Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Nothing Wrong With John Key's History.

Done Deal: The Prime Minister's comments regarding the peaceful settlement of New Zealand have been ridiculed by his detractors, but they were considerably less controversial than the Waitangi Tribunal's assertion that Maori never ceded sovereignty to the British crown. (Image drawn from the TVNZ docudrama About Waitangi: What Really Happened?)

THE PRIME MINISTER, John Key, has been much mocked over the past week for his claim that New Zealand was settled peacefully. Hoots of derision have echoed through the Twittersphere from those who profess to know their New Zealand history a great deal better than the Prime Minister.
Are they right? Is Mr Key wrong?
It might help to place the Prime Minister’s comments in context. His remarks followed the Waitangi Tribunal finding that the tribal chieftains of the far-North did not cede sovereignty to the British Crown when they signed the Treaty of Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
This finding is considerably more controversial than anything the Prime Minister decided to offer by way of commentary. The Auckland-based historian, Paul Moon, has already derided the Tribunal’s historical conclusions, and his intervention is unlikely to be the last.
Indeed, it is extremely difficult to understand how the Waitangi Tribunal’s latest finding could be so provocatively definitive. The Tribunal’s enabling legislation allows the Crown to test the evidence presented to it by cross-examining witnesses and by introducing evidence of its own. It may also commission professional historians to assess evidence presented in support of radically revisionist interpretations of New Zealand history.
Did the Crown take full advantage of its interrogative powers in this case? Did it seize the opportunity to open up the vital constitutional issues under consideration to wider public scrutiny and debate? Apparently not. The strongly held beliefs of those bringing the claim were accorded a decisive credibility. The settled view of more than 150 years of historical research? Not so much.
A crucial element of the settled view is that the Maori chieftains who signed the Treaty, many of whom had enjoyed long and mutually beneficial relationships with the Europeans who had taken up residence in New Zealand since Cook’s exploratory voyages of the late eighteenth century, knew exactly what they were agreeing to at Waitangi on 6 February 1840.
Captain William Hobson was guaranteeing them the inviolability of their traditional territories and the safety of their people. In the light of what had befallen the iwi and hapu of Niu Tirani (New Zealand) between 1769 and 1840, the existential value of these guarantees is readily appreciated.
The indigenous population of these islands at the time of first European contact is estimated at 100,000. Between 1800 and 1830 as many as 30,000 Maori were killed and/or driven from their traditional lands by enemy iwi and hapu armed with the devastating military technology of the Pakeha. The protection of Queen Victoria (symbolising the world’s most powerful nation) was what they needed. Hobson offered it. The chiefs grabbed it with both hands.
So, in the sense that New Zealand was gazetted as a possession of the British Crown by virtue of a treaty of cession, rather than by outright military conquest, the Prime Minister’s assertion that “New Zealand was one of the very few countries in the world that were settled peacefully” is not only historically uncontroversial but also, in general terms, correct.
That correctness is bolstered when we compare the wholesale slaughter, land seizure and population displacement that accompanied the so-called “Musket Wars”, with the death-toll of the Land Wars of 1845-1872. Over the course of those three tumultuous decades roughly 2,000 Maori and 2,000 Pakeha fell victim to fatal violence. On the Maori side of the ledger, a significant proportion of those fatalities were inflicted by Maori fighting for the Crown. And, if we divide the total number of fatalities by the 28 years the conflict lasted, then the average fatality rate is 143 deaths per annum – less than the 2013 road toll.
Even the relatively large-scale conflict encompassing Taranaki, the Waikato and the Bay of Plenty between 1860 and 1863 was more of a civil war than a war of conquest. The Kingitanga’s brave attempt to re-define the terms of Hobson’s deal, by proposing a two crowns/one flag formula, was deemed to be unacceptable by Governor Grey; antagonistic to the fast-expanding settler interest; and a doomed attempt to wind back the clock by those Maori leaders who knew that, for better or worse, the Pakeha had come to stay.
In the smaller flare-ups of the late-1860s and early-1870s, it was these “Loyal Maoris” who played a crucial role in extinguishing the isolated bush-fires of iwi and hapu resistance. That the Waitangi Tribunal masks their participation by subsuming their contribution under the all-encompassing rubric of “The Crown” says it all really.
Accordingly, I will not be participating in the condescension and derision of the Twitter handle #johnkeyhistory.
Is the history of Maori-Pakeha relations entirely free of violence and injustice? Of course not. There’s blood in the foundations of every state. But, if John Key’s saying there’s a lot less in ours than most, then I, for one, agree.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 25 November 2014.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Hurray for "Hurray For The Riff Raff"!


FIRST RATE AMERICANA came to Auckland's Tuning Fork venue last night in the form of the Alt-Country, Indie-Folk roots band Hurray For The Riff Raff. Led by Alynda Lee Segarra, the 27-year-old Peurto Rican singer-songwriter out of New Orleans via New York City and innumerable freight-train journeys across the broad back of the USA.

In an inspired set, Segarra and her band, Yosi Pearlstein (fiddle) Casey McAllister (keyboard) Chris Davis (drums) and Caley Millington (bass) rollicked their way through the material of the band's latest album, Small Town Blues (ATO Records)

Described by some as a female, twenty-first century reincarnation of Woody Guthrie, Segarra has a superbly tuned ear for the rhythms and rhymes of the American folk tradition. Her songs are infused with all the raunch and wrench of the deep South: rocking road-houses, back-road car-crashes, gruesome Gothic murder ballads - all liberally spiced with Cajun joie de vivre.

Hurray For The Riff Raff's thick/rich serving of sound fills you up with Segarra's bitter-woman, sweet-girl riff on the eccentricities of American culture. Score one more for the mystery, magic and mayhem that is the USA - and let's hope she keeps her promise to come back soon.

Video courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 21 November 2014

Labour's Hercules?

Hero? Saint? Both? Neither? In making Labour an electable proposition by 2017, Andrew Little faces a challenge of Herculean proportions. Then again, Hercules was presented with twelve impossible tasks. Little can succeed by successfully completing a more modest (but equally daunting) list of five.
AT 1:45PM ON TUESDAY AFTERNOON, Andrew Little, became the NZ Labour Party’s 15th leader. Mr Little faces a long and difficult struggle to restore Labour’s fortunes, a struggle that will only end when he has accomplished five Herculean tasks.
1. Rebuilding the relationship between Party and Caucus.
Helen Clark’s 15 year stint as party leader saw Labour’s decision-making processes concentrated in fewer and fewer hands. By the end of her reign practically every aspect of policy, and an unhealthy amount of influence over who should (and shouldn’t) be an MP, had become the exclusive preserve of the Leader, her Chief-of-Staff, and a handful of trusted caucus colleagues.
Since her departure, the Labour Party organisation has reclaimed much of the power that Clark wrested from it. In doing so, however, it has alarmed and infuriated many of the caucus’s “Old Guard”. They fear a return to the debilitating floor-fights that beset Labour Party conferences during the 1980s – when the rank-and-file, aided by the union affiliates, fought a bitter rear-guard action against the imposition of the far-right economic policies of Roger Douglas and his cronies.
Mr Little, using his authority as leader, needs to reassure both his caucus colleagues and the wider party organisation that free and frank policy debate is both a necessary and healthy part of political life on the Centre-Left. Any attempt to dragoon caucus members and rank-and-filers into toeing a rigid “party line” should be strenuously resisted.
2. Reaffirming Labour’s Core Beliefs
Labour’s pollster, Stephen Mills, has demonstrated that a clear plurality of New Zealanders believe that the state must continue to play a key role in the provision of such basic public services as health, education and housing; that governments have a duty to intervene in the economy to restore and/or enhance the life-chances of all citizens; and that New Zealand’s taxation system should be fair and progressive.
These are core Labour beliefs and they need to be repeated endlessly, both inside and outside Parliament, with a vehemence equal to the shibboleths of the ruthless, free-market ideology currently dominating New Zealand politics.
3. Shifting the Centre back to Labour.
The feckless fifth of New Zealand voters who refuse to identify themselves as either Left or Right habitually end up backing whichever party articulates its solutions to the country’s problems with the least equivocation and the most force. An effective Leader of the Opposition, by taking the lead and winning the arguments, can shift the ideological centre of gravity in his party’s favour. Conceived of as a coherent philosophical position, the “Centre” is a mirage which leads the insecure political leader far out into the desert – and then abandons him.
4. Learning to sell the unsaleable.
If visitors from the future had told the National or Labour politicians of the 1960s and 70s that in twenty years’ time their respective parties would both be preaching the laissez-faire economic policies of the nineteenth century they'd have laughed in their faces. And yet, by dint of ceaseless proselytising, and the relentless critiquing of their opponent’s policies and performance, the prophets of the “free market” succeeded in persuading a lamentably large number of the voters who’d benefited most from social-democracy that its institutions were broken and in urgent need of replacement.
Even today, as the world struggles to emerge from the Global Financial Crisis, the advocates of neoliberalism continue to insist that only more of the untrammelled greed and recklessness that got us into this mess, can get us out.
Mr Little, in addition to pointing out that the neoliberal emperor has no clothes, needs to demonstrate that Labour’s policy wardrobe is real, fashionable – and fits!
5. Being utterly unafraid of political talent: be it in Caucus or the wider party.
Mr Little must show the electorate that Labour has overcome the most important weakness of the Clark Era: its lamentable lack of succession planning. He must make it clear that, like Napoleon, he expects every Labour foot-soldier to carry a marshal’s baton in his knapsack.
If the public is to recover its faith in Labour as an alternative government, it must be able to see and have confidence in an aggressive and creative shadow cabinet.
Such are the tasks for Labour’s Hercules. Mr Little inherits a big agenda.
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, 21 November 2014.

Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Too Close For Comfort: Reflections On Andrew Little's Narrow Defeat Of Grant Robertson.

Bugger! Grant Robertson's and Jacinda Ardern's bitter disappointment was written all over their faces as the listened to Andrew Little fielding questions at his first media conference as Leader of the Labour Party. The extreme closeness of the result, however, makes it clear that if the Labour Left flubs this latest opportunity to recover the party's fortunes, then it is likely to be their last.
THE TRAGIC SCREENSHOT of “Gracinda” in defeat bears eloquent testimony to the bitter disappointment of the Grant Robertson-led faction of the Labour Party. And, yes, ‘Party’ is the right word. The Robertson machine has now extended its influence well beyond the confines of the Caucus Room to become a genuine party-wide movement. It’s all there in the numbers. From being the strong partisans of David Cunliffe, the allegiance of a clear majority of ordinary, rank-and-file members has shifted to Grant Robertson. It is a measure of just how hard Robertson’s people worked for their man’s victory that another 100 votes would have clinched it for him.
The campaign Robertson ran was impressive enough to earn the respect of even his opponents. Indeed, a number of these folk, casting aside all ideological and factional objections, freely admitted that the Robertson campaign was “by far the best” and “deserved to win”.
All the young men and women who staffed Robertson’s phone-banks, and who turned out day-after-day to press Robertson’s literature into the hands of startled party members, would undoubtedly agree. And if they’re anything at all like the young followers of Jim Anderton, forced to absorb their hero’s narrow defeat (by the votes of the Engineers Union!) at the 1988 party conference, then “unity” will be the thing furthest from their minds. Youth is a lot less forgiving than maturity. Already, Young Labour will be plotting its revenge on the trade union affiliates.
Gracing the office wall of one notorious trade union leader, back in the dear dead days of compulsory unionism, was a framed sign which read: “Old age and treachery will always defeat youth and idealism.” Andrew Little’s win may well be proof of that cynical sentiment. But if it is: if it was the opaque, behind-the-scenes manoeuvring of a handful of hard-bitten trade union barons that defeated the youthful energy and idealism of Robertson’s “New Generation”, then the Affiliates’ victory may be a Pyrrhic one.
The day when trade unions affiliated to Labour are required to supply the names and addresses of every union member declaring a willingness to be formally associated with the party cannot, now, be far away. It sits very ill with the sensibilities of the twenty-first century that, in an election to determine who shall be the Leader of the Opposition (or Prime Mnister) there can be two very different kinds of ballots cast. The first, in secret, on the basis of individual judgement. The second, in public, on the basis of collective deliberation.
Making a special effort to ascertain the views of working-class New Zealanders makes a lot of sense if your party calls itself ‘Labour’. But the views expressed and the ballots cast should reflect the active participation of real, flesh-and-blood workers – not the personal guesses of workplace delegates and/or the strategic calculations of paid union officials.
If there remains any remnant of the revolutionary fervour that once possessed the members of Labour Youth/Young Labour, it could hardly secure a more radical reform than the opening-up of avenues for direct participation by trade union members in the political deliberations of the Labour Party.
Never did the Rogernomes look more uncomfortable than when, in the late-1980s, hundreds of members of the Labourers’ Union filed into the Labour Conference in the Wellington Town Hall. They had been bussed in from the central North Island to register their protest at the mass redundancies then emptying-out the state-owned forestry and construction sectors. Their mass haka made the whole Town Hall shake – along with most of the Labour Cabinet Ministers present!
If Grant Robertson’s young followers genuinely want to roll back the influence of neoliberalism, both within the Labour Party, and in New Zealand generally, then radically democratising the affiliated unions’ processes of representation would be one of the best ways to do it.
But is that what they want? The Labour Left’s uncertainty about the Robertson Faction’s true ideological colours goes a long way to explaining Little’s narrow victory. Robertson’s slogan, “New Generation To Win”, could be read in two ways. It could mean, simply, that members should back a new generation (Robertson and Jacinda Ardern) to win the Labour leadership. Or, more obliquely, that there is a new generation of voters to be won for Labour.
But what did that mean? According to Robertson, it meant reaching out to small businesses and entrepreneurs. Such sentiments were bound to set alarm-bells ringing in the ears of Labour’s socialists. As any trade union official will tell you, it is the small businessmen, the entrepreneurs, who most commonly find themselves on the receiving end of the Employment Court’s negative judgements. No social class hates the trade unions with as much passion as the petit bourgeoisie.
Justified or not, there was a perception among the Old Left that the ambitious young things who pulled on Robertson’s red T-shirts were a whole lot more likely to identify with the aspirational dreams of small businessmen and entrepreneurs than they were with the nightmares of their over-worked, under-paid and un-unionised workers.
And this worry all-too-easily merged with the fear that a Labour Party led by Robertson and Ardern would be one which sooner or later (probably sooner) ceased to struggle against the currents of contemporary capitalism. That, desperate to escape the Opposition benches, it would, like the Labour Party of the early 1980s, reverse direction and go with the flow. So much easier that way. So much less flak from the news media. So much more money from the corporates – not to mention the small businessmen and entrepreneurs!
Little’s victory is, therefore, a win for those Labour members who still believe in the party’s emancipatory vision and in its antagonistic stance towards the demands of Capital. That it was so narrow is not simply a testimony to Robertson’s political skill and determination, but a worrying indication of just how strong the temptation has become among Labour members to stop struggling against the treacherous currents of capitalism – and turn the boat around.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Wednesday, 19 November 2014.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Defending The Boomers: A Response To Chloe King.

Guilty As Charged? The Baby Boom generation is often accused of hogging the all the benefits of the Great Post-War Boom. But this is to suggest that they were somehow complicit in choosing their own birthdays. Boomers may have enjoyed the benefits of, but they did not create, the social-democratic society which raised them - nor did they destroy it.
THE BABY-BOOM GENERATION (49-68 year-olds) currently numbers just under a quarter of New Zealand’s population. Even so, there is a pervasive notion that the generation of New Zealanders born between the end of World War II and the mid-1960s exercises a decisive influence over just about every aspect of contemporary life. Younger New Zealanders, in particular, seem convinced that the difficulties they are experiencing in relation to education, employment and housing are entirely attributable to the selfishness and indifference of the “Boomers”.
It’s easy to see how the Baby Boomers have ended up in the frame for these crimes against youth. The simple passage of time means that even the youngest of the Boomers are fast approaching their fiftieth birthday. Since the people making most of the important decisions in any society tend to be aged between 40 and 60, who else could possibly be to blame? The Boomers are the ones with the experience; the ones who have patiently climbed their way to the summit of the big institutional hierarchies; the ones who find themselves bearing more and more of the responsibility for what goes on.
Which is exactly as it should be - given that the promotion of the old over the young is a feature of every human society. When the Boomers themselves were in their 20s and 30s the big decisions of the day were being made by the men and women who had lived through the Great Depression and World War II. In New Zealand this cohort was known as “the RSA generation” and we Boomers railed against it every bit as ferociously as Chloe King rails against our own. If Generation Y thinks John Key is a bad bugger, I shudder to think what it would make of Rob Muldoon!
On this issue, it’s a little difficult to grasp the purpose of Ms King’s polemic. Is she really, as the voice of Generation Y, suggesting that society should deny itself the benefit of the older people’s experience? That, somehow, everything would be better if the businesspersons, doctors, lawyers, teachers, electricians, plumbers and brain surgeons with 20-30 years’ experience were suddenly dismissed from their positions and replaced with people only a few years out of high school?
Gen-Y could, I suppose, point to Alexander the Great, who conquered the known world (or, at least, that part of it known to the Macedonians) by the age of 33. Or, to Britain’s youngest ever Prime Minister, William Pitt the Younger, who, at the age of 24, led his country to war against the revolutionary French Republic. But, if they did, it would then be up to the Boomers to direct these opponents of gerontocracy to the example of Mao Zedong’s “Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution”.
Between 1966 and 1969 Mao’s youthful “Red Guards” were instructed to root out the “Four Olds” – Old Customs, Old Culture, Old Habits and Old Ideas – along with, naturally, the Old Party Comrades who, by allowing these antiquated practices to flourish, threatened to strangle the Revolution, restore the bourgeoisie to power, and (most serious of all) undermine “The Great Helmsman’s” position as China’s supreme leader.
Following Mao’s death in 1976, his ruthless purge of competence and experience throughout Chinese society was described by the Communist Party, with considerable understatement, as “being responsible for the most severe setback and the heaviest losses suffered by the party, the country and the people since the founding of the People’s Republic”.
The other great avenue for attacking the Baby Boomers is the one that leads from the Golden Age of free tertiary education, full-employment and subsidised housing to this cruel and leaden age of student debt, precarious (or non-existent) jobs and the remorseless dismantling of what the National Party once proudly described as New Zealand’s “property-owning democracy”.
But to criticise the Boomers for enjoying the fruits of the Great Post-War Boom suggests that they were somehow complicit in choosing their own birthdays. Boomers may have enjoyed the benefits of, but they did not create, the social-democratic society which raised them. That was their parents’ extraordinary achievement, and any Boomer who isn’t truly grateful for what he or she received bloody well ought to be!
Nor is it the case that the Baby Boomers were principally responsible for destroying the social-democratic society from which they had derived so many advantages.
The principal architects of the neoliberal “revolution” of 1984-1993 were not Baby Boomers at all, but members of the generation which preceded it. Roger Douglas was born in 1937. Michael Bassett in 1938. Bill Birch entered this world in 1934. Jim Bolger, a year later, in 1935. Not even David Lange could lay claim to being a Baby Boomer. He was born in Otahuhu in 1942. Okaaay. But, what about the three high priests of the neoliberal faith, Graham Scott (Treasury) Don Brash (Reserve Bank) and Roger Kerr (Business Roundtable)? Nope. All three neoliberal ideologues were born during – not after – World War II.
Yes, of course, there was a host of Baby Boomers who were only too happy to sign-on to the Magical “Free-Market” Mystery Tour of the 1980s and 90s. Richard Prebble, David Caygill, Mike Moore, Ruth Richardson and Jenny Shipley were all post-war babies. So was Labour’s most successful post-war Prime Minister, Helen Clark. (Even if her Deputy-Prime Minister, Jim Anderton, and her Finance Minister, Michael Cullen, were not.)
By 1999, however, the “reforms” of the 1984-93 neoliberal revolution were so deeply entrenched, and so fiercely defended, that a revolution of equal intensity and duration would have been required to root them out.
Shouldn’t the kids of the 50s and 60s have launched such a revolt? Risking all to restore the New Zealand of drab conformity, racist amnesia and smug misogyny that, as teenagers and young adults, they had devoted so much energy to shaking-up and tearing-down?
Some of them did try – sort of. Jim Anderton’s NewLabour Party and, after it, the Alliance, attempted to secure the best of both worlds: the full-employment, compulsory unionism, free education, public healthcare and affordable housing of Mickey Savage’s legacy, plus the radical emancipatory agendas of the new social movements for nuclear disarmament, ecological awareness, feminism and indigenous rights.
And, if neoliberalism had been confined to New Zealand alone, they just might have succeeded. But, the neoliberal revolution, along with the ruthless advance of globalisation it facilitated, was already an international phenomenon. Margaret Thatcher (b. 1925) and Ronald Reagan (b. 1911) may have led the charge, but behind them were arrayed financial and corporate resources beyond the power of any single generation to overcome.
Besides, by the 1990s most Boomers had more pressing concerns. There were jobs to keep, mortgages to pay and, eventually, children to raise.
No one who has yet to hold their own child in their arms can fully comprehend how all-embracing is the priority of its welfare. When we are young it is possible, in a sense, to stand upon the banks of history and watch it flow by. But parenthood sweeps us up and into the rushing waters of historical time and only the very strong, or the very lucky, are able to resist the currents that bear their families forward.
What all parents try to do, however, even in the grip of these currents, is steer the craft that bears their children safely to shore. To give them the same brief respite that they enjoyed. To let them, if only for a little while, stand alone and unscathed by the relentless onrush of time.
Having found their feet, however, the younger generation’s task is not to bemoan the fact that their parents’ boat has sailed away without them; it is to set about building a boat of their own.
This essay was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Tuesday, 18 November 2014.

Sufficient Unto The Day

Short-Term Goals: Human-beings have always suffered from its tightly constrained time horizons. We are extremely good at working out how to hunt and kill the next mammoth, but not at asking ourselves what will happen when the last mammoth is killed.
WHY IS IT that nothing seems to work anymore? Problems assail us at both the local and the global level but there are no solutions. Politicians talk. World leaders gather – as they did last week in Brisbane for the G20 meeting – and , still, we are no better off.
How is that human ingenuity can place an object on a comet travelling faster than a bullet half-a-billion kilometres from Planet Earth, but is unable to protect the helpless populations of West Africa from the Ebola virus?
Human-beings obviously possess the smarts to solve their problems. Why, then, do they not possess the will?
The anthropologists tell us that the answer lies in the human species’ tightly constrained time horizons. We’re extremely good at working out how to hunt and kill the next mammoth, but not at asking ourselves what will happen when the last mammoth is killed.
Despite its obvious shortcomings, humanity’s short-term thinking remains deeply imbedded. Indeed, the idea of living in the moment has been identified by humanity’s greatest religious teachers as the only sensible response to the reality of our mortality.
“Consider the lilies of the field,” said Jesus of Nazareth, “how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these ….. Take therefore no thought for the morrow: for the morrow shall take thought for the things of itself. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.”
Of course, in 30AD neither Jesus, his disciples, the Mediterranean world, nor even the planet itself, was faced with the twin threats of anthropogenic global warming and imminent resource depletion. Galilee and Judea were famed for their bountiful harvests. So long as the sun rose, the rain fell and the Jordan flowed, what need had men to take thought for the things of the morrow?
There is much to be said for this approach, because when set against the impossibly long perspectives of geological time our lives are, indeed, ridiculously short. In the planet’s gaze, the entire span of the human species’ existence is no more than the flutter of an eyelid. Were we, through our invincible short-termism, to engineer our own extinction, Mother Earth would barely stir. (Other than to breathe a sigh of relief!)
And yet, even within the scope of their own brief lifespans, our forebears displayed considerably more perspicacity than the cluster of generations inhabiting the world of today.
The evidence of these previous generations’ future focus lies all around us. How else should we describe the parks and botanical gardens of our towns and cities which our great-grandparents bequeathed to us, if not in the felicitous phrases of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar? All these things “hath left them you, and to your heirs for ever; common pleasures, to walk abroad and recreate yourselves.”
And should we not, likewise, give thanks to the politicians and planners who made possible the great hydro-electric schemes of the twentieth century? Without their faith in the future of this little nation, the skies of its major cities would be as befouled with the smog of fossil-fuelled power generation as Beijing’s.
And all those streets of sturdy state houses? How was it possible for a country laid prostrate by the most savage economic depression in the history of Capitalism to somehow summon up the resources to build houses for its homeless citizens? And why, if it was possible for the politicians of the 1930s to make housing affordable, is it impossible for today’s politicians to do the same?
Something has gone out of us. Some vital quality that the human-beings who built the Parthenon, the Coliseum, Chartres Cathedral, Brooklyn Bridge, and even our own Benmore Dam, possessed in abundance.
Yes, their eyes were fixed upon the future; but that was only the necessary first step. To look ahead at all, the inhabitants of the present must first believe that what they value most about their society – their civilisation – will not die with them; that it will go on into the future. Believing that, who would not hasten to construct the economic and cultural infrastructure that gives their most cherished values life? Why else would anyone build the Parthenon? Or the Benmore Dam?
The Course Of Empire - Desolation. Painting by Thomas Cole, 1836.
Which can only mean that, if nothing works, and if our problems have become insoluble, then humanity’s ‘civilisation gene’ has somehow been switched off. Whatever peculiar mutation it was that rendered human-beings capable of thinking beyond the next mammoth, is fast becoming singularly maladaptive to the life-world of twenty-first century homo-sapiens.
Perhaps it’s our technology that’s undone us? Perhaps the emerging cyber-human has no need for pasts or futures? Perhaps, finally, we are approaching Nirvana – that concluding moment of human evolution when sufficient unto the day is the selfie thereof.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 18 November 2014.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Phillip Smith/Traynor: The Triumph Of Expert Foolishness Over Ordinary Wisdom.

Dangerous Knowledge: The tempting proposition that mere mortals can acquire mastery over Good and Evil is as old as the book of Genesis. But, what the experts and professionals of our supposedly meritocratic society appear to have forgotten, and what every ordinary person understands, is that the Devil lies. And, as Phillip Smith/Traynor discovered long ago, it is the person most determined to do good who is most easily deceived.
THE BUREAUCRATIC STUFF-UP that sped Phillip Smith/Traynor on his way to Chile, Brazil, and from there, thankfully, into the handcuffs of the Brazilian Federal Police, has exposed one of the most perilous fault lines in New Zealand society.
On one side of the fault line stand the experts and professionals. On the other, ordinary New Zealanders: the laity.
In the modern meritocracy New Zealand believes itself to be, expertise and professionalism are supposed to trump the layperson’s “instincts”, “gut feelings” and “common sense”.
Like the priests and the pastors they have largely superseded, experts and professionals lay claim to specialist knowledge of the world. Their mastery of the modern, “scientific”, method of explaining the universe means that, all other things being equal, the judgement of the expert and the professional is supposed take precedence over the traditional prejudices and ignorant superstitions of “ordinary people”.
But, Phillip Smith/Traynor’s scandalous escape from custody will, almost certainly, turn out to have been facilitated by the judgements of the experts and professionals employed by, or contracted to, the Department of Corrections. Indeed, it is already pretty clear that had the advice of those ordinary New Zealanders caught up in the multiple tragedies of Smith’s offending been heeded, he would never have escaped from custody.
Ordinary people recoil in horror and disgust from the criminal acts for which Phillip Smith/Traynor was convicted.
Their instinctive response is the same as that of any social animal confronted with a deadly threat to the survival of its young: kill it if you can, or, if that proves impossible, drive it from your midst.
The gut-feeling of non-expert, non-professional New Zealanders is that the likes of Peter Smith/Traynor are irretrievably evil. As killers, abusers, manipulators and deceivers they must never, ever, be believed or trusted.
The common sense of ordinary Kiwis tells them that, if the possibility of judicial error requires them to rule out the hangman’s noose, then murderers and paedophiles should simply be locked up forever.
What part of “predatory child abuser” and “vicious murderer” do the Department of Corrections' experts and professionals not understand?
From the perspective of the experts and professionals, however, the judgement of ordinary Kiwis is as flawed as it is unjust. Paedophilia is a pathological condition over which the paedophile exercises little, if any, control. The proper, scientific, response to child abuse and abusers is, therefore, therapeutic – not punitive.
Human behaviour is not immutable. It can be modified, reoriented and, with the right sort of interventions, re-programmed. It is simply not necessary to lock up serious offenders in a cage and throw away the key. To the psychologists, counsellors and therapists at Corrections, Phillip Smith/Traynor was a suitable case for treatment.
But, as Smith/Traynor’s extraordinarily successful deception of his psychologists, counsellors and therapists makes chillingly clear, it was the experts’ and professionals’ judgement that was flawed.
Yes, with enormous effort and the deployment of a host of (scarce) resources, it might just be possible to wrap a paedophile around with sufficient protective layers to make his release from custody a viable and safe option. And, in the best of all possible worlds, that’s what our Justice System would attempt to do.
But, this is very far from being the best of all possible worlds. The wraparound option does not exist in New Zealand. So why, in its absence, did Smith/Traynor’s expert and professional team keep behaving as if it did? Was it because Smith/Traynor, understanding to perfection their deep emotional investment in the possibility of his behavioural redemption, encouraged them to construe his “model prisoner” charade as proof that they had, already, redeemed him?
Phillip John Smith aka Phillip Traynor: Irretrievably evil?
If that is, indeed, what happened, then I’m afraid you’ll have to put me down with the traditionally prejudiced and the ignorantly superstitious. A person capable of pretending to be rehabilitated, while all the time embracing the perversity he’s claiming to have vanquished, is evil personified.
The besetting sin of the expert and professional is their hubristic belief that everything in nature can and should be brought under human control. Like Adam and Eve, tempted in Eden with the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, they have fallen for the Devil’s fatal pitch: “In the day ye eat thereof, then your eyes shall be opened, and ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil.”
All ordinary people know that the Devil lies.
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, 14 November 2014.