Wednesday 29 April 2020

The People vs The Media.

Investigating Journalism: Encouraging the population to view politics and politicians as corrupt, ineffectual, and best left alone, absolves the news media of all responsibility to present political news in a way that reveals its absolute centrality to their readers’, listeners’ and viewers’ well-being.

THE COVID-19 LOCKDOWN has exposed weaknesses in New Zealand journalism that have hurt and surprised many New Zealand journalists. The chief weakness exposed has been the news media’s eagerness to both exploit and amplify anti-political feeling within the New Zealand public. In normal times this is generally a low-risk/high-return strategy. In abnormal times, however – and the times we are living through currently are about as abnormal as you can get! – the anti-political strategy simply does not work.

The reason for the strategy’s failure in times of crisis is simple. When people are frightened they do not want to hear that the leaders whose job it is to look after them are useless cretins. On the contrary, they want to be reassured that their leaders are competent and compassionate in equal measure. They want to feel safe in their hands. They want to trust them, respect them, and – Gawd help us! – love them. Shrewd editors and smart journalists get this. Inept editors and obtuse journalists do not.

Overcoming the anti-political journalistic reflex is, however, an extremely difficult thing for “mainstream media” professionals to do. It is, after all, a strategy that kills so many birds with a single stone.

Encouraging the population to view politics and politicians as corrupt, ineffectual, and best left alone, absolves the news media of all responsibility to present political news in a way that reveals its absolute centrality to their readers’, listeners’ and viewers’ well-being.

In its turn, this “politics is bullshit” approach safeguards the management of media outlets from the negative reaction that would certainly follow any attempt to inform the public comprehensively about current affairs. The owners of newspapers, radio stations and television networks have little interest in fostering a politically aware and politically active population – quite the reverse in fact.

Finally, highlighting the personal failings of politicians plays directly to people’s prurient impulses. Everybody enjoys a good scandal, especially when it involves people who normally wield power over them, people who typically justify their authority by posing as ordinary, decent men and women dedicated to promoting the public good. Exposing political scandals reassures the average citizen that their lack of meaningful political engagement is entirely justified. It’s all lies and they’re all liars. Why would any ordinary, decent person want to get involved in such a seedy business?

All of this carefully nurtured cynicism and disdain disappears in an instant, however, when ordinary, decent people are threatened by an enemy capable of inflicting real harm on them and their loved ones. Overnight, the political process ceases to be a seedy, grubby business full of ambitious sociopaths. Politicians and the systems they control stand revealed for what they have always been: the guarantors and instruments of public welfare and safety. Far from despising them and sneering at them dismissively, the citizenry is willing them to succeed.

It’s enough to set your average political journalist’s head spinning. Suddenly, they’re expected to talk-up the virtues of the politicians they’ve been doing their very best to trip-up. Suddenly, instead of going for “gotcha!”, they’re supposed to be encouraging the punters to say “good on ya”.

It’s a lot to ask.

From the moment they entered journalism school most journalists have been told that it’s their job to “speak truth to power”. “News”, they are told, “is what somebody, somewhere, doesn’t want the public to know.” They soon learn, however, that there are some centres of power it is very unwise to over-burden with the truth.

Their employers, for example, or the shareholders who own their employers’ company, should be considered off-limits. Major advertisers, also, should probably not have too much truth shoved in their faces. Litigious individuals with deep pockets are, similarly, best left unmolested by over-eager investigative reporters. Ditto (with bells on!) for large transnational corporations with phalanxes of sharp-suited lawyers.

Leaving, in the political journalist’s target department, only hapless politicians and humble public servants. Speak “truth” to them, even when unverified and leaked by their political opponents, and everybody from your employer’s shareholders to the largest of large transnational corporations will slap you on the back and give you an award.

The ability of the political journalist to make the transition from critic to cheerleader isn’t assisted by their isolation from the very citizens they purport to speak for. This is not altogether their fault. The Parliamentary Press Gallery takes them as far – maybe even further – from the average citizen as the House of Representatives itself. At least the politicians have their weekly clinics with constituents to keep them grounded. For the ambitious Gallery journalist, however, there is no such respite. Only the endless quest to prove to their colleagues, their bosses, and yes, to the politicians themselves, that they have what it takes to ruin reputations and destroy careers. In the much better remunerated job of Ministerial Press Secretary, to which so many political journalists ascend, the killer instinct is a deal-sealer.

New Zealand’s political journalists’ disconnection from the public was on display as never before during the Prime Minister’s and her Director-General of Health’s daily Covid-19 press briefings. Broadcast live, New Zealanders were able to hear not only the words of Jacinda Ardern and Dr Ashley Bloomfield, but the questions of the assembled journalists. The public reaction was one of disbelief seasoned with rage. The same journalists who castigated Simon Bridges for his tone-deafness clearly had no notion of how painfully their own behaviour was setting Kiwis’ teeth on edge. Who were these people!

The journalists were genuinely hurt. They railed against the public’s utter ignorance of what was expected of them. Did these ingrates not understand how vital an assertive Fourth Estate was to the health of our democracy?

Well, no, they didn’t. At least they failed to grasp how all that carping and whingeing and “gotcha!” questioning could possibly contribute anything positive to their democracy. As far as they were concerned Jacinda and Ashley were making a simply splendid job of looking after them and their loved ones. They were deserving of the news media’s praise – not its blame.

The Press Gallery didn’t – and still doesn’t – get this. The way a crisis instantly clarifies the nature and purposes of state power. How it sweeps away all the petty distractions which under “normal” conditions are the news media’s bread-and-butter. Nor do they appreciate how very unappreciative the public is of those who think that “good journalism” is about picking things apart rather than pulling them together.

Certainly the Covid-19 Lockdown has inflicted enormous damage on an already faltering news media. Slowly, the realisation is dawning in the minds of media owners and editors that New Zealand journalism – and journalists – will only be saved by entering into an entirely new relationship with the state. That, pretty soon, most of the news media’s shareholders will be the ordinary citizens of New Zealand. They will have the power, and they will expect their journalists to tell them the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Wednesday, 29 April 2020.

Monday 27 April 2020

Of Devs, Other Universes, And China’s Covid Choices.

Looking Backwards - And Forwards? The writer and director of the TV mini-series, Devs, Alex Garland, clearly anticipates that quantum computing and quantum mechanics are going to be inextricably entwined. This allows him to play with the weird paradoxes of quantum physics – like matter being in, and not in, our universe at the same time. These raise the possibility of there being more than one universe. Or many. Or even an infinite number of universes! If that’s the way it is, however, then wouldn’t it mean that an infinite number of pasts – and futures – are also possible?

DEVS is a fantastic futuristic television mini-series – which ends next week on Soho. Now, don’t worry, there will be no spoilers in this post, so please feel free to read on. It’s certainly not giving too much away to say that in addition to serving up a riveting plotline and a first rate cast, Devs also offers master classes in both the future of information technology and philosophy.

Driving the drama forward is the age-old debate between those who believe that human-beings possess free will and those who insist that, since every effect must have a cause, our “choices” are entirely predetermined. Devise a computer of sufficient capability, Devs’ determinists insist, and not only will it allow you to see back into the past, but also forward into the future.

Mind-bending stuff.

Once you enter this territory, however, the question inevitably arises: “Which past and which future?” The writer and director of Devs, Alex Garland, clearly anticipates that quantum computing and quantum mechanics are going to be inextricably entwined. This allows him to play with the weird paradoxes of quantum physics – like matter being in, and not in, our universe at the same time. These raise the possibility of there being more than one universe. Or many. Or even an infinite number of universes! If that’s the way it is, however, then wouldn’t it mean that an infinite number of pasts – and futures – are also possible? And wouldn’t it then follow, logically, that in this “multiverse” anything you can imagine happening either will happen, or, has happened already?

Here then, in the spirit of Devs, is one of the infinite number of histories of the Covid-19 virus and the global pandemic which it spawned.

In a biological research facility on the outskirts of Wuhan, in China’s Hubei province, scientists create a new, highly infectious and potentially deadly coronavirus. Unfortunately, lax handling protocols result in a number of the research facility’s staff becoming infected. With terrifying speed the virus spreads through Wuhan’s 11 million inhabitants. Alerted to its unchecked community transmission by a conscientious physician, the Chinese authorities are faced with a daunting series of choices.

The most noble choice is, obviously, to contain the disease within China’s borders and do everything possible to prevent it from infecting the rest of humanity. This option, however, is fraught with risk. What if the virus mutates into something even deadlier? What if it cannot be contained? What would such an outbreak do to China’s already faltering economy? How could the Chinese Communist Party preserve its power in the face of tens-of-thousands – perhaps millions – of fatalities? And what would China’s enemies do? Would they help? Or, would they stand back and watch the regime of Xi Jinping go under?

In the very large subset of worlds in the multiverse where this most ruthless sort of political calculation prevails, such questions tend to lead political leaders away from noble choices. This case was no exception. The government of Xi Jinping adopted a policy of strategic inaction. It delayed informing the World Health Organisation of the virus’s extraordinary infectiousness. More crucially, it delayed shutting down Wuhan, Hubei, and China itself, until the virus was safely aboard the world’s airlines and winging its way unheralded across the planet.

If humanity suddenly had to contend with a new coronavirus, then, from the perspective of Beijing, it was far preferable to have the whole of humanity contending with “Covid-19” (as it would soon be called) than only that fraction of humanity residing within the borders of the People’s Republic of China. To have protected the rest of the world – particularly its most powerful nations – from the virus’s devastating economic side-effects would have been indistinguishable from allowing China to be defeated in a major war. Sharing Covid-19 with the rest of the world made much more sense in geopolitical and economic terms than heroically bearing its burdens alone. Receiving the world’s praise is one thing; giving the rest of the world the whip hand over your country’s future is something else altogether.

Having allowed the virus to escape, it then behoved the Chinese Government to do all within its power to mitigate its effects and, if at all possible, stamp it out. Obviously, the first country to come out the other side of what was now a global pandemic would enjoy a tremendous advantage over all those other nations still stricken and locked down by the presence of Covid-19 in their populations. Certainly, China did not lack the totalitarian apparatus necessary to contain and eliminate the virus among its own people.

Even in another universe, far, far away, it would not have taken long for those well-schooled in the realities of ruthless political calculation to grasp what China had done. Could they prove it? No. But proof is not always required when the logic of a particular course of action is so compelling. If every effect has a cause, then it is no great matter to work one’s way back through each successive stage of a crisis to locate the first move, the first “choice”, that set it in motion.

Small wonder that China’s principal rival, the United States is so agitated by the bind in which it now finds itself. It simply cannot afford to be locked down, but it lacks the totalitarian apparatus needed to drive its population through the slaughter associated with acquiring “herd immunity” in the shortest possible time. Even if it did (and astutely exploited the Patriot Act offers a sufficiently ruthless American government tremendous scope) the United States has chosen, democratically, to afflict itself with its worst President ever. To look upon an America more riven with sectarian hatred and social division one would have to travel back in time to the Civil War of 1861-65.

If the Chinese Government operating in this alternative universe had been in possession of the time-mastering super-quantum-computer at the heart of the action in Devs, it could not have played its hand with more far-sighted political acuity. China took an “accident” (if you believe in such dubious concepts) and turned it into an opportunity to take over the world.

Not to worry, though. There are plenty of other universes where this didn’t happen. We might even be living in one.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 24 April 2020.

Friday 24 April 2020

Deposing Simon Bridges Would Be A Mistake.

If Not Him, Who? Surrendering to a run of bad news seldom makes the headlines any better. Opposition Leader Simon Bridges may have many faults, but he is, at least, a known quantity. Of his potential replacements: Paula Bennett, Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and Todd Muller: those not generally detested by the voters are generally unknown to them.

DEPOSING SIMON BRIDGES as Leader of the Opposition would cause the National Party more problems than it would solve. Yes, Bridges is difficult to like and prone to serious lapses in political judgement, but he is also capable of exploiting the Government’s weaknesses with considerable aplomb. It is this strength that National needs to keep in play as the country counts down to the General Election. Truly bad things are coming down the pike and Labour lacks the depth of political talent required to deal with them. In the same way a tree can hide in a forest, Bridges’ failings may soon become much harder to spot.

Keeping its collective nerve will admittedly be difficult for the National caucus. Very soon appalling private poll results will be confirmed by equally appalling public ones. Bridges’ favourable/unfavourable numbers will test the patience of his colleagues to the limit. And the dazzling halo of public acclaim currently crowning the Prime Minister can only make National’s parlous political situation even harder for its parliamentary team to bear.

But bear it they must. Surrendering to a run of bad news seldom makes the headlines any better. Bridges may have many faults, but he is, at least, a known quantity. Of his potential replacements: Paula Bennett, Judith Collins, Mark Mitchell and Todd Muller: those not generally detested by the voters are generally unknown to them. Worse still, all bar Muller hail from the National Party Right, and Muller’s allegedly “wet” credentials are far from unimpeachable. (In party politics, just about everything is negotiable!) In short, if the National Caucus does lose its nerve, then the public’s most likely reaction will be either “Not her!” or “Who’s he?”

What this dilemma reveals is the party’s failure to equip itself with enough politicians of sufficient stature to meet all contingencies. How differently the party was positioned in 2002, following National’s worst ever electoral defeat. Bill English may have led his colleagues to the crushing repudiation of a 20.9 percent Party Vote, but when the smoke had cleared Don Brash and John Key were seated comfortably on the Opposition Benches. The former was particularly well-suited to lead National back into electoral contention, and the latter had everything it took to carry the party forward to victory in 2008. Scanning the Opposition’s ranks in 2020, it is simply not possible to identify either a Don Brash- or a John Key-in waiting.

Giving New Zealand a National Party leader even further to the right than Bridges would be an invitation to electoral ruin. By the same token, electing a new leader of no fixed ideological abode would immediately prompt the question: “Why did they bother?” It would also prove that National’s caucus lacks the wit to recognise the winning combination it already has.

Bridges has already proved his ability to fasten his sharp little teeth firmly around Labour’s jugular if its representatives and advisers are silly enough to give him the opportunity. One has only to recall his successful exploitation of the Treasury’s Budget Papers foul-up to be reminded of the harm Bridges can inflict when he gets the chance. On that occasion he seriously compromised the Minister of Finance’s “wellbeing”. Grant Robertson has seldom looked so irked!

More seriously, Robertson now has Paul Goldsmith marking him on the economic wing. National’s finance spokesperson may strike voters as a fairly cold fish, but given Goldsmith’s role is to forensically deconstruct the Government’s response to the Covid-19-induced recession with icy detachment and unrelenting severity, his rather chilly persona may be no bad thing. That Bridges and Goldsmith have become close friends and allies only makes the wisdom of keeping both of them at the head of National’s column all the more compelling.

What every member of National’s caucus can do for their all-too-frequently hapless leader is remind him constantly of the fundamental importance of political timing. How different things would have been this week if Bridges had restricted his response to the Prime Minister’s extension of the Level 4 Lockdown by a further week to one of calm, but guarded, support. If he’d followed this with a heartfelt shout-out to all the small businesses struggling to stay afloat in the Covid-19 flood he would also have been superbly set up for what unfolded the following day at the Epidemic Response Committee.

Labour thought itself very fortunate to secure the services of Dr Deborah Russell. Her academic expertise in taxation made her a sitter for Cabinet. That is to say – it did. Because her performance at the Select Committee on Tuesday, 21 April was not the sort that enhances political careers. Russell’s almost total lack of empathy for the thousands of small business owners facing ruin as a result of the Lockdown will not be forgotten in a hurry by the individuals and families involved. Insinuating that their acute financial vulnerability was evidence of business incompetence, was like rubbing salt in an open wound. Symptomatic of the ever-widening gulf between Labour’s professional-managerial recruits and the rest of the country, the New Lynn MP’s condescension recalls Hilary Clinton’s infamous description of Trump’s followers as “a basket of deplorables”.

Had he not buried himself under an avalanche of public (or, at least, Facebook) opprobrium by responding so gracelessly to the Prime Minister’s announcement, Bridges could have pilloried Russell for her insensitivity and ignorance. National’s core supporters among the nation’s small and medium-sized enterprises could have been reassured – inspired even – by their party leader.

“I may not have Jacinda’s star-power,” he could have said, “but I know – because hundreds of you have told me – what it’s like to lie awake all night wondering how to save the business you have poured your whole life into building up. How dare a well-paid academic-turned-Labour-politician criticise that sort of effort and dedication? What did she earn her doctorate for – cruelty?”

With problems whole lot worse than Dr Russell’s insensitivity heading Labour’s way, all Simon Bridges and his Finance spokesperson need to do, is let the Coalition Government’s predictably over-cautious and ideologically-arid policies speak for themselves.

Jacinda only has five months to teach her colleagues to speak the language of empathy and kindness. If she fails, then National’s words of condemnation and reproach will be more than enough to unseat her.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 23 April 2020.

Long Live The People's Dictatorship!

Doing What The People Say: If Jacinda Ardern’s Government is to be branded “near dictatorial” for doing everything New Zealanders expect of it, then: “Long live the people’s dictatorship!” is the only democratic response.

DEMOCRACY AND DICTATORSHIP have always been curiously intertwined. I say “curiously” because, contrary to the generally accepted view, they are not opposites. If democracy reposes power in the people, then dictatorship provides an answer to the questions: Who should give expression to the people’s power? Who guarantees that what the people say is done? A dictator may also be a protector. Someone to whom the people voluntarily entrust their safety and security in times of dire emergency.

At moments of extreme peril to the state, the Senate and People of the ancient Roman Republic would confer upon a trusted citizen the extraordinary office of ‘dictator’. For a limited period of time that citizen was permitted to exercise all political and military authority single-handedly.

The most famous Roman dictator was Cincinnatus. According to legend, this conservative aristocrat was called away from his plough by a delegation of the Republic’s leading citizens to defend Rome from its enemies the Aequi. Having fulfilled this mission, Cincinnatus dutifully relinquished his power and returned to his estate.

Kings and dictators also have a lot in common. A strong king was able to defend his subjects from the depredations of his nobles. The “King’s Justices” overruled the functionaries of the local aristocrat against whom humble folk ordinarily found themselves powerless. A “good” king was one who protected the bodies and property of his subjects. A “bad” king allowed his barons to run riot with both.

It is not the unimpeded exercise of executive power that is in-and-of-itself evil; but the purposes to which such power may be put.

Those who protest the “undemocratic” and “near dictatorial” emergency regime set in place to combat the spread of the Covid-19 virus in New Zealand are guilty of seriously mischaracterising the present Lockdown and the necessarily comprehensive restrictions required to give it force.

The Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, along with her ministers and public officials were vouchsafed emergency powers by the House of Representatives in the name of the New Zealand people. It is in our name that she is waging the campaign to eliminate Covid-19. We have the right to demand that she protect us, and she has the duty to do exactly that. What could be more democratic than a political leader armed with all the power necessary to carry out the people’s will? If she stops doing what we have asked her to do, then we have plenty of ways of letting her know. (Anyone who doubts the power of the people to make their displeasure felt should take a look at Simon Bridges’ Facebook page!)

No, those raising all these “democratic” objections to the Covid-19 Emergency Regime do not strike me as having the people’s interests at heart. Quite the reverse in fact. Like the robber barons of old, they resent the power of the Prime Minister to protect our bodies at the expense of their property.

For thirty-five years, those same robber barons have steadily stripped the state of the power to intervene on behalf of its people. They are terrified that the Covid-19 Pandemic is exposing the enormous risks imposed on ordinary people by this deliberate policy of disempowering the state. They are even more frightened of the example our Prime Minister is providing of how beneficial the power of the state can be when applied conscientiously. The world looks at the egregious failures of Donald Trump and shudders; it observes the astonishing successes of Jacinda Ardern and cheers.

But surely, as a defender of Free Speech, I must uphold the rights of “non conformists and dissenters” to question authority? Questioning authority in good faith and without the dishonourable intentions of “Gotcha! Journalism” is one thing; shouting “Fire!” in a crowded theatre is another.

But if the theatre really is on fire? What then?

Well, then you do your best to assist the theatre staff evacuate the building swiftly and safely. You certainly don’t stand up and start telling the terrified patrons that they’re being led in the wrong direction; that the exit is actually over here; and, anyway, the staff of the burning theatre across the street are doing a much better job!

If Jacinda Ardern’s Government is to be branded “near dictatorial” for doing everything New Zealanders expect of it, then: “Long live the people’s dictatorship!” is the only democratic response.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 24 April 2020.

Tuesday 21 April 2020

NZ Military Getting Ready To Aid The Civil Power.

Black Helicopters! Just because armed idiot misogynists hellbent on overturning the Covid-19 rules are feeling ever-so-slightly paranoid, doesn't mean the NZDF isn't out to get them!

IT WAS EASY to miss amidst the information overload of Lockdown at Level 4. A curiously thin news story, published by Stuff on 15 April, concerning “a routine military exercise” in South Auckland. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) was keen to reassure people living in the area that the sound of gunfire, loud explosions and helicopters flying overhead were nothing to be concerned about. But, as is so often the case with NZDF media releases, that wasn’t the whole story – not by a long (and potentially deadly) shot.

Any government facing a crisis on the scale of the Covid-19 Pandemic will, at a pretty early stage in the proceedings, be briefed by their senior law enforcement and military advisers on how best to respond to a serious outbreak of civil disorder. For the likes of Jacinda Ardern and Grant Robertson this was likely to have been a sobering – and scary – experience.

The number of sworn police officers in New Zealand currently stands at around 10,000. The NZDF musters roughly the same number, 10,000, with a further 2,000 men and women in reserve. In other words, in a nation of just under 5 million, the state can call upon just 22,000 trained personnel to enforce its will. That’s one trained enforcer for every 227 citizens.

Obviously, the state’s best option, when faced with a serious outbreak of civil disorder, is to concentrate as many of its enforcers as possible at the scene. Equally obviously, those enforcers need to be trained and equipped to quell such disorder swiftly and decisively. To achieve this objective with a minimum of violence and injury, the first responders should ideally be police officers trained in crowd control – i.e. a “riot squad”.

This was the preferred option for maintaining law and order during the Springbok Tour protests of 1981, and it was highly successful. Only outside Eden Park on the final day of the Tour did the Police contemplate calling upon the military to aid the civil power. Armed naval personnel were mustered in readiness, but fortunately their services were not required. The “thin blue line” held.

Of course the overwhelming majority of anti-Apartheid protesters were law-abiding members of the New Zealand middle-class, and the main co-ordinating body of the anti-tour movement, the Halt All Racist Tours organisation (HART) was officially committed to non-violent civil-disobedience. That being the case, the highly-trained “Red” and “Blue” riot squads, equipped with visored helmets, metal shields and long batons, were more than equal to the task of making sure the games went ahead. They were bested by the protesters only once – at Hamilton’s Rugby Park.

Serious civil disorder arising out of the prolonged imposition of the lockdown rules is, however, unlikely to be undertaken by idealistic protesters committed to non-violent action. One has only to take in the images now flooding out of the United States, of loud and aggressive Trump supporters openly flouting the social-distancing rules imposed by state governors and legislatures. At present, most (but not all) of these protesters are unarmed. Should that change, however, the potential for a calamitous  eruption of violence is all too real.

Now, New Zealanders are not Americans: as a people we are about “fairness” much more than we are about “liberty”. But, as the reaction to the Government’s attempts to institute a more rational system of controlling the possession and use of firearms has made clear, there is a vocal minority of New Zealanders who appear to have absorbed completely the “gun culture” of the United States and clearly intend to replicate it their own country. Socio-economically, these folk tend to be found running New Zealand’s small businesses and farms. Most of them are men, and an alarming number of them seem to have enormous difficulty coming to terms with the fact that New Zealand is led by a young, progressive, mother of one.

When that same young woman is telling these guys that they have to stay at home; that their small businesses must remain shut; and that they are not permitted to go hunting with their precious firearms; then there has to be a reasonable chance that at least some of them are going to take a leaf out of the play-book of Trump’s supporters in Michigan and Wisconsin and demand that the economy be “liberated” from the Lockdown. How big a step is it, after all, from the infamous placard declaring Jacinda to be “a pretty communist” and the one carried high by a Trump supporter proclaiming “Social Distancing = Communism”?

Whenever they're confronted with courage and/or complexity, the idiot right call it communism.

All these angry white men, itching to lock and load their guns and hit the streets in protest should, however, pause and think again about those military exercises in South Auckland. Because it’s a pretty safe bet that what’s being trained there in secret is a ready-reaction force. In the worst case scenario, when Police intervention has failed to persuade destructive, violent and armed protesters to disperse, then this is the military unit that will be called upon to aid the civil power.

Idiot armed misogynists determined to overturn the nation’s efforts to eliminate the Covid-19 virus will need to learn that the arrival of this force is a very bad sign indeed. Its only purpose is to disperse armed and violent offenders swiftly and decisively – if necessary by the use of deadly force. Harsh? Certainly. But the rest of New Zealand will cheer them on. Why? Because Kiwis will not tolerate a bunch of violent, armed and self-entitled right-wing thugs putting them and their loved ones at risk. Moreover, unlike the President of the USA, New Zealand’s prime minister has absolutely no interest in encouraging them do so.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 21 April 2020.

Sunday 19 April 2020

"PANDEMIC - The Movie" Has Only Just Begun.

Big Screen Excitement: If New Zealand’s experience of Covid-19 was a movie we’d only have been watching for about 20 minutes. The main characters of “Pandemic – The Movie” have been introduced and have risen splendidly to meet the script’s first big challenges. We’re all rooting for Jacinda and Ashley – willing them to succeed. But, even as our identification with the heroes grows stronger, a little voice is reminding us that “Pandemic” still has 100 minutes left to run.

SO FAR, SO BLOODY FANTASTIC! All around the world people are watching the press conferences of New Zealand’s prime minister and comparing them to whatever you call those performances featuring the President of the United States. Imagine how decent, intelligent Americans must feel as they compare and contrast the style and the substance of these two very different political leaders. The experience must surely be as harrowing for them as it is affirming for us.

The cynics will object, of course, that it’s easy to be “nice” when everything is going well. Which is true. But, here’s the thing: New Zealanders’ experience of the Covid-19 Pandemic has been so much less fraught than the Americans’ because our system and our leadership rose to meet this extraordinary challenge and theirs did not. Our politicians and civil servants, acting together, and supported by the overwhelming majority of the people, made the right choices at the right time and for the right reasons – which is why everything is going so well. Better than many of us dared to hope.

If this was a movie, however, we’d only have been watching for about 20 minutes. The main characters of “Pandemic – The Movie” have been introduced and the best of them have risen splendidly to meet the script’s first big challenges. We’re all rooting for them – willing them to succeed. But, even as our identification with the heroes grows stronger, a little voice is reminding us that “Pandemic” still has 100 minutes left to run.

Because even if New Zealand succeeds in eliminating the Covid-19 virus – and that is still a long way off – our Prime Minister and her colleagues must meet the much larger and more daunting challenge of the virus’s economic consequences. The Treasury’s most optimistic scenario predicts an unemployment rate of around 10 percent as the New Zealand economy struggles to lift itself off its knees. Some economists are expecting as many as a third of this country’s business enterprises to fail. It is difficult to fully appreciate what this means in simple human terms: the collapse of so many hopes and dreams; the rising level of anxiety and despair; the dangerous casting about for someone or something to blame.

If the first 20 minutes of “Pandemic” have been inspiring, the next 60 are likely to be bloody terrifying.

How so? Because wrestling with an economic crisis is a very different proposition from managing a public health crisis. When it comes to the economy there is (as yet) no equivalent character to the steadfast and reassuring Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Economists like to think of their profession as a science, but it isn’t. “Political-Economy”, as people used to call economics, is a much more honest descriptor. It captures the central role which politics plays in how a society organises the means of production, distribution and exchange.

As Lenin rightly recognised, the whole complex business of how any particular society functions is reducible to just two one-word questions: Who? Whom? Or, as Leonard Cohen, rather less tersely, puts it in his song “Democracy”, economics is all about “the homicidal bitchin’ that goes down in every kitchen to determine who will serve and who will eat.”

People may be willing to let the scientific experts like Ashley Bloomfield, Michael Baker, Siouxsie Wiles, and Shaun Hendy guide them through a medical emergency, but a willingness to be guided by the often conflicting advice of bankers, industrialists, trade unionists and academics, is much less likely. Convincing New Zealanders to “unite against the economic depression” will be several orders of magnitude more difficult that convincing them to unite against Covid-19. Unity against a potentially deadly coronavirus is much more easily achieved than uniting the rich and the poor in a common struggle to rebuild a collapsing economy. That will be a much more daunting task.

Daunting – but not impossible. Already emerging from the present crisis is a broad intellectual consensus that the answers to the questions Who? Whom? which the Powers-That-Be have for the past 35 years deemed acceptable will no longer suffice. The Covid-19 Pandemic has brought home to all people of good will the indispensable nature of the state. Not even the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09 was sufficient to topple the ideological hegemony of neoliberal economics, but this latest global catastrophe has brought it crashing down.

And this time, the neoliberal economists and financiers know it. Their efforts at self-defence have, however, been spectacularly self-defeating. The reason for this lack of success is simple. At its core, neoliberalism is a sociopathic ideology, and sociopathology is, by definition, incapable of recognising its own core deficiencies: grandiosity, narcissism, amorality and a complete lack of empathy.

The neoliberal “solutions” to the present crisis reflect these deficiencies. Their protagonists simply cannot comprehend why ordinary decent people recoil in horror from their campaign to “save the economy” by allowing the old, the sick and the weak to die in their tens-of-thousands. People may not know much about economics, but they are still perfectly capable of distinguishing right from wrong. The howling moral vacuum at the heart of Neoliberalism has finally been exposed by – of all people – the neoliberals themselves.

Though finished strategically, the tactical response of Neoliberalism in extremis is certain to enliven the middle section of “Pandemic”. But, if Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson, and whoever emerges as the humane economist equivalent of Dr Ashely Bloomfield, can maintain the tone and poise displayed in the battle against the virus, then the battle against the economic crisis may unfold in an equally satisfactory fashion.

Then again, the Government may not need an economic expert character. In his address to business leaders of 15 April, the Finance Minister, Grant Robertson, may have taken the burden of leading and explaining New Zealand’s economic recovery on to his own shoulders. These words in particular suggest that, in Robertson, the hour has met the man:

“The importance of the role of the state has been underlined by this crisis. I hold a strong personal belief in the power of the state to do good. It is through a well-funded, highly functional public service, that we have had the ability to coordinate and provide leadership for New Zealanders, guiding both the public health response and the economic response to this crisis.

“I believe it is of the utmost importance that the state continues to play an active part in the economic recovery, providing leadership and direction as we move forward through the challenging times ahead.

“Finally, I know that what we have asked New Zealanders to do in this crisis is huge. As we have all had to make sacrifices in doing our bit to stop the spread of the virus, so too will we all have a part to play in our economic recovery.”

It’s hard to imagine a better answer to the questions: Who? Whom? Especially since Robertson’s answer to both questions is the same:


It would certainly guarantee “Pandemic” a happy ending.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 17 April 2020.

Friday 17 April 2020

Hurricane Covid.

Predictable Disasters: Scientists the world over have been warning their respective governments about the inevitability of a global pandemic for decades. They have urged them to prepare for outbreaks of new strains of infectious diseases against which their citizens, having no immunity, will find themselves acutely vulnerable. Those scientists’ warnings have been vindicated but, tragically, they have not, for the most part, been heeded.

HURRICANES are particularly destructive and often deadly natural phenomena. The number of fatalities arising out of the annual “hurricane season” in the Caribbean, however, have been consistently lower in Cuba than in neighbouring islands. Why? It’s not that Cuba is spared the attentions of serious hurricanes. Hurricanes strike the island as regularly as they strike any other in the Caribbean. The simple answer is that the socialist government of Cuba puts the welfare of its citizens at the very top of its list of priorities. This leaves Cuba unusually well prepared for the entirely predictable extreme weather events to which its geographical location is prone. That preparation saves lives – many lives. The capitalist island states of the Caribbean have different priorities. Those priorities cost lives – many lives.

Scientists the world over have been warning their respective governments about the inevitability of a global pandemic for decades. They have urged them to prepare for outbreaks of new strains of infectious diseases against which their citizens, having no immunity, will find themselves acutely vulnerable. To be ready for these global pandemics, scientists have counselled politicians and civil servants to make sure that excess capacity is built into their countries’ hospitals, and to stockpile vast quantities of personal protective equipment (PPE). They have also urged the creation of detailed “pandemic plans” so that state agencies know exactly what to do when mass infection and death threaten their populations.

The scientists’ warnings have been vindicated but, tragically, they have not, for the most part, been heeded. A global pandemic has indeed struck, but only a handful of nation states were in any way prepared for the outbreak of the Covid-19 virus. In the overwhelming majority of countries the recommended preparations were not implemented. Indeed, far from being given excess capacity, hospitals and health services around the world have been consistently underfunded and their capacity to mount a successful pandemic defence diminished. Only in those countries seriously threatened by the SARS coronavirus outbreak of 2002-03 (China, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Thailand) was there anything resembling a well-prepared and effective public health response.

To properly prepare a nation for the outbreak of a potentially fatal infectious disease requires a state committed unequivocally to prioritising the general welfare of its citizens. Building in excess capacity in terms of trained staff, ICUs and hospital beds, and stockpiling PPE, should be regarded as simple governmental prudence by the electorate and the required fiscal resources allocated without serious objection. Politicians decrying such preparations as an unwarranted imposition on “the taxpayer” should elicit only angry condemnation and derision. Naturally, such states will, for many decades, have supplied universal, publicly funded and provided healthcare services to their citizens as of right.

The response of an ill-prepared nation would be altogether different. Possessing only the rudiments of a public health system, or a formerly robust public health system that has been consistently underfunded for decades, the necessary infrastructure for combatting a deadly pandemic would be absent. Poor and marginalised citizens, unable to afford the diagnosis and care they needed would present themselves to health professionals only when their condition had worsened to the point where they could be categorised as critical and hospitalised. This delay in seeking care has contributed significantly to the catastrophic overloading of hospitals – both public and private – that the world has witnessed in New York City and in the Italian region of Lombardy.

The absence of effective public health services, coupled with debilitating levels of poverty and inequality, is not, however, the worst feature of a nation ill-prepared to protect its citizens from natural disasters. To those glaring practical deficiencies must be added an equally glaring moral deficiency which makes national ill-preparedness on a criminal scale practically unavoidable.

That deficiency is the certitude pervading ruling elites and their enablers that, excepting themselves, human-beings are best considered “means to an end”. An “end” determined by themselves. It’s an attitude best summed-up in the verbal manoeuvre featured in HBO’s comedy-drama series “Succession”. When confronted with evidence of their criminal negligence, the series’ billionaire protagonists cynically dismiss it with the cryptic abbreviation “NRPI”. What does NRPI stand for? “No Real People Involved”.

If, in the face of disaster, only the rich are considered real enough to save, then the poor and the weak will soon be regarded as dispensable illusions.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times  and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 17 April 2020.

Thursday 16 April 2020

"Plan B" - Pitching The Devil's Bargain To Generation X.

Have I Got A Deal For You! Ah, yes, the Devil’s Bargain. Transacted in all manner of guises, but always with the same intent: the transformation of the human individual from an “end” into a “means”.

THE SPEED at which the ruling elite has moved to defend itself has been surprisingly slow. It should have been clear from the first onset of the Covid-19 crisis that it was capable to wreaking havoc upon the political-economy of the global status quo. Its first defensive moves were, however, politically clumsy and morally grotesque. Expecting grandparents to make the ultimate sacrifice for the sake of their grandchildren, as the more outlandish members of the American Right advocated, struck most people as horrific. Clearly, a more nuanced solution was required.

Accordingly, the key demographic target of neoliberal capitalism’s defenders shifted from the elderly Baby Boomers (1946-1965) to the notoriously prickly Generation X (1966-1985). This is, after all, the demographic which has made intergenerational injustice its special study. To hear Gen-Xers tell the story, the Boomers managed to get through most of their lives without experiencing much more than a few relatively mild recessions. Admittedly, the American Boomers had the Vietnam War to contend with (and doesn’t it show!) but New Zealand’s Boomers cruised blissfully through the post-war sunshine with the barely a trouble in the world.

Generation X’s bad luck was clear to comedians and cartoonists from the get-go. One of the best of their early jokes depicted a Boomer wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the classic Seventies formula for happiness: Sex. Drugs. Rock&Roll. His Gen-X companion’s T-shirt was less upbeat. Its three words referenced the grim Eighties’ declension of the Boomer’s hedonistic trinity: Aids. Crack. Punk&Rap.

No sooner was all the fun taken out of promiscuity, recreational drug-taking and popular music, than the unlucky Gen-Xers were hit by the full force of the neoliberal revolution. All the benefits of the social-democratic state – enjoyed to the full by their fortunate parents – were whipped away from them. Indebted, de-unionised, unhoused: life wasn’t so much a bowl of cherries, as a plateful of fleshless cherry-stones.

Was the arrival of the Internet and the smartphone sufficient compensation for the Global Financial Crisis and the onrush of Climate Change? Maybe. Even so, for too many of the years they have been alive, the news has made pretty grim reading for Generations X, Y and Z. And now, as if all of the above trials and tribulations weren’t enough, the world’s under-55s find themselves in the midst of a global pandemic.

Where’s the justice in that?

Although the academic Judas Sheep promoting their evidentially-challenged and scientifically tendentious “Plan B” (essentially a plea for pursuing ‘herd immunity’ from Covid-19) don’t make it explicit, they presumably see an element of divine justice in the virus’s preference for older people’s vulnerable immune systems. Their own generation and their children’s are much less likely to die from Covid-19 than Mum and Dad and/or Grandma and Grandpa. It’s almost as if God has finally relented and thrown these younger generations a chunk of good luck.

But, has he?

The dissident academics’ preference is for science, not theology, so expecting them to spot the profound moral challenge which the Almighty has just set down on the younger generations’ plate is probably too tall an order. It lies there, nonetheless, and all of these scientists’ crude consequentialist philosophising cannot remove it.

They do their best to ignore it, however, by reaching for the utilitarian philosopher’s substitute for God: “The greatest good for the greatest number.” It’s a formula that has always appealed to the kind of hard-line, ideologically-driven capitalists who presumably recruited these (to borrow Lenin’s trenchant epithet) “useful idiots”. Certainly, the individuals fronting “Plan B” all possess a facility for fine calculation to make a bean-counter proud. 

Which should be accorded more value, these ethical accountants now demand: The right to life of the elderly and the chronically ill – a quarter of the population; or, the right to a prosperous economic future of the other three-quarters? The contention being, that a point will surely be reached in the course of the current crisis when protecting the rights of both fractions becomes impossible. It is then that the Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, and her ministers will be required to answer the very hardest of questions.

In the words of the Plan-B-Boys’ advance guardsman, Matthew Hooton, opining in the NZ Herald of Saturday, 4 April 2020:

“The first unbearable question is at what point, if ever, we decide that the immediate social and economic costs are too high to continue with a lockdown, if elimination or suppression fail. The second is who pays those costs, and when.”

Hard? Oh yes – and it only gets worse:

“Ardern and all of us have no choice but to take [the] risks [flowing from the harms attendant upon catastrophic economic collapse] into account while grappling with the ethics of the decisions ahead. It may be repulsive to express it explicitly, but a protracted suppression strategy would materially and perhaps permanently damage the lives of the two million New Zealanders under the age of 30 to briefly maintain the life expectancy of some thousands of people in their 80s.”

Or, rephrasing Hooton’s argument even more repulsively: At what point do we let Grandpa die, so that we, his grandchildren, can have a crack at the sort of life our grandparents and parents were able to live?

Ah, yes, the Devil’s Bargain. Transacted in all manner of guises, but always with the same intent: the transformation of the human individual from an “end” into a “means”. Here’s how the nineteenth century Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoyevsky presents the Devil’s Bargain in The Brothers Karamazov, when Ivan confronts his brother, Alyosha, with the classic utilitarian dilemma:

Tell me straight out, I call on you—answer me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears — would you agree to be the architect on such conditions? . . . And can you admit the idea that the people for whom you are building would agree to accept their happiness on the unjustified blood of a tortured child, and having accepted it, to remain forever happy?

What Dostoyevsky grasps here is what always slips through the fingers of the crude utilitarians. Happiness cannot be created out of unhappiness. Life cannot be purchased with Death. Another great Russian novelist, and dissident, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, grasped it also. When the young pacifists of the Eighties put it to him that if the choice was between Communism and nuclear annihilation, then surely it was better to be Red than dead? His answer was always the same: “No. Better to be dead than to live as a scoundrel!”

And, if memory serves, there was another seeker after the truth who had something to say about the Devil’s Bargain. A carpenter and teacher from Nazareth, in First Century Galilee. His words may be old, but even after two thousand years they bear repeating:

“For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, but lose his soul?”

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 16 April 2020.

Wednesday 15 April 2020

Dean Parker: 1947 - 2020

Dean Parker - Socialist, trade unionist, journalist, novelist, playwright, screenwriter. Photo Credit: Roger Fowler.

YESTERDAY, Tuesday, 14 April 2020, New Zealand lost Dean Parker, one of its most important socialist artists. His death is a tragic loss to the whole NZ Left. To his family, friends and comrades, I offer my heartfelt sympathy.

Dean was one of the most creative and entertaining individuals it has been my privilege to know. His knowledge of the history and culture of the socialist movement, both internationally and domestically, was second to none. He had the ability as a writer and playwright to make the past come alive and to infuse the present with political possibility. His “Bloomsday” productions were unforgettable. 

I will miss you Dean - and all that you stood for.

Haere ra Comrade.


This posting is exclusive to Bowalley Road.

Monday 13 April 2020

The ‘What’ And The ‘How’.

Capitalism Driving The People: Standing in the way of “bold persistent experimentation” are the ideas, organisations and orthodoxies that constitute its deadliest foes. The idea that human-beings are made to serve the economy, rather than the economy being made to serve human-beings. Unregulated capitalism is the organisational expression of this idea, and neoliberalism is its orthodoxy. Post Pandemic, these are the things we can lose.

“EVERYTHING MUST CHANGE so that everything can stay the same.” So says the Rabelaisian hero of Prince Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel “The Leopard”. Published in 1958, Lampedusa’s unfinished, posthumously-published novel catalogues the efforts of the fictitious Prince of Salina to preserve his aristocratic way of life amidst the tumultuous social, economic and political upheavals attendant upon the nineteenth century unification of Italy.

Like the Prince of Salina, New Zealand also faces a Herculean effort to preserve its way of life in the midst of tumultuous events. As the nation emerges from its Covid-19 Level-4 lockdown and into the economic havoc which the Pandemic has wrought, its citizens will need all the guile and flexibility of Lampedusa’s hero. But, before dealing with the “how” of national recovery, New Zealanders will need to address the “what”.

What, precisely, do we need to preserve? What beliefs, institutions and values must remain non-negotiable? More importantly, what ideas, organisations and orthodoxies should we be ready to let go? Only when we have sorted out the answers to these questions can the practical work of recovery and resurgence begin.

Each of us will present a slightly different set of “must haves” and “no longer requireds”. Here, for what they’re worth, are mine.

The core belief of the archetypal Pakeha New Zealander is that Jack and Jill are as good as their masters. If you are looking for the reason why so many people travelled half way around the world to settle these islands, then you will find it in the settlers’ desire to begin again in a new land where people’s hopes aren’t circumscribed by the circumstances of their birth. Where personal success and fulfilment no longer depend on who your parents are. Where it is possible for ordinary people to make something of themselves on their own terms. Where the future is fashioned by “us” – not “them”.

It is this core belief that undergirds New Zealand’s core institutions: a House of Representatives, democratically elected; independent courts of law; publicly funded health and education providers; a welfare safety-net to support us through times of adversity; an independent news media to keep us informed and hold our leaders to account; trade unions to defend workers’ rights on the job. Take away these core institutions and Jack and Jill’s masters will very soon reign supreme.

The core value animating these institutions is Fairness. For the overwhelming majority of New Zealanders nothing can be good if it is not also fair. A more high-falutin people might have designated Justice as their core value: but for Kiwis the notion that everybody is entitled to “a fair go” says it just fine.

It is interesting to speculate about the extent to which these Pakeha beliefs, institutions and values have been influenced by the Maori concepts of Kotahitanga (Unity), Whanaungatanga (Kinship), Kaitiakitanga (Stewardship) and Wairuatanga (Spirituality). What is not in dispute, however, is that the ultimate sources of well-being in both cultures have complimented and reinforced each other down the years.

This, then, is the “what” that I would be willing to change everything to keep the same. As to the “how”, I can think of no better example to cite than Franklin D. Roosevelt, the American President who guided his people out of the very depths of the Great Depression.

The day he was inaugurated, most of America’s banks had closed their doors. Hundreds-of-thousands of his fellow citizens had lost their life’s savings. Millions more had lost their jobs. The line from Roosevelt’s inaugural address that is most often quoted is: “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself”. But, the FDR quote that captures my imagination, and which is most relevant to our own time, is this.

“The country needs and unless I mistake its temper the country demands bold persistent experimentation. It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails admit it frankly and try another. But above all try something.”

Standing in the way of “bold persistent experimentation”, however, are the ideas, organisations and orthodoxies that constitute its deadliest foes. The idea that human-beings are made to serve the economy, rather than the economy being made to serve human-beings. Unregulated capitalism is the organisational expression of this idea, and neoliberalism is its orthodoxy.

These are the things we can lose.

This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Thursday, 9 April 2020.

Friday 10 April 2020

Men To Boys.

Being A Dick: Ignoring the restrictions of Level-4 is a way of signalling one's membership of the vast idiot fraternity of “You can’t tell me what to do!” More than that, however, it is a way of working out the fear of the Covid-19 virus that these men feel, but cannot acknowledge, except by getting right up in its face and daring it to do its worst – no matter what harm that might bring to other people.

WHY ARE THERE so many blokes out there behaving like idiots? (“Idiots” is the Prime Minister’s descriptor, most New Zealanders would, less charitably, call them “dicks”.) It’s not all blokes – not by any means – but such problems as the authorities have so far encountered during the Covid-19 Lockdown skew heavily towards the male of the species. If women can see the logic of collectivism and solidarity in combatting Covid-19, why can’t a truly irritating minority of dickish men?

Obviously, all this dickishness reflects something seriously amiss with New Zealand’s sons. At the very moment when New Zealand women are wowing the world with their smarts, their grit and their empathy (cheers Jacinda!) far too many New Zealand men have retreated into the stripped-down stronghold of sporting prowess and barred the gates behind them.

The television promotions for the various sporting codes – especially Rugby Union and Rugby League – feature a terrifying sequence of images glorifying brutal bodily contact, exaggerated aggressiveness, and exultation bordering on complete loss-of-control. What we see is what’s left of the human male when everything dignified, intelligent, creative and compassionate has been edited out of the masculine narrative.

These promos are made all the more frightful by the knowledge that they wouldn’t look that way if the punters wanted to see something else. Clearly, smearing the screen with testosterone is the best way of getting the boys to tune-in. It’s possible, of course, that the clips are assembled for the pleasure of the sporting codes’ female devotees. At least that would make a sort of – equally troubling! – sense. In the end, however, these gloriously kinetic visual packages are all about reaffirming and celebrating a particular kind of masculinity. They present the human male as a dangerous, uncompromising and predatory bundle of muscle.

The retrograde character of this brutish version of masculinity is disturbing. For centuries, English speakers have honoured males with the title “gentlemen”. Implicit in the term’s general use is an expectation that all males should at least aspire to the qualities of their social superiors. The goal was to cultivate the self-control, easy affability, intellectual discipline, moral courage, rhetorical skill and, most importantly, the ability to interact easily and pleasingly with women, that traditionally defined a “well-mannered” member of the ruling class. The ultimate social goal was to bring about a levelling upwards: something along the lines of “we are all aristocrats now”.

It is one of the many oddities of modern history that it was to these civilised and humane ideals that so many of the women who assailed the domains of male exclusivity aspired. Even odder, is the fact that in so many cases they succeeded: demonstrating throughout their careers the attributes and values that were hitherto regarded as the proof and preserve of a  “gentleman”. Tragically, as women rose up to claim so many of the things that were supposed to define a man, a worryingly large number of men began abandoning them as accomplishments no self-respecting male would boast of possessing.

Increasingly, a strong intellect, articulateness, creative ability, the willingness to listen attentively and to demonstrate empathy came to be regarded by these “anti-gentlemen” as not only evidence of effeminacy, but also of something much worse – homosexuality. The simple possession of any of these powers was proof positive of, to use the modern parlance, “gayness”. Bad enough to be called a “girl”, but to be branded “gay” meant instant excommunication from the world of “real men”.

But, what behavioural repertoire is left to such males if intelligence, expressiveness, creativity and empathy are ruled out of contention? The answer, sadly, is belligerence, taciturnity, pragmatism and toughness. Sentences are reduced to slogans; slogans to single words: Muppet, wanker, arsehole, cunt. Gentlemanly efforts to converse with these linguistically-challenged anti-gentlemen are all-too-often interpreted as condescension, or, even more dangerously, as attempts to make fun of and/or belittle them. Their responses can be savage. To be showered with one word insults (usually in Anglo-Saxon) is to get off lightly. Physical violence bubbles ominously just below the surface of these cross-purposeful encounters.

To elicit the most aggressive response, however, nothing more is required than to give the anti-gentleman a direct order. Nothing riles him more than being told what to do. And, if the person telling him what to do happens to be a woman? Oh-boy – watch out!

Paradoxically, the more reasonable the request, the more unreasonable the anti-gentleman’s response is likely to be. Reasonableness belongs to the world of education and erudition – the world they have rejected on account of it being populated by wankers, women and gays. Accordingly, defying reasonableness is more than a one-fingered salute to these wankers’ effete world: it is an act of veneration; an offering to their dickish masculine god.

Ignoring the restrictions of Level-4 is a way of signalling their membership of the vast idiot fraternity of “You can’t tell me what to do!” More than that, however, it is a way of working out the fear of the Covid-19 virus that they feel, but cannot acknowledge, except by getting right up in its face and daring it to do its worst – no matter what harm that might bring to other people.

Poor bastards. They have stripped themselves of the self-awareness that would allow them to see that puffing-up your chest and telling a micro-organism “You’re not the boss of me!” is the behaviour not of a man, but of a frightened and angry little boy.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 10 April 2020.

Thursday 9 April 2020

“Lord, give us Democratic Socialism – but not yet!”

Not Now, Not Ever, Never! The problem with Labour's leading activists is that there is never a good time for democratic socialism. Never. They are like Saint Augustine who prayed to the Almighty: “Lord, give me chastity and self-control – but not yet.” In the case of Labour's "junior officers", however, the prayer is a little different: “Lord, let the Labour Party give New Zealand democratic socialism – but not yet.”

IT PAINS ME to ignore the Prime Minister’s advice, but it’s time to kick some Labour Party butt. As the saying goes: “Sometimes you have to be cruel to be kind.” And, no, I’m not talking about putting another boot into the tragic posterior of the Minister of Health. My beef is with the junior officers of Labour’s army. These are the folk who should be the most aggressive in the fight for social justice. The ones willing to take the risks necessary for victory. The ones with their eyes firmly fixed on the democratic-socialist prize. Unfortunately – and frustratingly – this is not what we’ve got.

On display is the sort of military prowess that saw a gaggle of chinless, baggy-panted British toffs hand over Singapore to a near-exhausted, numerically inferior and utterly astonished Japanese army in February 1942. Rather than delighting Labour’s allies and supporters with bold and imaginative contributions to the debate on how best to wrestle down the looming Covid-19 recession, Labour’s junior officers are offering nothing but orthodoxy and caution. Even worse, they are expending what little energy they can summon-up on upending buckets of cold water on every radical idea that comes forward.

Why do they always do this? How did dreary pragmatism become Labour’s default-setting? A full explanation would require a book-length answer. Suffice to say that once a party embraces the fundamental tenets of neoliberalism, anything other than orthodox and cautious policy responses will be treated as the political equivalent of upending a can of petrol over your head and striking a match. To be considered a credible contender for bigger things (an electorate seat or a high position on the Party List) requires constant proof that one’s hands are nothing if not “safe”.

Hence the following snippy little comment from lawyer, Greg Presland (The Standard’s “Mickey Savage”) responding to my criticism of his casual dismissal of the suggestion that Kris Faafoi should’ve rescued the best of New Zealand’s magazines by accepting Bauer Media’s offer to sell its entire stable to the Crown for $1.00:

“Gee Chris. In the middle of a pandemic when the country’s collective health and economy are under major threat and possibly a third of businesses are going to the wall do you really think the Government should be sweating about saving the Listener?”

Yeah, Greg, I do. I really do. Because even Blind Freddie (and The Spinoff’s Duncan Grieve) can see that Bauer’s ruthless cutting of its losses is about to be replicated across the entire media industry, and that only the Crown has the resources (not to mention the responsibility) to keep our news media alive and kicking against the pricks. Unless, of course, Greg’s desired outcome is actually the more-or-less complete collapse of this country’s independent media – with an all-powerful state media monopoly the last man standing. That there is absolutely nothing “social” or “democratic” about such a “solution” should surprise no one.

And lest any reader feel tempted to nod in agreement with Greg’s heartfelt concern for “possibly a third of businesses” poised to go “to the wall”: please, just stop and think it through. Is he suggesting that while the Government cannot afford to “sweat” about saving this country’s magazine publishing industry, it can afford to – and fully intends to – save all the others? Can the nation’s small and medium-sized enterprises now breathe a huge sigh of relief, secure in the knowledge that the same ministers who refused to lift a finger to shore-up the foundations of our democracy will nevertheless work like Trojans to rescue their little businesses?

Isn’t it more likely that the only New Zealand businesses with any reasonable hope of being bailed-out by the Crown will be the ones which are, in that memorable phrase from the Global Financial Crisis of 2008-09, “too big to fail”. Remember that Newsweek cover proclaiming “We are all socialists now”? Published the same week Barack Obama nationalised the auto industry.

Now, don’t get me wrong. Obama was right to take over General Motors. Nationalisation is what you do in a crisis – especially when the industry your saving is vital to the future of your country. And that’s the amazing thing, Greg. That you still don’t get that. But don’t feel too bad, because no one in a position to make a difference in the Labour Party has had an intelligent thought about the New Zealand media since the government of Norman Kirk!

So, if the Government is not going to be in a position to rescue every small business in New Zealand, and if up to a third of those small businesses could “go to the wall”, in Greg’s none-too-felicitous phrase, then wouldn’t this be the very best time to introduce a Universal Basic Income? Especially when the ability of the MSD to process and monitor tens-of-thousands of additional beneficiaries promptly, efficiently and sympathetically is just a teeny bit questionable?

Nope. Wrong again. According to Andrew Little’s former Chief-of-Staff, Neale Jones:

“I cannot think of a worse time to implement a UBI than in the middle of this economic crisis. Some of us are doing fine. Others need unprecedented government support just to stay afloat. UBI would spread that support thinner, or quickly spend 10s of billions we may need later.”

Meaning Neale has no grasp at all of Keynesian economics. No understanding of the crucial importance of keeping up the level of aggregate demand. No historical grasp of the crucial role spending plays in lifting a nation out of an economic slump. Nor does he understand the practical and moral efficiency of universal, as opposed to means-tested, state support. The massively positive effect of telling every Kiwi: ‘You are important in your own right, not because you’re in need of charity but because you are a citizen of New Zealand.’ Everyone keeps telling us that “we’re all in this together” – a UBI would prove it.

But, no. Neale says that being in the middle of a once-in-a-lifetime economic crisis is actually the worst time to consider a payment to every citizen to keep them and the economy afloat. The worst time.

The problem is, Neale, there is never a best time for you guys. Never. You and Greg remind me of Saint Augustine who prayed to the Almighty: “Lord, give me chastity and self-control – but not yet.” In the case of you two junior Labour officers, however, the prayer is a little different:

“Lord, let the Labour Party give New Zealand democratic socialism – but not yet.”

Not yet.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Thursday, 9 April 2020.

Tuesday 7 April 2020

A Lamentable Failure of Imagination.

Imagination By-Pass: Had the Communications Minister, Kris Faafoi (above) taken a firm stand with Bauer, reminding them of their obligations to both their staff and the wider New Zealand public, then a much more favourable outcome may well have ensued. He should have made it clear to the Bauer board (which was, almost certainly, unaware) that the mastheads in their stable represented much more, culturally, than mere commercial assets. If the Germans had been informed of these publications’ iconic status, then there is every reason to suppose that they would have responded differently.

WHEN MATTHEW HOOTON is able to outflank the “Left” effortlessly on RNZ’s Nine-to-Noon something has gone very seriously wrong. Only this morning (6/4/20) the grey personification of Labour’s dreary political pragmatism, Stephen Mills, seemed poised to dismiss as nonsense the suggestion that Communications Minister, Kris Faafoi, should have accepted Bauer Media’s offer of its entire New Zealand operation for just $1.00, when Hooton executed a cheeky intercept and lambasted Faafoi’s failure to nationalise some of New Zealand’s most iconic mastheads.

This lamentable failure of the Centre-Left’s imagination was also in evidence on The Standard, where the man who goes by the entirely undeserved moniker of “Mickey Savage” opined: “Clearly the Government has more pressing issues to deal with than producing the likes of Woman’s Weekly.”

It really is depressing to be confronted with imaginative failures of this magnitude. As if Jacinda Ardern, Grant Robertson and their colleagues were planning to drop everything and settle themselves into the editor’s chair at the NZ Woman’s Weekly, The Listener, Metro and North & South. As if the current editors could not have been asked to remain at their posts pending a complete re-organisation of Bauer Media’s New Zealand holdings. As if the current ownership and management structures were the only viable options on offer. Has “Mickey Savage” never heard of worker co-operatives? Is his casual dismissal of public ownership really indicative of the best thinking of which Labour’s activist base is capable?

But, if “Mickey Savage’s” imagination by-pass is merely confirmation of the damage done to Labour by more than 30 years of drinking the neoliberal Kool-Aid, how to explain Gordon Campbell’s capitulation to the palpable mendacity of the status-quo? Responding to the destruction of New Zealand’s leading periodicals on his “Werewolf” website, the former Listener employee wrote:

“Weirdly, one news outlet has sought to blame the government for Bauer’s decision to close down its titles, and scarper. According to Newshub, after Bauer had refused the wage subsidy, it then asked the government to buy its magazine titles. The government refused to be held to ransom and in Newshub’s view at least, it was wrong not to do so. Really? One can only imagine the screams of outrage if the government began picking and choosing among the losers, and nationalising them at taxpayer expense. Imagine the jibes if PM Jacinda Ardern had ended up owning the NZ Woman’s Weekly. In reality, this outcome is Bauer’s fault alone.”

Now, it is possible to mitigate “Mickey Savage’s” failure of imagination by pointing to his general unfamiliarity with the New Zealand media landscape. There is no way, however, Campbell can plead ignorance. He is, when all is said and done, one of this country’s best print journalists. He knows that if the Government had taken up Bauer’s offer, it would not have been Jacinda Ardern who “ended up owning the NZ Woman’s Weekly” but the New Zealand people. Has the progressive fire that once burned in Campbell’s journalistic soul been reduced to such a pallid bed of embers that he can no longer see, or summon the energy to care about, the possibilities of public ownership?

Sadly, that was not the worst of it. Since when was a bona fide progressive journalist dissuaded from righting the terrible wrong done to the New Zealand public by the wholesale deregulation of their media industry, by imagining “the screams of outrage” and “jibes” of neoliberal ideologues? Progressive journalism should be made of sterner stuff. It used to be.

The real irony of the Bauer debacle, however, is that in Germany itself (where Bauer Media is based) nothing remotely resembling the events of the past fortnight would have been permitted. As Dr Chris Harris pointed out to The Daily Blog’s readers in the sad aftermath of Bauer’s closure:

“In German commercial law the first duty of management is normally to maintain the enterprise and its workforce as a going concern and try to trade out of difficulties, even if banks and shareholders take a hit.”

In other words, had the Communications Minister taken a firm stand with Bauer, reminding them of their obligations to both their staff and the wider New Zealand public, then a much more favourable outcome may well have ensued. He should have made it clear to the Bauer board (which was, almost certainly, unaware) that the mastheads in their stable represented much more, culturally, than mere commercial assets. If the Germans had been informed of these publications’ iconic status, then there is every reason to suppose that they would have responded differently.

Is it too much to expect the man responsible for New Zealand’s media and communications to know how German politicians would respond to a similar crisis unfolding in their own media industry? Not really. Anyone with a passing interest in international social-democracy, which presumably includes the upper echelons of the NZ Labour Party, would have a working knowledge of Germany’s “social-market” economy.

Acknowledging the reality of Faafoi’s demonstrable political and ideological limitations, however, it should not – at the very least – have been beyond the wit of those advising the Communications Minister to grasp the possibilities inherent in Bauer’s all-too-evident eagerness to quit New Zealand. A well-informed public service, motivated by something more than the avoidance of controversy and ministerial embarrassment, would have made clear to Faafoi the extraordinary opportunity that was opening up in front of him. That those around the Minister proved to be as lacking in boldness and imagination as their boss tells us a great deal about the extent to which the neoliberal tapeworm has hollowed out the New Zealand state.

Beyond the sterling example provided by the Prime Minister and her Finance Minister, New Zealanders could be forgiven for wondering if there is anyone else in the Coalition Cabinet equal to the challenges thrown up by the Covid-19 Pandemic. One has only to consider the curiously disengaged behaviour of Health Minister, David Clark. Yes, there was that ill-advised bike ride, but of even more concern is the fact that, in the midst of a national health emergency, New Zealand’s Health Minister has isolated himself in his Dunedin family home – 600 kilometres south of the capital. Moreover, as citizens’ rights are being necessarily curtailed, why do we hear so little from the Justice Minister and the Attorney-General? With more and more “idiots” flouting the Covid-19 rules, where is the Police Minister?

These are precisely the questions which New Zealand’s magazine editors would have been urging their investigative journalists to answer on behalf of their readers. What a pity, then, that those same editors and journalists no longer have jobs, and that their publications have been shut down.

Especially when all of them could have been saved by the expenditure of just a single dollar.

This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 7 April 2020.