Tuesday, 18 December 2018

An Absent Mirror: Why Can’t This Country Produce Its Own Political Television Series?

Artistic Intelligence: New Zealand’s film and television industry has produced nothing remotely like the Australians’ highly political series Secret City and Pine Gap. Under examination in both of these series is the vexing problem of how Australia should manage its relationship with the United States of America, on the one hand, and the Peoples Republic of China, on the other.

THE BEST MEASURE of a nation’s maturity is its willingness to submit its biggest challenges to the audit of art. For all their political boorishness, the Aussies can boast a much more favourable auditor’s report than we can. I can’t remember the last time this country committed significant resources to a dramatic examination of its domestic and international political relationships. Certainly, New Zealand’s film and television industry has produced nothing remotely like the Australians’ highly political series Secret City and Pine Gap.

Under examination in both of these series is the vexing problem of how Australia should manage its relationship with the United States of America, on the one hand, and the Peoples Republic of China, on the other. How deeply have the Chinese penetrated Australia’s governing institutions? Is honouring Australia’s security relationship with the USA worth the fundamental destabilisation of the Australian economy which an acrimonious break with China would entail? The first question inspires the plotlines of Secret City; the second, of Pine Gap.

Now, if these questions sound at all familiar, then well done You for keeping abreast of current events! New Zealand’s relationships with China and the United States are similarly fraught with ambiguity and risk. All the more so today, following the emphatically pro-American speech delivered yesterday (16/12/18) by Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, to a high-powered American audience assembled at Georgetown University’s Centre of Australian–New Zealand studies in Washington.

Except we Kiwis have one more player to consider than our Aussie cousins: which is Australia itself. Our countries have been so close, historically, that it is very difficult for ordinary New Zealanders to conceptualise a situation where the Australians might look upon us as something less than a mate. Sure, we spar with one another on the sports field and tell obscene jokes at one another’s expense, but the idea that the Australian political class might already have fallen out of love with their irritating Kiwi cousins would strike most New Zealanders as ridiculous.

But what if the Australian “Deep State” already regards New Zealand as an enemy? It’s a thought more likely to seize the imagination of a novelist, playwright or screen-writer than the average Kiwi citizen. Which is why a mature NZ-on-Air would be badgering this country’s writers for scripts dealing with New Zealand’s growing economic and diplomatic vulnerability in the face of the US-Australia vs China stand-off. Anywhere else but here, Professor Anne-Marie Brady’s run-ins with the Chinese would have commissioning editors salivating. The screen-play is practically writing itself in real time!

But, no, NZ-on-Air doesn’t do political thrillers dealing with the moral duty of the news media to expose the dark deeds of the state security apparatus. Nor will it commission a TV series exploring the consequences of discovering Chinese and/or American “assets” embedded at the heart of our major political parties. As for a series examining the contradictions inherent in having our indispensable security partner asking us to spy on our indispensable economic partner: Good God! What would MFAT say?

The Australians are more fortunate, because the challenges outlined above are precisely the challenges confronted and explored in Secret City and Pine Gap. (Both currently available on Netflix.) Aussie viewers can watch these dramas and argue with friends and family about the issues driving their plots and characters forward. How much room for manoeuvre do our political leaders have between China and America? How far should Australia go in honouring One Hundred Years Of Mateship? If the US fires shots in anger at the Chinese, should Australia do the same? Are we really willing to have the Chinese crash our economy in retaliation?

It’s what grown-up countries do. Think not only of the American and British film and television industries, but of the Danes, the Swedes, the Norwegians and the Irish. Think of Borgen and its international success. Think of Scandi-Noir. These are countries not much bigger than ourselves, but unlike us they have the wit to resource their film and television industries to a level where making series like Borgen becomes something more than the wistful pipe-dream of writers condemned to turning out endless variations of Outrageous Fortune.

Thirty-five years ago the Aussies commissioned a series dealing with one of the most traumatic events in their country’s history – the dismissal of Gough Whitlam’s Labor Government by the then Governor General, Sir John Kerr. The screening of the six hour-long episodes of The Dismissal began on 6 March 1983, the day after Bob Hawke’s Government was elected – the first Labor Government to take office since the bloodless coup d’état that toppled Whitlam’s eight years earlier.

New Zealand television was given the opportunity to perform a similar artistic service in relation to the national trauma of Rogernomics. The renowned novelist and playwright, Dean Parker, pitched a series to the networks exploring the reactions of a typical group of Labour Party members to the devastating “reforms” of the Lange-led Government. Parker’s working title was “The Branch”. The chance was there for a New Zealand audience to confront in Art’s mirror not only the moral and political choices forced upon Labour Party members, but the whole nation.

The networks weren’t interested.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 18 December 2018.

Sunday, 16 December 2018

Lashing Back.

Right Back At You: There is a fond assumption among a great many progressive activists that, having seen their cherished social reforms enacted, they can relax – confident that they will remain in place indefinitely. History’s clock moves only forwards, they reassure themselves, never backwards. Unfortunately, that isn’t true.

SEPTEMBER-ELEVEN was a day of disaster long before 2001. Twenty-eight years earlier, another day, 11 September 1973, was seared into the memory of every Chilean as indelibly and irrevocably as 11 September 2001 burned itself into the retinas of every American.

Skyhawk jets streaked over the Presidential Palace in Santiago and battle tanks rumbled through the capital’s streets. Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected socialist leader, died in his palace. The Chilean people would have to wait seventeen years for the opportunity to choose another.

There were countless tales of violence and oppression on 11 September 1973, but the report which stuck in my memory involved a young woman stopped on the street by a squad of young, keyed-up, soldiers.

“What do you think you’re wearing?” One of the soldiers demanded.

The young woman was at a loss. It was 1973 and she was dressed fashionably in a T-shirt and flared trousers.

“Go home and change into something more befitting a decent young woman.” The oldest of the soldiers gestured with his rifle at the young woman’s trousers. “The days of women dressing like communist whores are over.”

The overthrow of Allende was about a great deal more than his Popular Unity government nationalising Chile’s American-owned copper mines. His democratic socialist policies had generated social changes every bit as radical as the changes unleashed upon the country’s capitalist economy. Women swapping their skirts for trousers was but one of the many challenges to the cultural hegemony of Chile’s profoundly conservative social and religious institutions.

Allende’s government had fatally underestimated the political impact of its cultural challenges. He and his followers had no idea how lightly their changes rested on the popular masses they fondly believed to have been convinced and converted by their policies.

They would find out soon enough. What happened in Chile in the months and years that followed General Augusto Pinochet’s military coup of 11 September 1973 wasn’t quite on the scale of The Handmaid’s Tale, but the conservative cultural backlash it unleashed left the Popular Unity government’s emancipatory social programmes in ruins.

There is a fond assumption among a great many progressive activists that, having seen their cherished social reforms enacted, they can relax – confident that they will remain in place indefinitely. History’s clock moves only forwards, they reassure themselves, never backwards.

Unfortunately, that isn’t true.

The economic hierarchies of capitalist society are the least of progressivism’s worries. Older, and much more difficult to eradicate, are the hierarchies of race and gender. Not all Whites can be rich, but on the ladder of racial privilege they have long celebrated their “superiority” to people of colour. A black man’s path to equality may be blocked by the racial prejudices of his white brothers, but that in no way guarantees he will acknowledge the rights of his sisters.

At a post-SNCC Conference party in 1964, the black activist leader, Stokely Carmichael, infamously described the position of black women in the American civil rights movement as “prone.”

Many progressives do not appreciate how deeply these racial and gender prejudices are embedded in the minds of their fellow citizens. With the power to legislate in their hands, and a like-minded news media happy to promote their causes, progressive political parties are often tempted to overestimate the transformational power of their reforms. The embittered silence of those who feel that their most cherished beliefs have been overridden and ignored is all-too-easily mistaken for consent and approbation by progressive campaigners. It is neither.

To date, New Zealanders have been extremely fortunate in the generally benign character of their country’s dominant populist party – NZ First. Winston Peters is no Viktor Orban; no Rodrigo Duterte; no Jair Bolsonaro. And for that we should all be extremely thankful.

It is by no means certain, however, that this country will be spared the malign effects of vicious right-wing populism forever. A significant downturn in the New Zealand economy; one jarring social reform too many; and, who knows, a frightened, angry and culturally displaced mass of New Zealanders may find their “drummer”.

Nowhere is it written that such politicians are bound to observe the democratic niceties. Indeed, in circumstances where large numbers of New Zealanders believe themselves to be the victims of an arrogant and uncaring “political class”, democracy may be perceived as the problem.

Yellow Vests anyone?

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 14 December 2018.

The Salvation Army’s Latest Report: Identifying the Sins – but not the Solutions.

Onward Christian Soldier: The Salvation Army’s Ronji Tanielu talks to The AM Show’s Duncan Garner about “The State of Our Communities” 2018 report.

THE LATEST “State of Our Communities” report from the Salvation Army exposes a worrying fragility in New Zealand’s social relationships. Behind the happy multicultural façade so beloved of politicians and bureaucrats, racial animosities fester and tensions between competing ethnic communities multiply.

The report (based on hundreds of face-to-face interviews in Kaitaia, Whangarei, Manurewa in Auckland, New Plymouth, Hornby in Christchurch and Timaru) describes rising resentment at the manifest economic inequalities afflicting the Maori population of Northland; tensions between old and new immigrant communities in Auckland; and a South Island Pakeha monoculture struggling to comprehend the meaning and purpose of diversity.

That this racial dimension to the state of our communities has been explicitly recognised in the Army’s report is itself exceptional. The preferred response of New Zealand’s core institutions is to insist that, thankfully, inter-ethnic conflict is a phenomenon alien to our society.

The wonder is, however, that an explosion of racial violence has not already torn Northland apart. Immigrants from South Africa marvel at the province’s apparently effortless separation of the races. What the apartheid system struggled to effect in their homeland, Pakeha Northlanders have achieved without recourse to anything so crude as Pass Laws. Kaikohe is poor and brown. Kerikeri is rich and white. And never the twain shall meet.

What the Army’s interviews reveal, however, is an unwillingness on the part of younger Maori to accept this state of voluntary apartheid. After all, the nation’s official ideology attributes huge value to New Zealand’s indigenous heritage. Unsurprising, then, that the impoverished Maori communities of the North are requiring these Wellington-based bi-culturalists to back their positive rhetoric with tangible resources. Upon the speed and fulsomeness of their response, the maintenance of racial harmony in Northland largely depends.

The arrival of new immigrants from East and South Asia in Auckland suburbs hitherto the preserve of immigrants from the Pacific Islands is similarly testing New Zealand’s multicultural assumptions. Cook Islanders, Niueans, Samoans and Tongans were brought to New Zealand as factory workers and labourers. The entrepreneurial traditions of immigrants arriving from India and China have not always fitted easily into communities hitherto dominated by wage workers.

Compounding these economic divergences are the sharp religious differences between the devoutly Christian Pasifika and the followers of the Hindu, Buddhist and Muslim religious traditions. The rigorous secularism of official New Zealand is singularly ill-equipped to deal with the strong feelings that arise when different religious communities are required to practice their faiths in close proximity.

Pakeha living in the South Island are often bemused at North Islanders’ preoccupation with bi- and multiculturalism. In communities of overwhelmingly pale complexion, which most South Island towns and cities tend to be, it all comes across as vaguely obsessional. The racial homogeneity of provincial centres like Timaru encourages all manner of easy assumptions about what constitutes a “real” New Zealander – along with some potentially dangerous misapprehensions about how easy it is (or should be) for outsiders to “fit in”.

Southern Man’s obtuseness on matters cultural largely explains his preoccupation with the malign effects of inadequate and/or unaffordable housing in his community. There is no clearer manifestation of poverty than homelessness, and nothing breeds fear, anger and resentment faster than the obvious sufferings of the poor.

Overlay that economic distress with the even more terrifying effects of drug-dealing, and the addictions upon which the drug suppliers’ business model depends, and you have a sure-fire recipe for continuously escalating social anxieties revealing themselves in periodic outbreaks of moral panic.

The severity of these panics is accentuated by the tendency of racially and/or economically homogenous middle-class communities (in both islands) to give the manufacture, distribution and sale of illegal drugs a luridly racial cast. If it’s not the shadowy members of Chinese triads and Mexican drug cartels, it’s the scary bros from Black Power and the Mongrel Mob doing the business. That the organised criminals controlling the New Zealand drug trade – especially the scourge of methamphetamine – are, overwhelmingly, wealthy Pakeha, is a fact too frightening for their middle-class neighbours to acknowledge.

In its essence, the Salvation Army’s report contributes yet another collection of personal testimonies to the multitude already enumerating the unrelenting social cruelties of capitalism. Not that the Army couches its analysis in such godlessly Marxist terms. This is, after all, a Christian denomination determined to demonstrate the redemptive power of faith in action. “Thy Kingdom come”, enjoins the Lord’s Prayer, “Thy will be done on Earth, as it is in Heaven.” The Sallies try to do good one family, one person, one soul, at a time.

Yet even these Good Samaritans in uniform cannot ignore entirely the systemic character of the sins they are pledged to wage war against. The correlation of high numbers of Maori with high levels of poverty; of high levels of poverty with high levels of homelessness and drug abuse; is difficult to miss.

The hardest test for any Christian is to locate the source of human wickedness. Attributing the ills of society to the moral weakness of their victims is always easier than fighting those who made the wrong too strong to resist. Though they call themselves an army, the Sallies have, historically, tended to go to war against the symptoms of sin. Vanquishing the causes of human distress: imperialism, racism, economic exploitation; poverty and social despair; they prefer to leave to God.

To date, not a conspicuously successful strategy for replicating Heaven on Earth.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 14 December 2018.

Wednesday, 12 December 2018

Normalising The Unthinkable.

Dark Imaginings: That more and more novelists and screen-writers are reaching for the deadly virus plot-line reveals an alarming shift in the zeitgeist. Slowly but unmistakably, the mood of the world’s artists is darkening. Few now are willing to embrace the heroic hopefulness of a Tolkien. Indeed, the twenty-first century fixation with extinction-level pandemics points to an artistic community tormented by murderous despair.

NEW TO SOHO on Sky Television is the latest “Deep State” thriller, Condor. In brief, the plot revolves around a genocidal conspiracy involving a rapacious firm of military contractors* and rogue elements within the CIA. Their goal? To release a deadly virus with which they hope to wipe out vast swathes of the population of the Middle East. The second episode opens with the infamous quotation attributed to Joseph Stalin:

Death solves all problems: no man, no problem.

That more and more novelists and screen-writers are reaching for the deadly virus plot-line reveals an alarming shift in the zeitgeist. Slowly but unmistakably, the mood of the world’s artists is darkening. Few now are willing to embrace the heroic hopefulness of a Tolkien. Indeed, the twenty-first century fixation with extinction-level pandemics points to an artistic community tormented by murderous despair.

It is the privilege of artists to think the unthinkable and imagine the unimaginable. Which is exactly what so many of them are doing in response to the deepening crisis of anthropogenic global warming. Human nature being the raw material out of which they fashion their artworks, it is not difficult to understand their growing pessimism. With every passing year, and every disregarded warning from climate science experts, it becomes clearer and clearer to them that the human species is not going to make it. Unsurprisingly, their imaginative powers are being turned to the subject of how best to rescue the planet’s other life forms.

The German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche long ago recognised the dangers of turning the human imagination towards extreme solutions. His forebodings are best expressed in two, oft-quoted aphorisms: “Have a care when fighting dragons, lest ye become a dragon yourself.” And: “Stare not too long into the abyss, lest the abyss stare back into you.”

The risk of so many artists concluding that the only solution to Climate Change is to rid the planet of its most dangerous species, is that the most talented among them possess the creative power to make it sound like a good idea. Life has a terrible habit of imitating art.

The other great hazard associated with releasing the terrifying idea of eliminationism into the intellectual bloodstream of the non-artistic community is that the idea of deliberately destroying billions of innocent human-beings will become normalised. In no time at all, the unthinkable will become thinkable. People in a position to make awful things happen will begin to ask themselves: “Why not?”

The writers behind Condor have yet to move beyond the genocidal notion of drying up the sea of the Middle-Eastern peoples in which the Jihadist fishes swim. A reprehensible enough idea in itself but falling well short of the historically unprecedented crime of eliminating 95 percent of the human species. Even so, the Condor series points to the awful probability of eliminationist thinking taking hold in the minds of Deep State actors already quite capable of ordering drone strikes on wedding feasts; deploying chemical weapons against designated enemies of the state; and hacking up the sovereign’s critics with a bone saw.

Would that the world’s artists were willing to latch on to the much more optimistic Fixing-Climate-Change scenario elaborated by Counterpunch contributor, Steve Hendricks. https://www.counterpunch.org/2018/12/07/what-if-we-just-buy-off-big-fossil-fuel-a-novel-plan-to-mitigate-the-climate-calamity/ His eminently practical plan of simply paying the fossil fuel industry to keep their product safely in the ground; and then giving them the job of transitioning humankind to a sustainable green future; is proof of what we human-beings are capable of conceptualising when we shun the darkness and choose instead to keep our eyes firmly fixed upon the light.

*These private sector bad guys all work for “White Sands” – an insider joke aimed at those already familiar with the notorious exploits of the all-too-real military contractor, Blackwater, during the Iraq War. Black Water – White Sands. Geddit?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of 11 December 2018.

A Polish Joke - At The Planet's Expense.

Polish Humour: To stage a critical conference on Climate Change in the heart of Poland’s coalfields just has to be a joke. Right?

KATOWICE, SILESIA. Polish humour, no? To stage a critical conference on Climate Change in the heart of Poland’s coalfields just has to be a joke. Right?

Wrong. Not when the Polish Government is seriously advancing the idea of a “just transition” from coal. Just transition? That’s code for: “Nothing will be done which threatens the job security of the thousands of Polish miners who constitute the electoral heart of the ruling Law & Justice Party.” No one in Polish politics has forgotten that it was the shipyard workers and the coal miners who gave the anti-communist Solidarity movement its economic and political heft back in the early 1980s. If the Commies could crack these guys, what chance do the Greenies have?

The bad news isn’t confined to the coalfields of Eastern Europe. In France an embattled Emmanuel Macron has been forced to back away from his Climate Change-inspired fuel price hikes.

With the furious “Yellow Vests” threatening to launch another nationwide assault on the institutions and symbols of French state authority; and with his Police chiefs warning him that their men, close to exhaustion, may not be equal to the task of preserving law and order; what choice did the French President have? It was either concede the Yellow Vests’ key demand, or, bring in the armed forces to quell their nationwide insurrection against oppressive taxes and “Parisian arrogance”. But, setting the French army against the French people has only ever ended in tyranny, revolution, or both.

This is the world we live in now. A world where the desperate pleading of Sir David Attenborough and the UN Secretary General fails. Their words falling not so much on deaf ears as ears filled with the subtle whispers of fossil fuel lobbyists or the angry protests of workers and consumers. Vice-President Richard Cheney knew exactly what he was talking about when he warned the American political class that: “The American way of life is not negotiable.” Nope, and not the French or Polish ways of life, either.

It really is the perfect political storm. At precisely the time when trust and confidence in the world’s decision-makers is most needed, it is plummeting. Those whom Sir David enjoined, on behalf the world’s peoples, to “lead” the planet to safety simply cannot count on more than a tiny fraction of the global population accepting the massive and radical changes that would require.

Perhaps, if people could be persuaded that the costs of transitioning away from our fossil fuel-based civilisation would be equally shared, then there might be some hope. But who believes that is even remotely likely? Who can see the “loose affiliation of millionaires and billionaires” (thank you Paul Simon) who rule this world voluntarily relinquishing their wealth and privilege? Who would put their faith in the political classes that service those millionaires and billionaires ever deciding to treat Climate Change as the moral equivalent of war?

The disconnect between the rulers and the ruled is just too profound. In the current political environment it is much more likely that any Climate Change measures inflicting genuine hardship on the mass of the population would be met not with stoical acceptance but, as we have seen in France, with rage and denial. One has only to listen to the bitterness and contempt in the voices of the Polish miners interviewed by the press corps at Katowice. Rather than accept that the coal they dig out of the ground is warming the planet catastrophically, they preferred to pour scorn upon the scientists’ and economists’ warnings. “Who knows more about coal,” they scoff, “them or us?”

And that marvel of the last quarter-century – the Internet – rather than acting as the perfect instrument for informing the whole world about the dangers that lie ahead has, instead, facilitated the world’s division into a multitude of mutually hostile cultural and political enclaves. There are as many truths today as there are audiences. People are willing to believe only what they have already been convinced of. Like addresses like exclusively – and everyone else can go to hell.

New Zealanders are no different in this respect from the rest of humanity. We should be thankful that the price of oil has fallen precipitately over the past few weeks because, had it not, rising petrol prices combined with increased fuel taxes would almost certainly have sparked a full-scale truckers’ revolt. Considerably less than one hundred large trucks, strategically stalled, could reduce Auckland to angry chaos in less than half-an-hour.

Now imagine those truckers joining forces with thousands of angry farmers protesting against the imposition of Climate Change-driven reforms on the agricultural sector. The French are not the only people who know how to cause trouble!

Sir David Attenborough has spent his entire adult life bringing the wonders of the natural world to appreciative global audiences. Few people on Earth have a more profound understanding of the immense damage being inflicted on the planet’s fragile biosphere by our fossil-fuel based civilisation. One can only imagine his distress at the near certainty of so much wonder and beauty being driven to extinction by anthropogenic global warming.

In the dark watches of the night, I wonder, does even as big-hearted a man as Sir David Attenborough not comfort himself with the thought that the authors of this global tragedy will, in the not too distant future, and along with all other living things, be forced to pay the price. The people of the world may not be interested in responding to Climate Change, but Climate Change is, most certainly, responding to them.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 6 December 2018.

Dances With Elephants.

When elephants dance, the wise mice stick to the wall.  - Swahili Proverb.

IT BEGAN so positively: wreathed in smiles and full of promise; a government of kindness and transformation. It hasn’t lasted. In a depressingly short period of time, the poetry of campaigning was replaced by the harsh prose of governing.

It was clear, from the moment David Parker told us that the Labour-NZF-Green Government would be signing the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement, that beneath all the glitter and shine lay the dull gleam of administrative brass. Smiles and Stardust are Jacinda’s brand. Reality is much scarier.

Over the past fortnight New Zealand has played host to gatherings of spies. The first batch arrived from the United Kingdom and the second from the United States. In the midst of these secretive arrivals and departures the Government Communications Security Bureau (GCSB) issued its finding that the Chinese IT giant, Huawei, had failed to pass the “national security” test, and that, as a consequence, its involvement in the roll-out of Spark’s 5G communications network must cease.

Interestingly, the presence of so many foreign spooks was matched by the absence of a select band of journalists. Whisked away to Hawaii by the Orwellian-sounding “Indopacom” (the United States Indo-Pacific Command) they were brought up to speed on what one of the participants described as China’s “expansionist military strategy in the Pacific”.

One of the more accurate and justifiable criticisms of the current Chinese Government is its treatment of its Uighur population. President Xi and his administration have gone to extraordinary lengths to prevent the Muslim Uighurs from embracing the radical Islamicist doctrines so familiar to us now in the West. Human rights groups report that as many as a million Uighurs may have passed through the regime’s “re-education camps”. These are not happy places.

It would seem, however, that the Uighurs are not the only population for whom “re-education” has been deemed necessary. New Zealanders, too, have been singled out for ideological rectification. Seemingly, this country has grown too fond of the Chinese regime and is in urgent need of being re-oriented towards a more reliable combination of “friendly” powers. No less a think tank than the “moderately conservative” Hoover Institution has opined that New Zealand is “particularly vulnerable” to Chinese influence.

Served up as a “test case” in a report bearing the interesting title “Chinese Influence & American Interest”, New Zealand is described as “a small state of 4.5 million people with strong trade ties to China.” These have, according to the report, led us to pursue “closer ties with China than many other nations.”

Too close, apparently, for our largest trading partner, Australia, which has, we were informed by an investment specialist interviewed for TVNZ’s “Q+A” programme, come to the view that New Zealand has allowed itself to stray too far from the accepted anti-Chinese/pro-American path laid down by Canberra.

Jacinda Ardern and her Foreign Minister, Winston Peters, have become something of a problem for the Australians. There is a slippery quality to both of them that irritates New Zealand’s oldest friend and ally. Just when they’re convinced that the Kiwis have stepped over the line – by refusing to condemn the Russians fast enough over the Salisbury chemical attack, for example – they somehow manage to skip back over it with dutiful promises of a “Pacific Re-Set”. Time for Wellington to stop playing silly buggers, says Canberra, and not in a nice way.

Hence the influx of hard men from the UK and America. Hence the sudden rise to prominence of Professor Anne-Marie Brady – New Zealand’s very own “international expert” on the diabolical cleverness of Beijing and its “magic weapons”. No coincidence, surely, that the Hoover Institution’s fortuitously timed warning about Chinese influence draws heavily on Professor Brady’s alarming academic research. Her even more alarming personal experiences, involving burglars and deflated car tyres, lends cinematic emphasis to their concern.

Our re-education, from a nation with delusions of independence, to one which knows its place in the geopolitical scheme of things, will proceed apace, although not as rapidly as with our leaders. The Huawei decision signalled to our Five Eyes partners that from now on it is their preferences, not China’s, which will dictate the shape of New Zealand foreign policy.

The Swahili have a proverb: “When elephants dance, the wise mice stick to the wall.” Or, in our case, scamper back onto the American elephant’s back.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 7 December 2018.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Raining On The White Tribe’s Parade

Santa Who? What sort of woke, politically-correct bubble would you have to be living in to think this was a good idea? Certainly, it is hard to imagine someone with little brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces; someone who remembers mum or dad reading them The Night Before Christmas, or watching The Miracle On 34th Street – or even Bad Santa – being so insensitive, so utterly unaware of the trouble they were about to cause.

WHAT WERE THEY THINKING? The people who decided it would be a good idea to take Santa out of the Nelson Santa Parade?

A South Island city (and a Wakefield settlement to boot!) filled with Pakeha New Zealanders. Who was it who decided that the Thomas Nast/Coca-Cola Santa-Claus, the one which the English-speaking world has taken to its heart for more than a century, could be replaced by a Maori chieftain in a crimson korowai, without pissing a huge number of people off?

The poor old Nelson City Council, which poured $16,000 of its rate-payers’ money into the parade, had no idea that Santa was about to be indigenised. Neither, if the outrage being expressed on talkback radio and across social media is any guide, were the thousands of Pakeha parents and grandparents whose diminutive charges wandered home with them disconsolately – having been denied their chance to cheer-on jolly old St Nick.

What sort of woke, politically-correct bubble would you have to be living in to think this was a good idea? Certainly, it is hard to imagine someone with little brothers and sisters, nephews and nieces; someone who remembers mum or dad reading them The Night Before Christmas, or watching The Miracle On 34th Street – or even Bad Santa – being so insensitive, so utterly unaware of the trouble they were about to cause.

No, it would have to be someone for whom the Christmas Season holds no precious memories of wonder and joy. Someone who had never read A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens – let alone the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John!

Such people are becoming more and more common in New Zealand as, with every passing census, the number of New Zealanders subscribing to Christianity – or even the Deity, himself – dwindles. Atheism is close to achieving majority status in this country and along with it the justification for purging New Zealand society of every officially recognised Pakeha religious and/or folk festival.

Not (God forbid!) the religious or folk festivals celebrated by New Zealand’s indigenous and immigrant communities. No woke atheist would dream of insulting the members of these communities by interpolating a figure from a completely different cultural milieu into their celebrations. No, it is only those unlucky enough to be born into the culture they (supposedly) share with these arrogant traducers of tradition who will find their special day out with the kids and grandkids ruined.

Perhaps the decision to introduce (unannounced and unauthorised) a Maori Santa Claus was conceived as some sort of payback for the A&P Show float featuring men and women in blackface which so outraged progressive metropolitan New Zealanders a fortnight or so ago?

“Let’s give these provincial deplorables a taste of their own medicine. See how they like it!” Was that the spirit in which the decision to disappoint thousands of eager children was taken? I hope not.

But, even if the decision to dispense with the traditional Santa Claus was taken with the most noble of progressive intentions. Even if it was undertaken as a means of giving the celebration of Christmas a uniquely New Zealand flavour, it nevertheless remains an act of the most aggressive racism.

Why? Because those who made it are guilty of either consciously or unconsciously rejecting the whole notion that the cherished traditions of a specific ethnic community should be considered sacrosanct and worthy of respect. Because the person, or persons, responsible for the decision arrogated to themselves the right to set aside the key cultural element by which a “Santa Parade” is defined: the beaming, white-haired and white-bearded old gentlemen clad in a red suit, edged with white fur, seated in a sleigh piled high with gifts and pulled through the air by flying reindeer. Absurd? Of course it’s absurd! But no more absurd than the Prophet Mohammed being carried to paradise on a flying horse. Or a god with the body of a human-being and the head of an elephant. Racism is no less racism because the contempt on display is being directed at members of one’s own tribe.

There will be consequences, of course. There always are when cultural traditions are traduced. How many little pairs of ears absorbed the angry, racially-charged comments that undoubtedly followed this indigenous interpolation of Santa Claus? How much of the good-will between Maori and Pakeha New Zealand was squandered? The metropolitan elites, who refuse to take what happened in Nelson seriously, are no doubt comforting themselves with the thought that the umbrage taken is a peculiarly “provincial” phenomenon. It is not. Pakeha racism is everywhere and those responsible for so arrogantly raining on Nelson’s Santa Parade have only made it worse.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 4 December 2018.

Friday, 30 November 2018

The Politics Of Transformation - Warning: TERF Triggering.

The Excluder Excluded: What does it say about the state of identity politics in New Zealand and around the world that if Germaine Greer, the Matriarch of Second Wave Feminism, announced she was intending to participate in the Auckland Pride Parade, then Labour's Manurewa MP, Louisa Wall, would do everything in her power to exclude her?

WHAT DOES IT MEAN that Labour’s Louisa Wall would ban Germaine Greer from the Auckland Pride Parade? What offence could the Matriarch of Second Wave Feminism possibly have committed to merit Wall’s exclusion?

Greer’s “crime” is deceptively innocuous. She refuses to abandon her opinion that human-beings come into this world as either women or men, and that simply declaring oneself to be a man or a woman is insufficient from an evidentiary perspective. Greer believes that gender is a matter of straightforward human biology. That it cannot be an act of will – or surgery.

When BBC Newsnight’s Kirsty Walk challenged her with the question: “If a man has his gender reassigned and outwardly – and he feels, inwardly – he is a woman. In your view can he be a woman or not?” Greer responded, with typical Australian bluntness: “No.” And when Walk observed that, to some people, her reaction might be considered insulting, the 76-year-old scholar replied: “I don’t care. People get insulted all the time. Australians get insulted every day of the week!”

That October 2015 interview contributed hugely to the steadily worsening ideological stand-off responsible for introducing the abbreviation “TERF” – Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminist – to the vocabulary of progressives around the world. Including, we now know, Louisa Wall, who was secretly recorded telling participants at a recent Pride Parade hui: “My whole thing is that I don’t want any f...ing TERFs at the Pride Parade!”

Wall’s position would appear to be that in the name of inclusion it is necessary to exclude the excluders. The Pride Parade, she says, must never be anything less than a celebration of the whole Rainbow Community. To challenge the right of trans individuals to define their own gender identity constitutes a hateful denial of their human rights. In Wall’s opinion it is vital that TERFs be prevented from disputing those rights.

Greer’s objection to the celebration of Male-to-Female transformers is classic Second Wave Feminist. When BBC Newsnight’s Walk confronted Greer with the example of Caitlyn Jenner, the former football hero and medal-winning Olympic decathlete who later became a glamorous participant in Keeping Up With The Kardashians, she replied: “I think it’s misogynist. I think misogyny plays a really big part in all of this. That a man who goes to these lengths will be a better woman than someone who was just born a woman.”

Greer’s charge of misogyny goes to the heart of the conflict. Here is the author of The Female Eunuch, whose determination that women should embrace their femaleness fully and fearlessly made her a feminist icon for the whole Baby Boom Generation, rebelling angrily against the notion that gender is a fickle, fluid concept. Greer simply will not accept that womanhood is no less a cultural creation than a Versace gown – and just as easily knocked-off.

But, if gender is, indeed, a cultural artefact, then maleness is every bit as artificial as femaleness. What’s more, in a world dominated by aggressive and intolerant upholders of patriarchal values, the covering which males are expected to fasten over and around their bodies resembles much more a suit of medieval armour than it does a Versace gown.

What, therefore, could be more radical – more liberating – than the idea that all those human-beings who feel uncomfortable, confined, oppressed in their suit of armour can simply strip it off and throw it away? Or, conversely, that all those human-beings who long for the reassurance of iron and steel have every right to seek redemption in the armourer’s forge?

“Reject all binary choices!”, declare the singers of this new freedom song. “We can become the people our hearts have always told us we were.”

The Marxists would wearily interject that they have been here before. That human-beings become what the exigencies of existence require them to be. Hunters/gatherers, warriors/wives, workers/homemakers. The computers that define post-industrial societies may follow the logic of zeroes and ones, but the civilisation they are rapidly bringing into existence will have less to do with either/or dichotomies than any of the civilisations which preceded it. Hitherto, the chief preoccupation of human communities has been with survival. The new age which beckons to us from beyond the great test of climate change may be preoccupied with becoming.

The conservative clings to what was and what works. The radical reaches for what s/he yet may be.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 30 November 2018.

From A Table By The Window - A Short Story About The Huawei Decision.

“Ever the idealist, dear boy. You surely didn’t expect this government to tell all those lovely people from British Intelligence and the FBI, who just happened to be in town this week, that, in spite of their oh-so-discretely conveyed objections, Spark’s deal with Huawei would be going ahead.”

HOW MANY YEARS has it been, I asked myself, since I climbed these stairs? That the little Wellington café was still in business after more than 40 years struck me as a miracle. And where better to meet the man who could still remember the events of 40 years ago – not least because he was there, in the thick of them?

He was waiting for me at the table window, his fingers moving slowly over the smooth face of his device. Two full glasses of red wine glowed dully in the wet afternoon light. The muted transactions of Willis Street provided a sibilant soundtrack.

“There you are”, he said, sweeping the information from his screen and placing the device carefully on the table. “Sit down, dear boy, sit down. I took the liberty of ordering a very nice Pinot Noir.”

“Perfect,” I replied, draping my damp jacket over the back of my chair. “I suppose that phone of yours hasn’t stopped ringing since the announcement?”

He smiled wanly. “Ringing, dear boy, ringing? Nothing rings anymore. Our devices beep, or chirrup, or play a bar or two of something, but they do not ring – much too indiscrete.”

“Discretion being the word-of-the-day”, I replied. “As in ‘discretion’ being the better part of valour – a quality of which this government appears to be in short supply.”

“Ever the idealist, dear boy. You surely didn’t expect this government to tell all those lovely people from British Intelligence and the FBI, who just happened to be in town this week, that, in spite of their oh-so-discretely conveyed objections, Spark’s deal with Huawei would be going ahead.”

“Forgive me, but I was under the impression that it was the Government of New Zealand’s job to define the parameters of its ‘national security’ – not the FBI’s. Does the continuing economic strength and welfare of the country not fall under the heading of ‘national security’? Or, making sure that the goodwill of the country’s largest trading partner is retained, and maybe even enhanced? I thought that might also be a matter of ‘national security’? Clearly, I was wrong.”

“If that was what you thought, dear boy, then, yes, you were wrong. Very wrong. The idea that one of the Five Eyes might sign up to a deal that could put all the other eyes at risk has absolutely no feathers, dear boy, none at all. It is never going to fly.”

“Ah, yes, the Five Eyes. A vast electronic eavesdropping network dedicated to plucking all manner of classified information out of the air and sending it on, sight unseen, to the United States of America. The Five Eyes. An operation whose sole purpose is to steal other people’s secrets. This is the outfit that’s demanding we jeopardise our economic and diplomatic relationship with the Chinese because the Chinese might use their state-of-the-art 5G technology to do what? Oh, yes, that’s right – to steal other people’s secrets!”

“The most important noun in those impassioned sentences, dear boy, was United States of America. You named the most powerful nation on the planet. Knowing when you did so that what the most powerful nation on the planet wants, the most powerful nation on the planet gets. And, right now, what it wants is to make sure the nation aiming to take its place is not in a position to weaponise ‘The Internet of Things’ against it.”

“You’ve been reading to many thrillers.”

“Actually, dear boy, it’s you who hasn’t been reading enough. Cyber-warfare is the greatest threat we face. Why? Because, in just a few years, the interconnectedness of the world and the breath-taking speed at which information travels will confer upon the technology organising its distribution the power to simply shut down the economic, social and political systems of its owner’s rivals. What would you do if you went to the nearest ATM and discovered that every one of your bank accounts had been deleted? That all your money had gone? Poof! Just disappeared? What if the same thing had happened to everybody else’s bank accounts? How does a government ‘fix’ a problem like that?”

“Okay – suppose I buy into this sci-fi scenario. It still boils down to Lenin’s fundamental question: ‘Who? Whom?’ Someone’s got to be in the omnipotent position you describe. So, what you’re actually telling me is that the omnipotent one cannot under any circumstances be China. Which is just another way of saying that it has to be the United States.”

“It’s not what I’m saying, dear boy, it’s what the United States is saying.”

“Regardless of the consequences for the economic and social welfare of New Zealanders? Do the Americans and their lickspittles in London and Canberra not understand that Beijing will exact a price for being treated so shabbily by Wellington?”

“Of course they do. They just don’t care. Why don’t they care? Because they know that anything Beijing decides to do will take time to manifest itself in a way that impacts upon the ordinary person in the street. Anything they decide to do to punish a maverick New Zealand government, by way of contrast, will take effect almost immediately. With the Australians acting as their proxies, the Americans can make our economy scream a lot faster than the Chinese. What’s more, in its upper echelons, New Zealand society is so stuffed with US “assets” that the political destabilisation of a recalcitrant government would be over in a matter of weeks, not months.”

“So we just have to sit back and take it – or the Yanks will rip our guts out?”

My companion looked out the window for a moment, taking in the hurrying Willis Street crowds, umbrellas raised against the wind-driven rain, and sipped his wine.

“Do you know, dear boy, that it wasn’t so very far from here that Bill Sutch was apprehended. All his life he had struggled to find a way for New Zealand to strike out on its own: to cut herself free from the apron strings of Mother England; to step out from Uncle Sam’s shadow. The problem he was never able to solve was, how? How does a tiny country escape the clutches of an imperial superpower? In the end, the best answer he could come up with was: by enlisting the help of another superpower. Do you remember, dear boy, how that story ended? The same delightful outfit that has been entertaining the boys and girls from MI6, and the FBI were on to poor old Bill in a flash. They put him on trial. Crushed his spirit. Within twelve months he was dead – and so was the government he had tried to help. Not a happy ending, dear boy. And not a course of action I’d recommend – especially not to a government as callow and inexperienced as this one.

Now it was my turn to stare out into the rain. To take in the purposeful haste of the capital city’s busy ants.

“More wine, dear boy, and a plate of the chef’s truly outstanding club sandwiches. In forty years they, at least, haven’t changed.

This short story was posted simultaneously on The Daily Blog and Bowalley Road of Friday, 30 November 2018.

Winston Keeps His Pledge To The Small Businesses Of Small-Town New Zealand.

Class Warrior: Like his predecessors in the Social Credit Political League, the NZ First leader is acutely aware that the small rural towns and provincial cities of New Zealand are hotbeds of class conflict. Not simply the classic Marxist conflict of capitalist versus proletarian, but also the no less bitter conflict between large and small businesses. Indeed, it is possible to characterise life in provincial New Zealand as a constant struggle of the particular against the general: of individual agency against institutional power.

WHO WOULD HAVE THOUGHT that the most accomplished class warrior to emerge from the struggle to improve New Zealand’s labour laws would be Winston Peters? No one else with a dog in this fight saw the class issues at stake as clearly as Winston Peters and NZ First. Not the employers; not the unions; and certainly not the Labour, National or Green parties. Peters and his colleagues can walk away from this debate as the undisputed champions of small provincial business. The electoral consequences of NZ First’s decisive intervention should not be underestimated.

There is a strong temptation on the part of left-wing activists in the major metropolitan centres to write off the people of the provinces as a bunch of undifferentiated reactionaries. To your average Labour or Green activist, provincials are racist, sexist and homophobic “rednecks”. The sort of people who still see nothing wrong with sending a float filled with people in blackface down the main street of their little town. Hopeless and irredeemable, these voters are not worth wooing – unless you’re Stuart Nash. (And the less said about Stuart Nash the better!)

Winston Peters knows better. Like his predecessors in the Social Credit Political League, the NZ First leader is acutely aware that the small rural towns and provincial cities of New Zealand are hotbeds of class conflict. Not simply the classic Marxist conflict of capitalist versus proletarian, but also the no less bitter conflict between large and small businesses. Indeed, it is possible to characterise life in provincial New Zealand as a constant struggle of the particular against the general: of individual agency against institutional power.

People living in large cities have a bad habit of romanticising small towns. They like to think that in a place where everybody knows their neighbours life must be wonderful. The reality is almost the exact opposite. In a small community the social hierarchy is much more sharply exposed. Yes, everybody knows their neighbours – but they also know exactly where they sit in the social pecking-order. Fun, one imagines, if you are positioned at or near the top. Wretched, if you are located near the bottom.

The local lawyers and accountants, for example, are perfectly placed to know exactly how well, or how badly, their neighbour’s are doing. The town’s doctors and teachers are similarly well-positioned. If knowledge is power, then these provincial professionals have a lot to play with.

The senior managers of nationwide chains, salarymen who will not lose their houses if their executive decisions turn out badly, may look down their noses at the senior bureaucrats employed by local and central government but, in truth, their day-to-day jobs are distinguished by the same petty protocols; the same demands from above. Well remunerated, but subjected to unceasing “performance reviews”, many opt to take out their frustrations on those further down the totem pole.

Not that the owners of the town’s small businesses would include themselves among the pen-pushers’ inferiors. In their own eyes – and often in the eyes of their employees – they are town’s true heroes.

Independent of spirit, willing to have a crack, contemptuous of those whose only purpose in this world appears to be making the lives of people like themselves as difficult as possible, it is difficult not to admire these small businesspeople.

It is no mean feat to keep a business afloat in the provinces. Notoriously under-capitalised, they all-too-often keep their operations afloat by paying themselves less than their workers. They are no friend of the trade unions with their one-rule-fits-all approach, but neither are they friends of the banks who bleed them dry or the big firms who expect them to submit ridiculously low bids for the jobs they then take their own sweet time paying for.

But without these small business people the towns and cities of provincial New Zealand would die. Their absence is frighteningly easy to spot. Main streets are dead: their shopfronts boarded-up and the real estate agent’s “To Let” signs fading in the sun. The young people those shuttered businesses might have employed have either fled or broken bad. The only signs of life are around the local office of the MSD.

These are the towns NZ First is pledged to restore to economic health. Winston Peters and Shane Jones want those kids in jobs, earning money, dreaming of one day becoming their own boss – just like the man or the woman who took them on under the 90-day rule, to see whether they had what it took, and then employed them permanently when they proved themselves hard-working and trustworthy. The unions can knock on the boss’s door as often as they like – they will find few, if any, takers here.

Of course there are exceptions – but in small-town New Zealand it is more common to find the small employers and their workers united in solidarity against the people who live on the hill. It’s one thing to be paid by the taxpayers; to grow fat on the fees you charge; or draw the salary only a big corporation can afford to pay. It’s quite another to keep the town’s cars and trucks filled up and roadworthy; or to fill the bellies of its inhabitants with decent tucker. All those engaged in small businesses: both their owners and the people who work for them; have taken a bet on themselves. Very often that bet is lost. Fair enough. Making a small business pay has never been easy. All the players ask is that the game stays honest: that the deck isn’t stacked against them.

That is the pledge NZ First made to them – and that is the pledge it has kept. Wages are not always paid in cash. Sometimes they are paid in dreams. By honouring that currency, Winston Peters and NZ First have made the heroes of small-town New Zealand their own.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 29 November 2018.

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Where Is The Mass Movement Against Climate Change?

The Way We Were: I was seated in the Auckland Town Hall when Jacinda promised to make climate change her generation’s nuclear-free moment. Like everybody else I roared my approval. But where is the nationwide movement demanding change that matches the extraordinary activism and reach of the Nuclear-Free New Zealand phenomenon.

WHEN JACINDA ANNOUNCED she was having a baby, I was thrilled. What better guarantee could we have of serious government action on the big issues than a prime minister with a tiny and vulnerable child’s future to protect? Well, Neve arrived safely, but the urgent action required to secure her future seems as far away as ever.

I was seated in the Auckland Town Hall when Jacinda promised to make climate change her generation’s nuclear-free moment. Like everybody else I roared my approval. But where is the nationwide movement demanding change that matches the extraordinary activism and reach of the Nuclear-Free New Zealand phenomenon. The latter had a lively presence not only in every major city, but also in every sizable town. The evidence was there for everyone to see as, one after the other, the councils of those towns and cities defiantly declared themselves nuclear-free. Many of those councilors were members of, or strongly supported, the Labour Party.

Just how embedded the nuclear-free movement was in the Labour Party is evidenced by the Fourth Labour Government’s unwillingness to stand in its way. No amount of internal resistance to Rogernomics was able to turn the Lange-Douglas Government from its course. But those same politicians were more willing to face the wrath of Ronald Reagan’s America than the New Zealand peace movement. All Labour’s President, Margaret Wilson, had to do was threaten to convene a Special Conference of the Party to reaffirm Labour’s “No Nukes” policy and the Cabinet rolled over.

But, on the calamitous issue of Climate Change, an issue with as much potential to lay waste human civilisation as an all-out nuclear war, there isn’t the slightest sign of a broad mass movement with the will and the power to force the Coalition Government’s hand. Nor is there the slightest evidence of a well-organised group within the Labour Party itself. No one’s willing to advance the cause of fighting Climate Change from either the stage or the floor of Labour’s annual conferences. In 2018, the members look to the top for inspiration and guidance. On Climate Change, however, they look in vain.

The other thing that’s missing is the sort of grass-roots anti-nuclear education effort that both complimented and drove forward the anti-nuclear movement. New Zealanders researched nuclear weapons and nuclear strategy both individually and in groups. Local libraries ordered in specialist literature. Activists organised public seminars. Voters learned about the futility of civil defence measures and shuddered at the threat of “nuclear winter”. The “experts” thrust forward by the government to justify the status-quo were answered by the peace movement’s own. Against an informed and active citizenry both the National and Labour parties found themselves politically helpless.

If Jacinda is truly determined to make Climate Change her generation’s nuclear-free moment there is plenty she could be doing. For a start, she could use the “bully pulpit” of the prime minister’s office to summon her generation to action. She could fund a nationwide series of “Climate Change Forums” preliminary to the establishment of locally-organised Climate Change action-groups. A “Day of Action” could be announced and every young New Zealander invited to add their body to a nationwide demonstration of their generation’s vital interest in fighting Climate Change.

Within the Labour Party itself the rank-and-file membership could be given official encouragement to debate the best means of addressing Climate Change legislatively. What sort of laws does New Zealand need and in what order should they be introduced? A Special Conference could be called to assess the results and the news media invited to attend every session. The relevant ministers could be required to make themselves available for Q+A sessions. The whole event could be broadcast live on the Internet.

A prime minister determined to make Climate Change her generation’s nuclear-free moment could be doing all of this – and more. By the same token, however, a nation determined to “do something” about Climate Change has no need for guidance from above. The threat of an all-out nuclear exchange between the USA and the Soviet Union, a catastrophe from which no human-being on Earth would emerge unscathed, was all it had taken for hundreds-of-thousands of New Zealanders to commit themselves to making their country nuclear-free. Why, then, hasn’t the threat of the planet becoming uninhabitable by human-beings been enough to mobilise New Zealand citizens in the same way?

Does the answer lie in a simple lack of faith in the ability of any one person – any single generation – to make any kind of difference? When a left-wing populist government declines to keep its promise to oppose the TPPA. When a Green Party Minister of Conservation refuses to protect her country’s pristine water resources. What realistic hope is there then that people’s voices, people’s votes, can make anything like the difference made by the nuclear-free movement of the early 1980s? Have we entered an age when words and gestures are as plentiful as sparrows, and deeds as rare as Hector’s Dolphins?

When, on some unbearably hot day in the future, Neve asks her mother what she had to say about Climate Change, Jacinda will be able to answer: “Heaps!”. But, when her daughter follows-up her first question with a second; when Neve says: “That’s good, Mum, because everyone loved the way you talked. But what I need to know now is – what did you do?” How will Jacinda respond?

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 22 November 2018.

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

The Case Of The Problematic Professor.

Disturber Of Dragons: Were Professor Brady’s antagonists from any other nation but China the problem confronting Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters would not exist. Unfortunately the Peoples Republic of China is New Zealand’s largest trading partner after Australia. Pissing-off China could be extremely injurious to this nation’s economic health.

ANNE-MARIE BRADY presents this government with a rather large problem. Her alleged harassment by agents of Chinese national security has all the makings of a cause celebre. Were Professor Brady’s antagonists from any other nation but China the problem confronting Jacinda Ardern and Winston Peters would not exist. One has only to recall Helen Clark’s response to the discovery of an active Israeli spy mission underway on New Zealand soil to appreciate the political capital to be made out of being seen to take the defence of New Zealand sovereignty seriously. Unfortunately for Ardern and Peters, however, the Peoples Republic of China is not Israel – it’s New Zealand’s largest trading partner after Australia. When Israel gets angry it cannot threaten to undermine the New Zealand economy. Pissing-off China, on the other hand, can be extremely injurious to this nation’s economic health.

The latest chapter in the Brady saga, a letter from a group of academics, journalists and activists demanding a more aggressive defence of academic freedom, can hardly have improved the PM’s mood. Her hopes of the whole matter quietly disappearing have been dashed. People want answers – not evasions.

But do “people” have any right to answers in a matter as delicate as this one? Is the public entitled to push aside all the geopolitical and economic factors impinging on their government as if they are of no importance?

Prattling on about being the “critic and conscience” of society is all very well, but when New Zealand’s universities are so dependent on the continuing inflow of international students, is it really all that wise to antagonise one of the largest contributors to this country’s educational export trade? It would be interesting to see how the nation’s vice-chancellors would react if equivalents of Anne-Marie Brady started popping up on their own campuses. Each academic activist launching equally uncompromising attacks against the Peoples Republic. How would all that criticising and conscientising affect their bottom-line I wonder?

And what about all that Chinese investment in New Zealand’s agricultural sector: all those massive milk treatment plants springing up around the provinces; how keen would the government be to see all that brought to an end? How would Shane Jones respond to the loss of so many well-paying jobs? And David Parker, how would he feel when New Zealand’s perishable exports started piling-up on China’s docks? How would Federated Farmers react to a Chinese freeze-out? Or the Dairy Workers Union, for that matter?

New Zealand lives by its agricultural exports - which is why the New Zealand-China Free Trade Agreement was so important when the Global Financial Crisis struck. Without it, this country would have had significantly less to come and go on. Chinese consumers saved us from the sort of vicious austerity measures that afflicted the people of the United Kingdom and Greece. The nature of the Chinese system has not changed since 2008. If we were happy then to be given access to the huge Chinese market, are we not happy now? What’s changed?

We all know the answer to that question. What has changed is that the United States is no longer prepared to see China assert its “hard” (military and economic) and “soft” (cultural and propagandistic) power unchallenged. In concert with its principal regional allies, Japan and Australia, the US is pushing back against Chinese expansion into the Pacific – once an American lake but now the location of intense great power rivalry. Try as it might (and it tried very hard under John Key and his foreign minister, Murray McCully) New Zealand is finding it increasingly difficult, in the age of Donald Trump, to keep its distance from this looming fight between the Eagle and the Dragon.

Professor Brady is an acknowledged expert on the production and delivery of Chinese soft power – its “magic weapons”. The good professor is not, however, above advancing a little soft power on her own account. Is it no more than a coincidence that she has been called upon to present her ideas to the Australian parliament during the “China Panic”? Or that her academic articles and speeches are followed closely, and receive considerable approbation, in Washington DC? That the name of Anne-Marie Brady started appearing in our news media at exactly the same moment as the rivalry between the USA and China ratcheted-up several notches – was that nothing more than serendipity?

Much has been made of President Trump’s extraordinary statement concerning America’s relationship with Saudi Arabia. What made it extraordinary was its brutal honesty. For once naked American self-interest was presented to the world shorn of its hypocritical vestments. “It’s about America first”, said the President, truthfully. He then informed the world that if putting America’s interests first means turning a blind eye to cold-blooded, state-sanctioned murder, then so be it – that’s what his administration (like all its predecessors) will do.

Jacinda can’t really say “It’s about New Zealand First” – that could be misinterpreted, but if she were to say something similar in defence of her continuing silence vis-à-vis Anne-Marie Brady, then she would earn the respect of Beijing and Washington alike. With considerable relief, the advisers to both President Xi and President Trump would be able to tell their bosses: “This New Zealand prime minister, at least she knows how the game of geopolitics is played.”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 27 November 2018.

Sunday, 25 November 2018

The Perils Of Inclusion.

Something To Be Proud Of: Inclusion is not without its downside. Once inside the fold, there is a strong temptation to silence dissenting voices. Calling out instances of ongoing discrimination and oppression smacks too much of biting the hand that no longer strikes you. Far better to welcome in all the institutions and businesses so eager, now, to be associated with the rainbow banner. The Pride Parade needs sponsors - not dissidents.

SHOULD WE BE SURPRISED that the rainbow community turned out to be so conservative? That the effort of the Pride Parade board to address the fear so easily triggered by police uniforms has provoked such a swift and devastating backlash? That so many gay and lesbian people appear to have forgotten what it feels like to be labelled, singled-out, trashed and excluded? That so many New Zealanders seem unaware that it is precisely those who dwell furthest away from the blessings of societal acceptance that have the strongest claim to our care and protection?

Something has shifted. In the years separating the Hero Parade from the Pride Parade the straight world’s perception of the rainbow community and the rainbow community’s perception of itself have undergone profound changes. What was once considered wild and transgressive has been made safe. The civic leaders who railed against the Hero Parade’s raunchiness have gone. Until this past fortnight, civic and corporate institutions have been lining up to tell the world how proud they are of Pride.

It raises an important question. Was the “gay lifestyle”, as mainstream New Zealand insisted on calling the non-normative expression of human sexuality; or “queer culture”, as it often described itself; the product of the dominant culture’s repression? Did the amelioration of that repression lead to the well-behaved heterosexuality of the straight world becoming the model for a rainbow community no longer obliged to make virtues out of the vices it had for centuries been accused of embodying?

And was the straight world’s growing acceptance of the rainbow community accelerated by the latter’s demand to be admitted to all of society’s core institutions? Gays and lesbians insisted that they had as much to offer the armed forces and the police as heterosexual citizens. Indeed, there was no occupational grouping, no profession, which would not benefit from opening its doors to the non-straight population. Likewise, the right to marry, raise children, form families and bequeath property should be extended to all citizens regardless of their sexual preferences. What was there to fear or dislike about a community so determined to sign-up to all the world’s conventions?

The watchword, for straights and non-straights alike, was “inclusion”. The revolutionary rhetoric of the years immediately following the Stonewall Riot in New York’s Greenwich Village had been vindicated. The years of watching friends and lovers die of AIDS while the straight world looked on and did nothing had, in the end, brought people of good will to the understanding that pain and grief is universal. That, ultimately, our common humanity trumps our diverse sexuality. It was something to celebrate. Something to be proud of.

Hence the Pride Parade. Hence the sense of elation when institutions like the Police and the Armed Forces signalled their willingness to mouth the watchword. Now, at last, the horrors of the bad old days could be forgotten. The hazing, the beatings, the murders. All the ritual humiliations, perfected over centuries to punish those who failed the tests of church and state. Why dwell upon the history when uniformed members of the rainbow community were willing to march in step with the people their predecessors had persecuted?

Inclusion is not without its downside, however. Once inside the fold, there is a strong temptation to silence dissenting voices. Calling out instances of ongoing discrimination and oppression smacks too much of biting the hand that no longer strikes you. Far better to welcome in all the institutions and businesses so eager, now, to be associated with the rainbow banner – especially when you’re expected to cough-up $150,000 for the privilege of walking down Ponsonby Road. The Pride Parade needs sponsors – not dissidents.

But does that need for the corporate dollar mean that the issues raised by the trans community should simply be ignored? Should the fate of young people locked up in police cells and prisons with, at best, only a grudging acceptance of their gender identification or, at worst, uncaring disregard, be set to one side? Is the treatment meted out to them while the responsibility of Police and Corrections personnel unworthy of consideration?  Do their stories, laced as they are with all the trauma of marginalisation and despair, not count?

The Pride Parade board decided that they did count and voted narrowly to give the word “inclusion” a radical inflection. It was a brave decision – and they are paying a very high price for it. Those who have attempted to defend the board’s decision have been abused and  spat upon by angry supporters of the status quo. In terms of sheer numbers, it would appear that the majority of the rainbow community favour a more conservative definition of inclusion.

How quickly people forget.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 23 November 2018.