Tuesday, 17 July 2018

An Inconvenient Truth About Free Speech Denialism.

Dangerous Customer: The Right’s need to mobilise people’s fear lies at the heart of its determination to defend free speech. If the environmental agencies of the state were to be captured by political forces determined to take action against climate change, for example, then climate change denialist propagandists would very soon find themselves being countered by the full force of the scientific community. There is thus a need for the most reactionary forces within capitalist society to take (or retain) full control of the state apparatus. That cannot be done without free speech. Nor can it be prevented without free speech.

THAT THE INSPIRATION for this posting came from a man who spent his life studying grizzly bears is entirely fitting. The free speech debate of the past fortnight has seen more than a few angry grizzlies come galloping out of the woods. The question in most need of an urgent answer is – why? What is it that leads the Right to defend the principle of free speech so vigorously? And why has the contemporary Left departed so dramatically from Noam Chomsky’s free-speech absolutism?

Having watched the grizzly bear population of Yellowstone National Park dwindle under the impact of climate change and observed the blank unwillingness of state and federal wildlife protection agencies to intervene, or even acknowledge the need for intervention, David Mattson went in search of some answers.

His explanation for the Right’s ingrained antagonism towards climate change, published in Counterpunch under the headline “The Sinister Underbelly of Climate Change Denial” is unequivocal:

“Educated but mostly-white conservative businessmen and political servants/allies recognize a threat to their current near strangle-hold on power and wealth arising from calls to address rampant climate warming. They see those who promote alternative climate-cooling lifestyles and technologies as enemies to their existing entitlements, certainly profits and power. They are, moreover, inclined to be bigots. Being clever, they mobilize their equally bigoted but less educated, less cognitively capable, and exceedingly fearful base comprised largely of increasingly disadvantaged white males by appealing to their interest in maintaining the status quo and inflaming their fear of an alien intrusive world, manifest as ‘immigration’ and ‘immigrants’.”

From the oil-giant Exxon, to the coal companies currently driving US environmental policy, the historical footprints linking the fossil fuel industry to climate change denialism have long since been forensically tracked and identified. Mattson is right: denialism is a manifestation of reactionary capitalist fear.

The Right’s need to mobilise people’s fear lies at the heart of its determination to defend free speech. If the environmental agencies of the state were to be captured by political forces determined to, in Mattson’s words, “promote alternative climate-cooling lifestyles and technologies”, then denialist propagandists would very soon find themselves being countered by the full force of the scientific community. Hence the need of the most reactionary forces within capitalist society to retain full control of the state apparatus – a goal that can only be achieved by mobilizing their “equally bigoted but less educated” fellow citizens against an “alien and intrusive world” peddling fake news about everything from immigration to anthropogenic global warming.

The proposed visit to New Zealand of Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux should be viewed in the light of the Right’s on-going mobilisation of Mattson’s “increasingly disadvantaged white males”. An important element of this mobilisation process involves persuading its target audience that “the powers that be” are determined to suppress information which they have a right to know, but which the “liberal elites” don’t want them to hear. In this respect, the Mayor of Auckland’s decision to deny Southern and Molyneux access to Council-owned meeting-halls, played directly into their hands.

Obviously, the most effective strategy for defeating the Right’s strategy of mobilising fear is by countering its lies with the truth. This may not be as difficult as many opponents of the Right would have us believe. As Mattson notes in his article:

“[E]verything else aside, self-identified political conservatives cum Republicans are the most committed disbelievers [in climate change] and, among those, the best educated (paradoxically) the most strident of all. In other words, conservative elites of a Republican persuasion are the standard bearers of skepticism. Surprisingly, they are expressly less amenable to persuasion by evidence than their more poorly educated political base.”

It is in relation to this group of voters that the Left comes to grief over free speech. Climate change denialism and free speech denialism both being born of fear.

The Right is terrified of ordinary people learning the truth about capitalism and its causal relationship with environmental devastation – hence its determination to destroy their faith in science and social progress.

The Left, or at least a distressingly large part of it, is equally terrified that ordinary people are either incapable of absorbing, or unwilling to accept, the implications of the scientific research into climate change. Worse still, many leftists believe that ordinary people (white working-class males in particular) are equally unwilling to absorb and accept the Left’s arguments in favour of equality and diversity. That, in Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic characterisation, they are “a basket of deplorables”. Ignorant rubes who must, at all costs, be kept away from the influence of the Right’s agitators – even if that involves reducing freedom of expression to the status of “collateral damage” in the culture wars.

Nothing could be more helpful to the cause of the Right than a Left which has lost its faith in the people. What, after all, is more likely to cause the people to lose faith in the Left than a nagging suspicion that their self-appointed liberators regard them as being either too vicious or too stupid to grasp the arguments in favour of individual freedom and social justice without instruction from above?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 17 July 2018.

Monday, 16 July 2018

The Costa Rican Solution.

A Military Free Zone: It is surprising that the Greens haven’t adopted the “Costa Rican solution” of complete disarmament. What prevents the party which proclaims “Non-Violence” as one of its four founding principles from following the example of Bob Jones who, in 1983, announced that his newly-formed New Zealand Party would join Costa Rica in abolishing the armed forces?

GOLRIZ GHARAMAN, the Greens’ defence spokesperson has castigated her coalition partners for purchasing four Boeing P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft to replace the Air Force’s ageing fleet of Orions. Her stance is more-or-less in keeping with the Green Party’s pacifist leanings, but Gharaman’s objections to the aircraft’s war-fighting capabilities raises the more interesting question of why the party needs a defence spokesperson at all?

Rather than call for an air force devoted exclusively to search-and-rescue, and supporting scientific research (which wouldn’t really be an air force at all) would it not be more philosophically consistent of the Greens to follow the example of the Central American nation of Costa Rica which, in 1948, did away with its armed forces altogether?

That’s right, for the past 70 years this small, Spanish-speaking country, sandwiched between Nicaragua and Panama, has done without an army, navy and air force. The closest Costa Rica comes to a military formation is its Special Intervention Unit of 70 highly-trained commandos who operate under civilian command and are tasked with protecting their fellow citizens from heavily-armed drug lords and terrorists. National security is maintained by Costa Rica’s “Public Forces” which are themselves answerable to the Ministry of Public Security. An “Air Vigilance Service”, operating fewer than 20 aircraft (none of them military) assists with fisheries protection, search-and-rescue and general government support.

Costa Rica’s unbroken sequence of democratically-elected administrations stands in sharp contrast to the tragic history of her Central American neighbours. Since disbanding its standing army in 1948, the nation has avoided entirely the bloody military coups and foreign (i.e. United States) interventions which have torn apart El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama and Nicaragua. Over the course of the past 70 years, Washington may well have contemplated intervening in Costa Rica, but how could the American government persuade the world that the USA and its southern neighbours were under threat from a country that has no soldiers?

It is surprising, when you think about it, that the Greens haven’t adopted what I shall call “the Costa Rican solution”. Why would a party which has “Non-Violence” as one of its four founding principles, and which proclaims “non-violent conflict resolution” to be “the process by which ecological wisdom, social responsibility and appropriate decision making will be implemented”, refuse to do what that favourite bogeyman of the Left, Bob Jones, did in 1983 when he announced that his newly-formed New Zealand Party would follow the Costa Rican example and abolish New Zealand’s armed forces?

Not only would the Costa Rican solution save New Zealand tens-of-billions of dollars over the next few decades, but it would also get us off the particularly sharp horns of the geopolitical dilemma of how we should respond to the competing and contradictory demands of the United States and China. As a completely disarmed and neutral state, reliant upon the United Nations for defence against foreign aggression, New Zealand would have no need, or desire, to become embroiled in the Pacific power games of China and America.

Those who feel obliged to object that the UN could offer New Zealand only scant protection against foreign aggression, are under a consequential obligation to reveal exactly which nations the UN would be unable to protect us against. Throughout its long history, China has never shown the slightest interest in conquering a maritime empire – preferring instead to secure its offshore interests through skilful diplomacy and trade. Which only leaves the United States and its Australian lap-dog as potential aggressors. Are we, then, being asked to re-ally ourselves with these two repeat imperialist offenders because that is the only practical way to avoid being overpowered by them? If so, then it strikes me as a pretty odd basis for New Zealand’s supposedly “independent” foreign affairs and defence policy!

If Costa Rica, located in Uncle Sam’s back yard, has been safe from his predations these past 70 years on account of it not presenting a credible military threat to anyone, then why shouldn’t New Zealand anticipate a similar degree of security? Come on, Golriz, prove to us that the Greens still possess some of their old radical fire and step out on the journey to achieve what Bob Jones only proposed: the abolition of New Zealand’s armed forces.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 July 2018.

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Free Speech Denialism Is Fascism In Action.

Whose Hand Is That? Fifty years ago, nine-out-of-ten people would have nominated the totalitarian regimes of the Soviet bloc or Third World dictatorships as the most likely suppressors of free speech Today, the likelihood is that a substantial minority - maybe even a majority - of the population would nominate the "politically correct" Left as the most direct threat to freedom of expression in the West. How did that happen?

IT HAS BEEN DISPIRITING, this past week, to learn how little people who consider themselves leftists know about fascism.

The cause of this ignorance is, I suspect, generational. Those who grew up at a time when fascism was strong, and who later confronted its armies in World War II, are now very few in number. Their children and grandchildren, lacking their elders’ direct experience of fascism and fascists, have allowed the meaning of the word, along with the historical context out of which it grew, to fade and blur. As the recent torrid exchanges between the defenders of free speech and the opponents of right-wing Canadians Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux have made clear, the word “fascist” now denotes little more than conservative views provocatively expressed.

So torrid did these exchanges become that, by the middle of the week, the opponents of Southern and Molyneux were reduced to making the extraordinary assertion that “there’s no such thing as free speech”.

The argument advanced in support of this profoundly anti-democratic claim is as crude as it is curious. “[F]reedom of expression … is a mirage. Real freedom is not what you say, it’s how you live. And we do not live free lives. The world is not free from poverty, is not free from climate change, is not free from fear. Most importantly, we are not free of capitalism, which profits handsomely from our enslavement.”

Exactly how a world without poverty, climate change, fear and capitalism could possibly be achieved without freedom of expression defies the imagination. Without the ability to speak, write, publish and broadcast freely, independent political discussion and organisation cease to exist. One certainly does not debate or organise politically in the totalitarian societies where the suppression of free speech holds sway, one simply parrots the party line and obeys without question the orders handed down from politburo or f├╝hrer.

The most extraordinary (and, frankly, dangerous) claim of the free speech denialist quoted above is that what the members of the Free Speech Coalition (the group set up to raise funds for a judicial review of the Auckland mayor, Phil Goff’s, decision to deny Southern and Molyneux access to council owned meeting halls) actually wanted was “freedom from consequence”. What does that mean? Well, apparently, it means that if you “chat shit” you “get banged”.

No brown-shirted stormtrooper, sinking his jackboot into the ribs of the communist he has just knocked unconscious, could have summed-up the Nazi Party’s attitude to free speech any better!

“Let’s be clear;” continues our denialist, “fascism is not an intellectual exercise. It’s the epitome of evil, a cancer on humanity. My grandparents didn’t debate Nazis, they shot them.”

These sentences are extremely telling. Not on account of their content (which is entirely fallacious) but because of their tone. The denialist’s mode of expression, as anyone who has read the propaganda of Mussolini’s, Hitler’s and Franco’s followers will tell you, is quintessentially fascistic.

On display is the Fascist’s deep hostility towards intellectuality; his fondness for dividing the world into that which is “good” and that which is “evil”; his readiness to characterise the enemy as a form of disease (just as the Nazis likened the Jews to typhus) and, finally, the same eagerness to substitute violence for debate.

The most tragic aspect of the denialism quoted above is its author’s apparent ignorance of what his grandparents were actually fighting and dying for.

On the 6 January 1941, in his State of the Union speech to the United States Congress, President Franklin Roosevelt outlined the better world which he was determined to bring into existence when the war against tyranny, then raging, was eventually won:

“In the future days, which we seek to make secure, we look forward to a world founded upon four essential human freedoms.

The first is freedom of speech and expression—everywhere in the world.
The second is freedom of every person to worship God in his own way—everywhere in the world.

The third is freedom from want—which, translated into world terms, means economic understandings which will secure to every nation a healthy peacetime life for its inhabitants—everywhere in the world.
The fourth is freedom from fear—which, translated into world terms, means a world-wide reduction of armaments to such a point and in such a thorough fashion that no nation will be in a position to commit an act of physical aggression against any neighbour—anywhere in the world.

That is no vision of a distant millennium.
It is a definite basis for a kind of world attainable in our own time and generation.
That kind of world is the very antithesis of the so-called new order of tyranny which the dictators seek to create with the crash of a bomb.”

For a free speech denialist to use the sacrifices made by the millions of men and women who fought and died for these goals, in order to justify and encourage the vitriolic verbal abuse of individuals who continue to stand for Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” is beyond despicable. It does, however, makes dispiritingly clear the sheer scale of the political ignorance and hatred against which all genuine defenders of human rights and freedoms continue to struggle.

Free speech denialism also confirms the observation that as the economic and social climate deteriorates, the normally linear configuration of the political spectrum becomes distorted. In effect, the spectrum curves around until the extremes of left and right are practically touching one another and the middle-ground is further away from them than ever. As the political static increases, the gap between left and right is closed by an arc of white-hot intensity. It is in the baleful brilliance this exchange that the events of the past week have been illuminated.

It has not been pretty.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 12 July 2018.

Friday, 13 July 2018

Testing The Boundaries Of Political Discourse.

Crossing The Boundaries: Kent State University, Ohio, USA, 4 May 1970. The Youth Revolt of the 1960s and 70s was not quelled by Ohio National Guardsmen shooting down student protesters. All the conservative establishment's heavy-handed repression did was fuel the “New Left’s” sense of grievance and drive an iron spike of intolerance into its soul. Today's liberal establishment appears equally determined to make martyrs out of its right-wing critics.

TRANSGRESSION is extraordinarily appealing to the young. Giving voice to opinions that cause older people to throw up their hands in horror is always great fun. Almost as much fun as listening to music dismissed by the old folks as “noise”, or wearing clothes calculated to provoke Mum into inquiring: “You’re not going out dressed like that – are you?”

Adolescent psychologists put this sort of behaviour down to young people’s need to “test the boundaries” of the adult world. A coming-of-age process which helps to firm up the outlines of their future adult selves.

Politics, too, has its own forms of adolescent transgression, and this past week New Zealand has been introduced to two of its more notorious exponents. Lauren Southern and Stefan Molyneux, both hailing from the mild-mannered nation of Canada, have turned testing the boundaries of political discourse into something of an art form. (Or, at the very least, into a million views on YouTube!)

Like the normal adolescent, who is concerned to discover exactly how far he can go before his parents/teachers/friends bring the hammer down, political adolescents seek to discover how broadly or narrowly society has set the bounds of tolerance.

When I was a young person, political transgressors hailed almost exclusively from the left of the political spectrum. This was hardly surprising, since the prevailing social mores of most western nations in the 1950s and 60s were those laid down by the mainstream Christian churches. Throughout most of the Cold War era, the dominant political values were similarly conservative: unflinchingly hostile not only to the claims of communism and socialism, but also to all but the most anodyne forms of social democracy.

Yet, to the horror and fury of the RSA, young anti-war protesters attempted to lay wreaths commemorating the millions killed in “imperialist” wars – with special reference to Vietnam’s civilian dead. Scandalising the nation’s editorial writers, student leaders (like Tim Shadbolt) and visiting feminist luminaries (like Germaine Greer) uttered the word “bullshit” in public places. Young-at-heart poets also joined the provocation game: most memorably with James K. Baxter’s “A Small Ode on Mixed Flatting”.

Baxter cited the example of Robbie Burns “that sad old rip/From whom I got my fellowship”. A man who liked, as the bearded poet reminded his readers, “to toss among the glum and staid/A poem like a hand grenade”.

Fifty years on, however, most of the rhetorical bomb-throwers (like Southern and Molyneux) hail from the Right – not the Left. What happened?

In a nutshell, the cultural revolution of the 1960s and 70s congealed into an all-embracing liberal establishment. Over the course of fifty years, the transgressive ideas of what Colin James dubbed “The Vietnam Generation” became the orthodox beliefs of the Twenty-First Century’s ruling elites.

Accordingly, young women like Southern are calling “bullshit” on what they see as the constantly encroaching claims of an ever-more-intolerant feminism. Intellectuals like Molyneux are loudly insisting that what they call “the scientific evidence” must over-ride the plans of “politically correct” social-engineers to obliterate even the most obvious human distinctions.

Across the western world these right-wing firebrands are igniting bonfires of controversy over the meaning of nationality; the desirability, or not, of unlimited diversity; and the limits of religious toleration. Whether their agitation constitutes a rebirth of Enlightenment values, or (as the Left insists) the resurgence of ideas more commonly associated with extreme nationalism, even fascism, there is no disputing right-wing populism’s impact on the political complexion of the times we are living through.

Which is why, in my opinion, the Auckland Mayor, Phil Goff, erred in denying Southern and Molyneux access to all the public platforms controlled by the Auckland Council. Quite apart from turning the pair into free-speech martyrs (to the undoubted benefit of their YouTube accounts) Mayor Goff’s actions represented an authoritarian solution to a democratic problem.

The Youth Revolt of the 1960s was not quelled by jailing the Chicago Seven or allowing the Ohio National Guard to shoot down student protesters. Suppression merely fuelled the “New Left’s” sense of grievance and drove an iron spike of intolerance into its soul.

Friedrich Nietzsche, a philosopher of whom the Alt-Right are inordinately fond, wrote: “That which does not kill us makes us stronger.” Those who believe they can kill right-wing extremism by denying it a stage are in for a very unpleasant surprise.

DISCLOSURE: Chris Trotter is a member of the Free Speech Coalition which is seeking a judicial review of Mayor Goff’s decision.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 July 2018.

Tuesday, 10 July 2018

Do We Really Lack the Courage to Debate the Alt-Right? Do We Really Lack the Ideas to Defeat Them?

Testing Our Values: Over the past few days Canadian Alt-Right provocateurs Stefan Molyneux and Lauren Southern (above) have very skillfully tested our tolerance – and we have failed. They’ve also tested our ability to re-state, re-affirm and justify our commitment to freedom of expression. We failed that test too.

STEFAN MOLYNEUX AND LAUREN SOUTHERN gave New Zealanders an opportunity to test their values – most especially their tolerance. Controversialists, almost by profession, these two Canadians espouse ideas which most Kiwis find extremely jarring. We have come to accept human equality and religious tolerance as the unequivocal markers of all decent and rational societies. For a great many people it is deeply offensive to hear these concepts challenged openly.

Over the past few days Molyneux and Southern have very skilfully tested our tolerance – and we have failed. They’ve also tested our ability to re-state, re-affirm and justify our commitment to freedom of expression. We failed that test too.

But just imagine if, instead of asking the Minister of Immigration to prevent Molyneux and Southern from entering the country, the New Zealand Federation of Islam Associations had invited them to debate the Islamic religion with a couple of their faith’s most accomplished scholars. In the face of the Canadians’ openly hostile reading of the Koran, the Federation could have transformed their assailants’ prejudice into a profound “teaching moment” for all New Zealanders. Rather than the caricature of Islam presented by its enemies, we could have heard the true voice of the Prophet and gained a much deeper understanding of his message.

Of course, Molyneux and Southern could have refused to debate the Federations’ representatives (perhaps fearing that in a calm, respectful, and properly moderated setting, their contribution might not have sounded all that convincing) but just think about how bad that would have made them look. They would have been exposed as not having the courage of their convictions: of having “fake views”.

Imagine, too, if the Q+A programme had set aside an entire hour for a televised debate between Molyneux and Southern, representing the Alt-Right; and two representatives of the New Zealand Left. (Annette Sykes and John Minto spring to mind!) For 60 minutes, New Zealanders could have heard debated the ideas and causes that are currently driving global politics. Alternatively, TVNZ could have set up one of its live “town-hall meetings” at which a broad cross-section of Kiwis could have asked questions of the two right-wing provocateurs.

Once again they could have refused. But, once again, that would merely have confirmed their status as rhetorical bomb-throwers – not genuine protagonists of serious ideas.

But what if they restricted their appearances to halls in which only their most fervid supporters were guaranteed entry? What would the correct response be to that situation?

According to Auckland Peace Action's Valerie Morse, the response of those opposed to the views being expressed by Molyneux and Southern should have been to “stand in solidarity with the Muslim community in Aotearoa who are opposing these fascists. If they come here, we will confront them on the streets. If they come, we will blockade entry to their speaking venue”.

Which is, of course, exactly the response Molyneux and Southern would have been hoping for. It has been of enormous assistance to their cause to be able to upload on to social media the hate-filled faces of their enemies. Such images of their left-wing opponents screaming and shouting and doing all within their power to shut down their meetings are pure gold to the propagandists of the Alt-Right.

Everything that Mayor Phil Goff, the Auckland Council, Ms Morse and her fellow extremists have done so far has provided Molyneux and Southern with invaluable material for their one-million-strong YouTube audience. Every attempt to suppress their freedom of expression by administrative fiat, or force, fuels the anger of their supporters and confirms the Alt-Right’s view of the Left as dangerous enemies of liberty.

What they would have been very loath to upload, however, would have been images of them being soundly defeated by Muslim scholars; or floundering before the questioning of participants in TVNZ’s town-hall meeting. Especially useless to them would have been images of a huge and dignified gathering of New Zealanders bearing witness outside the Bruce Mason Centre in Takapuna. Men and women, Maori and Pakeha, Christian and Muslim, immigrant and native-born, gay and straight – all standing quietly with their arms linked under a forest of New Zealand flags and banners proclaiming this country’s unwavering commitment to human equality, religious tolerance and freedom of speech.

Had we been mature enough, as a free and democratic nation, to meet the challenge of Molyneux and Southern in such a fashion, the two Alt-Right Canadians would have had nothing to show their followers. But, we New Zealanders would have had something to show the world.

We could have shown a global audience a nation confident enough to debate those truths proclaimed by Thomas Jefferson to be self-evident with all comers. We could have shown a planet hard beset by the worst kind of right-wing propaganda a people capable of passing the values test set by the likes of Molyneux and Southern with flying colours.

Because, as the great English poet, John Milton, wrote in his famous pamphlet, Areopagitica: “I cannot praise a fugitive and cloistered virtue, unexercised and unbreathed, that never sallies out and sees her adversary, but slinks out of the race where that immortal garland is to be run for, not without dust and heat.”

Truth is not afraid of trigger-words. Truth does not need a safe space. Truth is not a snowflake. Truth can take the heat and most certainly should not be forced to vacate the kitchen in the face of a couple of Alt-Right provocateurs and a politically-correct Mayor.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 10 July 2018.

SPECIAL NOTE:  If readers are of a mind to assist the Free Speech Coalition in its effort to fund and mount a judicial review against Auckland Mayor Phil Goff's refusal to allow Molyneux and Southern access to Auckland Council's meeting halls, please click on the following link  https://freespeechcoalition.nz/

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Undivided Power Is Perilous.

Unbridled Power? As Prime Minister and Finance Minister combined, National's Rob Muldoon wielded more raw political power than any New Zealand politician since the Second World War. His command of the political sphere could not, however, protect him from the unrelenting opposition of the economic and social spheres.

THERE’S A WIDELY-HELD misapprehension that “The Government” controls society. That the politicians commanding a majority in the House of Representatives, or a President duly elected by the people, possess the power to rule us as they see fit. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Power is very seldom concentrated in a single individual or party. The General Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, came terrifyingly close to exercising absolute control over his society, but his was the exception, not the rule. In just about every other time and place power is separated into three discrete locations: the political sphere, the economic sphere and the social sphere.

It is very difficult indeed for a person or a party to dominate all three of these spheres, and in a democracy it is next to impossible.

Take the present government of New Zealand, for example. Unusually, it does not include within its ranks the political party which received the largest number of votes. To secure a majority in the House of Representatives, the Labour, NZ First and Green parties had to join forces in a political alliance. Constant negotiation and compromise is required to keep this unlikely combination of social-democrats, populists and environmentalists from flying apart. With the National Party, on its own, retaining the support of just under half of the electorate, the political sphere is very far from being the all-powerful force that many New Zealanders still believe it to be.

The surveys of business confidence (which seem to have been released every other week since the Labour-NZF-Green government came to power) continue to present a consistent picture of unhappiness and mistrust among the business community. So much so, that they have become potent symbols of the power that lies within the economic sphere.

Falling business confidence puts the whole economy at risk. Fear of and/or resentment towards a government’s policies can easily persuade foreign and domestic investors to put away their cheque-books. Without investment and the economic expansion it encourages unemployment is likely to grow and the government’s tax-take decline. Fearful of the future, people stop spending and before long the economy begins a slow spiral downward into recession.

All governments know how crucial it is to avoid the all-important “back-pocket” issues turning negative. Securing re-election is almost impossible when the voters are fearful of themselves, or members of their family, losing their jobs and falling into debt. Small wonder, then, that politicians – Ministers of Finance in particular – spend so much of their time reassuring the economic sphere that its interests (and profits) are protected.

The social sphere is crucial to this process of political reassurance. Encompassing critical societal institutions like the news media, schools and universities, churches, the caring sector and the entertainment industry; it plays a critical role in conferring moral legitimacy upon the individuals and organisations entrusted with governing the population. Few governments can withstand the pressures brought to bear by a social sphere which has turned against it on account of its mishandling of the economic sphere.

One has only to think of the doomed National government of Rob Muldoon in the early months of 1984. It’s ability to preserve a majority in the House of Representatives was being sorely tested by maverick MPs like Mike Minogue and Marilyn Waring. Its handling of the economy was under fire from big business, the unions and even key bureaucrats within the Reserve Bank and Treasury. The editorial pages of the newspapers railed against Muldoon’s interventionism and academics demanded root-and-branch reform. Churchmen preached against National’s foreign and defence policies and entertainers lent their glamour to the efforts of Muldoon’s Labour opponents to bring him down. Not surprisingly, they succeeded.

It is worth noting here that in 1984 New Zealand prime ministers were able to exercise a great deal more political influence over the economic and social spheres than is the case today. Much more of the economy was under state – and hence political – control. Radio and television, similarly, were publicly-owned and therefore highly susceptible to political influence.

And yet, not even these huge advantages could save the most effective master of the political sphere since World War II from ignominious defeat. That said, however, if you see a prime minister amassing unusual powers over the economic and social spheres – be on your guard!

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 6 July 2018.

Saturday, 7 July 2018

What’s Wrong With Today’s Journalists?

Too Close For Comfort: The cruel fate of Zoe Barnes, the young journalist who flies too close to the dark sun that is Frank Underwood in Netflix's remake of House of Cards, stands as a fictional warning of the all-too-real dangers of journalists extracting all morality from their profession and becoming mere stenographers to power.

THERE’S SOMETHING WRONG with New Zealand journalists. For the best part of three decades our universities and polytechnics have been churning-out graduates who, at least in theory, should be the best-educated, best-prepared and most ethical journalists this country has ever produced. It must break the hearts of these graduates’ academic mentors to see how little of what they have attempted to inculcate in their charges has taken. With one or two honourable exceptions, the young journalists striding forth from New Zealand’s journalism schools are anything but the crusading heirs of Woodward and Bernstein (Who?) All those guest lectures by Jon Stephenson, John Campbell and Nicky Hager have left hardly a trace.

Ironically, it may be their teachers’ strong focus on the media’s role in capitalist society that is to blame for these newly-minted journalists refusal to take aim at the Beast. One does not need too much in the way of intellectual firepower to grasp that “the system” into which they are emerging (and to which most of them are already heavily indebted) has already won most of the battles that count. Neither does it take a state-of-the-art crap-detector to work out that most of the people openly preaching revolution in the 21st Century are safely ensconced behind the ivory walls of academia and drawing six-figure salaries. Nice work if you can get it!

Also ironical is the thoroughness with which these graduates have deciphered the messages which the system is sending them. Those who gave them the code-breaking skills were doubtless confident that the sheer awfulness of global capitalism’s rules-of-engagement would be more than sufficient to turn them into crusaders for a better world. Instead, the professors’ prize-winning graduates have embraced capitalism’s systemic awfulness with all the amoral intensity of a reality television contestant.

The modern journalist’s catechism goes something like this:  Is capitalism awful? Of course! But we have also learned that it is globally triumphant. That its values are the only values that count. That setting your face against the powers-that-be is about the worst career-move anybody still paying-off a student loan can make. And since we are left with no viable choice except to “join them”, attempting to “beat them” makes no sense at all.

Having drunk this particularly bracing cup of Kool-Aid, however, many of the most talented graduates of our journalism schools are left with an extremely bitter taste in their mouths. The words of their lecturers and professors are not forgotten, but, being ignored, have congealed into lumps of professional Kryptonite. For these super-journalists, too close a proximity to the left-wing ideas they were forced to write essays about at university leaves them feeling weak and vulnerable. No match for the system’s dark defenders – and nothing like their hand-picked candidates for promotion!

This professional defeatism and collaborationism is detectable in all forms of contemporary journalism, but nowhere is its bite more deadly than in the media’s coverage of politics. It almost seems that, presented with the vast and churning throng of political aspirants, the modern journalist is irresistibly drawn to individuals demonstrating the same willingness to embrace “the real world” as themselves.

These politicians may mouth the platitudes of their particular political tribe but not with the fervour of the true believer. Indeed, whenever they speak there is always just the hint of a cynical smile playing across their lips – a smile which the equally cynical political journalist reads without difficulty. Here is someone who has also signed the Devil’s contract in their own blood. Someone to watch and, whenever possible, promote. (Do that well enough and you might even end up working for them!)

For the true believers, of course, a very different fate awaits. The modern journalist is quite simply appalled by the lack of realism; the incapacity to grasp how the world actually works; that these politicians and the political activists who follow them display. Even worse, their insistence on taking seriously the cherished ideals of their student days, is received by these media inquisitors as a kind of moral rebuke. Their response, predictably, is to do everything within their power (and the most successful of these super-journalists wield a great deal of power) to prove that the consistent espousal of ideas critical of the system can only end in failure and disgrace.

The most unforgiveable sin of Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and, yes, even Donald Trump, is that all of them have found ways of speaking over the heads of the modern journalist. Even worse, the positive response of ordinary people to their anti-establishment messages, far from signalling failure, constitutes the heart and soul of their success.

In the New Zealand context it is the media’s unrelenting harassment and disparagement of Winston Peters that offers the most convincing confirmation of this thesis. The more important question, however, is how the Parliamentary Press Gallery perceives Prime Minister Ardern. Is she a consummate mouther of tribal platitudes or a true believer? That she has been able to keep them guessing for so long is, at once, Ardern’s greatest political achievement and the gravest threat to her own and her government’s survival.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 6 July 2018.