Take a Maori Seat Winston, You’re Scaring Everyone

The way to win on policy is by entering into a dialogue with those who disagree with us. Especially those who we feel can never change.

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Winston Peters is on a mission to get rid of the Maori seats. But like most things Winston wants us to care about we need to stop and ask an important question – do we actually care?

Turns out, not really, although that might be difficult to appreciate given the media’s irresponsible and hysterical reporting. In fact, they seem to already know how we feel, as a Stuff article on the 17th June makes clear:

“Peters is calling for a referendum, of course, but it is assumed by many that the majority European population would vote to get rid of the seats.”

Too bad that a Colmar Brunton poll three weeks later found that:

“55% say they should be kept, 13% say they should be abolished as soon as possible and 23% say they should be abolished some time in the future”

Of course, this can be seen as another cynical attempt by Winston to create an issue where there isn’t one just to fire up his base – another good example of why we need to move to a more honest, reality-based politics focusing on policy, not personality and demagoguery.

But sadly, it may actually be worse than this. Winston may actually believe his own lies. Our mutual fiend, Don Brash, makes it clear:

“the last time the pair spoke in person was in April last year when Brash was in Wellington to make a submission to select committee about the RMA. He and Peters ran into each other in the street after and had a coffee together.”

Putting aside the unsettling fact that Don still has his ‘colour-blind’ eyes keenly focussed on the what he sees as the carrion of New Zealand race-relations, he now seems to share many qualities with NZ First and Winston, not least a proclivity for delusional thinking.

“I had said to Mr Peters that morning that this whole racial separatism issue is the biggest issue facing Government right now, at which Mr Peters replied ‘it’s the biggest issue facing the country right now.'” 

Except of course that it isn’t.

It is precisely this kind of deceit that impedes democracy and progress. The interchange between these expensive dinosaurs really sums up the problem with this type of politics – it’s not about finding out what the real pain is or the real problems people face. It’s not about speaking to those problems and offering policy ideas to fix them. It’s just about pushing buttons and waiting for a bounce in the polls. To add to our disquiet, Winston now seems to entertain the possibility of accepting not only cups of coffee from Brash, but substantial financial support. The racist ex-politican du jour wants to:

“…make money available to any political parties that were “committed to moving New Zealand to a ‘colour-blind’ state after the election”.

Scary stuff.

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Winston Peters is a menace and it’s vital that other parties (my obvious preference The Opportunities Party) pinch traditional NZ First voters. I managed to sway my conservative Dad, whose support for NZ First is really just because Winston “talks straight” – to consider that Winston really plays voters, and to switch his vote to another party whose leader “talks straight” but doesn’t play us. The real reason for his decision I think, was when I laid out the scale of economic injustice in this country, and TOP’s plans to address it. He worked hard all his life as a Butcher, never making a lot of money. He understands that these days people are working even harder for less, that they don’t have enough money, and that this is all unfair. He has no love for a system that makes people clean toilets for pittance, while others live large in gaudy excess.

The thing is – I truly believe that nearly everybody feels this on some level, and that if we tap into that feeling in an honest and bold way, then a grand coalition is just waiting to be formed. People like Bernie Sanders had their success because they told people what they already knew anyway – lacking only the social climate or discussion in which to express it.

Unfortunately, its where this frustration is directed that clouds the issue – so for Dad, it’s a disgrace that “prisoners are getting underfloor heating”, while poverty persists. That’s a classic Winston/NZ First line – and I completely empathise with Dad responding with outrage – it’s a difficult statement to dismiss. But it’s so obviously not the whole story, not by a long shot. Winston has shone a torch on an issue, taken it out of all context and wrapped it in his “straight talk”, just to get people fired up. Meanwhile the real sources of such inequality and injustice remain outside the torch beam, obscured in the darkness.

So here is my plea – if you have a family member who sits in the NZ First cross-hairs – socially conservative perhaps, a bit nationalistic, a little prey to emotional manipulation towards classic scapegoats (Maori, the poor, the incarcerated, foreigners) – trust in the possibility that what really motivates them is a disgust with politics-as-usual, but more crucially, economic injustice. Speak to that part and explain that there is a party with bold plans to tackle the real causes – not just the same-old tinkering. Disabuse them of their simplistic ire, foisted on them by Winston, and show them the bigger picture.

The way to win on policy, and to hopefully win on election day, is by entering into a dialogue with those who disagree with us, especially those whom we feel can never change. I can post to my like-minded friends all day, but it’s not really the answer. If we actually make the effort, instead of turning away, we may be surprised – certain unpleasant prejudices might wither away.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps. But I will forever be an optimist on this one – there is no other option.

theredgreenpen

 

 

 

 

Metiria and the War on the Poor

We are educated to hate the poor. It’s time to redirect our ire to where it belongs.

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We recoil from poverty in two different ways.

The first way is relatively natural but still unfortunate. If we do not acknowledge it, then it doesn’t exist. It is a selfish need – if it doesn’t exist, then it can’t happen to me.

I think if you work in healthcare, or really any field that deals with people and their journeys, you quickly release that the difference between full health and illness, happiness and despair, fortune and destitution, can be a nanosecond. You realise that life is not fair, that the Fates are fickle things, that life is short and often bittersweet and that, basically, shit happens. For many people there is no gradual descent from wellness and security – there is a thin, jet-black veil that can fall away in heartbeat.

What a terrorising reality that is. What a difficult thing to hold conscious for too long. To do so takes courage and honesty and creates a large degree of anxiety. But it has its own reward – the knowledge of this frailty can give power and richness to life. Indeed, it is in these ‘boundary moments’, those times when our best laid plans are radically altered forever, that a new commitment to life can occur. Some would go so far to say that this hallowed ground, where we face loss and accept impermanence, is the only place where real change happens.

This is why empathy can seem such a rare thing – it requires real courage – and it requires we accept that “there but for the grace of God go I”. It also undermines that great bulwark against anxiety – an obsessive need to control. Because you can’t control all aspects of life, and you certainly can’t control death. Those who try to might find success for some time, and although often productive people, are usually quite insular and detached. They are also quite brittle. It is no surprise that those with the least are often more charitable than those with plenty – they are less afraid, less obsessively controlling, and more empathic as a result.

The second reason we recoil from poverty is much more unnatural and disappointing. We are taught to. This is the ‘War on the Poor’. We are educated, through cultural and media bias, to hate the poor. And because we have a natural aversion anyway, these institutions often have a great deal of success.

A good rule of thumb I once heard is that if you’re criticising people below you on the ladder, you’re probably being manipulated by people above.

This inhumane attack on Metiria isn’t occurring in a vacuum – it is just one more example of this implicit rule, albeit a much more public one. I understand the law is important, I use it every day in my work and have a great respect for what it represents – but the law is there to serve us. If by breaking the law you are correcting an injustice, then personaly I think it might be OK to do so. Often I have to make decisions regarding physical or mental illness that circumvent the autonomy of my patient – this is the “duty of care.” Yes, it’s a legally valid thing to do, but in essence it’s an overriding or interfering with other laws related to personal autonomy. If I ever had to face a legal challenge, the best defense is the fact that, at the time, it was “the right thing to do.” Is Metiria’s dilemna much different?

Unfortunately, I don’t think I’ll ever satisfactorily convince someone who is adamant Metiria broke the law by arguing in this way. But that’s because I don’t think the ‘legal’ level is where their outrage lies. What interests me more is that silent command inherent in the way our system is constructed and in the lies we tell ourselves about it. That the poor “deserve their lot”, that success always comes from “hard work” and that if you can bank your wealth in land, or dodge taxes, then you’re just being “smart”.

I remember doing a home visit in Mangere to see a young girl with Cystic Fibrosis. This is an autosomal recessive, rare genetic condition with no known cure. She was living with six others in a three bedroom government house. I can still see her now, pale and thin, hooked up to an apparatus that helped her breathe, lying on a single mattress in that cold, damp room. Every time I hear someone talk about the poor not “trying hard enough”, I think of that girl. Every time that pustule Hosking waxes on about the glories of Capitalism or derides policy aimed at helping the poor as “the politics of envy” I see her face. She did nothing wrong except be born with an illness into an ethnically deprived group, and a socially deprived community. And she will suffer more than she should because poverty in this country does not exist. Even worse, because we have been inculcated to hate her and her plight.

Hating the poor serves an absolutely vital purpose for those who wish to maintain this uncaring status quo – it keeps us divided. Demagoguery is the oldest trick in the book and bars us from creating that grand, universal solidarity that is not only necessary to meet the challenges of the future, but eminently possible. Its a cheap trick that keeps us from directing our ire to where it really belongs – this rapacious system that rewards greed, and the sycophants in the media and politics who get paid handsomely to promote its cultural narrative.

Metiria is only one victim of this relentless onslaught. She’s done us a great service in raising this issue, as she has done consistently throughout her entire career. Let’s not let her brave disclosure go to waste.

 

theredgreenpen

The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit.

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There has been a lot of talk so far this election about a Universal (or Unconditional) Basic Income or UBI. Many of the arguments for it are based on the fact that something just has to give – with the changing nature of employment we are entering a new future where the old concepts of labour and welfare will need revision. These arguments are all very sound and are really the specialty of my economist friends – I don’t want to rehash them here. As a doctor specialising in psychiatry my natural inclination is to try and understand the effects of such a policy upon the mental health of individuals and the well-being of the population at large. A cursory review of some of the statistics seems to indicate positive benefits, but comprehending the underlying reasons for such results is what really interests me the most. It is the why questions that are always the most fascinating…

The Way Things Was

To really see our relation to labour in its totality we need to go back to the Industrial Revolution. The concept of a wage economy is a relatively new one but is often difficult to extricate from our understanding of the ‘way the world is’.

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It should be remembered that the idea that one is forced to sell themselves in order to survive was vehemently rejected by a number of groups at the time and by large parts of the working class press. In the mid 19th century prominent among them were working class women from the farms, known as ‘Factory Girls’. They rejected what Adam Smith referred to as the ‘vile maxim’, “gain wealth, forgetting all but self” and saw wage labour as not very different from slavery – indeed referring to the industrial labour system as ‘wage slavery’. Like slavery they considered it inherently dehumanising and incompatible with the ideas of human dignity, independence and creativity.

The fact that one must submit their time and energies to the eventual, disproportionate enrichment of the managerial class was viewed with deep suspicion. If one works for an industry or company, then shouldn’t they have a say in decisions relating to it? Should they not have a ‘stake’ or partial ownership? And what of our impulses to self-determination?

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Again, this idea seems quite foreign to our modern sensibilities. We seem to have accepted the tenets of this capitalist ideology as if it were the natural state of things. It is not dissimilar to the terrible inertia and inevitability of our perception of the ‘economy’ and of certain systems and policies. We forget that these systems arise from decisions made by certain groups of people (most often the very privileged) at certain points in history in response to certain situations and interests – they are not natural laws of the universe or of human nature. They can be challenged, they can be changed and there are alternatives.

The general ideology that I believe sits above all specific ones is that whatever system is operational is just ‘the way things are’. Communism, Socialism and Capitalism may have all had their genesis in a revolutionary spirit of change, but once they have established their dominance they all seek to shore it up by infusing this idea into the cultural narrative. It is a concretising and deadening injunction, and it ensures we don’t creatively challenge the status quo.

A Philosophical Shortcut to Acorns

Nietzsche’s famous concept of the ‘will to power’ is instructive here. I always struggled to fully understand what he meant – he seemed to be saying that the basic human drive, the one we all seek to express or actualise is a desire for power – and that didn’t seem quite right. It took me a while to understand that his understanding of ‘power’ was much less about strength and much closer to the idea of ‘potential.’

For Nietzsche, what every human being really wants, what really drives all of their actions and behaviours, is a deep will and need to meet their potential, to unfold as they feel they ought to be able. It is not a desire for power, it is not a basic gratification of sexual or aggressive drives (as Freud believed) and it is not an inherent need to dominate or control. It is the understanding, on some level of awareness, that we are like the acorn. If given the right nutrition, sunlight, care and the protection from insult and injury, we develop into the oak that we know we can become.

This idea of potential, or ‘entelechy’, is an important one in existential thought and many of the peculiarities of our mental lives can be understood in its light. For instance the concept of guilt in existentialism is much broader than simply an unpleasant emotional state related to a perceived wrongdoing. We can be guilty towards ourselves and to life itself. Guilt in this sense is the distance between our current circumstances, and our awareness, be it conscious or not, of our potentialities. It is therefore not an exclusively negative state, indeed it can be the catalyst for change and a more authentic existence.

The vagaries of life and the challenges that we face work upon this will to potential, buffeting the sapling of our potential oak, sometimes stunting its growth, sometimes accelerating it, sometimes closing off certain paths to realising our potential forever, sometimes opening up new ones. Crucially, although we may be forced into “hiding our light behind bushels” by external factors, it is always an outcome that we in some sense impose upon ourselves in order to survive. Our own role in our unhappiness is often the most difficult thing to fully grasp.

Personally, understanding my patients and their struggles in the light of unrealised or suppressed potential is the only way to fully make sense of their thoughts, behaviours, dreams and aspirations. It is a consistent, organising principle that helps me understand people and to try and help them accordingly. And I believe, as the Factory Girls did, that every person seeks to realise their potential and has a creative impulse that they long to satisfy. In contrast to a market economy or other economic or political theories, I believe that to make, shape or imbue some thing or some relationship with our special talents is actually a natural law, and is human nature.

Two other crucial concepts in existential thought are meaning and freedom. They are intimately linked with the other and most psychologically pressing concept, death. To an existential thinker, the fundamental difference between humans and other animals is our awareness of our mortality.  We are both “angels and beasts of the field.” We can conceive of a Universe brimming with billions of suns, we can create the most beautiful images and harmonies and we can love deeply and strongly across time and space – but we ache inside for eternity. Despite our miraculous propensity for all of this, we know that in the end we are food for worms – that we return to the earth and to dust. This is an unedifying insult, and the terrible paradox of our situation.

I believe, as many humanist existential writers do, that the awareness of this paradox, of our finitude, is the font of all psychopathology. It is the primal, undifferentiated anxiety, from which all other anxiety flows. One of the rules of the dynamic model of psychology is that an entity seeks to reduce tension, to quell anxiety. As such, we devote a great deal of our energies to warding off and sanitising this primal dread. This is an unconscious, automatic and necessary repression in order to function in this world with some equanimity.

Pulling it all together it stands to reason that our quest for meaning flows directly from this painful awareness – we are meaning-creating creatures and we must have a purpose to feel at home in the world.  This is no surprise to those who work in mental health and probably not to the lay person either  – without meaning and purpose our oak sapling withers. And meaning can be gained from many different sources – the most obvious being religion. In fact religion is the solution par excellence to the existential question – it gives one’s life a preordained meaning and purpose. As I age I’ve become much more understanding of this need, and I confess to an unattractive atheist militancy in my younger days. Religion is a deeply important and vital practice and I believe, if not distorted or violently hijacked, the most elegant solution to living life with a sense of contentment.

However, for good or ill, the authority of these systems began to weaken with the dawn of the Enlightenment. We entered a brave new world of scientific and empirical thinking. Reason became the great protector, the essentially human function that could answer all of our questions. The spiritual element, the preordaining of meaning was no longer assured. The field of human possibility and achievement seemed to open up. God was “dead” and “everything was permitted.” What potential! What freedom! What could possibly go wrong?

Existentialism

Unfortunately, the existential understanding of freedom is not so straightforward. Whereas existentialism shone a light on the positive side of guilt, it must reveal the shadow of freedom. Because freedom really means ‘no structure’, it means no rules, no guidance. It is like the ground underneath us giving way – it is often referred to as ‘groundlessness’ in existential texts. The full realisation of what freedom really means forces us to see that we are the architects of our world, of what we find meaningful, of what we can do or become. Freedom implies very strongly responsibility for creating the world.

This is an enormous burden when you really think about it, and predictably it creates a lot of anxiety. This is why anxiety is so prominent when we are forced to make a decision – we are faced with the terrorising aspect of freedom and we recoil from it. A choice for one thing also excludes all others. Kierkegaard summed it up very poetically back in the 19th century  – anxiety, he said, is “the dizziness of freedom.”

Faced with a loss of a religious meaning and the responsibility of freedom what did we do? Us meaning-craving creatures? Of course we replaced it – “nature abhors a vacuum”, so they say. Religion and its spiritual and existential promise were replaced by whatever system was at hand, by something, anything, so long as it could take us away from that primal dread which is our birthright. A succession of surrogate systems and ideas tried to patch up this rent in our sense of being-at-home in the world. Today, the crowning champion of our quest for meaning is that spiritual waste-bin we call Consumerism and its demented cousin – the zealous belief in that rampant and supposedly ‘free’ market economy.

The UBI and our Quest for Meaning

I’ve taken a pretty big philosophical detour for a post that is supposed to be about a specific policy, the Universal Basic Income, and I must be getting back to the point. But I make no apologies – I believe that the UBI has potential benefits that speak to exactly what it is that makes us vital, healthy and happy human beings. If we are to move forward as a society, we must realise the stifling and inhumane effect of wage slavery.

The first task is to broaden our frame of reference and shake off the concerted attempts to make us think that this is just ‘the way things are.’ That involves appreciating that our current system is a cruel and unforgiving one for those at the bottom, for whom the evidence reveals have little chance of ever moving up the ladder. They are trapped. It is an insult to think that the people who clean our toilets or vacuum our offices at night are simply playing their fitting role in this glorious, necessary system. The economic ideology has increasingly contracted to a single, critical rule – either sell yourself on the so-called free market, or resign yourself to a precarious oblivion. There is no choice.

This cannot continue. We must think radically about our relationship to labour. We must define productive work in terms that incorporate what we know about the needs and desires of the human spirit. Do we really believe that those who play with numbers at big financial firms, who ‘earn’ obscene salaries by making money off money, are working harder than a solo Mum raising her child? Do we really think there is more societal value in these predatory capitalists than in the nurturing of the new generation?

It is a devastating indictment of our current economic system that caring for a child, a sick grandparent, or giving time to a charity or those in need is considered something less deserving of financial reward then the voodoo number-manipulating of those who crashed the economy. None of this is beyond the appreciation of the average person and yet we are slow to have this argument on a policy level. This is the tyranny of ‘the way it is’ mentality.

The effect of the UBI, particularly in adolescence and early adulthood, will have a profound impact. This is a time when our understanding of who we are begins to coalesce – our understanding of our potential, of our creative powers and the ways to their fulfillment. This is also the time where those natural, creative and vital processes come up against the unkind and inhumane realities of our capitalist system. To reflect back on the thrust of this post, it is a crucial time for our sense of purpose and meaning.

Working in mental health I hear many stories. I am in the very privileged position of having people open themselves up to me, relating their most painful or frightening thoughts, their dreams and fantasies, those things about themselves that they cannot accept. Psychiatry can often be considered pretty arcane, and sometimes rightly so. Because the reality is that many people that I see in a crisis, suicidal and despairing of life, don’t really need specialist psychiatric support. They need a house. They need a job. They’re worried that their benefit is going to be cut off next week, if they can feed themselves or their kids, if they can afford the GP, or whether they should go without their medication to pay the rent. Economic despair has an enormous role in destabilising a person to the extent where suicide seems like the only option. That is a national disgrace.

Poverty can kill, but the way it deadens is often forgotten. Think of all of the potential artists, theorists, creators, educators or artisans who are forced often only by the contingencies of their birth, into menial and meaningless jobs which crush their creative impulses, perhaps forever. These people will not be happy and this will not make for a happy society. We have robbed them of the opportunity to create their own sense of purpose and meaning through the use of their natural talents and the will of their creative impulses. They have become wage slaves. Unable to find meaning this way, they will likely turn to the relative security of our sick society’s only real offer – Consumerism, the endless accumulation of things, the feverish and unrelenting need to ‘keep up with the Jones’s.’ Of course, they are not alone in seeking this security.

All of what I’ve proposed is not in conflict with the belief that some people, once in a job that they were initially compelled into, find a meaning in it or use it as a stepping stone to something else. In fact all this does is validate how strong and imperative the impulse to find meaning is. The fact this happens isn’t an argument for capitalism – it shows how for some people, their innate human spirit succeeds in spite of capitalism.

Also, when I talk about creative work, I don’t mean purely aesthetics. I feel fulfilled in psychiatry because I am able to imbue my relationships with my patients with something that is both general and personal. In those moments, I am calling upon a creative impulse. That is the essence of creative work. Someone forced into being an automaton on the production line at Foxconn is robbed of this opportunity. Perhaps those with a very strong will may be able to find meaning and contentment in this kind of occupation – but the disgrace of 18 employee suicide attempts in a year suggests otherwise.

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The current proposals for the UBI are not sufficient – this is an unfortunate consequence of it being a new concept, and of us being a country that hasn’t completely found a way to pay for it. It cannot come out of thin air, and can only be established in concert with a revision of our taxation system that captures accumulated wealth. The Opportunities Party has rightly advocated for it, as a nod to the future, and has chosen to offer it first to vulnerable populations.

The provision to families with children under three is a bold acknowledgement of the logical benefits of targeted, primary intervention. The provision to 18-23 years-olds is also a bold acknowledgement of our appalling rates of youth suicide, and as I have just discussed, will help people who fundamentally know inside who they wish to be, but lack the financial support to consider it a realistic prospect. Granted, the current level on offer would not be sufficient alone for a lot of endeavours – but we must start somewhere. I encourage you to read the details of the policy on the TOP website.

We live in an age of anxiety, so everyone keeps saying. And I think they’re right. But it is not hard to find out why. We have forgotten what it is that makes us human and which we need more than anything else in order to live happy and healthy lives – the sheer joy and pleasure of exercising our powers, our unique and special talents, in the service of our own potential. I believe that what is also necessary is a sense of spiritual fulfillment, of purpose and meaning. In the absence of preordained religious faith, that can only be found in two other ways. One is an identification with some ruling ideology in which one can bury themselves in the “world of things” – in our time the most ubiquitous of these is called Consumerism. The other is via true creative work. Something that allows us the ability to develop and unfold as we feel we should be able. The UBI is a pragmatic step towards creating the conditions for this development. It is an attempt to till more fertile soil, in which our oak sapling may grow and soar, proudly and assuredly, into the canopy above.

Now all we have to do is vote for it.

theredgreenpen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Let’s do what now? Apparently not much.

Why are we happy to be sucked into a cult of personality, and to ignore sub-standard policy while we do it?

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When are we going to learn?

Over the last two years the accepted political consensus of ‘Right vs. Left’ and ‘centrism vs. extremism’ has completely broken down. We have entered into a crisis of democracy that’s been 30 years in the making. Those with the supposed inside knowledge – public relations spin-doctors, bloated ‘think-tanks’, traditional media and political pundits have had their myopic and delusional plans blow up in their faces. Syriza in Greece, Brexit and ‘Corbynism’ in the UK, the overwhelming support for a self-proclaimed Socialist and the unfortunate rise of a Neo-Fascist pig in the United States – every single one of these events have left this enlightened and ‘expert’ caste in a state of dumb shock.

It has been said by many others but i’ll repeat it – the mask of the Establishment has slipped and the people who have been oppressed and left behind have glimpsed the technocratic and uncaring visage underneath. This is an enormous step forward.

Chomsky has commented on the sense of hope that we should take from it. The supreme ideology of any system of control is that it is seen as permanent and ‘the way the world is.’ This has been completely invalidated. Give the people a real choice – talk with them honestly and openly – and the whole thing crumbles. Bernie Sanders’ choice to go against the most ingrained status quo of US politics – that cosying up to moneyed and special interests is the only way to the Presidency – caused an earthquake in the political landscape.

We should always remember – the Establishment and their institutional structures are actually very weak. They just expend billions of dollars on those terrible twins of deceit – advertising and public relations – to make us think they are not. The society we see on TV and in the media is not really the world as it actually is – it is simply the world as they wish us to see it. It is the softest and most effective method of control ever developed in the history of mankind. The Politburo could only dream of something so effective.

But I digress. So when will we learn? Sadly, despite all of the evidence, some of us haven’t. The election of Jacinda Ardern to the Labour leadership is most definitely a thing to be optimistic about and to celebrate, and not just because it is another healthy acknowledgement of women in power and politics, a place so historically dominated (to its severe detriment) by men. But we have to be honest – the reaction from those who consider themselves Progressives or Liberals to this new appointment is absurd. It is silly, it is naive and it is dangerous.

Why? Because it again demonstrates that for some reason we haven’t the intellectual capacity to recognise how superficial this change is. Why are we happy to be sucked into a cult of personality, and to ignore sub-standard policy while we do it?

I wrote a letter to Jacinda in 2015 which I entitled “A Labour of the Left” – I had met her briefly at an event in Grey Lynn and she seemed like a really nice person and open to new ideas. I began by saying that I was “writing because I feel there are ways the party has been sabotaging itself” and that I believed that she may “represent the best possibility of arresting this process.” I implored her not to follow the path towards the “new centre” and that it “eviscerates a party and damages its soul.” I asked her to look at how the “path to victory was not the reclamation of the right”, but “the galvanisation of those whose hearts…are with the common people.” I protested against the game of trying to appear “more competent” on the economy than the National Party, and instead advocated for the need to “change the discussion completely…to reinstate different priorities” other than dull “economic indices” by “laying down a grassroots campaign with social justice at its cornerstone.” I asked if Labour could possibly feel happy with itself, and by extension could its base, if it must “lose itself to gain the vote”. I explained my view that at the time the “smug reaction of the conservative media and calcified political class” actually “belies an uneasiness about the possibilities” of a radical, progressive stance. I asked how long must we lose elections before we realise that if we follow behind an electorate being led down the wrong path by the National Party carrot, “feebly interjecting our views and moderating our outrage to public opinion” then we are doomed. I ended by imploring her to think on this and wishing her the best.

Unfortunately I never got a reply. And also unfortunately, I have little faith that she will follow the path that I felt and still feel is correct. I understand we are seven weeks out from an election and drastic policy change appears like a daunting proposition. But there are other signs that this is a cosmetic change without substance. Jacinda was asked recently about her stance as a ‘democratic socialist’ – remember that term? It was brought screaming back into popularity by the Sanders campaign. It seems like Jacinda is not as wedded to it as before and considers herself now a ‘pragmatic idealist.’ Aside from this being a bit of an oxymoron, it represents a definite climb-down. It also very closely echoes the words of the doomed Clinton campaign when they were forced to recognise the danger of being outflanked on the left. Remember that too? Clinton very disingenuously referred to herself as a “progressive who likes to gets things done” – in an attempt to co-opt the language and image of Progressivism, while offering policies far from its principles. I’m no political expert – but I’m pretty sure it’s a bad sign if you’re plucking ideas from the worst-run campaign in living memory.

Commentators have also raised some concerns about Jacinda’s previous attendance at a Paul Henry book launch – legitimising this racist, sexist and generally idiotic bigot. Most disturbing for me, was her attendance at an event with Tony Blair. You may take umbrage with this one – and to confess, I do not know who else was in attendance, probably lots of politicians from the Labour party – but that doesn’t make it any better. In fact, let’s compare this with another current Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn. For many years he was the leader of the anti-war movement in the UK, and has been vocal in his belief that Tony Blair not only committed war crimes, but deserves to be locked up for a very long time. This is the current leader of the Labour Party calling for the imprisonment of a former one. That to me is as principled a stance as you can get. I can’t escape the feeling that acknowledging or legitimising him is a gross error in judgment.

This brings me to the most naive flight of fancy entertained by those who consider themselves progressive or on the ‘Left.’ This fantasy that perhaps the Labour party under Jacinda can have some enormous turnaround and upset like that seen in the recent UK election. This is profoundly dumb. Labour in the UK had such a dramatic success because it completely restructured how it makes decisions to include greater participation of its members and because it presented a manifesto that was probably the most progressive ever on offer. Free University tuition. Renationalisation of railways. Ending tax avoidance. Raising taxes on the very wealthy. Committing to a strong National Health Service. Bold environmental action. The list goes on.

We must realise that our Labour party in NZ is a shadow of this kind of commitment. Their plans for early childhood support are woeful and inadequate, they have refused to discuss raising taxes and they continue to support a broken welfare system and its ridiculous premises. Working for Families is nothing but a subsidy for industry and a reflection of our low-wage economy. They also refuse to address the obscenity of a superannuation system that we can’t afford, and that pays the same amount to all regardless of wealth, while inequality stubbornly persists.

They do all of these things not because they are bad, or don’t care, or have some secret agenda. They do it because they are an Establishment party, and they must at times put the need to win votes over the pursuit of bold, evidence-based policy. It’s really that simple. But this is terribly flawed for two huge reasons.

Firstly, it reveals they have a cynical view of the average voter – that we are propelled by self-interest alone. I couldn’t disagree with this more. I truly believe that if you speak openly and honestly with people, they make empathic and logical decisions. The argument over superannuation is helpful here – if they had the guts to tell pensioners that if they need the money they will get it, and if they don’t it will go to those who are vulnerable and at the bottom (perhaps their children or their grandchildren) they would be surprised at the level of understanding and empathy this idea receives. But it is seen too much as the sacred cow of NZ politics.

People only work against their self-interests when they are lied to and their emotions are manipulated, in contrast to the message being honestly addressed to their intellect and their better nature. Winston is the perfect example of this kind of dog-whistling perfidy. The man is a festering sore in the flesh of our national discourse. But he can be very easily lanced by a return to an honest style of politics. John McDonnell, the Shadow Chancellor and Jeremy Corbyn’s right-hand man, made this a cornerstone of the Labour UK campaign – a return to “honest politics”, after the slimy PR triangulation of Alistair Campbell, and that murdering politician, who Jacinda was happy to receive silver words from, Tony Blair.

Secondly, it is a gross misreading of the electorate, especially the youth. If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s that people, in particular young people, have a pretty good nose for bull-shitting politicians – or as the late, great Carl Sagan called it, a well-developed “baloney-detection kit”. And this is why, even though I write this piece out of frustration towards those of my peers who seem to still put image over policy, I don’t think a new leader of the Labour party is going to be a success – certainly not of the magnitude of some of their naive hopes. Because the age of this kind of thing working is coming to an end, and good riddance to it.

Sanders and Corbyn didn’t have the success they did because they are particularly attractive, although I suppose they do have somewhat of a fussy-old-man charm. They succeeded because they spoke to the pain people are feeling, because they had backgrounds of advocating for the same things tirelessly for 30 years, because they communicated honestly and directly to our better natures, because they didn’t triangulate their positions to please certain groups and, most important of all, because they put forward clear, radical and progressive policy. Labour is simply not doing that – it’s policy is not for the 21st century and their potential radicalism is still cowed by the same ridiculous logic of the so-called political ‘experts’. These ‘experts’, to put it bluntly, are either nefarious, stupid or delusional.

Labour are the old-guard, and they are dying. They are still in the pursuit of a fictitious “centre”, Helen Clark’s “third way”, and they will continue to lose every election until they recognise the idiocy of this approach. I want a strong majority opposition and I want Jacinda to lead it with her obvious natural talent and amiable nature. But what I really want more than anything else are policies that are actually based in reality, and that will work most effectively, especially for those left behind.

If you consider yourself a Progressive, you cannot vote for this Labour Party. Not when we have on offer policies that are more humane, considered and can lead to better lives for us all. I speak firstly of The Opportunities Party, and secondly of the Greens. We simply cannot continue rewarding Labour for what is, sadly, a profound lack of courage.

theredgreenpen

 

 

Hit and Run: The Military as Drunk Daddy

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There are really two stories that authors Hager and Stephenson tell us about the SAS raids in the villages of Naik and Khak Khuday Dad on the 22 August 2010. The first story is about the raid itself – what motivated it, who authorised it, who commanded it and what rules of military conduct were broken during and immediately afterwards. The second story is the lengths to which our elected officials and those in the Defense Force tried to minimise, distract and blatantly cover-up the incident and its immediate aftermath. I won’t provide an overview of the first two stories, but I strongly encourage you to pick up a copy of Hit and Run and read it yourself. I made the mistake of driving from Auckland to Wellington and back over the weekend, and in the brief respites when my partner took the wheel I managed to get through its 122 pages pretty quickly. It’s concise, lean and full of movement – it is well-written and damning in it’s conclusions.

The reason I don’t want to re-hash it all here (aside from not doing it justice) is that there is a third story that I’d rather tell. And that is the story of the knee-jerk reaction, from ordinary folk, but most crucially from conservative critics, to not just the revelations themselves, but to the entire nature of criticism of those who rule us and rule in our name. What makes this general phenomena even more acute is that the criticism pertains to a particular institution, the military, which is the most revered and idolised by these critics and that commands the most unthinking and dead-eyed fealty.

The Defenders of Power

There is a playbook, well-thumbed and creased, that the conservative establishment uses in response to any revelation of wrong-doing, in particular any allegations related to internal or leaked information. And the central tactic, the absolute primary goal, is to destroy the credibility of the source of the information. This cowardly attack-plan was deployed over the weekend by both Leighton Smith and Mike Hosking with such blunt idiocy that not to call it out would be a real disservice to the New Zealand people.

There are many ways to do it of course, criticise their academic credentials, vilify them as politically motivated, throw around words like ‘conspiracy theory’ or just shrug like John Key and tell the media that you “don’t read fiction”. It doesn’t really matter how you do it – you can run the gamut from having the author legitimately challenged by their peers to just fomenting a general feeling that they are a ‘loon’, ‘unpatriotic’ or on some ‘mission’. It happened to Chelsea Manning, it happened to Snowden, it happened to Kim Dotcom, and it is happening right now to Hager and Stephenson.

These people are not perfect, nobody is. But the very use of this strategy should be a red flag to anyone with an interest in logical thinking and who prides themselves on being able to call bullshit at the right time. Surely if you disagree with someone’s position, and you’re quite sure you’re correct, then the wisest and most successful way to win is to counter their position with your argument. That’s called a debate, and if the truth is with you then when everything is weighed up, you’ll come out on top.

Except this is not how our conservative critics are responding. And the reason they’re not is very simple – they know that they can’t argue the point rationally and they’re not interested in finding out the truth. We should never forget, not even for one second, that these people are not journalists, they are not analysts, and they certainly are not men with any genuine integrity. Their sole function is to protect those in power and they exist only to keep people like you and I hateful, mistrustful and distracted from the truth. The fact they call themselves journalists is obscene. And their conduct this time, on this issue, is disgustingly blase.

Instead of reading the allegations, or doing any kind of research at all, Smith and Hosking decided instead to participate in nearly four hours of ad hominen and vitriolic attacks on the character of Hager and Stephenson. They reveled in reading out hateful and personal messages accusing them of being unpatriotic and generally up to no good. They didn’t want to talk about the contents of the book (Smith didn’t even bother to read it) but instead were content to vilify it as “fake news”. Just think about that for a second, the supposed journalist hosting a show on the serious allegations in the book hadn’t even bothered to read it. That alone tells you that these fools aren’t trying to inform anybody – they’re only out to whip up latent rage and direct it at the authors and by extension at anyone who agrees with their position.

But why do they do this? We’ve had a stab by showing that it’s the tactic they use when they know they can’t win a real argument. But there is something ultimately unfulfilling about this argument alone. It helps to explain the commentators themselves, who in this instance I do believe know very well that this story has legs, that an inquiry is imminent, and that the conclusions are damning. They are attacking the messenger on purpose to discredit the message. They may or may not be genuinely vile people, I don’t know – they are certainly weak ones. But they are doing this for another reason – because they know it works. But that begs the bigger and more important question, why does it work?

Someone once said that the American people are like children of alcoholics – they don’t get mad at the alcoholic, they get mad at the people who get mad at the alcoholic. I find this a helpful way of thinking about this issue. Smith and Hosking don’t want us to get mad that the SAS may have conducted a revenge raid, killed innocent civilians, refused to give them medical aid, needlessly destroyed their homes and, after seeing the villagers trying to rebuild them, returned a week later to destroy them again. They don’t want us to get mad that these actions were done in our name, with our tax dollars. They don’t want us to get mad that they were then covered-up, with lie after altered lie, by members of the SAS, the Defense Force, and Members of Parliament including the Minister of Defense and the Prime Minister. No, no, no – heaven forbid we get annoyed at that.  These empty and unprincipled ‘journalists’ just want us to get mad at the people who suggested this behaviour seems to have occurred and have called for an independent inquiry to verify that. Again, the psychological rule is pretty clear – don’t get mad at the alcoholic, but get very mad at the person criticising the alcoholic.

This is really a pretty perverse masochism. Hosking and Smith, whether they know it or not, are like children (sadly abused themselves) desperate to protect a drunk father. Except in this case, the literal father is now the more abstract idea of power. The ‘power’ bestowed upon others, most importantly upon politicians and generals must be protected from attacks by the people, in this case the ‘liberals’, who people like Hosking and Smith perceive as being driven purely by the desire to destroy or discredit that power. This is their first error – they don’t believe that critics of the Afghan raid may be motivated by the idea of responsibility, accountability or the search for the truth. Their bias blinds them to these nuances. To them we are the horde coming for Daddy.

And so eventually they see any criticism of the government as a real danger to power, to the father-figure from which that power flows, and on which they have either consciously or unconsciously made themselves dependent. Think about it. If you are weak-willed enough that you need to find your strength by some magical association with the dominant power structures, then anyone exposing those sources of power, anyone who may reveal that they have ‘clay feet’, and especially anyone who hacks at those feet, is an enemy. Hosking and Smith’s inability to individuate beyond their love and dependence on power means that any attack on it is an attack on them. I argue this helps to explain the intensity and knee-jerk nature of their reactions. What I think is even more important, is that the supreme power, the power par excellence in our toxic masculine society is military power. It is the one we don’t question, the one we can’t critique, the one that must be allowed to do what it wants and that doesn’t need to tell us about it because of ‘operational security’. It is the pure fount of power from which weak-willed men, all across this country, must derive their sense of worth and security.

Goodbye to all that…

Since the book has been released there has been agreement on the need for an inquiry from all across the political spectrum. However, yesterday, Bill English made the decision that no inquiry is required. Who did he consult to make this decision? From which independent sources did he gain counsel? Turns out, none.

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English appears happy that no activity unbecoming of the military was carried out because the military said so. He is apparently under the delusion that just because the current Chief of the Defense Force (CDF) is not the same as the one during the raid, well, he can be trusted. He also seemed content with the ‘independent’ report from ISAF coalition forces, which (if you read the book) are anything but independent. English is saying he’s happy to accept a review of the military if it’s done by the military. I don’t even need to stress how absurd that is. It’s more than absurd – it’s weak, cowardly and pathetic. I don’t like to trade in personal attacks, but for a man who considers himself devoutly religious, he’s shown a cruel disregard for human life. I suppose as long as it’s brown, has a weird-sounding name and is thousands of miles away, then it doesn’t matter.

I want to impress upon the reader that the main attributes the military has shown throughout this whole saga are weakness and cowardice – which is ironic, if not expected, from an arm of society that barks on about its strength. I don’t know what it means to serve, I don’t know how it feels to be attacked and to fear for your life. But I do know that getting hot-headed and pumped-up on vengeance is unbecoming of an officer. Gathering poor intelligence to justify a rushed revenge raid is unbecoming of an officer. Using Apache helicopters to wantonly blow-up whole parts of a village is unbecoming of an officer. Refusing to provide first-aid to those injured is unbecoming of an officer. Having an Apache gunship chase after and mow down people running away from a conflict zone is unbecoming of an officer. Returning a week later to destroy homes being rebuilt is, aside from peculiarly sadistic, unbecoming of an officer. And then constantly covering-up, lying and refusing to take responsibility is just the icing on the cake.

It is useful to contrast the hot-headed braggadocio that fueled the early morning raid with the insipid lies and cowardice that surround the calls for an inquiry – you get a clear picture of the weak and terrified man – all strength when in possession of firepower and an enemy, all craven bullshit when the spotlight is on them. One of the most telling insights from the book is a description from an unnamed source of the mood in the helicopter on the way back to Kabul following the raid – normally it would be all jubilation and thrills, instead it was deathly quiet. These soldiers knew they had done wrong, that’s why many of them agreed to be interviewed.

We also need to realise the incentives the government has to block an inquiry. Basically, the NZDF is the military with the best PR sheen. Remember how we got into Afghanistan – we weren’t even a military at all – we were a “reconstruction team”. This need to sanitise the NZDF is both alarming and potentially fruitful for the peace movement in NZ. Clearly, the government and the NZDF felt the need to present our involvement in a saccharine way, presumably because they knew the NZ public would not support full ‘military’ involvement. This is disingenuous, but it also speaks to the fact that PR is designed to get around real barriers, in this case the anti-war sentiment that the powers that be thought New Zealanders share.

New Zealand: A happy pawn?

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This is part of why an inquiry must not occur – it would tarnish a well-crafted PR image of the NZ military as ‘different’ from other military, especially the United States. The US relies upon our rosy image and uses that image to forward their own campaigns. We must not let them do so. This will become ever more an important issue in the future, when we consider our role in the great power-play of these times – the increasingly aggressive stance towards China.

As New Zealand citizens, we pay for membership to a secretive club of illegal surveillance (Five Eyes) that has a direct role in the monitoring of this potential conflict. Do we continue to unthinkingly participate in that? Why are we accepting this undying loyalty to the US, despite the invasion of privacy and human rights? Is it all about powerful Daddy again? No matter how drunk and abusive? Why do we have to be on either ‘side’ of this looming conflict? What happened to our much-lauded sovereignty in these matters? We gained international esteem by standing up to powerful nations who sought to use the South Pacific as a testing arena for the nuclear age. And yet in July the Defense Force is scheduled to join in on a military exercise known as ‘Talisman Sabre’ (you couldn’t make these names up…), which is basically a war-game rehearsal for an all out assault on China.  Do we really feel comfortable being a part of that?

These are questions that don’t normally require any approval from the average New Zealander – they are lost behind the shroud of mystery and security in which the military cloaks itself. We should all remember that most of the time this has little to do with ‘operational security’ and much more to do with keeping us ignorant. Our military kills people, sometimes civilian people, and then lies about it. Our military is planning with the United States for a ‘coming war with China.’ It does all of these things with the tax-dollars you and I give to it. Dead Afghani civilians are as much the military’s responsibility as they are mine. The first step is transparency, knowing about it, and Bill English has made sure that ignorance will again rule the day. Except I really don’t think this story will go away.  It will rear its head over and over again. The cowards at the top have chosen the path of most resistance, and I certainly hope they rue the day.

theredgreenpen

 

What the heck is Guy Williams doing? Oh, being a MediaWorks tool.

For the Establishment change itself is the feared commodity, even if it is potentially beneficial change. This is the great betrayal of traditional liberal institutions.

I’ve come to realise over the last few months that my appetite to call out the most obvious grotesque political leaders has decreased quite a bit. There are enough people writing about Trump. There is enough outrage to go around. Perhaps there is something just so disgraceful and absurd about these characters that to engage in attacking them feels like fighting the battle on their terms. Take Milo Yiannopoulis – the surplus of newspaper and internet columns dedicated to calling out his disgusting behaviour doesn’t need an additional boost from me. I also don’t see the point in engaging with people whose entire purpose is just to shock and provoke. Provocation for it’s own sake betrays a real emptiness of character and intellect. It’s what boring and unintelligent people do to make friends and get attention.

But there are people and commentaries that I do feel like I need to comment on – and almost all of them are to do with the sorry state of the ‘liberal’ opposition. And my reason is pretty simple – we’re never going to see a progressive future by just defining what we are not. And we’re never going to win again if we don’t stop and realise our own failings. It’s easy to have a go at Trump, or point a finger and have a laugh at stupid or malevolent conservatives in general, but it’s a lot harder to try to analyse some of the rot in our own liberal institutions. It’s doubly difficult as these institutions rely on a lot of soft techniques that are very effective at anaesthetising or misdirecting the youth, and they are able to do this so well because the youth has an inculcated and irrationally blind allegiance to these institutions. Also, the methods are much subtler than the brash and openly ridiculous conservative or right-wing propaganda strategies. The zealots on the right are experts in inflaming and marshaling latent rage and prejudice and directing it at weak and dispossessed targets, in particular minorities. But the high-priests on the left do it quite differently. They don’t want us to get all enraged and aggressive, far from it. They just want us to fall asleep.

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And so we come to the recent column by Guy Williams in the Herald gleefully entitled “What the heck is Gareth Morgan doing?”. What does Guy Williams have to do with this you ask? Surprisingly enough, everything. I’m not interested in any criticism of Guy as a person, I’m more interested in how he operates in this column as a tool for a useful but dangerous cultural narrative.

To be fair to Guy, he has spoken in the past of what sounds like his commitment to improving political discourse in the country:

In New Zealand we weirdly treat politics like it’s some sort of taboo subject that only comes up for an awkward family dinner before an election, when really we should talk about it all the time and everyone should be engaged and interested.”

This was part of an article detailing how his role as master of ceremonies for the Labour/Green launch was a personal highlight of his career, indeed illustrating how he has been a member of both parties and is ideologically now more aligned with the Greens. The Stuff article continues to explain how:

 ‘After witnessing the poor youth turnout at the local government elections he said he was on a mission to get more people engaged in New Zealand politics.’

Sounds good Guy, count me in. A young person interested in politics, with a bit of a platform himself, keen to get more people involved and mindful of the voter apathy that plagues the youth in this country? Sounds like someone that could be very helpful in promoting and developing a more progressive New Zealand.

Except something seems to have happened to Guy along the way. Or at least his desire for the youth to engage in politics is all very well, as long as that engagement is just with Labour and the Greens.

His recent article begins by making some pretty spurious comments:

“…only months of being a new party, Gareth has already managed to somehow p… off red peak flag supporters (not that hard) and lose a debate with Paul Henry (pretty hard). Any good policy ideas he has had have been drowned out by the sound of people immaturely making cat noises.” 

First of all – I encourage you to watch the interview with Paul Henry that I believe Guy is talking about. Personally it was actually the catalyst for getting me to sit up and focus a bit more on The Opportunities Party. I don’t think I’m in the minority when I say that Henry, Hosking and their ilk probably churn more stomachs in this country than they satisfy – at least among young people. This interview was the first time I’d seen a political candidate accuse Paul of being an Establishment mouthpiece in such a  direct and withering way. I also think it rattled Paul quite a bit, his typical giggly neo-liberal nonsense looked really pathetic. I really can’t see how anyone can watch that interview and not feel similar. I may be wrong, but if I’m right, it either means Guy has a terrible ability to read a debate, or he is being deliberately misleading.

Guy’s also quite content to resurrect the debate about Gareth being on some crusade to eradicate cats, which is just another lazy ad hominen attack and attempt to denigrate Gareth as a person, instead of talking about what people actually care about, which is the policy ideas that can really impact on their lives.

Guy does however decide to put his toe into the waters of policy discussion, although it’s clear he finds the waters a bit too cold.

“He says our natural environment is “our greatest asset”, like the Greens. He says he wants to “restore the Kiwi tradition of being the most fair society on the planet”, like Labour. It seems like he want’s to run his own party so he can call the shots and get on the news like Winston Peters.”

Way to go Guy. The message seems to be if you talk about an issue that someone is already talking about, it’d be better if you just shut your mouth. Like egalitarianism or Environmentalism are specific to a party, and not values or ideals which can be considered and weighed up by people from all areas of the political spectrum. This is tribalist political thinking at it’s worst. He goes on:

“My main complaint is that he’s lighting a fuse under the people who are already trying to light a fuse.”

I’m really at a loss to understand why any effort to get that “fuse” burning faster or better is a bad thing. I think his belief that the Labour Party, the other major establishment party in this country, is really trying to light a fuse is pretty laughable. I’m more sympathetic towards the Greens trying to have genuinely radical and important positions, but it’s hard to light a fuse that starts off damp. I don’t see how adding more flame is a bad thing.

Guy then rounds off his ridiculous column by being the ultimate down-buzz and sounding exactly like the decrepit Establishment talking heads that an entire generation of young voters, at least in the United States, proved to be incredibly ignorant:

“This is an issue because there’s almost no way The Opportunities Party is going to get the 5 per cent of votes necessary to get into parliament. It hasn’t been done before.  Instead of hurting the National/Act/Maori Party government, it looks like he’s going to more seriously affect the Labour/Greens challenge by taking away what will most likely be wasted votes and chewing up crucial airtime and policy space. “

Whether he meant to or not, he sounds just like the doomed finger-wagging elitists ensconced in Establishment politics and its associated media. This kind of comment would be insulting, although, predictable if it came from a politician. Coming from a comedian, whose traditional and useful societal role is to call out the bullshitters, it’s just embarrassing. Perhaps MediaWorks is where comedians go to die, and instead become mouthpieces for neo-liberal nonsense.

And the claim that opening up the dialogue or introducing new options threatens the potential success of traditional parties is old, stupid and inaccurate. It’s the same hysteria that told young people in the US not to vote for Bernie. It also is an upending of what democracy is supposed to be about. No one should have an automatic right to my vote, and the more options I have to choose from the better for democracy, not the worse. It is an insult to assume that any young voter is ‘at risk’ of ‘wasting’ their vote when they ‘should’ vote for Labour or the Greens. It’s incumbent on politicians to earn my vote. Otherwise we are just rubber stamping ‘anointed’ leaders. And what then for democracy?

Guy’s piece really is a bottom of the barrel kind of analysis. It’s also misleading and dangerous. It’s comedy that’s a disservice to democracy. We’ve got to understand that for the establishment change itself is the feared commodity, even if it is potentially beneficial change. That is the great betrayal of traditional liberal institutions. Just look at the horrors it can bring – the Democratic Party in the United States refused to change, still refuses to change, and in their blind and outrageous obstinacy they delivered power to an authoritarian imbecile.

If we ignore that we need to change, if we finger-wag and gaslight progressives like Guy is content to do, then we are doomed to continue our losing streak.

 

The Myth of the Politics of Style

The pragmatism that Alan seems to admire is dangerously close to being the absence of values, or the subsuming of all other values under the supreme ‘value’ of ‘pragmatism’, which isn’t actually a value at all.

Alan Duff penned an interesting piece for ‘The Herald’ recently regarding the relative merits and problems of our biggest philanthropist, and leader of the newly-minted ‘Opportunities Party’, Gareth Morgan. I must confess I’m not very familiar with Alan’s work. I’ve seen ‘Once Were Warriors’ a few times, although never read it. My mother, from whom I derive my connection with Maoridom, and who grew up in a state house in Otara, confirmed the poignancy and strength of Alan’s portrayal. Mercifully, her experience was not as tragic as that of the Heke family, but she was never in doubt that such private tyrannies were all around – indeed, right across the street. I have no doubt Alan is an intelligent and perceptive handler of the narrative form. But after reading his column it becomes clear that political commentary is not his calling.

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In all fairness, you certainly couldn’t call his piece a hatchet-job – for every negative comment he provides a positive one, and overall the article is more plain than it is incendiary.

He begins with a puff-paragraph about a man he evidently admires, John Key. He then goes on to say, without a hint of skepticism, that Mr. Key had “no ego getting in the way of his judgments and perceptions”. Really? An author’s currency is supposed to be their understanding of people and here Alan falls way short. Aside from perpetuating the misunderstanding that ‘ego’ is the same thing as pride, to state that someone, anyone, has no “no ego” is ridiculous. You may as well say that they have “no self.” And what about the much-discussed video of a young John Key, financially savvy and rapacious, bound for success, ominously telling the interviewer that his big goal in life is to one day be Prime Minister? I’m not saying that the desire for power is necessarily a bad thing (although that is debatable) but it is almost by definition a striving of the ego. I find it a little hard to swallow that a man who rose to prominence in a company such as Merrill Lynch, notorious in financial circles and known for their ruthless success, is without egoistic tendencies at all.

Fortunately he goes on to describe what I think is his main point about Key – that he is a “pragmatist.” I’ve written elsewhere about this quality and how it is basically code for maintaining the status quo. Pragmatic and incremental tinkering by emotionally un-invested technocrats is the style of governance that has been hand-in-glove with the neoliberal agenda for the last 30 years. Indeed, it is a very explicit part of the National PR strategy, openly discussed and for all to read in Nicky Hager’s excellent book, ‘Dirty Politics’. The core mission of the National party, imported directly from the American model, was to not really look like a traditional party at all. Say as little as possible. Don’t take radical positions. Rely heavily upon an untouchable ‘leader’. Stress management of the economy and the country, not change. The reason for this kind of inhibited, deliberately un-courageous mode of ruling is a big topic that I will try to address elsewhere. For now, we can think of the ruling ideology as centered around this ‘pragmatism’ that Alan venerates. But what kind of pragmatism does he mean? Is it those ‘hard choices’ we’re always hearing about? Is it the auctioning off of state assets to ‘balance the books’? Is it the colluding in illegal forms of surveillance to ensure good relations with our allies? Is it the opening up of areas of the marine environment to the fossil fuel industry? Or is it one of the many other policies promoted by our morally divine, apparently ego-less leader?

Don’t get me wrong, pragmatism is a good thing in certain contexts. Unfortunately, in political discourse, the word really just means compromise. And it is here where these elder intellectuals love to tell us that a revolutionary or progressive vision is selfish and dangerous because it eschews compromise. But compromise is not a value, it is just an outcome that is both beneficial and harmful. My response to it is always the same – what about when compromise becomes harm-by-proxy? How much harm is too much? And progressives would argue that when it impinges upon set values, it is too much. Sure, we must compromise in many areas of our life, most importantly in our romantic relationships. But if we truly want bold change, which I feel the problems of the world demand, then the one thing we do not compromise are our values. So, finding a compromise between environmental protection and fossil fuel exploration is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of environmental values. Finding a compromise between the need for robust political relationships with allies and support for illegal surveillance is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of our right to freedom and privacy. Finding a compromise between keeping our meat and dairy industry competitive and courting the brutal, authoritarian Saudi monarchy is not pragmatism, it is a betrayal of our human and animal rights. A real leader, a real progressive, has a set of values that are immutable and constant – that is what values are supposed to be. They may be horrible values no doubt, and often are, but what matters is that they don’t change, they are what we build upon. The pragmatism that Alan seems to admire, that of the Key government, is dangerously close to being the absence of values, or the subsuming of all other values under the supreme “value” of pragmatism, which isn’t actually a value at all.

Alan then goes on to compare Gareth with Winston Peters, in particular their respective performances at Waitangi this year. Predictably, it is not a comparison in terms of substance, or policy, or any important facts at all. Rather he wants to share with us his belief that Gareth…well…he just doesn’t get it. Whereas Winston has the gift of the gab, the ability to batter away tough questions, the political acumen to “make us laugh, bro” (because “us Maori love to laugh”), Gareth has “poor timing” and doesn’t have his “finger on the public pulse”.

He goes on to describe, astute judge of character that he is, how he knows how to handle people like Winston. When told that Winston (like a lot of politicians, let’s be fair) doesn’t take kindly to being challenged, Alan quite proudly explained how he “got what he wanted” from Winston in an interview he conducted by “deferring to him” and allowing him to “keep face”, lest he “be on the defensive.” I’m sorry, but that doesn’t sound like a political interview. Maybe if you’re interviewing a cagey pop star or actor it could be justified. But a politician? Imagine if David Frost had decided, after hearing Nixon was a prickly subject, to forego his tougher questions on the Watergate scandal to help him “keep face.” Winston is a public servant, with power and influence and the ability to affect the lives of every person in this country. And according to Alan, the best way to hold him accountable is by “deferring to him”. It’s quite ridiculous. The aim of real political journalism is the exact opposite of this. It should be to ask the hard questions, to poke the soft underbelly, to get under the skin, irritate and perhaps coax out some truth, some authenticity. If Winston then responds with unjustified defensiveness, then good, that’s a piece of information about him, about his ego, that I’d like to know. The worst part is that Alan is proud of what is really a lack of courage. It’s doubly sad that he seems to have deluded himself that his interviewing was artful and he “got what he wanted”. He probably didn’t. He got what Winston wanted to give him.

And so back to Gareth. Poor, amateur Gareth, with his plain-speaking and lack of finesse. And this is where I think Alan departs from good sense most wildly. He goes so far to suggest that it would be preferable for Gareth to basically be more misleading. His advice is to “play us man”, “pander to our biases” because, after all, “you’re not a columnist.” There are so many things wrong with these statements that it’s difficult to know where to begin, but the crux of it is that Alan is desperate to impress upon Gareth, and by extension on a new brand of unpolished politics, that their directness, their lack of spin or pandering, is a weakness.

This is a good point to round out the discussion because it shows in quite stark terms the ignorance and insularity of many political ‘commentators’ in this country and abroad. Alan’s colossal mistake is to completely miss that it is precisely the pretense and affected gestures of politicians that the public hates. A cursory understanding of recent political developments in the West makes it quite clear that disdain for the establishment, and attraction to ‘straight-speaking’ politicians is very popular. In some instances, it is the very reason for their success. Of course, one can speak ugly things or good things plainly, and unfortunately people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage, being ugly people, said very ugly things. But it is Alan, not Gareth, whose finger is not on the “public pulse.” I do not wish in any way to personally attack Alan – I am sure he is a kind and considerate man, and certainly a thoughtful one, but perhaps not on this. Unfortunately, whether he knows it or not, he is protecting an unsustainable status quo.

In today’s climate, someone with integrity, who also speaks plainly, is a pretty good bet. I don’t know Gareth Morgan, but Alan quite graciously describes him as a good man. I am following the growth of his party with interest, precisely because I believe it may have the necessary combination of a bedrock of values and the ability to communicate them directly and without pretense. I encourage people to really look at the latest policy ‘Democracy Reset’, which makes explicit the desire to formally enshrine many important progressive values, including the rights of Mother Nature. These are vital efforts, because they push back against the valueless, empty and un-courageous concept of ‘pragmatism’. Gareth may have the last laugh and I am curious as to how responsive the youth in this country are to his message and style. It is no coincidence that those who rally most to this message are the younger generation. To us, political posturing appears ever more grotesque. Only a bit less grotesque is being told by ‘learned’ commentators, like Mr. Duff, that what we really need is more of it.

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