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 führer.

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.

Thursday, 5 July 2018

Keeping Power Homeless.

The Road Not Taken: The Workers, warned Karl Marx's contemporary and fellow revolutionary, Mikhail Bakunin, “once they become rulers or representatives of the people, cease to be workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the toiling people. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who doubt this know precious little about human nature.”

WHERE DO WE GO when both the market and the state have been weighed in the balance and found wanting? How much better-off would the peoples of the world be if, instead of the towering ziggurats of global capitalism, their skylines were dominated by the equally absurd wedding-cake skyscrapers of global socialism? Would the planet be any less ravaged? Would bureaucracy be any less oppressive? Would the individual feel any freer – or less crushed?

The traditional Marxist response to these sorts of musings is that socialism, once fully established, would lead to a “withering away” of the state. Karl Marx himself equated life under communism with the manifestation of freedom in its broadest possible sense: “[I]n communist society, where nobody has one exclusive sphere of activity but each can become accomplished in any branch he wished, society regulates the general production and thus makes it possible for me to do one thing today and another tomorrow, to hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticize after dinner, just as I have a mind, without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, shepherd, or critic.”

Not a vision that would enthuse too many animal rights activists or vegans! Still, it’s easy to imagine a great many huntin’-shootin’-fishin’ Kiwis saying “Where do I sign-up?” Buried in Marx’s bucolic depiction of his communist paradise, however, is the easily overlooked phrase “society regulates the general production”. Society? Who’s that? And how does s/he “regulate the general production”? Who writes these regulations? Who enforces them? And out of which particular part of Planet Earth is all this “general production” to be extracted? You can see already how many serpents this passage sets loose in Marxist communism’s Garden of Eden!

Mikhail Bakunin, a contemporary of Marx – and a fellow revolutionary – was never one to let glib phrases about society regulating production pass him by without a very close inspection. He understood intuitively that the sort of society the socialists were hoping to bring into existence would necessitate a vast and all-embracing bureaucracy. It was a prospect that gave him considerable pause for thought – and not a few misgivings:

Workers, he said, “once they become rulers or representatives of the people, cease to be workers. And from the heights of the State they begin to look down upon the toiling people. From that time on they represent not the people but themselves and their own claims to govern the people. Those who doubt this know precious little about human nature.”

In those few lines, Bakunin describes the fatal flaw which lies at the heart of Marx’s vision. The flaw that, when Lenin’s Bolsheviks set about establishing the world’s first socialist state in post-World War One Russia, led ineluctably to the monstrous bureaucratic tyranny by which every one of the nations in which “actually existing socialism” held sway was to be so appallingly disfigured.

How to escape from this awful conundrum? Is there no way that the material abundance which human ingenuity’s technological creations make possible can be equitably distributed? Is there no way of overcoming the private and public bureaucracies so determined to preserve, at any cost, their power to create and administer scarcity? For what else is the state if not an elaborate mechanism for sorting-out (in Leonard Cohen’s arresting phrase) “who shall serve and who shall eat”?

Bakunin’s answer was as unequivocal as it was disturbing. If the state is oppressive by its very nature, then attempting to “take it over” is pointless. No matter how well-intentioned the revolutionaries may be when their banners are as yet unstained by the blood of their comrades, in the very act of exercising power over their fellow human-beings, of administering the state, the revolutionaries’ intentions are altered, distorted and, ultimately, perverted.

That being the case, said Bakunin, the only creditable aim of the true revolutionary is to smash the state: to destroy it; so that human-beings are free to take the “general production” directly into their own hands. Rather that create a brand new structure for power to dwell in, he counselled, keep it homeless. More importantly, learn to do without it altogether. In his own words: “Anyone who makes plans for after the revolution is a reactionary.”

Bakunin, the revolutionary contemporary of Marx, was neither a socialist, nor a communist.

He was an anarchist.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 5 July 2018.

Tuesday, 3 July 2018

The Revolutionary Logic Of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

The Harbinger: What lies beyond the cultural logic of late-capitalism? The revolutionary logic of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

FOR AS LONG as socialism constituted a genuine threat, red-baiting remained a constant feature of United States politics. With the implosion of the Soviet Union in 1991, however, red-baiting eased-off. Global capitalism was in a triumphant mood and its celebrants looked upon those who still espoused the socialist cause with a mixture of condescension and pity. In their eyes, at least, the socialists had missed history’s bus. The traditional Left had been left behind.

Taking the place of the old-fashioned, Soviet-style Marxist-Leninists in triumphalist capitalism’s new line-up of people to hate were the so-called “Cultural Marxists”. Their mission was said to be nothing less that the complete undermining of Western Society: its values; its traditions; its institutions.

Exactly why the cultural Marxists would want to do this was never made entirely clear. The traditional Marxists had sought to replace the exploitation and individualism of capitalist society with the co-operation and collectivism of socialism. Highly contentious though this goal may have been, it was also reassuringly rational. Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, was presented as being wholly negative. What the cultural Marxists appeared to want was the utter destruction of the system which had defeated “actually existing socialism” in 1991. It was a nihilistic quest for political vengeance – nothing more.

What the triumphalist capitalists failed to grasp was that the new philosophy they mis-named Cultural Marxism was in fact the ferocious enemy of all grand ideological narratives – especially Marxism. Post-modernism, far from being the enemy of the free market, was its principal protector. In a famous essay, published in 1984, the American literary critic and political theorist, Fredric Jameson, described post-modernism as “the cultural logic of late-capitalism”.

Fittingly, it was Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, authors of The Communist Manifesto, who best described capitalism’s terrifying capacity for cultural corrosion:

Constant revolutionising of production, uninterrupted disturbance of all social conditions, everlasting uncertainty and agitation distinguish the bourgeois epoch from all earlier ones. All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new-formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned, and man is at last compelled to face with sober senses his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind.

Post-modernism provides the sort of philosophical architecture in which a ruling-class determined to strip society of its most cherished assumptions can find refuge. The triumph of global corporate culture has, however, left maladaptive conservative intellectuals stranded. To them, the world feels as though it is under attack from their worst (i.e. Marxist) enemies. The conservative mind, which clings so tenaciously to “ancient and venerable prejudices”, simply cannot accept that it is capitalism itself which is dictating the dissolution of moral certainty and the indiscriminate mixing of the present with the past. Post-modernism is the surest means of keeping “late-capitalism’s” opponents – the Right as well as the Left – off balance. People cannot walk on air.

People can, however, “face with sober senses” the “real conditions of life” and the real relationships within which they are enmeshed. And it is precisely at such moments: when culturally and politically people are freed from the myths that have constrained their lives; when the post-modernist Wizard of Oz is exposed for the charlatan he is; when reality shatters the screens onto which late-capitalism’s unrealities have been projected; that the politically impossible happens and a 28-year-old Hispanic woman espousing “democratic socialism” defeats the candidate of the Democratic Party machine in the primary election for New York's 14th Congressional District.

What lies beyond the cultural logic of late-capitalism? The revolutionary logic of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

Red-baiting is about to be given a new lease on life.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 3 July 2018.

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Employers On The Warpath.

Excellent! So blow you employer windbags: crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! Spew forth cataracts of media releases, unleash your Facebook hurricanoes. Spout your nonsense about the Seventies until the voters are drenched with lies and the public square awash with fake news.

WELL, THAT DIDN’T take very long, did it? Nine months into this government’s first term and employer organisations up and down the country are on the warpath. There are full-page adverts and billboards for all the old folks who still respond to the printed word and a digital campaign for everybody else. The message? Simple. The proposed reforms to the Employment Relations Act must be “fixed”. Not “fixed” as in repaired, you understand, but “fixed” as in “the fix is in” and “the fight is fixed”. Basically, the bosses’ reps are telling the Labour-NZF-Green government that their members are happy with the way things are in the workplace and that no changes are necessary. Got that? No changes!

Wait a minute! Are these the same employer groups who, just a few weeks ago, were announcing their determination to be “part of the solution”? Yep, they sure are. But, a lot can happen in a few weeks. For example, you can be bombarded with hundreds of angry e-mails (from the businesses large and small that fund these groups) saying: “What the fuck do you idiots think you’re doing!”

Seems that New Zealand’s employers are not about to let union officials onto their premises at any time of the day or night simply because they’ve received an anguished call for help from one of their members. And why should it only be the small employers with fewer than twenty staff who get to have all the fun of waiting until Day 89 to fire their naïve 90-day probationers? No. New Zealand’s employers have made it very clear that they’re not paying their subs to have a bunch of pinko politicians order them to go on negotiating with their employees in good faith until a settlement is reached. No way. If Simon Bridges could be persuaded let them walk away from the negotiating table whenever they decide there’s nothing more to say, then so can Iain Lees-Galloway.

He’s a weak link that Iain Lees-Galloway. Ever since he backed away from his party’s solemn promise to repeal the hated “Hobbit Law”, it’s been clear that the guy isn’t what you’d call a tower of union-backing strength. Word is that the MBIE bureaucrats had him house-trained in a matter of days. Hugh Watt he’s not. Nor Stan Rodger neither. [Ministers of Labour in the Kirk and Lange Labour Governments respectively – Ed.]

But, if Iain Lees-Galloway is a weak link, then the NZ First caucus is a frayed rope. The various employer groups saw what just one full-page ad from the Sensible Sentencing Trust could do to the populists’ reluctant agreement to repeal the Three Strikes legislation. How long is their willingness to sing “Solidarity Forever” with the unions likely to last once they’ve driven past a few 10-metre-long billboards encouraging them to “fix” the employment relations legislation?

The answer – as always when the question is NZ First – depends on Winston Peters. A decision to throw in the towel of workplace relations reform would be a decision to leave a legacy of gutlessness and surrender. Certainly, it would make a nonsense of his determination to give capitalism a human face. It would also render incomprehensible his post-Cabinet press conference remarks about workers seeing his coalition government as a friend willing to listen. Winston won’t turn his back on all that just yet. He’s not about to let the unions carve the single word “Scab” on his political tombstone.

The other reason why Winston is more likely than not to urge resistance to the employers’ campaign is because he, unlike so many of the youngsters writing National’s attack-lines, remembers very clearly what happened in the 1970s.

Rather than the grey Polish shipyard so beloved of neoliberal revisionist historians like Michael Bassett, Peters remembers a New Zealand in which a dirt-poor Maori family from Northland could send their talented son to Auckland University without going into debt. He will recall, too, an era when working people did not live in fear of the boss. Yes there were strikes, and they could be damned inconvenient. But, seeing what happened to New Zealand after 1984 and 1991, Peters – along with his old comrade Jim Bolger – has come to understand that it was precisely because working people had trade unions to defend them that they also had jobs that paid them a living wage, houses they could afford, and children who could, and did, expect their lives to be better than their parents’.

So blow you employer windbags: crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! Spew forth cataracts of media releases, unleash your Facebook hurricanoes. Spout your nonsense about the Seventies until the voters are drenched with lies and the public square awash with fake news.

Spit and rage all you want. This government is determined to put a human face upon New Zealand capitalism – regardless of its well-funded protests.

Not for the bosses’ sake – but for ours.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 29 June 2018.

Friday, 29 June 2018

The Strike That Labour Fears Most.

What If The Bosses Went On Strike? “Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence [...] This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.” - Michal Kalecki 1943

WHILE SIMON BRIDGES and his backroom number-crunchers are concocting bogus industrial relations statistics, a much more dangerous strike is looming. If you’re waiting to hear Bridges condemn this particular strike, however, you will wait in vain. This isn’t the sort of strike the National Party condemns; it’s the sort of strike it does everything in its power to provoke. What sort of strike are we talking about? An Investment Strike.

It was at the funeral of Jock Barnes, leader of the Waterside Workers Union in 1951, that I first encountered the term. The person who introduced me to it was Ross Wilson, President of the NZ Council of Trade Unions, who told me about a recent conversation he’d had with the Prime Minister, Helen Clark. She’d told him, bluntly, that the employers were threatening to put away their cheque-books. If her government refused to back away from its more radical policies – especially the proposed changes to the Employment Contracts Act – it would face an investment strike.

This was early-June 2000: the so-called “Winter of Discontent”.

There is much about the present situation that calls to mind those months back in 2000. Then – as now – the focus was on a series of surveys (most of them conducted on behalf of the banks) purporting to show a “loss of business confidence”. Just as they have been doing for the past nine months, the business-friendly commentators of eighteen years ago attributed this loss of confidence to the policies of the incoming Labour-led coalition government.

“Loss of business confidence” is an expression freighted with economic significance. One of the first to make the consequences of its loss explicit was the Polish economist Michal Kalecki. In “Political Aspects of Full Employment”, an article published in the Political Quarterly in 1943, he wrote:

“Under a laisser-faire system the level of employment depends to a great extent on the so-called state of confidence. If this deteriorates, private investment declines, which results in a fall of output and employment (both directly and through the secondary effect of the fall in incomes upon consumption and investment). This gives to the capitalists a powerful indirect control over Government policy: everything which may shake the state of confidence must be carefully avoided because it would cause an economic crisis.”

The kicker lies in those last seven words: “because it would cause an economic crisis”. If the four pillars upholding the economic order set in place by Roger Douglas and Ruth Richardson: non-inflationary monetary policy; fiscal discipline; openness of markets; labour market flexibility; were ever to be threatened with serious erosion, then, in the words of the neoliberal ideologue, Roger Kerr: “doubts about New Zealand’s outlook will mount”.

Falling business confidence is, of course, the winking warning-light on the capitalists’ dashboard. Not only does it indicate rising doubt about the reliability of the new regime, but it also signals that the politicians responsible need a sharp reminder about who it is that really runs the country.

Back in 2000 that took the form of some of the country’s leading business executives issuing thinly-veiled threats to the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister. That Helen Clark and Michael Cullen felt it necessary to publicly allay the fears of those whose cheque-books were about to be locked away in the top-drawer of their desks, showed how very seriously those threats were taken. Under no circumstances could investors be allowed to go on strike “because it would cause an economic crisis”.

In the moments following Ross Wilson’s revelations I remember wondering what Jock Barnes would have done. He knew that, ultimately, all strikes are a matter of bluff. The trick lies in persuading the other side that you are willing to do whatever it takes to win. In 1951 the National Party called Barnes’ bluff: wagering that the unions would blink before the state did.

The only question that really matters in 2018, therefore, is: “Are Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters willing to call the business community’s bluff?” Note that I have not included the Finance Minister in that question. Grant “Budget Responsibility Rules” Robertson has already made it clear where he stands.

While Jacinda thinks of the future and Winston remembers the past, the workers of New Zealand can only wait and hope that, as in 1951 (but not 2000!) the state blinks last.

This essay was originally published by The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 June 2018.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Father Of Nightmares.

Nightmare Scenario: The United States teeters precariously on a narrow ledge of sanity while POTUS, gargantuan and grinning, bids it step out into the abyss.

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP is the Father of Nightmares. The logic of his administration is indistinguishable now from the logic of dreams: his White House minions prey to the same abrupt shifts of mood; the same lightning-fast transitions from elation to dread. America itself has become the prisoner of its President’s vagrant fancies: a place where trust and treachery grapple like celebrity wrestlers in front of a television audience of millions. The whole country teeters precariously on a narrow ledge of sanity while POTUS, gargantuan and grinning, bids it step out into the abyss.

Unwitting and unprepared, America and the world have been propelled back through time to the era of kings and emperors. Accustomed to living in a world from which the habits of obedience and obeisance have long been banished, the realisation that they are now as frightened and vulnerable as any of the inhabitants of those luckless nations on the margins of civilisation has come as quite a shock. Presidential pique can now upend lives as easily as presidential beneficence can redeem them. The world’s leaders have been reduced to mere courtiers in the planet-sized Versailles the USA has built for them.

How to respond when American foreign policy is driven by presidential whim? When international trade is reduced to a pile of chips in a testosterone-fuelled game of Texas hold-em? What to do when old allies are treated like the hired help and brutal dictators are treated to “The Donald’s” best real-estate advice? When the 400-year-old Westphalian System of sovereign states pursuing their national self-interest rationally and predictably is impatiently tossed aside? When did it become okay for the leader of the world’s “indispensable” nation to behave like a Mafia don?

It’s worse for those ordinary Americans who have yet to succumb to the fever-dream that is Trumpism. Americans with college degrees and what were once considered to be good manners. Americans who believe in Darwin’s theory of evolution and regard the Bible as a collection of moral metaphors. Americans who won’t have handguns anywhere near their children. Americans who read. For these Americans every heavy footfall in the public square sounds as close as their front door. They would call the Police if they weren’t so terrified that it’s the thud of policemen’s boots that woke them.

The true horror of Trump’s nightmares is that the people in them, the people doing the most monstrous things, don’t even know they’re monsters. Those Texas cops and border guards carrying the children away from their parents. Those minimum-wage workers in the camp canteens, dishing out the detainees’ food with friendly smiles. If asked, they would swear on a stack of Bibles that they are the good guys in their President’s movie. Except that it doesn’t pay to ask that sort of question, does it? Not unless the questioner wants to see the look of easy familiarity disappear from their eyes. Not unless he or she wants to see it replaced in an instant with the cold, gun-metal glare of hostility that Trump’s supporters reserve for his enemies.

That’s when the panic sets in. Trump’s press secretary, Sarah Sanders, is asked to leave the Little Red Hen restaurant in Virginia and liberal America cheers. But then the awful thought strikes them. What if Trump’s supporters decide to do something similar?

“How hard is it to imagine,” asks the Washington Post’s editorial writer, “people who strongly believe that abortion is murder deciding that judges or other officials who protect abortion rights should not be able to live peaceably with their families?” And that’s the thing, isn’t it? Knowing that whatever peaceful little protest the sort of Americans who watch The Handmaid’s Tale might make against Trump can be answered in an instant by bearded men with bulging beer-guts toting pump-action shotguns and wearing “Make America Great Again” baseball caps to hide their male pattern baldness.

The Father of Nightmares has sired too many nightmarish children.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 28 June 2018.

Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Does The National Party Know Anything About Genuine Conservatism?

Radio Hogwaller: Unfortunately for the National Party, Simon Bridges is no John Key. His Radio Hauraki hosts, Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells, led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.

IF THE NATIONAL PARTY was a genuine conservative party, Simon Bridges would no longer be its leader. In a genuine conservative party, the outcry against his performance on Radio Hauraki last Friday (22/6/18) would have extracted his resignation within 24 hours. A great many voices would have joined the outcry against Bridges’ boorish denigration of the prime minister and her family, and for a great many reasons. Let’s examine just a few of them.

Genuine conservatism upholds the traditional values of society. The extending of courtesy to all human-beings, regardless of their station in life, is one of the oldest expectations of civilised society. Indeed, the ability to remain courteous at all times is held to be one of the surest signs of true nobility. It is the acknowledgement which those fortunate enough to wield power make to those who lack it entirely.

Bridges discourtesy towards Jacinda Ardern, Clarke Gayford and their baby not only demonstrated his ignorance of the way someone in his position is expected to behave, but was also proof that he is sorely lacking in the qualities associated with a true political leader. He showed himself to be a man without grace, generosity or sensitivity.

More importantly, he showed himself to be a man without judgement. To handle the shock-jocks of commercial radio requires the ability to think clearly and remain in complete control under pressure. Matt Heath and Jeremy Wells are, after all, entertainers who specialise in embarrassing their guests. John Key had a flair for this shock-jock vulgarity and generally handled such encounters with aplomb. Unfortunately for the National Party, Bridges is no Key. His Hauraki hosts led him by the nose into a slime-filled pit and encouraged him to wallow in it. In the immortal words of Dirty Harry: “A man’s got to know his limitations.” Bridges doesn’t know what he can’t do.

Bridges conduct also revealed a disturbing lack of moral strength. When one of his hosts demanded to know whether he hated Jacinda’s baby, there was only one correct answer: “No, of course I don’t! What a question!” What we heard, instead, was the weak-kneed equivocation: “Hate is a pretty strong word.” As if a less emphatic – but no less negative – characterisation of his feelings towards the child might be acceptable.

It was that same moral fragility which led Bridges’ into the other traps laid for him by his hosts. Trigger expressions, such as “gender-fluid”, elicited responses that showed him to be a person trapped in the rigid moral binaries of his Baptist upbringing. The kindest description of Bridges’ attitudes towards the LGBTI community is that they demonstrate a profound lack of both empathy and understanding. There are many less generous interpretations that could be offered for his willingness to find humour in the crudest of stereotypes.

Bridges was quick to reach for the excuse of humour when the full awfulness of his Hauraki performance became known. His comments were, he said, “light-hearted”. It is an interesting turn of phrase. Anyone who can make discriminatory comments about his fellow citizens with a light heart may not be the best qualified person to lead his country. Making trans-phobic comments with a light heart does not make them any less objectionable. A genuine conservative might even recall the old saying: ‘Many a true word spoken in jest.’

The most decisive voice raised against Bridges’ behaviour, however, would be the one that decried his lack of gravitas. Only political bomb-throwers like Richard Nixon and Joe McCarthy made use of crude demagogic terms like “pinkos” – and that was nearly seventy years ago!

And what is a genuine conservative to make of a person who holds at least two university degrees, and has studied at Oxford, publicly accusing the prime minister of picking up “funny ideas” at university? Such a knee-jerk reversion to the anti-intellectualism of the National Party’s least attractive supporters indicates a deeply conflicted individual who is, at the very least, unwilling to acknowledge his own indebtedness to the power of higher education to expand the possibilities of a young man raised in modest circumstances.

If Simon Bridges was blessed with gravitas – behaviour indicating a serious and dignified personality – the idea of depicting higher education as something dubious or subversive, would be utterly abhorrent. Equally repugnant to him would be the idea of espousing one set of ideas and attitudes to one group of voters and a second, diametrically opposed, set to another. Such dishonesty; such cynicism would be anathema to a genuine conservative.

The ideas and attitudes to which genuine conservative politicians proclaim their allegiance do not change with the audience they are addressing. The serious business of governing one’s fellow human-beings requires honesty, consistency and a full measure of that solemn passion which should distinguish the political life.

If Simon Bridges was such a politician he would never have agreed to appear on Radio Hauraki. If he still aspires to become one, he will never do so again.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Monday, 25 June 2018.

Monday, 25 June 2018

Emotion, Not Reason, Is Driving New Zealanders’ Attitudes Towards Crime And Punishment.

Who Do You Love? The battle over crime and punishment is largely determined by who emerges from the debate as the primary recipients of New Zealanders' empathy. Do we focus our emotions on the victims of crime, or on rescuing the perpetrators from the circumstances that led them to commit the offences which put them behind bars?

TRYING TO TALK with New Zealanders about crime and punishment is never easy. In our highly punitive culture, people who break the law generally receive very little sympathy from their fellow citizens. For most Kiwis the blunt formula: “you do the crime, you do the time”; is sufficient.

Asking New Zealanders why some people “do the crime” usually elicits an equally blunt explanation. Criminals are “bad bastards” – pure and simple. In vain do reformers point to the offenders’ dysfunctional upbringings: to the violence and abuse that more often than not has surrounded them since birth. The stock rejoinder thrown back in these “do-gooders” faces is: “Look, I know plenty of people who had difficult childhoods, but none of them ever stabbed a dairy-owner or raped and murdered a teenage girl.”

The reformers’ job is made even harder by the ordinary New Zealander’s genuine empathy for the victims of crime. Nothing inflames New Zealand’s “sleepy hobbits” like the handing down of a prison-sentence deemed manifestly inadequate to the severity of the offence.

The name “Sensible Sentencing” captures this phenomenon brilliantly. Conjured-up is the negative image of an over-educated liberal judge who has clearly paid far more attention to the report of some away-with-the-fairies psychiatrist than he has to the impact statements of the victim and/or her family. In the eyes of these citizens, a “sensible” sentence invariably involves locking-up the perpetrator and throwing away the key.

It does no good to point out that putting a bad person in prison almost never results in a better person coming out. “We don’t put them in prison to make them better”, say the sensible sentencers. “We put them inside to give their victims some justice and to keep the rest of us safe.”

Most of the people who say this sort of thing have absolutely no idea what a real prison is like – never having spent so much as a single hour locked-up in a concrete cell. They’ve never experienced the loss of personal liberty. Never been caged. Never faced an endless procession of grey, featureless days punctuated only by shattering displays of human cruelty. Never had to endure emotional and physical pain without the slightest prospect of care or solace.

Ensuring that most people never find out what prison is really like is one of the key objectives of those who seek to profit out of the incarceration of human-beings. For the big corporations behind private prisons, keeping the focus on the victims of crime is crucial.

All parents at one time or another fear for their children’s safety – imagining the very worst when they don’t come home on time. That’s why it’s so easy for them to empathise with those whose loved ones really have been injured or killed. Directing the fear and anger generated by violent crime against its perpetrators and those who defend them is a lot easier than trying to make the public understand what gave rise to the offending in the first place. The very last thing the private prisons lobby want people to say about the person in the dock is: “There, but for the grace of God, goes my son or daughter.” Or, even worse: “That could have been me.”

Keeping the focus away from the grim realities of incarceration also serves those with a vested interest in downplaying the whole question of the rights of accused persons. If people knew what being locked-up was like, then they’d be very careful to ensure that the presumption of innocence was respected and upheld.

It was the famous English jurist, Sir William Blackstone, who said: It is better that ten guilty persons escape than that one innocent suffer. It is perhaps the greatest achievement of New Zealand’s Sensible Sentencing Trust that the present reality of dozens of innocent persons spending months in remand cells for offences they will later be acquitted of does not enrage the New Zealand public. Their motto would appear to be: “It is better that ten innocent people remain locked-up than that one guilty person re-offends on bail.”

In a social climate such as this it is quite pointless to simply enjoin the government of the day to “do the right thing” and empty out the remand prisons, or, to bring forward the parole eligibility for those prisoners convicted of non-violent offences. Were the government to respond positively to such appeals its political opponents would have a field-day. “Look at them!”, the conservative politicians would scream. “They’re letting these criminals walk free!” The inevitable political backlash would almost certainly be fatal.

What’s required is a well-considered and well-funded campaign to bring home the realities of crime and punishment: the conditions that breed offending and the circumstances in which convicted offenders are expected to rehabilitate themselves. Such a campaign should aim to recruit not just lawyers and criminologists, but journalists, novelists, playwrights and screenwriters. Rousing human empathy is as much a mission for the arts as it is for the sciences – maybe even more so.

Watching movies like Twelve Angry Men, Dead Man Walking and The Shawshank Redemption will likely win more converts to the cause of improving our criminal justice system and the prisons it fills than reading lengthy learned articles in academic journals. On the vexed question of New Zealanders’ attitudes towards crime and punishment, reason, unaided by emotion, will never be enough.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 22 June 2018.