Bring On The Dialectic: Politics without conflict isn’t politics. For Ika's "Table-Talk" evenings to work, there need to be speakers seated on both sides.
I’VE BEEN RACKING MY BRAIN ever since Tuesday evening, trying to work out what went wrong.
The occasion was another of the Ika Seafood Bar & Grill’s “Table-Talks”. On the face of it, I should have come away from the event feeling intellectually replete. Our hosts for the evening, TV3 journalists Mike McRoberts and Paula Penfold, as seasoned professionals, were well-placed to handle the two-and-fro of discussion. The invited panel of speakers: war correspondent, Jon Stephenson; former Green Party spokesperson on foreign affairs and defence issues, Keith Locke; and the General Manager of the Changemakers Refugee Forum, Tayyaba Khan; brought considerable experience and expertise to the question “New Zealand at War: Where are we and what are we doing there.” And yet, I came away feeling intellectually famished. Why?
The answer I’ve arrived at, after mulling the question over for 72 hours, is rather convoluted, so please, bear with me, while I try to explain.
In my opinion, all politics is adversarial. So, if I find myself at an event and there’s no conflict, then, whatever’s happening, it isn’t politics. On Tuesday, for example, nobody questioned the fundamental premise of the topic under discussion – that New Zealand is at war. Nor was there any disagreement about why New Zealand military personnel are stationed in the Middle East. It was simply assumed that this was the price of admission to John Key’s “Five Eyes Club”. That this is not a Club New Zealand should belong to, and that, anyway, the admission price is much too high, was not disputed.
The audience did not object. Indeed, there was almost complete accord between what the panellists were saying, and what the audience believed to be true. Boiled down to its essentials, this could be summarised as: War is a very bad thing. It inflicts terrible and ineradicable injuries upon bodies and souls. This, in turn, produces a downward spiral into ever more horror and violence. New Zealanders, therefore, should have nothing to do with war – except to offer as much help as possible to its victims.
The audience had arrived at Ika with these opinions, and, as far as I could determine, they left with them either unchanged or considerably reinforced. Which meant that, for me, nothing political had occurred. The participants had applauded a series of eloquent and heart-felt reiterations of views with which they strongly agreed. No one was challenged. No one was forced to defend their beliefs.
War is, indeed, a very bad thing. Thank you for coming, and have a safe journey home.
Consider the impact of the following, counterfactual, Table-Talk.
The first speaker, a military historian, openly disputes the assertion that New Zealand is at war. He asserts that the dispatch of a fraction of New Zealand’s small, highly professional, defence force as advisers to the armed forces of the Republic of Iraq, in no way meets the definition of a country at war. He asks his audience to recall what they have been told about life in New Zealand during the first and second world wars, and then to compare the experiences of our parents and grandparents with life in New Zealand today. Can we really say, with any honesty, that this country is at war? Syria, he declares, is at war. New Zealand is not.
He then turns his attention to the question: “What are we doing there?”
Our oil, their sand? Photo by Jon Stephenson
There must be a very good reason, he says, why first Great Britain, and then the United States, have been willing to expend so much blood and treasure over a part of the world distinguished primarily by heat and dust. And, of course, there is a very good reason. A reason which every person in the audience who drove to the restaurant, and who intends to drive home, should be able to guess. The UK and the USA have been interfering in the Middle East for the past 100 years for the very simple reason that – as one American wit put it: “Unaccountably, a huge proportion of our oil has ended up under their sand.”
That would have been more than enough. The introduction of a set of perspectives so radically at odds with those of the Ika audience would have transformed the evening from an opportunity for people to bear witness to a set of pre-agreed articles of faith, to a full-scale political engagement between a handful of military and diplomatic realists and a roomful of neutralists and pacifists. Those articles of faith might have been tested. People’s beliefs would, without question, have been challenged.
Politics without conflict isn’t politics. For Table-Talk to work, there need to be speakers seated on both sides.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Saturday, 18 July 2015.
An informative piece, perhaps the participants knew deep down that though war is horrible and destructive to mankind that there are people who would wish that on mankind. We are a small isolated country that need the "five eyes" as insurance for our future existence. That insurance we have is at a cost but as a country we cannot afford not to pay it. To argue differently is your legal, non violent and unfettered right but fortunately not your dictate.
Sounds like a typical left based discussion with the only real debate as to who is the furtherest left of those present. Interesting that you describe Keith Locke as being from the Greens - I wonder why you failed to mention all the other parties he has been part of! As I recall the Greens were only too eager to see the back of this crank.
As opposed to a typical right based discussion where all sorts of extreme ideas are thrown around and debated from all sides with enthusiasm, where all points of view are encouraged no matter how ridiculous they may seem? Don't make me laugh. Too late!
@ Jigsaw: Sounds like your comments are the usual Rightie wingnut spouts; Long on words -- short on substance.
Its all about oil!!! If there is a weakness to the argument against Middle East involvement from the liberal left its oil. Those benign attendees no doubt left in automobiles, drove home in them and wrung their hands at global warming to boot. Our whole way of life depends upon oil. Mention this and delusional techno fantasies invariably spout forth about carbon neutrality and electric cars. Whether we send troops or not we are all implicated, accessories to the facts.
The proof of our complicity is in whether anybody who attended the meeting has changed just a little bit to reduce that reliance on oil. Somehow I doubt it. I've tried, it's nigh impossible. Is this conundrum what discomforts us, is this what challenges our honesty?
The reasons for the return to military involvement in Iraq are many and complex. It certainly isn't or even primarily just about oil. ISIS,Terrorism, Al Queda, refugee population flows constitute a threat to many nations and ultimately the west. Military involvement by the US, Britain and France means ISIS pays a very high price and loses its leaders and some of its armies. They may find the cost too high.
The military and armies have always existed and even the anti nuclear movement was in part a collection of former militarists and military officers who believed conventional fighting and the option of conventional war was necessary, in itself, as an alternative to political solutions and as alternative to nuclear holocaust. and nuclear weapons had to be reduced or eliminated to make conventional war possible.If the military exists it has to practice and needs to sometimes fight to maintain its skills and keep its tactical doctrines up to date. For say many British armies in the 21C, given their desire to fight and in truth in the case of many officers their desire to actually experience killing ( Joanne Bourke- a praised academic on war was very clear on this) that last thing the British military was going to do was to point out to the British Government the unlikelihood and unrealism of the UK military objectives in Afghanistan and Iran. Given problems of overpopulation, resource shortages and competition for everything from water to women, war remains inevitable and necessary.
In terms of whether New Zealand or even the United States are at war, only in a minor sense, but clearly terrorist actions do remain a threat. The Vietnam war did bring war into every families household in New Zealand and the reality of partial conscription in the USA meant the realities of a country at war was in part experienced, particularly in light of the fact the US had its own domestic internal terrorist problem with its own violent left, throughout the 20C and in the 1920s and 1930s the suppression of the unemployed and left and communuist terrorists was probably just as hard line as in Nazi Germany before 1939, one should study the career of Adele Palmer and consider that President Roosevelt considered General Douglas McArthur a terrifying figure on the domestic right as Huey Long was on the left.
Robert, what you vividly describe is the current state of the Middle East. I don't disagree with your current scenario but the cynic in me says that we (the West) laid the foundation for the current situation through our desire for oil. If there was no oil today we would avoid any involvement.
For the historic record the USA was the first oil superpower based on domestic production that peaked in the 1970s. Since then their interest in the Middle East reserves is because these oil reserves despite claims to the contrary underpin the US economy. It would not matter where the oil came from, the USA will do anything to control the supply. That is the root of all current regional symptoms. Prior the British controlled the Iraqi oil militarily simply because the Royal Navy converted to oil. Without the navy Empire was impossible. To enable this Britain ruthlessly occupied Iraq militarily whenever it was deemed necessary. .
Sounds like the usual Red radio discussions where everyone is sooo politically correct and there is little actual debate. Similar to the series of 'debates' that they held on the Treaty that went absolutely nowhere unless you really wanted to know what the left thought were the correct number of angels that could dance on a pin. A debate involves two sides Davo-unless of course you think that there is only one side.......somehow I think you do.
Wish I'd been there and made it political for you, but why didn't you play devil's advocate to liven up the evening?
I would had said not only are we not at war but nearly the entire population of the earth are not at war and for more than a generation fewer people have died from war than in all human history.
Further, what wars there are currently almost all stem from the failure of Islam and the countries blighted by that awful cult-like pestilence resisting the freedom, enlightenment and humanity the West has spread around the rest of the planet; the exception being those caused by Russia, that other failed culture, wrecked by 100 years of communists like Locke ...
That would probably have unleashed great fear and loathing and the gnashing of teeth and made your night, and theirs. No thanks would be required. All part of the service I provide for the left: trying to cheer them up.
As opposed to the usual right wingnut radio discussions where the 'host' shouts over the top of everybody who disagrees with him and cuts off their microphone? A debate does indeed involve two sides :-). And this one is giving me a number of laughs.
looking for a stimulating topic for your next meeting?
...the answer may be 42
Chris - the middle east is where Jesus buried America's oil.
Btw - came across this recently. A bit of the historical perspective.
Steven Pinker has been criticised for his conclusions. Often by right-wingers funnily enough :-). Interesting that. Personally I think there are a number of weaknesses in his argument. Particularly in the figures for pre-20th-century wars. Armies used to spread disease among civilians. And I'm not sure that he counts that sort of thing. For instance a Spanish army marching from Spain to the Netherlands is alleged to have caused 1 million people to die. With today's medical technology this wouldn't happen. There has also been some argument about his prehistorical murder rates, but I don't know a great deal about that. Maybe I'll look it up. One reasonably cogent criticism is that when you considering murder, you also have to consider medical technology. Someone has suggested that if we had 1970s medical technology today, the murder rate would be 10 times greater. Food for thought.
But even Pinker admits that he's not into predicting the future. For all we know violence goes in cycles. And of course he conveniently starts his "long peace" AFTER 1945.
As one Yank once said, "That's our oil under their sand!"
Staring in the mirror again Jigsaw?
I think we might be over estimating the oil, and underestimating the influence of the religious right here. The US is pretty much self-sufficient in oil these days. Although of course it takes time for this to register on foreign policy. But even so, the religious right pretty much wants war in the Middle East, because it fits in with their apocalyptic worldview. It will in theory lead to the end of days and the rapture.
It's not about self-sufficiency GS, it's about control of all the oil. Iraq was about oil and that Sadd had shut the UK/US oil companies out of his patch and Fort Israel plays a part too. Gotta have the Govts. of the west Asian countries all friendly and welcoming to Israel with open arms. Israel was the last great Oklahoma Land Grab.
"as one American wit put it: “Unaccountably, a huge proportion of our oil has ended up under their sand.”
Whose oil whose land whose sovereignty a bit like us and the Chinese except its milk not oil with us "
Yes that sums it up and add the repair of the 100 yr misunderstanding with the Turks as to why we ever went to Gallipoli As the turks are important brokers in this, is some cheeky prick going to lever them as well better not send Key Mccully or Groser sure to put their foot in it and send us back to Gallipoli
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