Wednesday, 27 August 2014

Democracy - Leonard Cohen

Because I've just come back from Nicky Hager's extraordinary public meeting in the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall, here's Lenny's magnificent paean to the democratic ideal. If it's coming to the USA - why not here too?
Sail on, sail on, oh mighty ship of state
To the shores of need
Past the reefs of greed
Through the squalls of hate

Video courtesy of YouTube
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite

The Pilgrim Of Light: Nicky Hager And New Zealand Politics

Admonishing Angel: Nicky Hager descends periodically to trouble our consciences and wreak merry havoc with the orderly conduct of our political affairs. But, more than any other journalist in New Zealand, he has taught us to read the actions of those who wield power over and around us in the twenty-first century.
WHAT WILL HISTORY MAKE of Nicky Hager? That slight, perpetually boyish, journalist who descends periodically, like the admonishing angel in a medieval mystery play, to trouble our consciences and wreak merry havoc with the orderly conduct of our political affairs. History will have to make something of him: his interventions have been too important to be dismissed by our political brewers as mere irrelevant froth. But what? That is the question.
Perhaps we should begin by telling the world what Nicky Hager is not. Prime Ministerial judgements notwithstanding, he is not “a screaming left-wing conspiracy-theorist”.
Hager has never, is not, and never will be some sort of avatar of the “left-wing”. He has far too refined a moral sense to be the representative of anything so fractious and morally compromised as the New Zealand Left. Indeed, most left-wingers have little patience for individuals so weighed down by self-imposed scruples. The preferred left-wing soldier is as reluctant to question the ethics of the party-line as Hager is eager to challenge them. Revolutionary bread is typically made from much more coarsely-ground flour.
Nor does Hager scream. His mode of address is invariably polite and carefully measured. Softly-spoken and slow to take offence, Hager is actually the perfect foil for the genuine screamers of the public sphere. These latter cannot abide the fact that Hager is able to inflict so much damage to their cause while speaking in tones of such sweet reasonableness. One imagines their camera lenses, microphones and keyboards flecked with spittle – so great is the rage which he inspires.
Of all the epithets hurled at Hager, by far the most common is that he is a “conspiracy theorist”. I recently heard one of Jim Mora’s panellists, a woman who I would wager has never read a single one of his books, dismiss him as “a grassy-knoll fantasist”. I was surprised she didn’t add that he was generally to be found sporting a jaunty tin-foil hat!
Methinks the lady – and all those others so quick to dismiss Hager’s work as the rantings of a demented conspiracy theorist – doth protest too much. Such people cannot easily accept that what they happily acknowledge as the truth of things may be something else entirely. That the “official” story is, as often as not, a tissue of lies. Or, that the eruptions of mendacity which periodically disturb the placid surface of public life are anything other than unfortunate accidents: cock-ups – not conspiracies. Hager’s books, so meticulously researched and footnoted, so weighed down with names and dates and places, render the cock-up theory unusable by these poor souls, forcing them to focus on facts as uncomfortable as they are irrefutable. Unsurprisingly, he is not thanked for doing so.
Even more upset, however, are the people whose hidden machinations (conspiracies if you like the word better) Hager exposes. Once again, this is hardly surprising. Whether it be the people behind the Echelon spy system; the timber company with its eyes on the native forests of the West Coast; a Labour prime minister who’d neglected to alert the country to the accidental release of genetically-engineered corn; the National Party strategists behind Dr Don Brash’s bid to complete the neoliberal revolution; the New Zealand Defence Force’s strenuous efforts to re-attach New Zealand’s pinky finger to the Anglo-Saxon fist; or, All The Prime Minister’s Men’s e-mail communications with Cameron Slater: these are people who would have preferred their words and deeds to have remained hidden from the public gaze. “Conspiracy theorist!”, in the mouths of such individuals is not a revelation, it’s a diversion.
So what has Hager done? In historical terms, he has taught us how to read the actions of those who wield power over and around us in the twenty-first century. Since the publication of his first book, Secret Power, in 1996, Hager has shown us things our leaders would rather we hadn’t seen. He’s taught us to challenge the official media releases; to question the news stories; and to understand the truth of British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli’s (1804-1881) disturbing observation that: “The world is governed by very different personages from what is imagined by those who are not behind the scenes.”
Hager is one of that rare breed of men with whom even History is uncomfortable. He represents neither class nor creed; is the servant of neither political party nor economic interest. He comes to us out of storms of malice, steering his fragile little boat of truth across a raging sea of lies. In the words of one of the nineteenth century’s greatest historians, Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881) Nicky Hager is proof that:
“In the true Literary Man there is thus ever, acknowledged or not by the world, a sacredness: he is the light of the world; the world’s Priest – guiding it, like a sacred Pillar of Fire, in its dark pilgrimage through the waste of Time.”
This essay was posted simultaneously on the Daily Blog and Bowalley Road blogsites on Wednesday, 27 August 2014.

Child Poverty Action Group - On The March

Take steps against child poverty
in Aotearoa New Zealand.
Join the
End Child Poverty Hikoi
Britomart, Auckland
11:00am, Saturday
6 September 2014
This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

The Ethics Of Selective Outrage

Killing In The Name Of: Given the chorus of rage currently directed at the “Zionist Entity”, why are those who profess “progressive” sympathies so silent when it comes to the outrages perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State?
WHERE ARE THE IMPASSIONED STREAMS of citizens flooding our nation’s streets to protest the actions of the Islamic State? The righteous wrath stirred up by the Israeli assault upon Gaza has been plain to see. But the barbaric punishment meted out to Christians, captive Iraqi soldiers, Shia Muslims and followers of the ancient Yazidi faith has yet to inspire anyone to apply paint to placard. Given the chorus of rage currently directed at the “Zionist Entity”, why are those who profess “progressive” sympathies so silent when it comes to the outrages perpetrated by the self-proclaimed Islamic State?
The latest of these, the beheading of a young American journalist, has generated a wave of revulsion around the world. Not least on account of the perpetrators’ cynical (but effective) use of social media to publicise their medieval celebration of cruelty and death. But where are the Hollywood movie stars emoting to camera over the ritual killing of their defenceless compatriot? Where are the protest crowds of outraged progressives demanding justice for James Foley?

James Foley's Last Moments: A medieval celebration of cruelty and death. 
Does nobody else think it odd that the gunning down of an unarmed black teenager in Ferguson, Missouri, can spark days of passionate protest, but the agonising decapitation of a helpless journalist elicits condemnation only from “mainstream” politicians and the equally despised “mainstream” media? Did progressives maintain a similar silence when images of a terrified Palestinian boy, caught in a deadly crossfire of Israeli bullets, appeared on the world’s television screens? No, they did not.
More and more, it seems to me, we are being presented with what some commentators are calling “good dead” and “bad dead”.
The Palestinian mother and child who die under Israeli bombs; the Dutch tourist who dies when a missile destroys Flight MH17 over Donetsk; these are the “good dead”. We may mourn their loss openly and loudly, and angrily condemn their killers. But the women and children killed by Ukrainian jets and artillery, or by the missiles fired into Israel from Gaza, these are “bad dead”: to be passed over in silence.
Now, you may say that it was ever thus: that people around the world have always been encouraged to hate who their leaders hate and mourn the dead of their valiant allies. But this has never been the position of those who described themselves as progressive. People on the Left of politics used to condemn cruel and unusual punishment wherever it occurred. Racial discrimination, religious persecution and the subjugation of women were likewise held up as unequivocally bad practices.
Not any more.
It always struck me as extraordinary that Western progressives were willing to put their bodies (and even their lives) on the line for the sake of racial equality and democratic freedom in South Africa, but that there was no equivalent international mobilisation against the vicious repression of women in the Taliban-controlled areas of Afghanistan. The universalism of the twentieth century had, by the early years of the twenty-first, given way to an empty ethical relativism. Today, it would seem, progressives are free to pick and choose who they deem to be right and wrong. Raging unceasingly against the Israeli “apartheid” state, while maintaining an ambiguous silence in the face of the Islamic State's atrocities.
So, for those who chant “Palestine will be free, from the river to the sea!” I would counsel this little thought experiment.
Suppose in October 1973 Syria’s Soviet-equipped armoured divisions had broken through Israel’s northern defences and that Ariel Sharon’s tanks had not outmanoeuvred Egypt’s in the Sinai. What do you suppose would have been the response of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO)? Would they have demanded a cease-fire, pending the creation of a secular and democratic Palestinian state? Or, would they have driven every Jew living west of the River Jordan into the sea?
If you were to ask 100 Israelis that question, I’m pretty sure how 95 of them would respond. They would tell you that from the moment of its formation in 1964, the PLO wagered everything on Egypt and Syria (with Soviet weapons) becoming militarily strong enough to do what the Palestinians, alone, could never do: destroy the Israeli state. When it lost that bet the PLO adopted a dual-track strategy: officially recognising Israel’s right to exist while unofficially sanctioning a long and deadly asymmetric struggle against the Israeli people. Using terror not to defeat the Israeli state, but to reshape it in the terrorists’ own murderous likeness. Having transformed Israel into a monster, the Palestinians could then implore the world to come to their rescue. Of course, for this strategy to succeed, Israel had to be constantly goaded into unleashing ever more murderous attacks.
Morally, there is little to distinguish the Palestinian leadership’s conduct from that of the Islamic State's. Because no good end ever came from such evil means.
Progressives knew that … once.
This essay was originally published in The Press of Tuesday, 26 August 2014.

Monday, 25 August 2014

John Key's Hand-Up To Julian And Sarah.


Life Used To be So Hard: Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young's Our House.
NATIONAL'S HOUSING POLICY, like Labour's, promises to make life easier for those young middle-class couples desperate to get their feet on the first rung of the property ladder.

The real solution to homelessness is, as the Greens and Internet-Mana propose, to flood the rental property market with state-owned and state-constructed houses. With rents capped at 25 percent of the tenant's income these thousands of new state houses would collapse the market for second or third properties that has driven up the price of housing to ridiculous and unsustainable levels.

Yes, people like me, the Baby-Boomer middle-classes, would take a hit - in many cases a big hit. But given the huge advantages our generation enjoyed at the start of our careers: free tertiary education, affordable housing, workplace protections, a buoyant job market; its only fair that we pay down some of those advantages to the generations following along behind us.

Racking my brains for an appropriate accompaniment to this posting, I finally came up with Crosby, Stills and Nash and Young's classic 1970 hit Our House.

One can only assume that John Key is expecting innumerable Julians and Sarahs to think of him when they hear the line:

Now everything is easy 'cause of you.


Video Courtesy of YouTube

This posting is exclusive to the Bowalley Road blogsite.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Steering By The Real: Chris Trotter Responds To Paul Buchanan.

Uncharacteristically Idealistic: Normally a cool-headed realist (as befits an expert in international relations) Dr Paul Buchanan has taken issue with Chris Trotter's "cynical" Bowalley Road posting Dirty Politics - Is There Any Other Kind? by offering a passionately idealistic defence of democratic politics.

WHEN ACADEMICS take to blogging the rest of us best be careful. And when they offer comment on the subject of dirty politics we should all pay attention. I will always remember my history lecturer, Dr Michael Cullen’s, confident dismissal of the challenge of representing the working-class Dunedin electorate of St Kilda after the 1981 General Election. Having secured selection, he told his admiring followers in Labour Youth that Parliament would be a welcome respite from the most vicious and dirty political environment of them all – the university common room.
Dr Paul Buchanan has more reason than most to endorse Dr Cullen’s comments, which is why I was surprised to see him describe what I regarded as an admirably realistic assessment of democratic politics as evidence that I had either lost my ideological bearings or had “consciously decided to join the Dark Side”.
In Why Throw In The Towel? – A Brief Response To Trotter’s Cynicism I am thus dismissed by Dr Buchanan as either bewildered or a blackguard, and my offending essay Dirty Politics – Is There Any Other Kind? is deemed “a cynical defence of dirty politics as being the norm”.
Unfortunately, Dr Buchanan’s critique does not engage with my essay’s essentially historical-realist argument. He does, however, rehearse (in suitably dense academic prose) my inverted Clausewitzian characterisation of politics as “the continuation of war by other means”. Democratic politics, in particular, argues Dr Buchanan, must be “self-limiting” lest the “political game descends into a zero-sum self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities.”
The above sentence is not, however, how I would formulate the alternative to the self-limiting behaviour so crucial to democracy’s success. The historical record suggests that, in the real world, the “self-interested maximisation of collective opportunities” is the democratic norm, and that, historically, the descent from that norm is characterised by the decision of key political actors to abandon self-limitation in favour of popular or state violence. “Foul means or fouler” was how I put it: revolution or repression.
Bluntly speaking, Dr Buchanan’s uncharacteristically idealistic aspirations for democracy (in his discussions of international relations he has always struck me as a pretty staunch realist) cannot survive the taste-test of history. And it is this ahistorical idealism which largely explains his disinclination to engage with any of the many historical examples included in my essay – not even the all-American examples advanced by his compatriot Professor Kathleen Hall Jamieson.
Whether it be the dirty political deal that abandoned Southern Blacks to their fate in 1876; or Joseph P. Kennedy’s dirty deal with the Chicago mob to secure the crucial electoral votes of Illinois for his son in the desperately close presidential election of 1960; or the low-down and dirty theft of the 2000 presidential election by the Bush clique and their Supreme Court allies; the historical proofs for the universality of dirty politics are legion.
Nor can Dr Buchanan escape this reality by shovelling all the blame for dirty politics onto the “elites”. The shenanigans I have observed in union elections do not bear repeating, and even in the idealistic Green Party the ruthlessly ambitious have been known to reach for the contents of the self-composting toilet.
Democracy has always danced upon the back of the monstrous interests composing the capitalist state. It does so, with the lightest of feet, because it knows that while the monsters beneath prefer to govern by consent, they are perfectly willing to resort to force. To preserve at least the illusion of consent, the political writers of the 1920s, were quick to reassure the powerful that, properly managed by astute politicians, a responsible media and the new (dark) arts of advertising and public relations, the millions of newly enfranchised voters would pose no serious threat to the status quo. For the likes of Edward Bernays and Walter Lippman, democracy without deception and distraction was a non-starter.
These are not pleasant truths, but those who locate themselves on the Left would be most unwise to ignore or dismiss them. Navigating by the starry eyes of the idealistic all-too-often lands left-wingers on the rocks. I prefer to steer by the real.
But there is dirty politics that works, and dirty politics that doesn’t. The manufacturing of popular consent increases in effectiveness in inverse proportion to the voters’ proximity to the factories where it is made. What Nicky Hager has exposed in his book is the failure of the National Party leadership to recognise in Cameron Slater and his comrades a political cadre too protean, too volatile, and much too much in love with the smell of napalm in the morning to be allowed anywhere near the Prime Minister’s Office. What Nicky describes is Watergate writ small: a scandal precipitated by a general failure, at the highest levels, to understand that the essence of successful democratic politics is illusion; and the only thing you must never do is allow the mask to slip.
This essay was simultaneously posted on the Bowalley Road and The Daily Blog blogsites on Friday, 22 August 2014.

Abandoning Science - And The Planet

Weeping For The Planet: The famous "Crying Indian" advertisement, produced by Keeping America Beautiful, struck a deep chord with Americans when it first screened on "Earth Day" - 22 April  1971. It was a time when both the Left and the Right respected ecological science and were ready to take action to protect the environment. How times have changed. In 2014, right-wing politicians are unwilling to tolerate "any measures which are socialism masquerading as environmentalism".
MANY NEW ZEALANDERS are puzzled by the sudden descent of right-wing political parties into anti-environmentalism. Forty years ago, in the first flush of global ecological awareness, political parties of every ideological stripe were ready to put aside their differences for the sake of the environment. There was a strong bi-partisan agreement that, regardless of whether they were Left or Right, every human-being had a personal vested interest in improving the health of the planet.
It was a Republican President, Richard Nixon, who signed into law the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which, for the first time, required federal agencies to file environmental impact statements for federally funded programmes.
Nixon who oversaw, in 1970, the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and signed into law the Clean Air Extension Act, imposing strict controls on airborne pollutants known to be hazardous to human health.
Nixon who, in 1972 offered whales, dolphins, sea otters, polar bears and seals the protection of the US Government by signing the Marine Mammals Protection Act.
Nixon who, likewise, presided over the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act 1974.
Though a deeply conservative (and deeply flawed) politician, Nixon was a shrewd enough politician to grasp the electoral heft of the burgeoning environmental movement.
By the 1980s, however, political parties of the Right around the world were rapidly distancing themselves from the “environmentally friendly” legislative reforms of the 1970s. Ronald Reagan was no Richard Nixon.
The Right’s growing antipathy to environmentalism was fuelled by the world-wide ideological resurgence of laissez-faire capitalism. The so-called “New Right” was hostile to just about every kind of regulatory regime, but it was environmental regulation that earned its special ire. This was because the much admired dynamism of “the free market” was hugely dependent on the capitalists’ ability to “externalise” (i.e. not have to account for or pay for) the environmental and social consequences of their behaviour.
If capitalists were required to fully account for and pay for their detrimental impact upon the natural and human environments, then their profitability would be seriously (and in many cases irreversibly) reduced.
In the 1970s, political leaders like Nixon still felt obliged to respond to the voters’ pleas to save the planet. By the 1980s, however, the priorities of the Right had changed. The mission of conservative parties everywhere was now to convince voters that capitalism’s ultimate contradiction: the extraction of infinite profits from a finite planet; wasn’t really a contradiction at all, and that industrial capitalism’s most fearsome externality, anthropogenic global warming, was nothing more than “green propaganda”.
This was not an easy sell. Historically speaking, the rise of capitalism and the rise of science had coincided, spurring one another on to new discoveries, new applications. Persuading people to reject the science of global warming could only be achieved at the cost of abandoning the rationalist project itself.
But it was rationalism and science which had, ever since the eighteenth century, imbued capitalism with its progressive economic, social and political force. To reduce scientific knowledge to the status of exculpatory evidence bought and paid for; and scientists to little more than the servants of big business; would strip capitalism of its intellectual potency. It would mean abandoning what Professor Niall Fergusson calls its “killer apps” – the critical advantages that had enabled capitalism to see off all its ideological rivals.
These potentially fatal dangers notwithstanding, by the second decade of the twenty-first century it was possible for right-wing political leaders to win public office in spite of (or even because of) their refusal to accept the findings of environmental science.
Across the Tasman, for example, the Cabinet of the Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, has proclaimed, with a straight face, that it is not prepared to tolerate “any measures which are socialism masquerading as environmentalism”.

Who Speaks For The Trees? Ancient Huon Pine, Mt Read, Tasmania. These trees are among the oldest on the planet (3,000-10,000 years old).
Included among these allegedly “socialist” measures, is the World Heritage Status of both the Tasmanian wilderness and the Great Barrier Reef. In any stand-off between ecological science and Australia’s extractive industrialists it’s not difficult to predict who will win the Abbott Government’s support.
We shouldn’t feel too smug and superior, however, when it comes to our Australian cousins. Not when the difference between their right-wing politicians and ours is, as always, more a matter of subtlety than substance.
Environmental destruction masquerading as economic growth.
This essay was originally published by The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 22 August 2014.