Sunday, 17 March 2019

What Happened Here?

Our Darkest Day: New Zealand has been horribly scarred by a fanatical follower of the international white supremacist movement. He hid among us in plain sight, masking his murderous intentions from his Dunedin neighbours, the Police, the SIS and the GCSB – until it was too late. He could not have been stopped – except by the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune. And, at 1:40 pm, on Friday, 15 March 2019, New Zealand’s luck ran out.

BRENTON TARRANT isn’t one of us. He may have been born in Australia, but he isn’t really an Australian either. If his own words are any guide, he identifies himself, above and beyond all other considerations, as White. Like so many of the horrors currently disfiguring our world, Brenton Tarrant’s crimes are an expression of pure and murderous racism.

He came here a couple of years ago to plan and to prepare for action in another part of the world, most likely in the United States. Once here, however, he appears to have changed his mind. Something about New Zealand, most probably our acute vulnerability to the sort of terrorist attack he was planning, convinced him that shots fired here would be heard around the world.

New Zealanders have nothing to reproach themselves for in relation to the horrific attack on the two Christchurch mosques. We must not for one moment entertain the notion that there was something we could have done to stop Tarrant. Lone wolf terrorists of his sort are not produced by the ignorant racist mutterings of gun club members. Nor are they inspired by the rantings and ravings of social media. That’s not how it works.

All the literature points to this sort of terrorism being born of real, geopolitical events. Indeed, if the perpetrators could not locate their murderous racist impulses within a global context, then the scale of their ambitions would be commensurately smaller. The ravages of Western and Soviet imperialism, and the asymmetrical resistance launched by the victims of that aggression, have been the drivers of global terrorist extremism for more than a century.

We didn’t start that fire.

It is no accident that one of the heroes of the rambling 73-page “manifesto” which Tarrant posted online is Anders Breivik – the Norwegian white supremacist who murdered 72 of his fellow citizens in 2011. Like Breivik, Tarrant locates himself in a phantasmagorical world of evil invaders and righteous defenders. At stake is nothing less than the survival of the “white race”.

Those who enter this fever dream are utterly inaccessible to reason. And it is precisely this inaccessibility that makes the weaponised hate of Breivik and Tarrant so dangerous. In the memorable line from the first Terminator movie: “[I]t can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop.”

That such individuals are psychologically damaged is axiomatic. No individual capable of empathy can murder men, women and children with the robotic efficiency of a Breivik or a Tarrant. Inevitably, the subsequent psychological assessment of these individuals throws up a toxic mixture of sociopathic cruelty and extreme narcissism. The injustice and suffering unfolding in the real world is reinterpreted by the defective personalities of these lone wolf terrorists as something which is happening not to others – but to themselves. They take it personally. Far from being “the continuation of politics by other means”, their terrorism is a savage quest for vengeance.

As the dreadful events of Friday, 15 March 2019 were unfolding, I couldn’t help recalling the words of King Theoden in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. As his fortress of Helm’s Deep is on the point of being over-run, he asks despairingly: “What can men do against such reckless hate?”

That is now the question which New Zealand must ask of itself.

Part of the answer, the most important part, we have already seen. In the floral tributes outside the nation’s mosques. In the images of the imam and the rabbi embracing each other. In the Pasifika voices raised in a hymn of heart-breaking poignance. In the Maori and Pakeha faces wet with tears, yet set in grim defiance. In the passionate cry of the massacre survivor: “This is not New Zealand!” In the nearly $5 million already raised to support the victims’ families. The answer already given by the people of New Zealand, united in grief, is unequivocal: When confronted with such reckless hate, the only possible answer is aroha – love.

The wrong answer; the answer the terrorist is always hoping the strategic targets of his rage will give; is to meet recklessness with recklessness; hate with hate.

While the ruins of the Twin Towers were still smoking, the American people shackled themselves to the Patriot Act: voluntarily curtailing the very freedoms the Al Qaida terrorists were condemned for attacking.

The contrast between the American response to 9/11, and the Norwegian Government’s response to Breivik, could hardly be more striking. At a memorial service in Oslo Cathedral, the Norwegian Prime Minister, Jens Stoltenberg, declared: “We must not allow this attack to hurt Norwegian democracy: the proper answer to such violence is more democracy, more openness … No one has said it better than the [young woman] who was interviewed by CNN: ‘If one man can show so much hate, think how much love we could show, standing together.’”

It is to be hoped that our Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, allows herself to be guided by Stoltenberg’s example. To date, her handling of the Christchurch tragedy has been faultless. Her sole policy response, an uncompromising pledge to reform New Zealand’s gun laws, was focused, measured and appropriate. It will be an uphill struggle for any person or lobby group foolish enough to oppose her call for stricter regulation of firearms – especially of the semi-automatic weapons that made Tarrant’s attack so costly.

The Prime Minister will, doubtless, come under increasing pressure from angry and misguided persons to curtail the rights of New Zealanders articulating unpopular views concerning Maori-Pakeha relations, the Islamic religion, multiculturalism and immigration policy. In defence of the liberal-democratic values that Tarrant assaulted so violently, Jacinda should calmly resist all such calls. We must not allow the unanimity of our grief to be translated into a demand for unanimity of opinion.

New Zealand has been horribly scarred by a fanatical follower of the international white supremacist movement. He hid among us in plain sight, masking his murderous intentions from his Dunedin neighbours, the Police, the SIS and the GCSB – until it was too late. Brenton Tarrant is a lone wolf terrorist who took advantage of everything that is good about New Zealand to perpetrate a devastating act of homicidal violence against defenceless Muslim worshippers. He could not have been stopped – except by the most extraordinary stroke of good fortune. And, at 1:40 pm, on Friday, 15 March 2019, New Zealand’s luck ran out.

What happened at the Linwood and Al Noor mosques was horrific, but it wasn’t our doing. As we begin the long journey towards recovery, it is vitally important that we keep that fact squarely before us. New Zealand is a good place. New Zealanders are good people. We are not responsible for Brenton Tarrant’s dreadful crime. This is not us.

This essay was posted simultaneously on the Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog of Sunday, 17 March 2019.

Friday, 15 March 2019

New Zealand's Current Foreign Policy: An Absence Of Realism.

What Are You trying To Say? The contrast between Helen Clark’s stewardship of New Zealand foreign policy and Jacinda Ardern’s is stark. Ardern’s generation, raised in the shadow of Rogernomics, has never evinced the same strong interest in international issues that characterised the Baby Boomers. The USA had won the Cold War, leaving neoliberal capitalism in command of the planet. Taking issue with this new status quo could be seriously career-limiting. With Ardern, it’s not quite a matter of “where Uncle Sam goes, we go” – but it’s close.

NOWHERE is the difference between Helen Clark and Jacinda Ardern more apparent than in the field of foreign policy.

Clark’s induction to left-wing politics came, as it did for so many of her generation, from New Zealand’s interactions with the rest of the world.

Be it this country’s relationship with the United States, France or South Africa, there was never any shortage of deficiencies to be challenged and (hopefully) overcome. The Vietnam War, Atmospheric Nuclear Testing, Apartheid: these were the issues that mobilised thousands of young New Zealanders – and Labour was on the right side of them all.

For those, like Clark, who were driven to do more than protest, serious engagement with foreign policy issues required a high degree of intellectual and political discipline. If one’s intention was to do more than shout slogans and wave placards, then the facts had to be mastered and the arguments, both for and against, understood. Without the ability to make a case, and defend it, the chances of being heard by those with the power to effect change were negligible.

What was sauce for the goose of foreign policy was, of course, also sauce for the gander of domestic policy. Mastering the art of the possible in relation to the former pretty much guaranteed equal mastery with respect to the latter. More importantly, Clark soon realised than in a small trading nation tucked away at the bottom of the planet, building and maintaining strong and mutually advantageous relationships with the rest of the world was absolutely crucial to the preservation of national prosperity.

It was an insight which propelled Clark towards the “realist” school of international relations pioneered by Hans Morgenthau. At the heart of Morgenthau’s realism was his belief that the relationships between countries should be guided by an assessment of the power each is able to bring to the task of advancing and defending their national interests. Ethical considerations are not irrelevant to this sort of calculation, but neither are they pivotal. In Morgenthau’s opinion: “A good foreign policy minimizes risks and maximizes benefits.”

Clark’s realism proved highly effective in advancing New Zealand’s national interest. She earned the respect of four-fifths of humanity by declining to join in the USA’s illegal invasion of Iraq in 2003. More impressively, she persuaded the Chinese to put their trust in New Zealand, and thus became the first western leader to negotiate a free trade agreement with the People’s Republic.

The contrast between Clark’s stewardship of New Zealand foreign policy and Ardern’s is stark. Ardern’s generation, raised in the shadow of Rogernomics, has never evinced the same strong interest in international issues that characterised the Baby Boomers. The USA had won the Cold War, leaving neoliberal capitalism in command of the planet. Taking issue with this new status quo could be seriously career-limiting. With Ardern, it’s not quite a matter of “where Uncle Sam goes, we go” – but it’s close.

This is a long way from Morgenthau’s realism. Absent from New Zealand’s current foreign policy is the constant and careful calculation of precisely how much diplomatic power is available to us at any given moment for the advancement of our national interest.

The Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, apparently on his own recognisance, has signed New Zealand up holus-bolus to the USA’s new “Indo-Pacific” strategy. In the process he has gratuitously breached the trust upon which New Zealand’s immensely valuable economic relationship with China rests. He did not see fit to consult his Prime Minister about this radical realignment – and, by all accounts, she saw no reason to object.

Quite what Clark makes of the unholy mess Peters has made of her carefully balanced foreign policy can only be imagined. When the pressure is applied: from Canberra, London, Washington or Beijing; the Foreign Minister is suddenly nowhere to be found. Leaving his hapless Prime Minister to follow the line of least diplomatic resistance. Towards Washington one day. Towards Beijing the next.

From the point of view of the two largest powers on New Zealand’s dance card, squeezing the Kiwis makes perfect sense. If a nation reveals itself to be vulnerable to pressure, then pressure will be applied.

Ardern has led New Zealand into the very predicament Clark worked so hard to keep us out of: caught between an American rock and a Chinese hard place.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 March 2019.

Listening To Kate Raworth On "Nine To Noon".

Purposeful Renegade: As an economics student, not only was Kate Raworth (above) never told the ultimate purpose of economics, but also, she told Kathryn Ryan on RNZ's Nine To Noon, she and her fellow students were never encouraged to ask.

KATE RAWORTH calls herself a “renegade economist”, by which she means, I can only conclude, an economist who makes sense. If you’re keen to discover exactly how much sense, then read her book, Doughnut Economics: Seven Ways to Think Like a 21st Century Economist, or – better still – purchase a ticket to hear her speak at the Auckland Writers Festival on 13 May.

Listening to Raworth being interviewed by Kathryn Ryan on this morning’s (14/3/19) edition of Nine To Noon was a rare treat. RNZ has become such a timorous wee beastie these days; utterly determined to remain as inoffensive as possible to as many of its listeners as possible. So much so, that interviews with renegades of any sort are depressingly infrequent.

It would be encouraging to discover that Raworth was invited on Nine To Noon because Ryan is genuinely interested in discovering what might supplant the increasingly threadbare neoliberal economic paradigm which has, for more than three decades, been relentlessly transforming New Zealand society.

Equally encouraging would be a “progressive” government peopled with Raworth devotees. A government chock-full of Labour, Green and NZ First politicians who all “get” the Oxford professor’s new economic thinking. Imagine party conferences and caucuses alive with debate about the best way of moving New Zealand out of its neoliberal capitalist present, and into a radically democratic eco-socialist future.

Why don’t we have such a government?

The answer is, in large measure, supplied by Raworth herself. She described to Ryan the peculiar narrowness of the economics discipline. As an economics student, not only was she never told the ultimate purpose of economics, but also, she and her fellow students were never encouraged to ask.

Like the rest of us, students are urged to look upon economics as a science. Its practitioners are charged with describing the laws of motion of economic reality. To demand to know the “purpose” of economics is as absurd as demanding to know the “purpose” of reality. Reality doesn’t have a purpose – it simply “is”. Economics just “is” too.

Except, of course, the “science” of economics isn’t a science at all. Political economy: the name people living in the nineteenth century gave to the many and often conflicting explanations of how the new phenomenon of industrial capitalism worked, before these (minus those who prophesied its destruction) were codified and re-christened “economics”; was a much more honest intellectual exercise. Political economists at least recognised that how production, distribution and consumption are organised in any given society is both a reflection and an expression of who has the power – and who does not.

Raworth argues that the true purpose of economics under capitalism is to persuade people that who gets what is not decided by powerful individuals and groups but by the “law” of supply and demand. That the distribution of wealth and power is not guided by the all-too-obvious hands of the wealthy and the powerful (in which there is usually some sort of weapon) but by the “invisible hand” of the market. An agency as innocent of malign – or even conscious – intent as the weather.

Listening to Raworth respond to Ryan’s questioning, I was drawn to the conclusion that people either see through this attempt to hoodwink them into thinking that deciding who gets what is best left to the rational, utility-maximising and self-interested decision-making of homo economicus – or they don’t.

That conclusion led me, inexorably, to another: that all of the people who really matter in the present government are to be found among the hoodwinked. They just don’t “get” that the way an economy is run is the product of conscious political choice.

It is just about possible to forgive the members of NZ First for this failure. They are, after all, conservatives and therefore biased in favour of “organic” explanations of social relationships. There is, however, no excuse for Labour’s and the Greens’ failure to understand that they could change this country’s economic settings in a heartbeat – if they wanted to.

Labour, in particular, should grasp this. After all, it was the Fourth Labour Government which consciously, ruthlessly and radically changed New Zealand’s economic settings in 1984. They had help, of course: Treasury, the Reserve Bank, the Business Roundtable, most of the news media; all had a hand in the neoliberal transformation of New Zealand – and none of those hands were invisible.

It is a tragedy that in the eighteen months this government has been in office there’s been so little evidence of the renegade economics made popular by writers like Raworth. The Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, schooled by his mentor – the former Finance Minister, Sir Michael Cullen – is a ploddingly orthodox economic manager. The economic settings he has chosen to steer by, being virtually identical to those the previous National Government chose to steer by, will inevitably deliver New Zealand to a very similar destination.

Listening to her expound her renegade economics on Nine To Noon, I could only wonder what life in this country would be like if Kate Raworth was New Zealand’s finance minister. Compassionate, equitable, sustainable and, above all, radical.

As every progressive government should be.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 15 March 2019.

Thursday, 14 March 2019

By Other Means.

Without Power: The Venezuelan Government is under no illusions concerning those responsible for the energy blackout currently afflicting its citizens. President Nicolas Maduro has declared his country to be the victim of a cyber-attack initiated and overseen by the US Government.

IF WAR is “the continuation of politics by other means” (Carl von Clausewitz) then cyber-war is the continuation of war by other means.

When the US Government warned the rest of the world that, when it comes to securing regime change in Venezuela, “nothing is off the table”, most observers assumed it was talking about some form of military intervention. (An impression encouraged by a video-clip of National Security Advisor John Bolton’s hand-scrawled aide memoire “5,000 troops”.)

Thousands of Gringo soldiers planting their combat boots on the sovereign territory of Venezuela was not, however, a prospect which many Latin American leaders relished explaining to their own people. Better by far to have the Venezuelan generals abandon President Nicolas Maduro in favour of the CIA’s hand-picked “Interim President”, Juan Guaido.

Unfortunately for Uncle Sam and his lickspittle lieutenants, the Venezuelan armed forces refused to follow the script Washington had written for them. Guaido was able to call out the Chavista’s sworn enemies among the Venezuelan elites and their middle-class enablers but, as the events of the past 20 years have proved, these guarimberos are insufficiently numerous to be decisive. The Venezuelan police, backed by the army and the popular militia, can contain their protests without resorting to deadly force.

Clearly, a change of strategy was required.

And, in the finest traditions of CIA, Pentagon and State Department contingency-planning, an alternative strategy was ready to hand. According a nine-year-old memo circulated by CANVAS (Centre for Applied Nonviolent Action and Strategies) back in 2010 – and subsequently released by Wikileaks:

A key to Chavez’s [Hugo Chavez was the leader of Venezuela’s Bolivarian revolution and Maduro’s predecessor in the presidential palace – C.T.] current weakness is the decline in the electricity sector. There is the grave possibility that some 70 percent of the country’s electricity grid could go dark as soon as April 2010. Water levels at the Guris dam are dropping, and Chavez has been unable to reduce consumption sufficiently to compensate for the deteriorating industry. This could be the watershed event, as there is little that Chavez can do to protect the poor from the failure of that system. This would likely have the impact of galvanizing public unrest in a way that no opposition group could ever hope to generate.

Taking down Venezuela’s electricity grid was thus identified as a potentially decisive intervention.

CANVAS, by the way, was born out of the so-called “colour revolutions” that subverted the governments of, among other states, Serbia, Georgia and the Ukraine. It specialises in mobilising young people – usually middle-class students – who are sent onto the streets in what appears to be a campaign of spontaneous, non-violent resistance to autocracy. Behind the screen of these ongoing democratic protests, however, CANVAS unleashes much less acceptable political forces, trained and equipped by the CIA to bring down regimes deemed hostile to US interests. That CANVAS turned up in Venezuela surprised nobody familiar with its sinister record of political destabilisation.

As John McEvoy, writing for the left-wing UK website, The Canary, noted in his 12 March posting, “the Venezuelan opposition tried to include ‘damage to facilities of the National Electric System’ within an amnesty bill in 2016.” Tellingly, the bill demanded amnesty for the perpetrators of any and all protest activities directed at Venezuela’s socialist government since the abortive right-wing coup of 2002. The list was a long one and revealed the lengths to which the right was prepared to go to overthrow Chavez’s democratically elected administration.

With Venezuela’s “National Electric System” now well-and-truly damaged, the question is one of agency. The US Government and its multitude of mouthpieces have been quick to blame the nationwide outages on the maladministration of Maduro’s government. This is what happens, they insist, when socialists take over. Nothing works. Nowhere in these reports, however, is there reference to the US embargo on the export of the spare parts needed to keep Venezuela’s hydro-electric generators and transmission infrastructure operating. No mention, either, of the embargo on the coal exports Venezuela needs to fuel the national electric system’s back-up power stations.

Also lacking in the mainstream reports is the catastrophic effect of a prolonged electricity outage on the Venezuelan capital’s water supply. Caracas is situated nearly a kilometre above sea-level, which means that its fresh water supply must be pumped up to the capital’s inhabitants from below. Take out the electricity and you take out the pumps. People can make do without electricity for a few days, but they cannot survive without water.

In the words of the leaked CANVAS memo: “This could be the watershed event, as there is little that Chavez [or Maduro] can do to protect the poor from the failure of that system.”

The Venezuelan Government is under no illusions concerning those responsible for the current crisis. Maduro has declared his country to be the victim of a cyber-attack initiated and overseen by the US Government. To those who roll their eyes and complain about tinfoil-hat-wearing conspiracy theorists, supporters of the Venezuelan Government need only offer one word: Stuxnet.

Stuxnet was the highly-sophisticated computer “worm” developed by the USA and Israel and introduced to the IT infrastructure of Iran’s nuclear programme. It proved to be a devastating cyber-weapon, playing a major part in driving the Iranians to the negotiating table and removing the threat of an Iranian bomb.

Compromising the Venezuelan hydro-electric generation system would likely have proved a great deal easier. With the generals refusing to revolt and Guaido’s guarimberos unable to defeat the forces of law and order, it was time to resort to “other means”.

Really? Yes, really. Those who doubt the United States’ willingness to prepare for and launch such an attack should consider the words of Paul Buchanan, an American academic who has spent much of his life working in and around the US national security apparatus. Writing on his blog Kiwipolitico on 28 February, Buchanan had this to say about the likely preparations for regime change in Venezuela:

As the crisis accentuates and the impasse continues, US military planners will pore over maps and powerpoints, then hammer down the details of the means, methods and tactics to be used, as well as Plan B and C scenarios. Assets will be discretely transferred to staging areas and liaison with host militaries and resistance groups will be established. Strategic targets such as oil derricks and refineries will be given special attention.

As well, it would seem, as Venezuela’s national electricity generation and transmission infrastructure.

Some people will no doubt say: “Well at least this is a bloodless intervention.”

Bloodless? Tell that to the patients who died in Caracas’ hospitals as the emergency generators gave out and the equipment upon which their lives depended ceased to function.

War, be it conventional war, or cyber-war, is hell – and always will be.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 14 March 2019.

Tuesday, 12 March 2019

Why Isn’t JA Channelling AOC?

Red Star Rising: A very similar set of perceptions fuelled the rise of both Jacinda Ardern and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. In the case of "AOC", the twenty-something, student-loan-burdened, former-waitress from Brooklyn, who proudly proclaims herself to be a “democratic-socialist”, has come to stand for everything that the contemporary Democratic Party is not – but urgently needs to become. In Jacinda's case, however, the radicalism is more apparent than real.

WHY ISN’T JACINDA ARDERN channelling Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC)? This is not a frivolous question. Labour found itself swept into a winning position at the end of 2017 almost entirely on the strength of Jacinda’s extraordinary appeal – especially to voters under 40.

Central to Jacinda’s appeal was the widespread perception that Labour’s new leader represented a definitive ideological break: not only with the Labour Party of Roger Douglas, but also with the woman who did her best to clear away the worst of the mess Rogernomics had made, Helen Clark.

A very similar set of perceptions has fuelled the rise of AOC. This twenty-something, student-loan-burdened, former-waitress from Brooklyn, who proudly proclaims herself to be a “democratic-socialist”, has come to stand for everything that the Clinton-dominated Democratic Party is not – but urgently needs to become.

So far, AOC hasn’t put a foot wrong in the complex dance routine that must be executed to secure a hearing for the aspirations of her locked-out generation. Her energetic sponsorship of a “Green New Deal” for America has made it impossible for House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi, to nudge the radicalism of AOC and her newly-minted congressional comrades into the long grass. In similar vein, the young Brooklynite’s outspoken call for the USA’s wealthiest citizens to be taxed at 70 cents in the dollar on all income in excess of $250,000 has given Overton’s Window a much-needed shove to the left.

A politician of Jacinda Ardern’s acute sensitivity can hardly have failed to notice the bright red glow currently pulsing from the heart of the zeitgeist. She would have watched in awe as Bernie Sanders’ “Children’s Crusade” forced Hilary Clinton to call in all her favours (and Super-Delegates) to head the old socialist off at the pass. But that awe would have turned to horror as Jeremy Corbyn’s socialist revival rolled up Blairism like a threadbare carpet and set the crowds cheering at Glastonbury.

Suddenly, Jacinda’s carefully scripted lines about being a “pragmatic idealist” seemed likely to have a very limited shelf-life. Certainly, her “politics of kindness” trope continues to inspire, but the problem with throwing around such kindly words is that, sooner or later (and preferably sooner!) they have to be matched by kindly deeds. Helping with the barbie at Waitangi looks good on the six o’clock news, but more is needed. Much more.

Does Jacinda get this? Does she understand the huge political potential – and risk – posed by the “surplus consciousness” of tens-of-thousands of young adults laden-down with professional credentials and student debt but denied the security and status attached to well-remunerated employment and a solid career-path? The precarious position of young people in the labour market is amplified even more pitiably for them in the marriage and property markets.

These voters are too well-educated to find solace among the angry populists of the Alt-Right, but they are signing up in droves to the system-challenging – and changing – agenda of democratic socialism. After all, what favours has neoliberal capitalism ever done them?

It’s one of the great mysteries of this government that, on the night the Labour-NZ First coalition was announced, Winston Peters got this – and Jacinda didn’t.

Then again, maybe not. One of the first big political gigs offered to Jacinda was an internship in Tony Blair’s Cabinet Office. It’s hardly the sort of ideological grounding to generate a surge of enthusiasm and support for Bernie Sanders or (God forbid!) Jeremy Corbyn.

Nor should it be forgotten that Jacinda was for a good portion of her life a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. One has only to recall the shining eyes and broad smiles of those Mormon missionaries on your doorstep, or tipping you that friendly wave as they ride by on their bicycles, to remember suddenly where you have seen Jacinda’s political style before.

Those familiar with Jacinda’s CV will object that her stint as President of the International Union of Socialist Youth (IUSY) equips her even more impressively than AOC for the struggle to advance democratic socialism. A little more is required of a true democratic socialist, however, than the ability to call people “comrade” with a straight face. Nor is the IUSY quite the bastion of radical socialist internationalism that its name might suggest. Any organisation that welcomes a far-right CIA stooge like Venezuela’s “Interim President”, Juan Guaido, into its ranks, has some explaining to do!

Finally, there is the problem of the company Jacinda has trained herself to keep. Throughout her entire political career she has surrounded herself with – and been surrounded by – right-wing social-democrats. Blair’s New Labourites; Clark’s incrementalists; Cullen’s DNC-endorsed economic policies; and, most recently, Grant Robertson’s “Budget Responsibility Rules”. She was an enemy of David Cunliffe and, by implication, the hopes and dreams of the thousands of Labour Party members who supported him. And, lastly, it’s a pretty safe bet that, like Labour’s current president, Nigel Howath, she has no time at all for that bane of Blairism, Jeremy Corbyn.

No. Jacinda may envy AOC’s extraordinary political savvy and covet her social media skills. She may even decide to crib some of her best lines about saving the planet and soaking the rich. But anyone anticipating an Ardern-led shift towards democratic socialism (which is still, ironically enough, the official ideology of the NZ Labour Party) is bound to be disappointed.

Democratic Socialism, as practiced by AOC, will be DOA in Jacinda’s NZLP.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 12 March 2019.

Friday, 8 March 2019

Separating The Singer From The Song.

The Singer And His Song: Is it possible to judge a work of art purely on its own merits? Can we truly set aside what we know about the artist and focus exclusively on what he or she has created? Can the singer ever be separated from the song?

BACK IN THE DAYS when I boasted much more hair and carried far fewer kilos, I was right into (as we said back then) writing songs. One of those songs, The Other Side of Town, opened like this:

Well, the street has been my teacher
And poverty my nurse

Oh dear, how my family and friends chortled. “You wouldn’t know how to live out on the street if your life depended on it!”, snorted one.

“Raised in poverty?”, laughed another, “you must be writing about somebody else!”

Which, of course, I was. Though the song is written in the first person, it is not in the least autobiographical. The “hero” of the song: a young man from the wrong side of the tracks, who has fallen hard for a young woman from the right side; is entirely fictional.

In fine romantic style, he contrasts his sufficient-unto-the-day approach to life with the complicated mix of expectations and aspirations of his middle-class girlfriend:

But you have built a puzzle
And I’m the piece that just don’t fit
You fret about tomorrow
Whereas I don’t care a bit

Aware of the sheer unlikelihood of two people so dissimilar enjoying a long relationship, the hero anticipates his lover’s decision to break it off and forgives her in advance. All he asks is that he not be forgotten:

I don’t mind that you refuse me
I don’t want to tie you down
Just remember me as someone from
The other side of town.

Banal and adolescent? I’m afraid so. But my family and friends reaction to The Other Side of Town provided me with a very early introduction to a problem that is still very much with us. Is it possible to judge a work of art purely on its own merits? Can we truly set aside what we know about the artist and focus exclusively on what he or she has created? Can the singer ever be separated from the song?

Quite a few of my friends just couldn’t manage it. They simply couldn’t reconcile the rather innocent lad who had written and was singing the song, with the worldly, Luke Perry-type character who was its subject.

“What do you know about any of this stuff? Where do you get off pretending to be a kid from the wrong side of the tracks?”

Forty-five years after the song was written, I suspect a younger generation of listeners would recoil with additional disdain from the lofty condescension and “mansplaining” contained in the lyrics. “Bloody hell!”, they’d guffaw, “the poor girl’s well rid of him! What an obnoxious macho prick!”

To which, in my own defence, I would offer up L. P. Hartley’s famous observation: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there.”

If we are to admire, or condemn, artists – as artists – we should do so solely on the basis of whether or not their creations move us towards a deeper understanding of the drama and the mystery of human experience. As individuals, they may be deeply flawed beings. Indeed, deeply flawed individuals and great art have a curious way of feeding off one another. But does that mean that we should burn all of James K. Baxter’s magnificent poetry, because in a private letter to a friend he admits to raping his wife?  Should Beat It and Billie Jean never be played again, because Michael Jackson stands accused of being a pedophile?

That great beauty, and profound insights into what it means to be human, can emerge from such broken vessels surely only makes the miracle of artistic creation all the more extraordinary. The Italian painter, Caravaggio, was a murderer. Does that require us to turn his dark and deeply disturbing paintings to the wall? Or, does knowing that he killed a man allow us to see just that little bit further into the darkness that dwells in us all?

Because the truth of the matter is that no human-being is entirely guiltless. We are all flawed in ways we hope that none of those who know us and love us will ever discover. Artists allow us to expiate our guilt by making visible in words, paintings, drama and music the hidden sources of human distemper. They are society’s antibodies: the ones who make sure that we possess the strength to resist the sins that devoured them.

As I wrote all those years ago:

The road you walked was steady
While the trail I blazed seemed rough
But, girl, the alley always threatens those
Who will not call its bluff.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 8 March 2019.

Striking To Save The Planet

For A Planet They Can Live On: “They’re trying to get the attention of the adults who have let them down over the course of the last 30 years. They have every right to fight for their future.” - James Shaw, Green Co-Leader and Climate Change Minister.

TODAY WEEK (15 March) secondary students across New Zealand will bunk school to protest their elders’ feeble response to climate change. They will not be alone. Teenagers all over the world, most of them too young to vote, will join this Global Climate Strike

It’s a gesture, of course, and easily dismissed as such. But, gestures matter.

Martin Luther nailed his protest note to the doors of the local cathedral – and gave birth to Protestantism. Hone Heke chopped down the flagstaff at Russell – and started a war. Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus – and changed America.

In the oft-quoted words of the Taoist philosopher, Lao Tzu: “Every journey begins with a single step.”

More important, perhaps, that the student’s political gesture will be their elders’ political response.

Climate Change Minister and Green Party Co-leader, James Shaw, is unequivocal in his support.

“They’re trying to get the attention of the adults who have let them down over the course of the last 30 years”, the Minister told Q+A’s Corrin Dann. “[T]hey have every right to fight for their future.”

Shaw’s support is certainly not echoed by the Principal of Darfield High School and head of the Secondary Principals Council, James Morris. His response to the proposed protest strikingly symbolises of the adult world’s failure to “get” either the urgency or the scale of anthropogenic global warming.

Confronted with the likelihood of ongoing Climate Strikes, he told TVNZ’s Whena Owen that he and his fellow Canterbury principals were developing a “consistent set of guidelines” with which to “manage” repeated student protest.

It is difficult to imagine an “official” response more numbing in its negativity. The principals’ reaction to the anguished cry of a generation struggling to come to terms with the terrifying realities of Climate Change, is to come up with a plan for “managing” an orderly return to business-as-usual in the nation’s classrooms.

Was it too much to expect anything more from our educational leaders? Weighed down as they are with legal and administrative obligations, was any other response possible?

Such questions lay bare the sheer size of the problem the striking students are attempting to address. The people in charge, their mums and their dads, simply do not understand that they and their children are already enmeshed in the climate change crisis.

There is no “business-as-usual” to return to: no “normal transmission” to be resumed.

“Normal”, from the point of view of the human species, was the Holocene. The whole of recorded human history has occurred in the geological age which, like Goldilocks preferred plate of porridge, was neither too hot, nor too cold, but just right. We are already in the entirely abnormal Anthropocene. For the first time in the planet’s history, its fate is being decided by the behaviour of a single organism – us.

The Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change, precisely because it is tasked with achieving the broadest possible scientific consensus on the issue, is one of the more conservative contributors to the climate change debate. Its latest report, delivered just last year, nevertheless gives us just 12 years to dramatically reduce our global carbon emissions, or face global warming of a magnitude far beyond the possibility of human control.

New Zealand’s secondary principals have long conceived of themselves as the status quo’s first line of defence. This has made them bastions of conservatism – and proud to be so. But, to champion the status quo in the face of apocalyptic climate change, they’ll be casting themselves in the role of their pupils’ destroyers.

If New Zealand’s principals are looking for guidelines, then look no further.

Close your schools next Friday. March alongside your students. Speak up not just for their future, but for any kind of future worth having. Tell your pupils’ parents that they should listen to their children – because they are right. The only thing that can save them, and every other complex organism on the face of the planet, is change.

Change without prevarication. Change without reservation. Change without “ifs”, or “buts”, or “maybes”. Change in spite of the resistance thrown up by the purblind fools who led them to this awful turning point. Change as if your lives depended on it. Change because your students’ lives most assuredly do depend upon it.

Change until they are safe.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 March 2019.