The New Zealand Junta.

Some readers will remember that I spent 25 years in academia researching, writing and teaching about authoritarianism, among other things, and that I was a foreign policy practitioner in/for the US government for a decade, a fair bit of which was dealing with authoritarian regimes and working to promote liberalisation within and eventual democratization from them. Readers also will recall that I have written here about “constitutional coups,” which unlike military coups do not involve the threat of or acts of violence to remove a sitting government. Instead, legal mechanisms and institutional procedures are used to achieve the same end–the removal of a duly elected government, from office most often but not always before its constitutionally-defined term is completed.

It may seem like a stretch, but New Zealand has had a constitutional coup of sorts. In October an election was held in which the major rightwing party (National) did not reveal its true policy intentions, preferring to instead focus on the usual canards of lower taxes, high crimes rates and too many regulations and bureaucratic red tape on property owners. They were assisted by a compliant corporate media interested in generating clickbait material rather than dealing deeper into party policy platforms, and who supported the “change for change sake” attitude of the NZ public by focusing on personal scandals within the (then) Labour-led government ranks. It mattered little that, in public at least, the major rightwing party had virtually nothing to offer. What mattered was that it win, be it in coalition or outright. As it turns out, it needed coalition partners in order to do so.

The more extreme rightwing parties, ACT and NZ First, were a bit more honest in their campaigns about their reactionary intent, but the corporate media chose to ignore the extent of their connections to extremist groups and foreign donors/patrons such as anti-vaccination conspiracy theorists and Atlas Institute seed-funded astroturf groups such as the overlapping Free Speech Coalition/Taxpayer’s Union that contributed to their campaigns. Nor did the political press seriously look into the worrisome backgrounds of candidates in these parties, instead preferring to focus on the leaders and their immediate subordinates.

What that made for was the instrumental use of the October election by the NZ rightwing in order to gain enough votes to cobble together an authoritarian-minded government coalition that would impose regressive policy prescriptions without full public scrutiny or consultation. It did not matter that the two extremist parties received less than 15 percent of the popular vote, or that National received just 38 percent. What mattered was the win, which was the instrument by which the coalition could impose its political will on the +45 percent that did not vote for them.

Sure enough, the new government has gone about imposing policy reforms that basically amount to dismantling much of the social legislation enacted over the last decade, including that of previous right-leaning governments. Smokefree legislation, diesel and petrol taxes, EV purchase rebates, commitment to rail and cycleway building projects (some already underway), rationalisation of water provision services via three-tier regional management–these and many more forward-thinking policies were repealed, and more backtracks (such as eliminating excise taxes on cigarettes) are on the way. It also proposes to implement wholesale redundancies in the public sector, especially in agencies that are focused on Pacifika and other minority group service provision. More existentially in terms of New Zealand/Aotearoa’s self-identity as a nation, the elected authoritarians are proposing to review and repeal sections of NZ’s foundational charter, the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti, because they supposedly give “too many” rights to Maori, thereby effectively disenfranchising the non-Maori (mostly Pakeha) majority (or so they say).

However, as political scientist Kate Nicholls pointed out to me, the assault on Te Tiriti has the potential to be an own goal of epic scale. The Waitangi Tribunal was instituted to peacefully settle disputes emerging from different interpretations of the Treaty’s clauses. it was created in 1975 in the wake of numerous protests in the late 1960s and early 1970s stemming from disputes about interpretation of rights and responsibilities conferred by the Treaty, especially about land ownership and access rights, some of which, to quote the Waiting Tribunal History page, took place “outside the law.”

That is the crux of the matter. The Tribunal calls itself a “standing commission of inquiry” but in fact is a means to peacefully settle disputes about the Treaty that could otherwise turn violent or be subject to direct action by aggrieved and often competing interests. Seen less charitably, the Tribunal is way to buy off or divide-and-conquer Maori, or at least Maori elites, so as to give them a slice of the NZ economic resource pie, stop extra-judicial protests (since the Tribunal is in effect a court with legally-binding authority) and thereby achieve social peace. In other words, the Tribunal is a co-optive device, not an instrument of revolution, reform or comprehensive redress. It is designed to preserve a (Pakeha dominated ) social status quo, not undermine it.

The direct attack on Te Tiriti, be it by putting a review of the Treaty to a referendum or by some other means (say, by legal challenges to Tribunal authority and decisions), has already occasioned Maori-led backlash, something that promises to intensify the more the elected authoritarians push their racially-motivated project. That could well mean that rather than the peaceful and legally binding settlement process overseen by the Tribunal, we could see things settled in the streets via direct action. Given how fundamental the Treaty is to NZ self-identity, at that point it is an open question whether the repressive apparatuses of the State–the police, the courts, the intelligence services, even the military–will side with the elected authoritarians. Stay tuned.

Another thing about the new government is its utter disdain for the public. Polls only mattered in the election campaign but now are ignored. Fighting crime was a priority before the election, then it was not. It did not reveal its full coalition agenda during the campaign and did not consult with other parties or the public in the implementation of its first 100 day plan of action. Instead, the coalition has rewarded its donors and supporters in (among others) the fossil fuel and tobacco industries even though their repeal policies are unpopular and in some instances detrimental to public health, environmental and other social outcomes. This is truly a government for and by the few, even if it was able to claim an electoral victory as its legitimating mantle.

For this reason I prefer not to call them something silly like the “coalition of chaos.” They are that, to be sure, because to put it kindly the talent pool in the coalition parties runs very thin while the egos of their leaders and lieutenants run very deep. This could eventually lead to their collapse and downfall, but for the moment what strikes me is their despotic dispositions. In other words, it is their way or the highway, minus the resort to repression that we see in military dictatorships.

For this reason I choose to refer to the National-ACT-NZ First triumvirate as New Zealand’s junta. In the broadest and original sense, junta refers to a military or political group ruling the country after it has been taken over. Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines it as “a council or committee for political or governmental purposes.” What is important is that it does not always have to have a military component and it does not always involve a violent accession to power and usurpation of previous authority. A junta, as it turns out, can be installed constitutionally, peacefully and via normal political institutions and procedures.

It is the way how these mechanisms of political succession are manipulated that determines whether a constitutional coup has occurred. If that indeed has been the case, and I believe that in NZ it has, then the recently installed coalition government is in fact a junta. This NZ junta is comprised of the three authoritarian party leaders followed by their fawning acolytes and lesser supplicants, cheered on by rightwing media and corporate and ideological interest groups as well as revanchist voters reacting to what they see as challenges to their privileges by an assortment of “woke” and uppity usurpers. But at its core, the junta represents a coordinating committee of elite capitalist and ethnographic chauvanist (f not supremacist) interests, not the public at large.

To reprise: given the circumstances surrounding it, the October election in NZ was a type of “soft” or constitutional coup in which an authoritarian coalition gained a majority of votes without revealing its full policy agenda. It is now implementing that policy agenda by rewarding its allies and ignoring the public good. That approach–working solely for the benefit of allied groups while claiming that it is doing so in the public interest–is precisely how juntas govern.

Perhaps we should start addressing Mr. Luxon. Mr. Peters and Mr. Seymour each as “mi Comandante” or “mi Jefe” because 1) those Spanish phrases for “my Commander” or “my Boss” seem more suited to their personalities and politics than the term “Honourable;” and 2) they nicely fit with their junta-style approach to governing. In any event, the proper approach when greeting the junta members is to bend at the waist and make sure that one’s nose is pointed squarely at their footwear. Also, following established authoritarian protocol, Luxon can be called the Comandante Supremo or Jefe Supremo because he is supposedly the first amongst equals in the NZ junta, but that will likely increase the intrigue, scheming, plotting and knife sharpening within the coup coalition. If so, things could get pretty chaotic, indeed.

From somewhere in Hades, Pinochet and countless other authoritarians must be having a good chuckle at NZ’s expense.

Hara Kiri.

I do not usually write about NZ domestic politics, much less the personal dramas of those involved in them. But here I will make an exception because I am unhappy about recent events.

To be clear, the downward mental health spiral that ended Kiri Allan’s political career has produced some good commentary on the pressures in NZ politics and the toll that they take on politician’s mental health and family life. It was just a few years ago that Todd Muller had to step down from the National Party Leadership due to the stresses of the job, and to the credit of most he was allowed to do so in some measure of peace and dignity. 

However, while there has been empathetic commentary about former minister Kiri Allan, the sad fact is that many in the National-Act coalition—particularly their two leaders– and a swathe of media acolytes have used the personal tragedy to attack Ms. Allan and the government that she served in what can only be seen as venal, nasty political opportunism coupled with media complicity. Like a pack of baying hyenas with a scent for blood, they have continued to hector the former minister in stand-ups and interviews, write irrelevant stories about people who lived in the area of an accident that was the last act in a prolonged process of psychological deterioration, talked with the owner of the parked vehicle that was involved in the accident (who was not present when it happened) and to cap it off, demanded and received permission from the Speaker of the House to engage in an emergency debate on Ms. Allan’s resignation and her mental “well-being” that quickly proved to be nothing more than an excuse to launch spurious attacks on the government. Shame on the Speaker for caving to the demands of the frothing Opposition mob, shame on the ACT Party Alfred E Newman look-alike who used someone’s personal tragedy for opportunistic political gain and shame on the unethical shills who pass as conservative media for cheerleading the whole thing and for continuing the ad hominem persecution well after Ms. Allan departed her portfolios.

Psychologically damaged by a dark combination of personal and professional pressures and therefore fragile in spite of her outwards appearance, Ms. Allan committed an act of political suicide last week. Like Mr. Muller, she should be allowed to find her peace.

Moreover, when one looks at the media treatment of this story and others involving Wahine Maori in politics, one cannot but suspect that there is some misogynistic racism behind the slant in the coverage to say nothing of the crude hypocrisy of not focusing balanced attention on the less than salubrious behaviours of some in the NACT coalition (who tend to be Pakeha and generally male). The “people living in glass houses throwing stones” adage would seem appropriate here, but the Opposition leadership and NZ corporate media seem keen to keep the focus on those being pelted rather than those doing the throwing.

Anyway, in the days after the news broke and seeing how it was covered and commented upon, I wrote a few Social Media posts reflecting on the affair. Here they are in annotated form.

“Voters may want to consider the responses of some Opposition politicians and Rightwing media figures to the personal tragedy of a Government Minister in order to assess their character and fitness for governing. Some might be found wanting (both as politicians and as commentators) if empathy and restraint are required.

Some have claimed that empathy caused the “mess.” Sorry, wrong. The former minister was a competent cabinet member and not an “empathy” hire (whatever that is, but presumably in reference to her Maori ethnicity). Political leadership is measured in various ways and seen on various dimensions, and empathy encompasses both.

Others claim that this is just an attempt to “deflect” from the former minister’s responsibility in causing a non-injury accident. There is no deflection. The drink driving/resisting arrest (which are more likely “failure to accompany”) charges will be handled by the courts under penalty of law. She will face justice and be held responsible for her actions. That is a personal matter, and should not be cause for politically opportunistic attacks. I should also note the the drink driving charge was on the lowest range of the scale so she will at worst receive a fine and possible disqualification from driving. Likewise, the resisting arrest/failure to accompany charge appears to be a case of lack of cooperation rather than physical resistance, so that too will unlikely result in a jail term. It is by no means a trivial matter, but in the scheme of things Ms. Allan’s alleged offending is not going to bring about Armageddon.

Still others claim that this shows Labour government incompetence because Ms. Allan was allowed to return to her job after a previous mental health breakdown. To which I responded: Please stay on topic. This is about a personal mental health problem that destroyed a political career, not about competence (which has never been disputed in this particular case). Other recent ministerial resignations are fair partisan game given the circumstances of their exit, but this one is not.”

It also must be understood that it is hard to ascertain when a person can return to work after a mental health crisis and what might trigger another one. That is at best a matter to be discussed between the person involved and their psychological counselors, not by medically unqualified political party leaders (who should reply on expert advice as well as personal assurances when making calls about reinstatement). Everything indicates that professional criteria, not political expediency, was the main determinant of Ms. Allan’s return to work.

Nearly a week after the accident, today’s news story is that police dogs were used to track Ms. Allan after the crash and she was found 500 meters away from the scene. So the dogs did their job and it is certainly not a good look to have left the scene. But what relevance does this have to politics? Why is it still a major news story? Ms. Allan was in crisis and made bad decisions on that night. The matter is now between Ms. Allan and the justice system, and the evidentiary how’s and why’s of the accident will be presented in court. So what is the point in salaciously belaboring and speculating about the circumstances? She has resigned and will not run for re-election in October, in a district where she is widely respected and admired. Politically speaking, the story has run its course so everything at this point is a partisan beat-up (and bullying).

Meanwhile, the human offal that passes for the National and ACT Party leaders continue to lie and dog-whistle using US-style politics of racial and class division as a wedge on the electorate while capitalizing on personal failures in the government ranks to score cheap political points rather than concentrate on delivering realistic and collectively beneficial policy alternatives oriented toward pursuing the common good. Truth be told, the NACTs have nothing other than the tired old “hard on crime, lower taxes, cut public spending and roll back regulations while privatizing public services” rubbish that has proven detrimental to the welfare of most people in contemporary market democracies. Vague and discredited trickle down economic policies do not work and are no substitute for creative approaches to the collective interest. Since the NACTs have nothing on that score, they just whine, lie and engage in personal attacks as per the Dirty Politics playbook.

Whatever the failures of the current government and some of its ministers, one thing appears certain at this point: having a NACT coalition in power will be a disaster for most of us even while it benefits a very distinct few and the corporate media uncritically applauds—some would say encourages–their self-serving nation-busting antics. Now is the time to open our eyes and see what choice is before us in October: the politics of cruelty, division and avarice, or the politics of moderation and continuity. If the choice turns out in favour of the latter, even as a “lesser evil” option, it offers a basis to repudiate nastiness, greed and sectarianism as well as foreign ideological influences in NZ. If the choice is for the former, it means that a majority chooses to embrace the darker side of our national psyche.

That will be a collective tragedy, not a personal one.

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.

Media Link: Disinformation at RNZ.

I was fighting a head cold when I did this interview so was not as lucid as I would have liked to be, but credit to RNZ for giving me the airtime. It has to do with the placing of Russian disinformation talking points in stories on Radio New Zealand’s digital platform. Knowing about Russian disinformation campaigns in the US dating back to at least 2016 as well as similar campaigns in various European states since that time, and watching the spread of foreign sourced disinformation during the pandemic and afterwards here in NZ, I have been trying to call attention to the insidious nature of these types of psychological warfare. After all, if you can subversively undermine trust and confidence in liberal democratic governance from within, then there is no need to confront it from without. The Russians are not the only ones who play this game.

The good news is that Western intelligence agencies, including those in NZ, are belatedly focused on countering the phenomenon.

https://www.rnz.co.nz/national/programmes/morningreport/audio/2018894129/buchanan-says-he-sounded-alarm-over-disinformation-in-nz

Media Link: “A View from Afar” podcast on online extremism and Rocket Lab.

In last week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and I discuss the failure of NZ’s security services to detect a local white supremacist openly describing on a well known on-line extremist forum how he would use car bombs to “commemorate” the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch, and then we are joined by journalist Ollie Neas to hear more about the role Rocket Lab plays for the US military space program as well as some the regulatory issues surrounding that process by which military payloads are approved by the NZ government. You can find the video here.

The tyranny of the dishonest and stupid.

One theme in the literature dedicated to democratic theory is the notion of a “tyranny of the minority.” This is where the desire to protect the interests of and give voice to electoral minorities leads to a tail wagging the dog syndrome whereby minorities wind up having disproportionate influence in debates about policy. The minorities in question may be political, ethnic, religious, racial, cultural or identified by other characteristics, but the commonality is in their (previous) relative disenfranchisement when compared to dominant electoral groups, again defined by various criteria. For example, white, straight, christian males have traditionally been an electorally dominant group in the US; transgender gay afro-asian atheists have not.

In democratic practice the issue is one of striking a fair and equitable balance between the rights of the (electoral) majority and the rights of minorities. This has been attempted via re-districting and voter enrolment schemes that allow for more minority representation in politics at all levels, affirmative action initiatives and regulations that preferentially promote minorities in fields and institutions in which they are traditionally underrepresented, advancement of historical accounts and alternative artistic expressions that reflect the experiences of the subaltern, exploited and dispossessed, etc. The objective is to level the playing field across the gamut of social endeavour, thereby leading to more democratic outcomes in politics and society.

The push to democratise has by now gone well beyond politics and deep into the fabric of social life. Old notions of what is permissible even in the sanctum of family life have been challenged and redrawn away from traditional heterosexist patriarchal hierarchies. Private firms can no longer ignore gender bias or subtle racism in their ranks. Children no longer fear the teacher’s rod or strap.

All of this is good. Historical injustices have been addressed and authoritarian social structures have been reformed as a result of democratisation efforts world-wide. The fear now, in some quarters at least, is about an over-reaction to previous ills when it comes to democratising society. It also has prompted a backlash by reactionaries, who in earlier decades whined about “political correctness” and “culture wars” and who now whinge about “triggered” “wokeism,” “cancel culture,” “snowflakes” and limits on “free speech” (when what they actually mean is restrictions on public expressions of various forms of racism, bigotry and other intolerance).

At its core the argument against economic, social and political democratisation is about over-compensation and giving a few people too much just because they were done wrong somewhere down the road. To wit: unencumbered by traditional forms of discipline, children will run roughshod over their parents. Students will have rights without responsibilities. Wives and teenagers will mouth off with impunity and people of color will expect and demand equal treatment by law enforcement. Once tradition goes, chaos will rule.

Of course none of the above is true and fears grounded in such beliefs lack substantive foundation. But the concern that minority rights might eventually supercede majority rights is a real one for more than political scientists, and has become what is known (in very simple terms) as the tyranny of the minority.

The backlash to economic, political and social democratisation was to be expected because the backlash comes from those who benefitted from the majoritarian electoral status quo before the political, economic and social rights of minorities was even allowed, much less considered as part of the democratic equation. But now the backlash has taken a particularly sinister turn in the form of the dissemination of disinformation and false narratives under the banner of democratic “balance” when it comes to minority voice.

As a lead in, let’s consider the CNN approach to political debates on its opinion shows. In the interest of being “balanced,” CNN shows regularly feature paid Republican shills (reportedly on a retainer of US$150,00/year) who with increased frequency over the years have blatantly lied, denied, denigrated, insulted, engaged in specious false comparisons and “whataboutism,” and generally acted like the a-holes that they truly are. Rick Santorum, Kayleigh Mcenany, Paris Dennard, Kelly-Ann Conway, Jason Miller and assorted others were given a huge platform from which to dispense their bulls**t, and some even managed to use the CNN enhanced profiles to step into White House jobs in the Orange Merkin administration (Dennard and Miller were caught up in sex scandals so are now relegated to talking to the converted on Fox News).

Given their disinterest in honest debate and fair play and their use of the CNN platforms to push fake news and disinformation, why on earth were they given that privilege? What was CNN thinking? Did it do so out of a naive belief that these people would behave with a modicum of grace and decorum? Or did it feature them out of some mistaken belief in “balance?” What objective balance can exist between an honest and neutral commentator and a dishonest partisan spin-scammer? Why would one even try to “balance” objective truth with rabid lies?

That is the crux of the tyranny of the minority today. Because of the advent of social media and (successful) practice of sowing deliberate disinformation and fake news, everyone who has an opinion is not only entitled to one but has equal weight in the debates of the moment. Take the anti-vaccination crowd. Even though a thousand scientific journal articles and books by leading epidemiology and vaccinology experts have been written about the effectiveness of vaccines, even though polio and other diseases were essentially eradicated within a few years of immunization campaigns being introduced against them, some celebrity chef or other uninformed ignoramus will find one medical practitioner and a few tinfoil quacks who claim that vaccines cause autism, rabies, droopy eye syndrome and alien reproductive parasitism in humans and use that as a counter-argument against vaccines. Rather than ignore these fools, some other internet-schooled morons seize upon the minority opinion to show “proof” that the counter-narrative is true.

Many will embellish the original stupidity with talk about Big Brother Deep State social control schemes, and before long the internet is festooned with anti-vax screeds vying for attention with real scientific publications. Because scientific publications are hidden behind paywalls or in university libraries and use technical language in order to be understood, the “my kid has autism because of a measles shot” scientifically uneducated crowd have the upper hand in the democratic space that is the unregulated social media market. So much for being blinded by science (apologies to Thomas Dolby).

When confronted by the utter inanity of their claims, the anti-vaxxers will respond with something along the lines of “you may have your truth but I have MY truth.” The false equivalence between them then becomes not a matter of fact versus fiction but a matter of disputed (selective) facts. Everyone not only has an opinion and places to publicise them. They now have their own set of cherry picked facts to back up their views (“links please”). At that point the slippery slope toward full blown conspiracy theories begins.

That is where we are today. Conspiracy theories vie with objective reporting as preferred narratives on social issues. The latest conspiracy gem from Q Anon involves fake snow in Texas rather than the real blizzard-caused sub-zero snow and ice that killed over 50 people and left that state without power water for days. One can only conclude, charitably, that those who subscribe to such views do not live in the Longhorn State.

However absurd all of this is, real damage has been done. Well before the January 6 conspiracy-motivated assault on the US Capitol, the pervasive echoing of political and social conspiracies permeated rightwing media, whether out of a sense of sincere conviction or opportunistic political gain. Faith in government at all levels has been consistently undermined by the promulgation of minority extremist ideological views that in a truly fair and confident society would never see the light of day but which now are given equal space with fact-based reporting. In an effort to democratise social and political discourse, the field has been given away to the tyranny of an often deranged or evil-minded ideological minority.

The truth is that not all opinions are equal. Not all views are worth considering. Not all “facts” are empirical, falsifiable or objectively measured. Some thing should simply not be considered because they are not worth the time or energy to do so. But here we are, with Plan B (non-expert) academic fools in NZ disputing the expert scientific approaches to pandemic mitigation and me arguing with anti-vax housewives in the primary school parking lot.

I blame post-modernism, including cultural relativism and other forms of inter-textual subjectivity, for greasing the slippery slope into the tyranny of the ideological minority. I do so even as I recognise the contributions that modes of critical inquiry like subaltern studies have made to the study of humanity and the advances to the human condition pushed by non-binary interpretations of what constitutes personhood. But the descent to the “all truth is subjective and therefore all views are equal” syndrome that has led to the popular rise of pseudo-scientific claptrap masquerading as alternative truth and conspiracy theories as counterfactuals to reality-based narratives lies in the notion that one can transpose an alternative methodology designed to interpret human social behaviour onto “hard” scientific inquiry or the lived and experienced reality of the people in question.

In reality, Pizzagate did not happen. The Democratic leadership demonstrably does not run a pedophile ring. It has been repeatedly verified that US election results were not stolen, in any State. On the other hand, fake snow in Texas and Jewish space lasers setting fires to California forests for profit are not objectively provable and yet are peddled (by Republican politicians even!) as if they were empirical fact. The commonality among them is the all of these views share space in the rightwing conspiracy ecosystem that is by design focused on countering observable and verifiable information provided by objective reporting in various media.

In other words, it is not what you know and the basis for how you know it. It is about how you interpret things based on what you are told, whether it is verifiable or not.

In a weird way, the path towards democratising stupidity is proof that human social evolution is dialectical, not progressive (in the sense of progressing from lower to a higher forms of knowledge, consciousness or material well-being). The push for economic, political and social democratisation, which through much trial and error and while still a work in progress, has yielded significant gains for populations previously denied agency in their lives and in society in general, has also eventually led to the spectre of the tyranny of the minority. As a result, much effort has been put into ensuring that democratisation efforts do not result in the “tail wagging the dog” effect mentioned at the beginning of this essay, and much pushback has been levelled at that effort by those who fear the effects of democratisation on the traditional socio-economic and political hierarchies that constituted the previous era.

This all is evidence that human societies do not always progress from more simple to more complex. But the dialectical progression is most clearly seen in the democratisation of social discourse to the point that idiots and evil-doers are given equal opportunity and space to vent their irrational, mean-spirited and unreal views as if they were truth, and where a minority of ideological retrogrades can manipulate the digital media space to dissemination lies, falsehoods and disinformation unimpeded by reality-based filters or objective facts.

Before, the fear was that democratisation of electoral and social opportunity would lead to a tyranny of people denied voice because of who they are by the previous systems in place, and who would use the new, more open institutional structures to impose their minority preferences on the majority. Now the threat is posed by ideological minorities who in a rational world would be laughed off stage but who now, with the democratisation of telecommunications, have global media platforms on which to spew hatred and ignorance unencumbered by a grounding in objective knowledge and notions of honesty, civility and fair play.

If Hegel could see us now, I wonder what he would say.

Cloaking hate speech and fake news in the right to free expression.

It should be obvious by now but let’s be clear: The same folk who regularly traffic in disinformation, misinformation and “fake news” are also those who most strongly claim that their freedom of expression rights are being violated when moves are made to curb hate speech (as opposed to protected offensive speech). They lie, they mislead, they conspire and they subvert, only to whine when they are called out on their prejudice and deceit.

That is what might be called message “cloaking” or “masking:” using the legal protections of democracy in order to undermine it from within via propaganda and psychological operations designed to confuse, divide and accentuate extant social cleavages, or what right-wing extremists call “acceleration.” This harks to old Marxist-Leninist notions of exacerbating social contradictions, although for Marxists these are class based in capitalist societies whereas the alt-Right sees race and ethno-religious differences as the main fault lines to be exploited (precisely because capitalism is seen to aggregate ethnicities into socio-economic classes, thereby diluting the racial or ethno-religious basis of “proper”–read: Anglo-Saxon–governance).

Ironically, the alt-Right and white supremacists share Lenin’s view that democracy is “capitalism’s best possible political shell,” and they, like him, see it as an impediment to “pure” government (be it of the workers or of a chosen racial or ethnic group, respectively). Lenin believed that democracy blinds workers to their common interests because of the false promise of choice offered by the universal vote. Conversely, Alt-Right adherents and white supremacists believe that democracy (both in terms of the right to vote and in legal protections for minorities, etc.) gives too much power to “inferior” or “replacement” groups, thereby impeding merit-based efficient (read: White) governance. Perhaps both are right.

All of this happens in a context where public cynicism about political elites runs deep in both mature and emergent democratic societies. Venality, corruption and instrumental opportunism are rife throughout the so-called ‘free” world, leading to disenchantment and anger towards “the system” as a whole. This creates the space where conspiracy theories, false alternative narratives, fear-mongering, scape-goating and other deliberate distortions of the truth take hold in the collective consciousness. Some of this is at play on the Left side of the political spectrum but the majority of notions about the existence of a (presumably homogeneous in outlook and transnational in manifestation) Deep State, climate change being a hoax, 9/11 being an inside job, etc. come from the Right, harking back to previous incarnations of paranoid fantasies like those of the John Birch Society and various anti-Semitic cults that see Jewish control behind every major social organisation. In fact, pushed by social media connectivity, new and old Rightist tropes have merged into a particularly nasty amalgam of hate and manipulated ignorance.

The convergence of hate speech enthusiasts, climate change deniers, bigots, xenophobes and assorted conspiracy mongerers has been facilitated by social and alternative media platforms, which has given them common ground and global reach. They fight vigorously to defend their “right” to voice retrograde views while working equally as hard at propagating all sorts of subterfuge and stupidity in pursuit of their ulterior motives.

The saddest part is that this syndrome has seeped into mainstream politics throughout the democratic world, with Right-oriented parties now adopting both dis-and misinformation campaigns and “cloaking” as political tactics. National-populist parties provide the most obvious example, but one only need to look at the GOP in the US or the ACT and National parties in NZ to see how this seepage works. If I was uncharitable I would call it the “Trump tactic dispersion effect:” lie, deny, invent, obfuscate and obstruct in pursuit of partisan and personal gain without regard to the negative impact it has on the political system as a whole. The GOP is too far gone to recover from its MAGA infection, but the NZ Right parties need to be called out on their attempts to model some of their tactics on Trump’s approach and those of the alt-Right.

The irony is that the major beneficiaries of this dispersion effect are authoritarians, both those internal to the societies in question as well as the foreign despots who see utility in the weakening of democracy world-wide (and who therefore encourage and support disinformation/cloaking efforts globally).

After all, the deadliest thrusts of sharp power are into soft targets.

A fraught inquiry.

The inquiry into whether the SAS acted illegally during a nighttime raid on a suspected insurgent’s hideout in Afghanistan in 2010 (code named Operation Burnham), which resulted in six civilian deaths and serious wounds to 15 others, is slowly coming apart. This is unfortunate because the NZDF, which has allocated NZ $8 million to its representation at the inquiry, looks likely to be let off the hook even though the inquiry has revealed a pattern of lying, deception and cover up on its part. The issue transcends the actions of the SAS and allied forces on the ground and moves into the behaviour of the NZDF chain of command in Afghanistan and NZ after the first reports of civilian casualties came to light. Unfortunately, it now seems that will be whitewashed into oblivion.

So far the Inquiry (chaired by Sir Geoffrey Palmer and Sir Terence Arnold) has revealed that contrary to NZDF statements, civilians were known to be killed from the beginning and that at least some of them were “MAMs” (military aged males) who were unarmed. It also revealed that, again contrary to earlier NZDF reports, a US AC-130 gunship was involved in the operation and hit targets as they fled the villages in which the operation was conducted. Some of these may have been women and children, although the NZDF changed the identification of civilians to possible “INS” (insurgents) once the raid became a matter of public attention. The after-action reports demonstrate that little difference was given to suspected INS and MAMs when calling in air strikes, and that the AC-130, which is a rather blunt instrument when used on people out on open terrain, was the primary instrument of death. Only one person was killed by an SAS trooper, that being a hapless unarmed shepard who stumbled towards a SAS sniper position providing cover from a ridge line above the villages.

The NZDF’s (unnecessary, in my opinion) deception and cover up will largely remain lost because of two things: there secrecy in which the Inquiry has been shrouded; and the tactics of some of those who brought the matter to public attention. Let me explain.

The Inquiry was set up as a result of the allegations in a 2017 book by Jon Stephenson and Nicky Hager titled “Hit and Run.” The book followed a series of magazine stories by Mr. Stephenson about the SAS in Afghanistan and the Operation Burnham raid. Mr. Stephenson did almost all of the field research and original writing that went into the book, with Mr Hager joining later in order to add weight to the venture and bring it to quick publication in an election year. Although Mr. Hager got first author treatment on the cover page and in the media, the truth is that Mr. Stephenson was responsible for the majority of what was written in it.

As can be expected given their different roles in the project, the authors differed on some key issues, including the use of non-military maps to illustrate the location of the targeted villages and the tone of some of the language used to describe the SAS’s actions (which have been described by some as “war crimes” committed in revenge for the death of a NZDF soldier weeks earlier). One bone of contention was whether in fact any Taliban associated with the deadly attack on the NZDF land convoy were present in the village of Naik. That matters because the NZDF said that there were and that justified the raid. As it turns out, Mr. Stephenson subsequently reported that indeed, two Taliban commanders–the objectives of the “kill or capture” SAS-led mission–were present in the village but left before the raid commenced. However, the book claim is that no insurgents were present, apparently because none were found by the SAS in the targeted villages and Mr. Stephenson had not yet been able to secure interviews with the escaped Taliban commanders before the dateline for publication. The discrepancy does not invalidate the many other claims in the book but points to differences in journalistic approach between the two Hit and Run authors–differences that, along with other errors in the book (such as location errors on the maps used in the book), the NZDF and its supporters have been quick to seize upon.

The book came out, a furore ensued, the NZDF pretty much denied everything, then slowly began to correct its narrative and admit to much of what was written, and an Inquiry was eventually launched once the Labour-led government was installed (the previous National government refused to launch an inquiry and accepted the NZDF version of events).

The scope of the Inquiry was initially narrowly construed: determine what happened and whether the SAS and its Afghan and US partners contravened the laws of war. This is what led to the near-blanket extension of secrecy to the evidence and testimony given before it, as multiple agencies such as the GCSB and SIS had some involvement in the affair, SAS personnel are normally given anonymity during official investigations, and sources, methods, tactics and the names of individuals could be compromised if transparency was faithfully observed. This has led to disappointment in some quarters and increased tension between the Inquiry leaders and the accusers over the lack of transparency.

The bottom line is that whatever the legitimacy for the rationale behind keeping much of the Inquiry secret, its primary focus was always about the how Operation Burnham unfolded as a combat event. Questions about NZDF post-event misrepresentation could only be addressed once the facts on the ground were established.

I am ignorant of the exact timing of their entrance (perhaps even from the onset), but at some point the much celebrated team of Deborah Manning, Rodney Harrison QC and Richard McCleod (of Ahmed Zaoui fame) were invited to represent the victims of the raid in the Inquiry. It was at that point that things began to fall apart. The reason is that adding the villager’s perspective into the mix at the same time as responsibility was being determined muddled the Inquiry by stretching its terms of reference. Again, the original scope of the Inquiry was to determine what happened, whether illegal acts were committed and to attribute responsibility if so. Once that was established then the issue of reparations, compensation and other forms of victim redress could be discussed because it would be clearly established how they were victimised.

This is an important distinction. It is appropriate for the villagers to testify as witnesses. It is another thing to have them testify as victims. The former seeks to uncover other points of view on what was a chaotic nighttime operation. The latter presupposes culpability and concentrates on the matter of redress. Yet, judging from the legal team’s statements, it is this second matter that appears to be the focus of the villager’s representation in the Inquiry.

Under such conditions allowing villager legal representation to sit alongside the book authors who made the claims against the NZDF in the first instance is akin to putting the cart before the horse. To phrase it in political science terms, it is a case of methodological inversion because the focus on the villagers-as-victims selects on the dependent variable (the situation after the raid) rather than on the independent and intervening variables leading to the outcome (the reasons for and conduct of the raid). Put even another way: Yes, we know that innocent people died and were wounded in the raid and that the NZDF attempted to cover it up. But the question is whether they were killed unlawfully, and if so, by who, exactly? It is only when those questions are answered that discussion of what to do by way of redress can begin.

Unhappy with the proceedings, the villager’s legal team has quit the Inquiry (there is much talk about the villagers being disillusioned with the Inquiry but one has to wonder how much agency did they have and how conversant with the proceedings were they given the fact that they are largely illiterate peasants living in remote valleys 14,000 kilometres away from where the Inquiry is being conducted). Now Mr. Stephenson has publicly revealed that, based on interviews with them, two Taliban commanders were in Naik after all. That is problematic because it contradicts the villager’s original testimony as claimed in the book (which stated that no Taliban were present in the villages before the raid) and Mr. Hager’s supporting remarks to the Inquiry (which Mr. Stepehnson apparently contradicted in his testimony to the Inquiry months ago, where he left open the possibility that Taliban were present in the village before the raid but which he did not confirm publicly until recently). This still leaves a lot yet to be determined but certainly gives the impression that all is not well on the accuser’s side of the table.

I believe that the thrust of the book is correct even if mistakes were made on details and the language in it is a bit strong at times. Although controversial, Mr. Hager’s previous writing on matters of NZ security and intelligence have largely been proven correct. I have a ton of respect for Ms. Manning and Mr. Stephenson in particular, both of whom I know socially. I also believe that the SAS are very professional and are not prone to killing people for the sport of it. What I do not have much regard for is military superiors using secrecy and public relations to spin stories that evade the truth and which serve to shirk responsibility when things go wrong.

Alas, the NZDF brass may prevail in this instance. Most of those in leadership positions at the time Operation Burnham was conducted have moved on to other pastures and would not face punitive sanctions in any event. A few middle ranking soldiers might be called to account but it is doubtful that anything career threatening will happen to them. The soldiers who conducted the raid are very unlikely to be found to have committed illegal acts given the fog of war in difficult circumstances (I say this having read a number of the after-action summaries provided to the Inquiry).

Perhaps I am wrong and the Inquiry will find that the NZDF falsified documents and mislead the civilian leadership of the moment as to what actually occurred that night (one should recall then Defense Minister Wayne Mapp’s statements immediately following the raid versus later, once the book was published and he was revealed as a source for it). In that case perhaps some heads will roll. But I find that prospect unlikely.

What I do find likely is that, undermined by competing agendas amongst the principles involved in confronting the NZDF and shrouded by the mantle of secrecy afforded to it by the Inquiry, the military will pay no price even in the event that mistakes were made and innocents hurt as a result of them. I hope to be proven wrong and stand to be corrected if any of the above analysis is faulty, but at this juncture I think that in more ways than one the NZDF may well have dodged a bullet.

Media Link: The March 15 aftermath.

I was interviewed as part of an Al Jazeera documentary on the aftermath of the March 15 terrorist attacks in Christchurch. The program is well worth watching because it addresses subjects that most of the NZ media do not want to wrestle with.

You can find it here.

Unearthing the mole.

The issue of who wrote the anonymous “Resistance” op ed in the NY Times (about Oval Office insiders working to thwart and buffer Executive policy-making from Trump’s impulses and excesses) has dominated the media cycle in the US since its publication. Coming on the heels of the publication of excerpts from Bob Woodward’s book Fear, which chronicles the dysfunction of the Trump White House, the search is on for the “senior official” mole. The text has been carefully parsed in order to detect grammatical patterns that could identify the author. Attention has focused on the word “lodestar” in the essay, a word that has been used repeatedly by Vice President Mike Pence in public speeches but which has not been used by other senior Trump administration officials. Focus is also on the phrase “anti-trade,” which suggests to some that someone involved in economic policy making is the author. Others have pointed to phrases in the text said to be used by other senior officials, either as proof that they wrote it or as a cover and deflection from their real identity.

Since my opinion is about as good as anyone else’s when it comes to speculating about the author, and since I have not seen this particular angle covered as of yet, let me offer the following possibility:

The op ed is a joint effort by mainstream Republican insiders now serving in the White House. It was released with at least the tacit knowledge of the Republican congressional leaders, Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell, and it has been done as a way of terminally undermining Trump in the run up to the November 2018 mid term elections. The reason is that the authors and GOP leadership may well believe that they are headed to a landslide loss in November if they continue to ride Trump’s coattails. For them, it is not so much the possibility of Trump being impeached that is a primary concern (if the Democrats regain a majority in the House he certainly will be impeached), but of the disruption to their legislative agenda if they lose control of Congress. Should they lose the House and even more so if they lose the Senate as well, the GOP will be dead in the water when it comes to advancing its policy agenda. And although the economy is strong, they know that Trump’s disapproval ratings are at record levels and his divisiveness is corrosive to the national well-being, something that has prompted a rise in youth and ethnic minority political involvement and a shift to the Left in Democratic congressional primaries at the same time that cleavages between mainstream and populist Republicans in their primaries grow larger. None of this augers well for Republican electoral chances on November 6.

By the tone and language of the op ed, the authors are mainstream “traditional” Republicans, not Tea Party adherents, economic nationalists like Steve Bannon or alt-Right freaks like Stephen Miller. They clearly exhibit insider knowledge of beltway politics and congressional dynamics.  The language used in the essay suggests that the two retired generals that are senior administration officials–Chief of Staff John Kelly and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis–are not centrally involved even if phrases attributed to them appeared in the text (although they may have been aware of the drafting process).

Pence could be  involved as an author. As Vice President he stands to gain much if Trump resigns, and as a former congressman before becoming Indiana Governor, he has close ties to the GOP Congressional caucuses. But Jeff Sessions could also be involved in the drafting of the op ed. A former Senator and current Attorney General who has been the subject of relentless attacks by Trump for recusing himself from the Mueller investigation into Russian involvement with the Trump presidential campaign, Sessions shares the views outlined in the Times piece. He  has ties to Congress that go back decades and he has a motive for revenge. Kelly Ann Conway is another likely conspirator. Married to a long-standing GOP operative who despises Trump and herself a long-time Republican strategist, she has the worldview presented in the op ed and the connections to the “steady state” that is said to be running things in the pursuit of stability and consistency under the nose of the irrational fool in charge.

So my take is this. Regardless of who exactly are involved, no one individual in the White House would have the courage to write the Resistance essay alone. But a group of mainstream Republican senior officials stuck with an incompetent, ignorant, narcissistic sociopath as leader of their own party as well as president, one who could well be leading them to a historic defeat that could in turn irretrievably fracture the Party, might well have decided to put their heads together and come up with a plan to undermine Trump in order to force his ouster via resignation. They will not come forth and give their names because to do so would allow Trump to regain some initiative by firing them.  Remaining anonymous and in the shadows so close to the Oval Office has and will send Trump into a witch hunting frenzy that, given his obsessive personality, will dominate every aspect of his routine. And in the measure that he obsesses about leakers and scurries to rallies in order to seek comfort and solace far from the isolation he feels in Washington, the more nothing else will get done when it comes to Executive policy-making. Along with the ongoing vendettas, feuds, insults and scandals that are the daily circus that is Trump’s “crazyland” (as General Kelly purportedly referred to it), that makes it easier for Republican candidates to abandon him in all but the most die hard pro-Trump districts. Since those districts alone cannot keep a GOP House majority, it is in contestable districts where the GOP choice to ride his coattails or jump ship is starkest. The Resistance op ed is a signal to them as to which way to go.

So, as others have already pointed out, there is a slow moving coup at play here. It is not coming from the armed forces and/or Democratic Party. It is coming from within the Republican Party in an effort to save itself from the cancer that is Trump. The questions are whether the Resistance coup will succeed and whether it will be enough to save the Republicans from what they have become.

Bonus media link: Mitch Harris and I talk about the Resistance essay and more during our latest radio conversation.