in question. Neither of them have lapsed into the myopic, reflexive Māori-bashing which is the most unbecoming aspect of this situation.

The lesson for New Zealand’s liberals is this: it isn’t necessary to trample on the cultural needs of Māori to accomodate the needs of women. Liberalism itself provides tools to reconcile these differences. They just need to be used.

Update 20101018: As usual, Scott Hamilton makes good sense on this topic.

L

Sometimes the duty of the free press is to not report.

datePosted on 01:55, September 12th, 2010 by Pablo

The on again, off again Koran burning planned by a small time evangelical preacher in Gainsville Florida has received world wide coverage and raised serious concern among the US military and foreign policy elite that it will cause a murderous reaction against US citizens living and fighting in the Muslim world. The issues has dominated the news in the US for days (I am currently located about 120 miles southeast of Gainsville), played out in a perverse media tag team with the so-called 9-11 mosque controversy. Official concern is so great that President Obama, Secretary of State Clinton and ISAF commander General David Petreus have denounced the planned pyrotechnics, while Secretary of Defense Robert Gates made a personal call to the preacher to ask him to cease and desist.

So far, the preacher has said that he will stop the burnings only if the 9-11 mosque supporters agree to move it someplace else. Which means that on top of the provocation and outrage he intends, he has now added blackmail.

Fueled by right wing media led by Fox News TV and Radio outlets, the issue has been debated on a free speech grounds. It is generally accepted that the wacked out preacher has a right to burn Korans, but division is over whether he has a responsibility to not do so given the larger consequences of his actions. Some officials have tried to find a way to stop him using hate speech legislation, saying that his obvious intent is to spread hatred towards all Muslims and the faith itself, something that is not protected by the first amendment. Others have responded that he should be allowed to do as he please and that the US should not kow-tow to “terrorists” just because Muslims react hysterically to the desecration of the holy book or images of the prophet.

I shall leave aside the obvious greater harm argument that clearly demonstrates why the Koran burning is a bad idea. I shall also avoid addressing the fact that Islam is not the only religion where its adherents respond violently to perceived insults to their faith. I will leave aside the argued to death free speech aspects of the case. Instead, I will address two aspects of this affair that appear to be underplayed.

The first issue is a matter of perception of the event in the Muslim world. Like it or not, most people living in Muslim nations cannot fathom the concept of a separation of church and state, or that the US government and local authorities do not have the power to just physically stop the preacher from holding the event. That is because most live in authoritarian states where religion and politics are deeply intertwined and governments regularly intervene in matters of religion (to include prohibitions on certain types of religious activity, regulations on marriage, etc.).  As a result, most citizens in the Muslim world cannot conceive of  such an event being carried out without government approval, so see it as an officially sanctioned statement of how the US views Islam. That may be ignorant or confused on the facts, but it is the reality of the context in which the Koran burning is perceived in the Muslim world. (Note to those who may take offense: this is a comment about the deeply ingrained authoritarian nature of power structures in the Muslim world rather than about the content of its faith, and refers not to the educated classes but to the broader mass of people who do not have access to the facilities and vehicles that would allow them to make discerning judgements on international issues. The same can be said about other political cultures as well).

The second issue is the reckless role of the US press. The preacher in question leads a 50 person fringe fundamentalist congregation that has in the past protested against gays and threatened to torch a copy of the Torah (since he believes that Judaism is also a “dirty” religion). He clearly has delusions of grandeur, if not being a few cans short of a six pack. The national press paid no mind to his previous antics, so why is it doing so now? Why not just ignore him? Why is this event considered front page news when his other antics were not?  In sum: why give this nutbar oxygen?

Given the sensitivities at play, the national press could have buried the story in the “odd news” section or not covered it at all given its marginal nature. To their credit, outlets like the NYT and WP have limited their coverage to the reactions and not played the story on the front pages of their respective publications. But, led by Fox and a network of Christian radio and TV outlets, the US press has covered the Gainsville Goober as if he were Sarah Palin’s running mate.

That is where they fail their obligations to the public. As with any democratic entity, the press has responsibilities along with rights. Those responsibilities include not inflaming or otherwise causing small events to bocome international incidents that have the potential to cause great harm to US interests and its citizens. It has an obligation not to stoke the fires of religious and ethnic hatred. And yet the right-wing media in the US has done exactly that, aided and abetted by conservative politicians like Newt Gingrich who see political gain being made off of the scapegoating of Muslims and (with regards to immigration and future demographics) Hispanics.

This helps explain why the tone of public debate in the US has become so vulgarised and debased. There is a large element of the press that has become “Murdochised,” (sic), that is, it will report on anything that can cause scandal, outrage and division in the interest of profit and political advantage. It has eschewed its responsibilites to the larger public interest in the pursuit of partisan gain. It is, in other words, unworthy of the constitutional guarantees under which it cloaks its behaviour.

All of which is to say that if there is a nasty fallout from this stunt, whatever blood is spilled is not only on the hands of the religious provocateur and his small band of intolerant followers, but also on the hands of their media and political facilitators who turned a backwoods hoe down into an international incident.

Current events

datePosted on 13:53, April 27th, 2010 by Lew

I was reluctant to post while I had the chance on ANZAC day, since there was such a good debate going on, and now I’ve (temporarily) run out of time again. So just a few quick observations.

  • Phil Goff’s one-two punch on the top tax rate and Auckland governance is solid, and both are good orthodox Labour positions for him to take. But it’s more of the same: lacking verve and failing to get cut-through as a consequence. I mean to post on the positioning of the taxation pledge at some stage, but in case I don’t get to: this is a good opportunity for Goff to demonstrate compromise as well as differentiate himself, by coupling a reimplementation of the top rate with an increase of the threshold.
  • Even without Sunday’s tragic helicopter crash, Goff’s timing was poor in making these two announcements before ANZAC Day. I guess you take the opportunities you can get, but delaying things by a week would have been more useful in my view.
  • As an aside, my mum knew the three late airmen vaguely through Search and Rescue, and confirms the universal sentiment that they were of the very best sort. I’m pleasantly surprised that the crash hasn’t turned into a witchhunt about why we’re still using Vietnam-era hardware; as true as the sentiment might be, we can all do without people thundering “if we’re going to have a military, we owe it to our troops to have it decently-outfitted” under circumstances such as these. Such is the power of ANZAC day, I suppose.
  • On a related point, the discipline with which the military, government, police and media have adopted the Air Force’s framing terminology in this event is remarkable. All four groups are talking about “the Air Force family” and exploiting the metaphor for all it’s worth. Those words are used almost every time one of these people stands in front of a microphone, and in addition the three deceased are “brothers”; Mark Sainsbury reported live last night from the family’s “lounge”, the squad room at Ohakea air base; all four have referred to the Iroquois as being like “your grandfather’s axe” — the reference being that, although it’s very old, when the handle is worn it gets replaced, and when the head is worn it gets replaced, so while it’s his axe in spirit, it actually contains no parts of the original tool and is as good as new in function. On the one hand, this is compelling symbolic stuff: nobody who deviates from this framing can really be said to be showing the proper sort of respect and deference; on the other hand, it’s a bit creepy for everyone to be falling into lockstep behind Defence HQ communications. There are ways of saying these things without using the exact same words, and the constant repetition spooks me. Maybe I’m just sensitive. [Edit: There was a clean sweep for “Air Force family” or something similar in speeches supporting the Prime Minister’s parliamentary motion of condolence. No shock there, I suppose.]
  • On a somewhat lighter note, Councillor Tony Jack has picked the wrong district council to put a motion banning macrons in council materials. This is the Kāpiti Coast District Council, who moved to put the macrons into Paekākāriki and Ōtaki only a month ago. Jack’s motion was voted down, at which point he predictably declared that PC had gone mad. Bless. Of course, the Stuff article doesn’t contain the macrons, so I guess he wins as far as that goes.
  • Tim Watkin at Pundit continues to write excellent sense and ask smart questions about race relations in Aotearoa New Zealand. I think the emphasis in Tim’s piece is just right — there is a legitimate claim to indigeneity for non-Māori, but it’s not so obvious as Trevor Mallard’s “I was born in Wainuiomata”, and there’s a lot to work out before such definitions can be settled upoin comfortably. I’m all for having this discussion. I particularly like the ornithological allegory drawn by commenter “william blake” — we are all Pūkeko!
  • Also on a lighter note, a (very) atheist friend whose six year-old daughter has chosen to go to Bible study classes recently asked him if, because Jesus had risen from the dead, that meant he was a zombie. It apparently took every ounce of his parental commitment to letting his girl make up her own mind to explain the origins of zombie stories, how myths come about, etc. rather than just saying, yes, Jesus is a zombie. Good on him — not sure I would have had the fortitude.
  • Speaking of things biblical, and of belonging, Joanna Newsom has a new album out, and here’s the first single — about tilling one’s own bit of the Garden of Eden:

Ok, so not so brief after all. Discuss. I’ll dive back in as I can. You can treat this as an open thread as well: post what you want to talk about.

L