Friday, 29 August 2014

Entering The Labyrinth

The New Ariadne: In a world of mendacious politicians, giant corporations and impenetrable public bureaucracies, the hacker offers the only credible hope of entering the modern labyrinth. Stieg Larsen's character, Lisbeth Salander, is the archetypal fictional representation of the "White Hat" hacker.
LISBETH SALANDER is the archetypal hacker: a damaged outsider; phenomenally clever; contemptuous of society’s rules; but possessed of an unflinching, if somewhat quirky, sense of right and wrong. Without Lisbeth, the journalist hero of Stieg Larsen’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, Mikael Blomkvist, could never have brought the guilty to justice. In a world of mendacious millionaires, giant corporations and impenetrable public bureaucracies, the hacker provides the only credible means of moving the plot forward.
In mythic terms, Lisbeth is Ariadne, the Cretan princess whose precious linking threads allow the Greek hero, Theseus, to find his way through the impossibly complex Labyrinth and destroy the Minotaur – the monstrous, bull-headed man who dwells in its depths.
Another forerunner of the hacker is Arthur Conan Doyle’s inimitable consulting detective, Sherlock Holmes. There were, of course, no computers at 221B Baker Street, but Holmes’ phenomenal intellect and his ability to access crucial information – seemingly out of thin air – singles him out as Lisbeth’s literary Godfather.
A closer relation, perhaps, is Phillip Marlowe – the hero of Raymond Chandler’s dark detective novel, The Big Sleep. Marlowe is a marginal character who moves more-or-less effortlessly between legality and illegality and yet, in the core of his being, cleaves unerringly to the right and the good. His antagonists are often corrupt authority figures: gangster bosses, bent cops, politicians on the take and crooked businessmen. As a private investigator, operating outside the official structures of law enforcement and justice, Chandler’s hero embodies all the key attributes and instincts of the “White Hat” hacker.
Driving all of these literary characters is a determination to discover what lies behind the locked doors of this world: doors which its frustratingly incurious inhabitants are happy to leave unopened. These play-it-safers caution the naturally inquisitive against asking too many questions and tell them not to go poking their noses into places where someone might feel obliged to cut them off.
Such advice is ill-received by those who remain unconvinced that not everything is as it appears to be. That below the placid surface of the workaday world plans are unfolding about which most of us know absolutely nothing. Plans hatched by people who are as fascinating as they are terrifying: inhabitants of a parallel universe; separate from our own but accessible to those who know which keys unlock what doors.
Think of David Lynch’s cult movie masterpiece, Blue Velvet, in which the chance discovery of a severed human ear propels the hero into a nightmare world of corruption, kidnapping, drug-taking, sado-masochism and murder, the existence of which he’d known absolutely nothing only days before.
It is tempting to dismiss the sort of people who seek to penetrate the veils that mask these alternate realities as tin-foil-hat-wearers and “screaming left-wing conspiracy theorists”. And yet, it was no lesser authority than Benjamin Disraeli, Prime Minister of Great Britain from 1874 until 1880, who remarked that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.”
The sort of person who becomes a hacker is the sort of person who hears in Disraeli’s words not simply a revelation – but a challenge. Who are these different personages? How does one get behind the scenes?
In the past one only found out these things by venturing into the Labyrinth, pursuing the Hound of the Baskervilles, interrogating the gangster boss, or hiding in the nightclub singer’s closet. Today, however, top-secret information may be obtained without leaving the room. With a lap-top, an Internet connection, and the requisite knowledge, getting behind the scenes and learning the secrets of all manner of personages – familiar and unfamiliar – is astonishingly easy.
Since January, the real-life investigative journalist, Nicky Hager, has, like Mikael Blomkvist in Larsen’s thriller, been working with his very own Lisbeth Salander. The resulting book has, in the manner of David Lynch, revealed to us the existence of a political world very different from the one those of us who have never ventured behind the scenes imagined. We have been introduced to characters every bit as fascinating and terrifying as Arthur Conan Doyle’s and Raymond Chandler’s.
What remains to be seen is whether life imitates art and the guilty are brought to electoral justice. It’s one thing to discover the Labyrinth exists, quite another to slay the monster at its heart.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 August 2014.

Thursday, 28 August 2014

The First Leaders' Debate: Cunliffe Shows His Quality.

Epic Struggle: Tonight New Zealanders were privileged to witness a truly outstanding encounter between two highly effective politicians. Leaving aside its ridiculous "poll", TVNZ is to be congratulated for screening one of the best leaders' debates in decades.

WHAT A BLOODY SHAME. For 59 minutes TVNZ had hosted one of the best leaders' debates in decades. In spite of many Labour supporters reservations, Mike Hosking chaired the encounter with consummate professionalism. He made sure the debate was free-flowing, allowing both leaders ample opportunity to demonstrate both their command of the relevant facts and their skill at turning those facts to their own and their party's advantage.

But then, in the final minute of the show, TVNZ broadcast the results of a meaningless "poll" of self-selecting respondents purporting to show that John Key had "won" the debate by a margin of 69 percent to 31 percent. Rather than simply allowing New Zealanders to argue among themselves in the best democratic tradition about which man had been the more impressive, the state broadcaster could not forebear from settling the question for them. Immensely satisfying if you were a National Party supporter, utterly infuriating if you were backing Labour.

Because there is absolutely no disputing the fact that David Cunliffe acquitted himself superbly in tonight's debate. He was disarmingly courteous and generous in his interactions with the Prime Minister, but frankly, he could afford to be. Of the two politicians he was easily the more fluent and the more persuasive. Where the Prime Minister aggressively asserted, David Cunliffe calmly and good-humouredly presented the evidence. And, when the moment came for a knockout blow, the Leader of the Opposition was not found wanting.

The "killer punch" came in the discussion about selling New Zealand farmland to foreigners. Responding to Hosking's challenge about no New Zealanders being willing to pay the $70 million Shanghai Pengxin was willing to offer for Lochinver Station, David Cunliffe simply invited the Chairman to "roll the logic forward" and in a bravura demonstration of his economic skills set forth the blunt facts about how such a market would inevitably and permanently bar New Zealanders from ever being able to afford to purchase their own land. Even John Key felt obliged to congratulate his opponent on his spectacular rhetorical performance.

For those not blinded by tribal political loyalties, this was the moment when Cunliffe "won" the debate. Economics and business have always been the Prime Minister's preferred battle-ground. But, even here, in the area of John Key's greatest expertise, David Cunliffe bettered him. For all those New Zealanders who have yet to make up their minds, that extraordinary exchange should be their "Aha!" moment. John Key is a highly accomplished politician and a fine debater, but tonight he met his match. Tonight, for the first time since he became National's leader, John Key lost.

If I were to score the debate out of 100 I would give 60 points to David Cunliffe and 40 points to John Key.

Will that be the judgement of punditry in general? We shall have to wait and see. TVNZ, however, with its meaningless "poll", clearly intends to tell New Zealand that John Key was the victor. As citizens with minds of our own, and as viewers who had just witnessed a truly outstanding encounter between two highly effective politicians, we deserved better than to see the public broadcaster needlessly undermine an otherwise splendid event.

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Democracy - Leonard Cohen

Because I've just come back from Nicky Hager's extraordinary public meeting in the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, here's Lenny's magnificent paean to the democratic ideal. If it's coming to the USA - why not here too?
Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of state
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate

Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite

The Pilgrim Of Light: Nicky Hager And New Zealand Politics

Admonishing Angel: Nicky Hager descends periodically to trouble our consciences and wreak merry havoc with the orderly conduct of our political affairs. But, more than any other journalist in New Zealand, he has taught us to read the actions of those who wield power over and around us in the twenty-first century.
WHAT WILL HISTORY MAKE of Nicky Hager? That slight, perpetually boyish, journalist who descends periodically, like the admonishing angel in a medieval mystery play, to trouble our consciences and wreak merry havoc with the orderly conduct of our political affairs. History will have to make something of him: his interventions have been too important to be dismissed by our political brewers as mere irrelevant froth. But what? That is the question.
Perhaps we should begin by telling the world what Nicky Hager is not. Prime Ministerial judgements notwithstanding, he is not “a screaming left-wing conspiracy-theorist”.
Hager has never, is not, and never will be some sort of avatar of the “left-wing”. He has far too refined a moral sense to be the representative of anything so fractious and morally compromised as the New Zealand Left. Indeed, most left-wingers have little patience for individuals so weighed down by self-imposed scruples. The preferred left-wing soldier is as reluctant to question the ethics of the party-line as Hager is eager to challenge them. Revolutionary bread is typically made from much more coarsely-ground flour.
Nor does Hager scream. His mode of address is invariably polite and carefully measured. Softly-spoken and slow to take offence, Hager is actually the perfect foil for the genuine screamers of the public sphere. These latter cannot abide the fact that Hager is able to inflict so much damage to their cause while speaking in tones of such sweet reasonableness. One imagines their camera lenses, microphones and keyboards flecked with spittle – so great is the rage which he inspires.
Of all the epithets hurled at Hager, by far the most common is that he is a “conspiracy theorist”. I recently heard one of Jim Mora’s panellists, a woman who I would wager has never read a single one of his books, dismiss him as “a grassy-knoll fantasist”. I was surprised she didn’t add that he was generally to be found sporting a jaunty tin-foil hat!
Methinks the lady – and all those others so quick to dismiss Hager’s work as the rantings of a demented conspiracy theorist – doth protest too much. Such people cannot easily accept that what they happily acknowledge as the truth of things may be something else entirely. That the “official” story is, as often as not, a tissue of lies. Or, that the eruptions of mendacity which periodically disturb the placid surface of public life are anything other than unfortunate accidents: cock-ups – not conspiracies. Hager’s books, so meticulously researched and footnoted, so weighed down with names and dates and places, render the cock-up theory unusable by these poor souls, forcing them to focus on facts as uncomfortable as they are irrefutable. Unsurprisingly, he is not thanked for doing so.
Even more upset, however, are the people whose hidden machinations (conspiracies if you like the word better) Hager exposes. Once again, this is hardly surprising. Whether it be the people behind the Echelon spy system; the timber company with its eyes on the native forests of the West Coast; a Labour prime minister who’d neglected to alert the country to the accidental release of genetically-engineered corn; the National Party strategists behind Dr Don Brash’s bid to complete the neoliberal revolution; the New Zealand Defence Force’s strenuous efforts to re-attach New Zealand’s pinky finger to the Anglo-Saxon fist; or, All The Prime Minister’s Men’s e-mail communications with Cameron Slater: these are people who would have preferred their words and deeds to have remained hidden from the public gaze. “Conspiracy theorist!”, in the mouths of such individuals is not a revelation, it’s a diversion.
So what has Hager done? In historical terms, he has taught us how to read the actions of those who wield power over and around us in the twenty-first century. Since the publication of his first book, Secret Power, in 1996, Hager has shown us things our leaders would rather we hadn’t seen. He’s taught us to challenge the official media releases; to question the news stories; and to understand the truth of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s (1804-1881) disturbing observation that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.”
Hager is one of that rare breed of men with whom even History is uncomfortable. He represents neither class nor creed; is the servant of neither political party nor economic interest. He comes to us out of storms of malice, steering his fragile little boat of truth across a raging sea of lies. In the words of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest historians, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) Nicky Hager is proof that:
“In the true Literary Man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness: he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest – guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.”
This essay was posted simultaneously on the Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Wednesday, 27 August 2014.

Child Poverty Action Group - On The March

Take steps against child poverty
in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Join the
End Child Poverty Hikoi
Britomart, Auckland
11:00am, Saturday
6 September 2014
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Ethics Of Selective Outrage

Killing In The Name Of: Given the chorus of rage currently directed at the “Zionist Entity”, why are those who profess “progressive” sympathies so silent when it comes to the outrages perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State?
WHERE ARE THE IMPASSIONED STREAMS of citizens flooding our nation’s streets to protest the actions of the Islamic State? The righteous wrath stirred up by the Israeli assault upon Gaza has been plain to see. But the barbaric punishment meted out to Christians, captive Iraqi soldiers, Shia Muslims and followers of the ancient Yazidi faith has yet to inspire anyone to apply paint to placard. Given the chorus of rage currently directed at the “Zionist Entity”, why are those who profess “progressive” sympathies so silent when it comes to the outrages perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State?
The latest of these, the beheading of a young American journalist, has generated a wave of revulsion around the world. Not least on account of the perpetrators’ cynical (but effective) use of social media to publicise their medieval celebration of cruelty and death. But where are the Hollywood movie stars emoting to camera over the ritual killing of their defenceless compatriot? Where are the protest crowds of outraged progressives demanding justice for James Foley?

James Foley's Last Moments: A medieval celebration of cruelty and death. 
Does nobody else think it odd that the gunning down of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, can spark days of passionate protest, but the agonising decapitation of a helpless journalist elicits condemnation only from “mainstream” politicians and the equally despised “mainstream” media? Did progressives maintain a similar silence when images of a terrified Palestinian boy, caught in a deadly crossfire of Israeli bullets, appeared on the world’s television screens? No, they did not.
More and more, it seems to me, we are being presented with what some commentators are calling “good dead” and “bad dead”.
The Palestinian mother and child who die under Israeli bombs; the Dutch tourist who dies when a missile destroys Flight MH17 over Donetsk; these are the “good dead”. We may mourn their loss openly and loudly, and angrily condemn their killers. But the women and children killed by Ukrainian jets and artillery, or by the missiles fired into Israel from Gaza, these are “bad dead”: to be passed over in silence.
Now, you may say that it was ever thus: that people around the world have always been encouraged to hate who their leaders hate and mourn the dead of their valiant allies. But this has never been the position of those who described themselves as progressive. People on the Left of politics used to condemn cruel and unusual punishment wherever it occurred. Racial discrimination, religious persecution and the subjugation of women were likewise held up as unequivocally bad practices.
Not any more.
It always struck me as extraordinary that Western progressives were willing to put their bodies (and even their lives) on the line for the sake of racial equality and democratic freedom in South Africa, but that there was no equivalent international mobilisation against the vicious repression of women in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The universalism of the twentieth century had, by the early years of the twenty-first, given way to an empty ethical relativism. Today, it would seem, progressives are free to pick and choose who they deem to be right and wrong. Raging unceasingly against the Israeli “apartheid” state, while maintaining an ambiguous silence in the face of the Islamic State's atrocities.
So, for those who chant “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!” I would counsel this little thought experiment.
Suppose in October 1973 Syria’s Soviet-equipped armoured divisions had broken through Israel’s northern defences and that Ariel Sharon’s tanks had not outmanoeuvred Egypt’s in the Sinai. What do you suppose would have been the response of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)? Would they have demanded a cease-fire, pending the creation of a secular and democratic Palestinian state? Or, would they have driven every Jew living west of the River Jordan into the sea?
If you were to ask 100 Israelis that question, I’m pretty sure how 95 of them would respond. They would tell you that from the moment of its formation in 1964, the PLO wagered everything on Egypt and Syria (with Soviet weapons) becoming militarily strong enough to do what the Palestinians, alone, could never do: destroy the Israeli state. When it lost that bet the PLO adopted a dual-track strategy: officially recognising Israel’s right to exist while unofficially sanctioning a long and deadly asymmetric struggle against the Israeli people. Using terror not to defeat the Israeli state, but to reshape it in the terrorists’ own murderous likeness. Having transformed Israel into a monster, the Palestinians could then implore the world to come to their rescue. Of course, for this strategy to succeed, Israel had to be constantly goaded into unleashing ever more murderous attacks.
Morally, there is little to distinguish the Palestinian leadership’s conduct from that of the Islamic State's. Because no good end ever came from such evil means.
Progressives knew that … once.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 August 2014.

Monday, 25 August 2014

John Key's Hand-Up To Julian And Sarah.


Life Used To be So Hard: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Our House.
NATIONAL'S HOUSING POLICY, like Labour's, promises to make life easier for those young middle-class couples desperate to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder.

The real solution to homelessness is, as the Greens and Internet-Mana propose, to flood the rental property market with state-owned and state-constructed houses. With rents capped at 25 percent of the tenant's income these thousands of new state houses would collapse the market for second or third properties that has driven up the price of housing to ridiculous and unsustainable levels.

Yes, people like me, the Baby-Boomer middle-classes, would take a hit - in many cases a big hit. But given the huge advantages our generation enjoyed at the start of our careers: free tertiary education, affordable housing, workplace protections, a buoyant job market; its only fair that we pay down some of those advantages to the generations following along behind us.

Racking my brains for an appropriate accompaniment to this posting, I finally came up with Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young's classic 1970 hit Our House.

One can only assume that John Key is expecting innumerable Julians and Sarahs to think of him when they hear the line:

Now everything is easy 'cause of you.


Video Courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.