An Open Letter to Lorde: Creativity is Love – It dies in the service of hate.

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Dear Lorde,

My name is Todd and I’m a 30 year old New Zealand Maori doctor in mental health, normally based in Wellington. I’m also a fellow musician and a supporter of the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israeli Apartheid.

Listening and playing music is a kind of sacrament. I’m sure you will agree with me on its beautiful potency. My Dad is a singer and as a kid would drag me to country music contests and his Roy Orbison gigs. I developed a deep love for music and its transcendent capacity.

But our mutual love for music and its creative expression cannot be blind to that which is destructive and opposed to creation.

I am writing to politely ask you not to play your wonderful music in Tel Aviv.

If you are willing to heed the urgent plea from Palestinian civil society – a collection of  unions, women’s groups, NGOs, humanitarian agencies and charities – and support the BDS movement, you would send a powerful message of solidarity with the Palestinian people.

Israel explicitly relies upon culture to normalise and validate it’s image – it is an explicit part of its ‘hasbara’, or cultural public relations. This is reflected in the fact that Israeli artists are often only given grants on the understanding they support the occupation, or refrain from criticism.

The freedom of Palestinian artists is obviously creatively and physically restricted, but you can see that many artists in Israel are themselves not free – they must implicitly support the political situation, one ever more dominated by extremist and racist right-wing ideology.

As New Zealanders we can be an important part of this conversation. Israel is a colonial-settler society, just like us. We have much to do to address ethnic disparities in our own backyard, but we have travelled this painful road too. Our advice and solidarity needn’t be a provocation, indeed it should be delivered in the spirit of friendship.

If you were to stand with the oppressed it would be a powerful recognition of not just Palestinian rights, but the rights of the victims of colonial-settler societies everywhere, including New Zealand.

I can understand how it may feel inappropriate or a hindrance to be pulled from the artistic world into the maelstrom of politics. Personally, my belief is that an artist’s final and ultimate loyalty is to creation itself and not always to society. I suspect this is also part of the reasoning of those who ignored the plea and played in Tel Aviv. On one level they don’t believe matters related to human rights and injustice sit above the need to create and express their art. They also fall victim to the idea that their creative act can bridge the political divide – that there will be some ‘kumbaya’ moment.

Sadly, they forget that creation is a loving act and a process of construction. Art does have its splintering qualities of course – rearrangement, dissection, apposition – but in the end what is produced is a new relationship – a binding of things together. If you allow your art to be hijacked in the service of an agenda based upon destruction and erasure (both metaphorical and literal) then you betray creation. In that role you stop being an artist, and what you express stops being art.

I fear that playing in Tel Aviv risks diminishing the integrity and quality of your art. It makes it into the means to the hateful ends of another. It ceases to be about expression, individual revelation and love. Love is at the core of any meaningful aesthetic experience. I don’t have the slightest doubt that love is what you will seek to impart in Tel Aviv. But it is a sad perversity that ultimately you will be doing so in the service of hate.

I’d be the first to own up that the problems of this world can easily overwhelm our optimistic energies towards their correction. This can cause us to turn from them. One person can only do so much. That is why solidarity is the well-spring of change.  Amnesty International articulates this beautifully – we must not “scream at the darkness”, we must “light a candle”. The Palestinian people and the BDS movement is not asking you to take too much of this issue on your shoulders, nor to do anything more than the average person can do.

We are just asking you to light your candle. It is a testament to your creativity and personality that it would burn very bright indeed – taking us one step closer to illuminating the darkness.

Best wishes and in solidarity

Dr. Todd Smith

 

 

Jerusalem and Peace: The Price of Oligarchy

The debt to donors and their narrow interests created by an oligarchic system will always be paid, no matter the price – be that a ‘Peace Process’ and the very lives of those involved.

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Someone once commented on the ‘banality of evil’. Watching the various interpretations and responses to Trump’s recent decision on Jerusalem has made me think about this. Whilst the competing political issues and the complexities of the Israel/Palestine issue are always important, as they are in this example, we should not neglect the fact that underlying this decision is something far removed from the religious, ethnic or colonial-imperialist arguments and counter-arguments. At the bottom of this reckless decision, and the evil that may be unleashed by it, is a sad banality.

We should not lose sight of the fact that, for Trump, this decision was made primarily for domestic reasons. He stated this himself quite openly, declaring that it was an election promise and congratulating himself for keeping it. Of course, the important question is: a promise to whom? The Evangelical base is the obvious culprit – let’s not forget that Zionism’s most vehement and numerous supporters in the United States are Republican-voting Evangelical Christians, not Jews. For Evangelical Christians, the return of the Jewish people to the Holy Land is a requirement for the fulfilment of Armageddon – the final miserable evening when Jesus returns and the majority of the world’s population is summarily damned. Trump is then simply doing what the insipid logic of modern politics demands – he is “shoring up his base.”

But Trump really made a promise to someone much more important – his biggest donor. Sheldon Adelson, the fellow Casino-magnate, owner of right-wing Israeli press and fervent Zionist has been open about his financial support being contingent on an aggressive affirmation of Israel’s sovereignty over all of Jerusalem. Recent reports suggested he was increasingly frustrated that Trump was delaying in fulfilling his promise – with the associated threat of withdrawing financial support.

To this end, Trump appointed his son-in-law Jared Kushner, himself a fervent Zionist, to lay the groundwork for this move, under the guise of being deployed to reactivate the moribund ‘Peace Process.’ Kushner appears to have found ideological affinity with the new Crown Prince and current Defence Minister of Saudi Arabia Mohammad Bin Salman, whose major achievement appears to be the fanboy-named ‘Operation Decisive Storm’ and the creation of a humanitarian disaster in Yemen. As this romance has bloomed, official commentators have noted a softening of Saudi Arabia’s stance with respect to Israel/Palestine, commensurate with a redoubling of its animosity towards Iran.

Kushner then appears to have formulated a ‘peace plan’ with Saudi Arabia which was then recommended to Jordan. Unfortunately, although predictably, it was a heavily one-sided proposal in favour of Israel. It did not include provisions for the right of return of refugees, it did not indicate East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state and it relegated that state to a non-contiguous area of land approximating the Gaza Strip and West Bank – essentially a collection of scattered islets, reminiscent of the “fried chicken” so derisively offered by Israel, that could never realistically be considered a state, let alone be consistent with the international position of two states living side by side with respect to the pre-1967 borders.

Others have noted that Trump likely eventually received a ‘thumbs-up’ from Saudi Arabia prior to making his announcement, given with the advice that the Arab states remain too divided to mount a collective and meaningful response. The quality of this response remains to be established – although statements from the extraordinary session of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation, held yesterday, are promising. Mahmoud Abbas, the long embattled leader of the Palestinian Authority at least managed to state the obvious, meaningfully, for the first time.

“We shall not accept any role for the United States in the peace process – they have proven their full bias in favour of Israel.”

The Palestinian Authority should perhaps be thankful to Trump for his obviously impartial stance. It has allowed for the ‘Peace Process’ – long a masquerade – to be exposed as fatally flawed. The interesting question thus raised is whether or not this was an intended consequence of Trump’s decision. Previous administrations have played a much more deft game of measured statements, in turn allowing them to make a (not very believable) pretence to neutrality. Trump seems to have missed the memo.

One answer is that there is a longer game afoot, the contours of which we aren’t yet able to fathom. I doubt this. The other is that Trump has just gone and messed up vis a vis the normal protocol of the United States on this issue. The outcries from foreign policy institutes and ‘think-tanks’ seems to imply such an error.

But how could this happen?  Trump appears to have disregarded the will of most senior advisors and current and previous diplomats. Why? Because he is a powerfully driven Zionist? Of course not.

The answer is because, in the end, oligarchy wins. It is the eternal bond which must always be preserved  – the pact between wealth and fate. And for Trump, as for oligarchy, there is only one supreme rule – favours for favours. One in cash, one in kind. Trump’s decision is a reflection of the golden rule of international and (especially in the United States) domestic politics. This relationship sits below the cleavage between competing historical or political views on the Israel/Palestine issue, indeed below the cleavage of any significant political or ideological conflict. Arms deals to competing sides in a  conflict springs to mind as an obvious example. The conflict itself is immaterial. It is the banality at the core that really matters.

The Israel/Palestine issue is a cauldron of ideology, passion, truth and the distortion of truth. We could spend a long time discussing the racist, colonial-settler ideology of Zionism and the goals of its proponents, such as Sheldon Adelson. I’ve touched upon the complexity of the Arab world in relation to this issue also – a history that can be understood in sectarian, ethnic and cultural terms, but is best understood in US and Western imperialist terms. All of this history is absolutely relevant and important, no doubt.

But what interests me the most in this current scenario is that when everything is stripped away, what is left is the basic pact of oligarchy. Trump wanted more money and in particular more power – he wanted the Presidency. He then made a promise to an influential man with more money than him, racist colonial-settler views, and a newspaper chain capable of laying the groundwork for the normalisation of those views. Then, just last week, Trump fulfilled that promise. That is the bones of it.

Can it really be much more than that? Does anyone really believe Trump is even capable of a politically ideological crusade? I don’t. I doubt he has the requisite passion for any issue. His primary concern is himself, followed closely by his donors. His ideology is ‘Me’ – and for ‘Me’ to be protected I must ensure I protect those who provide ‘Me’ with power.

Of course the Israel/Palestine issue is definitely not just about money or personal power, especially for those deeply involved in it on either side. It is about religion, human rights, justice, imperialism, colonialism etc. My point is that for Trump it is just about that. For him the issue itself is almost irrelevant – Jerusalem may as well be on the moon. This is not to say that those around him are not ideologically driven. Mike Pence is an evangelical Christian, John Bolton is the worst kind of US imperialist and Jared Kushner is a clear Zionist – although we shouldn’t forget his more prosaic financial concerns given his investment in businesses in the Occupied Territories.

I have no doubt these people have the ear of Trump and helped to grease the wheels a bit. But in the end the decision was formulated in his mind alone – the mind of an infantile and insecure megalomaniac. I have little doubt that the final thought before a decision was “will this help me stay powerful and important?” And the answer was simple – “yes, because of my donors.”

Bernie Sanders helped bring the corruption of politics by money and vested interests, the emergence of an oligarchy, to the forefront of the US election. This improvement in the public consciousness cannot be understated. The purpose of this piece has been to lay out that, especially for Trump (but by no means exclusive to him) the debt to donors and their narrow interests created by an oligarchic system will always be paid, no matter the price – be that a ‘Peace Process’ and the very lives of those involved.

Policy decisions, even momentous ones like this with such wide-ranging international ramifications, are in the end made by rich people in pursuit of their own individual values and goals. As a system of governance this is terribly dangerous – the values and goals of a single person may be heinously distorted and their grip on reality may be tenuous. So it is in this case.

Trump is the apotheosis of this Faustian bargain. He is not really a person with ideas, opinions, visions or goals. He is not an ideologue. He is simply the perfect oligarchic node – a husk of a person – spurred on by the imminent threat of a narcissistic wound. He is the perfect combination of idiocy, amorality and insecurity. Money in, favours out, no questions asked. He also has the added benefit of being a buffoon – so the newspapers can be distracted by his latest inane utterance, while the structural and long-lasting reforms are often missed. Indeed his buffoonery is very useful to those with more ideologically driven agendas.

As long as policy is created for the enrichment and betterment of a particular wealthy class, and not in the interests of society as a whole, the very survival of our species is jeopardised. This is most true and pressing in relation to decisions on the environment and nuclear proliferation. In the current Israel/Palestine scenario, this diabolical covenant has thrown a match into a regional tinderbox. The fire that results obviously relates to the complexities and competing politics of the Israel/Palestine issue. But we should not excuse the crucial fact, least of all forget it, that the fire also results from that ever-present enabler of our worst impulses, money, and from the political power it is able to purchase.

theredgreenpen

 

 

The lazy logic of Dr. Cumin and the Israel Institute of New Zealand

Dr-David-CuminThe Israel Institute of NZ, under the leadership of Dr. David Cumin, yesterday gave a press release supporting the United States’ irresponsible decision to claim Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. Furthermore, they suggested the New Zealand government make the same declaration.

As is typical for propagandist language and thought, Dr. Cumin attempts to support his fervent wish for this action with distortions of reality and absurd and inaccurate comparisons.

“Although the US Government passed legislation in 1995 that required their Embassy to be moved to Jerusalem, implementing the legislation has been postponed every six months for the past two decades because of national security fears.”

This is misleading. The decision has been postponed by successive governments because it is inconsistent with international law and undermines former declarations that the status of Jerusalem must be part of the overall negotiations for a two-state solution. It is also quite a cynical and illogical comment.

There can be little doubt that the passage of time has not reduced the “national security fears” in the region – the situation remains as volatile as ever. What then has changed to permit this course of action? If Dr Cumin. means what he says, it is an admission that threats to national security and the associated fears of reprisal have been deemed an acceptable cost of this manoeuvre. Hardly a good-spirited policy decision.

Let’s also not forget that after making his statement, Trump then proceeded to do exactly what all previous administrations have done since 1995 – namely sign the waiver that he just denounced.

“Today’s announcement, by Trump, simply formalises that two decade old piece of legislation – but it’s an extremely welcome move which finally recognises that a sovereign state should have the right to determine the location of its own capital and that terror should not win”.

The authors then contend that this is all very logical and normal – don’t all other states have the “right to determine the location of their capital”? This is of course a very lazy sentence, and ignores the fact that half of the capital in question was taken by force in 1967 and is still considered by the United Nations as occupied territory.

For what can only be considered theatrical license he rounds off the paragraph by claiming that this move somehow declares that “terror should not win.” Terror is of course a word that has lost all meaning – one the powerful and those who speak for them use for acts of aggression perpetrated against them. Their own actions are by contrast never “terror”. Examples of Israeli terror and disproportionate aggression are too numerous to mention – we need look no further than here and here , or perhaps here.

Dr Cumin’s arguments then become even more embarrassingly simplistic:

“The current situation is untenable. It’s the equivalent of foreign nations refusing to accept Wellington as the capital of New Zealand and choosing to locate their embassies in Palmerston North or Auckland. We’d be outraged”.

Except of course it’s nothing like that at all – given the fact New Zealand isn’t Israel and Wellington isn’t Jerusalem.

Dr Cumin continues:

“It’s a pity that we weren’t able to lead this as we have done on other issues where we’ve seen injustice taking place – but at least there’s now a precedent that we can follow to correct a decades old snub”

Indeed it is a pity – New Zealand has a proud history of leading when it comes to injustice predicated on racial and ethnic hatred and bigotry, namely against apartheid South Africa. Dr Cumin will predictably denounce any such comparisons, although the United Nations disagrees with him. If apartheid was a system that discriminated against a particular ethnic and racial community, with different rules for each, then the Palestinian oppression has obvious parallels. And if the current Israeli regime’s disdain for a two-state solution is to be accepted then what are the alternatives? The resulting ‘Jewish State of Israel’ will have a Palestinian majority. It can therefore either be a democracy (and not a ‘Jewish State’) or a ‘Jewish State’ but not a democracy.

It is especially twisted and sad that Dr Cumin should call upon New Zealand’s history of denouncing violence and racial or ethnic oppression, to justify support for precisely that kind of oppression.

“The proposed US Embassy will be located in West Jerusalem and will still comply with current international conventions. That means that Arab Palestinians still have the opportunity to have a capital in East Jerusalem. It is up to their leadership to decide if they want to continue political violence and ‘days of rage’ or if they want to negotiate for a better future for all”.

Dr Cumin knows very well that the policies and rhetoric of both the United States and the current Israeli government are in conflict with the professed goal of two states living side by side together in peace. This is often quite openly commented on by politicians in Israel. He is therefore being misleading when he pretends that it is an inevitability that East Jerusalem will be the capital of a Palestinian state.

He is also well aware that the ability to “negotiate for a better future for all” has been an abject failure, precisely because the United States is obviously not a neutral or disinterested arbiter. If there is any clear message from Donald Trump’s announcement, this is it. The United States has disqualified itself from being the negotiator in a so-called ‘Peace Process.’ It strains good sense that they have been able to pretend to be neutral for so long.

As to the comments denouncing a ‘day of rage’ – we need to think openly. If you are already oppressed, living under a military occupation, and forced to negotiate with the occupier by a third party that actively supports and enables that occupier, what reasonable course of action is left to you? I am not supporting violence by any means – but the Palestinians are entitled to feel rage, and are equally entitled to express that via mass protest.

Additionally, the Palestinians have made inroads into utilising other more official mechanisms, most notably the United Nations and the International Criminal Court. But whenever they try to do so, they are criticised by the Israeli state and its propagandist messengers, like Dr Cumin, for taking ‘unilateral action’. They should ‘get back to the table.’ They are told, in not so many words, to go back to begging to their abusers.

Unfortunately for the Israelis, Donald Trump just broke the table. I suspect that should the Palestinians call for negotiations under the auspices of a truly independent nation or body, Dr Cumin would still not be satisfied, because the ‘Peace Process’ has never been about resolving the issues, only buying time for the current perpetual stalemate, while the reality on the ground, slow annexation, continues apace.

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The sad reality of these statements is that Dr Cumin either has critical flaws in his intelligence and reasoning, or he is being deliberately obtuse in the service of perpetuating Israeli propaganda. I suspect he is more than educated enough to recognise the faults in his logic.

As I have said on other occasions – the core issues and conflicts in the Israel-Palestine issue are not complicated. A five year old can understand them. Moreover, there is already an international consensus on what to do, supported by the majority of nations on the planet. The only reason obvious realities can appear so complicated or opaque is due to the deliberate misinformation, mischaracterisation and Orwellian trickery employed by people like Dr Cumin in the service of a racist and aggressive ideology.

Peaceful New Zealanders, Palestinians and Israelis deserve better than him.

theredgreenpen

 

The ‘Peace Process’ has always been a lie – how can the facilitator of injustice be the negotiator for peace?

It’s interesting to watch the fallout from Donald Trump’s brazen move today to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. It is a very cynical one that will have unpredictable and unsettling ramifications for the region. That much is obvious.

But the resolution of this ongoing occupation will only happen when we have managed to dispel a series of Orwellian mantras that obscure the realities of the issue. These are myths which must die before anything can meaningfully change. Chief among these is the façade known as the ‘Peace Process’.

The ‘Peace Process’ is basically the recycled political term for perpetual and deliberate stalemate, which then allows incremental annexation of Palestinian land and stepwise erosion of Palestinian human rights. Central to this lie is the image of the United States as some kind of benevolent, neutral arbiter.

Nothing could be more absurd. The United States has either actively or indirectly supported the crime of Israeli occupation and aggression since 1967. Anyone who’s followed this issue honestly knows this. Democrat, Republican, a ‘Moderate’ or a ‘Hawk’ President, it makes no difference.

The Peace Process is itself the biggest barrier to peace, because it pretends that the United States is a disinterested arbiter.

Enter Trump. One of the potentially useful things about Trump and his administration of cowboys is their lack of nuance. So for example, where Obama may appoint as Secretary of State a seasoned politician with the skill to understand the relationship between foreign policy and the interests of oil companies, Trump just appoints the former head of Exxon Mobil.

It’s the same in this scenario. Trump can’t help but appear completely impartial and biased towards Israel. And this may be the silver lining. Of all the breathless denouncements discussing the threat posed to the ‘Peace Process’ by this new policy, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, has made the most useful comment and the one that we need to most urgently heed – the United States can no longer pretend to be a neutral arbiter.

This is a crucial reality. The ‘Peace Process’ may be over, but it is not over just because one side has been unwilling to shake hands with the other. It is over, and always has been, because the party that is supposed to be moderating the negotiations is fatally biased.

This isn’t a surprising or revelatory point by the way. This has long been known by Palestinians who live under occupation. As with anything, the ignorance belongs to us – by which I mean supposedly educated, liberal Western citizens. The Israeli-Palestine issue is not a complicated one – a five year old could understand the basic problem and what needs to be done. More than this, there is an accepted understanding of what needs to be done that is supported by a vast majority of nations.

The reason that reality is so easily denied is, as ever, a matter of propaganda. There is an intricate and systematised propaganda apparatus created by the Israeli state, supported by the United States, and lazily reiterated by Western media outlets.

Consider how powerful and effective this lie-machine is – it has taken a mentally impaired megalomaniac blaring out his untrammelled support for Israel to finally open people’s eyes to a long obvious fact – that having the United State’s play negotiator is the absolute height of absurdity.

This is the great craft of propagandist machinery – to make absurdities seem reasonable. To make obvious facts into their opposite.

But the skill of former US administrations to present a façade of impartiality has allowed the US to hold this role. Which in turn has allowed Israel to continue to degrade the rights of Palestinians and to continue their annexation with impunity. This ultimately has stymied the ability of someone like Mahmoud Abbas to make a comment like the one he made today. Trump’s behaviour has, in part, allowed him to do so.

In the face of such prejudice, the most logical step is for a genuinely neutral country with international respect to take over the job of interlocutor and negotiator. I’ve always thought that New Zealand has the potential to be this kind of country, although the extent of our involvement in a network of illegal surveillance and the loss of our sovereignty to US interests in these domains certainly threatens our image of neutrality. Still, I live in hope. Another nation, perhaps one of the BRICS nations, may be more suitable. This is also an opportunity for the European Union to put into practice its professed discontent over Israel’s expansionist and aggressive actions.

In the world of politics and public relations, words mean everything. People always make comment on why it is this particular issue provokes such strong passion. I don’t think that’s difficult to answer. It is simply staggering in its injustice – and the only reason that injustice is allowed to continue is because the nation pretending to be the negotiator is actually the facilitator. It’s really that simple.

If we consider ourselves responsible people, if we wish to live in an age where we feel enlightened and want to talk about privilege, then we need to stop and examine the language that permits ignorance. We must assess its utility to the powerful.

In this upside-down, frightening hall of Orwellian deceit, the ‘Peace Process’ is just a propagandist term which in the real world means the deliberate maintenance of an unjust status quo: the slow annexation of Palestinian land, the degradation of Palestinian rights and freedoms and the wholesale, periodic slaughter of innocent men, women and children whenever Israel feels it necessary to “mow the lawn”.

The ‘Peace Process’ needs to die an ignoble death – it has been walking dead for a long time anyway. And may Trump’s lack of understanding of the ‘reasonable’ way of talking about these issues and his apparent ignorance of the stifling rules of international diplomacy be the precipitant for its demise.

 

TOP’s Exclusion – The Canary in the Coal Mine

This fiasco is actually about democracy and MMP itself. With this election increasingly threatening to leave us with a two-party duopoly, we need to defend against anything that has the potential to harm the pluralism that is essential for a vibrant democracy.

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So The Opportunities Party is officially not invited to the political leaders debate because of a long-standing TVNZ rule to block parties currently polling under 3%.

TVNZ will come to regret this decision.

There will be two major reactions to this. The first is “it’s the rules mate…end of story.” Look no further than Mike Hosking’s recent opinion piece in The Herald for a clear example.

The other reaction is “well, we get those are the rules, but are the rules fair?”

That is a much more interesting response, because it also leads to a question. Why are we content to abide by TVNZ’s rules? And what is it that makes so many of us instinctively rush to defend them?

Firstly, let’s not forget that TVNZ is supposed to be a publicly owned enterprise. In reality it is anything but – it’s more of a Frankenstein, consisting of some good output, cobbled together with flashy ‘info-tainment’ and a celebrity-host culture that is a far cry from what public interest journalism is all about. One of TOP’s policies, Democracy Reset, proposes that it’s become so unhelpful to democracy that we really should sell it, and use the proceeds to fund journalism that recommits to being in the public interest.

TVNZ’s confused model is also exactly what creates arrogant and opinionated characters like Hosking. We should never forget that he is not a journalist – his societal function is to protect the status quo and deride progressivism or change. TVNZ – that public service we pay for – enables him, and thus enables and supports his function.

From this it is not such a difficult logical leap to see that TVNZ’s rules are just another, more formalised way to protect the status quo.

Doesn’t it seem strange that The Maori Party, Mana and ACT are represented at the debate despite them all polling lower than The Opportunities Party? In fact the latest NewsHub poll has TOP polling higher than all of them put together. And this is notwithstanding the substantial margin of error that exists when below 5%.

TVNZ justifies this with its other rule – that incumbent parties automatically get a spot. You can argue the merits of this as an isolated rule, but what you can’t argue is that these two rules together essentially protect incumbents and disadvantage new parties.

And who actually benefits from that? Because it is not the New Zealand public.

Red, Blue, Nothing New

The problem here is not TOP, it’s not Gareth, it’s not any party, and it’s not just people who are upset because the rules disadvantage them. The problem here is the rules themselves.

TOP will continue to campaign as it has done. Its internal polling paints a far more favourable position than is currently reported. It’s always a potentially fraught exercise, but I bet that they will easily make 5%. We are going through a period in society where the ‘experts’ have proven themselves to be spectacularly wrong on many, many occasions. I think they are wrong again.

That also reinforces why, as a thinking, critical public, we need to be smarter than simply parroting Hosking’s submissive and jingoistic stance of “it’s the rules mate” – that is precisely what he and TVNZ want us to do. Which is precisely why we shouldn’t do it.

This fiasco is actually about democracy and MMP itself. With this election increasingly threatening to leave us with a two-party duopoly, we need to defend against anything that has the potential to harm the pluralism that is necessary for a vibrant democracy.

TVNZ is doing just that. What’s even worse is that we are paying them to do it.

Time to wake up New Zealand.

 

theredgreenpen

The Rise of the Duopoly and the Fall of the Evidence – Labour’s ‘medicinal’ cannabis policy fudges the facts

‘Medicalisation’ is a compromised policy that has its roots in vague and emotive beliefs amongst the public, which are generated primarily by media bias, and then unfortunately perpetuated by politicians for political gain.

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Watching the ‘Leaders Debate’ last night I couldn’t help but feel that this election, as entertaining and unpredictable as it is, is fundamentally unhealthy. Parties will rise and fall, there will be winners and losers and those in between – but I fear the biggest casualty of the night may be MMP itself.

The latest poll numbers make sorry reading for anyone interested in the plurality of our political system and the benefits of proportional representation under MMP. The latest NewsHub poll has National on 43.3%, Labour 39.4%, NZ First 6.6%, Greens 6.1%, The Opportunities Party 1.9%, Maori 1% and ACT 0.6%.

As we move closer to election day there is a real possibility that no third party will reach the 5% threshold. They will then need to rely on electorate seats to have any presence in Parliament at all. That is a disastrous outcome.

Proportional representation has allowed minor parties to advance some of the more radical and defining legislative proposals in our country’s history. It has allowed for policy programmes and ideas that would not normally be pursued by establishment parties to enter the conversation. It has helped to keep our democracy relatively vibrant.

The second Leaders Debate on Monday night made me realise the limitations that a two-party duopoly can impose. It stifles the breadth of opinion and limits the horizon for discussion. As a medical professional, one moment demonstrated this to me more clearly than others – the response by both leaders to the idea of medicalised cannabis.

Medical Cannabis and the “Smokescreen”

Many medical practitioners, myself included, have real concerns about the vague public understanding around the medicinal qualities of cannabis. Unlike many politicians, we have that irritating tendency to try and base our decisions on the evidence. Unfortunately for those who wish to believe otherwise, the medical evidence to support medicinal cannabis is weak.

The most recent systematic review in the Journal of American Medicine demonstrated moderate-quality of evidence for its use in chronic pain and muscle spasticity, and only low-quality of evidence for nausea and vomiting, weight gain in HIV, sleep disorders and Tourette’s syndrome.

In contrast to this, there is good evidence for the harms related to use. Population-based studies show increased rates of psychosis associated with cannabis consumption, and the carcinogenic effects associated with smoking remain unknown. Chronic smoking is linked to respiratory complications, such as chronic bronchitis, and also other mental health issues, including social anxiety, dependence and possible depression.

An article in 2016 authored by two mental health physicians based in Wellington, Professor Giles Newton-Howes and Dr Sam McBride, and published in the New Zealand Medical Journal addressed the discrepancy between the evidence and the public and political position:

“Bearing in mind the weak evidence of effectiveness of cannabis as a medicine, the lack of regulation compared to other medical products and elsewhere, the uncertainty of active drug dose in botanical cannabis, and the significant risks associated with smoking (the most common mechanism of cannabis use) it is surprising there is the capacity to enable doctors to use botanical cannabis at all as a medicine in New Zealand.”

The authors continue that:

“This is not to say that cannabinoids may not be valuable for some patients for some symptoms, nor that many of these problems cannot be overcome.”

This is a considered opinion based on clinical experience and empirical evidence which should be taken into consideration by those in charge of policy. The medical profession is not ruling out potential benefits that further research could reveal, it is merely pushing back against pressure to ‘medicalise’ cannabis – pressure that is generated primarily through the media’s role in formulating public opinion, and by those who use that opinion for political gain.

The article cites the highly publicised case of Alex Renton in 2015, whose family successfully advocated for access to cannabis-based products. They note that:

“This portrayal [by the media] has led to the acceptance of the notion of “medical cannabis”, although this term is poorly defined and often left to the subjective view of the end user to decide upon.”

The authors then make the case for regulation at the legislative level as being the best and most evidence-based way forward.

“There is also evidence…that legislation has a place in the regulation of cannabinoids and this can lead to a harm reduction approach. Regulation at law has been a common mechanism to manage the population-wide use of psychoactive substances. The success of broad smoking regulation to reduce rates of tobacco smoking is an example of this. The failure to implement the primary recommendations related to alcohol use and the lack of impact in relation to associated harms is the converse.”

In short, many facts suggest that a frank and grown-up discussion about cannabis in this country is overdue. But what is important is that this is done in an evidence-based fashion. If we are genuinely interested in reducing the harm associated with cannabis, and paving the way for the potential for further research and possible medicinal use, then we must discuss legalisation and steer clear of the evidence-free whirlpool of ‘medicalisation.’

‘Medicalisation’ is a compromised policy that has its roots in vague and emotive beliefs amongst the public, which are generated primarily by media bias, and then unfortunately perpetuated by politicians for political gain.

The Leaders Who Don’t Lead

This is what makes the responses of both Bill English and Jacinda Ardern in the Leader’s Debate to this question disappointing. Like any political system or formal ideology, there is usually an acceptable range of debate. The media plays a key role in maintaining this, most obviously by choosing the questions, which frame or bracket the limits of discussion.

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I’ve always believed that the first thing one should do before committing to answering a question is to check what answers are actually allowed by the question. It is then possible to see if one’s opinion is being restricted.

Patrick Gower’s question about medicinal cannabis appears like a progressive and bold one, until you realise that it is restricting the concept of liberalisation of cannabis to ‘medicalisation’ – which we have just discussed is not something broadly supported by doctors (who of course would be expected to prescribe it), mainly due to a lack of evidence for its efficacy, and a lot of evidence for specific harm.

Bill English gave a vague and faltering response that didn’t endorse medicalisation and made mention of the need for further research. In many respects is was a pretty shabby, routine non-response. The sad thing is that it was actually better than Jacinda Ardern’s.

Jacinda response was simply “yes.” This was met with praise in the media for its directedness and will no doubt be well-received by Labour’s base and by those in our society who have unfortunately been misled as to the merits and deficits of cannabis as medicine. In truth, it is an ignorant reply not based in reality.

The fact Jacinda and Labour felt they could answer it so emphatically is not a testament to their boldness in addressing the very real problems with our cannabis laws – although this is inevitably how it will be perceived – it is actually an abdication of leadership on this issue and another example of the pursuit of votes over the pursuit of rational policy.

‘Medicalisation’ is an unnecessary and non-evidence based “stepping-stone” that can allow the Labour party to appear to be more socially liberal in regards to drug policy than it actually is, given it continues to not support legalisation, which is the consensus of many experts in the medical and legal community and the New Zealand Drug Foundation.

What was left out of that entire interchange on Monday night was the evidence-based solution – legalisation. What is even more frustrating, is that the minor parties, apart from NZ First and ACT, are openly supportive of legalisation or very close to being so.

This goes back to the main point – that the merit of MMP is the ability to broaden discussion. Personally I think it’s wrong that we have ‘Leaders Debates’ that exclude minor party leaders. Even at the current polling, they still have the support of around 15% of the electorate.

We can see clearly in this example, as in many others during the debate, that without the presence of minor parties on stage and in the public spotlight, there is often no one to call out the orthodoxy of our establishment party positions – there is no one to state the obvious.

The Protectors of Duopoly

The most egregious thing about all of this is that we have a multitude of political commentators whose job it is to convince us that a vote for minor parties is ‘wasted’ and that the duopoly is here to stay. We must not listen to them. They are ‘manufacturers of consent’, and opinion-creators – they are an arm of the establishment, and the protectors of a broken status quo.

John Armstrong’s opinion piece in The Herald last month entitled “This election is a two-party dogfight now” is the prototypical example.

Don’t dabble with New Zealand First. Don’t smooch with the Greens. Ignore the minor parties if you are serious about wanting to change the government at next month’s general election. To optimise the likelihood of a change you must cast your party vote for Labour. Likewise, if the retention of the status quo is your priority, you must vote National.

My response to that is that for those of us who want real change, a vote for either Labour or National is the retention of the status quo. He goes on:

“The upshot is that a vote for the Greens is now akin to a wasted vote for those who want a change of government. Worse, it would be a completely wasted vote if the Greens fall below the 5 per cent threshold.”

I still find it hard to understand why one can’t see the logical fallacy in proclaiming that a vote for a minor party is ‘wasted’ if that party doesn’t get to 5%. Within that argument is an obvious injunction – don’t vote for minor parties. And what would not voting for minor parties do? Not get them to 5%! By that logic, there would be no minor parties at all. This is just tautological scaremongering.

MMP on the Ropes

We must ask ourselves, who benefits from a regression to duopoly? Obviously our two major parties. And in addition to them is the middle class and that upper section of our society who hold significant wealth, as both Labour and National have no interest in taxing wealth to reduce inequality.

The boldest plans to reduce inequality, tackle climate change, end punitive and ineffective drug laws, reform criminal justice, and enshrine and protect Maori rights are found only in minor party manifestos.

If the truly progressive cannot remain loyal to truly progressive policy – as advocated by the Greens, The Opportunities Party, Mana and the Maori Party – and instead choose to throw their support behind Labour, then our democracy will suffer a terrible blow.

MMP is about plurality of opinion and vibrancy of political discussion. Blind allegiance to Labour with the only goal being to “change the government” may end up decimating minor parties with progressive ideas.

For those who would normally vote for the Greens, or who are considering voting for them or The Opportunities Party, but think that voting for Labour is the better option – please consider the injury this could inflict on the vibrancy of our democracy. This regressive National/Labour duopoly is not in the interest of the average New Zealander.

theredgreenpen

 

Newton-Howes, McBride, ‘Cannabis in New Zealand – Smoking gun or medicalised smokescreen? NZMJ April 2016 

For more recent systematic review http://www8.nationalacademies.org/onpinews/newsitem.aspx?RecordID=24625

 

Winston, Meteria and the Missing Story

In these two examples the media has served their societal function with aplomb – hide the real story, the one that would make us awake and angry at the right things, and work overtime to promote a different one – one that focuses on personal culpability and character assassination. 

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With the revelation that Winston Peters was overpaid superannuation we have another ‘scandal’ for the media to completely distort. Predictably, they have done a very fine job.

What is the function of the the mainstream media in society? It is to follow the dictates of the Establishment – indeed it is really just one of the more powerful and influential arms of the Establishment. Crucially, it’s job is to shield the systemic inequalities from our criticism, to re-direct our frustrations to shadows, and to inoculate our protest.

Over the last few months we have two excellent examples of it doing just that.

Meteria Turei lied about her circumstances to get the benefit. Instead of the story being why one would need to do that, it became how dare one do that. It did not lose it’s moral aspect, it simply changed the target. Instead of helping us reflect on the deficiencies of a society that would push someone into such a situation, we were directed to reflect on the deficiencies of Meteria herself. This was a very deliberate, constructed narrative, with the express intention of both discrediting Meteria and distracting us from where our anger really belongs.

If you were caught up in the finger-wagging against Meteria don’t feel too bad. These are institutions that spend a great deal of money and energy to create opinion and false outrage. They should not be underestimated.

Turning to Winston, well, they’ve done it again. The story here is not that Winston was overpaid, nor is it that someone must have breached his privacy. They are just part of the event. The most important story is actually the fact that he didn’t even know he was being overpaid.

Because what does that tell us? It tells us that relatively wealthy people, such as himself, are receiving a universal benefit in superannuation, that is paid for by you and me, which they don’t need, and indeed sometimes, don’t even notice.  

The story is that in a nation of escalating income and wealth inequality, of worsening poverty and a housing crisis out of control, we are for some reason content to shell out the same amount of money to every person over the age of 65, whether they’re a millionaire couple in the city, or an isolated grandfather barely staying above the poverty line.

Why are we content to do this? Because our Establishment politicians are too gutless to tackle the problem, and because our media keep us from seeing the problem even when we have real-world examples of its terrible logic.

In these two examples the media has served their societal function with aplomb – hide the real story, the one that would make us awake and angry at the right things, and work overtime to promote a different one – one that focuses on personal culpability and character assassination.

Like the magician’s assistant, the media’s job is to draw our eyes to the flashy distraction. We then miss the way that the trick is really done.

 

theredgreenpen