A NZ Identity Crisis?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Further thoughts about a couple of things near and far.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A handful of observations.

I have opined regularly about the Hamas-Israel war over on the social media platform owned by that reactionary billionaire, but other than the preceding post have opted to not address the subject directly here at KP. However, the amount of misunderstanding, disinformation and misinformation circulating around that unhappy state of affairs prompts me to write here to offer some clarifications.

First: Asymmetric warfare is not just military conflict between unequally matched armed belligerents. It involves ideological, political, economic and cultural asymmetries as well. Stronger actors emphasise their immediate “hard” advantages, weaker actors emphasise soft long-term tools.Stronger actors focus on the immediate battlefield impact of kinetic mass in order to set the stage for favourable conflict resolution. Weaker actors focus on attrition of the enemy’s will and its broader support base in order to shape public opinion about a prolonged stalemate.

Second: War crimes and crimes against humanity are not defined by method of injury (knife, gun, missile, bomb, rape, torture) or the proximity of perpetrators to victims at the moment those crimes are committed. They are defined by who is targeted, collectively and individually. After that, the scope and scale of the crimes are measured by the amount of victims involved, remembering that war crimes and crimes against humanity can be committed against individuals and small groups.

Third: Seeing fault on both sides of the Hamas-Israel conflict means not excusing criminal behaviour by either. Nor does it ignore historical grievances and injustices involving each side that led to the current conflict. Focus on the comparative scale of atrocities does not alter the underlying reality of crimes against humanity committed by both sides. We must recognise historical and current wrongs before conflict resolution can be achieved, and compromises from each party will be required for a durable peace to be secured.

Fourth: Stating the obvious yet again. One can support Israel without being a Zionist. One can support Palestinians without supporting Hamas. One can see merit in the arguments of both sides with regard to the historical record. But one can never justify or condone the commission of war crimes and crimes against humanity by either side for any reason. Doing so is morally bankrupt. Doing so to score political points against partisan rivals in places like NZ, US, UK or OZ is reprehensible.

Fifth: The Hamas-Israel conflict ripped a scab and the pus of anti-Semitism and Islamophobia has oozed out on global scale. Bigots and racists on both sides see it as an opportunity to vent primordial hatreds in order to widen the divide between communities instead of pursuing peace.

Sixth: Proposing that the Palestinian Authority (PA) take control of Gaza once the IDF “cleansing” has ended is unrealistic. The PA (and its dominant Fatah Party) is a corrupt lapdog of the Israelis and their Western patrons that lost a fair election to Hamas in 2006 and then refused to accept the results. Hamas has ruled Gaza since ousting Fatah in an armed conflict after the 2006 elections. Both Hamas and Fatah have political and military wings. Fatah is secular and Hamas is Islamicist. Hamas is authoritarian but provides public goods and services to Gazans in exchange for public acceptance of their rule. The PA is a semi-authoritarian gerontocracy that is not supported by many Palestinians in the West Bank or Gaza. Making it the replacement for Hamas will just prolong the conflict, not end it. For that to happen Hamas must be accepted as a legitimate representative of Palestinian interests, upon which a focus on its political wing can help bring them to a bargaining table with the PA and other interested parties. Refusing to acknowledge Hamas is short-sighted and plays to their militant armed wing, not peace. This is called “dealing with reality.” Hamas may be unpleasant, just like the Kim regime in North Korea or the Netanyahu govt in Israel, but it is a participant in Palestinian politics and beyond. It will not go away even if its armed wing is decimated. The PA cannot replace it.

Seventh: Hamas’s tactics have so far worked: Sucker the IDF into over-reacting to the initial Hamas attacks by collectively punishing all Gazans, thereby swaying global opinion against Israel; establish itself as the primary defender of Palestinian interests rather than the toothless Palestinian Authority; broaden the conflict into multiple fronts involving a number of supportive actors (eg. Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon, the Assad regime in Syria) that will test the will of Israeli allies to escalate further; foment unrest on the Arab street. None of this justifies its crimes against humanity, but speaks to how the framing of the conflict has moved from a largely pro-Israel to a pro-Palestinian response even in countries with strong official ties to Israel. Whatever the immediate military outcome, there appears to be a potential for a redrawing of geopolitical fault lines as a result, something that Israel, the US and other Western states may see as being in their favour but which in reality could well be not. In particular, the post-colonial Global South is not following the Western lead. That opens space for other actors–the PRC, Russia, Iran and other anti-Western govts–to exercise influence and leverage on the South as a result. Israel and its patrons need to look at the bigger long term play as they calculate their short-term responses.

Eighth: Given the role of armed guerrilla group Irgun and its then leader Menachem Begin (later Israeli Prime Minister) in the 1946 bombing of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem (91 dead), the killing of 254 Palestinians in the village of Dir Yassin and establishment of the state of Israel in 1948 (where the Irgun was integrated into the Israeli Defense Forces), it is rich of Israel to label Hamas as an illegal “terrorist organization” when it knows that Hamas has political and military wings that copy what Irgun did 75 years ago. No moral superiority here. To be clear: this is about hypocrisy when framing the conflict. It does not absolve Hamas or Israel for war crime/crimes against humanity, but it does point to the commonalities between their origins as political movements that use terrorism as a tactic in sectarian war.

Ninth: In exchange for Hamas’s release of 50 women and children hostages, Israel will release 150 women and children prisoners from detention centres (under the 1:3 exchange ratio). Most of these women and children have been arrested and detained without charge in the West Bank after October 7 while resisting Israeli security forces and settler efforts to displace them from their homes and lands. That shows cynical deliberation on Israel’s part. The exchange, in other words, it is a straight hostage swap.

There are more comments along these lines on that social media platform but these seem to be the ones that, in my mind at least, help frame the objective reality of what is going on. readers are welcome to (politely) disagree or add to the discussion.

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.

Unfinished Projects.

When I left academia in 2011 I was forced to stop two book projects that were in the works. Without institutional support and resourcing it is impossible to conduct in-depth academic research that requires field trips to foreign countries and access to university libraries. The move to private consulting was a necessary but painful part of my transition out of academia, and when I sit in my home office I stare at boxes of documents, transcribed interviews and the other detritus of those works-in-progress. The ideas that motivated their collection are still in my head.

The first book was to be titled “Security Politics in Peripheral Democracies: Chile, New Zealand and Portugal.” In it I sought to explain the differences in the security policies and perspectives of three democracies that literally exist on the periphery of the regions in which they are located–Chile on the Southwest corner of the Western Hemisphere, Portugal on the Southwest corner of Europe and NZ on the Southwest corner of the Pacific. All were/are peripheral to the major security decisions of the last three decades even if they were subject to them and participants in some of the military and intelligence operations that happened because of them. Two of these countries are post-authoritarian democracies (Chile and Portugal) while NZ is a post-colonial democracy. They vary in their social liberalism, political organization and in the influence of past legacies, especially in the field of civil-military relations. Portugal is a member of NATO and the EU, Chile is a member of MERCOSUR and Rio Treaty Alliance; NZ is a non-nuclear non-NATO partner and member of numerous trade blocs.

Chile and Portugal have strategic perspectives with strong maritime orientations. NZ, despite it being an archipelago far removed from any significant land mass, retains an Army-centric military even if it regularly speaks of the maritime threat environment (but has few resources to defend against maritime threats). In terms of intelligence gathering priorities, Chile and Portugal maintain a largely domestic-focused internal protection orientation (even if Chile monitors its neighbors as a matter of course), while NZ has mainly had a more foreign-focused orientation due to its membership in the 5 Eyes signals intelligence network (that may be changing as a result of recent domestic security concerns).

One interesting finding of my research was that after 9/11 Chile and Portugal did not re-direct significant resources toward Islamicist terrorist threats. Officials in both countries told me that they had no problems with Islamicists for a variety of reasons, Chile’s being the limited presence of Muslims in the Southern Cone (and hence limited grounds for localized grievances) and limited interaction with Muslim-dominant states, while Portugal cited good relations with the Muslim world in general and the local Muslim community in particular (many of whom are part of the Portuguese post-colonial diaspora). As it turns out, neither country suffered Islamicist attacks in the decades following 9/11.

Conversely, and in spite of its physical distance from the conflicts involving Islamicists in other parts of the world, during the 18 years that followed the attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon, NZ intelligence shifted its threat detection and assessment almost entirely towards locating and neutralizing domestic jihadists while actively supporting the anti-Islamicist crusade in Afghanistan, Iraq and elsewhere. This, despite there being no record of an ideologically-motivated terrorism attack committed by a Muslim in NZ before or after 9/11. As time went on there was a shift towards monitoring wanna-be jihadists heading to the ISIS killing fields in the Middle East, then the return of those who survived and so-called “jihadi brides” to Aotearoa. This anti-Islamicist perspective could well be due more to obligations to or influence by the larger 5 Eyes partners more than the actual threat posed by Islamicists to NZ and its interests.

Then came March 15, 2019 and the domestic focus of the NZ intelligence community reactively shifted to the threat of rightwing/white supremacist extremism along with ongoing counter-intelligence operations directed at hostile States attempting to gain a foothold in NZ (especially the PRC).

These are just a few of the general characteristics of the sample, which is based on a “most-similar” selection criteria where commonalities amongst independent variables are used to group them in order to look for differences at the intervening and dependent variable levels (“most-different” qualitative methodologies do the reverse, using differences to form a sample while looking for commonalities of outcomes. In a way the difference in methodological approach is akin to deductive versus inductive reasoning).

I did field research in Chile and Portugal, where I conducted interviews with active and former military and intelligence officials and retrieved official documents from archives and ministerial libraries. The NZ part of the research was to be the last, but alas I ran into some strife at Auckland University and was forced to abandon what I thought would be the easiest part of the research. As it is, I completed about 15,000 words of a conceptual and methodological introduction and had begun to shop the book prospectus to potential publishers when the axe fell. I may or may not revive and update the project for publication but the same obstacles remain: limited institutional and personal resources to conduct field research properly.

I am aware of country specialists who write about the foreign and security policies of each of the mentioned countries, but none who draw comparative conclusions. To my mind, that is a gap in knowledge that remains to be filled.

In the background during this time and ongoing in my mind since the 1980s has been the desire to write a more theoretical book about consent. Much is now made of the issue of consent in the context of inter-personal (especially sexual) relations and individual-institutional interactions (e.g. the issue of “informed consent” to medical procedures, background checks, school activities, politics searches and the like). The entire social media landscape is about terms and conditions that individuals agree to that basically state that consumers/clients consent to the retrieval and use of their personal data by the immediate platforms and third parties who purchase meta-data and more specific types of data depending on circumstance. Consent has become a bit of a buzzword in recent years but not for the reasons I am particularly interested in.

The subject of consent in personal interactions with people, authorities and corporations is well known and has been the subject of much public discussion by politicians, civil libertarians and security advocates, especially after 9/11 and the emergence of new media technologies that have broken down the previous separation between ‘public” and “private” media as well as the international versus domestic/global versus local division of influence, threats and authority (that is, things are now “intermestic” and “glocal” in nature rather than bifurcated in terms of scope).

My interest in the notion of consent, however, is not about that. It began several decades ago when writing a book about post-authoritarian labor-state relations in Argentina, Brazil and Uruguay. I leaned heavily on the notion of mass contingent consent in the construction and maintenance of democracy, something very much overlooked in recent discussions of liberal democratic decay and “back-sliding.”

That notion of democracy resting on contingent mass consent institutionalized under conditions of electoral uncertainty became a centerpiece of my thought as I worked to dis-aggregate and then re-aggregate the economic, political and social strands of mass contingent consent to popularly elected but time-bounded governments. I found out that democracy rests on institutional, societal and economic pillars, all of which have at their core the concept of mutual contingent consent. After all, consent is not give once, forever, and is not given on just one field of play. In fact, democratic consent is iterative and multifaceted, which in turn spills over or trickles down into other aspects of life in a democratic society such as sexual relations and parental authority over minors as well as notions of economic and social safety nets. Toleration, solidarity, respect for difference, economic fair play–these and many other notions about what constitutes the essence of a democratic society have the concept of contingent consent at their core.

Contingent consent usually must be mutual because it involves two or more parties engaged in a social relationship entering into an agreement on the terms of that relationship. There is such a thing as tacit consent, where the agreement is implied rather than explicit. But even then there is a choice involved. This raises and important aspect of consent: it is not acquiescence. Acquiescence is submission to the imposed will or demands of a stronger, higher or threatening authority, power or individual. It is given reluctantly absent other options. Consent, on the other hand, is given freely, willingly, and actively. It is born of a desire to engage rather than submit to an imposed circumstance or condition. Acquiescence is what authoritarians demand and depend on. Contingent consent is a foundational stone of democracy.

In other words, democracy is not just about free and open elections held at regular intervals. That is a necessary but insufficient condition for democracy to obtain as a regime type, political culture and form of social organization. What makes democracies substantive rather than just procedural (i.e. it is grounded in institutional, societal and economic behaviors and mores rather than just regular elections), is the reproduction of mass contingent consent over time. That is very much a dynamic enterprise that must respond to changing material, ideological, technological and social conditions if it is to survive as an egalitarian form of rule. Otherwise it risks slipping into authoritarianism of one type or another, as unfortunately has been seen in recent years even in very mature advanced liberal democracies as well as relatively immature democracies (the US and Brazil, for example).

My original idea was to link the macro- meso- and micro- aspects of mutual contingent consent in a book length conceptual exegesis. I believed then and believe now that the reinforcement of democratic norms and mores based on mutual contingent consent at the macro (political-institutional) levels filters down into the fabric of society and promotes meso- and micro-cosmic reproductions of mutual contingent consent in all aspects of social life, be it in business relations, churches, sports clubs and particularly amongst individuals (for example, workers consent to certain work requirements in exchange for acceptable wages and health and safety standards). In turn, the reproduction of democratic behaviour at the micro- and peso-levels reinforces the macro aspects of democratic contingent consent, making it a reproducible institutional feature as well as a social practice.

I fully understand that such a view must grapple with the inherent anti-democratic, if not outright authoritarian aspects of capitalism, racism, sexism and other types of bigotry and prejudice (including avarice). That was to be a full chapter or more in the work once I got to it. My guiding principle for envisioning a better democratic future was that even if incremental and slow, the mutually reinforcement of democratic values based on contingent consent would have a generational impact that led to more equitable if not egalitarian societies represented by political elites who shared those values as being intrinsically worthy rather than expedient or opportune for their immediate material and political fortunes.

In the end I managed to write a 7500 word introduction to this book project. It has laid dormant ever since but, just like the peripheral democracy project, it remains in my mind as a reminder of better days when I could think freely and pursue intellectual projects unencumbered by the financial concerns that now shape much of what I do (including the need to be “relevant” in the media news cycle). That was the value of academia to me, as a place where I drew a comfortable salary and which offered institutional support that allowed me to pursue my intellectual interests along with the more mundane duties of teaching and administration required by the job. From my understanding of tertiary affairs today, given the advent of Taylorist education sector management styles, that luxury no longer applies for most academics.

Over the years I have written a number of KP posts that address various aspects of democratic consent, so long-term readers will remember some of them. They are archived for those with an interest in the subject who have not read them. I know that I can always go back to this project because in the end the notion of consent is certainly not going away anytime soon unless religious and secular authoritarians manage to dominate public discourse and popular narratives about “proper” social values and mores, including what constitutes consent and when/where it should be applied in the social realm. More immediately, the issue of consent has been politicised and trivialised by entities and agencies when it comes to female behaviour, male sexual predation, student’s rights, parents rights, “sovereign” citizens and a host of other social interactions. Sadly, the need for consent as a foundation of democratic social interaction appears to have been distorted or lost in recent years even if it may have been a significant consideration before.

That is the crux of the matter: contingent consent at any level is the fundamental basis for all forms of democratic exchange. Just as they saying “love uncertainty and you will love elections” was a clarion cry in the (re-)construction of democracy in the 1980s and 1990s in Latin America, so too must we remember that respect for mutual contingent consent as an intrinsic good must be the basis for all social interaction in a truly democratic society.

The question now is how to regain a basis for mutual contingent consent and the trust that is required in order to achieve it in an environment increasingly marked by dis- and misinformation purveyed by ideological extremists and facilitated by media outlets and political agents with no understanding of or concern for its importance in practical terms. Therein lies the rub.

In any event, the two book projects sit in boxes and on hard and flash drives, waiting for the moment when they are re-opened and revised. That day may never come but the fact that I am writing here about them is like the thought of re-connecting with a couple of long-lost friends from a better time and a happier place. They may be gone but are certainly not forgotten and with luck, perhaps we will meet again.

The dirty power of culture wars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The zero-sum logic of rightwing culture wars.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reality check.

There are some wellness, crystal-gazing, holistic spiritual guidance types in my disaster-hit coastal community who insist that the power of positive thinking will overcome the physical and material damages incurred by the community. They object to restrictions on road travel even though the damages caused by slips and water run-off is extensive and as of yet only stop-gap repaired. Heck, we do not even have traffic controls on our one lane muddy slip-ridden exit and entryways!

Although these self-absorbed navel gazers are a distinct minority they are very loud and bullying, with some using their historic roots in this neck of the woods as justification for shouting down everyone else. Apparently tenure (as in multigenerational living in this place as opposed to “newcomers” like me who have been here 24 years) means that they know best for all residents and their views are not be challenged. A few of these wunderkind have rarely left this isolated valley except for local forays or limited ventures further outside their co coons, giving them a somewhat limited perspective on the big bad world out there–and how to cope with unfamiliarity and difference of perspective and thought. And then there are the few that are associated with or support anti-vaccination and conspiracy theory weirdness.

However, because some are very adept at doing things like community volunteerism in between their yoga sessions and self-realization seminars, they feel they have the authority to speak over everyone else about almost everything. Democratic notions of compromise and consensus in decision-making are ignored in favor of a “our way or the highway” approach with plenty of vitriol added into the mix (which belies the “positive psychology” facade). They speak of serving the collective good–and some of them do–but they are not interested in collective input into their closed circle decision-making. There is a certain provincialism to their leadership claims and their refusal to listen to different opinions, much less opposing views. Trouble is, some also happen to well placed as cogs in our civil defense and resilience networks.

As the saying goes, times of crisis brings out the best and worst in people as well as expose the Peter Principle when it comes to levels of incompetence in public agencies. To this can be added, unfortunately, the fact that one particular skillset does not always translate easily into other fields of endeavor. In this case that fact appears to have been lost on the provincial know-it-all crowd and it now seems that these folk have crossed a line of toleration vis a vis the larger whanau with some of their obstructive and self-serving antics. This is dividing the community just as we are finally getting a semblance of normality to some parts of it (other than the roads and ruined homes). It is disappointing and discouraging because it has caused simmering divisions amongst people torn between family and friendship ties with the know-it-alls and the practical realities of the wider community’s real pressing needs..

That is where the know-it-all appeals to positive psychology fall flat. They want us to stay calm, bite our tongues and carry on following their pop psychological wellness healing Tik Tok-depth advice. In other words, everyone should think good thoughts, the contagion effect will apply, and everything will be alright.

To which I have one response.

The promise of positive psychology ends where the laws of physics begin.

Like on dangerous roads.

On the darkness behind the PM’s departure.

Over the weekend I was interviewed by a media outlet about the threats that Jacinda Ardern and her family have received while she has been PM and what can be expected now that she has resigned. I noted that the level of threat she has been exposed to is unprecedented in NZ history, something that is due not as much as to the content of her policies (especially but not exclusively the pandemic mitigation measures and 3 Waters initiative), but to the social media megaphoning of (often foreign imported) conspiracy theories and anti-government sentiment that used her policies as an excuse to engage in extremely misogynistic and violent verbal attacks and physical threats against her. The 2022 Parliamentary Protests represented the NZ January 6 moment in terms of crystallising the focused hatred of the assortment of seditionists assembled in one place (including Nazi imagery superimposed on the PMs face and nooses hung with placards calling for her and other politician’s executions), but their threats will not go away just because she has left office.

The original story got picked up by other outlets that include overseas media platforms. The response has been mixed. Although commentary has often sided with my view that the hatred directed at Ms. Ardern is unprecedented in NZ, a large number of pundits have proved my point by repeating the threats as well as justifications for them (“she reaps what she sowed,” “she deserves it,” “the penalty for treason is death,” “she created a two tier society,” “what is good for the goose is good for the gander,” “she is a Satanist globalist freemason Big Pharma puppet intent on destroying the Kiwi way of life” and so much more along such lines. The authors of these nuggets of brilliance walk amongst us.

I decided to throw together a couple of tweets on the business account to note two points of interest. They are “If Jacinda Ardern’s resignation sparks a national discussion about gendered abuse and violence in Aotearoa in general and against females/women in positions of authority in particular (political as well as elsewhere), then it will have been a fitting parting gesture on her part. But that will not be the end of it for her.” (I added the term “women” here because some po-mo people objected to the term “female” in the original post).

And (on the issue of the threat environment she must confront): “One measure of the threat landscape that Jacinda Ardern has had to traverse is the personal security detail she and her family will need after she leaves public life. Our reckon is that it will be significant, at least over the short term.” That brought a number of responses, some of which questioned how things got to this point and whether I was exaggerating what could be just foreign threats or blowhard ranting here at home. My response:

“When threat assessing, there are perpetrators, accomplices, enablers, subjects and objects. NZ is full of media (social and corporate) accomplices and enablers when it comes to subjecting Ardern to violent intimidation by a dangerous local fringe (the object). The danger is here.” To elaborate: threat assessment is about establishing a hierarchy of actors and their potential for action, then determining what action they are likely to take and how realistic and imminent is the possibility/probability of their turning words into action. In the case of Jacinta Ardern, I do not believe that the threats to her and her family will go away just because she has stepped down. And given that the Police have eight active investigations into individuals who have made such threats and because I believe that they are just the tip of a threat pyramid that is real and imminent, I continue to stand by these statements.

I could go on to elaborate on what I said in the original interview and follow ups but the story is now viral and can be better accessed by search for the coverage itself.

Suffice to say, this not a good moment for the former PM but also for the country as a political society, and that has nothing to do with her policies or behaviour in office but all to do with those who began and those who then facilitated the mainstreaming of extremist discourse into corporate media narratives and coverage of her government’s policies. Between social media networked nastiness and corporate media megaphoning and legitimating of previously fringe views untethered to reality, the moment is, to paraphrase Gramsci,” delicate and dangerous.”

In this election year more than any other time, especially because of the delicacy of the moment, that is a syndrome that must be remembered and confronted.