A NZ Identity Crisis?

Some time ago a veteran journalist interviewed me about “foundational myths” and why the US and NZ were different in that regard (by “veteran” I mean a journalist who does research on stories and has some background in the fields pertinent to them, which are then used to write in-depth reports). Although I am not an expert on foundational myths, he had seen something that I had written back then and, having just returned from a trip to the US, his interest in the subject was piqued so he decided to give me a call. We did a compare/contrast exercise that he wrote up for a conservative news outlet.

I was reminded of that exercise by recent events involving ACT Party challenges to the Treaty and the Waitangi Tribunal settlement process. It occurred to me that not only does the Treaty (te Tiriti) serve as a foundational charter for NZ, it is also from whence NZ’s foundational myth comes from. This is not a criticism, just a personal observation, and there clearly is much more to a foundational myth than a grounding in a political contract between indigenous peoples and colonialists. I believe that foundational myths, especially those that are subject to different interpretations, are important for national unification and self-identity because the very differences in “reads” offer a broader canvas upon which to paint a picture of a nation’s collective identity. These myths do not have to be completely true or factually based–after all, they are myths–but are justified and considered worthwhile because they serve the larger purpose of speaking to a polity’s common aspirations, collective history and shared ideals.

As a child I was socialised in contexts that included the foundational myths of Argentina and the US. Both were originally crafted by dominant groups that among other things justified the status quo that they benefitted from, and to which over time other groups were assimilated in whole or in part (if at all). Both myths were symbolised in national anthems replete with words of heroism and sacrifice. Both glorified the constitutions to which pledges of allegiance were sworn (yes, even as kids!). Both myths were perpetrated by dominant groups whose positions of power were born out of conquest. The myths became a type of indelible water mark on my psyche even though, as I grew older, I came to see them for what they were: ideological devices designed to promote a unification narrative rather than objectively present actual historical events (for example, in both Argentina and the US. the “conquest of the West” is celebrated as part of their respective foundational myths even though the treatment of indigenous peoples in both was often barbaric and therefore whitewashed in most instances until very recently).

New Zealand has a different historical trajectory because the Treaty is a different type of foundational charter that is closer to a pure social contract between very distinct groups rather than a compact between relatively homogenous elites. Hence the Treaty creates the basis for a different type of foundational myth, one that is arguably closer to the historical truth than those of Argentina and the US. For one thing, it is not born of conquest. Consequently it is different in that it is not one coherent story imposed by dominant group interpretation, but instead includes several (often competing or opposing) takes on a common starting point (including events leading up to it) and its subsequent legacy. Over time the myth behind the Treaty has slowly seeped into the popular as well as the political collective conscience, creating a cultural amalgam that is considered the essence of what it is to be “kiwi,” be it Pakeha or Maori, Pacifika or Asian in genealogy. This has happened over generations of ethnic engagement and intermixing and is a process that is far from complete. Of course people retain their ancestral identities, some more so than others, but the inexorable march of time forges an intergenerational progression towards a common yet flexible identity in which the foundational myth embodied in the Treaty is seen as the “grand unifier” of a heterogenous assortment of distinct ethnographic groups who share a specifically common Antipodian history. The myth is malleable and subject to interpretation by various parties, but its core unifying properties are very much like those of other countries.

It is that unity that David Seymour’s racist attacks on the Treaty are aimed at. Foreign influenced and funded by well-monied rightwing outlets with international reach, Seymour’s is a type of white supremacist revanchism designed to roll back social gains made by traditionally subordinate groups under the guise of promoting “individualism” and freedom of choice. But what it really is, is an attempt to reassert white capitalist cultural, economic, political and social supremacy on everyone else, and to do that it must destroy NZ’s foundational myth by attacking and dismantling the Treaty using the argument that rather than a cooptation device designed to secure intergenerational social peace, it has created a race-based hierarchy in which Maori are granted privileges unavailable to everyone else. It is an odious project at its core, odious because it is hateful in intent and therefore hate-worthy as an approach to social issues.

Seymour is aided in his project by political opportunists in National and NZ First who cater to what used to be the fringes of NZ society–anti-vaccination groups, conspiracy theorists and, most central of all, racists. He is abetted by a clickbait-focused media that, unlike the veteran that interviewed me, ignores or chooses not to explore the deeper background behind the ACT Party manoeuvres, including its funding and logistical ties to various rightwing astroturf organisations. Between them, what should be a subject of alarm–a frontal assault on the foundational charter and the myths that have been ideologically constructed upon it–have become mainstreamed as merely critical reappraisals of rights and responsibilities emanating from the Treaty and the tribunal settlement process.

That is disingenuous in the extreme. The Waitangi Tribunal settlement process is of itself a critical appraisal of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty as well as the modes of redress for past injustices committed. And as mentioned, it is a cooptation mechanism designed to secure and reproduce social peace along lines promoted by the NZ foundational myth.

In his repugnant actions, Seymour and his acolytes are not only attacking the foundational charter and the foundational myth that is its ideological superstructure. They are questioning what it is to be a New Zealander. For them, the preferred Kiwi identity is white capitalist supremacist, rugby-playing and agrarian in its foundations (this, despite taking money from non-European business interests). Others may opt for social democratic indigenous reassertion and still others may prefer the cultural amalgam that I mentioned earlier. As it turns out, this questioning of Kiwi identity may be a good thing because, if a referendum is held and the proposal to review the Treaty is resoundingly rejected, it could serve to marginalise the likes of Seymour and his band of racist pimply-faced incels (even if they have some political cover via ACT’s party vote and its female representatives, and are provided platforms and money by influential patrons). ACT’s heart is dark, and that darkness needs to be exposed.

So perhaps there is some good in undergoing the exercise of questioning what constitutes a “NZ identity” or what it means to be a “kiwi.” On the other hand, if the assault on te Tiriti continues it could fracture the consensus on NZ’s foundational charter and its surrounding foundational myth and thereby open the door to a crisis of identity when it comes to defining what it means to be a child of the land of the long white cloud.

That would not be good, and yet that is what is exactly what Seymour and company are pushing for. Or as Hillary Clinton said when referring to the MAGA Morons, he and his crew are truly deplorable.

Further thoughts about a couple of things near and far.

My son is back home recovering well. There are some more serious sequels to come, but for the moment we will enjoy the end of year respite and welcome in what we hope is a better 2024 even with the knowledge that he is not out of the woods yet.

I remain unhappy with much of the coverage of the Hamas-Israel conflict in NZ, so threw some thoughts together on the consultancy social media account. They are just sketches designed as food for thought rather than deep analysis. I have fleshed them out a bit here.

First. What does it take for Israel to be labelled a “pariah State” and subjected to international sanctions? North Korea, Iran and Myanmar have all been branded as such and sanctioned because of their behavior (seeking nukes, human rights abuses). So what is the threshold for Israel? Or is it because it is “of” or backed by the West (specifically, the US) that it gets a longer definitional rope? I realise that there is not specific criteria for why and when a State is designated as a pariah and sanctions invoked (which themselves are not uniform or standard in nature), but surely Israel has moved into that territory. Or not?

On the other side, when it comes to those who attacked Israel on October 7, note their differences. Islamic Jihad is a religious extremist movement that pursues holy war against non-believers, Jews in particular. Hamas are an ethno-nationalist movement with some religious extremist elements that seeks to reclaim traditional lands lost to Israel. Their alliance is tactical more than strategic because their objectives overlap over the short-term but differ over the long term. They have common patrons (Iran/Russia), allies (Hezbollah/Houthis/Iraqi militias/Syria) and enemies (Israel/US/ West/Sunni oligarchies) but should not be seen as being a single entity.

The difference is important because Western corporate media tend to treat islamic Jihad and Hamas as a single organization, which implies a unified command, control, communications and intelligence-gathering (C3I) hierarchy. Although there is certainly a degree of coordination of weapons and intelligence transfers between them and their allies and integration of operational units such as what occurred on October 7, the leadership structures of the organisations differ as well as their long term objectives. More specifically, it is my read that Islamic Jihad desires a holy war and the establishment of a Caliphate in the Levant and larger Middle East, whereas Hamas wishes to reclaim what has historically been known as Palestine (hence the phrase “from the river to the sea,” demarcating the territory between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean from the Lebanese/Israel/Syria border to the Red Sea). This well-known map shows the area of claim and what has happened to it since 1946.

The fact that Islamic Jihad and Hamas have different long-term objectives means that they are potentially divisible when it comes to both military approaches as well as diplomatic negotiating strategies.They and their patrons will resist the latter as a divide and conquer approach, and they will be correct in interpreting the situation as such. But for the larger set of interlocutors trying to achieve a solution to the current status quo impasse and endless cycle of violence, separating the approach to Islamic Jihad from that towards Hamas makes sense. Remember that Hamas wants to replace the Palestinian Authority as the main agent of the Palestinian people and has strong support in the West Bank in that regard (the Palestinian Authority is headquartered in the West Bank but is totally subject to Israeli edicts and controls). Islamic Jihad would prefer to see the current conflict broaden into a regional war out of which a new Caliphate will emerge from the ashes. The Houthi attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and Shiite militia attacks on US bases in Iraq are part of that effort.

Remember that Islamic Jihad and its allies do not need to win any major war in order to prevail (they militarily cannot). But their efforts have already caught the attention of the Arab “street,” where restive populations see the indifference or complicity of their oligarchical leaders when it comes to Israel as further proof that they are Western puppets. The idea is to expose who the real Masters are, undermine their Arab servants and promote jihad on a regional, grassroots level. it may seem like a pipe dream to those of us far from the streets of places like Cairo, Amman, Tangiers or Riyadh, but if and when anger takes to the streets of such places, then the outcomes are by no means certain when it comes to regime status quo stability.

It does not appear that Islamic Jihad will accept territorial concessions in order to achieve peace, as its project is larger than removing Israel and Jews from the Levant. Hamas, on the other hand, is arguably more nationalist than religious in nature, which means that the ideological focus is on specific ancestral territory rather than on religious orientation (even if Jews make for convenient historical scapegoats). It is also something that is obliquely seen in the fact that although Palestinians are largely Sunni Muslim in religious identification, Hamas’s main support come from Shiite Hezbollah in Lebanon, Shiite Iran and the Shiite Alawite (Assad) regime in Syria. These patrons and allies well understand that the Palestinians are much like the Kurds further to the East, claiming ancestral homelands that have long since been carved up by foreign occupiers (not just European colonialists) and who for many historical reasons are reviled by their co-religious neighbours (hence the refusal to grant or cede territory for either a Kurdish or Palestinian homeland by Sunni-majority regional neighbours or the acceptance of Palestinian refugee flows from the current conflict by these same States).

We must also factor in that both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have factions within them, including political and military wings, (comparatively) moderates and militants, pragmatists versus “idealists” in their ranks. Islamic Jihad has a more unified political-military command (which makes it vulnerable) even when using a decentralised guerrilla military strategy), while Hamas has separated its political and military wings while trying to professionalize its fighters. In any case, harder or easier, these divides can be exploited if the will is there. Conversely, if the divisions are self-recognised and there is a unity of spirit against an immediate foe n face of the odds, they can be mitigated even under the stresses of overwhelming kinetic assault.

In the end, Islamic Jihad is an existential threat to the Middle Eastern status quo because it, like ISIS and Al-Qaeda, want to overthrow the established order even if its current capability to do so is minimal and dependent on the help of others. Hamas is a stronger irregular warfare actor as well as an ideological movement in the local and international imagination because of its territorial focus, so does not pose as much a threat to the broader regional order other than the fact that it’s success could encourage similar insurrectionary movements in the near elsewhere.

Many difficulties exist on the other side of the road to elusive peace in Palestine. Israel will have to cede occupied territory for Hamas to even be approachable regarding negotiations, but what with the combination of recent orthodox Jewish immigrants from the US, Russia and elsewhere fuelling the settler movement, and with the Netanyahu government leaning hard right as a result of the conservative religious extremists in his cabinet, leading to the Israeli government arming of settlers and protecting them with military units, that is clearly not an option any time soon if ever. Israelis are hinting at the Sinai Peninsula as a place to re-settle Palestinians, but Egypt wants no part of that, nor for that matter do the Palestinians themselves. So the first thing that will need to happen is for the Israeli government to change and for it to abandon its settler policies. Again, this seems like a very high mountain to climb.

Another obstacle is that Netanyahu and his supporters may see the situation as a window of opportunity. They may liken the move to eradicate Hamas from Gaza and drive its population out of the Strip as being akin to the Six Day 1967 War in which Israel stripped Jordan of the West Bank, Syria of the Golan Heights and Egypt of the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip. Moreover, given the surprise of the October 7 Hamas attack this year, it is clear that Netanyahu does not want to be seen as Golda Meir during the Yom Kippur (or Ramandan) War of 1973, when Israel was caught unprepared for an attack on October 6 by Egypt and Syria, leading to large early losses for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF). Even though Israel ultimately won that war in 20 days, Prime Minister Meir was castigated for the lack of preparedness or forewarning and her coalition lost a majority in the legislative election the next year, resulting in her resignation. Netanyahu is acutely aware of her fate as well of the actions he took that helped facilitate Hamas launching its attack (like ignoring intelligence warnings and re-deploying active duty troops from the Gaza border to protect illegal settlers in the occupied West Bank). He knows that politically he is a dead man walking unless he comes up with something spectacular.

In his mind and that of his supporters and colleagues, seizing Gaza may be just that. Since there is no credible international deterrent levelled against Israel and a lack of enforcement capacity to stop its prosecution of the war even if there was a consensus that it has gone too far with its collective punishment/ethnic cleansing campaign in Gaza, Netanyahu makes the plight of the Gazans a UN refugee problem while the IDF consolidates its physical control of the territory. That allows him to “eliminate” Hamas (and many innocents) as a physical entity in the Strip, opening the door for Israeli occupation and settlement. If that is the case, he may well overcome domestic anger at his pre-war actions and seeming disregard for Israeli hostages and instead ride a wave of nationalist sentiment to another term in office.

Should that happen, the shrinking map of Palestine shown above will have to updated yet again.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on “democratic backsliding.”

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the concept of “democratic backsliding” and why it is a troublesome development world wide. To do so we disaggregate the political, institutional and societal manifestations of backsliding in a democracy as well as the reasons for it. You can find the show here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on disinformation and Global South perspectives on the Ruso-Ukrainian war.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I talk about how to approach disinformation in the contemporary media landscape and Global South neutrality or support for Russia in the Ruso-Ukrainian war. The discussion takes a few turns.

The dirty power of culture wars.

A few decades ago I wrote an essay about the impact of state terror on Argentine society. One of my points was that terrorism was used by the military dictatorship known as the “Proceso” not because it was particularly effective at ferreting out subversives but because it worked as an atomising agent in Argentine society. That is, it used pervasive fear of institutionalised terrorism as a means to “infantilize” people and increasing isolate and alienate them as individuals, which served to destroy the horizontal social bonds that were the basis of collective solidarity among the groups targeted by the dictatorship. That in turn eased the way for the imposition of so-called neoliberal economic policies that redistributed income downwards for the majority, significantly curtailed the State role in economic management and provision of basic public services, destroyed social welfare, health and education safety nets and pauperised the population in general while increasing the material fortunes of the elites associated with the regime.

State terror created a culture of fear that atomised and isolated people in the public space, thereby paving the way for their infantilisation as social subjects and eventual dependency on and subjugation by their dictatorial masters. What is less known is that the so-called “Dirty War” waged by the dictatorship known as the “Proceso” (Process) was justified not on economic but on cultural grounds, as a defense of “traditional (Catholic) values” placed under siege by immoral, degenerate, atheistic Communist subversion in the guise of liberalism, feminism, secularism, homosexuality, youthful rebellion and other depraved foreign ideologies that had no “natural” place in the patriarchal, heteronormative capitalist social status quo that dominated Argentina at the time. Now, in the contemporary era, a variant on this theme has been introduced into socio-political narratives in the liberal democratic West as well as elsewhere: Culture Wars.

In recent years conservative authoritarians have moved to using electoral facades rather than coups as a means of gaining and maintaining government office. Their weapon of choice is no longer terror imposed by or on behalf of the State but a defense of traditional values against attempts by progressives to undermine the moral fabric of society. Similarly, authoritarians out of office no longer seek to use guerrilla war as a main vehicle for conquering power but instead embark on crusades against “wokeness,” “political correctness” and perceived (and mostly imaginary) attacks on “free speech” by liberal-progressive-socialist-communists. In both cases the strategic move has been from a physical war of manoeuvre to a cultural war of position in which the battle is over values and identities, not necessarily (although ultimately involving) government offices, economic policies or physical terrain. In other words, the social backdrop to political competition and conflict is now increasingly dominated by Culture Wars.

That is notable because the Culture Wars approach rejects or replaces the most basic axiom in politics: that people vote with their wallets. Think of it this way. The MAGA crowd voted against its economic interests when it voted for Trump (even if Trump’s “America First” economic pipe dream was sold to them as feasible). More recently, both Vladimir Putin and Recap Erdogan in Russia and Turkey diverted popular attention from their disastrous economic policies and corruption towards a defense of “traditional” values, in Putin’s case “traditional” Christian values (supported by the Russian orthodox hierarchy) and in Erdogan’s case “traditional” Muslim values (again, supported by conservative clerics). They both railed against the depravity of the West and the corrosive impact the importation of Western mores and ideas has had on their respective societies. In fact, Putin went so far as to order the invasion of Ukraine because of its “degenerate” liberal (when not Nazi) leadership’s threat to the ethnic Russian part of the Ukrainian population. The point is that when Culture Wars are used as an electoral strategy in order to outweigh objective economic realities, they often are successful.

The emphasis on Culture Wars is understandable when conservative authoritarians have no economic legs to stand on. That is where the parallel between US and NZ conservatives come in. Neither the GOP in the US or National/Act in NZ have economic platforms that are remotely close to practicable, sustainable or deserving of popular support. They are in fact elitist in construction and elitist in benefit. So, rather than modify their economic policy platforms away from their exhausted and discredited neoliberal/market-driven trickle-down policies, these conservatives turn to inciting Culture Wars as a means of diverting attention towards superstructural and often artificial fault lines in their respective democratic societies. In the US things like gun rights and opposition to racial, gender and sexual equality may be an “organic” product of American Christian repression and its record of historical conquest, but in NZ the notion of unrestricted gun ownership rights and opposition to transgender rights (on the slanderous grounds that the latter are “groomers” and pedophiles) are foreign imports that have no “organic” or native origins in NZ society. However, the attacks on co-governance frameworks in NZ is indeed rooted in deep-seated Pakeha racism against Maori, so the fusion of foreign imported ideologies and local regressive perspectives on race mesh easily into a divide and conquer (so they think) Culture War strategy on the part of the NZ Right.

More broadly, the assault on gender and sexual identity minorities, immigrants and various types of non-traditional non-conformity that defy the traditional narrative about what the “proper” society should look and behave like is rife throughout the Western liberal democratic world even where gun rights are restricted in the interests of public safety (seen, not unreasonably, as a public good rather than an infringement on individual liberty), where racism is not a historical stain or contemporary problem or where economic policies have popular support. It is major a stock in trade of elected authoritarians like Victor Orban in Hungary, Andrzej Duda in Poland and former president Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil as well as a host of demagogic political and social figures throughout the world, to say nothing of outright autocrats like Putin, Erdogan and a swathe of Middle Eastern and African oligarchs and strongmen.

The important thing to bear in mind is that like state terror as a social atomising agent, Culture Wars work. Trump, Bolsonaro and Orban rode them to victory in democratic executive branch elections, Putin and Erdogan used them to rally support for their unpopular regimes (with Erdogan likely to win a run-off election next weekend in spite of his disastrous economic policies and Putin holding onto power like a (rat-trapped) rat on cheese despite Russia’s futile war on Ukraine). Wanna-be’s like Luxon, Peters and Seymour in NZ seem to believe that their best bet is to copy at least some aspects of the Culture Wars strategy and adapt them to Aotearoa’s particular circumstances in the run up to this year’s general election. Given the media attention devoted to co-governance, transgender rights (or better said, their mere presence), vaccinations and the use of Te Reo in public discourse, there may in fact be grounds for traction in that angle of approach. That makes it more imperative that people push back at the introduction of retrograde ideological arguments in the NZ context. They are largely not from here and have no place in Aotearoa.

The pushback is necessary for a simple reason. Culture Wars work as a socio-political strategy because they are based on a dirty little secret: that fear is a great perception and behaviour modifier. Culture warriors traffic in the promotion of fear, both real and imagined, rational and irrational. This fear is of targeted “others,” those who can be readily identified and easily scapegoated while also be made into seemingly malevolent Leviathans who must be struck back by common, sensible, “traditional values”-holding people–the silent majority, as it were. Although it is helpful to the Culture Was projects if the “others” look different, worship different Gods, have different customary practices or engage in non-heteronormative sexual behaviour, it matters less what the “others” actually do than that they are identified as threats to traditional values and mores. The use of disinformation and misinformation is helpful in this regard because fear is a tool whether the basis for it is true or not–and it is most often not true or grounded in reality. What matters is achieving the objective, not the truth. The objective, in turn, is to restore a previous societal status quo in the face of pressures to make it more equitable, inclusive and responsive to the needs of those marginalised.and voiceless under the “traditional” scheme of things.

Complacency is the ally of the Culture Warriors because silence allows them to megaphone their messages of fear and hate through corporate and social media unimpeded by fact checkers, truth-speakers or coherent ripostes. Decent people may believe that Culture Wars are just a side-circus show that does not in fact distract from bread and butter and other serious issues of the day when people make their political and social preference choices. But as the likes of Brian Tamaki and various conservative media talking heads have shown, they do in fact have an impact on public perceptions when not challenged by more tolerant and open-minded arguments. Their fear-mongering gains ground in the measure that complacency cedes them rhetorical space in the pubic discourse.

All of which is to say that although there may be considerable distance in practice between Argentine (or Chilean or Guatemalan or Salvadorean, etc.) state terrorism and the Culture Wars in contemporary democracies, they are on a continuum where fear (manufactured or real) is exploited for political and social advantage above and beyond the economic projects that may underpin them. As Bernard de Voto noted (paraphrased here), “a person’s eyes and ears and the fulcrum of his/her judgement supplies his/her capability for action.” The fulcrum of fear is made up of orchestrated “Othering” in which contending perceptions of norms, mores and acceptable behaviours, that is, the conflict between between traditional and “progressive” values, is focused on particular subjects and groups. The purpose of Culture Wars is to warp the ideological fulcrum on which social consensus rests in order to obtain political, social and often material advantage whether it be based in the truth or not.

As a bottom line culture warriors play dirty with the truth just as much as the Argentine Dirty War ignored international norms and strictures against the torture and killing of civilians. Much like the logic of the “Proceso” when defending its actions, the ends of the culture warrior justifiy the means, and in a world in which the value of tradition is increasingly under question and often challenge, warping of the ideological fulcrum in order to promote manipulable fear in the body politic is just as useful as the pliers, branding irons, cow-prods and battery clamps used by the Latin American torturers of yore.

To which I say now as I said back then, mutatis mutandis: “Nunca Mas!”

PS: For those who may be interested in the essay linked to above, please email me (pablo@kiwipolitico.com) and I will send you a copy of the entire essay as an attachment in my reply.

” A View from Afar” returns.

On Thursday May 11, 2023 at 12PM (noon) NZ time/8PM Wed 10th May US East Coast time/1AM Thursday London time/8 AM Thursday Singapore time and 10AM Thursday Sydney time, the A View from Afar podcast will resume broadcasting. Selwyn Manning and I will discuss the AUKUS agreement and its implications for New Zealand and the fallout from the Discord classified material leaks as well as global affairs from a South Pacific perspective.

The show is interactive so tune in and join us!

The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

Many years ago a sister-in-law of mine and I were debating about gay marriage. I have no issue with it but she did. When I asked her what the problem was, she said something to the effect that “giving gays the right to marry diminishes the sanctity of my (straight) marriage.” I found that logic to be very odd. Why would gay folk marrying in any way take away from or diminish straight marriage? If anything it would reinforce the normative preeminence of marriage as an institution over common law partnerships of any orientation, and would give additional legal protection to both the couple and any children that they raise (especially when it comes to travel and foreign residence because some States, among other things, require people to be married for spousal benefits, work permits and child visas. Singapore and several Latin American countries have such requirements).

Over the years my sister-in-law mellowed on gay rights because of exposure to gay people in her wider family, at work and amongst friends. Good on her. But the flaw in her earlier logic has stuck with me and been reemphasised in my mind by the current wave of cultural wars unleashed, Russian invasion-style (and with Russia’s actual involvement) by Western right-wingers. The premise remains the same: granting rights to gays, transgendered, intersexuals, historically oppressed communities, linguistic and religious minorities, schoolchildren (when it comes to what they can read and see in class), etc. comes at the direct expense of someone else, particularly straight white religious adults. Universalizing human rights is seen as usurping the rights of parents, business owners, religious authorities, and in fact, the “natural” patriarchical, racial, sexual and other social hierarchies of previous eras. The “natural” order is seen to be under existential threat and hence all-out war must be waged against those who, consciously or not, adopt Gramsci’s concept of a “war of position” in order to infiltrate “traditional” social, economic and political institutions with subversive intent.

Which makes me remember that foot-binding was once part of the “natural” order in China, and beating of wives and children permissible in Latin America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia–to say nothing of much of the Anglo-Saxon world. Bullying very much remains a cultural trait in Aotearoa. Not all tradition is worth preserving.

Much is written about the role of fear in rightwing perspectives. Fear of the “other” specifically. But fear needs to be analytically disaggregated as a concept and social construct. That is to say, fear has its own logic, sometimes rational and sometimes not. What is feared is less important than why it is feared. What fear is rests on two things: uncertainty and a particular perspective on how costs and benefits are distributed. This involves basic notions of loss and gain, particularly who gains and who losses in any social interaction. It is perversely transactional in nature. For example, cuddling an alligator may make him friendly, Or not. How one weighs the balance of odds in that interaction is what determines whether they fear the ‘gator or not. On the other hand, those who go to war know that death is a very likely fate. They know that, they internalize that (because of military socialization), and they get on with the job.

Civil society does (or at least should) not operate that way. It is about the limits of communal tolerance, not the requirements of war. This makes the cultural war references all the more disingenuous and destructive because, quite frankly, one (granting rights to previously marginalized groups) is not like the other.

The type of analytic logic where one rejects the extension of rights to others is known as “zero-sum:” one actor’s gain comes in inverse proportion to another actor’s loss. Expansion of rights for some is seen as a loss of rights for others. Coexistence is impossible under those circumstances because one group wins directly at the expense of another. This is the root perspective underlying prejudice among those who are not stupid (with the idiots more susceptible to the mean-spirited manipulation of non-stupid bigots and authoritarians).

Continuing the game-theoretic angle, the reality is that rather than zero-sum, the likely outcome of the culture wars is either (on the positive side), even–sum (both sides neither win or lose), positive-sum (both sides win) or (on the negative side) negative-sum (both sides lose). Either the bigots abandon the zero sum logic and the rights franchise is expanded to marginal communities without discernable loss of rights to historically dominant groups, with potential benefits accruing to binary and non-binary people resulting from the exchange, or both sides lose as the culture wars deepen, become more divisive, leading to broad scale violence and social rupture as all sides begin to see the conflict as existential. To be sure, I would prefer to see even-sum or positive-sum outcomes prevail but truth be told, many of the transphobes and their rightwing fellow travelers and enablers already see the “struggle” as existential–or an opportunity to stir up contrived controversy.

The last point is worth noting. Some of the arguments against the extension of rights to marginalized groups and individuals indicate that those making them know that they are specious. Claiming that drag queens and transgender people (transsexuals and Democrats!) are pedophiles and “groomers” betrays a moral and ethical dishonesty or gross ignorance. Claiming that transgender people using female bathrooms are a sexual assault threat to biological females (aka females at birth) is grotesque given the gender orientation and self-identity of the non-binary individuals. It may be true that heterosexual male sexual predators have sometimes dressed as women in order to gain access to female-only facilities with evil intent, but the instances of this have been extremely rare and, even rarer yet, are the instances of transgender women using their non-binary status to commit sexual assaults on heterosexual women. Plus, the root problem of such exceptionally rare assaults are different. A heterosexual male posing as a female in order to commit sexual assaults on biological females in female-only spaces is not the same problem as transgender females assaulting other females. The motivations–a question of the mind rather than simply driven by biology–are different even if violence and coercion are the method. As any specialist on transgender violence will explain, the more common issue is one of violence against rather than perpetrated by transgender folk.

Then there is this. Given the percentage of people world wide who are genuinely transgender, the odds of them constituting a significant number of sexual predators anywhere is mathematically low even if all of them were of evil disposition. Which is clearly not the case. When and where transgender initiated violence occurs is a product of personal and social circumstance given the specific context in which a person is situated. Again, the confluence of circumstances that lead to a transgender person lurking in bathrooms or grooming children is exceptional and the arguments that they are common occurrences is risible.

Pablo and his first son in Rio de Janeiro during Carnaval, 1987. The poodle is a dude.

I am no expert on the subject, but believing that gender difference is defined purely by genitalia is reductio ad absurdem logic at its worse given the presence of non-gender type conforming (third sex) people throughout history. In fact, several non-Western cultures, including those in India and Polynesia, accept the existence of non-binary people and see them as a separate category rather than as either male or female. Their social roles are not those of males or females, and the culture accepts them for who they are. The history of these human beings has been largely non-violent. The trouble is that in Western societies issues of gender/sex have traditionally been treated as either/or rather than a socially acceptable inflection point on the continuum of human difference. The opprobrium historically assigned to transgender people in the West can therefore be seen as part of a larger pathology grounded in conservative Christian repression when it comes to sexuality and “proper” gender/sexual roles. That is weird. To put it vulgarly by paraphrasing the Tool song title, a “hooker with a penis” may be just that regardless of gender identification (thanks Maynard).

It seems to me that although transphobia is the prejudice d’jour, it follows a long history of bigotry that is marked by the zero-sum approach to social relations. It is simply an extension of earlier and repeated attempts to limit the rights of designated “others” who are seen, hypocritically or out of ignorance, as a threat to the “normal” way of life and social order.That this zero-sum perspective is shared and megaphoned by conservative churches, politicians, lobbying groups and media whose network connections cross international borders makes for a more dangerous and troubling future for those who believe in and have a preference for democracy, human rights and the benefits of egalitarian societies.

Then there is the issue of “wokeness.” In 25 years in academia and the subsequent years doing consulting, I have never once been bothered or infringed upon by “woke” anything. I say this even after having lost an academic job after false accusations of being racist by a foreign (female) student and her coterie of “progressive” supporters annoyed by my stance on some controversial international issues (like the Palestinian-Israeli conflict). Even after that, “wokeness” is simply not an impediment to me leading my life. Personal anecdote aside, I think I know the reason for this. I assume that being “woke” means being attentive to the needs and concerns of others, especially the traditionally oppressed, exploited, subordinated and marginalised. I assume that it means paying attention to one’s words and deeds so as to not cause psychological, emotional or physical harm to others. It means calling out and confronting dog whistling, gaslighting and overt racists, xenophobes, bullies and bigots. If I am correct about what it means to be “woke” then I have no reason to be concerned and instead can be counted in as a “woke” snowflake. And if it means pointing out the analytic flaws in the zero-sum logics of bigots (should the bigots try to be analytic rather than emotive in their reasoning), then I am waaaay woke. Shoot, I just might be a closet gay dude who has not consciously realised it yet! My wife sure is gonna be surprised when she finds out.

Also, if any side is behaving as (anti) woke snowflakes, it is the Right. If they watch their mouths and refrain from bleating hateful rhetoric, no one will “cancel” them. Instead, all they do is complain and whine about socialist/communist/liberal/progressive wokeness and cancel culture and the attack on (insert traditional values and “freedom” shibolleths here). They see everything as an assault on their social superiority, entitlements and privilege That includes the extension of rights to those they traditionally dominated. They are the ultimate “Karens.”

More on point, this is not about cancel culture and stifling free speech. People are merely denouncing hate-mongering and calling out arbitrary privileges assigned by class, race, birthplace or gender. Some of it may boisterous but much of it is justified and non-violent. More broadly, if one cannot understand that individual and collective rights come with responsibilities and that rights end when they infringe, deny or impede on those of others, then one is anything but democratic in social orientation, an ignoramus, or both. In fact, many of those pushing back at the extension of rights to previously excluded groups are outright authoritarian and socially hierarchical in perspective, be they racists, transphobes or Islamicists. Put it this way, if you believe that human society is akin to lobster society where the male with the largest claw gets the best feeding and mating grounds, then you need to go back to high school biology 101 and stop with the cross-species analogies. This is not about alpha and betas, predators and prey, hunters and gatherers and the “natural” social hierarchies. It is about fairness, equality and social justice.

The good news, if any, is that more and more of them are now out in the open, so they can be confronted more readily across many platforms and venues. The bad news is that they also have broad support, including from the institutions mentioned above.

In the end one either wants to see people treated equally so long as they obey basic and broadly shared social mores and principles, or you do not. As far as I can tell Drag Queens reading children’s stories in school and libraries is in line with the first view. Inciting and enabling hatred towards and threatening violence towards marginalized people is not.

This is not “just” about conforming to the gender identity and social roles that genitalia assigns us at birth. It is about much more. It is about who we are as human communities.

Media Link: AVFA on protests in China and Iran.

This week in “A View from Afar” Selwyn Manning and I try to provide a conceptual/analytic backdrop to the protests in the PRC and Iran. The thrust is that although there are similarities as well as differences between them, each confrontation involves a strategic game between the protestors and regime elites, who in turn can be respectively divided into different camps based on their objectives and approaches (ideological versus material goals on the part of militants and moderates in the Opposition, reforms or repression on the part of soft-liners versus hard-liners in the regime). Hybrid strategies involving carrot and stick approaches and immediate versus longer-term objectives are also considered. The episode is here.

Media Link: “AVFA” on electoral politics in Brazil, US and Israel.

This week Selwyn Manning and I do a post-mortem on Brazil’s election and a preview of the US midterms under the general banner of “it is about the movement, not the man,” then turn to the tactical and existential issues surrounding Israel’s latest (and increasingly rightwing-leaning) elections. You can draw your conclusions by linking here.

Media Link: The Era of Restive Politics.

In the latest “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I explore what can be called the era of restive politics in national and international affairs. We review recent political dynamics in the US, UK, Brazil, Italy, Iran and the PRC to highlight that in the post-pandemic world, public disgruntlement, resentment and frustration has less to do with ideology and more to do with governments failing to deliver on, much less manage popular expectations of what the State should provide to the polity. The issue is one of competence and responsiveness rather than ideological predilection.

This is true for authoritarian regimes as well as liberal democracies (hence the choice of a small-N “most different” comparative survey of case studies), but the remedies are all too often offered by populist demagogues who see political opportunity in the restive moment. You can find the podcast here.