War is brewing. Wake up.

If looking down the road we can see that a major logical consequence of abandoning the deal is eventual military conflict with Iran, we must recognise that war itself is the objective.

Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal today is no shock. He has been talking about it for a long time. Not out of any informed belief – I doubt he even knows its contents in any detail – but mainly because his campaign was in major part funded by Sheldon Adelson – a vehement Zionist. I’ve spoken before about how Trump’s pact with Adelson lies behind much of his foreign policy actions with regards to Israel and Iran. It’s a classic quid pro quo. It’s Mafioso logic. Not surprising.

What is also not surprising, but very regrettable, is that the media continue to pretend to be shocked, and also to express dismay and confusion as to Trump’s motives and the rationale for this decision. Why would he do this? Can’t he see that Iran has been fully compliant with UN inspections? Can’t he see that pulling out of the deal makes it more likely for Iran to obtain nuclear weapons? Can’t he see that he makes the US look like a bad partner to do business with? Why would he act this way? Is it just because he’s stupid? Yes, that must be it…he’s just a big, stupid orange doofus.

These questions are so lazy as to be malicious. On the level of Trump’s internal logic the answer is simple – he did it because he was indebted to someone to do it, and he has to pay his debts. The better question is what do those who made him do it really want?

Jung made a classically excellent analysis of human motivation. He basically said if you can’t identify a motive, look at the outcome of the action and infer the motive. If I sometimes can’t understand why someone does something, I try to see what their action (or inaction) creates, and posit whether that might be the motivation. This kind of thing comes up in psychotherapy all the time. We lament our situations, but do nothing to try and change them. In these cases it is often best to understand the role the sufferer has in creating and sustaining the conditions of their suffering. Do I get something out of being depressed? Do I get something out of being miserable and dependent on someone else? Do I get something out of having others be dependent on me? The answers can be surprising and deeply illuminating.

So if looking down the road we can see that a major logical consequence of abandoning the deal is eventual military conflict with Iran, it is willfully ignorant not to consider that war itself is the objective. Mainstream media are of course much too polite and deferent to make such a claim. It makes them uncomfortable to suggest such motivations. This passivity is criminal. It endangers society. We end up with dangerous reporters, servile editorialists, and a population who are ignorant to the genuinely malevolent motivations of the people behind a decision such as this. We end up with the editorial board of the New York Times supporting the war in Iraq.

Let’s make it very clear – there are elements within the United States whose primary motivation is to remove the current Iranian regime, by force if necessary. This should not shock anyone. We needn’t even bother with a review of the many previous instances of US-led regime change – although the most relevant example would be the 1953 CIA-backed coup in Iran that removed the democratically elected Mossadegh and instituted the Shah. Since the 1979 Iranian Revolution – at the time the largest mass popular movement in history – the US has bristled at Iran’s role as a nation independent and outside of the sphere of US influence.

That brings us to more empty rhetoric, again parroted by compliant media outlets. The ‘threat of Iran’ is not to do with nuclear weapons, with its military, with its supposed ‘terror sponsorship’, with its domestic peculiarities, with its theocracy. The Iranian threat is the same threat that has always concerned the architects of US Imperialism – that of independent nationalism and independent foreign policy. Iran is a problem because it just won’t do what it’s told.

Doing what you’re told is the real maxim of US foreign policy – which is not, and never has been, about mutual respect or ‘promoting democracy’. It is based on the amoral ideology of American ‘exceptionalism’. It is what allows the US to support much more oppressive and violent regimes such as Saudi Arabia and Sisi’s Egypt, not to mention many colourful dictators and authoritarian monsters in decades past. These people may be horrible despots – but they are ‘our’ horrible despots. They do what we say.

US policy positions seem mind-boggling until this fact is appreciated. The role of Saudi Arabia in financing Jidahism and Islamic extremism – ostensibly the great enemy of the 21st century thus far – is beyond dispute. There is evidence to suggest Saudi Arabia provided material support to the 9/11 hijackers. Basher al-Assad – himself no lover of tolerance – is currently waging a conflict against splintered Islamist groups that are cousins of ISIS. These groups derive their financial and military support from Saudi Arabia and the United States. The US literally funds groups almost identical to ISIS.

Also, what are we to make of the recent posturing of US and other Western democracies on their abhorrence for chemical weapons and the resultant need to bomb Syria for ‘humanitarian’ reasons? How can this be the case? Especially given they support a Saudi campaign against Yemen that also uses chemical weapons, engages in siege warfare and has precipitated famine and an outbreak of cholera.

What the hell is going on you might say? None of this makes sense. It seems to be so contradictory. And of course it is – if you subscribe to the rhetoric deployed by Washington and Western Imperialists in general – that we do things for the good of oppressed others and to promote stability and security. But when you recognize that the over-riding ideological and political position is much more prosaic, that it is simply ‘do what we say’, it becomes much clearer. It is so painfully simple, and it is again Mafia logic. The only thing that differentiates the ‘good guys’ from the ‘bad guys’ – the ‘moderate Saudis’ from the ‘radical mullahs’ – is that one does what we say, and the other doesn’t.

That is the ‘threat of Iran’. It is outside the sphere of US influence. As such, it represents a threat to the offshore colonial outpost of US imperialism, Israel. Let us not forget that Iran, along with many Arab nations, have previously called for a ‘WMD-free Middle East’. This has been consistently rejected by the United States and Israel, for the obvious reason that it would involve Israel renouncing its own nuclear arsenal – which to this day remains a poorly kept state-secret. In fact Israel, Pakistan and India are all nuclear states that do not subscribe to the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty at all, unlike Iran.

Again, if peace in the Middle East is what the United States and Israel say they want, then the establishment of a WMD-free zone sounds like a good start. But peace is not what they want. What must be maintained is Israel’s qualitative military edge and it’s right to have undeclared nuclear weapons. This has less to do with Israel’s role as a viable ‘Jewish state’, and more to do with it’s role as a military outpost for US Imperialism in the Middle East.

Unless we can rid ourselves of childish and logically inconsistent justifications for why something like today’s action occurred, in favour of a sober assessment of real motivations, then we ensure terrible things will happen.

The people around Trump and those leaders that influence him – Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson, John Bolton, Mike Pompeo, Mohammed bin Salman, Jared Kushner – these people want war with Iran.

Every day the drum beats louder. The signs are numerous. Today’s action, recent changes in Israeli law to allow a single person, the Prime Minsiter, to authorize war, the demonisation of Russia, Iran’s ally (which also relates to the trauma inflicted on the US establishment by Trump’s victory), the positioning of John Bolton as National Security Advisor, the concerted propaganda campaign by Netanyahu last week around Iran’s “cheating” on the deal, Israel’s recent sorties into Syria (the last conducted only an hour following Trump’s withdrawal from the Iran deal) and the ramping up of war propaganda within the Israeli and US press.  These things are all connected and there is a restlessness among the prominent war mongering officials that is very, very ominous. Add to this a very simple fact – that if they want this as badly as they obviously do, they better act fast. They have two more years of Trump, max. Two more years to encourage the idiot king.

The case is being made for war. We need to stop navel gazing about today’s actions and how silly Trump was to do what he did. He did what he did because he was told to do it. And the people who told him to do it want war. They want war.

I spent a few weeks in Iran years ago with a good friend of mine. I have traveled a lot and have never seen such a general level of generosity and kindness in a population. We visited some of the most important archaeological sites in antiquity, the ruins of an empire that has spanned millennia. To think that people who have never been there, who have never walked on the streets or talked with the people, are so keen to destroy it is very surreal. It does not seem possible. And yet it is more than possible – right now it is probable.

Time to wake up people. More than a million people died in Iraq. We couldn’t stop that then, to our eternal shame. Perhaps we can make it right and stop this now. The first thing is to know your enemy and not to underestimate him. Say it with me again – these people want war. Remember that. We must deny them this gruesome satisfaction.

theredgreenpen

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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 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

 

Criminal Justice and Maori – The Worm at the Core of our Nation

It is a bittersweet irony that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its principles will benefit us all.

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The staggering ethnic disparity in our criminal justice system speaks to generations of disadvantage in a range of factors, including socioeconomic status, drug and alcohol abuse, inter-generational trauma, cultural dispossession and ethnic bias.

The simple fact is we have a criminal justice system that that is sick with institutional racism. This is not just my conclusion, or the conclusion of Maori advocacy groups – this is the conclusion of the Department of Corrections itself.

Shocking Statistics

New Zealand has the 2nd largest prison population relative to its size in the western world, second only to the United States. It is 84% higher than the advanced economy average.

While Maori make up just 15% of the general population, Maori men account for 50% of the male prison population and Maori women account for 57% of the female prison population.

For young Maori the statistics are even worse – of all prisoners under the age of 20, Maori account for 65%. When it comes to re-offending things don’t get any better – there is an 80% likelihood of a Maori prisoner being reconvicted, compared to 67% for non-Maori.

Overall, 40% of Maori men over the age of 15 have done prison time or a community sentence.

These statistics are truly shocking, but what is worse is that they are not particularly new. In many ways they are very well known, in fact so common they have become normalised as part of our natural social environment.  This must change.

The Problem

Key to understanding this is acknowledging the fact that although Maori are over-represented in this area for a variety of reasons, they are most certainly over-represented due to the very fact that they are Maori. Socioeconomic status, past offences, gender, drug and alcohol use all play their contributory roles. But if we forget that ethnicity itself is a risk factor, then we lose the wood for the trees.

Don’t just take my word for it. In 2008 the Department of Corrections compiled a report entitled “Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice System”. In it they referred to the idea of “Bias and Amplification”:

“It is generally understood that each stage of the criminal justice system, from apprehension through to sentencing, contains a significant degree of built-in discretion with respect to decision-making.”

These stages would include the judgment of officers “on the beat”, the decision after apprehension of whether to arrest a person, the decision whether to proceed to prosecution, the decision of the court to then convict or not convict, and once convicted the decision of the judge regarding appropriate sentencing options.

This process continues on even after sentencing. Parole Boards make decisions with respect to those imprisoned, for instance if part of the sentence can be served as Home Detention or whether an early release may be granted. Probation Officers supervising community-based sentences and orders also exercise discretion in notifying breaches of conditions or whether recall-to-prison proceedings should be initiated. The report states that

“The explanation inherent to justice system “amplification” is that systemic factors exist at one or more of these step in the process, which serve to increase the likelihood that, relative to non-Maori, Maori will progress further into the justice system and be dealt with more severely…the result of such influences would be that Maori “accumulate” in the system in disproportionate numbers.”

The report thus defines the method by which any perceived bias could occur. It is not dissimilar to the “Swiss-cheese” model of risk known to most medical professionals, which postulates that a succession of small errors is much more common in the production of adverse events than any single large one.

When it comes to apprehension an important point raised was the extent to which the detained person cooperates with the Police officer. Perceptions of bias among Maori and Pacific Islanders were very common and studies have demonstrated Maori hold relatively negative attitudes towards police. The report admits that:

“It is conceivable that this negativity may motivate hostile and uncooperative responses when in direct contact with the Police…such behaviour could in turn increase the likelihood that the Police take the matter further.”

There is also evidence that in individuals with a history of family violence, police sanctions “more often result in criminal acts of defiance than deterrence.”

Turning to prosecution, the data clearly illustrates that Maori are moderately more likely than Europeans to be prosecuted, and are prosecuted in higher numbers than the number of apprehensions might suggest. The report lists one of the most important factors involved in this as a history of previous offending.

With regards to sentencing, the report admits that “on the scale of severity, fines are typically regarded as at the less severe end.” A review of all persons sentenced between 1996-2004 revealed Maori typically received a fine less frequently than did Europeans or other sections of the total population. The report states that:

“It seems likely…that ability to pay, an obvious consideration of whether a fine is imposed, reduces the probability that Maori would receive monetary penalties, given the well-documented disparities in annual income between Maori and non-Maori.”

So Maori, owing to pre-existing economic disadvantage, are barred from receiving what is widely considered punishment that is at the “less severe end.”

A similar trend is apparent in the most severe penalty, namely imprisonment.

“Maori were more likely to receive a prison sentence. Between 11% and 13% of convicted Maori receives sentences of imprisonment, as opposed to 7-9% of Europeans, a statistically significant degree.”

In its summary report makes explicit reference to non-ethnic factors contributing to the above disparities:

“Much of this apparent ethnic difference is able to be shown to be related to other factors which validly apply, equally, to all ethnicities – factors such as previous offending history.”

But it then continues:

“However…a number of studies have shown evidence of some greater likelihood, associated only with ethnicity, for Maori offenders to:

  • have police contact
  • be charged
  • lack legal representation
  • not be granted bail
  • plead guilty
  • be convicted
  • be sentenced to non-monetary penalties
  • be denied release to Home Detention

Finally it makes a rather categorical admission:

“There appears to be sufficient evidence to conclude that ethnicity, in and of itself, plays some small but tangible role at key decision making points, in ways that are not intended by the justice system.”

Remember that this is a government commissioned report, conducted by the Department of Corrections which concludes that racial bias does in fact exist within the criminal justice system. Also remember that this was in 2008.

For those stubborn individuals in our society and political realm that continue to deny that ethnicity plays a role in disadvantage, that statement, my friends, is what they call a coup de grace. There is no debate on this issue anymore – there is only disingenuous political sentiment and ignorance.

History

If we establish that being Maori, in and of itself, is important then we need to think about why that is. It is easy to consider it from the perspective of unconscious (or conscious) bias on behalf of those involved in the system, for example police officers or judges. While this may be true, what is likely to lead to more fruitful ideas is recognising what justice actually means for Maori, and how traditional Maori concepts around justice are ignored in the current system.

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Unfortunately the focus of law, policy, media and research involved with criminal justice focuses too much on factors such as poverty, alcohol, lack of education, solo parenting, employment or physical and mental health, while ignoring Maori ethnic and cultural identity directly. It then ignores what is a crucial factor – the intergenerational effect of the trauma of surviving colonisation.

There is abundant evidence from Maori scholars such as Mason Durie and Moana Jackson that engagement with a secure and healthy Maori identity is central to addressing the vicious cycle of poverty and harm. A healthy identity is one where people may access their language, cultural norms and practises. It is also one where these are validated and endorsed by society at large.

So what are some of the concepts of justice in Maori society?

Tikanga Maori and the Justice System

The structural framework of Maori society is based upon whakapapa, or genealogical connection. Personal identification starts with membership of larger groupings, such as the whanau, hapu, or iwi, and individuality is secondary to the collective.

The key dynamic of tikanga is to maintain equilibrium between parts of the human and non-human world. This is achieved by utu, meaning balance or reciprocity. Social and legal factors are controlled through the complementary principles of tapu and noa.

Tapu means a person, place or thing is ‘off-limits’ unless certain protocols are followed. Notably, there is an inherent tapu attached to all human beings. Noa means that a person, place or thing is ‘safe’ to use or access. Essentially, tapu and noa designate what is lawful and what is not. To break the tapu of a person or resource is an offence, or hara.

Another important concept is mana, or a person’s reputation, charisma or influence. Mana may derive from many factors, such as mana atua (birthright), mana tangata (gained via deeds or actions) and mana whenua (in accordance with the geographical location of the tribe, i.e. citizenship).

The basic principle of offending in Maori society is the breach of tapu through commission of hara, which affects mana and requires utu. The aim of dispute resolution was therefore to restore balance, and the mana of the parties involved.

Owing to the collective nature of society, an insult by one member of a hapu against a member of a different hapu was viewed as an offence of the first hapu against the second. This kind of collective responsibility could be more functional than individual culpability as recompense may be more possible when it is shared amongst many rather than applied to a single person. There were consequences for the individual also, mainly whakama or shame. The fact that the whole hapu could be injured by an individual’s actions would work as a powerful deterrent.

The essential difference between the Maori system of justice and that of European society is that, owing to a worldview predicated on harmony and balance, reparation is of far more importance than punishment. Maori society also made it imperative that the victim be included in this process in order to ensure a stable and enduring outcome. The emphasis on the future also prioritises reintegration of the offender into society and the healing of the victim.

Moana Jackson sums up the system very well:

“The rights of individuals, or the hurts they may suffer when their rights were abused, were indivisible from the welfare of the whanau, the hapu, the iwi. Each had reciprocal obligations found in shared genealogy, and a set of behavioural precedents established by common tipuna. They were based too on the specific belief that all people had an inherent tapu that must not be abused, and on the general perception that society could only function if all things, physical and spiritual, were held in balance.”

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Colonisation

The common law system introduced by European settlers imposed many concepts alien to Maori ideas of justice – including the notion of an atomised individual (as opposed to collective), a materialistic focus, the exclusion of the victim from the process and the lack of focus on reparation. It is also sadly ironic that Maori had no concept for that European penalty known as imprisonment.

All of this explicitly breached the principles of Article Two of the Treaty of Waitangi – namely tino rangatiratanga, or Maori sovereignty over Maori affairs.

Maori psychiatrist and scholar Mason Durie identifies loss of access to Te Ao Maori, through loss of land, language and tikanga, as the historical events that define modern Maori identity. The material, physical and psychological damage perpetuated on Maori by ‘assimilationist’ policies, including the loss of land and resources, and the trauma of surviving violence and illness that decimated entire generations, should not be underestimated.

The resulting disadvantage Maori found themselves in also helps to entrench the institutional racism via under-representation of Maori as legislators, judges, lawyers and jurors. There is a clear sense among many Maori that the legal system is not shaped in any way by Maori, which directly contributes to Maori distrust of this system.

For example, historically Maori were not allowed to sit on juries for trials of non-Maori defendants until 1962. To this day there remains concerns about Maori representation on juries – the current law provides that potential jurors must be over 18 years of age, registered on the electoral roll, live within 30km of the court and have no disqualifying convictions. Many Maori do not meet these criteria – owing to a predominance in rural areas and previous convictions, or transportation/childcare barriers.

Another problem is the ability of “peremptory challenges” to allow the Crown and defence to dismiss jurors without cause. Evidence has shown that prosecutors often view Maori as anti-police an anti-Crown, while being empathetic to defendants. The research showed that Crown counsel were twice as likely to challenge Maori as non-Maori in High Court, and three times as likely in District Court.

So much for being judged by a “jury of one’s peers.”

Maori Women

It is an interesting fact that prior to European contact, Maori women had a legal standing in their society that was superior to Pakeha women’s standing in theirs. They had their own separate legal rights and could own and dispense property. They retained their own name and family connections upon marriage, which could also be dissolved without prejudice to her reputation or consequence to her assets.

Simply put, the colonial system and the imposition of European law reduced the status of Maori woman and was a disaster for them.

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Much commentary has been made upon the change from the extended whanau to the nuclear family unit, where Maori women lost much support from this network and became isolated in individual households with full responsibility. In Maori society there was no clear distinction between a public and private sphere, which arguably lessened the likelihood of domestic abuse, which appeared largely absent in Maori society and if present was visible and dealt with in a very straightforward way.

Today young Maori women are more likely to be the victims of violent crime than any other group in New Zealand and the most likely to be repeat victims of violence. Much of the violence perpetrated against Maori women is at the hands of Maori men.

Policy for the Drivers of Crime

The Opportunities Party policy on Criminal Justice is part of a combination of policies that seek to address the drivers of economic inequality, a variable that is consistently identified as being directly correlated to the incidence of crime.

These policies include Tax Reform, Thriving Families Unconditional Basic Income, Real Deal Cannabis and Real Action on Alcohol policies, Education policy, Rental policy and the Unconditional Basic Income for 18-23 year olds.

Taken together, they seek to address the various factors associated with crime, with the evidence suggesting they would result in lower crime and lower criminal justice costs. TOP identifies that despite this problem being obvious for decades, Establishment Parties such as Labour and National have failed to fix it.

Underlying this is the ‘worm at the core’ of these kinds of parties – the need to appease the “vociferous segment of the public who demand simplistic retribution”. Those who just want to “lock ‘em up”. It is another example of Establishment parties betraying the evidence in pursuit of votes.

Tikanga Maori Policy

The Opportunities Party’s policies to address the socioeconomic drivers is all well and good, but this entire piece has been about the fact that being Maori, in and of itself, is associated with poorer outcomes in the criminal justice system. So what are they doing to address that?

Fortunately, as a cornerstone of their policy they champion an increase in funding and support for the Restorative Justice system. As we’ve seen, the traditional Maori concept of justice placed much more emphasis upon reparation and victim support than punishment. It is therefore a policy that is in accordance with tikanga Maori.

It’s also a policy that works – reoffending rates for those who participated in restorative justice were 15% lower after a year than comparable offenders who did not participate.

They also note that the traditional arena of European justice is the providence of judges, public servants and other experts and is often viewed as very “elite.” They describe how Restorative Justice “can be thought of as a state-provided space where citizens meet each other, in this case, offenders and victims, to heal their relationship” and that “this can be done in line with tikanga Maori if that is what the participants choose.”

People often speak of the wisdom of indigenous peoples, sometimes correctly and sometimes not. But it is interesting that the European system of justice, which appears to be failing on all reasonable indices, will have to turn back to the principles of a justice system that it considered primitive and sought to supplant. Restorative Justice is tikanga Maori through and through, but its application would benefit all members of New Zealand society equally.

The Opportunities Party also propose raising the age of the Youth Court from 17 to 20. They cite evidence that since 2011 the Youth Court has overseen a 48% reduction in youth offending. Maori are, on average, younger than non-Maori in population terms, and would benefit from such a change.

Liberals and The Death of Policy

For all those who consider themselves in favour of Maori rights and correcting Maori disadvantage, there seems to be a conspicuous absence of outrage at the disgrace that is our criminal justice system.

This is both a personal failure, and a predictable outcome of allegiance to Establishment Parties, both Labour and National, who are evidently aware of this untenable state of affairs, and more evidently unperturbed by it.

I grow weary of seeing my liberal friends continuing to throw support behind a party, namely Labour, who have shown no willingness to really address this problem. I understand that everyone has the right to vote for whom they wish, on whatever grounds they wish, and I understand that very often people vote for a personality or in response to a feeling. This is all part of politics.

But if we are happy to ignore sound policy to rectify this extremely concerning issue, then we should be honest with others and ourselves that fixing Maori disadvantage, and therefore institutional racism, is just not a high priority for us. And personally I think that makes a mockery of our professed liberal values – because what could be more repugnantly illiberal than a racially biased state that disproportionately incarcerates its ethnic population?

Lastly I think ignoring this is an abdication of one’s duty as a New Zealand citizen. Our founding document is a beautiful and unique one that stipulates a shared duty-of-care between Maori and non-Maori. We are failing to honour it, to our severe detriment.

Maori over-representation in crime statistics and incarceration is an issue that sits at the crossroads between income inequality and racial prejudice. To address it properly we need bold policies that will right both of these terrible wrongs. The Opportunities Party’s policies are the best chance we’ve ever had of doing that.

So y’know, let’s actually do this.

 

theredgreenpen 

 

‘Over-Representation of Maori in the Criminal Justice system – Department of Corrections, May 2008

This piece is also heavily indebted to  – Chapter 12 – Maori and the criminal justice system in New Zealand, Criminal Justice in New Zealand, Tolmie and Brookbanks, 2007

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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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