Sunday, 21 July 2019

Deplorable Words.

Victory, But Not Ours: Trump uses his deplorable words in exactly the same way as C.S. Lewis' wicked queen, Jadis, used her single 'Deplorable Word'. To win – no matter what the cost. He knows the power of words. He understands the damage they can do. The bitter divisions they can open up. The fear they can inspire. The lust to inflict harm which they can trigger. But, like Queen Jadis, he doesn’t care. America must he his – even if he’s the only person left standing who doesn’t feel duped and sullied and robbed of everything they held dear.

BEFORE NARNIA THERE was Charn. Mighty Charn, which fell at last because Jadis, its final Queen, was willing to utter the “Deplorable Word”. C.S. Lewis describes the scene in his “prequel” to The Lion, the Witch and the WardrobeThe Magician’s Nephew.

“The last great battle”, said the Queen, “raged for three days here in Charn itself. For three days I looked down upon it from this very spot. I did not use my power till the last of my soldiers had fallen, and the accursed woman, my sister, at the head of her rebels was halfway up those great stairs that lead up from the city to the terrace. Then I waited till we were so close that we could see one another’s faces. She flashed her horrible, wicked eyes upon me and said, ‘Victory.’ ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘Victory, but not yours.’ Then I spoke the Deplorable Word. A moment later I was the only living thing beneath the sun.”

Written in 1955, as the Cold War was fast freezing the world into a seemingly permanent balance of terror, Lewis’ Deplorable Word did not require too much in the way of effort to decode. What else could he be thinking of but the growing global stockpile of nuclear weapons? Clearly, Lewis was convinced that even if a war between the superpowers began with conventional weapons, it would inevitably be ended by their doomsday devices. Whichever side found itself facing inevitable defeat would, like Queen Jadis, insist on having the last word – even at the cost of all life on Earth.

Now, in 2019, with the Cold War a distant memory, it is possible to read another meaning into Lewis’ Deplorable Word. Before making the attempt, however, lets hear some more about it from the mouth of the evil Queen:

“That was the secret of secrets,” said the Queen Jadis. “It had long been known that there was a word which, if spoken with the proper ceremonies, would destroy all living things except the one who spoke it. But the ancient kings were weak and soft-hearted and bound themselves and all who should come after them with great oaths never even to seek after the knowledge of that word. But I learned it in a secret place and paid a terrible price to learn it.

Those weak and soft-hearted kings of Charn did not want to die, but, being wise, they knew that, in the end, Death comes to us all. Of much more importance to them was their posterity. Charn was a mighty empire: the crowning achievement of their world. Keep it alive, and with it all the many and mighty accomplishments of its living people. That was all that mattered. That was why they did all they could to prevent the Deplorable Word from ever being spoken.

Though he is very far from resembling the beautiful and terrible Queen of Charn, the present President of the United States, Donald Trump, shares her pathological hunger for recognition and power – even at the cost of the American republic’s utter destruction.

The difference between the President and the Queen, however, is that he is not content with just one deplorable word. Trump has made himself the master of many, many deplorable words. Hundreds of them. Thousands. As many as it takes to kill all the living institutions out of which the democratic spirit of America was fashioned. As many as it takes to destroy decency and dignity and public decorum. As many as it takes to overwhelm all the traditions and values that made America truly great. Words so deplorable that they snuff-out the living light of American liberty and justice – even as they kindle the roaring bonfires of American rage and hate.

Trump uses these words in exactly the same way as Jadis used her single word. To win – no matter what the cost. He knows the power of words. He understands the damage they can do. The bitter divisions they can open up. The fear they can inspire. The lust to inflict harm which they can trigger. But, like Queen Jadis, he doesn’t care. America must he his – even if he’s the only person left standing who doesn’t feel duped and sullied and robbed of everything they held dear.

The terrible magic he has unleashed on the four congresswomen of colour is proof of just what a powerful political wizard he has become. First he singles out the women as enemies of America, and then, when their Democratic Party comrades hasten to their defence, he turns their gestures of solidarity into evidence of treason. See how far the stain of “radical socialism” has spread, he tells his baying supporters. “Throw them out!” they chant. “Throw them out!”

The American presidents who came before Trump knew the power of these deplorable words, which is why they foreswore them. Such fastidiousness strikes Trump, just as it struck Queen Jadis, as “weak and soft-hearted”. If the only object of the game of power is to rule, then what does it matter if everything of value in the republic you have made your own has been destroyed?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 19 July 2019.

A Fool Rushes In.

Seeking Refuge: Were Jesus, Mary and Joseph fleeing persecution in Palestine or Judea? Were they Palestinians or Jews? Green MP, Golriz Ghahraman, in describing the Holy Family as Palestinian refugees, touched off a firestorm of controversy, demonstrating the sinister ease with which history and propaganda can be confused.

ONLY RARELY has History been press-ganged so brutally into the service of political propaganda. The moment Golriz Ghahraman bestowed the status of Palestinian refugees on Jesus, Mary and Joseph, everybody with an opinion on Israel/Palestine immediately rushed to their respective corners and, following a quick word with their trainers, came out swinging.

What was Ms Ghahraman thinking when she tweeted her opinion on the nationality of the Holy Family? The easiest answer would have to be: she wasn’t. Caught up in the endless cut-and-thrust of the pathologically politicised Twittersphere, the Greens’ foreign affairs spokesperson was simply slashing back wildly with her rhetorical cutless.

If the Christian Right was asserting that members of its faith community were under no moral obligation to assist refugees, then it was only fitting that they should be reminded that Jesus, Mary and Joseph had once been refugees – and Palestinian refugees at that!

It is interesting to speculate how long it took Ms Ghahraman to grasp the full political consequences of her outburst. Given the instantaneity of the Internet, one must assume that the realisation came quickly. Certainly, the speed with which she was prevailed upon to issue a fulsome apology to the Jewish community suggests that her colleagues recognised the magnitude of Ms Ghahraman’s insult more-or-less immediately.

For insult it was. Deliberate or unintentional? It hardly matters. To characterise Jesus, Mary and Joseph as anything other than a Jewish family is to locate oneself in the midst of the very worst kind of antisemitism.

It was, after all, the Nazis who insisted that Jesus was an Aryan.

How could he not be? To claim that Jesus of Nazareth; a Galilean carpenter; and a subject of Herod, King of Judea; was a Jew; is tantamount to suggesting that the fount of all the World’s evil, is also, somehow, the source of its redeemer. No anti-Semite could possibly accept such a slander on the founder of the Christian religion.

That the Christian churches of Germany did not protest loudly against these theological and historical calumnies indicates how deeply the notion of Jesus’s non-Jewishness was imbedded in the popular imagination of Christendom. For centuries, ordinary Christians had been fed the “blood libel” that the Jews killed Christ. It seemed obvious, to Catholic peasant and Protestant townsman alike, that the Jews were hardly likely to murder one of their own.

For citizens and supporters of the State of Israel, the import of Ms Ghahraman’s message was equally alarming.

To claim Jesus, Mary and Joseph for the Palestinian cause is to make of Israel an interloper and a coloniser: the malignant cuckoo in the Arab peoples’ historical nest. Even worse, Ms Ghahraman’s characterisation neatly reverses the foundation myth of the Israeli state. Rather than the Jews returning to their ancient homeland, it is the Palestinians who are seeking to restore the status quo ante.

The name Palestine is recorded in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphs, chiseled a thousand years before the Roman Empire ever sent its legions a-conquering. By this reckoning, the people between the Jordan River and the sea have always been Palestinians. Therefore, the people calling themselves Jews have no claim. They came a-conquering from somewhere else.

Israel’s answer to such revisionism is an emphatic “No!”

The presence of the Jewish people in the lands between the Jordan River and the sea in the early years of the Christian Era is an indisputable historical fact. When the Roman Empire’s man in Jerusalem, Pontius Pilate, had a religious rabble-rouser called Jesus crucified, it was for the crime of allowing himself to be called “King of the Jews” – not “King of the Palestinians”!

It would be another 100 years before Rome renamed the territory between the river and the sea “Palestine”. After repeated revolts, culminating in the ruthless expulsion of what remained of territory’s inhabitants, the Emperor Hadrian determined to make it as if the homeland of the Jews had never existed.

And yet, no matter where they landed, the great Jewish diaspora did not forget. Passover after Passover, century after century, they lifted their cups and vowed: L’Shana Haba’ah B’Yerushalayim – Next year in Jerusalem!

Small wonder that Ms Ghahraman apologised so speedily. Her foolish and inflammatory tweet blundered into a world where, today, angels themselves fear to tread. The riddle of Israel, Palestine, and their holy refugees, renders even Twitter mute.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 19 July 2019.

Wednesday, 17 July 2019

Racing To The Bottom, Or Chasing Our Tails?

Always Playing Catch-Up: Throughout the 1970s, the purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s pay packet – the only meaningful measure of his or her wealth – was being eaten away every passing year by seemingly inexorable rises in the cost-of-living. Small wonder that New Zealand (and the rest of the Western world) was plagued by strike after strike, as the unions made increasingly desperate – and ultimately futile – efforts to catch-up. Neoliberalism has many faults, but encouraging inflation isn't one of them.

A NEW FRONT has opened up in an old battle. The New Zealand Initiative (NZI) a think tank funded by this country’s largest corporations, has come out swinging against this government’s proposed “Fair Pay Agreements” (FPA).

As the linear descendent of the Business Roundtable, of unhappy memory, this is hardly surprising. For the NZI’s principal funders, preserving the gains of the dramatic changes in employment law which rounded-off New Zealand’s neoliberal revolution remains a high priority.

In the ears of New Zealand’s biggest bosses, the FPAs sound too much like the old “Industrial Awards”, which, for nearly 100 years, underpinned the industrial relations system swept away by the Employment Contracts Act 1991 (ECA).

It has been an article of faith among trade unionists (and the Left generally) that the passage of the ECA led directly to a decisive shift in the balance-of-power in the workplace. Not only between the boss and the union, but also – and more generally – between wage and salary earners and shareholders. The ECA has caused the share of national wealth claimed by the workers to shrink, the Left insists, while growing the share claimed by the capitalists.

All the other arguments advanced by the labour movement: that the employment relationship, as modified by the ECA and its successors, has grown increasingly one-sided and unfair; is based upon this crucial statistic. If the size of the Capitalists’ slice of the national pie has, indeed, grown relative to the workers’ slice, then change is justified. If, however, the slices have remained more-or-less the same, or, if the workers’ slice is growing (albeit very slowly) then the Left’s case for change is weakened – perhaps fatally.

Hence the NZI’s latest offensive: a statistical dagger-thrust at the unions’ key argument that unjust employment laws are keeping the workers poor, weak and exploited. Here’s the point of the dagger:

“[I]t is claimed current labour market settings have seen a decline in the share of New Zealand’s gross domestic product (or “share of the pie”) going to workers. This concern is a myth. The share of GDP going to workers did decline in the late 20th century, but this fall largely occurred in the 1970s and 1980s (at a time when New Zealand had a system of industrial awards similar to the FPA arrangements proposed by the FPA[Working Group]). Since the 1991 reforms, the decline in workers’ share of GDP has been arrested and is now trending upwards.”

Could this possibly be true? Actually, the NZI just might be right.

A week or so ago, while researching another topic entirely, I had cause to refer to my late mother’s amazing collection of Encyclopaedia Britannica yearbooks. In the entry devoted to New Zealand in the year 1977, I read with astonishment that the rate of inflation recorded for 1976 was 15.6 percent. In March of 1977, however, the Wage Hearing Tribunal had awarded wage workers an across-the-board increase of just 6 percent. The unions had asked for 12.8 percent. In other words, the purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s real wage had shrunk by at least 6.8 percent – probably more.

No matter that union membership was compulsory in 1977. No matter that industrial awards mandated a minimum set of wages and conditions across entire occupational groupings. The purchasing power of the ordinary worker’s pay packet – the only meaningful measure of his or her wealth – was being eaten away every passing year by these seemingly inexorable rises in the cost-of-living. Small wonder that New Zealand (and the rest of the Western world) was plagued by strike after strike, as the unions made increasingly desperate – and ultimately futile – efforts to catch-up.

Clearly, there were more ways of killing the poor old worker’s cat than by hitting it over the head with the ECA.

The Council of Trade Unions may be right about the ECA and its workplace bargaining setting off a “race to the bottom”, whereby wages are constantly being suppressed by employers competing aggressively to reduce the size of their wage bill. But, the very same rigors of competitive neoliberal microeconomics are also preventing employers from simply passing on the wage rises secured through collective bargaining into the price of their goods and services.

While neoliberalism holds inflation in check – allowing workers’ real wages to rise – the trade unions will struggle for members – and relevance.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 12 July 2019.

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Can Jacinda Give National The KISS Of Populist Death?

Let's Do Them! All Jacinda Ardern has to do to clinch the 2020 General Election is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build.

AS THINGS NOW STAND, NZ First cannot surge. This is a serious problem for all the parties making up the Coalition Government. NZ First has come to rely upon the last-minute surge in popular support which its leader skilfully engenders, and which, again and again, has carried himself and his colleagues over the 5 percent MMP threshold. The problem facing the Coalition in 2020 is that, hitherto, Winston Peters’ target: the object fuelling the popular resentment behind the surge; has been the incumbent government. Peters can hardly set about organising a populist surge against himself!

Unfortunately, for the Coalition Government, it is living through what might be called “The Populist Moment”. All over the world, voters are deserting the parties of the centre-left and the centre-right for political leaders and parties eager to denounce the failed orthodoxy of the political establishment. The era of post-war optimism, founded on a rising tide of prosperity lasting thirty years, is well and truly over. All the promises to re-start the happiness machine have proved hollow. The new god of Neoliberalism, which replaced the failed god of Keynesianism, has turned out to have feet of clay. Nothing works anymore, and somebody must be to blame.

Ordinarily, it would be Peters and NZ First positioning themselves front-and-centre in the blame game. As we lurch towards election year, however, we encounter a howling void where New Zealand’s twenty-five-year-old populist party used to be. It’s not as if there’s any shortage of issues for the populists to take up: immigration, affordable housing, freedom of speech, social and cultural engineering; all are crying out for a champion.

And that’s the only question. Is there a politician out there tough enough to pick them up and run with them?

Act’s David Seymour would like to, but he simply doesn’t strike enough voters as the right sort of person for the job. National’s Simon Bridges can also see the gap in the political market which Peters’ decision to throw in his lot with Labour and the Greens has opened up. Unfortunately, he just can’t decide whether his colleagues are ready – or even willing – to hare off down the populist path. It’s that indecision, ultimately, which disqualifies him from following in the footsteps of this country’s most ruthless populist politician, Rob Muldoon.

No other New Zealand political leader has produced a surge like Muldoon’s. In just 18 months he exactly reversed Labour’s huge 23-seat majority. The only other National Party leader who’s come anywhere close is Don Brash, who took National from its worst defeat ever and turned it back into a credible contender for power. There’s no doubt that National can do populism: what else were Muldoon’s dancing Cossacks and Brash’s Iwi/Kiwi billboards? What is much more doubtful, is the National Caucus’s willingness give Judith Collins a crack at it.

Which just leaves one more contender: the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern.

Is that even possible? Has an incumbent government ever successfully run a populist campaign?

The answer is an unequivocal “Yes.” All that’s required is an extremely popular leader (Check) and a poorly-led and vulnerable Opposition (Check). As Scott Morrison demonstrated across the Tasman: if these two prerequisites are in place; and if you have the self-discipline to stay on-message for the duration; then you can confound the pundits and snatch victory from the jaws of what everyone insisted was certain defeat.

All Jacinda has to do is frighten the bejesus out of the electorate by describing in the most graphic terms imaginable what will happen to all the positive beginnings her government has made if National is returned to power. Paint Simon Bridges, or, Judith Collins (if National are silly enough to gift Labour “The Crusher”) as wanton toddlers, hell-bent on smashing-down what all the other children are striving to build. Negative campaigning? Attack advertising? Of course! But in a noble and positive cause.

And the really exciting thing is that a huge part of the campaign need not be visible. If Labour in New Zealand is not too proud to copy the extraordinary social-media campaigning techniques perfected by Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party in the recent European elections, then Jacinda should be able to avoid pretty much all of the blood-splatter.

If Labour can bear to eschew complexity, in favour of “Keep it simple, stupid!”, Jacinda will surge home.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 5 July 2019.

Sunday, 7 July 2019

Goff And Tamihere Are Both Wrong. (But Bernard Hickey Is Right On The Money!)

Show Me The Money! The alternative to state funding of infrastructure is, of course, to fund it by taking on massive amounts of private debt. On this issue, at least, Auckland mayoral challenger, Tamihere, has some solid points to make. In his own colourful turn of phrase, the incumbent mayor, Phil Goff, and the Auckland Council, have “maxed-out the credit card”. If the City is to preserve its international credit rating of AA, then it simply cannot afford to take on any more debt.

NEITHER PHIL GOFF, nor John Tamihere, are telling Aucklanders the truth about their city, but Bernard Hickey has given it a pretty good shot. In a powerful and deeply insightful article, posted on the Newsroom website, Hickey not only explains why KiwiBuild failed, but why it could never have succeeded. In the process, he lays bare the fundamental failures of political and economic intelligence fuelling New Zealand’s conjoined national and local infrastructure crises. Goff and Tamihere are part of that intellectual failure, and that is why neither politician is giving Aucklanders meaningful answers to their most pressing questions.

Tamihere has proposed selling 49 percent of Watercare to either the Accident Compensation Corporation, or the Superannuation Fund, or both, and using the proceeds (estimated at around $5 billion) to fund Auckland’s urgent infrastructure needs. Goff, who, in his years as a member of the Fourth Labour Government, never once voted against the privatisation of state-owned monopolies, has come out as a staunch defender of the municipally-owned Watercare company. He is warning Aucklanders that Tamihere’s plan would increase the average Aucklander’s water bill by $200-400 per year – falling most heavily on the poorest Auckland families.

What does Hickey say about the funding of local government infrastructure?

“After the mid-1980s, the Government saw the private sector as the provider of housing and saw any infrastructure as a cost that needed to be borne by those building the new houses and local Government, not the wider taxpaying public. Even now, that thinking is infused through Treasury and into the minds of the current Labour leadership, going from Ardern through Finance Minister Grant Robertson to Twyford.”

In other words, the neoliberal principle of “user pays” has been extended well beyond its original target, the hapless individual consumer of government services, to encompass everyone: consumers, businesses, central and local government institutions; everyone. The contrast between the neoliberal approach and the nation-building approach, which, historically, has informed the policies of successive New Zealand governments, could hardly be starker.

As Hickey makes clear:

“[N]neither the National or Labour-led governments of the last 35 years have seen it as their role to pay for [housing’s] underlying infrastructure. Their instincts have been to get others to pay for it, unlike during the golden eras of the 1930s, 40s, 50s, 60s and early 1970s when governments of both colours used the national balance sheet to build and subsidise that infrastructure through the Ministry of Works, State Advances Corp and various Group Building schemes and child benefit capitalisation policies.”

The alternative to state funding of infrastructure is, of course, to fund it by taking on massive amounts of private debt. On this issue, at least, Tamihere has some solid points to make. In his own colourful turn of phrase, Goff and the Auckland Council have “maxed-out the credit card”. If the City is to preserve its international credit rating of AA, then it simply cannot afford to take on any more debt. What’s more, the rest of the country cannot afford for Auckland to take on any more debt.

Hickey tells us why:

“The technical problem is the Auckland Council is almost at its debt-to-revenue limit ratio of 270 percent, which is the level specified by Standard and Poor’s for Auckland to keep its AA credit rating. This is important because taking on more debt would mean Auckland’s credit rating would be downgraded, which would increase the interest costs on existing debt and force up rates. But it would also breach the rules set by the Local Government Funding Agency [LGFA] about Auckland’s credit rating not falling more than one notch below the Government's AA+ rating. That’s important because Auckland’s rating essentially sets the base for all local government borrowing through the LGFA. It means there is enormous political pressure locally and financial pressure from other councils (and the LGFA) for Auckland not to borrow much more. Councils beyond the Bombays and north of Orewa would scream blue murder if their interest bills went up because the Auckland Council decided to solve a funding problem the central Government won’t solve.”

Unable to take on any more debt, Tamihere knows that the only way for Goff to fund infrastructure development in Auckland is by increasing rates, raising user-charges, and/or adding another 5-10 cents to the price of a litre of petrol. Tamihere is far from convinced that Goff (or anyone else) is willing to risk a ratepayers’ revolt by leading Auckland up that particular garden path, hence his plan to access five billion desperately needed dollars for urgent infrastructure development by selling 49 percent of Watercare.

The politics of this is quite clever, because, by the time ACC and/or the Superfund take the necessary steps to secure their standard rate-of-return from Watercare by taking it out of everybody’s water bill – Goff is quite right about that – Tamihere may have earned himself enough public good-will to be re-elected Mayor in 2022. (Assuming, of course, that this partial privatisation policy enables him to beat Goff in October 2019.) Five billion dollars builds a lot of infrastructure, so, who knows, Tamihere’s use of Peter’s central government funds, to pay for Paul’s local government needs, might just work. “The Mayor who rebuilt Auckland without plunging us all into deeper debt!” – has a rather nice political ring to it.

In the long run, however, Tamihere’s gambit can only be a bust. Liquidating and then spending Auckland’s capital assets can only end up dragging the city to the same point Goff has already reached. Namely, facing the politically unpalatable reality of requiring people to give up an increasing proportion of their income to the Council and/or its commercial arms. While the New Zealand political class – and that includes you, Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and James Shaw – remains incapable of thinking outside the neoliberal box, New Zealand’s crumbling infrastructure, not to mention the many large-scale public works projects that will be required to meet the challenges of the future, cannot be addressed.

Goff and Tamihere would be better advised to jointly demand, as the leading mayoral candidates, that the State once again steps up to the plate of nation-building. In a country whose entire population is smaller than that of a medium-sized global city, there never has been, and still isn’t, any other viable alternative to turning the state into New Zealand’s angel investor.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 4 July 2019.

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Un-Friending The People.

The People's "Friend": In this masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda, the homicidal political psychopath, Jean-Paul Marat, has been transformed by Jacques-Louis David, the French Revolution's most accomplished artist, into a martyred hero of the ordinary people of Paris. Thanks to Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, the ignorant and the angry no longer need a radical 'friend' with a printing press to amplify their voices. Today they can change the world with a fingertip.

BEN MORGAN IS RIGHT: “This is the first time in history that people with so little competence can so powerfully enter the civic discourse.” The consequences of this undeniable fact, for ourselves as citizens, and for our entire democratic political culture, are huge. When noise equals money, and ignorance has been given such a mighty amplifier as the Internet, then democracy, as a viable system of government, must come under enormous pressure.

The dangers of giving the angry and ignorant their own media outlet was demonstrated most powerfully in the early 1790s, just as the French Revolution was entering its “Reign of Terror”.

The radical political philosopher, physician and noted scientist, Jean-Paul Marat, recognising the rising power of the poorest people of Paris, founded a newspaper dedicated to both arousing and expressing their most extreme political passions. In a sinister anticipation of the very worst aspects of today’s social media, Marat’s Friend of The People turned rumour into fact and gave voice to the poverty-stricken masses most bloodthirsty impulses. To be denounced on the pages of Marat’s “fake news”-paper very quickly became the equivalent of a death sentence. That Marat, himself, was afflicted with an excruciating skin disease did nothing to calm his homicidal fury towards any person or group he judged to be an enemy of the people.

It was at Marat’s instigation that the revolutionary militia – known as the National Guard – carried out the infamous “September Massacres” of 1792. Over the course of a week National Guardsmen, their numbers augmented by the Paris poor, broke into the capital’s prisons and butchered more than a thousand prisoners. Marat had told his readers that the jails of Paris were full of aristocrats ready to assist the counter-revolutionary forces massing on France’s borders. To save the revolution, he declared, they must all be pre-emptively executed. Some of the victims were, indeed, political prisoners awaiting trial. Most, however, were common criminals. Even by the grisly standards of eighteenth century Europe, the grotesque horror of the September Massacres was profoundly shocking.

Marat’s next victims were the “Girondins”, a faction of the National Assembly whom he suspected of excessive moderation. The Friend of the People’s relentless campaigning convinced Marat’s readers that the Girondins were plotting against the Revolution. In short order, his allies in the National Assembly, the radical Jacobin faction, had the Girondins arrested, tried before the Revolutionary Tribunal, declared guilty, and guillotined.

Marat’s bloody reign was brought to an abrupt end by a young Girondin sympathiser called Charlotte Corday, who famously stabbed him to death in his medicinal bath, after gaining access to the “people’s friend” by passing herself off as an anti-Girondin informant. Secretly relieved to be rid of their dangerous journalistic demagogue, the Jacobins transformed Marat into the Revolution’s first great martyr. The painting entitled The Death of Marat, executed by the era’s most accomplished artist, Jacques-Louis David, is an acknowledged masterpiece of revolutionary propaganda.

This cautionary historical tale records only the consequences of a single radical intellectual’s decision to align himself wholeheartedly with the least educated and most desperate elements of a society gripped by revolutionary change. The important difference between Marat’s Friend of the People and Facebook is that, in order to work its malign political magic, the former still required the participation of a guiding editorial hand, a printers’ workshop, and a host of newspaper sellers. Contemporary social media has done away with all these intermediaries. Today, the people need no friend, they can speak for themselves.

These individual voices, algorithmically assembled into vast aggregations of the like-minded, now possess the power to dictate the editorial policies of the world’s newspapers and broadcasting networks. Dependent on the electronic devices of these volatile and easily bored consumers for their economic survival, the legacy media has all but given up on the notion that a newspaper, magazine, radio station or television network should lead and inform public opinion. This clear political goal, which Marat, himself, would have endorsed – albeit in relation to the Parisians’ most extreme opinions – has been supplemented by the media’s existential need to fashion itself into a politically agnostic parasite. The new media organism’s only hope of sustaining itself is to feast, with cynical efficiency, on the madness and mania of the masses, and then excrete it back to them.

With the ignorance and prejudices of the masses setting the social and political tone, the desperation and disdain of well-educated and culturally sophisticated managers and professionals – the people who actually keep a modern, technologically-driven society functioning – is easily imagined.

Gone are the days when these folk were able to filter out the masses’ mania and madness from the news media; when the political parties they largely controlled could aggregate a coherent policy agenda with which to guide an otherwise inchoate electorate. Confronted with such monumental stupidity in every sphere: politics, medicine, science; is it any wonder that the technocrats in charge have learned how to transform the self-same social media which has undermined the guided democracy of the past into the undisclosed vector of its destruction in the present?

The covert manipulation of elections by means of social media has now reached such a level of sophistication that those lacking the skills to participate are rendered utterly irrelevant to the electoral process – except as window-dressing. The impact of these techniques is already evident in the deep organic political crisis currently gripping the United Kingdom. Brexit, that great victory of the ignorant and the angry, has set the UK up for a revolution of its own. A similar fate looks set to overwhelm the United States in the aftermath of the 2020 presidential elections.

Will these revolts throw up their own versions of Jean-Paul Marat? Of course. Only this time the people will not see him. And he will not be their friend.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 2 July 2019.

Friday, 28 June 2019

Contracting Out Of Religious Freedom.

Going Upstairs: If we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammelled right to advance their understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.

ONE OF THE FIRST things I learned as a young trade union organiser was: “You cannot contract out of statute law.” What does that mean? It means that if you enjoy a statutory entitlement to three weeks paid holiday, then your boss cannot legally require you to sign a contract limiting your paid holiday to just two weeks. This prohibition stands as one of the most crucial protections of English Common Law. Without it, the rights guaranteed to citizens by statute would be routinely signed away on pain of their not securing – or retaining – paid employment.

Tell that to Israel Folau!

In spite of the fact that the Australian Constitution explicitly guarantees to each citizen the freedom of religion, Folau’s contract with the national Australian rugby team has been terminated on account of his religious beliefs concerning homosexuality.

No matter that the constitutional guarantee of freedom of religion must, logically, include the freedom to express one’s religious beliefs. No matter that the Australian High Court has ruled that the democratic character of the Australian Constitution implies the enforceable entitlement of all Australians to all the freedoms associated with the practice of democracy – most particularly, the freedom of expression. According to Folau’s employers, his statement regarding the ultimate fate of sinners (which they have branded homophobic) has brought Australian Rugby into disrepute – and his contract has been terminated.

That bit about bringing his employers into disrepute is crucial to the outcome of the legal challenge Folau is determined to mount against his termination.

One of the other things I learned very early on in my (brief) career as a trade union organiser is that our paid employment is still defined as a “master/servant” relationship. Under law, one of the many duties we, “servants”, owe our “masters” is the protection of their good reputation. Our employers have a legal right to expect that their employees refrain from doing anything which is likely to bring them into “disrepute”.

Clearly, this legally enforceable right of the masters to curtail the speech of their servants runs headlong into the right of servants – as citizens – to exercise their freedom of expression. The question thus becomes one of determining which takes precedence. The fact that servants have a legal obligation not to harm their master’s reputation. Or, the fact that masters, along with everybody else in a democratic society, have a legal obligation to recognise their fellow citizens’ right to speak freely about the things that matter to them?

For a conservative fundamentalist Christian, the ultimate fate of those who sin is eternal damnation in the fires of Hell. Fundamentalists would, therefore, argue that Christian love requires the faithful to do all that they can to rescue sinners from the torments of hellfire: by warning them of the fate that awaits them; and by imploring them to change their ways.

It cannot fall to a believer’s employer to determine what should, and should not, constitute a sin in any given religion. That would represent an entirely unwarranted arrogation of power over that worker’s spiritual and moral life. Nor can it be just that their employees’ constitutional right to freedom of religion, and their democratic right to freedom of expression, is set aside on account of some supposed obligation to protect their boss’s reputation – as s/he defines it – at no matter what cost to their conscience and their liberty.

It has been argued that Folau’s statement about homosexuality constitutes a genuine threat to the well-being of young, gay people. But, surely, that can only be the case if those affected accept, as fact, Folau’s claim that eternal damnation awaits unrepentant sinners? This, in turn, presupposes that young, gay people are not free to reject the rugby-player’s theologically unsophisticated and deeply conservative Christian faith. That their own beliefs about human love and solidarity are not infinitely stronger than those of Folau’s fundamentalist Christianity, which has lost sight completely of the boundless and unconditional love of its founder.

And if we accept the LGBTQI+ community’s untrammeled right to advance their own understanding of love, then we must also accept Israel Folau’s right to articulate his own simplistic and inadequate interpretation of the Christian religion.

As this story unfolds, it’s becoming increasingly clear the only statute Israel Folau has contracted out of is Christ’s unequivocal commandment to “love thy neighbour as thyself”.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 28 June 2019.