Posts Tagged ‘symbolic politics’

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

Something About the Symbolism of Poppies.

datePosted on 03:46, April 22nd, 2010 by Pablo

Peace Movement Aotearoa is running a white poppy campaign as a fund raiser for its activities. It is doing so one day before the RSA red poppy appeal. Some think the timing is unfortunate in the extreme. Others denounce PMA as “parasites.” I beg to differ.

There are obvious freedom of opinion and speech issues involved, all of which must be resolved in favour of the PMA no matter how misguided they may be or how they may be piggy-backing on the veneration of the sacrifice at Gallipoli. But that is exactly why the white poppy campaign should be respected.

The red poppy campaign is a recognition of sacrifice that, although in service of a foreign master and resulting in (tactical) defeat, was a prime example of the measure of the Kiwi spirit. It is to be honoured, which is why I, as a foreigner, have attended ANZAC day celebrations. But I also respect the white poppy campaign.

That is because there is the offically unrecognised aspect to ANZAC celebrations, which is the futility and subserviance of the heroic sacrifice by so many of New Zealand’s best (and not so best) men  of the day. To be honest, many died in vain. In the larger scheme of things Gallipoli was not strategically decisive. That war was not fought in defense of democracy and freedom.

Therein lies the justification for the white poppy campaign. Along with the red poppy recognition of sacrifice, it is entirely fair to recognise the futility of NZ involvement in some wars and to campaign against any such future involvement. I tend to believe that WW1, WW2 and Korea were just wars (look at North Korea now if you think that was an unjustifed conflict), and NZ involvement in the liberation of Timor Leste is commendable, but the point of the white poppy campaign is to underscore the fact that NZ, as a sovereign and independent nation, can now pick and choose its fights when it does not involve defense of the homeland. Although they may not realise that NZ has to pay its international security dues in order to receive international protection against foreign invasion (however improbable that scenario may be), the PMA crowd are perfectly correct in choosing to parallel their campaign of reflection alongside the recognition of ANZAC sacrifice. Put another way–how many Kiwis have died in a war of NZ’s choosing? It may be true that sometimes “you gotta do what you gotta do,” but when it comes to war, sometimes you have to recognise that you do not have a dog in the fight.

Of course this hurts the ANZAC veterans (or their descendents) who choose not to acknowledge that freedom of expression, governance and worship  is not what Gallipoli (or Vietnam) was about–it was about great power quarrels fought in areas of the global periphery with military-strategic importance.  Thus,  if the mythological claims of defense of freedom are to be honoured, then the white poppy campaign should be welcomed along with its red poppy counterparts. After all, it is difference of opinion that makes the defense of freedom so fundamental to the democratic ethos. Although it may not have been at play at Gallipoli, it sure is when it comes to respecting the rights of the white poppy campaigners.

I therefore honour the ANZACs for their (often unthinking) sacrifice. And I respect the PMA for their thinking opposition to war, however much I believe sometimes war is necessary ( if nothing but on lesser evil grounds).

As for the maori component of this sacrifice and current opposition,  I defer to Lew.

>>Written from Greece, where democracy is clearly showing strains but in which the right to voice is sacrosanct.<<

UNDRIP redux

datePosted on 15:37, April 21st, 2010 by Lew

I’ve written an awful lot on the topic of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples on The Standard today. But my argument is essentially unchanged from what I wrote on 8 May 2009.

You can read it here.

L

Blog Link: Is all against enough?

datePosted on 12:40, April 12th, 2010 by Pablo

This month’s Word from Afar essay focuses on the nature of and differences between proactive and reactive political movements, with particular reference to the Tea Party movement.

Fighting symbolism with symbolism

datePosted on 08:15, April 8th, 2010 by Lew

So the Crown, having had their appeal against the Waihopai 3’s acquittal (about which Pablo wrote an excellent post) dismissed, is considering a civil case against them, to recover the $1.1 million cost of the damage to the dome and fences surrounding the satellite dish.

In politics it is usually best to fight symbolism with symbolism; once a topic or policy matter is being debated in symbolic terms, in general no amount of fact or logic or reason will prevail against it. This often promotes an arms race — the party to a debate who introduces symbolic aspects to their discourse gets to set the agenda, to define what the debate is about, and this is clearly so with the Waihopai 3. While the customary analysis of the protest action is that it took place one morning in April 2008, with a slight return in the criminal court during March 2010, but all this demonstrates is that people don’t really understand the nature of this protest. It is ongoing. This morning, Peter Murnane responded with some puzzlement to Sean Plunket’s question “Do you have any further protest actions planned?” by saying “No […] well, we’re busy with this one.” That’s the point: Defending their actions on truthful, legitimate and principled grounds in the full glare of public scrutiny is the protest. Contrary to another current case, the Waihopai 3 have stood up and said the non-blasphemous equivalent of “you’re goddamned right I did”, and are willing to accept the consequences of their actions — but only once they’ve made their position clear. And they expect that their commitment to principle and legitimate due process is reciprocated by the Crown, and if sued will call for representatives of the GCSB to face them in court. This places the Crown in an invidious position: it cannot permit senior intelligence and security staff to be dragged into this matter, but if it fails to do so it will cede the symbolic field to Ploughshares, and the legitimacy of its position will be further eroded.

For the Crown to seek reparation would be fair and just: the actions of the Waihopai 3 cost the NZ taxpayer money and the Crown has a right to recover that via legitimate legal means. But because the Waihopai Three have set the terms of the symbolic debate and have everything to gain and nothing whatsoever to lose from the case, it is a fool’s errand. While, as Bill Hodge says, the Crown has an “invincible case” in the civil court, the battle is not being waged in the court, but in people’s hearts and minds. The Waihopai 3 claim they have no money, and this seems plausible. So the only reason for the Crown to take a case against them is to demonstrate that the organs of power are not to be trifled with, and that even if a jury will acquit for a good cause, an appealing idealistic argument, or an integrous and principled stand such actions cannot be undertaken with impunity. A display of power, if you like, though not an especially vulgar one. Such a display may serve the social purpose of quelling the urges of overenthusiastic and legally (not to mention ethically) illiterate anti-abortionists, and will have some currency among the not-so-closeted authoritarians who bayed for the blood of these peaceful protesters in April 2008 and again in March 2010. But to the extent that the government seeks to retain its dignity, this will be cold comfort indeed.

L

Consider the birds

datePosted on 21:55, March 27th, 2010 by Lew

In the USA, the Spotted Owl evokes the spectre of trivial busybody environmentalism. This species has been extremely well propagandised by the forestry lobby and other anti-environmentalists as a symbol for “putting other species ahead of humanity”. But it is not so in New Zealand (although there is Powelliphanta augusta). For a hint of what the public response to Gerry Brownlee’s plan to mine Schedule 4 of the conservation estate could be like, look no further than the firestorm which has erupted over the YouTube video showing Norwegians shooting protected native birds, among other things.

kererū

This has been a pretty persistent story. It’s been at or close to the top of the Stuff “most read” list for going on three days now; at the time of writing, it’s #1. It’s third on the NZ Herald website’s NZ section. It was in almost every dead-trees paper with a national news focus in the country on Friday. It’s featured prominently on One and 3 News (and consequently RadioLIVE), Radio NZ National, Newstalk ZB, and is at present the third-placed story on English-language Norwegian news website News and Views from Norway and has made Norwegian-language mainstream news there too, as well as action from Norway’s own environmental agencies. It’s drawn outraged official comment from DoC and the Conservation Minister; but notably not (as far as I can see) from the Minister of Tourism. There are 400-plus infuriated comments on the original YouTube clip, and 300-plus on the Fish’n’Hunt Forum, the oldest and most popular NZ internet site for discussion of hunting and fishing topics. Stuff.co.nz has a poll up, and the results are quite clear, for what they’re worth:
stuffkererupoll

This outpouring of righteous fury has not come about because of the death of a few birds. None of the species shot by these hunters are so close to extinction that the loss of an isolated handful of individuals will critically harm the population. The reason for the response is that this sort of thing offends us deeply and personally. It is antithetical to who we are as New Zealanders, and it is as if a little part of each of us dies with those birds.

I wrote a few days ago that the task for the opposition, for conservationists and those who love the land and its wildlife was to relegate mining Schedule 4 to the “political too-hard basket”. More specifically, that task for those people — and for the 74% of (notoriously reactionary) Stuff respondents for whom these events are a grave injury — is to see the proposal to mine Schedule 4 as the same thing on a much greater scale, which it ultimately is, and to respond in kind.

Update 30 March: A vivid event like the one discussed above often primes the media and public to pay closer attention to similar events which previously might not have been newsworthy. Dog attacks are a case in point. So it is with this case: the release and eventual death of a weka, hardly endangered but well-loved, from Hagley Park, is now news.

L

Yours, not mines

datePosted on 10:08, March 25th, 2010 by Lew

Labour’s campaign against mining Schedule 4 land looks strong, especially at the iconographic level.

The slogan and to an extent the photo frames the issue as a matter of identity, echoing Phil Goff’s “the many, not the few” and Phil Twyford’s “not yours to sell” (though the visual style has come a long way since that campaign, and there’s some subject-object confusion). It also echoes Iwi/Kiwi, undoubtedly the most effective campaign of this sort in recent memory. The hard economic matters — the cost-benefit analysis between mining and tourism and so on — are there, as they should be, but backgrounded to the symbolic concerns.

Goff is clear that he’s not anti-mining, but wants to focus on the 60% of mineral resources outside the DOC estate. That’s the crucial point to make because it draws a bright line between acceptable and unacceptable which is still well north of Schedule 4 — to cross that line the government must first gain electoral consent to mine DOC land, and having done that must gain consent to mine the most precious areas of that estate. The point isn’t that mining is all bad; the point is that mining conservation land is worse than the alternatives. The job of the opposition, environmentalists and anyone who loves the fact that NZ still has wild places which are sacrosanct, or who thinks of those places as a part of them, is to relegate the idea of mining them to the political too-hard basket.

Labour and the Greens are also well-coordinated on this, with Metiria Turei pointing out the government’s duplicity in not revealing its intent to mine areas on Great Barrier Island which are under Treaty negotiations. The māori party should get in on this, as well. It looks good.

L

Sacred illusions

datePosted on 11:03, March 22nd, 2010 by Lew

one man one votePita Sharples has severely undermined his own and his party’s credibility with his Race Relations Day speech criticising “one person, one vote”. As a minister in a democratic government, he has taken aim at one of democracy’s fundamental symbolic virtues, in such a way as to give the impression he (and his party) are anti-democracy. After years of fighting for the voices of mana whenua to be heard in democratic politics on strong principled grounds, Sharples seems now to have accepted the extreme right’s framing of that representation as antithetical to democracy.

Let’s just be clear: “one person, one vote” is no sort of actual democracy, it is an illusory ideal which persists only in hearts and minds, placed there by bold principles and the stirring oratories brought by democratic leaders of old looking to appeal to something bigger than they were. Even our present democracy, which is a very great deal closer to the ideal than the original American system, is pretty far from “one person, one vote” at a functional level. For a start, we have two votes. Even if you had one, what sort of vote would it be: first-past-the-post, where you’re at the mercy of geography; or single-transferable, where you’re not sure until after it’s all over who your vote actually got counted for; or what? For another thing, you can be a person and not have a vote — people under 18 don’t, prisoners convicted of serious offences don’t (and that could soon include all prisoners). There are more, but I won’t go on — the point is that “one person, one vote” is symbolic, not literal.

But neither are Sharples’ objections literal, they are symbolic. In the non-literal sense, what “one person, one vote” means is the opportunity for equality of input into the electoral process — whether that be by one or two votes, in a big electorate or a small one. What happens after that is democracy in action. In this regard, an electoral system which pays at least some regard to the principle of “one person, one vote” is a minimal bound for a modern democracy (though there are others also). Sharples’ criticism is that this isn’t enough — that democracy should be about equality of outcome rather than input. I agree — and I think very many other people do as well. Making democracy work takes much more than votes. But when it’s framed in the way he has framed it, this sort of discussion is political poison, because it attacks the heart of our political culture. This “race-based” framing of mana whenua political representation has been expressly developed in order to make those things seem indefensible in a liberal democratic context. Sharples has swallowed the hook, and instead of continuing to defend the Māori Seats and mana whenua representation on the existing and well-proven grounds (that it’s necessary for the establishment and maintenance of tino rangatiratanga, guaranteed by the Treaty) he has made a declaration which amounts to “yeah, they’re anti-democratic: so?” The most ridiculous aspect of it is that the existing mechanism which is so reviled complies with the principle of “one person, one vote”: electors on the Māori roll get get the same vote as anyone else, the only difference is in how they cast it. There is equality of input to the democratic process by Māori at the electoral level — it’s elsewhere in the process which is the problem.

I’ve argued before that the core symbolic and philosophical stuff of modern democracy is liberalism of one brand or another. No mainstream political concern can hope to win a democratic mandate without founding a lot of its agenda in liberalism. The symbolism of “one person, one vote” is crucial to this orthodoxy. Charles Elder and Roger Cobb, in The Political Uses of Symbols presented a typology of political symbols in the American context, organised into “political community” symbols which express political values at the highest level (“America”, “The Flag”, “The Constitution”); through “regime” symbols which express the political values of the current orthodoxy (in this case, American democracy, not a specific administration — the examples given are “The Presidency”, “Congress”, and “One Person, One Vote”); and three classes of “situational” symbols which express particular policy or administrational preferences of lesser affect (“The Reagan Administration; “gun control”, etc.) The higher up Elder and Cobb’s typology you go, the greater the degree of political consensus on the values imbued in a particular symbol. Nobody in American politics gets anywhere if they stand against “America”: the task of politics in that context is to convince people that what you stand for is “America”. “One person, one vote” is pretty high up that symbolic ladder. It is an illusion, but it’s a sacred illusion.

Every party in New Zealand’s parliament at present, except one, lays claim to this broad liberal tradition in one way or another. That one party which does not is the māori party. That is not to say that their agenda isn’t broadly liberal in function, but that it’s largely that way for non-Western-liberal philosophic reasons. This is the māori party’s great electoral purpose: to normalise an indigenous political-philosophical tradition. But they can’t do so this way, by attacking the liberal orthodoxy’s sacred illusions, the bedrock values held even by those who would never dream of calling themselves liberals. The māori party, more than any other, must recognise the value of “one person, one vote” as part of the history of democracy working for downtrodden minorities rather than against them, and adopt this as part of its own political basis.

As libertarians have discovered, if you don’t really believe in democracy it’s best not to bother with it — then you get to maintain whatever you claim as high moral ground and leave the actual business of governing to those who lack your unshakeable principles. But that’s not what the māori party is about. They do believe in democracy; they do recognise the importance of engagement and compromise and consensus, and they do plenty of work toward it, and a misguided outburst like this one puts it all in jeopardy. “Race-based” is National’s catch-cry from just a few short years ago, and they will take any encouragement given them to reach out to New Zealand’s conservatives, who are already distrustful of the māori party. It will force Labour further down the path of attacking the māori party to try to recapture the centre ground, rather than encouraging cooperation and the mending of fences. Most critically, it could create a backlash against the very mechanism Sharples seeks to save, generating opposition to the Māori seats his party needs for its survival, and which exist only by the pleasure of the Pākehā majority whose sacred illusions he has slighted.

While it should have been underway already, the māori party must now redouble its efforts to appeal to voters outside the Māori electorates, and prepare to live in a world without them.

L

Political Idealism trumps the Law.

datePosted on 20:52, March 17th, 2010 by Pablo

The “Waihopai 3” have been acquitted. Their act of civil disobedience, which resulted in damage to one of the domes covering eavesdropping equipment at the Echelon Signals Intelligence (SIGINT) gathering station near Blenheim, was deemed by a jury of their peers to be justified because of their sincerely held beliefs that the listening post contributed to human suffering on a world scale.

This is a remarkable verdict. The Plowshares group clearly trespassed and clearly did damage to the dome (they cut through both a perimeter fence and then the dome in order to access its interior). But their motives clearly outweighed, at least in the minds of the jury, the criminality of their actions (the charge of burglary against them was a grave mistake on the part of the Crown). The defendants pleaded not guilty to the charges of trespass, burglary and criminal damage and left the court as free men and as an inspiration to other direct action activists discontented with the status quo. One wonders if this  decision will establish not only a legal precedent but also encourage others to follow suit in pursuit of anti-status quo objectives.

I must confess to being at a loss for an explanation. As I wrote in “A Brief Comment on Spy Bases and Civil Disobedience” over at Scoop, (http://www.scoop.co.nz/stories/HL0805/S00039.htm), active acts of civil disobedience involving direct action (as opposed to the passive act school of civil disobedience exemplified by Ghandi and followed by his adherents after he was murdered) are most often premised on the perpetrators willingly understanding that their actions are in violation of conventional law, and that their actions will be punished accordingly. More often than not they plead guilty in order to make their political case at sentencing, something that spares the taxpayer the court costs of defending the charges while at the same time providing a courtroom soapbox for dissemination of their claims. Seriously committed activists often/sometimes (depending who is talking) never reach trial because they die trying. None of that occurred in this case.

I am sympathetic to the Plowshares cause although I seriously disagree with their view of the Echelon network. I applaud their willingness to stand up for their beliefs, and their use of unconventional, yet basically peaceful means to make their case. But for the life of me I cannot understand why they were acquitted, and I fear that the verdict has opened a Pandoras Box of unintended and perhaps dangerous consequences. But then again, we are talking about activities that occurred in New Zealand, although to be honest, if this action merited acquittal, what does that say about the case against the Urewera 18, who did not trespass, damage or burglarise anything?

Imagine what the outcome would have been had the Plowshares engaged their direct action in the US, UK or Australia. I reckon the verdict would have been different, and the sentences severe.

More narrativium

datePosted on 17:50, March 8th, 2010 by Lew

A fortnight ago I wrote a post about how the government’s conduct in office makes them vulnerable to accusations of cronyism and a tendency to be vague about the boundary between the political and the personal. In the past week, two more events have come to light which fit this narrative.

The lesser of the two is former National minister Roger McClay winding up in court for claiming mileage and expenses from his non-profit employer when they were paid for by the parliamentary service. It’s a long time since he was in parliament, but the episode speaks to the character of senior National party members.

More egregious is the decision to appoint former National Deputy Prime Minister Wyatt Creech to stitch up Environment Canterbury, which makes a great one-two punch with the news that they want to appoint former National Prime Minister Jenny Shipley as Commissioner. Thanks to I/S at No Right Turn for joining these dots.

Christchurch Central Labour MP Brendon Burns has made his views pretty plain, and as a consequence, the scrutiny may discourage the appointment. That’s the thing about keeping an eye on cronyism: it enables an opposition to punish a government brutally for both its past and its current misdeeds, and it brings a level of scrutiny from the media and other public agencies which has a chilling effect on further misdeeds. Even aside from the partisan advantages this brings, that’s good for democracy either way. Of course, in order to take full advantage of this narrative, Labour has to come out and actually denounce Taito Phillip Field’s own corruption during his time as a Labour minister. That’d be good for democracy, too.

L

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