Differentiating between democracy and republic.

Although NZ readers may not be that interested in the subject and in lieu of US Fathers Day missives (not celebrated in NZ), I thought I would lay out some brief thoughts on a political subject being debated in the US. It seems crazy but there seems to be some confusion on what a the terms “democracy” and “republic” mean.

There are (MAGA) right-wingers and conservative media commentators who claim that the US is a Republic, not a Democracy. They are either cynical or ignorant. The two are not antithetical. Democracy is a means of giving political voice, selecting political representatives and granting social (and often economic) equality. It comes from the Latin word “demos,” or polity.

Republics (from the Latin res publica) are a type of political governance where, unlike monarchies or other forms of oligarchical rule, leadership purportedly derives from or is delegated by the sovereign will of the people (which may/may not be voiced democratically). There are democratic republics and there are authoritarian republics, so the two terms–democracy and republic–while having different specific meanings, may or may not be overlapped when it comes to a given political framework.

In fact, as the old saying goes, any country with “democratic” in its name is likely not regardless of whether it has “Republic” in its title. For example, the Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) is anything but. The Peoples Republic of China (PRC) holds elections (in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)), but is certainly not democratic in the liberal (universal, free, fair and transparent elections) sense of the term. Argentina under its dictatorships remained a “Republica Federal.” In fact, Republics can be federal in nature, where political administration is decentralized and broken into constituent parts such as US or Brazilian states, or unitary in nature, where the central government has administrative jurisdiction over the entire country (as in NZ). In neither case does this necessarily involve democracy as a concept or practice. It is simply a type of governmental administration within given territorial limits, to which different types of political voice, representation and accountability are attached.

Again, democracy is about political expression and social equality; republic is about political organisation. The US was founded and has been broadened via much struggle and conflict as a democratic republic (first for some, eventually for all). The process involved two parallel processes that were not always congruent or synchronised, which consequently has led to repeated conflict (think Civil War and the Civil Rights movement). In fact, the broadening of “democratic” rights within the US over the years has produced backlash from small and large-R “republicans” who believe that the awarding of rights to previously marginalised groups and non-citizens somehow infringes on their existing rights (which assumes that “rights” are a divisible pie where awarding some to one group means that other groups will lose their fair or previously allotted share). This has extended into discussions of “states rights” versus those accorded by US federal law, where advocates of the Republic versus Democracy designation argue against democracy because it interferes with State’s autonomy over their internal (political, economic and social) affairs. In this view, a US Republic leaves the issue of individual and collective rights to be decided by States under their own self-made laws. Democracy removes that prerogative by federal fiat, subjugating states to the dictates of a federal overseers (who in turn are seen as pawns or tools of nefarious elites). This view is deeply flawed, if not dishonest.

The “states versus feds” debate has been rehashed endlessly and largely settled as a matter of US constitutional law. Despite ongoing efforts by groups like the Federalist Society to redefine the relationship between the central government and states, it has never really been framed as a “Republic versus Democracy” issue. But in the hands of malevolent or ignorant actors, this adversarial distinction contributes to the false dichotomy between and binary juxtaposition of the two different but often compatible terms.

It would be a pity if the narrative that democracy is antithetical to being a republic begins to take larger hold in the US in the lead-up to the November elections. Perhaps some of those who espouse such a view really would prefer that the US become an authoritarian republic. But what the very presence of such views does show is that when it comes to fundamental concepts underpinning the US political order, there sure are a lot of misinformed if not downright stupid people out there–and plenty of others who wish to exploit their ignorance for myopic partisan gain.

Media Link: AVFA on post-colonial blowback.

Selwyn Manning and I discuss varieties of post colonial blowback and the implications its has for the rise of the Global South. Counties discussed include Palestine/Israel, France/New Caledonia, England/India, apartheid/post-apartheid South Africa and post-colonial New Zealand. It is a bit of a ramble but it raises some infrequently discussed points. You can find the episode here.

Te Pati Loco?

Normally I would not write about Maori issues. I may have been living in NZ for over 25 years but I do not feel that it is my place to opine because I am not an expert on Maori history and politics and do not speak Te Reo (because as anyone who seriously studies comparative politics will attest, foreign language proficiency is a bottom line requirement for scholarship in the field unless you only study countries and cultures that speak your mother tongue). Hence in the past I deferred to Lew to write about Maori issues here at KP, but since he has departed there is no one left to do so.

However, in light of the recent carkoi and protests organised by Te Pati Maori (TPM) in response to the Coalition of Cruelty’s budget, I thought I would touch briefly on a matter of Te Pati Maori praxis. I was dragged into the debate about the protests when I noted on social media that the use of the term “strike” to characterise the direct action was done in error or for dramatic effect since “strike” is codified in employment law as a collective withholding of labour services by employees from employers in the context of workplace disputes. If the labour service withdrawal is called by collective agents and follows the procedures for engaging in such action (giving notice, etc.) then it is a strike “proper.” if it is done by individuals or groups of workers without collective authorization, then it is a “wildcat” strike that may be deemed unlawful by employment courts. A general strike is a labour service withdrawal across economic sectors done for economic and/or political purposes, which is difficult because it requires unity of purpose and action by employees working in different productive areas, which in turn requires agreement between union agents and agent/principal agreement in every union on the action. That is a big ask.

Taking a day off from work to go to a protest, be it by using paid, unpaid or medical leave or no leave at all is not a strike no matter what one calls it. Workers assume the employment risks associated with such actions. Employers can weigh their responses according to the law and their relationship with employees. That could even include giving people the day off or paying them overtime to stay on the job, among other options. Again, the nature of the relationship between boss and worker outside of the legal framework can influence an employer’s response for better or worse.

I figured that since I have written two books and a dozen or so scholarly articles about comparative labour relations, including the subject of strikes and State responses to working class collective action, that my neutral if pedantic observation about the proper use of the term “strike” would be as unremarkable as it was incontrovertible. I was wrong.

To be sure, the use of the term “strike” in the Te Pati Maori protest literature, which explicitly references it as a display of Maori economic power, lent itself to the view that Maori were going on strike. As such, right-wingers seized on the term to call for employer retaliation against those who joined the protests. There was much agitation on the Right about violations of contract (individual or collective) and the penalties that should be levied. The PM weighed in with the comment that workers should be careful about striking and that strikes should be done on weekends because that way they would not be as disruptive.

Besides the fact that a PM should know the difference between a strike and a protest (rather than cynically feed into the “strike” narrative), it is pretty rich for him to suggest that strikes are best done on weekends. As I said on social media, by that logic we should take our holidays on weekends as well. The whole point of strikes, protests, demonstrations and other types of direct action is precisely to be disruptive of the status quo as given in defence of a cause or to air grievances. A protest without disruption is like an army without a fight, full of rebels with causes but no stomach for consequences. Protests and strikes are about assuming collective and individual risk. The risk may be large or small depending on circumstance, but in one way or another it hangs over acts of “unauthorised” direct action in most every instance.

Having said all of that, I understand the call to strike in the Te Pati Maori literature as using the original sense of the term, which means “to deliver a blow.” The protest was organised as a symbolic blow against the reactionary anti-Maori thrust of the Coalition of Cruelty’s policies. It was not about Maori labour service withdrawals per se.

For my troubles in clarifying what is and what is not a strike and how the term was misused in the call to action by both supporters and opponents of the protests, I was called condescending, paternalistic, pompous, a lightweight, and best of all, a “racist c**t,” the latter by a lady who surely must kiss her mum and perhaps children with that mouth. As I wrote to her, she must be fun to be around.

All of that aside, I then got the pleasure of watching Te Pati Maori leaders speak in and outside of Parliament on the subject of the protest and much more. Although Ms.Ngarwera-Packer presented her views coolly, her counterpart Mr. Waititi was at his bombastic, hyperbolic best, taking the tradition of Marae oratory to a level that even that tax-funded weiner-tugger Shane Jones cannot match. He threw out gems such as “if Maori are 60 percent of the prison population then (we) deserve 60 percent of the Corrections budget,” a feat of logic so extraordinary that it would be akin to saying that NZ should pay the PRC, Russia and rightwing extremists most of the intelligence budget because they are the ones being spied on. To be frank, I have always found Mr. Waititi to be a bit of a buffoon and charlatan, but then again, that is probably the old Pakeha racist codger in me doing the assessment (I have been characterised as such before).

Which is why I paused to reflect on my reaction to his rants. Others have already noted the hypocrisy of TPM being funded by taxpayers and gaining prominence via “Pakeha” procedures and institutions. They have noted with alarm the seditious rhetoric of Mr. Waititi’s wife, the daughter of none other than that paragon of indigenous resistance, John Tamihere (although Mr. Tamihere’s management of the Waiparera Trust, for whatever its faults, was first rate during the pandemic and is widely respect in the West Auckland community). Now the TPM is calling for a separate Maori parliament, presumably to run in parallel to the “Pakeha” parliament and be equal to it. I am not sure how it will be funded and what outcomes it hopes to achieve, but it provides some food for thought about political alternatives even if it has a snowball’s chance in hell of materialising while the current government is in power.

The proposal is interesting in part because one of the features of a Mixed Member Proportional (MMP) democratic system like that in NZ is that it allows small, narrow-focused or single issue parties to get elected and press their interests within parliament, using coalition-building and vote-trading as a means of doing so. The ACT and Green Parties started out this way and have now widened their political appeals beyond their original core policy platforms. Whether that is for better or worse is for others to decide, but the general thrust for both of them was to start narrow and then widen their platforms via the incorporation of other agenda items and constituencies. ACT has gone with the gun rights crowd, incels and racists; the Greens have gone with identity issues, animal rights and rainbows. Both have had success by doing so. NZ First has done something a bit different, using malleable nationalist populism as a vehicle for Winston Peter’s political aspirations. To his original xenophobia and self-loathing Maori appeal (to blue rinse Pakehas), he has now added anti-vaccination conspiracy weirdness and slavish “anti-woke” corporate bootlicking to the party repertoire. Like the broadening shifts undergone by ACT and the Greens, it has served his party well and allowed it and ACT to become the tail-wagging rump ends of the Coalition of Cruelty dog.

Te Pati Maori is a different kettle of fish. Gone are the days of Pita Sharples and Tariana Turia, who tried to play the centrist–some might say assimilationist–parliamentary game.They supported both Labour and National-led governments while confining themselves to practical pursuit of “reasonable” goals, that is, objectives that could be achieved by and within the system as given. Truth be told, the Maori Party record was mixed at best, but one thing that did come out of its emergence on the political scene is that outside of Maori-related issues (say, rural health and lower-income welfare support), it had zero to little impact on NZ government policy. The “big” policy decisions were made by Pakeha-dominated parties, including things like foreign and defence policy (I wrote about the Maori Party’s lack of consequence in NZ foreign policy other than on international indigenous affairs in this scholarly article).

Today’s Te Pati Maori is different. More than a just a party name change, it is overtly anti-Establishment and “progressive” in orientation (whatever “progressive” means to them, which may not be what other “progressives” think that they are). As the proposed Maori parliament suggests, TPM rejects the system as given. That is why it uses the word “strike” without regard to the Pakeha convention known as Employment Law. It’s spokespeople openly speak of “revolution” and government overthrow even if it is unclear what they actually mean when they use those terms. What is clear is that TPM is more about political theatre and symbolic politics than delivering tangible policy outcomes to and for their constituents. If anything, its marginalization within the political system has increased along with its militant rhetoric and actions. It might be too early to tell, but the carkoi protests could be seen in that light: as a lot of bluster and fanfare but no tangible impact or results to show for them. In fact, the response from most other parties was to either lambaste or shrug and ignore Te Pati Maori’s antics. Time will tell if the impact of the protests are more subtle and longer-term in nature but for the moment TPM stands alone, seemingly barking into the wind.

Again, that got me wondering as I stopped to check my white privilege. Am I being unkind to TPM? Or am I just another racist cracker bleating about the rise of a righteous and strong indigenous voice?

I found my answer in Gramsci. It occurs to me that, because TMP often refers to its actions and rationales in neo-Marxist terms with a smattering of Paulo Freire, Franz Fanon and Norm Chomsky thrown in, that Te Pati Maori sees itself waging a war of position within the “trenches” of the NZ Pakeha State. That is to say, it is working from within to disseminate its “counter-hegemonic” vision and policy prescriptions in civil and political society. Its focus is on grassroots organising, starting with Maori and reaching out from there into other “progressive” communities such as those grouped under the Green and Left Labour banners. It is not worried about converting the old Pakeha elites or engaging in parliamentary compromises because, as the recent census shows, Maori are growing in demographic numbers while Pakeha are declining. Given the structure of MMP, that growth can translate into increased seats in whatever parliament they chose to stand in, and given the youth appeal that they presently feel that they have, time is on their side. Along with forging alliances within the Labour and Green parties, unions and other civil society organisations, TPM is using a long-game strategy where what it is doing now sows the seeds for its successes down the road.

They may not be so loco after all.

So what to make of Te Pati Maori? Are they just nuts (as the term “loco” implies)? Are they communists, extremists and separatists as Winston First and Tugger Jones claim them to be? I would argue no to both suggestions. What TPM is doing is a time-honoured yet new form of politics in a social media age, where their theatrics are part of a grassroots appeal to marginalised and disaffected (not always the same) groups, especially proletarians of colour. By working “in the trenches” TPM can slowly promote an ideological re-orientation away from neoliberal vestiges (because neoliberalism is not just an economic doctrine but has become over the course of two generations a social construct that frames our way of life) and towards a type of post-modern indigenous-centric perspective infused with working class-based values and perspectives. This view is self-realised and awake rather than woke, defiant but not always disrespectful, confrontational but not conflictual, independent rather than (Pakeha) dependent, cooperative and collective rather than corporate in organization. It may take time for the TPM-led movement to congeal, but the stirrings are there and the people are ready for generational change to take effect. That is the plan and TPM sees itself as the instrument for converting that plan into praxis.

Or so they hope.

Thoughts about contemporary troubles.

This will be s short post. It stems from observations I made elsewhere about what might be characterised as some macro and micro aspects of contemporary collective violence events. Here goes.

The conflicts between Israel and Palestine and France and Kanaks in New Caledonia are two post-colonial legacies born of reneged settler promises and betrayed agreements leading to dispossession, occupation, poverty, alienation and generational hatreds. Israel and France must recognize this for peace to obtain. So far they have not. Israel has opted for its own version of the final solution, something that, if not a “full” genocide in the formal sense of the word, sure has the looks of ethnic cleansing. That includes the West Bank, where the IDF is demolishing 2,500 Palestinian homes safeguarded under a previous pact in order to clear land for more Israeli settlements. Given Israel’s defiance of international norms and conventions, it appears that it has gone full “rogue” in its quest to drive the Palestinians from their ancestral lands.

Israel’s support in the West derives from its history and strategic location and orientation. It is a major provider of intelligence to Western governments and is a nominally pro-Western bulwark in the Middle East. Its patrons and supporters do not want to alienate it for fear of losing access to its formidable intelligence collection capabilities in the Middle East, which until recently meant casting blind eye on the increasingly apartheid-like behaviour it exhibits towards Palestinians. Israel operates with impunity against Palestinians and other antagonists because, in a sense, it has a Western insurance policy or “get out of jail free card”because of its geostrategic role. This has turned it into lightening rod for Global South versus Global North confrontation.

With that as the bottom line, peace in the Levant does not look possible anytime soon.

In another North-versus-South friction, France has opted for a different path but with a similar, albeit less catastrophic result. With the 1998 Nomuea Accords it proposed an incremental, referendum-based 20 year process towards national independence, or at least considerable political autonomy for New Caledonians. Instead, the French encouraged mass immigration by French mainlanders, (including ex-police and military members) before each referendum (three in total, in 2018, 2020 and 2020). 40,000 French immigrants entered New Caledonia between 1999 and 2021. This skewed the electoral demographics in favour of the anti-independence blocs, something accentuated in the final referendum when representatives of the indigenous Kanak people, particularly the FLINK political movement, boycotted the plebiscite because of disagreements about post-Covid impact on Kanak turnout. The 2018 and 2020 referenda saw 56, then 53 percent of the vote go to the anti-independence bloc. in 2021, with the boycott and an overall turnout of less than 44 percent of eligible voters, the anti-independence vote climbed to 91 percent, opening questions about its legitimacy. This did not deter France from moving ahead with drafting a new political charter for this “sui generis” overseas territory.

With independence rejected, France continues to control the military, police, justice, immigration, higher education, Treasury and civil service under the Noumea Accord, with limited autonomy conferred to the New Caledonia government in diplomatic affairs, taxation, border control and local governance. It is now in the process of drafting a New Caledonian constitution that gives recent immigrants more voting rights in local and provincial elections (diluting Kanak voting influence) and consolidating French administrative control of core aspects of public policy. That is the cause of the current troubles.

Incidentally, for a very good independent source on South Pacific issues, see Prof. David Robie’s Asia-Pacific Report. Here is a sample article but there is lots more.

It appears that France never intended for New Caledonia to achieve independence because the sui generis territory is too strategically important for it to relinquish full control. It is the home to the French Pacific Army (5,000 troops) and military aviation and naval units now increasingly engaged in anti-PRC containment operations in the Southwest Pacific. With PRC inroads made in other Melanesian countries such as the Solomon Islands and Vanuatu, France and its Western partners (also former imperial powers or servitor imperialist allies) fear a type of domino effect occurring should New Caledonia “fall” under Chinese influence. This concern is compounded by the fact that New Caledonia is the 4th largest producer of the world’s nickel, accounting for 20-30 percent of the world’s nickel reserves, 90 percent of New Caledonia’s non-tourist export revenues, 20 percent of the country’s GDP and 40 percent of its employment. Given the taxation revenues accrued to France as a result of the nickel sector and the fact that the sector does not (yet) have a dominant Chinese presence in it, France has strategic reasons to want to retain control of the territory in which it operates.

The bottom line of the French position vis a vis New Caledonia is geostrategic, and its approach to the issue of independence a cloak for its real intent. Here too, the prospect for a long-term peaceful resolution seem distant even if the amount of violence is much less than in Palestine.

On a micro level, video has surfaced of young female IDF soldiers captured by uniformed Hamas fighters after an assault on an IDF base in Southern Israel. The video was released by families of the soldiers in order to exert pressure on Netanyahu’s government to negotiate their release. To be clear, the soldiers and their male counterparts are prisoners of war and therefore protected by the Geneva Convention. They might be freed in a POW exchange but Hamas must abide by the Convention in any event. It is in Hamas’s self-interest to do so, both for negotiation purposes but also as a sign of its accepting international norms as part of its claim to legitimacy as an agent of the Palestinian people. It is then up to the global community as to how to respond, and in this regard the move by Ireland, Norway and Spain to recognise a Palestinian State is a step in the correct direction because it might encourage moderation in the Hamas leadership with an eye towards that end.

On the other hand, although the international criminal court (ICC) charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity against Israeli and Hamas leaders is salutary albeit largely symbolic given the geopolitical realities of the moment, it adds a complicating factor in any attempts to get Hamas to moderate, much as is the case with the hardliners in the Israeli government. But if used as a coercive negotiating tool (i.e., as a stick rather than a carrot) to encourage moderation on both sides in pursuit of a durable ceasefire in exchange for dropping of the charges (known in the human rights literature as an ethical dilemma), then perhaps it too can help construct the bounded rationality in which moderation, negotiation and compromise is seen as the best option by both sides.

In the meantime we can only hope that when it comes to the treatment of prisoners held by Hamas and the IDF, the rules outlined in the Convention are respected. I shall not hold my breath on that.

Media Link: AVFA on the implications of US elections.

In this week’s “A View from Afar” podcast Selwyn Manning and spoke about the upcoming US elections and what the possibility of another Trump presidency means for the US role in world affairs. We also spoke about the problems Joe Biden has in dominating the presidential race against a demonstrably unbalanced opponent, shifting voter demographics, how US allies and adversaries engage in strategic hedging depending on whether they view Trump as an asset or as a threat, and how the US increasingly looks like an unstable polity, to the point that US foreign interlocutors must factor in its growing unreliability as an international partner. And much more. The link is here.

Setting things straight.

Seeing that, in order to discredit the figures and achieve moral superiority while attempting to deflect attention away from the military assault on Rafa, Israel supporters in NZ have seized on reports that casualty numbers in Gaza may be inflated by Hamas (even if corroborated by international agencies), I thought I would recap the truth behind this spin game.

On October 7 Hamas fighters attacked Southern Israel from the Gaza Strip. They were initially said to have killed more than 1500 people (mostly civilians), but after scrutiny that figure was reduced to below 1200 (including military personnel). At least some of the deaths attributed to Hamas were later found to be the result of friendly fire from responding Israeli (IDF) forces. Israeli sources claimed that babies were cooked in microwaves, women were sexually tortured and mutilated and that mass rapes were carried out, but that has not been independently substantiated. Scores of hostages (closest reliable count is 250) were supposedly taken back into Gaza, presumably to serve as human leverage in subsequent negotiations with Israel. A few have been released but many of those have died, not just at Hamas’s hands but as a result of IDF assaults on the places that they were being held captive.

Here are some facts. The killing of IDF soldiers by Hamas is not a crime, as it can be classified as the product of clashes between an armed resistance to an illegal occupying force on Palestinian land (one look at the 1947, 1967, 1973 and recent maps of Palestine/Israel demonstrates the steady annexation of Palestinian land regardless of the formal agreements in place). In other. words, as ugly as that sounds, in a fight with an armed opponent IDF soldiers were fair game.

What is a war crime is if Hamas tortured, raped or murdered soldiers after they surrendered. But in order to prosecute the Hamas individuals or units involved would require international recognition of Hamas as a legitimate fighting force acting on behalf of a recognised State or political community. Although Hamas has a political wing that is related to but separate from the armed wing and has been the de facto government of Gaza since its victory in the 2006 Palestinian elections, leading to the 2007 Hamas-Fatah war that resulted in Hamas gaining control of Gaza while Fatah and other Palestinian Authority factions retreated to the West Bank, the International community (read: the West) does not recognise it as a State or government and instead has designated it a terrorist entity because of the irregular warfare operations, including terrorist attacks, conducted by its armed wing. That may be convenient for Israel and its Western supporters, but it makes it more difficult to hold Hamas accountable for the actions of its members, armed and unarmed (because not all Palestinians, or Hamas supporters for that matter, are fighters). So, in spite of the obvious fact that Hamas was a governing entity in Gaza at the time the war started, charging Hamas fighters with war crimes is difficult because they are not seen as representative of any duly constituted political organisation. They are just terrorists, and if one is to believe the Israel apologists, so are the people they are ostensibly fighting for.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about non-recognition. There is irony in non-recognition of Hamas as a legitimate representative of at least some Palestine people. Hamas exists as a political movement with an ideology (nationalist-religious in this case), as well as a physical presence that extends beyond its armed wing. It will not go away just because it is not recognised abroad, is not liked by many, or if its armed cadres are decimated. And it holds equal if not more legitimacy than the Palestinian Authority of which Fatah is part, which is a corrupt gerontocracy that serves as a laptop of the Israelis in the West Bank. Moreover, Israel itself is not like in many quarters and is not recognised by a number of Muslim-majority States, but it certainly exists and is not going anywhere no matter what other’s may wish or think. In addition, the State of Israel was created in part due to the “terrorist” operations of the likes of the Irgun (which was designated as a terrorist organization by the British), so not recognising Hamas because of its irregular warfare activities in the contemporary era is a hypocritical specious reasoning.

The bottom line is this. Non-recognition may be an attempt at de-legitimation and ostracism, but it is more akin to closing ones eyes and putting fingers in one’s ears while shouting “you are not there” to someone you dislike. The reality says otherwise, and in the international arena non-recognition only serves to absolve political actors from assuming full legal responsibility for their actions. Not recognising Hamas as having a legitimate claim when it comes to representing Palestinians is therefore an own-goal (remember, Hamas won the largest plurality in the parliamentary elections of 2006 and would have been required to form a coalition government before Israel, the US and other Western states backed Fatah’s rejection of the results and subsequent armed assault on Hamas in Gaza. This only played into the hands of the hardline Hamas cadres and strengthened their resolve to prevail in the fight against Fatah, which they did. That set up the subsequent chain of events that has led to the current disaster).

In any event, killing, raping and abducting civilians are crimes against humanity even if the actions of the Hamas fighters are not technically classified as war crimes when it comes to their treatment of IDF soldiers. Remember that it is not the method or instrument of violence that defines a war crime or a crime against humanity. Nor is it the number of victims. Instead, it is who commits atrocities (war crimes are committed by military forces) and who is targeted. Regardless of who the material authors may be, for there to be war crimes or crimes against humanity, the victims must be defenceless. In the case of Israelis attacked by Hamas on October 7, most but not all of them were, so the scale of the atrocities was significant and cannot be downplayed.

In response, Israel unleashed a scorched earth collective punishment approach to the residents of Gaza, and has meted out come collateral punishment to Palestinians in the West Bank as well. Some see the IDF military campaign in Gaza as genocidal in intent–and it may well be–but at a minimum it is ethnic cleansing in effect: entire swathes of Gaza have been cleansed of their inhabitants. The NZ apologists for the IDF approach want to make it seem that 15,000 or 20,000 Palestinian dead is significantly different than 30,000 or 40,000 dead claimed by Hamas (never mind the wounded and maimed or those now enduring mass starvation due to Israeli (including Jewish settlers!)) interference with aid convoys. But at the same time they use the malleable 1200+/- Israeli body count to argue that the IDF response is proportionate to the October 7 attacks. They also clamour for the release of the Israeli hostages but are silent about the thousands of Palestinians detained by Israel since October 7. It seems that Israel also understands the hostage-taking-as-leverage game. Perversely, for the Israel supporters scale and scope of dehumanisation only matters when the numbers favour a particular victimisation narrative. In other words, 1200 Israeli dead is comparable with 20,00 rather than 40,000 Palestinian dead, so moral equivalence applies. That is not a winning argument.

That is in large part due to the fact that collective punishment is illegal under international law and classified as a war crime, most specifically Convention 4, Article 33 of the Geneva Convention. The same convention, article 34, notes that the taking of hostages is prohibited, even if it does not specify the means by which hostages are taken by belligerents (presumably the 3,000 or so Palestinians held in “administrative detention” without charge by the Israelis since October 7 would fit into this category regardless of the institutional/legal facade used to cloak their real status). So although only Israel is guilty of violating the convention when it comes to collective punishment, both sides are in violation of the Geneva Conventions when it comes to hostage taking.

That brings up the truth of the matter. Both Hamas and the IDF have committed war crimes and/or crimes against humanity. Both have committed serious breaches of international law. Fiddling with and sniping about numbers do not alter this fact. Moral relativism does not alter this fact. Trying to comparatively scale and scope the atrocities does not alter this fact. No amount of spin alters this fact.

Most of all, both Israel and Hamas apologists cannot escape this fact.

Media Link: “A View from Afar” on the moment of friction, and more.

After a hiatus of over four months Selwyn Manning and I finally got it together to re-start the “A View from Afar” podcast series. We shall see how we go but aim to do 2 episodes per month if possible.

Here we start of with a catch up on events since the last podcast of 2023. Selwyn liked the KP moment of friction post from April 1, and so we used it as the stepping stone into a discussion that incorporates material from several recent KP posts and other news. I hope that you find the podcast of interest. You can find it here.

The Israel/Palestinian metastasis.

In the weeks after the October 7 Hamas attacks on Southern Israel I wrote about the possible 2nd, 3rd and even 4th order effects of the conflict. These included the possibility of new fronts being opened in the West Bank (with Hamas), Golan Heights (with Syria), Northern Israel/Southern Lebanon (with Hezbollah), with the Yemeni Houthis (at sea and in the air) and with Iran (now directly) all of which seemed a fair possibility back then and most of which have indeed eventuated. Israel has needed allies to help fend off some of the widening attacks, while Palestinians have had to place themselves at the mercy of the international community for humanitarian aid because Israel will spare them little of it while prosecuting what for all intents and purposes is a scorched earth war policy in Gaza. Other than Iran and its proxies/allies, no one is coming to the military rescue of Hamas or Palestinians in general. In other words, it is now a one-sided meting out of punishment on a largely defenseless population.

What I did not envision is what is happening on campuses in the US and around the world nearly seven months after the Hamas attack. The ensuring conflict has become a lightening rod and trigger not just for those disgusted by the events in Gaza but also for those who espouse a number of other grievances, including climate change, racism, global inequality, imperialism and colonialism, political corruption and even capitalism itself. In response, the Right labels them all “radicalised” commies and terrorist lovers because that is an easy way to introduce culture war themes into the mix rather than debate the complexities of what is happening in the Eastern Mediterranean. Apparently the war on Gaza is less about Israel and Palestine and more about a host of other (not all unrelated) things. The moment of friction that I wrote about recently has now come to American academe.

This has turned campus protests (and the coverage of them) into partisan events, with rightwing entities backing pro-Israeli demonstrators and leftwing and progressive forces, including those in the Democratic Party in the US, siding with the pro-Palestinian side. The protests include non-students as well as students, confirming what I wrote in the last post about outside agitators and infiltrators using the opportunity to advance their own agendas (which often go beyond the Israel/Palestine conflict). This includes Antifa and the old Occupy Wall Street crowd, now resurrecting old peeves (some well justified then and now) on the back of the Palestinian cause. For the US Right it is another way of showing how Democrats are soft on crime and Joe Biden is a doddering old fool while demonstrating that, like Republican Governors Abbot of Texas and DeSantis of Florida have done, you show strength by ordering cops to bash in heads of people wearing masks and keffiyeh–but not those waving Israel flags.

Unfortunately, this has lifted the scab on long-festering hatreds in many societies, including the US. Long dormant anti-semitism has been inflamed by Israel’s actions in Gaza, which however heinous the October 7 Hamas attacks were, are grossly disproportionate to them (including using starvation as a weapon), and are therefore a form of collective punishment that, if not genocidal in the strictest sense of the term, certainly seems to have ethnic cleansing as a purpose. Conversely, Islamophobia has been resurrected by the Political Right, including conservative Christians and Jews and an assortment of rightwing media outlets and political organisations. In the pro-Palestine protests there are now people who believe that the main problem are Jews rather than Zionists or the the State of Israel’s actions. In the pro-Israel camp there are people who believe the root cause of the conflict is Islam, Arabs or the both combined. Primordial hatreds have been resurrected and brought to the fray, which now encompasses pre-modern, modern and post-modern fault lines covering a broad spectrum of divisive issues.

Then there are those who are not quite sure who to hate more. Take for example representative Marjorie Taylor Green (R-GA), who believes that all Muslims are potential terrorists and therefore should be deported from the US and Europe, but who on the other hand, when it comes to “the” Jews, well, there is that problem of their space lasers causing forest fires….

This is why I refer to this evolution as a metastasis of the conflict. It is malign in nature and it is spreading well beyond the original boundaries of the conflict qua disease. The pro-Palestinian protestors have degenerated in some places into glorification of Hamas’s atrocities and a Holocaust denying Jew hate fest. Likewise but in mirror fashion, pro-Israeli demonstrations rejoice at the civilian death toll in Gaza, paint all Muslims/Arabs as savages and call for their extermination as such. Neither is really interested in a legitimate “debate,” and both are using protests to stake antithetical claims. That is not good and does nothing to change minds, much less advance any peaceful resolution or long-term solution to the impasse in the Levant.

My alma mater, the University of Chicago, appears to have struck a good balance by allowing an encampment to be established on the central university mall but not on footpaths or in front of buildings. The university makes a distinction between free expression versus disruption, drawing the line when the former is used to justify the latter. It seems to be working so far, as the protests are loud but constrained when compared to other universities. That being said, MAGA frat boys have tried to storm the encampment, only to be repelled by the U Chicago police (as a private university U Chicago has its own accredited police force dating back to the 1960s). The rightwing frat guys have a history of racist antics and in this case appear to be less interested in supporting Israel than in scoring physical points against woke “commies.”

Other places that I have taught at, including the University of Arizona and University of South Florida, have descended into chaos, including the use of rubber bullets and tear gas to roust pro-Palestinian crowds. As for the University of Auckland, where I also taught, Students for Justice in Palestine (they dropped the “Peace” from their name a while ago) abandoned their attempts to set up an encampment when the University informed them that as a registered university club they would be in violation of university policy regarding club rules if they did so and therefore become liable for suspension, etc. They still have the freedom to conduct peaceful protests outside the main library on a daily basis, which is what they have agreed to do.

That is somewhat ironic– student protesters accepting the orders of their institutional masters when it comes to how to behave. Ah, the kiwi way! But where are the old “Minto” types of direct action these days? (Minto himself was down in Christchurch yesterday protesting National’s support for Israel, so at least that old dog still has some bark left in him). Is it true that today’s generation of NZ leftist activists have gone a bit soft? It is not for me to say since I am just a Trotteresque keyboarding observer these days, but the starch seems to have gone out of the current protester’s shirts when it comes to Israel and Palestine. On the other hand, when it comes to vaccinations, government mandates, Qanon and the Deep State, those on the NZ Right have shown in March 2022 how far they are willing to go in order to prove their points (and mettle). In fact now that I have mentioned them, given the attitudes of many on the NZ Right when it comes to Jews and Muslims, where might they stand when it comes to the Middle East? Perhaps Kyle Chapman or one of the Counterspin or Action Zealandia weirdos can enlighten us.

Let’s be clear on this. The Right demonstrate over matters that they feel affects them personally (like vaccines and mandates), but not over matters of solidarity with or concern for others. Their protests are about infringements on themselves, not on infringements not he rights of others. The Left, such as those involved in the student protests, demonstrate out of humanitarian concern for people that they do not even know, but whose basic humanity is under lethal siege. To be sure, there are the bad-intentioned actors among them who bring other agendas into the mix, but the motivations for Right versus Left protests are often quite different in origin.

That brings up a larger issue. Are not protests supposed to be disruptive? Much is said about the Vietnam War protests but what about the freedom marches in the US South that brought about the civil rights movement and eventually the Civil Rights Act? Were they not disruptive? What about the Springbok Tour protests? Did no good came from their disruptions? How about the Stonewall protests, which opened the way for gay rights in the US? What about general strikes? Are they not disruptive but have served to improve wage and working conditions for a multitude of employees? This the fundamental question that needs to be asked.

Instead, riot porn is the clickbait of the day.

That makes the coverage of the student protests pretty shabby. More emphasis is placed on the protection of property and supposed public order (even though the violence that has occurred has been confined to campuses) rather than on the original cause and the motivations of others now involved in the unfolding events. More time is spent on political blame-gaming than on considering whether divestment from companies doing business, especially military business, in or with Israel is a reasonable demand given what is unfolding in Gaza. In fact, few Western media outlets appear to have asked the basic question as to whether it is ethical for corporations, and the US and other governments for that matter, to do business with and sell weapons to Israel while it reduces the Gaza Strip to rubble. And when they do, the answer is always the same–“but what about Iran and the terrorists?”

In any event, I use the US examples as illustrative of the fact that the Israel/Palestine conflict has galvanised as well as polarised world opinion, creating an ideological vortex into which a number of causes and actors have been sucked into. This may well have a tornado-like effect on several political landscapes, including in Israel but especially in the US this election year, where not only the presidency and Congress undergo elections but also a multitude of State and local governments as well. How the protests evolve and end–if they do before November–may be critical to those election outcomes.

More broadly, the Israel/Palestine conflict is a malignant scabrous wound that may not be cauterised any time soon. In fact, regardless of the outcome of the war on the ground, it is doubtful that Israel will recover much diplomatic goodwill other than from its Western backers and the Arab oligarchies that side with it against Iran. Much like Russia with its invasion of Ukraine, the question Israelis have to ask themselves is “will we be better off for having prosecuted this war they way that we have?” If the answer is anything other than “yes” (and that would be delusional), then they have already lost. Israel’s supporters abroad need to understand this basic fact.

As I have written before, hypocrisy is the currency of diplomacy. But when governments like those of NZ, Australia, the UK and US mute their criticism of Israel with their “whataboutism” comparisons with Hamas and Iran, they lose all moral ground for chastising other States for their treatment of subject populations. Because in some liberal democracies, for all the talk about supporting a “rules-based” international order, when it comes to Israel the rules are made to be broken.

The student protests are a reminder of that.

Policing protests.

Images of US students (and others) protesting and setting up tent cities on US university campuses have been broadcast worldwide and clearly demonstrate the growing rifts in US society caused by US policy toward Israel and Israel’s prosecution of its war against Palestinians in response to the Hamas attack on Israeli-occupied territory along the Gaza Strip on October 7 of last year. The police behaviour appears to be a bit over the top, to say the least, given that the protests are purportedly peaceful for the most part, or at least until the cops arrive. It would seem that the police do not care for freedoms of speech or assembly, so there appears to be an anti-democratic bias at play in the suppression of these protests. But there are some angles to the subject that need further discussion, so let’s dig in on them.

Assuming that protesters are not harassing, intimidating or assaulting people or damaging public or private property, then the police response in place like Emory University, University of Southern California and the University of Texas (to name a few), is in fact excessive. Even if trespass orders are given, there is no need to manhandle, use tear gas, rubber bullets or generally hurt protestors in order to get them to leave a designated area unless they are being violent. If they block roads and physically impede public movements in and around the demonstration, then protesters can be arrested and cited under law for a subsequent court appearances. But unless they actively (as opposed to passively) resist, then violence should not be used against them and even then, all care should be made by law enforcement to consider the physical well-being of those arrested. Marching people out by the elbows is one thing. Throwing them to the ground and cuffing them behind their backs is another. Breaking arms or legs and pepper-spraying people people is a step too far. Again, this assumes that protesters are not behaving in a threatening or violent manner.

Private schools can issue trespass notices for any reason and have the police enforce them. Likewise, public institutions can do much the same although here the space being occupied is owned by taxpayers and therefore not as easily subject to tresspass orders unless people start damaging things or other folk. This was the case with the 2022 Wellington parliamentary protest, which was held on parliament grounds but eventually spilled into adjacent streets (and beyond), all of which are public spaces. Given that public institutions are thought of as “the people’s places,” authorities must exercise extra caution when attempting to end protests on and in them. Unlike the centralised nature of law enforcement decision-making in NZ (due to the unitary nature of government), as a federal republic that means that in the US State and/or local authorities must make the decision to move against a protest, usually at the request of university administrators. There are plenty of regulations in place that give State and local governments authority over public spaces, so the right for public authorities to enforce trespass notices is there. It is how they do so that is the issue.

Here I must pause for a brief aside about “free” versus “hate” speech, which is at the crux of the protests and how they are handled. Waving banners and yelling “long live Hamas” is an example of protected free speech. Given Hamas’s record, it may offend many people but no harm is invited and no violence is incited. On-lookers can walk away if they object. It is therefore a case of protected “offensive” speech at worst. However, yelling or waving banners saying “kill the Jews” or “nuke Gaza” is not. It is an incitement to violence against a specific group of people. As such it needs to be treated as a precursor to a hate crime as it invites and incites violence against a designated target. Law enforcement authorities need to understand the difference and formulate their responses accordingly.

Think of it this way: Kyle Chapman and other NZ neo-Nazis can play dressup and march around yelling “Sieg Heil” and “white power” all they want, so long as they do not cross the line into advocating violence or committing acts of violence against others. The police need to know what is protected (anti-social racist incel boorishness) and what is not (advocating harm to others). Unfortunately, the police in Christchurch have a history of downplaying the issue when Kyle and his fellow creeps cross that line, something that may have been a factor in the events of March 15, 2019.

The same logic holds true for pro-Palestinian demonstrators. They cross the line if they call for the eradication of Jews anywhere. “Death to Zionism” is not the same as “Death to Jews” no matter how much some would like to conflate the two. Zionism is an ideology. Jews are people. One is a belief, the other are living humans. Although some Jews are Zionists, not all are and even then they do not deserve to be targeted for being Jews (there are non-Jewish Zionists as well, especially in US fundamentalist Christian communities).

The matter of how to end protests is complicated by the fact that infiltrators with other agendas often join sincere people participating in legitimate protests who are exercising their rights to freedom of speech and assembly. The agitators may act as agent provocateurs in order to turn otherwise peaceful protests into something nasty, in order to expose the contradictions of the Deep State, capitalism, Big Pharma, the government or any number of other nefarious agencies who are believed to usurp and act contrary to the popular will. I witnessed this phenomena close up during my youthful protest days, where a group called the Spartacus Youth League, of Trotskyite persuasion, in Chicago and Washington DC, used a tactic where masked “Spart” columns moved to the front of crowds facing off with police and proceeded to assault the cops at close range with projectiles and blunt objects (but from behind the frontline of peaceful protesters). That usually caused a police riot where cops began to beat on everyone in front them while the “Sparts” slunk away to the back of the crowd and started looting and vandalising on the sidelines. The original reason for the protest often got lost in the mayhem, which of course is what the media focused on.

Although I do not know if the “Sparts” or other groups have engaged in this sort of action in the recent student protests, there are reports of non-students joining the student protesters, which in of itself is not a bad thing. But if they come with other agendas, say, turning a pro-Palestine or anti-genocide protest into a “Kill the Jews” hate fest, then the usual protections of speech and assembly no longer apply. Again, that is because the latter is a type of hate speech, inciting violence against a specific group of people because of who they are (as opposed to what the State of Israel does), and as such is no longer afforded the protections available to offensive “free” speech.

Not to belabour the point, but consider this: One can vociferously call Netanyahu a murderer and Israel a genocidal regime without personalising and inciting violence against Jews as an ethno-religious group. One can voice support for Palestinians and call for university divestiture of investments in companies that do business with the State of Israel without hating all Jews. Although holding and voicing these views may be offensive to some, it is not anti-Semitic to do so. After all, not all Jews are Israeli or support Netanyahu or Israel’s polices towards Palestine. The line is drawn when support for Palestinians or criticism of Israel turns into calling for violence against Jews. That moves what some may consider offensive speech into the realm of hate speech, which does not deserve the protections of law. Likewise, defence of Israel cannot extend to advocating the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians from their ancestral lands. If so, the line between free speech and hate speech is then crossed.

For police in liberal democracies (I shall not bother writing about how authoritarians handle protests since they do not concern themselves with the niceties of free speech and assembly), the conundrum is this: do they come in hard from the onset and disperse the crowds with overwhelming force? Or do they adopt a passive containment strategy that allows people to blow off steam before they decide to end their action either voluntarily or with non-violent encouragement by or disincentives from the authorities (say, by threatening suspension or dismissal from universities if students do not disperse by a specific time)?

In the Wellington protests the police adopted the passive approach. For a month they dealt with the crowds in a largely peaceful manner even though agitators and extremists joined the ranks of the original anti-vaccination/anti-mandate crowd. The police even overlooked the fact that there were public health restrictions (specifically, social distancing requirements) still in place when the protest caravans began to arrive in Wellington in early February, something that contributed to an upsurge in Covid cases in the crowd. Over time the infiltrators began to dominate the protest discourse, to include voicing MAGA support, waving confederate flags, railing against the “Deep State,” echoing QAnon weirdness, voicing violent threats against “Jabcinda” (including her execution and that of other officials) and otherwise behaving like aggressive a-holes. As days turned into weeks the public health and public order downsides of the protest grew larger and more uninvolved people were negatively impacted by it. Many of the original protest leaders, like the so-called Voices for Freedom, retreated back to their home keyboards rather than staunch things out to the bitter and inevitable end. Eventually, after a month of paralysis in central Wellington and at high cost in resources and injury, the cops moved in to disperse the encampment. A riot ensured.

Perhaps it did not help for the then Speaker of the House to order that the parliamentary lawn sprinklers be turned on and that awful pop music be played over loudspeakers above the encampment. Presumably he thought that would weaken the resolve of the protesters and they would all go home. Instead, that just turned the parliament lawn into a cow paddock and irritated the aesthetic sensitivities of the conspiracy theorists, who simply added bad pop music and involuntary cold water showers to their list of Deep State machinations. More importantly, the Speaker clearly did not consult with the Police Commissioner before he made his moves, or if he did, they must have concocted that genius plan after sharing a few pints at The Backbencher. In retrospect it was not a good decision.

So for the police the question is what to do? Go in hard early or adopt a passive containment/defusion strategy? (I will leave aside the idea that the police would chose not to enforce anti-demonstration laws and let people gather as they please simply because in a place like NZ or the US, the cops are mostly anything but progressive or anti-status quo in mindset even if individual members may be sympathetic to a specific cause. Having said that, the Washington DC police refused to move against pro-Palestinian protestors at George Washington University, a private school, after university administrators requested that they clear the student encampment. The cops said that the group was small and peaceful, so the “optics” would not look good. Make of that what you will.).

A different approach might have been to identify infiltrators and extremists via undercover and technological observation and use more selective techniques to isolate and separate them from the crowd. After all, the police are part of a repressive apparatus that not only has a monopoly over organised violence within a given territory but which has the authority of the State behind it. Of all actors, they should know–in fact be schooled in–the art of subtle extirpation of troublemakers as well as in the well-known goon squad tactics usually associated with riot control. That did not happened in Wellington and the goon squad approach eventually had to be used.

(I cannot go into the details here but in Greece there are two types of riot police, one dressed in green gear and the other in blue gear. The different colours signals to protesters the different levels of repression that is about to be meted out so that people can chose whether to stay or leave before the blue goons make their entrance. That serves to separate the protest wheat from the chaff once the blue squad arrives. For their part protesters in Athens had Loukanikos the riot dog on their side during my time in Athens as well as his “son” Kanellos, who is said to still be part of the resistance).

In the US things are different. The police doing the repressing represent state and local (municipal and county) authorities. Consequently, their training and approach to protest varies widely. From what I have seen, the cops at Emory (which is in Atlanta, Georgia) and the University of Texas have very little time for protestors. Their governors, both reactionary Republicans, have joined in the smear that the protestors are anti-semitic and pro-terrorist, thereby opening the door to a heavy-handed approach to dispersing the crowds. It should be noted that Emory University is a private school and its administrators requested that the Atlanta police break up the demonstration. At UT-Austin it was the governor who ordered the troops in (I do not know if that was done at the request of university administrators or of his own volition, but given his remarks the latter appears to have been the case).

Conversely, at Colombia, Yale, Harvard, New York University and USC (all private schools outside of the Deep South), the police initially exercised a bit more restraint but nevertheless resorted after just a few days to forcibly removing people in handcuffs or bodily if they refused to move. Perhaps that is reflective of the US police mindset when it comes to this particular cause and the people doing the protesting. If the protests were reversed (pro-Israel rather than pro-Palestine), it would be interesting to see if the police tactics changed. From the standpoint of equality under the law, one would hope not, but a realistic appraisal of the situation suggests to me that pro-Israeli demonstrations in the US would be met very differently by law enforcement and in fact may have to be “protected” from counter-demonstrators (as has happened in Australia).

Then there is the issue of disinformation. Most of the word about the protests is spread by social media, and various platforms are used by protest organisers to spread the action beyond its origins. This opens a window of opportunity for state and non-state actors to introduce disinformation into protest campaigns in order to advance other, hidden agendas. For example, it would seem to be a professional imperative for Russian and Chinese disinformation units to target the protests in order to further undermine the historic public consensus in support of Israel in the US (born of political elite and media bias in favour of Israel), in order to advance their respective adversarial interests vis a vis the US in the Middle East and beyond. From a strategic perspective it would be derelict of them not to exploit this window of opportunity, as undermining an enemy from within using non-military means is far more resource efficient that waiting until open conflict with that enemy has begun. Both the PRC and Russia have prior form in this regard (including in NZ), so it is not a stretch to speculate that they may be doing so with regard to the student protests. Police and other intelligence agencies need to be aware of this possibility and approach the cyber realm accordingly.

Of course, the root cause of this situation of discord and dissent in the US is the Israeli elite’s psychopathic behaviour both before and after October 7 and the willing blindness of US foreign policy elites to the fact that Israel is not only the tail that wags the US foreign policy dog in the Middle East but has now become a strategic liability rather than a strategic asset (which derives from its importance when it comes to intelligence gathering on and sharing of Middle Eastern affairs). It has taken young adults–students–to bring critical attention to that fact, but for US adversaries they are just pawns in a larger game.

In the end how to police protests has much to do with the cause, the culture (both in civil society as well as in policing), who is doing the protesting and who is in government at the time. Some causes may be purer than others. The students are protesting about terrible events in a far-off place based on the ideal that collective punishment leading to genocide is wrong and that casting a blind on it is complicit. Besides the cookers and nutters, the anti-vaxx crowd in Wellington were more about their personal inconvenience and material losses rather than protection of the commonweal or public good. In an odd way that suggests that the latter should have been dealt with in stronger terms from the onset while the student protests need to be handled in a less repressive way. But that is where culture and governments come in. In the US the police are more about kicking a** and taking names, whereas in NZ the approach is more to play community cop rather than Judge Dread. Likewise, US governments at every level always want to be seen as upholding “law an order” even if the laws are retrograde and the order is rigged, whereas the Labour government in place at the time of the protests was determined to try and play things softly-softly in the hope that cooler heads would prevail in the protesting crowd and things would end quietly, in the Kiwi way.

They did not.

There are lessons to be learned from both of these protest episodes, mostly about what not to do rather than what to do.

Again, hate crimes are not necessarily terrorism.

Having written, taught and worked for government agencies on issues involving unconventional warfare and terrorism for 30-odd years, two things irritate me the most when the subject is discussed in public. The first is the Johnny-come-lately commentators who have zero practical or academic experiences with the subject but who, in an effort get their “brand” out in the public eye will pontificate ad nauseum about things that they do not know about. In NZ this an especially acute problem because people with real knowledge of what terrorism is and is not are few and far between, so the “look at me” opinionators are way too prominent in discussions of acts of mass violence.

The second source of irritation is the abuse of the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” in order to generate headlines, clickbait or to pursue other agendas. Rightwing corporate and social media are full of this egregious mis-application of a very specific concept to any number violent incidents carried about by by a variety of perpetrators. The latest example of this is the coverage of the stabbings in Sydney this past week.

I wrote a series of social media posts clarifying my objection to the coverage and have aggregated and edited them here. I have also linked to a couple of previous essays on the subject in order to give recent readers of KP some idea of the basis for my concerns about this particular type of conceptual stretching.

Let’s begin with the bad news. Since 9/11 the words “terrorist” and “terrorism” have been rendered meaningless. Terrorism has a target (victims), subject (wider audiences) and object (to bend the audiences to the terrorist will, say, by altering government policy). The three aspects are not one and the same. If these three aspects or conditions do not apply to a specific violent incident, then it might be a hate crime inspired by bigotry or other form of animus (say, homophobia, Islamophobia, anti-Semitism), (mass) murder due to mental impairment, or criminal murder (e.g. mob hit, domestic violence or in a bar brawl). None of these fatal incidents are terrorism even if victims are terrified in the moment. For it to be terrorism there has to be an audience beyond the victims, and the object is not just the act of violence itself.

Terrorism is about more than the terror inflicted on targets. It is about ulterior motive/intent, the wider audience and specific messaging, which is collective in focus, not personal. Labelling every act of public violence as terroristic confuses the issue and allows for bad-minded or deliberately hateful manipulations of coverage to suit ideological agendas. Witness the initial coverage and reaction to the Bondi mall attack. It was a case of a white male with violent schizophrenia acting out of incel hate, but was immediately deemed a terrorist attack. That allowed racists to jump on the Islamophobic bandwagon and claim the attacks was done by a jihadist (because he had a beard!), which in turn brought out calls for revenge, deportations of Muslims, cultural stereotyping and other types of violent trolling. The real cause was lost in the xenophobic, bigoted din.

The attack on the bishop at a Sydney church was motivated by religious animosity, but the attacker’s target, subject and object were the same, a preacher who disparages other religions and their leaders. Motive did not extend beyond that. That is a hate crime, not terrorism. But it does not stop malignant narcissistic charlatans like Brain Tamaki from using it to urge for the mass deportation of Muslims from NZ, something that has reverberated around the NZ rightwing echo chamber.

Unfortunately, NZ has bad form when it comes to misidentifying violent crimes and perpetrators as “terrorists”. Here is a post that I wrote after the supermarket stabbing in New Lynn in 2021.

And yet, this time around NZ media outlets again initially jumped on the terrorism bandwagon, only to back off once the Australian authorities identified the Bondi attacker as someone with a history of mental illness but who was allowed to circulate in public. That is a public security failure, not anything related to terrorism.. Even so, both the Australian police and NZ media continue to refer to the church attack as terrorism, which shows that even security experts as well as media talking heads do not have their conceptual ducks in a row when it comes to this type of violence. Perhaps they know but choose not to do so because, well…

I also wrote an academic article a while back about how a specific type of terrorism–state terrorism–can be used to reinforce a particular social and economic project. It is long but you can find it here. I link to it here because terrorism not only has many varieties, but it also has ulterior motives. Neither incident in Sydney this past week meet that criteria.

This may seem tedious and repetitive, but so long as the concept of terrorism is stretched out of all context and meaning, I will have to be pedantic about its real significance and permutations.