Friday 29 November 2013

Holy Folly

David and Goliath Struggle: Critics of Greenpeace have condemned its latest protest against deep sea oil drilling as folly. But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for.
BE CAREFUL what you wish for, Prime Minister. If the New Zealand electorate has shifted as far to the left as the polls show the British and American electorates shifting, a Labour Party committed to re-nationalising the partially-privatised energy SOEs and Air New Zealand may not be as unpopular as you think. By the same token, Mr Cunliffe: “Profligate Communist!” may not be the insult you assume it to be.
Across the world, but especially in the developed world, there is a growing sense of enough being enough. Enough inequality. Enough unemployment. Enough insecurity. Enough retrenchment. Enough austerity. Enough of swallowing the lie that all of these things are as immutable as the seasons. Unalterable. Just the way it is.
“Enough of that!” People are saying. “What was made by Man can be changed by Man.”
Enough is enough.
It’s been slow to arrive in New Zealand. Nearly three decades of bipartisan agreement on the essentials of neoliberal economic policy have seen to that. A whole generation has grown up believing that this is as good as it gets. That the Reserve Bank Act, the Public Finance Act, the State Sector Act and the Employment Contracts/Relations Act – like the stone tablets Moses brought down from Mt Sinai – are laws written by God.
But the problem with raising up a massive, all-embracing, hegemonic structure is that, eventually, it has to deliver. People will tolerate a slow start – especially if the system being replaced held sway for a long time and embedded its values deep in the national psyche. At some point, however, the new system has got to work. And by “work” the average person means “work for everyone – not just a privileged few”.
Thirty years has been more than enough time for the neoliberal system to have proved its worth. That it has delivered the world we live in today argues pretty decisively against it being much more than a mechanism for making the rich richer and the rest of us wretched.
The newspapers and the electronic media may tell us that things are not as bad as they seem, and that, really, our government’s “common-sense” policies are working splendidly; but their spin is counter-spun by our lived experience. The content of our day-to-day lives is constantly constructing a powerful “counter-hegemony”. We “just know” that things are not getting better.
And, knowing this, we are constantly bemused, amazed and (more recently) aggrieved that the political parties purporting to offer a challenge to the status-quo do not seem to be aware of it. Or, even if they are aware of it, remain steadfastly unwilling to embrace the sort of policies that might do something about it.
Mr Cunliffe’s unwillingness to be labelled a “Profligate Communist” reveals the power that neoliberalism still wields over New Zealand’s political class. Every editor, every political journalist and commentator in the country would declare his unequivocal pledge to renationalise the energy SOEs utter folly – and the Leader of the Labour Party has balked at the prospect.
But, in a world made miserable by the “wisdom” of our neoliberal masters, “folly” may be exactly what people are looking for in a Labour leader. The “holy folly” that inspired the Saints: that prompted Martin Luther to nail his manifesto of protest to the cathedral door; that kept Rosa Parks in her seat, immovable, on a Montgomery bus.
We New Zealanders have a soft spot for that sort of holy foolishness. It’s why we cheered when Norman Kirk dispatched a frigate to Mururoa. It’s why we applauded when hundreds of little boats sailed out to blockade the nuclear warships of the US Navy. It’s why, deep down, and in spite of all the sneers and jeers, we are willing Greenpeace’s little flotilla to stay the distance and succeed.
When we see the size of the drilling vessel: the way it dwarfs the little craft that have sailed into Anadarko’s forbidden zone to bear witness against the reckless gamble that is deep sea oil; something in us reaches out to them – law or no law.
“This will not stand”, whispers the voice of holy folly. And then, loud enough to disturb his whole Government, that same voice makes a second promise: one our Prime Minister was certain he would never hear – and now recoils from:
“They will not stand alone.”
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 29 November 2013.

Tuesday 26 November 2013

Colin Craig's Conservatives: A Noxious Political Potpourri

Me, Myself, I: If Colin Craig's Conservative Party was a book we'd call it a vanity publication. The question New Zealanders need to be asking the National Party is: "Why is this country's second oldest political party contemplating an alliance with the purpose-built political vehicle of a disturbingly reactionary millionaire?"

IF THE CONSERVATIVE PARTY was a book we’d call it a vanity publication. Born of successful Auckland businessman’s, Colin Craig’s, decision to enter politics, it was never meant to be anything more than a reliable vehicle for its creator’s messianic ambitions.
At the 2011 General Election Mr Craig’s Conservatives outspent the Labour Party by more than $100,000. In spite of this lavish expenditure ($1.8 million!) the party garnered just 59,237 votes (2.7 percent). Putting that another way: Mr Craig and his followers spent a staggering $13.71 for every Conservative Party vote!
Now, in normal circumstances, that information would probably have been filed under “A fool and his money are soon parted”. But in the political circumstances of 2013, Mr Craig’s 2.7 percent of the Party Vote is not so easily dismissed.
Not when the Prime Minister, John Key, fears losing the 2014 election because his government’s current support parties attract insufficient support to carry him across the finish line. What the Prime Minister needs is a new support party – one with considerably more electoral energy than the largely spent political forces currently keeping him in office.
Enter, Stage Right, the Conservative Party. If Mr Craig could somehow be assured of winning an electorate seat, he would, on current polling figures, bring with him up to four additional MPs. These would more than compensate for any decline in the parliamentary contingents of Act, United Future and the Maori Party.
Small wonder, then, that over the past week or so the Prime Minister has been doing his best to talk-up Mr Craig’s self-published electoral book. If enough “punters out there in Punterland” (as his predecessor, Dr Don Brash, dubbed the electorate) can be persuaded to vote Conservative, Mr Key’s electoral bacon may yet he saved.
This prime-ministerial promotion of Colin Craig raises a number of disturbing questions about the health of New Zealand’s democracy. Not the least of these is why a responsible Prime Minister, the leader of one of New Zealand’s oldest political parties, would make the slightest effort to encourage Mr Craig’s political ambitions?
The Conservative Party is Mr Craig’s personal creation, and like the creations of the Christian God he worships, it bears a more than passing resemblance to its maker. Now, were Mr Craig blessed with the wisdom of Jehovah that would be no bad thing, but, alas, Mr Craig is very far from being the fount of all wisdom. On the contrary, both he and his party present an amalgam of some of the least respectable political ideas on offer.
It is Mr Craig’s view that parents should be at liberty to assault their own children. That all citizens should possess firearms and be entitled to use them with deadly effect against intruders. That our daughters are the most promiscuous in the world. That anthropogenic global warming is neither a significant, nor even likely, cause of climate change. That homosexual attraction is a matter of personal choice. The list, lamentably, goes on and on. A noxious political potpourri uplifted from the more disreputable elements of the American Religious Right.
Why would a responsible, twenty-first century New Zealand prime minister have anything to do with a person whose political philosophy is so antiquated that calling it “medieval” would pay it an unwarranted compliment?
Were the Conservative Party the legitimate offspring of New Zealand’s long-standing conservative traditions; and were it peopled by ordinary, decent defenders of the values and institutions upon which New Zealand was founded and which have underpinned her prosperity, then the prospect of it entering into a workable political alliance with the National Party’s nascent liberalism would not be in the least bit daunting.
But the Prime Minister knows that Colin Craig’s Conservative Party is no such thing. Indeed, if Mr Craig is to be believed, his creation isn’t really intended to conduct itself as a political party at all. The Conservatives’ role, rather, is to facilitate government by binding citizens’ initiated referenda.
Can it really be the case that the National Party is contemplating an electoral alliance, and even entering into a governing coalition, with the vanity project of a man who is seriously advocating the abolition of our representative form of government and its replacement with the crudest form of plebiscitary democracy?
Has Mr Key not asked himself why Mr Craig favours government by referendum? Does he not see that it is by such means that the Conservative leader hopes to erect a system which renders impotent all the virtues of parliamentary discussion and debate; all the persuasive power of social and scientific research; all the sage advice and collective wisdom of the many interest groups and institutions that comprise our pluralistic society?
Mr Craig’s Conservatives intend to bring our representative democracy to book. The book which Mr Craig has written, unaided and alone.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 November 2013.

Friday 22 November 2013

Outflanked On The Left - By The Voters!

Public Service Notice: Across the Western World there is evidence that the political parties ostensibly standing for progressive change are being comprehensively outflanked by their own supporters - on the Left. Is it possible that the people are becoming more radical than the politicians "representing" them?
WITH LABOUR’S POLL NUMBERS FALTERING, there will undoubtedly be much agitated discussion in the Office of the Leader of the Opposition.
“What’s wrong with everybody?!” David Cunliffe’s advisers will wail. “Why didn’t anyone like KiwiAssure? What was not to like about a state-owned insurance company? What on earth do people want!?”
Well, if the news from abroad is anything to go by, they want a good deal more than the cautious gestures they’ve seen so far. Indeed, if the research published recently in both the United Kingdom and the United States is correct, a substantial chunk of the electorate is willing to embrace economic and social policies that are genuinely and unashamedly radical.
A YouGov survey for the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class) think tank, carried out at the end of last month, showed that UK voters “strongly supported support state-imposed price controls on the utilities, re-nationalisation of the railways and Royal Mail, an end to private cash in the public sector and even state power to regulate rents”.
Putting it bluntly: a solid majority of the UK electorate is well to the left of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party.
Nick Assinder, the political editor of the IBTimes, summed up the poll results rather incredulously with the observation: “[I]f the findings continue to be borne out as the general election campaign moves into top gear, and if Labour takes them to heart, it could spark the sort of ideological debate which Britain has not seen since the late 1970s and 1980s – for good or ill.”
Something similar would appear to happening on the other side of the Atlantic. New polling from Hart Research Associates, undertaken on behalf of Americans For Tax Fairness, indicates a strong, pundit-confounding, public appetite for imposing higher taxes on the rich.
On the liberal website, Campaign For America’s Future, blogger Richard Eskow writes: “As that covert recording of Mitt Romney showed last year, some of the ‘1 percent’ think other Americans aren’t pulling their own weight in this economy. As this new polling confirms, the feeling’s mutual. By a seventeen point margin (56 percent to 39 percent), the American people want the next budget agreement to include new tax revenues from corporations and the wealthy.”
One of the reasons David Cunliffe won the leadership of the Labour Party was the widely held view among the party’s rank-and-file that he – alone of all his rivals – “got” this. On the day he announced his candidacy, his “You betcha!” response to a question about raising taxes on the rich had thrilled not just his Labour Party followers, but a large portion of the wider electorate.
At Labour’s annual conference, held in Christchurch at the beginning of this month, considerable behind-the-scenes diplomacy went into blunting the sharper edges of policy proposals from branch members and union affiliates who had taken Mr Cunliffe’s radicalism at face value. For the most part, the radicals were happy to oblige – not wanting their man to be embarrassed in front of a sceptical news media.
But, if the trends from abroad are any guide, smoothing off the radical edges of Labour’s policy platform was exactly the wrong thing to do. If Mr Cunliffe would improve his political fortunes, he should think about sharpening – not blunting – his party’s attack on the status-quo.
The Labour Caucus, too, needs to summon up the courage to abandon what may turn out to have been its entirely unnecessary caution. It is one thing to protect the party leader from stepping beyond the limits of the electorate’s tolerance; quite another to stand between the voters and the radical policies they’re hungering for. Neoliberalism has been weighed in the balance and found wanting – Labour MPs should not attempt to second-guess the zeitgeist.
Bill Clinton’s campaign-team’s note-to-self: “It’s the economy, stupid!” has become the stuff of US political folklore – and a potent reminder to stay focused on voter priorities.
Perhaps Mr Cunliffe’s note-to-self should be: “Radical policies for a radicalised electorate!”
This essay was originally published by The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 November 2013.

Tuesday 19 November 2013

Worse Than It Looked

Bringing Out The Worst: For reading the words of Yeb Sano, a Philippines' delegate to the Warsaw conference on Climate Change, into the parliamentary record, the Greens' co-leader, Russel Norman, elicited howls of outrage from the National Government's MPs. Their response is emblematic of the Right's growing contempt for science and the evidence-based reasoning that underpins it.
LAST WEEK’S UNCOUTH DISPLAY by National Party MPs revealed as much about its authors as its target – Dr Russel Norman. It spoke of a political mindset quite unable to distinguish occasions when rowdy interjection is appropriate, from those when it most emphatically is not. More than that, however, it exposed an unwillingness – now alarmingly widespread among conservative politicians – to accept the findings of empirical science.
The Green Party’s co-leader had risen to add his party’s response to a parliamentary statement expressing New Zealanders’ sympathy and support for the Filipino victims of Super-Typhoon Haiyan. In doing so he drew heavily on the comments of Yeb Sano, a member of the Philippines delegation to the international conference on climate change in Warsaw.
Speaking to his fellow delegates just hours before, Mr Sano had declared:
Passionate Advocacy: Climate Change Conference Delegate, Yeb Sano, spoke for the people of the super-typhoon-ravaged Philippines, demanding international action to curb anthropogenic global warming: "If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
“I speak for my delegation. But more than that, I speak for the countless people who will no longer be able to speak for themselves after perishing from the storm … We can take drastic action now to ensure that we prevent a future where super typhoons are a way of life.
“Because we refuse, as a nation, to accept a future where super typhoons like Haiyan become a fact of life. We refuse to accept that running away from storms, evacuating our families, suffering the devastation and misery, having to count our dead, become a way of life. We simply refuse to.”
Dr Norman’s intention in quoting extensively from Mr Sano’s speech was to draw his parliamentary colleagues attention to the fact that Super-Typhoon Haiyan wasn’t simply an Act of God but a terrifying example of what climate scientists call “anthropogenic global warming”. In other words, that it was a man-made disaster. And if the New Zealand Parliament was not to find itself expressing sorrow and support for the victims of climate change with ever-increasing frequency, then its members would have to respond to Mr Sano’s urgent plea for action.
Quoting a student hero of the Philippines’ long and bloody struggle for democracy, Mr Sano had challenged the Warsaw delegates:
“If not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”
A more mature National Party would have listened to the quoted words of this Filipino scientist in  respectful silence. Startled, perhaps, that a member of the House had moved beyond the platitudes that traditionally accompany such ritual expressions of sympathy, but willing, nevertheless, to at least try to understand why he was stepping beyond the norm.
But, because the words of scientists no longer command the respect of conservatives, the National Party members of the House (including at least one Cabinet Minister) began braying like tethered asses for Dr Norman to resume his seat. Such incivility has, sadly, become reflexive on the right of politics – especially when anyone attempts to engage its representatives in serious discussion about the consequences of anthropogenic global warming.
The contrast between these Tory “know-nothings” and “climate-change deniers” and the leading conservatives of fifty years ago is stark. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of Sputnik in October 1957 had so shocked the United States that the Eisenhower Administration felt it had no option but to defy the ingrained religious obscurantism of huge swathes of the American Right and embark on a campaign to place science and its myriad applications (not least its military spin-offs) at the centre of American life. If science reigned to such obviously good effect in Red Russia, argued the President’s advisers, then it must also rule in the Land of the Free.
The debt we owe the extraordinary era of scientific competition between the USSR and the USA is huge. Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what the world of 2013 would look like had it never happened.
The vast expansion of scientific research and development did, however, bring with it an extremely worrying political problem. How to ensure that the revelations of science – the outcome of rational thought and disciplined experimentation – would be received by equally rational and disciplined politicians? If the findings of science contradicted the deeply-held prejudices of politicians, then which of the two – the scientist or the politician – would be required to step back?
In a 2012 article for The New Yorker, Ryan Lizza quoted Thomas Mann, of the Brookings Institution, and Norman Ornstein, of the conservative American Enterprise Institute, from their book, It’s Even Worse Than It Looks:
“One of our two major parties, the Republicans, has become an insurgent outlier—ideologically extreme, contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime, scornful of compromise, unpersuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science, and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”
Following last week’s uncouth display, it is clear that, when it comes to rational right-wing responses to anthropogenic global warming, it’s looking pretty bad here too.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 19 November 2013.

Friday 15 November 2013

A Disturbing Precedent

GUILTY MEN? Tried and convicted in the Court of Public Opinion for their insensitive questioning of "Amy", a friend of one of the "Roastbusters'" victims, Maori broadcasters Willie Jackson and John Tamihere were taken off the air. Radio Live's decision was assisted by massive criticism from social media and direct pressure on the radio station's advertisers. But, were Willie and JT's failings personal or cultural? Is it pure coincidence that their Pakeha colleagues - also guilty of insensitivity in relation to the Roastbusters scandal - have escaped Willie's and JT's fate?
AM I ALONE, amidst all the liberal self-congratulation at the silencing of Willie Jackson and John Tamihere, in experiencing a chill of foreboding? Has no one else on the Left paused for a moment to consider what manner of precedent this appeal to advertisers may have set? Has no thought been given to how – or even if – the demise of The Willie & JT Show can be reconciled with the NZ Bill of Rights’ guarantee of freedom of expression?
Because there can be little doubt that the decision by so many businesses to withdraw their advertising from Radio Live was prompted by the implicit threat of a consumer boycott of their products if they didn’t. Bluntly, the proposition put to Radio Live amounted to: “Take these guys off the air, or, first off, we’ll hurt your advertisers; and then we’ll hurt you.”
And it worked. Messrs Jackson and Tamihere have been silenced and their show shut down for at least two months. They have been tried in the Court of Public Opinion for expressing opinions and evincing attitudes that a great many New Zealanders deem to be not only objectionable but dangerous. They have been found guilty and punished.
But, when you think about it, they didn’t really get a fair trial – did they?
In a fair trial they would have been asked why they treated the young woman caller, Amy, the way they did. Were their questions about her friend’s attire and the amount of alcohol she’d consumed framed deliberately, to inflict maximum harm and humiliation? Or were they merely reflective of the values and assumptions that characterised the circumstances in which her inquisitors were raised?
At a fair trial, someone might have posed the question: “Is it more or less likely that Willie’s and JT’s alleged “misogyny” reflected a predisposition toward deliberate cruelty? Or, was it the product of deeply ingrained misconceptions about sexuality and gender?” And, if we’re willing to concede that it might have been the latter, then hasn’t the discussion moved on from failings that are personal, to responses that may be cultural?
At a fair trial, Willie’s and JT’s defence attorney might even have tried to turn the story around to where it was no longer about sexism but racism. Because the charge of rape, when levelled against a black man, carries with it all manner of disreputable historical baggage.
What did Willie and JT see when 3 News broke the Roastbusters story? Two young brown faces. What did they hear? Middle-class Pakeha liberals baying for their blood. To what did their first thoughts turn? Rape Culture or Lynch Law?
And the sad fact is, there could have been a fair trial – or, at least, a free exchange of views about the many issues raised by the Roastbusters scandal. Had the first instinct of Willie's and JT’s critics been to ask Radio Live for an opportunity to go head-to-head with them on air; to challenge their ideas about young women and rape; then the result might well have been a week’s worth of productive and progressive dialogue. But that is not what happened. Rather than korero, the left-wing social media’s first instinct was to condemn, threaten, punish and shut down.
And now that they have tasted blood; now that they have fixed the heads of these two high-profile Maori “misogynists” above the gates of their virtual Utopia; listen to what some in the left-wing social media believe it to mean:
“Old media Radio Live have been damaged by the new media blogs. The power of Twitter and Facebook allows a focused roar from the crowd to descend with crushing force on whatever target it decides to destroy. It’s trial by social media.”
Now, I’m pretty sure that the author of those sentences, The Daily Blog editor, Martyn Bradbury, did not intend them to sound quite so triumphant. Because the situation he is describing in no way merits self-congratulation. Nor is it one which any leftist worthy of the name will approach with equanimity.
Freedom of expression is absolutely basic to any movement which places challenging the status quo at the core of its political practice. In denying that freedom to Willie Jackson, John Tamihere and Radio Live, the Left has set a precedent upon which, at the first opportunity, a vengeful Right will pounce.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 15 November, 2013.

Tuesday 12 November 2013

Rescuing Us Right Back: Further Reflections On The Roastbusters Scandal

Rescuing Each Other: Between them, the early medieval troubadours and their aristocratic patronesses of Southern France created a new and enduring cultural style: the Ideal of Courtly Love. For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
THEY CAME FROM THE SOUTH, wandering the rough roads and sweeping beaches of Aquitaine. Bringing with them all the news and scandal of the day and singing long strange tales to the rhythm of a tabor and the ripples of a harp. They were the troubadours: half journalists, half rock-stars; and wholly welcome in the castle-based culture of Southern France during the eleventh and twelfth centuries.
As often as not those castles were ruled by women. With their lords far away, settling old feudal scores; or even further afield, crusading in the Holy Land; these ladies found themselves temporary matriarchs. They may have been ruling over men in their husband’s name, but they were ruling nonetheless.
Out of these two – the troubadours and the matriarchs – emerged a new cultural style that was to influence the relationship between the sexes for centuries to come: the ideal of courtly love; chivalry; romanticism.
Powerfully influenced by the sparkling cultures of Islamic Spain and Sicily, this new cultural style was aimed directly at the uncouth brutality of the fiercely patriarchal societies of Northern Europe. From across the Pyrenees the troubadours brought glimpses of a world where manhood was not defined entirely by the violent assertion of power and control, but by how completely he was able to enter the life of the mind. To read, to write, to make music, to patronise beauty and knowledge: these were accomplishments of which men could also be proud. Yes, and women, too.
Women were the key, the means by which a feudal brute could be transformed into a courteous knight. The Ideal of Courtly Love challenged men to seek out and savour all the qualities that a warrior culture despises: tenderness, vulnerability, longing, patience, generosity and sacrifice.
Patriarchy rejects these emotions precisely because they are the qualities it associates most closely with the world of women. Were men to open themselves to these experiences, then interaction between the sexes would at once become both more intelligible and more equal, and the rigid barriers of patriarchy would crumble.
It was this, the revolutionary potential of courtly love, that inspired Eleanor of Aquitaine (Queen to both the King of France and of England) and her daughter, Marie, the Countess of Champagne, to champion courtly love throughout the courts of Europe. Aristocratic feminists they may have been (did serfs even have feelings?) but the cultural style which they and their troubadour propagandists promoted has, over the intervening millennium, become a defining motif of Western culture.
For a thousand years in the West it has been possible to like and respect women, seek out and enjoy their company, heed their advice – and still be considered a man.
Modern feminists tend to give the Ideal of Courtly Love short shrift. Queen Eleanor and her troubadours have largely been denounced for “putting women on a pedestal” which, according to their latter-day sisters, confers upon women an entirely spurious superiority, rather than the equality that is theirs by right. “Benevolent” sexism chivalrous behaviour may be, but it’s still sexism.
In a week during which New Zealand women have become acquainted with all the gut-wrenching details of malevolent sexism, feminism’s swift dismissal of chivalry’s benevolence surely warrants reconsideration? The narrative of courtly love may have been a literary, historical and sociological fiction, but it provided men with a model of “the perfect knight” they could become. By the rules of chivalry, honour and virtue were the consequence of neither a man’s genealogy, nor his wealth, but of his character. A man attained honour by the virtue of his choices.
Where was honour and virtue among the Roastbusters? In a room full of young men made brutes by the fictions of pornography, isn’t it tragic that not even one boy was raised on the fictions of chivalry? Not one young man who, perceiving the evil intent of his companions, recognised damsels in distress and chose to become their perfect knight? Not one 17-year-old boy who chose to, in Matthew Hooton’s anguished father’s appeal to shock-jocks Willie Jackson and John Tamihere: “look after them and get them home safely”?
For all stories have power. As the Canadian producers of a documentary looking into the sexualisation of young women revealed, a huge number of girls are still raised on the fictions of the Disney Corporation. Encouraged to see themselves as little princesses, they grow up expecting their very own Prince Charming.
Sadly, their brothers grow up with very different expectations. Rather than draw inspiration from the chivalrous deeds of King Arthur and his Knights, they revel in the murders and rapes depicted in Game of Thrones.
Perhaps Queen Eleanor and the troubadours were right: in a world of brutal exploitation and violence, men must be encouraged to rescue women. So that women, in their turn, can rescue us right back.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, November 12, 2013.

Friday 8 November 2013

Fathers And Sons

Assumptions Of Complicity: The young men involved in Roastbusters projected a jarring sense of invulnerability: an assumption that their sexual humiliation of young women was just the normal stuff all young men engage in. It was an attitude which received a measure of endorsement from media figures who described the Roastbusters' behaviour as "mischief".

IT WAS THEIR SMIRKS that enraged me the most: the “Roastbusters’” easy assumption that every male in New Zealand was envying them. Telling us: “You want this, too. This is your best fantasy. We’re doing everything you ever dreamed of doing but didn’t – because you never believed anyone could possibly get away with it.”
And there was more.
The mocking expression on these young men’s faces was also saying: “You’re complicit in this because, deep down, you’re just like us. Deep down, your view of women is no different from ours. They’re meat. You chew them up. You spit them out. And if you can organise a bit of a laugh at their expense along the way – then so much the better!”
How has New Zealand raised such sons?
That’s a question only New Zealand’s fathers can answer.
What sort of example have we set?
When New Zealand was governed by a woman, did the nation’s fathers indicate to their sons that this was a state of affairs of which they should be proud? Were they outraged on their sons’ behalf when their workmates and drinking buddies stood around the barbecue making jokes about her looks, her voice, her sexuality – or did they join in the ribald laughter?
Paraphrasing Dr Martin Luther King, did they tell their sons that a woman is to be judged not by the shape of her body, but by the content of her character?
Do New Zealand’s fathers teach their sons that before anybody is male or female; black or white; gay or straight; intelligent or stupid; beautiful or ugly: they are first and always a human-being?
And, since they are human, their irreducible share of humanity’s common inheritance must be acknowledged and respected.
Shakespeare, in The Merchant of Venice, puts into the mouth of his character Shylock, a despised Jewish moneylender, what is perhaps the greatest appeal to our common humanity in all of English literature:
“Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses affections passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”
What is missing from the education of our sons that so many of them seem incapable of even the most basic empathy? Why, when invited to participate in the “Roastbusters” theatre of cruelty, were so many West Auckland boys incapable of imaginatively trading places with the young women they were planning to abuse? What was it that prevented their consciences from shouting out on their pitiably young victims’ behalf: “If you stupefy us, and gang-rape us, and broadcast our humiliation on Facebook? Will we not want to die?”
In attempting to explain the “Roastbusters’” appalling behaviour, many New Zealanders will point to the pornographic images that are now so easily available on the Internet. They will argue that the “message” young men are taking from these staged sexual encounters is that women enjoy being dominated and abused, and that a man is not a man unless he is capable of deriving sexual pleasure from dominating and abusing his female partners.
Given the ubiquity of both the Internet’s pornographic websites and of the devices required to access them, it is surely past time that New Zealand’s teenage men and women were given a more wholesome series of messages regarding not only what they have a right to expect from one another sexually, but also regarding their fundamental human rights.
The “Roastbusters” revelations make it very clear that our secondary schools’ sex education syllabus is in need of urgent revision. Against pornography’s messages of exploitation and abuse we must counterpose the messages of respect, compassion and equality. Not only for our daughters’ safety, but also for our sons’.
This essay was originally published in The Dominion Post, The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 8 November 2013.

Wednesday 6 November 2013

Two Out Of Three Ain't Enough

Number One Of Three: In David Cunliffe Labour now has a leader who is willing to be as radical as his party. Significantly, it is the third leg of the tripod - the Labour Caucus - which is visibly wobbling. The KiwiAssure policy is a worrying case in point. Radical in intent, radical in expression, but disappointingly conservative in execution.

LABOUR’S NEW “KIWIASSURE” policy neatly expresses the party’s current strengths and weaknesses.
At first blush it seems to represent a radical leftward lurch all the way back to the 1970s – as Economic Development Minister, Steven Joyce, gleefully pointed out. Upon closer examination, however, KiwiAssure, is considerably less than it seems.
Before being signed-off by the next Labour-led government, the proposed insurance company will have to pass what finance spokesperson, David Parker, calls a “business test”. Mr Parker also makes it clear that KiwiAssure will not come with a government guarantee.
Now, the average Labour supporter might well object: “What on earth is the point of a state-owned insurance company that will, in every respect that matters, be indistinguishable from its private sector competitors?”
Given the fate of AMI, that same voter might also ask what would motivate the ordinary Kiwi family to put its faith (not to mention its future financial security) in a state-owned insurer that not even its own creator is willing to stand behind?
Radical in its intent; radical in its expression; but deeply conservative in its execution: Kiwiassure is symbolic of a Labour Party whose three key components have yet to mesh together.
At the summit of the Labour Party stands its new leader and his hand-picked team of professional advisers. David Cunliffe has surrounded himself with men and women of considerable talent and experience. Not quite JFK’s Camelot, but certainly a reasonable approximation of Aaron Sorkin’s “The West Wing”.
Mr Cunliffe’s team, and the business people who have agreed to act as his sounding-boards, all display a rare willingness to embrace the radical visions of the “policy aggressor” Labour’s new leader is shaping-up to be.
This radical vision is answered overwhelmingly, and with undisguised enthusiasm, by the Labour Party’s rank-and-file branch members and trade union affiliates. Indeed these latter give Mr Joyce’s quip about the 1970s more than a little substance.
The eighth decade of the twentieth century represented the high-water mark of social-democracy in the post-war era. At the beginning of the 1970s, predictions of capitalism’s imminent demise did not seem at all exaggerated. By their end, social-democratic parties all around the world were in headlong retreat before the extraordinary force of the neoliberal counter-revolution.
As is so often the case with New Zealand, neoliberalism arrived here five years late and on the arm of the most unlikely of promoters. Sir Roger Douglas was also a policy aggressor, but unlike Mr Cunliffe, his aggression was informed by and implemented on behalf of the Right from a strategically pivotal position within a party of the Left.
That made Sir Roger and his followers the most dangerous cuckoos ever to take up residence in Labour’s nest, and it has taken the best part of 30 years to eradicate their legacy within the party organisation.
Observing the party closely since the departure of Helen Clark in 2008 has been a little like watching Rip Van Winkle rousing himself from twenty long years of slumber.
The radicalism which had built up such a head of steam in the Labour Party following the 1981 Springbok Tour, and which helped to generate the record 93.7 percent voter turnout at the 1984 snap election, was brought to a shuddering halt by Rogernomics.
But the civil wars of the 80s and 90s are over and the long reign of Queen Helen has ended. Radical political pressure in the rank-and-file’s boilers is again rising and David Cunliffe is ready to put it to good use.
Which leaves only the third component in Labour’s machine – the Caucus. At the conference just concluded a distressingly large number of Labour MPs put on a display of childish pique that bodes very ill for the party’s future.
This surly, sulking behaviour is driven by the fact that the caucus’s understanding of itself and its role has proved to be the most difficult legacy of Rogernomics to eradicate.
Before Rogernomics, Labour’s caucus arose almost organically from the party organisation: its values and the party’s values being both consistent and compatible. But the imposition of neoliberalism from within the framework of a left-wing political party radically recast the caucus’s role. Rogernomics required Labour MPs to overawe and repress the rank-and-file. Far too many Labour MPs still see their role as bringing the membership into line with their views.
And so we have KiwiAssure: a policy announced by a radical party leader; supported by a radical party membership; but whose final shape was dictated by the doubts and objections of a not at all radical Labour caucus. A caucus that still insists (albeit where neither its leader nor the party’s rank-and-file are listening in) that it knows best.
Meatloaf reckons that “two out of three ain’t bad”, but to win, all three of Labour’s moving parts must be in sync.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 5 November 2013.

A Cold Day In Hell: Motivating the Non-Vote Will Not Be Easy

Politics? ZZZZZZ: New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”

DUNEDIN NIGHTS are often cold, observed James K Baxter in the opening line of his celebrated “Ode To Mixed Flatting”. He should probably have added that the days can be pretty darn chilly as well. Saturday, 14 July 1984 was one such day. In France it was Bastille Day. In New Zealand it was the day of Sir Robert Muldoon’s final folly – the Snap Election. And in Dunedin it was snowing.
I remember the snow because of the old woman who was doggedly making her way through it to the polling-booth. The scene is imprinted on my memory both visually and aurally. That’s because her response to my offer of assistance was not easily forgotten:
“No thank you dear, I’m quite capable of getting rid of that bastard Muldoon all by myself!”
That indomitable old dame was not alone in her determination to have her say that icy election day. The turnout on 14 July 1984 was a staggering 93.7 percent – the highest in our history.
What a contrast we find when we turn from the election of 1984 to the election of 2011. Two years ago there were 3,070,847 New Zealanders registered to join in the precious democratic rituals of electing a government. The number who ended up actually casting a vote, however, was just 2,278,989. At 74.21 percent, the turnout was the lowest since the introduction of universal suffrage in 1893.
Cui bono? Who benefited from this extraordinarily low (by New Zealand standards) turnout? That’s easy. Out of the 2,278,989 citizens who did their democratic duty, an astonishing 1,058,636 voted for John Key’s National Party.
I say astonishing because Mr Key actually increased his party’s share of the vote. From 44.9 percent in 2008 the Government’s plurality jumped to 47.3 percent in 2011. (Interestingly, only 5,238 more actual votes were cast for National, but with the record low turnout that relatively small number was enough to lift the party’s vote-share by an impressive 2.4 percentage points.)
The big question for the 2014 General Election must, therefore, be: Will the number of citizens entering the polling booths return to a figure approximating the average turnout of the past quarter-century (82.6 percent) or will it continue its downward slide towards the much lower participation rates characteristic of the USA and the UK?
Putting the question another way: What will it take to rouse the 791,858 abstainers of 2011 from their political slumber and thus prevent the National Party from winning an outright majority of seats with fewer actual votes than it received in either of the past two elections?
It’s a question that looms much larger for the leader of the Labour Party, David Cunliffe, than it does for the Prime Minister, Mr Key. Those on the right of politics are, by and large, much more conscientious and reliable voters than those who, when they can be bothered voting at all, tend to support the parties of the left.
To win in 2014, Labour must find some way of rousing its dormant electoral base. By contrast, to remain prime minister, Mr Key has only to hold the voters he already has. If Mr Cunliffe cannot devise a strategy which appreciably inflates the turnout of “traditional” Labour voters he cannot hope to defeat the government.
This is an extraordinarily difficult thing to do. New Zealand’s political culture is nothing like as vibrant as it was 25 years ago. Most people have little in the way of contact with either politicians or political parties, and very few remain loyal to the great ideological narratives of the twentieth century. On the contrary, for many electors deciding who to vote for is as simple as asking: “What’s in it for me?”
For the farmer, the business person, the property owner, and the financial investor it’s all pretty straightforward. What’s in it for National’s electoral base is economic growth, low inflation, reduced taxation and a reasonable rate-of-return. What they’re not looking for is more economic regulation, higher taxes, rising prices or inflationary wage demands.
Getting the attention of those who feel that their stake in New Zealand society is much too meagre to matter is a considerably more daunting task. Contemporary politics mocks their lack of anything to lose – not even Marx’s chains.
It will be a cold day in Hell before they vote again.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 1 November 2013.